Every summer my Uncle Ed and I would travel. Sometimes we went cross country, other times we went to Florida. On one Florida trip in 1963, we took the seemingly endless drive from Miami to Key West and then sailed to Nicaragua with a sailor friend of his.
We stayed in Miami the night before the drive to Key West. Uncle Ed took me to “Little Havana.” As a 12-year-old I remember how wild it was. There was even a shooting gallery where you could fire a submachine gun for a couple of bucks. Uncle Ed paid the money and there I was – a nerdy pre-teen with a fully automatic weapon. Like most pistols and rifles in shooting galleries, it was chained so I couldn’t blast the spectators. I did notice that the chains that held it could have been snapped by a swift pull. Ah yes, the naivety of the early 60’s. Today I’m sure there’d be headlines about a wholesale slaughter on the streets of Little Havana.
Okay, statute of limitations is up on this one so I can say Uncle Ed had a Tommy Gun among his possessions. He taught me how to fire it properly, his admonishment being, “It ain’t a garden hose!” He taught me how to fire it in short bursts aiming low and letting the gun rise from the recoil. I used that skill at the gallery and won a huge teddy bear. Drew quite a crowd as the geeky-looking kid was tearing it up with the machine gun. I gave the bear to a young couple with a little boy. It was the first time a crowd ever cheered for me. I was hooked!
Uncle Ed spoke fluent Spanish so we went to a Cuban restaurant and had an excellent meal. It made me a lifelong fan of Cuban food.
The next day we were on the road by 5 AM. It was pretty cool watching the sun rise on the Atlantic. But back then it was the only good thing about the long drive. Oh wow, another key. Gee, it looks like the last one we drove through. I do remember a few of the keys were marked private and all the side roads were blocked by heavily chained gates. Who the hell owns a whole key? Don’t know if it’s different these days.
Once in Key West, it was like traveling back in time. Horse drawn carriages (for the tourists) and a lot of old but well maintained buildings and houses. We got a motel right on the water. Uncle Ed made friends very quickly and he started talking to a Lieutenant who was assigned to one of the submarines that was docked just a few blocks from the motel.
The Lieutenant was a pretty cool guy and he and his lady friend (that’s how he introduced her) taught me how to swim in the motel pool. When I got a bad sunburn that day, he came to the rescue and had Uncle Ed buy regular Milk of Magnesia to smear on it. He said they used it on the sub all the time. They would be submerged for days, sometimes weeks, and then come up to work on deck and get horrible sunburns. There was really no commercially available sun block in those days.
I put the Milk of Magnesia on the sunburn, let it dry and went to bed. The next day the red burn had turned brown and I never even peeled. I used Milk of Magnesia for years, although I apply sun block most all the time these days and haven’t had to use the MoM for years. (If you get sunburn these days, please seek out medical attention. I’m sure medical science has much better remedies these days. Better, yet, use a strong sunblock and avoid the problem altogether.)
National security was pretty lax in those days. The Lieutenant took us on a tour of his submarine. Small and cramped, I wondered how people could live like that for months at a time.
In a couple of days we checked out of the motel. Uncle Ed drove us to the docks where I met Ed’s long time friend Jonathan. He owned a 60 foot twin mast schooner where he lived with his “lady friend,” Monica. Lots of those types of relationship in Key West. I guess marriage was optional down there.
Ed told me we were going to sail down to Nicaragua. Wow! He said Jonathan told him there was a luthier down there who did great work and he was going to have him make me a guitar. I was really excited.
When the excitement died down I reminded Ed that I didn’t have my passport with me. He said he didn’t either and it wouldn’t be a problem. Okay…Ed was a bootlegger during prohibition and Jonathan was about his age (70’s). Even as a 12-year-old I figured out we might be making some kind of smuggling run. Again, God-bless the statute of limitations.
We stayed on the boat that night and sailed at daybreak. It was beautiful. No customs officials or other authorities present. We sailed around the west coast of Cuba and then down the coast of Central America. It’s about 900 miles and the trip took almost 4 days and we had to use the motor for two of them as it was pretty calm. We did eventually up sail (look at me, all nautical and stuff) and sailed into the beautiful town of Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua.
It was a charming little town. We stayed on the boat and thankfully there was a full shower at the dock. Bathing on the boat involved jumping into the ocean on an attached pull rope. My mother would shit if she knew half the things I did with Ed.
We made our way to the luthier. He had dozens of guitar necks hanging on his wall along with several bodies that were already made. I picked out the body and neck I liked and he said the guitar would be ready in 2 days.
The town was terrific. Great food at the restaurants. Obviously lots of fish dishes. We rented a jeep and made several drives into the countryside. Uncle Ed, Jonathan and his lady friend went off one day and didn’t come back until dark. I was alone in a Central American country for a whole day. Ed gave me money and said to look around but be careful. Just what a non-Spanish speaking kid needed to hear.
I walked around a little, went swimming off the boat and played my guitar, a Sears Silvertone I brought on the trip. I even got into a soccer game with some local kids. I had never played the game before. I don’t know what they called me when I touched the ball with my hands, but it wasn’t good. That’s when they made me the permanent goalie. We did have a lot of fun.
I don’t know what happened on their trip, but Ed, Jonathan and Monica seemed happy and sober (Ed didn’t drink) when they returned. I told Ed I really liked soccer and he told me to forget it since it would never catch on in America. When he was wrong, he was really wrong.
The next day we went to the luthier and picked up the new guitar. It was a nylon string wonder. It weighed almost nothing and had a thunderous sound. I played it non-stop during the voyage home.
We sailed into Key West and, just like when we left, there were no customs or immigration people at the dock. You know, it might be the same way today. Key West was pretty laid back in those days and I don’t imagine it’s changed too much over the years.
I had played the guitar so much on the return trip, I wore out the strings. We stopped at a music store in Key West. I bought a new set and restrung it for drive home.
Before we got back, Uncle Ed said I probably shouldn’t tell my mother about the sailing trip. I agreed. It remained our secret. We said we bought the guitar in Key West but it had been made in Nicaragua. She bought the story. She always did.
As the guitar aged, the sound got better and better. It was an amazing instrument, considering that Uncle Ed paid about $20 American for it. “So Steve, what happened to that amazing instrument?” Yeah, I was afraid you were going to ask that.
I cherished that guitar for years. It was my favorite, even after I bought a new Gibson acoustic back in 1968. In 1969, I was still in high school, I was asked to perform at Operation Santa at Glassboro State College, which is now named Rowan University. Operation Santa was a chartable event that benefitted underprivileged kids at Christmas. They had many fund raising activities including an outdoor concert in the late Fall.
There was a bit of freezing rain that night. As I was walking up the steps to the outdoor stage, I slipped and fell right on the guitar. It was so light and fragile that it smashed into several pieces, well beyond repair. I was heartbroken. Since the show must go on, one of the other performers loaned me his guitar and at least I played a good set and we raised some decent money as I recall.
Today, I am privileged to own many really fine guitars, even some custom made instruments. But there will never be another “Monica.” I named her for Jonathan’s lady friend. Even though she was gone too soon, Monica was the guitar that truly spawned my love of music, especially fingerstyle guitar playing.
A few years later, my Cousin Tom was visiting us in New Jersey. He went to the Jersey Shore one day and spent the entire day in the sun. He came home redder than a cooked lobster. I used the Milk of Magnesia on him and he was fine the next day. (Again, today seek out professional medical attention for a serious sunburn.)
Tom was a lifelong employee of Delta Airlines. He was so grateful that he arranged to put me on his “family flies free” program. Along with a guest I could fly for free anywhere Delta flew.
I used Tom’s generous gift many times. It’s how my Uncle Ed and I were able to fly to London to see Jimi Hendrix. It’s also how we were able to go to San Francisco to see the Beatles’ last performances. We also used it to go to Altamont which marked the end of our festival trips for obvious reasons.
Tom was one of my few relatives who, along with Uncle Ed, wasn’t a drunk or an enabler. He was the son of my Uncle Harold, one of the “fathers” of interstate banking. Uncle Harold introduced me to Amanda Blake, James Arness and Burl Ives. But that’s a story for another blog.
©2016 Steve Bryant – No portion may be copied, reprinted or broadcast in any medium without express written consent of the author.