April 23, 1982. Where the Weird Go Pro

“[T]he variety of flora and fauna – rich though they are – do not approach the variety of people on the island. Pirates, fighter pilots, smugglers and cops. Shrimpers and singers. Sculptors and sword-swallowers. Bone carvers, body painters and musicians of every sort. A small fleet of commercial fisherman and more Pulitzer Prize winners per capita than any other city. – The Tennesseean

The competition is fierce come December 31 for intergalactic bragging rights: who will go home with the coveted title, “where the weird go pro”. New York drops that famous ball on New Year’s Eve and Miami drops an orange, but that stuff is all JV. Bethlehem Pennsylvania drops a 450-pound “peep”, that marshmallow children’s treat that only comes around, at Easter. Not to be outdone, Eastover North Carolina drops a 39-pound, ceramic flea (don’t ask). Mobile Alabama has a 600-pound Moon Pie (ya got an RC Cola for that?). Prairie du Chiens Wisconsin drops a live (dead) carp called “lucky”, selected by (I kid you not), a carp committee. For Eastport Maine, it’s a sardine. Others have their apples and pine cones and olives, but nothing the likes of “Sushi”, the live Drag Queen descending in a 13-foot stiletto heel.

“Weird” is no mere annual occurrence in a place where businessmen in suits ride about, on electric skateboards. Where crowds cheer dachshund parades and bed races down the main, err, drag. Where the most famous headstone in the town cemetery says: “I told you I was sick!

From “Robert” the evil doll of Fort East Martello to the wild chickens who roam the streets, where conch fritters are considered a food group and history is literally built on salvaging shipwrecks, we’re talking about Key West Florida, where the “Weird go Pro”.

On December 5, 1937, bar owner Joe Russell faced an increase in rent. From three dollars a week to a whopping four bucks. Lucky for Joe, the former Victoria Restaurant owned by one Juan Farto (I didn’t make that up), was available. That night, everyone in the place grabbed his chair, picked up his drink, and “moved” the bar across the street.

None other than Ernest Hemingway pitched in, (yeah, That Ernest Hemingway), helping himself to the urinal. “I’ve pissed enough of my money into this thing to pay for it‘ he said, bringing the object home to his wife Pauline, who converted it to a fountain. The peacocks who once roamed “Papa” Hemingway’s yard are gone now but the fountain’s still there, not far from “Sloppy Joe’s Bar” on the corner of Greene and Duval Street.

urinal-made-into-a-fountain
Papa Hemingway’s fountain

Ladies? You married guys out there? Can you imagine bringing such an object home to your wife? Mrs. Hemingway turned the thing into a fountain.

Where else but Duval Street could you watch a “bed race”, pulled by women and men in Wonder Woman outfits, or men in grass skirts.

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Duval Street Bed Races, July 2015. H/t CBS, Miami

Speaking of the town cemetery. One long-suffering wife got the last word on a philandering husband, proving you should always be careful, who orders your headstone. This one says “At least I know where he’s sleeping tonight“.

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Oh.  Did I tell you the place seceded?  No, really.  It’s the “Conch Republic”, now.

Except for the Naval Air Station at Boca Chica and Coast Guard installations in Key West, Marathon and Islamorada, most of the economic activity in the Florida Keys, comes from tourism. It’s no wonder that, when the federal government shuts down the only road into the Keys, the locals are going to get cranky.

CON271_-_Conch_Republic_1_Conch_Dollar_2007

In April 1982, the Mariel boat lift was a mere two years in the past, and very much in the public memory.

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The United States had a border in those days, which the Federal government attempted to enforce.

On April 18, Border Patrol set up a roadblock in front of Skeeter’s Last Chance Saloon in Florida City, shutting down US Route 1, the only road in and out of the Florida Keys.  Originally intended to intercept illegals entering the country, the roadblock soon morphed into a hunt for illegal drugs, as well.

Cars waited for hours, in lines stretching 19 miles. Predictably, the attitude of Federal officials was one of towering indifference. Not so local business owners. Robert Kerstein wrote in his Key West on the Edge — Inventing the Conch Republic, “No one in Key West doubted that drugs were trafficked widely in the Keys by road and by boat. But tourism’s boosters had little tolerance for interruptions to their business.”

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Dennis Wardlow, then-Mayor of Key West, contacted the chief of police, the Monroe County sheriff, his State Representative and then-Governor Bob Graham, demanding the roadblock’s removal. With none of the above having any knowledge of the barrier and lacking the authority to pull it down, Wardlow contacted INS directly. When the Border Patrol told him it was “none of his business,” the Mayor’s response may best be summed up in the words of Bugs Bunny: “Of course you know, this means war!

Suffering a blizzard of hotel cancellations, this “attack on Key West’s sovereignty” could not stand. On April 22, Mayor Wardlow, local attorney & pilot David Horan and Old Town Trolley Tours operator Ed Swift flew to Miami seeking legal remedy. When District Court Judge C. Clyde Atkins failed to issue an injunction, the Key West delegation took to the courthouse steps.

“What are you going to do, Mr. Mayor”, asked the assembled media. Swift leaned over and whispered into the Mayor’s ear, “Tell them we are going to go home and secede!” “We are going to go home and secede!”, said Wardlow. And that’s what they did.

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Over the next 24 hours, secessionist co-conspirators worked feverishly to form a new government, filling cabinet positions such as “Secretary of Underwater Affairs” and “Minister of Nutrition”.

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On April 23, with federal agents on scene to monitor the proceedings, a crowd gathered before the old customs building. Mayor Wardlow and a gaggle of allies mounted the back of a flatbed truck, to read the proclamation of secession. “We serve notice on the government in Washington”, Wardlow began, “to remove the roadblock or get ready to put up a permanent border to a new foreign land. We as a people, may have suffered in the past, but we have no intention of suffering in the future at the hands of fools and bureaucrats“.

With that, Mayor Wardlow declared “war” on the United States.  The “Great Battle of the Conch Republic” broke out in the harbor, when the Schooner Western Union commanded by Captain John Kraus, attacked the Coast Guard Cutter Diligence with water balloons, Conch fritters and toilet paper.  Diligence fought back with water hoses, as the new “Prime Minister” broke a stale loaf of Cuban bread over the head of a man dressed in a Navy uniform.

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Naval History was forever changed on this day, as the “Great Battle of the Conch Republic” raged across the waters of Key West

Pandemonium broke out as onlookers launched stale bread and conch fritters at federal agents, Navy sailors and Coast Guard personnel. One minute after declaring his “verbal shot” at the Federal government, Mayor Wardlow surrendered to a nearby Naval officer, demanding a billion dollars in “foreign aid” in compensation for “the long federal siege.”

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Apparently, that’s what it takes to get the attention of a Federal government bureaucrat. The roadblock lifted.  The restaurants, stores and hotels of the Keys soon filled with tourists and, once again, happiness smiled upon the land.  Key West never did get its “foreign aid”, but secessionist leaders never received so much as a letter saying they couldn’t leave the Union, either.

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So it is that the micro-nation of Key West celebrates its independence, every April 23. The “Conch Republic’ issues its own passports, selling T-shirts and bumper stickers with the slogan “We seceded where others failed”.

And if the Federal government ever comes back to mess with the sovereign nation of Key West, it had best be prepared to deal with the Conch Republic’s very own “Special Forces”, the motto for which is “Sanctus Merda”.  “Holy Shit”.

Tip of the hat to

“Conch Republic Military Forces, The Official Site of the Conch Republic Military” for the “Conch Battle Hymn of the Republic”.  Lyrics by First Sea Lord, Admiral Finbar Gittelman, October 14, 2012 © Finbar Gittelman

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the sunshine and the sea
Right here upon our islands, where we love to live so free 
But in April 1982, the peace was not to be 
And we went rolling on

CHORUS
Glory glory Conch Republic 
Glory glory Conch Republic 
Glory glory Conch Republic 
From Key to shining Key

They were setting up a check point, tween the mainland and the Keys 
They had put a US Border, where it shouldn’t ‘oughta’ be 
So that’s when we seceded, and declared our sovereignty 
And the fun had just begun

(CHORUS)

We went forth into the harbor and a cutter we did spy 
And we sailed up along side her and we took her by surprise 
We hoisted up our battle flag, so proudly and so high 
And we went sailing on

(CHORUS)

The water and Conch fritters and the Cuban bread did fly 
Our bombers, they were raining toilet paper from the sky 
Our cannons they did thunder to proclaim our victory 
And we fought bravely on

(CHORUS)

We have faced the silly forces of misguided zealotry 
We have stood up to their foolishness for all the world to see 
And we’ve showed the other nations what America can be From
Key to shining Key

(CHORUS)

Author: Cape Cod Curmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a husband, a father, a son and a grandfather. A history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. I started "Today in History" back in 2013, thinking I’d learn a thing or two. I told myself I’d publish 365. The leap year changed that to 366. As I write this, I‘m closing in on a thousand. I do it because I want to & I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong, as anybody else. I offer these "Today in History" stories in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Thanks for coming along for the ride. Rick Long, the “Cape Cod Curmudgeon”

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