Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Back, but where to begin?

I returned from the United Kingdom last evening on a smooth and timely flight courtesy of Sir Richard Branson. His airline must be considered as, in my opinion, the most British of airlines, which scuppers the company which pretends to be so, yet as a pretender is all too often betrayed by the surliness of its heavily unionized staff. And even now I am not quite in the right o'clock. Tired? Certainly not! I was tired five hours ago when it was UK bedtime, but have since cooked a meal for the family and cleaned up afterwards. I have also been reminded, via Facebook (of, or is it in which I have re-engaged, but within limited criteria, but that's a blog yet to be written) that these columns are in anxious need of updating.

This short visit to Worcester to celebrate my mother's pending eightieth birthday (September the second) was loaded with both present subjects on which to write, and reflections on which to dwell. Over the next couple of weeks I hope to do justice to these notes of mine, as well as complete two "Floridian" articles. Oh yes! We have also had a tropical storm in these parts over the weekend. I cannot write about that experience as I was not there, or is that here? But may comment about the media chatter before, during and after this storm.

And I also have photographs. Many photographs of these few days. Hopefully they will fulfill that ancient Chinese proverb. I will leave it to you.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

At Kennedy Airport

With a delicious flatbread sandwich and a martini!

Monday, August 22, 2011

The ocean wave was once our life.

House guests can come and go, and can be awful. Yet Andrew and Kathy (with their two teenage children) have made me redefine such a general and unkind statement. Yes, I cooked for them on two evenings, but this evening they treated us to a delightful and delicious dinner at Nichol's (local pub and eatery) and good conversation has been constant.

To explain: Andrew and I have a Royal Navy career in common, he a warfare officer and me a Chaplain, and we served together in what was surely the pinnacle of our "afloat" experience - the aircraft carrier HMS INVINCIBLE (above). Now that is a starting point. I only served that ship for a year, but the common ground was enough to get us started on so many other separate stories. Of war and peace, and many things in between.

If I were to list the questions we asked of each other here there would not be enough room on the page. Do you remember so-and -so? What ship was that? Really? Then we missed each other by months. Whatever happened to him? That's great, or, oh dear that's sad. Remind me - the name of that missile system? Fitted to that ship? Surely not. Your thinking of the previous system. And the RFA (Royal Fleet Auxiliary.) Ever sail with them? And I told Andrew my tales of living in three RFA ships in the Persian Gulf, the gay stewards and chefs, and the collision with the Royal Yacht BRITANNIA. And he told me stories of sea training in a warship with wooden decks and a lack of spare parts. (The Type 82 was the only one of its class!) I told him of the Principal Medical Officer who only wore bow ties, even when in rig, because of his gynaecological training - and this was on a warship with no females. And he told me of a fire-scarred Wessex helicopter pilot, a Falklands conflict special operations veteran, who continued to fly Sea Kings, and who doted on his young son. I talked about the pain of commando training, and the ridiculous comfort of a snow hole in Norway, and he expressed concern that even if we could return, there was little navy left. I told the story of Alistair, an RFA officer, who always slept with his cabin door open, as when his old ship (RFA SIR GALAHAD) was hit by an Exocet missile his friend's cabin door was melted shut in the inferno, and he could not escape. But there were also happier tales which are too numerous to mention here.

In the UK we might described ourselves as being ex-navy. Americans are quick to correct us. We are not ex-navy, but retired navy. They are so correct. We may leave the navy, but the navy never leaves us!

A Late Summer Break

Quiet of late, these columns will continue so for another week or more as Kate and I fly to the United KIngdom on Wednesday to begin the celebrations of my mother's eightieth birthday. On return I will resume my Florida notes, as well as make some observations in Worcester. Until then...

Thursday, August 11, 2011


The news that Borders the bookseller had failed to resolve its bankruptcy and planned to close all its four hundred and more stores with a loss of eleven thousand jobs is nothing new. The bankruptcy filing was announced last February, and the closures three weeks ago. It is only when the banner goes up over the local branch, and you see the interior resembling a literary yard sale that the truth is brought home.

I will miss the Riverhead Borders. I rarely bought more than magazines there,except at Christmas when I would purchase a few BBC DVDs, but as a place to browse and spend half an hour and more picking titles off shelves it was unequaled. (Note: Perhaps in merely browsing I, with a million others, tipped the scales of bankruptcy.) But it was more than the bookstore. I already miss Seattle’s Best, the café that occupied a corner of the cavernous building.

It was there that I must have sipped dozens of gallons of cappuccino, and idled away even more hours. Reading, writing, watching – even just thinking. My favorite seat was a small window table but if that was occupied I would gravitate to one of the corner armchairs. Like a familiar and favorite church there was always somewhere to sit and muse. Now all is gone, stripped and packed away. And to add insult to injury, there is now nowhere in Riverhead to enjoy good coffee in a café surrounding. Nowhere.

Moving On - Ten Years On (2)

We did stop for snacks on that uneventful drive to London. We eventually said farewell to the Volvo and continued to a small hotel a stone's throw from Heathrow Airport. There we all crammed into one room, keeping the windows closed on a warm night just in case the cats had second thoughts about emigrating. Henry and George were exercised on an eighteen inch wide strip of dead grass, whereas the previous day they had had the run of hundreds of acres. We ate poorly in the deep-fried hotel restaurant, and slept fitfully on that last night on UK soil, or rather concrete.

At the airport the following morning Sandi, Kate and the animals began the complicated process of checking in with livestock while I returned the rental van. I had the easier task. The moment I walked back into the terminal I knew something was wrong. It was a combination of Sandi’s expression and the small group of veterinary officials standing around. The large, and not inexpensive, dog crates were not large enough, according to regulations. So much for the expert advice we had received and followed. Yet the airport team proved supremely helpful and two huge crates were found. We donated ours to future, unknown traveling dogs. It all began to fall into place and the paperwork at least was correct, but it was most odd seeing our dogs and cats being wheeled away by strangers, knowing that the next time we would see them would be in another land. And so we flew.

I can’t actually recall the details of the flight except that we were able to watch the newly-released film Shrek. And that for the very first time flying to the USA I didn’t have to complete a visitors’ visa card. Like on all the countless flights I have taken the food was unmemorable, but the cocktails helpful. Did we talk about what we were doing? I don’t think so, at least not at length. We were already worrying about the (now realized) abandoned suitcase and making plans for its rescue. Before embarking calls had been made and neighbors would assist. And so we flew on, and dozed and landed ahead of schedule.

Immigration! Not for me the long passport line. I had been told that I would be directed to a special officer, and the sign did just that. Within a few minutes I was standing in a windowless office being processed by an enormous and friendly African-American official. Friendly, but the huge firearm holstered at her belt was a reminder that friendliness was conditional. She examined my papers, especially the rather grand document bearing the seal of the United States Embassy in London, before measuring my height and weight, looking dispassionately at my eyes, and taking my fingerprints. She then firmly stamped my United Kingdom passport with a design that I had not seen before, handed it back to me and said, “Mr. Lewis, welcome to the United States of America.”

Reunited with my family, our primary concern was not the luggage (we were good at losing that) but the animals, for the heat outside the building was intense and we hoped that they would be moved swiftly into the shade. They were. Crates arrived and all was well. Henry and George were released from their prisons and walked around on leads. Advice: If you ever wish to bring an American airport arrivals area to a standstill simply walk about with a couple of fine English pedigree labrador retrievers. It works wonders!

Two cars waited to take us on the ninety or so miles drive east past seemingly endless strips of car dealerships, warehouse stores, tattoo parlors and adult stores (to mention a few.) Fortunately we dozed much of the time until the countryside turned green again and our tired spirits lifted. Bridgehampton looked familiar from our previous visit in April. There was the Candy Kitchen, and there was the church. A mile east of the village we turned left and drove north to our new, temporary home. The animals had made it ahead of us, their driver commenting that after the first five miles he and they had all run out of conversation! And Phyllis was there to greet us, with goodies and home comforts. Food and wine, and a bottle of pink gin with accompanying Angostura bitters. And it was all a bit of a blur, even before those bottles were opened. We chatted, and unpacked a little. We explored the house and garden, and marveled at the small swimming pool. Friends called round, and phone calls were made. I think that Kate and I went for a swim. And we ate, although I recall not feeling at all hungry. All I wanted to do was sleep, which we all did once sheets were found and beds were made. It was only on waking that I had the persistent thought: Where are we and what on earth have we done?

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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Moving On - Ten Years On (1)

Yesterday, the eighth of August, was a milestone anniversary, but only within our family. For it was on this date in 2001 that we landed at John F Kennedy Airport, New York, to begin our American adventure. When I say “we” I naturally mean Sandi, Kate and me, but also the labradors Henry (R.I.P. 2005) and George, the cats Luke (R.I.P 2010) and Thomas. We landed in temperatures of 103̊ Fahrenheit, an airless afternoon, and we were driven with three out of four suitcases to our new lodgings.

But the story really begins two days earlier. On the sixth of August the packers and movers had arrived to turn the home back into a house, and we were itinerant until the evening. Then we were the guests of Commodore Mark Kerr and his wife Lou, who kindly took us in as waifs and strays and gave us cocktails, hot baths, dinner and beds for the night. More than beds, but royal beds, for the rooms we were given were those reserved for the Queen and the Royal Family when they visited the Naval College. Luxurious? Certainly not, dispelling the popular myths of royal opulence and comfort. Such lavishness is normally only associated with other heads of state, not the House of Windsor.

The morning of the seventh came soon enough. After a simple breakfast of toast and bacon we bade farewell and returned to the empty echoes of our former home. Neighbors had gathered to say goodbye, and we loaded up the vehicles for the journey to London. Sandi and the animals in the Volvo, which was being delivered to another naval family en route, and Kate and me in the rented white truck with dog crates and three suitcases – for it was at this point that we forgot the fourth case. It was left in the house, holding, quite appropriately, our summer clothes.

How did I feel driving up the steep hill out of Dartmouth? Sad? Of course, and more than a little insecure and uncertain, for not only were we leaving the college and town, communities that we loved, but I had also left the Royal Navy. The previous day my identity card had been cut into pieces, and I was a civilian for the first time in many years. So muddled thoughts, yet none of them connected to the overwhelming fact that we were emigrating to a new country. That one simple hadn’t sunk in, and would not do so for at least another twenty four hours.

Five-year old Kate broke the silence. “Dad? How far is it to Yew Nork?*” A long way, I told her, so we had better stop and get snacks for the journey. She agreed, and I drove on a little while and then looked across at the passenger seat. She had fallen asleep.

(* A name that has stayed in the family to this day!)

(To be continued)

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Manasota Key Images

Before the writing continues I offer a brief pictorial blog composed of sky and sea pictures taken on Manasota Key and Gasparilla Island. Part of the beauty of these shores is that the sky, and therefore the weather is always changing. A day that begins in bright sunshine may close with thunder and rain, and vice versa. And colors, stark and brilliant, speak for themselves. (Clicking on each image will take you a larger picture. Use you browser's back button to return to the main page.)

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Boca Grande

The causeway joining Gasparilla Island to the mainland doesn’t allow waiting or parking, which is a great shame because there are views of interest on either side. To the right lies Bird Key, a green, uninhabited island (not to be confused with the upscale vacation resort of the same name in Sarasota) which guards the mouth to Placida Harbor. And beyond it, on the headland, the brightest blue house ever painted. To the left, about eight hundred feet away, stands the concrete remains of the railroad trestle which once was the single most important artery that pumped life into the island. For Gasparilla Island, and the village of Boca Grande owes most of its existence to a railroad that once carried phosphates.

Now I realize that phosphates is not the most stimulating of subjects, and certainly do not come up in polite dinner party conversations unless the table guests are dependent on effective fertilizer, but when they are discovered, as they were in 1885 near Punta Gorda, to the east of the island, they suddenly create both excitement and investment. And the need to create a deep water harbor from which these chemicals could be transported all over the phosphate-seeking world. This was done at the southern end of Gasparilla, and the mineral was brought there on barges to be transferred onto larger ships. A fine process at first, but after a decade and more it was thought cumbersome and in need of improvement. “How slow!” muttered the men in top hats and long coats, traditional business dress even in the Florida summer. "We need a railway." And so in the short space of two years the Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railroad was opened in 1907.

This railroad was to serve the mineral companies for over seventy years, and it is staggering to think as you enjoy a cup of home-made blueberry swirl ice cream in the attractive tourist village of Boca Grande, that this was once part of the noisiest, busiest commercial maritime operations in Florida. The last train was in 1979. As larger, deeper terminals were dredged in Hillsborough County, in particular Tampa, the number of ships entering Port Boca Grande became less and less. And then they were gone for good.

The future of Boca Grande was already decided by this time. It was to continue as a fashionable resort community. The phosphate years had already attracted large numbers of wealthy businessmen to the area, many of whom had or discovered a passion for sea fishing. To this day the waters around Gasparilla Island continue to provide the best sport fishing, most notably the big game fish - the rolling tarpon. And the houses? Oh, such houses!

I was not fishing that morning as we were simply out for a drive and doing a bit of exploring. It’s always a pleasure to drive the two miles from the causeway to the village. Once out of site of the water lush green hedges and well maintained houses line the roadway and the designated golf-cart path. For the preferred method of getting around the island is by battery powered golf cart. Even the Episcopal Church has its carts!

The Episcopal Church of St. Andrew (established 1908) stands within the historical district of the village, and we were lucky to find it open, and a friendly parish secretary to welcome us. The Rector was away on vacation (as was I!) but cards were exchanged and photographs taken.

Boca Grande lighthouse, or to give it its correct name, Port Boca Grande Light, guards the southernmost tip of the island. Built in 1890 as the phosphate trade (no escaping those phosphates around here) increased, we are lucky to have the building today. It was decommissioned in 1966 and abandoned three years later. Time and tide inflicted severe damage on this site which includes two buildings, the other being the lighthouse keeper’s residence, and restoration did not start until 1986. And then, and this is surely a rarity, the lighthouse was re-commissioned. It’s worth a visit, for it now houses an excellent, if small, museum dedicated to the island’s history, and provides spectacular views over Charlotte Harbor.

And on to lunch at the Loose Caboose in the village center. Once the railroad depot it is now a very popular family restaurant which has kept the railway theme in its décor and menu design. And did I mention the fresh grouper sandwich? I must, for the one I ate that day was among the tastiest I have ever enjoyed!