Weekend Edition: Key West mysteries

James Bornemeier
James Bornemeier

We are not spontaneous travelers, but a few weeks ago we said let’s get out of here and head south. Just too much winter.

Grasping an idea that had percolated for several years, the destination was to be Key West, for a Monday through Friday jaunt. We had never been, but in 1969 the naval destroyer I served on was driven there to safety after a hurricane dispersed our formation of ships. I think I had a drink at one of the bars Hemingway used to frequent on his nightly routine.

A young woman at the front desk led us to our room on the second floor with a shared veranda and a view of the pool. On the way she noted that happy hour started at 4 and nodded toward a small covered bar. I never wanted to get into a T-shirt and shorts more in my life.

It was around 10 degrees Monday at our corner in Manhattan, waiting too long for a cab, and we both had to go upstairs for an extra layer that seemed embarrassing in our new tropical environment.

Around 4, I peered down at the happy hour bar to see a group of guests queued up. To my surprise, there was no bartender, just bottles of booze, mixers and an ice bucket. Of all the open bars I’ve encountered over the years, I don’t recall being able to get your mitts on the fixings. I thought of low-slung farm animals that produce bacon eagerly congregating as pails of edibles are about to be thrown to you. The air was heavy with anticipation.

I waited for the group to thin and went down to check it out. There were a couple of bottles of rum and decanters of gin and vodka. A cheerful young woman was charged with keeping the decanters and ice bucket full as guests minded their refills. It was the opposite of top-shelf liquor but it had the illusion of being free, although it had obviously been baked into the pricing scheme. Even though, it cast a convivial mood.

A burly bare-chested man, one of many Hemingway look-alikes encountered during the visit, came up and said, “The rooms are a little pricey, but this,” he said sweeping his arm laterally in front of the bar, “is a thing of beauty.”

As writers and editors, a visit to the Hemingway House was a no-brainer. Papa lived there with Pauline, wife number three. A spacious two-story edifice on an acre of land, it was for many years the grandest house in Key West.

The tour guide said he wrote “The Old Man and the Sea” there. Although it wasn’t on the tour proper, we were urged to check out his study on the second floor of an outbuilding. For a man of fierce appetites and a messy personal life (he was bipolar), it was surprisingly staid and sobering. On a small desk in the center of the spacious room was his typewriter. The mind reels at the image of the great man carving sentences there.

Another sight we were locked in to see was the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservancy. We were told, needlessly, at the ticket counter not to touch the butterflies, which reminded me, in a confusing rush of ethical contortions, that my brother and I, as boys, would capture butterflies and mount them. The best moral escape from this activity was that we were honoring them.

We first entered a room that gave you a butterfly overview centering on a short film depicting the remarkable life story of butterflies. I remember well learning as a boy of the four-part journey: egg, larva, chrysalis, butterfly. It didn’t seem that special then, but watching a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis — not remotely possible — and waiting for fluids to fill its wings to power flight, in later adulthood seemed pure miracle.

Then you enter the glassed-in conservatory. You are greeted by lush vegetation, warm moist air and what seems like thousands of butterflies in a constantly swirling, beautiful mass.

Jane was snapping photo after photo. Midway through, one encounters Scarlett and Rhett, two flamingos wading in their shallow pool on reed-like legs that can’t possibly be what evolution had in mind. Every 10 seconds or so, one would shout its three-tone caw, shaking its head sharply to the right and left. The other would reply in a slightly different pitch.

They were hilarious and, apparently, knew it. Jane videoed and posted; I suggested the caption: “Jim and Jane discuss dinner plans in Key West,” but she got distracted and it never got up.

Immersed in them, I became mildly obsessed with the wonder of butterflies and their magical trip from egg to flight. A recent article on science and religion came to mind, written by Jack Miles, a former Los Angeles Times colleague whom we never got to know.

His core premise is that every scientific breakthrough opens new vistas, revealing how much we don’t or, perhaps can’t know. I’m toward the science end of the religion/science spectrum, but I walked out of the conservancy filled with thoughts about the lives of butterflies.

On the whole, I realized, I prefer mystery to knowing.