Bitten and Smitten in Flamingo
Two naked men paddle canoes through tea-colored water swirled with green ooze, past shores dripping with scarlet blooms as big as babies' heads. The young men's canoes come to rest in the pond's center, then the pair stand up in their boats, arms lifted. Moonlight outlines their taut, firm bodies glistening with insect repellent made from secret recipes they toiled over all winter. Gradually, a horde of hungry mosquitoes engulfs them. A mesmerized group of workers from Flamingo Lodge Marina, the most isolated outpost in Everglades National Park, watches as the Bug King contest launches another summer in the swamps.
In four minutes, one guy yelps, succumbing to bites, and curls into a protective crouch; the nude left standing is declared Bug King. On the drive back to the workers' residential compound, the king relishes his prizes -- a six pack of Bud, a Key lime milkshake, and a stack of Victoria's Secret catalogues -- as blood-bloated insects splat on the windshield, leaving marks that look like exploded chocolate-covered cherries.
"Well, it was a weird winter and it'll be an even weirder summer," says Marybeth Lenz, Flamingo Lodge's desk clerk. She and 49 co-workers are the resort's skeleton crew from June to September. "December was so mild, the mosquitoes didn't die; they got bigger and meaner." And here, all of life -- from sex to work chores -- is shaped by mosquitoes much the way Eskimo culture is by snow.
With the park entrance gate 38 miles away, Flamingo has always felt like the end of the earth. A band of fishermen, dirt farmers, and outlaws founded Flamingo, on the southern tip of Florida's peninsula, 104 years ago. "[Insect repellent], not bread, is their staff of life," wrote a horrified visiting naturalist in 1893. Today, Flamingo is run by Amfac Parks & Resorts, Inc., with a staff of 200 serving tens of thousands of visitors during the winter. Yet despite the trucks that periodically hose down the lawns with bug spray, insects rule Flamingo's summer. Blue, yellow, and red canoes sit stacked in the marina, there are no diners swooning over the restaurant's spectacular ocean view, the campground's deserted, and, on a recent June night, a Hell's Angel-type sleeps alone in the 108-room motel.
One infamous July morning, twenty luckless British tourists booked rooms; before they even reached their doors, they ran screaming back to their bus, pursued by a mosquito swarm that rolled like a low black fog across the parking lot. "We warn travel agents not to send Europeans here during the summer," says reservation clerk Craig Lazby with a shrug. Like most Americans, the Brits, Germans, and French prefer the saner climes of Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore, and the Grand Canyon, all parks where Amfac runs concessions. So why would anyone, even for an hourly wage, sign up for a hitch on this steamy mosquito coast? Some young workers are fleeing busted romances or other bad tangles with civilized life. Others simply adore the gorgeous, strange place. "It takes a special breed to love a Flamingo summer," Lazby grins mysteriously. "We have our own idea of fun."
They also have a few tasks: painting boats, slapping up hurricane shutters, waiting on the few customers -- mostly diehard fishermen and wildlife photographers -- who might drift in. Day or night, the workers are carefully armed. "You're not gonna spray that poison on are you?" bellows Capt. Frank Hayes, a tour boat operator, at a novice buying Everglades brand mosquito repellent in the marina store. He jabs a finger at the label listing the active ingredient: 95 percent deet, a powerful chemical. "The human body can only get rid of ten percent of that! In a few summers, you'll need a liver transplant. That stuff is for outlanders. No Flamingo hand uses it!"
"My sweetheart used to spray that all over himself," says the blond cashier, who arrived a month ago. "Last week I was giving him these long, tender kisses all over his shoulders, his chest, the back of his neck, and look what deet did to me." She pouts her lips at Captain Frank -- a thin line of skin around them is glacial blue.
"Tell your boyfriend to smear on citronella," advises boat rental clerk Rob Parente as he hands her his purchases. "It's a natural mosquito repellent. And it tastes okay to humans."
Blending bug balm, rather than trusting factory brands aimed at backyard barbecuers, is a vital knack. Often, the customized repellent is laced with a rumored human aphrodisiac like ginseng. But Flamingo's workers' quarters don't offer the privacy to enjoy that side effect. Employees live a fifteen-minute drive from the marina, at the end of a road closed to the public. Brown wooden dorms face the sea, perching on towering log pillars to catch breezes and to elude mosquitoes (who love grass). Kitchens are communal, as are the rooms, with two to four beds per suite. Workers yearning for passion beg a room key from employees at the lodge, then spend the night there with an ice chest full of coco locos (a Flamingo favorite made with vodka, dark creme de cacao, coconut milk, and pineapple juice) and the a.c. on full blast (mosquitoes hate cold).
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.
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