Scandal at Ft. Jefferson



ort Jefferson started out as one of your normal take-a-boat-to-an-island type of camping trips.  Since the nice people at the ferry casually mentioned that they may not be able to pick us up for several days after our scheduled return if the wind was too strong, we spent part of the evening before shopping for casual snacks like extra canned goods and water.  This is not your trip for a heavily control-oriented/ Franklin-planner type camper.


We shared the ferry with a group of Civil War re-enactors, who were visiting the Civil War era fort for the first time.  Following an extended trip of between three and four hours, half the people on board stood on tip-toe and strained to catch the first glimpse of the fort-dominated island.  As we approached the island, we were all delighted to see a woman in white period costume, of hoop skirt and bonnet, clutching a parasol and waving us a welcome from one of the battlements.  Little did we suspect the ominous portent of this ghostly view.


After establishing camp, we toured the island, walking around the encircling moat, and poking into the endless obscure corners of the immense brick structure.  The lady in white, the ranger/librarian, tapped Peter on the shoulder and recruited him to play the part of a Civil War flag-bearer in that evening’s historical re-enactment.  Peter (who, God knows, will volunteer to do anything) agreed without hesitation, and in turn recruited Bernardo, apparently to play the part of the Ecuadorian drummer boy.


Toward dusk, the entire island heard the sounds of drum and flute, as the reenactment commenced.  Bernardo, who had no previous drumming experience, and Peter, as flag bearer , excelled (perhaps falling back on skills gained in the tambourine and silver disco fan era.)


During the night, a moderate squall came through, and huffed and puffed at our tents.  We held on for a couple of hours.  Not so lucky were the Civil War folks, who had some problems with their 1860’s era tents, and had some equipment outright blow away.  (In those days, they would probably not been camping right on the beach.)


The next day was filled with routine Great Outdoors nature stuff, like naked snorkeling, looking for shade and watching birds squat.  The snorkeling was good, but not great…lots of colorful fish and corals, sea cucumbers and an occasional ray.  Mid-afternoon was an excellent time for visiting the fort, since the masonry retained the coolness of the morning for most of the day.


Bernardo and Peter were pressed into service again as period boat-greeters, to join the lady-in-white.  Seeking equal stage time, Irwin and the other Peter volunteered to help out.  When they got to the “Bat Cave” however (the windowless office deep in the fort where the rangers hang out when they can’t face any more muu-muu and Sansa-belt attired tourists), there were no more soldier’s uniforms.  “No problem!” said Peter A “We can wear the hoop skirts.”  (You knew this would happen, didn’t you?)


Shortly thereafter, on Sunday, March 31, 1996 the official Ft. Jefferson welcoming tableau consisted of one very attractive woman ranger in hoop-skirts and bonnet, two cute Re-enactor children, two Civil-war soldiers, one from Ecuador and the other from New Zealand, and two 1870’s drag queens of dubious aesthetic virtue.  They looked quite realistic…from a distance. “There’s something funny going on at Ft. Jefferson.”  I said to the ranger.  “Think about it…twelve hundred men and no women” she replied.  “You know these things went on here.”

The wind picked up on Monday, and much of the boat trip back was rough.  My attention was drawn to one young-woman traveling with her mother, who was sunburned and seasick at the same time.  Her entire face was as white as marble, except for her nose, which was red as a berry.  Between dabbing her face with ice water and clutching a “motion discomfort bag” she shot daggers at her mother, whom she would never forgive in this lifetime for dragging her out to this godforsaken pile of bricks. 


While we were on the island, we met campers who had spent months there over the last few years.  One of the eight rangers who live on the island mentioned he was relieved when the ferry left on Sunday.  “Thank goodness, all of that badness is gone.”  This is a place for solitude, for doing nothing, for subtle pleasures.  This is where Key West people go to get away from it all!  Bruce, in particular, formed a fondness for the place, and would like to return in the fall, perhaps to volunteer for clean-up work.  Any takers?