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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Unlikely Characters at the Key West Waste Water Treatment Plant...

Fleming Key lies but a quarter of a mile or so due west from the Garrison Bight Mooring Field where Blondie-Dog presently finds herself and I'll be the first to admit that this little fact is of little or no consequence to your average sailor.

Access to this Key is restricted to Navy and authorized personnel only and one simply is not permitted to go ashore.

Nevertheless there was a time while previously cruising aboard S/V BratCat, that I would routinely ride my bike every morning on across a short bridge spanning a narrow cut and onto Fleming Key. I'd then ride on over to the Waste Water Treatment Facility that was under construction at the time and then go on to put in a hard day of labor.

For you see, I happened to work on a general labor work crew for a few months while at that construction site and while anxiously awaiting for my then wife to complete her school-year teaching obligation prior to us setting sail for the Bahamas.

The work was needless to say physically demanding yet somehow gratifying for some odd reason... especially for someone who hadn't ever previously worked outside the confines of an office.

In any event, what has me thinking of that now fully operational and pristine Waste Water Treatment Facility, readily visible off of Blondie's stern, were of the many different characters and personalities that I once toiled alongside of.

One fellow in particular did however stand out from all the rest. He happened to show up one morning, not unlike all the rest of us at one point or another, and was summarily assigned to work on my same labor crew.

This was but a number of years after the Mariel Boat Lift in 1980 when Fidel Castro had temporarily lifted travel restrictions out of Cuba for one and all while also releasing Cuba's prison inmates as well as its mentally impaired.

Well Ortega, as I seem to recall his name spoke little English but had no problem making himself understood, but what set him apart was how mentally unbalanced he seemed to be. The guy was capable of functioning but was nuts beyond any and all comprehension.

He was lean, tough as a mule and worked harder than anybody. Not only that but he was completely fearless while laboring about on flimsy scaffolding high above the ground.

I on the other hand might have had few reservations climbing the mast to change the boat's anchor light but there were certain tasks at that construction site that I would prefer avoid doing all together. One such task was the removal of pins and concrete forms from high above the ground while tethered to but a thin, frayed line.

Damned right I took that day off... and I made no bones about why I hadn't gone to work that day either when I returned the following day. There was simply no way I was going to possibly risk having an on the job mishap only to then have to delay BratCat's departure date to the Bahamas.

In any event, Ortega could be heard continuously talking to himself and to no one in particular both Spanish and in his truncated and heavily accented English.

He'd routinely recite biblical scripture while precariously dangling from a safety line from high above only to later solemnly announce to one and all that he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. He'd then look around for a reaction of sorts from the rest of us only to then snarl when he didn't get one.

I knew better than to engage him in any conversation for I had often seen him snarl back at those who had attempted to talk to him. He could and would readily intimidate anybody who had the audacity to personally engage him in conversation. Even the crack-heads on the labor crew knew better than to mess with him.

On one occasion I instinctively reached out to assist him carry a heavy concrete form that he seemed to be struggling with. He immediately and emphatically rejected my offer of assistance and proceeded to derisively intone, "Don't help me, don't help me, because I work by the hour and if you help me, you will take away my hour".

I never made that mistake again.

After a while it was just easier to maintain a discrete distance whenever possible and ignore him so as to not have to deal with his hostilities.

On other occasions he'd proceed to loudly announce the names of states whenever he had a captive audience. He'd start off with Florida followed by Georgia, then Alabama, Mississippi and eventually all the way out to Washington and back. He'd later conclude by announcing that he was now going to go back home to Cuba.

I later figured out that he had traveled throughout all these states while working at one construction site or another.

Well not long thereafter Ortega moved on and no longer working at the plant when I happened to come across an article in the local Keynoter newspaper describing an interception at sea by the US Coast Guard.

But what made this interception unique was that the individual who had been spotted some forty miles offshore, was attempting to row a small skiff to Cuba and not the other way around.

A US Coast Guard officer was to later describe the individual as belligerent and uncooperative all the while insisting that he be left alone. That officer was also quoted as saying, "We don't believe that he was under the influence of any drugs or alcohol... we just think that he was mentally unbalanced. It did take some coaxing to get him to desist in his attempt to row to Cuba".

And while I'm reading all this, I'm wondering, "What kind of a nut would be so crazy as to want to row all the way to Cuba in a small skiff"?

Well a day or two later, Ortega who hadn't been seen on the job in a week or so is back on the work crew and talking to himself once again and loudly intoning the same states, in the same order, and then in inverse order and finally concluding with the state of Florida... only this time announcing to one an all, "I'm going back to Cuba but this time it is going to be different.... this time I'm going to buy a big boat with a big motor"!

Yeah, that was Ortega awright who got intercepted by the US Coast Guard while attempting to row back home to Cuba.

I don't know whether Ortega ever made it back to Cuba for soon thereafter the school year had finally concluded and we pulled up anchors and set sail for the Bahamas.

Rodriguez on the other hand, in sharp contrast to Ortega, was as reserved as they come. He too happened to be a Mariel Boat Lift refugee yet was hardly ever heard to utter even a single word whether it be in Spanish or English.

What little that I do know of him was that he and his wife had arrived from Cuba at some point and that he happened to be a diligent worker at whatever it was that he did at that plant while always keeping to himself.

I'd nevertheless see him at noon every day while on our thirty minute lunch break along the banks of Fleming Key Channel. We both had a predilection for removing our work boots and socks and submerging our bare feet into the cool water while silently eating our lunch.

Rodriguez could always be seen along that bank with his lunch box that he'd bring to work every day. His lunch box always included a Tupperware dish and inside that dish had to be some delectable Cuban food that his wife must have lovingly cooked the previous day.

I in turn would purchase an over-priced chicken sandwich or whatever from the "Roach Wagon" that would drive up just before noon every day.

And not that I wanted to know but there simply was no way of telling what could possibly be going through Rodriguez's mind as he would methodically remove the cap from his thermos for I too relished the silence along that bank.

I in turn would gaze out over the water and on out to Christmas Tree Island where my boat happened to be anchored off of and contemplate the day that BratCat would finally set sail for the Bahamas.

Well one day the KeyNoter newspaper reported an incident that had happened the previous day along Duval Street.

A fellow, in a fit of jealousy, was reported to have shot and wounded his wife one afternoon after surprising her in the arms of another lover.

That same fellow later fled the scene of the crime and attempted to hide underneath a parked vehicle along Duval Street only to then put that same gun up against his head and squeeze the trigger as police closed in on him.

The woman did later recover from her wounds but unlike his wife, Rodriguez was not so fortunate.

Rodriguez was never to be seen working at the Key West Waste Water Treatment Plant again nor ever later seen dipping his bare feet into the cool waters of Fleming Key Channel.

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