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A Salty Piece of Land
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From a lovely sunset sail in Punta Margarita to a wild spring-break foam party in San Pedro, Tully encounters an assortment of treasure hunters, rock stars, sailors, seaplane pilots, pirates, and even a ghost or two.
Also by Jimmy Buffett
Tales from Margaritaville
Where Is Joe Merchant?
A Pirate Looks at Fifty
(and for young readers)
The Jolly Mon
For Peetsy, Jay, and Groovy
To forget a friend is sad. Not everyone has had a friend, and if I forget him, I may become like the grown-ups who are no longer interested in anything but figures.
— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry,
The Little Prince
We sail within a vast sphere,
Ever drifting in uncertainty
Driven from end to end
November 30, 2001
Coconut Grove, Florida
George Harrison died yesterday. I found out as I checked my e-mail this morning before waking Cameron early, which I "pinky" swore to do last night. I walked out onto the balcony of this hotel and looked out to the east over the rusty Pan Am hangars and the decaying wooden markers that framed the once-active runways for the Clippers as they came and went on their pioneering routes from Biscayne Bay. They are gone as well.
Everything leaves eventually in the physical form, but the memories of good people and good work are timeless. So instead of saying a prayer, I just visualized George Harrison boarding a Pan Am Clipper, guitar case in hand, greeted by Captain Gardner McKay and entertainment director Fred Neil.
The plane lifts off the silky surface of the bay and heads toward the rising sun out over Elliot Key and the distant shimmering waters of the Gulf Stream—I would call a flight like that one hell of a joyride on the way to the ultimate adventure. Have fun, boys.
Mortality marches on—today, George Harrison; last week, Gardner McKay; and in July, Fred Neil. I'd better get to work.
December 24, 2003
Palm Beach, Florida
Unfortunately the manifest for this flight has grown. Please make a note that added to the crew is Gordon Larimore Gray III, copilot; and James Delaney Buffett and Mary Loraine Peets Buffett—newly arrived honeymooners bound for eternity.
The Soul of the Light
tully mars, checking in
It all simply comes down to good guys and bad guys. As a kid, I wanted to be like Roy Rogers, the good-guy cowboy of all time. Roy and his horse, Trigger, would go riding through the movies, helping those in peril while never seeming to sweat, get a scratch, or wrinkle a pair of perfectly creased blue jeans. When the day was over, they would join the Sons of Pioneers by the campfire and sing the sun to sleep. Now that is what I called the perfect job.
One day, long ago in another place and another time, I was playing out my fantasy of being Roy with my childhood pals in the rolling hills above Heartache, Wyoming, where I was raised. We were racing our horses, bat-out-of-hell style, through the aspen grove that led to our little ranch. Like a true daredevil, I passed my friends in a wild sprint to the finish line, and once I had the lead, I turned around to admire my move as the leader of the pack. The next thing I remembered was waking up on the ground, my head covered with blood, my left arm pointing in the wrong direction, and pain—lots of pain—shooting through my young body. That's when I knew that life wasn't a movie.
During my mending process, I discovered a new role model in Butch Cassidy, who took me through my teenage years. He wasn't perfect. He made mistakes, and that seemed more in tune with the way my life was working out in the real world. He thumbed his nose at authority. To put it in today's terms, Butch Cassidy didn't work for The Man. He was his own man. He ran away to Patagonia.
The West was changing, and so was I. Now, looking back, I have to thank old Roy for teaching me that when you fall from your horse, you climb back in the saddle and plow ahead. From Butch, I figured out that what I wanted to be was my own man—just a good guy with a few bad habits. This is Tully Mars reporting in.
When I left Wyoming some years ago and made a not-so-difficult choice between becoming a poodle-ranch foreman or a tropical expatriate, I tossed a massage table through the giant plate-glass window of the ranch house owned by my former boss and modern-day witch Thelma Barston. That day, heading off to freedom, I made myself a promise. As I fled across America, I swore I would never again work for anybody but me. I pretty much kept that promise until I met Cleopatra Highbourne.
Cleopatra Highbourne is my present boss and the woman who brought me here to this salty piece of land in the southern Bahamas. She hired me to restore a 150-year-old lighthouse on Cayo Loco, which she owns, having swapped for it with the Bahamian government for some property on Bay Street in Nassau.
To begin with, Cleopatra is 101 years old, but she doesn't look a day over 80. She is the captain of her beautiful schooner, the Lucretia, which was a present from her father on her eighteenth birthday.
Cleopatra has simply defied the aging process. Her eyes are a piercing green, and her speech is lilted with an island accent that is somewhere between Jamaican and Cuban. There isn't a romance language or Caribbean patois she doesn't speak like a native, and there isn't an island she hasn't set foot on between Bimini and Bonaire. Her skeleton is erect, which she attributes to being a practitioner of yoga for eighty years, having been taught the craft by Gandhi himself. She wears no hearing aids or glasses. Her skin is void of the weathered, leatherlike appearance caused by age, ocean, and ultraviolet exposure. She never smoked cigarettes, but she has her daily ration of rum and occasionally will puff a little opium if she is feeling ill. She also has a taste for Cuban cigars.
She dines on fish, rice, and tropical fruits, and a collection of potions, teas, and elixirs keep her biorhythms, brain, and sense of humor humming. She cusses like the sailor that she is, and she is rabidly addicted to Cuban baseball.
Though she says she has a few good years left in her, Cleopatra is on a most urgent mission, and that is where I come in. I am here to rebuild the lighthouse as her final resting place while she continues her search for an original Fresnel lens, which was the light source for this and many other old lighthouses.
So how does a cowboy wind up as a lighthouse keeper? Well, I didn't fill out any job application. How I went from the saddle, to the deck of a schooner, to the tower of this lighthouse still baffles me. But I believe in the aboriginal line of thinking that life's adventures are the verses and choruses of your unique song, and when it is over, you are dead. So far, I am still singing, but I would point out that adventures don't come calling like unexpected cousins visiting from out of town. You have to go looking for them, and that is exactly how I wound up on Cayo Loco.
I saw Cayo Loco for the first time from the deck of the Lucretia. All I knew about lighthouses up until that point was that they were warning lights, and they marked some kind of trouble. I'd heard a few stories, and I'd met a guy who had some theories about them, but that was it. I sat in a dinghy next to Cleopatra as the crew pulled for the shore, and the lighthouse loomed so huge that I had to lean my entire head back just to see the top.
"This is it," Cleopatra said to me as we made our way toward the beach. "I traded those bumbling bureaucrats in Nassau a building they needed for a Junkanoo museum on Bay Street for her. I think we both came out okay. All we have to do is fix her up and get the light back in shape."
"No problem," I said, shrugging. After what I had recently been through, fixing up an old lighthouse sounded like a piece of cake.
As the bottom of the dinghy brushed against the shallow sand, Cleopatra sprang to the beach like a teenager. I had to laugh. Three months earlier, my life was rolling by at a snail's pace, and I was sitting on the beach in Mexico, wondering if the day would ever end. Then, all of a sudden, a ship carries me to a completely foreign place that would now become my home.
Solomon, Cleopatra's first mate, buried the anchor in the sand. All you had to do was look at his huge body, his kind eyes, and his weathered hands to know that he was the kind of person you wanted running your crew and your ship. "I'll stay with da boat, Cap'n," he said.
"Then I'll be the tour guide," Cleopatra said. She nodded at a narrow path up through the dunes. "Welcome to Cayo Loco, Tully Mars."
The well-worn path from the beach snaked up through the small dunes and then disappeared up the hill into a cluster of sea oats. We stopped at the top of the hill and looked down on the wreckage of time. With the exception of the light tower itself, the place looked as if someone had dropped a bomb on it. The concrete walls of what had been the compound of the lighthouse keeper came into view. The windows had been blown out, and the roof had been partially burned off.
We made our way through the overgrown paths, pushing back thorny bougainvillea bushes, sea grapes, and hibiscus blooms that camouflaged more destruction.
"This is the old cistern," Cleopatra said as we walked across a large rectangle. "This place was one of the first spots on earth where they made freshwater out of salt water. Those damn limeys have a strange fascination for remote and desolate places, but you got to hand it to them—they knew how to bring creature comforts to the boondocks. When Solomon's father was the light keeper here, this place was a little piece of paradise. There was a vegetable garden, flowered paths, and even a manicured green lawn."
At close range, even the tower showed the ravages of salt and sea. I stared up at the peeling paint and the cracks in the outer wall.
"Good morning, St. Peter," Cleopatra said as she stopped before a large, thick spiderweb strung across our path. Its weaver, a nasty-looking purple-and-yellow spider the size of my hand, hung suspended across the path. He seemed ready to defend his territory. There was no doubt that this was a web you could not just brush away without consequences.
"You know this spider?" I asked Cleopatra.
"He's perfectly harmless, if you don't piss him off," she replied.
We detoured around St. Peter and walked in the brush between two small buildings. A raccoon exploded out of the underbrush and scurried off toward the beach.
"I thought you said this island was uninhabited," I said.
Cleopatra didn't answer.
While I stood in the rubble looking around, I began to have serious doubts. Then a banging noise caught my attention, and I turned around to see Cleopatra hammering away at a padlock with the butt end of her machete. It was chained to a large iron door at the base of the lighthouse. Walking over, I waded through a toxic dump of decaying lead acid batteries that encircled the light tower. The people who'd been in charge of maintaining the automated light had simply tossed the dead batteries from the tower when they replaced them, adding to the bombed-out look of the cottages and grounds of the keeper's residence.
I looked from the rubble up to the lines of the giant lighthouse and the blue sky above it. On the voyage over to the Bahamas, Cleopatra had told me the story of where the lighthouse came from and how it had gotten here. Even though the lighthouse had seen better days, the sheer strength of it was still very much apparent. I just stood there and stared up, wondering how in the hell they'd built it.
"This goddamn salt air will eat anything. I just put this lock on here last month."
I went over to lend a hand. After a few more direct hits with a big rock, the padlock sprang, and I pried the iron door open. It creaked and squeaked and let out a thud as it banged against the wall.
Inside, it was dark and hot and smelled like shit.
"Here," Cleopatra said, handing me a flashlight.
I followed her with the beam of my flashlight, trying to keep pace as she bounced ahead of me like Becky Thatcher while I cautiously navigated the winding staircase.
Our movements echoed off the iron cylindrical walls as we climbed through musty, humid air that had been trapped inside the lighthouse for God knows how long. Several furry little fruit bats scanned us with their radar as they fluttered around my head.
"Don't worry," Cleopatra called out. "I know a way to get the bats out of here when you move in."
Up and up we circled, until small beams of light appeared at the top. Cleopatra stopped on the stairs below the source of the light—a rusty hatch cover just above us. "I always like this part," she said. "It reminds me of the time I met Thomas Edison—the night he threw the switch that lit up the Brooklyn Bridge at the three hundredth celebration of the founding of the city of New York."
"You knew Thomas Edison?" I asked.
"No, my father did. We were in New York on our way to France and boarding school, and we just happened to be at the right place at the right time."
I followed the beam of Cleopatra's flashlight as we inched up slowly.
"Electricity ain't a bad contribution to the betterment of mankind in general, but it sure as hell wreaked havoc on the lighthouse keepers of the world. The record player would have to go on the top of my list of Edison inventions, way ahead of movies and lightbulbs."
Cleopatra took a marlinespike out of the case on her belt and jabbed away at the hinges of the hatch. The hatch gave way with a creak.
"Ready?" Cleopatra asked.
Sunlight flooded down around us. We lifted ourselves through the hole in the sky, and I stood there bathed in the morning light of the glass room. Below us, the Lucretia looked like a toy boat sitting at anchor on the smooth surface of crystal clear water that seemed to be only inches deep. But in fact it was in nearly thirty feet of water.
I could see several members of the crew diving up conch from the bottom. The view from the light tower encompassed the whole island, against a backdrop of turquoise shallows and the deep blue ocean beyond. Cleopatra pointed out the landmarks of Whale Cut, Boo Hoo Hill, and Osprey Point that I would come to know as well as my horse.
"Unbelievable" was all I could muster.
"And well worth saving, don't you think?"
"I get the picture."
"Except for that," she added, pointing to the bizarre tangle of frayed wires, makeshift junction boxes, and a strobe light resting atop a long, skinny shaft. "That has to go. The original lens that came with this light was not only a piece of engineering genius but a work of art. The lenses, circular prisms, and source that created the beam of light is called the bull's-eye because it looks like a clear glass target. A French physicist named Augustin Fresnel designed it in the early eighteen hundreds."
"How did it work?" I asked her.
"The prisms concentrated the burner's light into a piercing beam that shot out to the horizon. The crystal lenses were held together by brass plates, and the whole thing weighed about four tons and floated in a circular tub containing about twelve hundred pounds of quicksilver. That allowed it to spin in a near frictionless environment. It was rotated by a clockwork assembly of ropes and weights that hung down the shaft of the lighthouse, and it had to be wound every two hours by the lighthouse keeper on duty. The sword of light it stabbed out into the darkness could be seen for twenty miles." Cleopatra paused as if remembering specific images. "Seen from the deck of a ship, it radiates its presence like nothing else on earth. Sailors call it the soul of the light."
"I guess all that beauty and precision seemed way too complicated for the twentieth century," I said.
"You would have thought that such a thing of beauty would wind up in a museum, but not here. They severed the base with a blowtorch, shoved it out the window, and just let gravity finish the job. Thus, the soul of the light was ripped out, smashed on the rocks, and the brass frame that once held the intricate Fresnel-lens system in place was sold for scrap." Cleopatra let out a big sigh. "That is what replaced it," she said, pointing at the present light source. "In a modern world, there is just no time for hand-pumping kerosene or winding a clock. In the name of progress, they turned the Cayo Loco Light into a giant toaster."
As we wound our way down the steps and finally out of the dark interior of the lighthouse, Cleopatra also wound me around her finger. Her mission was to find a bull's-eye lens before she died.
"You can't just order one up from the True Value hardware man," she told me. "It's a needle-in-a-haystack thing, but I'll find one. In the meantime, we have to rebuild this place and make it look like it did in its heyday, and that is where you come in."
Back out in the fresh breeze at the base of the tower, Cleopatra reached into the pocket of her pants and pulled out a key. "Tully, I've been around long enough to know that the bullshit people heap on one another is more toxic than all the oil refineries in Texas, so I will come straight to the point. I know it all must sound wacko, coming from a bat-shit crazy old woman like me who you met on the beach in Mexico, but I think fate has somehow thrown us together. It seems that I bailed your ass out of trouble back there, so the way the karma thing works, I think you owe me one."
"I couldn't agree more."
"Well, it occurred to me that maybe you could hang around here and fix the place up while I go find us a light," she continued.
"I have no problem with that," I told her. A hideaway in the middle of nowhere was something I could use at the time.
"This job ain't gonna be no little fixer-upper, you know, but I just somehow know that you can do it."
"Well, I think I can."
With that, Cleopatra gave me a big, long hug, which was witnessed by St. Peter, hanging down from the branch of a sea grape. "I just want to show you one more thing before we go, and then we will go."
We walked past a battered radio antenna and then around the back of the light tower. Cleopatra started to laugh. "You know, when I was a lot younger, I had me a cowboy once. They weren't much on huggin', but they got the job done," she said. "There," she added and pointed at a corroded, half-moon-shaped object near the base of the tower. The sea grape branches had snaked their way through what looked like bolt-holes, and the piece of iron had become a part of the tree.
"What is that?" I asked.
"That is the old collar of the bull's-eye that they threw out of the light tower." Cleopatra gazed up at the tower and the indigo sky above. "At first, I wanted to cut it down and hang it on the door as a reminder of what I needed to accomplish, but then I decided it meant more where it was."
"I like that approach, boss," I said. "I'll clean up this mess. You go and find us a bull's-eye lens. We are going to rekindle the soul of the light."
She didn't say anything but stood there with tears in her big green eyes. St. Peter suddenly appeared on one of the branches of the sea grape as if he were bearing witness to a historic event. Then she handed me the key to the lighthouse door.
That was the day I became the keeper of the Cayo Loco Light.
The Song of the Ocean
Back when I lived in Heartache, Wyoming, before Thelma Barston took over the ranch, my home was a little Airstream trailer decorated with palm trees and pink flamingos and situated up on the side of a half-frozen mountain. The location of my trailer was a direct result of needing a spot free of trees and power lines, where I could receive a clear signal from the heavens.
The signal came in through a radio that had belonged to my father. It was a Hallicrafter S-40B shortwave model that he had bought in San Francisco the day he was discharged from the Navy. He came back to Wyoming wearing a flower-covered Hawaiian shirt and a cowboy hat and returned to civilian life as a forest ranger. A year later, he married my mother, whom he had first seen at the rodeo. She was a champion barrel racer. It was my mother who ran the ranch while my father managed a local state park from a cabin in a thick grove of fir trees just off the main road.
The Hallicrafter was my father's most prized possession. Not only could that amazing radio broadcast the local country music station from Jackson Hole but it could also, with the flick of the large green dial on the left side and a small knob labeled "sensitivity," produce Polynesian melodies from his beloved Hawaii.
He taught me at a young age how to tune in the world, from the fire tower at the top of the mountain to the BBC from Hong Kong. I would watch the light in the tubes grow brighter as the signal meter rose and the music got louder.
When I wasn't doing my chores around the ranch, I was listening to the radio and reading stories in Popular Science about people who could pick up radio signals with the gold fillings in their teeth. I wanted to be one of those people—a radio head. Well, it never happened. My molars remained silent, but I still had my father's radio. It was over that radio that I heard the report of the avalanche that buried him while he was trying to rescue survivors of a plane crash in the Bitterroot Mountains.
In the numbing days that followed, all I had were questions that adults couldn't or wouldn't answer. What had happened? Where was he? What do I do now?
With no help given to me, it made perfect sense to try and call my father on the radio. All I needed was a tower tall enough to send a signal to heaven. If I just had a tower tall enough, I kept thinking, I could reach him. That was the only time I ran away from home. I was eight years old, and though I was terribly sad about losing my father, I wasn't angry; I was just trying to stay in touch.
I took my father's radio and hitchhiked, walked, and paddled my way to every tall structure in the state of Wyoming that I could use as an antenna to call my dad. I was finally captured by the military police at a secret Strategic Air Command radio tower near Sheridan, and when they finally realized that I wasn't an alien or a Communist infiltrator, just a boy missing his dad, they sent me home.
My mother had no choice but to tell me the real truth about my father—that he wasn't coming back. I cried my eyes out for weeks, but then one day, as I lay in my room listening to the steel guitars on the airwaves from Honolulu, I realized that though my father was gone, my radio was my window to the world— and maybe still to him. Life is unpredictable, but there is a lot out there to do and see if you just tune in to the radio.
The tubes of the old Hallicrafter hummed and glowed a good number of years before I finally pulled the plug and told myself it was time to transmit instead of receive.
I was working as a wrangler and living in my little Airstream trailer when a blinding snowstorm rumbled down from Alberta one weekend. When the storm finally moved on the next morning, I was busy digging a path from my trailer to the corral, not paying much attention to the task at hand. That's when I saw the conch shell fly out of the shovel blade and back into the snowbank.
I dropped the shovel and immediately began to dig carefully with my fingers for what I knew to be a delicate and rare find.
"I'll be damned," I said as I pulled the little conch shell out. I held it up to the sun, then held it to my ear, the way the old medicine man who had given it to me had showed me when I was a kid, and a smile replaced the scowl on my face.
The shell was a special good-luck charm, but it had disappeared a month earlier, during a surprise attack by a pack of raccoons who had pillaged my trailer and had made off with a string of rainbow trout from my kitchen sink. When I examined the scene of the crime, I sadly discovered that somehow, along with the fish, my conch shell was missing from its usual resting place on the windowsill in the kitchen. I was pissed. It was a bad sign.
Johnny Red Dust was the man who had given me the shell. He was an old war buddy of my dad's. They had fought together against the Japanese up in Alaska in what became known as the "Forgotten War." They had survived bullets and frostbite and were rewarded for their efforts by being assigned to a unit in Hawaii, where they finished out the war years together.
After the war, my dad came home to Wyoming. Johnny went back to the reservation in eastern Montana, where he took up his old job as a medicine man. My dad and I would go and visit Johnny every fall when the tribes gathered for the annual Crow Fair at Little Bighorn. My daddy believed in the magic of the Indians and passed it on to me.
"Tully, city folks go to the doctor for a checkup every year, but the Mars boys prefer to charge up our good-luck streak with Johnny Red Dust."
What I remember most was the last visit with my dad, when I had just turned eight. It was a few weeks before the accident.
Usually our visit consisted of eating, fishing, and watching the dances, but that year, Johnny Red Dust sat at a smoldering campfire late one night after the drums had stopped beating, looked at my dad, and said, "It's time."
The next thing I knew, I was smack-dab in the middle of a full-blown ceremony of some kind, with Johnny and Dad smoking a long pipe. Johnny was speaking in tongues, and then he rattled a bag around my head and dropped the contents in front of me on the ground.
What rolled out was a wooden gecko, rattlesnake tails, bear claws, arrowheads, wolves' teeth, moonstones, and a purple-and-white-striped conch shell. The conch shell had fallen between my boots. Johnny looked at me and smiled. Then he said, "Pick it up."
I followed his command.
"What you are holding in your hand is called a Strombus listeri, better known as a Lister's conch."
I looked at the beautiful little shell, with its purple-and-white bands wrapping around the body all the way up to the high, conical spire.
"That shell comes from deep in the Indian Ocean, and how it got to Wyoming is still a mystery that even I can't explain. What I do know is that if you hold it to your ear, something magical happens."
I didn't need to be prodded further. I held the shell to my ear and listened in silence for more than a minute.
"What do you hear?"
"I think I hear music."
"I think you do too," Johnny Red Dust said. "It's the song of the ocean."
"What's that?" I asked.
Johnny Red Dust took the conch shell from my ear and put it in the pocket of my shirt. "When the time is right, you will understand," he said.
Dad and I headed back to the ranch, and I certainly didn't have a clue then what he was talking about. Still, I held that shell to my ear every night and fell asleep listening for the song, as if it were a life jacket and I was lost at sea.
I'd kept the conch shell all the way into adulthood and had only lost track of it that one time. The morning I'd found it in the snow, the sun seemed to shine with an intensity that I could feel in my bones and my heart. The shell was a sign.
- On Sale
- Nov 30, 2004
- Page Count
- 544 pages
- Little, Brown and Company