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Sunday, Sept. 25, 2005
I’d have to say that there are times, in the middle of hurricanes and gas prices and people suffering, that chucking it all for a week of decadence and free-wheeling might be taken for a selfish thing to do. A giant middle finger to reality.

Well so be it.

I’m not here to offer a soft shoulder to those who, without doubt, deserve one. It’s been a rough month for a lot of people.

But maybe getting away from all that for a few minutes makes sense. Maybe, a little hope to soothe. A place to sift through it all. Let’s load some pictures and take a stroll.

A place like this, for example. After the 13 members of the Thundering Herd (yes, 13. And what a herd it was) survived TSA thuggery at the airports, a shuttle ride from one of Castro’s disillusioned ones, a hotel emerged just a block from the beach at Ft. Lauderdale. That is, it was a block to the east. The Herd decided to go, well, north from the hotel. In 90 degree Florida heat. Seemed like the thing to do at the time. “It’s just a few blocks! Let’s walk up to the bar district and dip our toes! Wheeee!”

The fact that there was a car rental place at block 3 is proof that there is a merciful God, and that the only thing better than renting a car to get out of the heat, and by golly drive to the waves, is to rent two cars. I mean, after all, these were mid-sized cars. For a full sized Herd.

Things like this start to make sense in Florida on a Friday.

The gang needed their beach time. Outfoxed needed a beer. And just how convenient is it that Florida delights in making the most of that arraignment? I stopped just short of the sand line and declared to Ally, “This is a line I dare not cross. But looky, here’s an outdoor café with tables and stuff, I’ll just sit here and wait for y’all, ‘kay?”

That’d be Aruba, for those of you squinting through the palms. A bar that turned out to have a 2-fer-1 deal going on on the inside of the bar, and a barbeque spread and an enthusiastic pourer of libations. Ever the economist, I obliged the young waiter who pointed this out to me. Who am I to try to out think a native?

Of course, after an hour went by and Ally hollered into the front door and 2-fer-1 had turned into 6-fer-3 and the two housewives from Boston and I were having a lively debate about the best way to tan in Florida, the show got back on the road. And I was plenty grateful for the rental cars, and a samba band was cooking in the middle of the sidewalk, and Florida wimmen on the sidewalk were thick as hot sauce on a barbeque sammich.

Why, after a brief interlude at the hotel, I even let them take me right back there for dinner.

The Herd did themselves proud that night, and were kind enough to not make me feel like an elder statesman. Which in fact I was, at least as far as that group goes. Ally laid up in the hotel room and took it easy. A sensible thing to do, especially since Eldest Daughter Beth was along. My chaperone? Ha! Who helped who back to the car? Good thing we had a nice off shore breeze, the lass has gotten too big to piggy-back and making her into a sail was the only way to get her moving.

This is Ally and I the next morning, waiting for the Herd to poke heads out of rooms. I think I finally turned the camera off and said something to the effect of “These kids. Just can’t hang with the old man. Why, I got up at the crack of dawn, had a brisk walk and breakfast and they’re still . . .”

“Yes dear. Sip your juice and be patient.”

“I dunno. Got a ship to catch at 11, they’d better get a move on, here.”

They made it. It was a mighty, straining effort but they emerged, dragging enough luggage to outfit a division of soldiers for a week (which is pretty darn much what we were come to think of it, but anyway . . .) and hopped a shuttle van for the ship.

We happened to have a good local driver who zipped us right into a seething cauldron of cruisers, cabs and buses. Embarking on a cruise ship is a healthy way to identify with our bovine friends in a Chicago stockyard but I was surprised at how fast the lines seemed to move. We made it through the whole process in just over an hour, Immigration didn’t pull me out of line for any past sins and in no time, we were tossing our carry-on bags into a palatial room and heading up to the top deck.

Lauderdale has a beautiful harbor, but when you can see it from atop a ship that is as tall as the highest building around, it really gets special. Check out the house with a helicopter pad tiled into the roof. Not sure if the owner was serious or just had a peculiar sense of humor with roofing techniques (you can see that, even on vacation, the construction gene keeps percolating).

Energy. Six months worth of waiting and the band leader gave a nod and off we went. It was loud, it was sweaty and the rum was a-flowin’. That’s Beth in the middle of a frenzied opening dance crew, her friend Mary to the left and one of the Herd to the right. Any guesses as to the song that was playing at the time?

I was doing a sort of dance of my own when I got to the bar and confidently proclaimed to the Filipino barkeep, “A cold Coors Lite longneck, my lad, and keep ‘em coming.” He gave me the pained look of one who has suffered white men on vacation long.

“No bottled Coors Lite. Cans, though. We have cans.”

So there was heartbreak, but what of it? They had many beers, right there on display at the bar. Surely a candidate could be found. “Okay, gimmee one of those Dos XX’s, there, sport.”

“Does the gentleman want a Dos Equuis?”

“Thought that’s what I said. Right, a Dos XX’s.”

“Ah, the gentleman must be from the South. One Dos, coming up. Your card, please?”

And the blue card made its first of many, many appearances. A credit card for the ship, it was your room key and ID and the instrument for purchases of all kinds. You might lose your drivers license, your shorts, your significant other, but you dasn’t lose your blue card. Not this week.

“$3.50, sir. Please sign.”

“Hmmm. $3.50. And how much for a Coors Lite in a can?”

“That would also be $3.50, sir.”

“And a Heineken?”

“3.50, my good sir.”

I sensed a pattern. At least the math wouldn’t be complicated this week. I signed. And Ally got her first Margarita, too, a relative bargain at . . . $3.50. Strictly not including the 18% gratuity that was shoveled onto the tab.

We walked. We explored, at a rate of $3.50 per nautical mile, the length of the ship. Let me tell you, it’s a big one. 15 full decks and 3 partial ones, pools and hot tubs everywhere, lounge chairs by the truckload. And at first sail, there wasn’t much of that sunny upper deck that wasn’t filled with smiling faces and flesh fit to be browned by a great light overhead.

There’s a switch somewhere that is thrown, a wall mounted toggle that changes people from the groaning, the rude. A change happened and it was at the elevator, where a florid faced executive in shorts and a straw hat would hold the door, grinning, for latecomers. At the buffet line where a trophy wife would step aside and insist, “Oh please, you go ahead. I just can’t make up my mind just yet.” At every door and narrow hatchway, where a polite wave and a murmured “Thank you” would do.

People took to the change. It was a wave of calmness. It’s a people who knew without doubt that there was no one on board who needed to chase them to ground, needed the triumph of the put-down, the chirp of sarcasm. They had a sense of the timelessness of needing to put it all aside, that the farking was ashore, and not out here. Out on the water, which lapped awash against the side of a very tall ship.

We went to a hot tub that very first night, and sat under stars and a moon huge in an inky sky. On the fantail we were, a place at the rear of the ship we would return to many times, watching Florida recede until only tiny Lauderdale lights let you know that there was a life behind us. We sat alone for the longest time, heads lolling against teak and bubbles popping softly, wanting for nothing but to let a shrimp from a handy plate find its way close for a bite.

The fantail bar was, can I say it? Dreamy.

Day one wasn’t so awful bad.

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