Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Life At Fort Jefferson

When we arrived at Fort Jefferson for our camping trip we got our briefing on the boat from this dude in the hat and then we were let loose on the camp site. After that we pretty much saw no one else in uniform except a rather friendly dude who came by to check on our fee paying techniques, and he got hung up in an extended conversation with Carol, one of two old timers in our party, so the rest of us didn't get to speak with him much. But there are people living in the fort year round, that I know. They have hidey holes in the walls:And some of them have little balconies overlooking the western sunset, which is, I might add, a spectacular view:I believe the fort's commandant's house now houses the superintendent inside the parade ground:And they have all manner of mod-cons (modern conveniences) thanks to satellite technology:Though electrons need their own passageways even in old buildings: And let's not forget the value of old-fangled infernal combustion. There are huge generators rumbling day and night,keeping the lights on whether you want them or not, and as their exhausts grind away near the campground I could see lots of advantages to going with renewable energy:But I am told there is a certain difference of opinion amongst the old time hardliners who like their hydrocarbons burned the old fashioned way. So at night, when the fort is officially closed:The generators hum and the lights keep burning:Including the old lighthouse, now reduced to the second-rate status of a modest "harbor light," atop the fort:And also, rather spectrally, one can see dim lights shining from within the fort when all good souls are tucked up in bed, except for star gazers and drinkers in the campground, and apparently insomniacs inside the fort:As I understand it there are eight national park personnel on duty at the fort including law enforcement rangers. We saw three of them rounding up a group of young people on the moat wall. I was up to my eyes in salt water at the time but later someone found out they had been spotted picking up pieces of glass bottles from a beach and they got themselves a $300 fine and a trip back to their boat on the ranger's launch.The little museum next to the (air conditioned! Thank you generators...) gift shop shows the fort's own collection of these things and they don't want people walking off with them. For the most part life at the fort is very free and unencumbered for visitors, you seem to have the place pretty much to yourself, especially if you are camping or staying on a boat which is how you get pets to the fort as pets aren't allowed on the ferry. Unless your Dad is the captain and your name is Salty, then you get to ride out on the Yankee Freedom and play with your teddy bear:Like they do at any other park, personnel at the fort guard their privacy:Aside from the residential areas there are very few parts of the fort that are off limits and those that are, should be observed for safety reasons.This place is pretty much wide open and to keep it that way the elementary common sense safety rules need to be followed:Then there are signs that have been carefully stenciled to keep order, day use here, campers there:And there are things like Bird Key and adjoining Long Key where the sooty terns and brown noddies nest in the summer.Bird Key was joined to Garden Key, the island where the fort is located, but storms blew out the sandy land bridge. Nevertheless people like to get close to the birds.The rule is look but don't land. And on the subject of landing. Cubans show up here from time to time in their "chugs," which are home built boats used to escape from Cuba. Loggerhead Key with the main lighthouse on it is three miles west of the fort and that is the last US soil until you reach Brownsville or New Orleans or points in between and it does happen that migrants land in these islands. They leave their boats behind to prove it.The rule is if the Cubans set foot on dry land they get to stay in the US so they work hard at making the crossing in anything that floats. Untold numbers die because the Gulf Stream is a hazardous body of water. Speaking as someone who has sailed across it a dozen times in well found boats it can get extremely difficult in any kind of contrary wind. How they cope riding crap like this is hard to know:The supply boat which runs between Key West and the fort takes the migrants back to the city for processing. It's all done with boats at Fort Jefferson, including the work of the contractors who are currently restoring portions of the fort with all their construction supplies and orange netting and hard hats and tinker toy tractors and trailers:In some respects it's like a space station, relying for life support on what they bring and keep with them. And the systems designed to support eight have to support these extra bodies as well as they get their work done. But aside from work there is recreation after a fashion:And there are a few less driven occupants of the 16 acre island who just hang out and watch the rush pass them by:But for those of us here for a few precious hours or days there is a need to visit the inevitable concession stand there to pick up a few baubles:A monogrammed cap for me, turtle earrings for the wife and postcards with a special park service stamp to mail around the world later. Then there is some cool air available while watching the brief,rather commercial movie about the park......and check out some of the found treasures, the unconsidered trifles found lying around the fort:And then. as we strolled back to the ferry on our last afternoon crossing the moat:I watched the hordes moving purposefully across the day use area, that patch of scrub grass that falls silent after the ferries leave sat 2:45pm, and I wonder how they keep order and peace at the fort, without a presence, without barking orders, and by dint simply of the desire of the people to be there and enjoy their space. One wishes we could carry that sentiment home with us in a bottle, or on an ear ring.