By Chuck Strouse
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Radios in Flamingo normally capture only two FM signals. If a worker wants more (or live) music -- or first-run movies, or a gourmet meal -- he saves up leave and drives to the Keys. In the meantime, Flamingo staffers amuse themselves by going places where outlanders are forbidden: trails bursting with purple and pink night-blooming orchids that drench the warm, wet air with perfume -- and alligator love nests. Alligators usually mate in June, often along muddy shorelines tourists aren't allowed to approach. The summer workers pilot their boats in the direction of the alligators' lusty bellowing but maintain a respectful distance. "We're just looking for pointers," an employee explains. "Gator foreplay can last for days."
And, more important, there's always the refuge of the Wreck Room, a private pub for Flamingo employees constructed at the edge of the compound out of weatherbeaten gray wood. Its tiki-thatched doorway opens onto a view of blue ocean dotted with oblong, green islands. On bad mosquito nights, workers wrap their heads in white mosquito netting and run -- like so many bizarre brides -- to the Wreck Room. Inside, most of them huddle around the pool table or a darts game. Above the bar hangs a sign emblazoned: "Shirts and shoes required. Bras and panties optional." The third time the moth-eaten deer head crashes from its wall hook onto the bar, people simply eat and drink around it.
Three guys on a battered mint-green couch argue over whether to continue watching the TV infomercial models demonstrating leg wax or change channels to the NBA playoff highlights. Two co-workers are oblivious; one is slumped in an armchair cradling a cassette player in his arms. He delivers a nonstop, tipsy plea to his buddy, who's skimming a Jack London novel, about a girl he's met in Islamorada: "She's sweet and brainy. She's not like Jane. I didn't like myself when I was with Jane. I came 3000 miles to get away. Tell me life's not gonna screw me again. I like myself when I'm with this girl! I'm a better man! Do you think she likes me enough to call? Be honest, man."
The reader silently pats his pal's shoulder without lifting his eyes from the page. His drunken friend manages to flip on his music: Ivory Joe Hunter. He clutches the boombox to his chest and chants the verse -- "Since I met you, baby, my whole life has changed/ And even strangers tell me, that I am not the same" -- as if it's an incantation. A few minutes later, the pub door flies open. A young man shouts at the lovesick singer: "Yo! Phone. Yeah. It's her." The Jack London fan closes his book, gently arranges his overjoyed friend's net veil about his head, and helps him navigate the floor. Outside, a brief rain has momentarily cleared the mosquitoes away; the clouds have drifted off and the sky is a wilderness of stars.
Flamingo workers wear lapel tags inscribed with their first names and their states of origin. They come from everywhere: California, Montana, Kansas. They stay because they're swept away by a place with a beauty so alien, there's no reference point for it in their pasts. They regard themselves as heirs, not of the first renegade Flamingo residents, but of Guy Bradley, the young Audubon warden who was killed by poachers in 1905. A plaque marks his murder site where the restaurant (which charges tourists $6.95 for a shrimp cocktail appetizer) now stands. The inscription hails his environmental devotion.
Shaleen Horrocks came to Flamingo last summer because she was bored with life in Connecticut. "My first week here was hell," she shudders. "The mosquitoes chased us into our cars, crawled under our dorm's doors. It was like a B-horror movie. I wanted to go back to New England." Instead, her Flamingo friends took her sailing to a cape where no tourists go. A flock of snowy egrets soared out of a forest of palms and tropical blooms. "Brown pelicans were feeding on the shore and a blue marlin was leaping," she remembers.
For twenty minutes, she swam alongside a group of dolphins: "That's when I knew this is my home." Like true love, she says, "the tropics are a force you're happier with if you just surrender. In Connecticut, the summers press down on you like some giant hand. No one feels trapped here; the end of the world can be the best place to make a new life.