Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The President and Peanut Island

            On a sunny Florida day in 1961, my parents and I headed to the Southern Boulevard Bridge that connects Palm Beach to the mainland. They were there to catch a glimpse of President John F. Kennedy as his procession traveled from the airport to the Kennedy beachfront mansion where the Kennedys spent their winters.

            As the convertible crossed the bridge, Kennedy turned from side to side waving at onlookers. When his car pulled in front of my parents, Kennedy turned in their direction and waved. My Mom decided that Kennedy was one of the best-looking men she had ever seen. The little black and white televisions of 1961 simply didn’t do him justice. The procession drove on and my Mom has always remembered the day she saw those blue eyes for herself.

            With the Cuban Missile Crisis less than a year away, there was a heightened awareness of the president’s vulnerability to nuclear warfare while in town. After all, Cuba is only 284 nautical miles away from Worth Avenue, main street of the winter home for the rich and the wannabes since Flagler started developing it in the late 1800s. 

            So the government decided it would be prudent to build Kennedy a bomb shelter. If you’ve ever tried to dig a moat around a sand castle on the beach, you know that digging down into the soil in Florida to create one wouldn’t be particularly easy.

The site chosen was on an undeveloped island in the middle of Lake Worth the locals called “Peanut Island.”  With a Coast Guard facility there since 1936, security was already in place that would enable a “hush hush” building project and Operation Hotel commenced.

Former Coast Guard Facility on Peanut Island
Originally just a convenient location to dump dredged mud from Lake Worth to clear the inlet, the island over time had become populated with Australian pines. Named “Peanut Island” by the locals for the peanut farm and factory that never quite got going, boaters stopped on its beaches to swim, cookout and camp after a day of fishing. 

 The bomb shelter was built behind the Coast Guard Station in a huge mound of dirt. Covered with concrete and rebar, sandbags originally hid it from view. Fortunately for all of us, Kennedy only had to visit the shelter twice--once when it was being built and one more time after it was completed. In a practice run, the Secret Service got him to the shelter from Palm Beach in five minutes.

I remember exploring the island in the early 1970s when the sandbags over the shelter were hidden by trees and a thick mat of pine needles. The tour guides with the Palm Beach Maritime Museum will tell you that the bomb shelter was rediscovered about that time by some boys wandering through the woods. They stumbled upon the escape hatch and being curious, climbed down for a look. A couple of bunk beds and not much else were all that was left of the once well-stocked shelter.  By the time I was playing Starsky and Hutch in the woods a few years later, the door had been cleared of debris, but it was always shut and locked. We know because we tried it every time.

Boat House Used by the Secret
Service as the Bunker was Built
            In those days, Peanut Island was a rustic little island enjoyed only by those fortunate to have a boat.  Peanut Island has finally been developed. With the restored Coast Guard station as a museum on the south side, picnic facilities, campsites, a snorkeling and swimming area manned by lifeguards and even restrooms, it’s a far cry from the Peanut Island I remember and can still see in my mind’s eye. I’d hazard a guess that most of us who grew up with the paradise Florida was would have preferred that Peanut Island remain rustic and we’ll always miss the Australian pines swaying and whistling in the ocean breeze, but I went to see it for myself, just to be fair.

A friend and I hailed a water taxi, piloted by a wonderfully accommodating Captain Joe (561-339-2504) and sailed over one Saturday morning. We bought tickets to tour the Coast Guard Station and the Kennedy Bunker from the Palm Beach Maritime Museum (561-832-7248).

While Peanut Island is nothing like I remember, I just can’t say the development was a bad idea.  I think it’s beautiful albeit different and the people working there are friendly and very knowledgeable. As my friend and I sat on the big porch at the Coast Guard Boathouse, we decided that it felt like a mini-vacation somewhere other than fifteen minutes away from home.

The Author After Touring the Kennedy
Bunker - FINALLY
If you enjoy a bit of history, go take the Palm Beach Maritime Museum tour. As you stand in front of that door waiting your turn to walk into history, try to picture the door surrounded by gently whispering pine trees and buried under pine needles. Next to you, a small, skinny blonde girl with big blue eyes whose eyebrows are knitted in concentration tries to imagine what’s behind that big heavy door. Tell her she’ll be able to see for herself in about forty years.

This column appeared in the November issue of Southern Exposure published by Seabreeze Publications, Inc.

Inside the Bunker. The Museum Added the
Presidential Seal. Looks like it belongs there, doesn't it?
(This article was updated from its original posting. I have removed a reference to attempts to dig a sand tunnel from Palm Beach to Singer Island because I have been unable to locate where I got that information in my notes. When, and if, I come across that research, I will add it back in.)

Monday, November 14, 2011

For Harry

    Most of you who follow my blog, know that I generally stick to history and personal memories of the Palm Beach County and Florida area.  Those of you who know me well, know that I strongly believe in helping out where possible.  Thanks to my participation in Rachael Harrie's Campaign Challenges, I've had a opportunity to both plopped in my lap.

    My flash fiction piece on The Chillingworth Murders, called "Birth of an Imago," placed ninth out of almost 200 stories in the Second Campaigner Challenge. While I greatly enjoyed placing in the top ten and received some wonderful prices, I also got the chance to contribute to an incredibly worthwhile charity.

    Katharina Gerlach describes it best in her blog: 
                     I “stumbled over” an eleven year old boy who taught me how much can be achieved by doing small steps every day persistently. His name was Harry Moseley, and he passed away peacefully in his mother’s arms on Saturday 8 October 2011 at 11.10 pm. The most amazing thing about Harry (in case you haven’t heard yet) is that he single handedly raised over £85,000 (that’s roughly 137,000 USD) for brain cancer research by fund-raising and selling hand-made bracelets. Awed by this boy who looked death in the eye but who was determined to enjoy every day, I decided to raise funds for people in need too.

                   During Rachael Harrie’s Campaign, I had read many really great flash fiction stories, so I came up with the idea to collect them into an anthology. Rachael and I issued the call, and lo and behold, many participants answered. It was a lot of work to sort the stories, streamline the layout, insert the links to the author’s blogs, and create as well as publish the eBook, but I finished today. We can now proudly present to you “Campaigner Challenges 2011″.

     I have three stories published in this e-book and am very happy that something I did just for fun and experience is going to be put to use for a greater good. It is truly amazing to see how totally differently all those writers treated the same prompts.

     You can purchase the e-book either on Smashwords or If you would like some interesting reading while donating to a great cause, click over and order a copy. All proceeds go to "Help Harry Help Others" to continue to fund research on brain cancer.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Night at the Theatre

Lake Worth Playhouse circa 1924
     Last Saturday, I was invited to see a  staged reading at the Lake Worth Playhouse. Since I'd never been there and my friend highly recommended the event, I headed down to Lake Avenue in Lake Worth.

     I parked a couple of streets away and walked to the Playhouse. I didn't know anything about the venue, but sat fascinated with the woodwork and stucco as I waited for the event to start. The Lake Worth Playhouse was built in 1924 by Lucien and Clarence Oakley, brothers who moved to Florida from Illinois and wanted to build a movie and vaudeville venue.

    The Lake Worth Playhouse website says that the Playhouse was built at a cost of $150,000, an astounding amount in those days. It was considered opulent for the time and included a $10,000 Wurlitzer pipe organ with a built-in piano.

     Destroyed in the 1928 hurricane that wreaked havoc on all of South Florida, it was rebuilt just in time for the Depression. It went through several owners and forms of entertainment before winding down and shutting its doors.  In 1953, it was reopened by a group of Lake Worth citizens but it wasn't until 1975 that it was renovated and re-opened with a "never-be-dark" policy that led to a steady stream of events.

Lake Worth Playhouse Interior
     The staged reading I saw was "Broken Angels," based on the true story of Carrie Buck (who died in the 1983) and the infamous Buck v. Bell case which went all the way to the Supreme Court. Written by Tod Castor (who also participated on the stage), it tells the story of a young pregnant woman who is sent to the Lynchburg Colony for the Feebleminded for the unfortunate sin of being unwed and pregnant. It was a powerful piece and made even more powerful by the narrative at the end. 

     Sadly, just this week, I saw a headline about the state of North Carolina looking to compensate individuals who, until 1974, were sterilized without their consent. North Carolina was only one of thirty-one states who participated in a eugenics program and Virginia sterilized 8,000 people before the program was stopped. The combined thirty-one programs resulted in tens of thousands of sterilizations. Tens of thousands.

     Sitting in the old theatre watching  actors in period clothing act the powerful lines Tim Caster wrote, it was easy to forget that this is 2011. The heartache and injustice suffered by Carrie Buck, labeled feebleminded when she was not and denied the opportunity to bear children forever, followed by the news story out of North Carolina, is a grim reminder that evil is never left behind. It silently sits and waits for the right opportunity, the right time, to rear its ugly head again. 
Carrie Buck in 1924 Photo, Click for full size
Carrie Buck in 1924
by A.E. Estabrook

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


My grandmother and my daughter around 1996.
     This year, for Halloween, the kids danced between raindrops while they held on to their costumes, hats, masks and goody bags. It was another windy Halloween in Florida. As far back as I can remember, Halloween was always windy and spooky.

     When I was a child, we usually put together our own costumes out of our parents castaways and added a couple of store-bought touches like vampire teeth, a scary mask or a tiara. We’d knock politely on a door and yell "trick or treat" as loudly as we could. The resident who was forced to answer lucky enough to be answering the door would lean out with a big bowl of candy. Oohing and aahing over the costumes, they’d drop candy in our bags. We’d yell our thanks and run to the next house.

     The year I was seven, my mother was pregnant with my brother who was born on November 3. She’d answer the door and the little eyes of the trick-or-treaters would grow huge at her gigantic belly. My brother always did know how to steal the show.

     When I moved to St. Louis with my ex-husband and our son, I found out that different areas of the country do things slightly differently for Halloween.

     Our first Halloween in the mid-west, we dressed up my son as Batman, and took him trick-or-treating with his young cousins. I learned that in St. Louis, when you knock on a door, you have to have a riddle ready. The riddle is asked, an answer attempted, and THEN the candy is dropped in your treat bag.

     At the first door the kids approached, the unsuspecting homeowner opened the door, and our young son marched right in the house. He marched down the hall and disappeared. All of us stood there with mouths gaping watching him go. Then we started calling him, but apparently whatever he found in the room at the end of the hall was much more interesting than we were at the moment. Finally, our niece was invited in to collect him and found him sitting next to the man of the house watching a football game.

     After I moved back to Florida, I used to take my two around a nearby neighborhood–one with a large number of homes and kids running all over the place, hysterical on candy highs from smuggled sweets crammed in their mouths between houses. As crazy as it got, even when we could no longer feel our feet, it was still fun.

     When my kids were still little enough to enjoy going trick-or-treating with Mom, we’d always end up at my grandmother and aunt’s house. By then, the children were exhausted, make-up was slipping off faces and costumes were askew, but my grandmother and aunt always made a fuss. My kids were always proud that they had "scared" or impressed their relatives with their costumes.

     My grandmother and aunt have been gone several years now and my children are now adults. Funny. I used to think it would be the big things I’d miss when my two little ones were grown. I never thought it could be the mad scramble for the right costume, the numb feet, the arguments over candy, or the laughing at the can of Coca-cola someone gave out as a treat one year.

     I have to admit I missed it all when I sat quietly reading a book alone on Halloween as I waited for one more little trick-or-treater to find their way to my door.