Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitude Part 2
Jim and Nena got off to a late start. An extra day in Jackson,
Mississippi was worth the fun they’d had. And they hadn’t even left
the motel room. Nena seemed like a changed person. She was like a
giggling school girl: Jim couldn’t get a word in edge wise. They got
on the road and headed south on I-55 then east on I-10. Jim felt a
smile come across his face as they passed by the Florida welcome sign.
It was a huge green and orange billboard proclaiming: “WELCOME TO
FLORIDA: THE SUNSHINE STATE.” There were paintings of oranges, the
Space Shuttle lifting off, Mickey Mouse and an Indian that probably
represented the Seminole Chief, Osceola. They stopped in Pensacola
so Nena could see the beach. Jim’s grandpa lived in Pensacola when
Jim was just a boy. Jim remembered the beach there as the most
beautiful he’d ever seen.
They drove through town and crossed the causeway out to Pensacola
Beach. The town seemed deserted in the off season. Businesses were
closed in the middle of the day, the boardwalk was a ghost town.
Nena was about to jump from her seat. Jim pulled over and they ran
across the dune crosswalk and onto the beach. The sand was as white
as snow and crunched between their bare toes, making a 'squeak,
squeak' sound as they ran. Nena didn’t stop until she hit the water.
“Whoa,” she said, “I didn’t think the water would be THIS cold!”
Jim laughed and rolled up his jeans to wade in with her. The sun was
hid behind clouds and the day was rather dreary. The wind was blowing
from the north bringing an Arctic chill down from Canada. Jim figured
it was probably 49 to 52 degrees outside, with a wind chill in the
low 40’s. Not exactly beach weather for Jim. But Nena seemed to be
just as excited as if it had been 100 degrees and the middle of July.
“It’s sooo beautiful,” Nena said, as she playfully splashed water at
“Yes it is.”
He loved the feeling of returning home. Florida. The state that had
gone from conquistadors and Indians, to tourists and spacemen. he
loved everything about it. Jim watched a shrimp trawler heading out
to sea, it's nets strung all about like some mythical sea monster.
He stared until the boat was no more than a speck on the horizon.
Nena had gone back to the beach and started picking up sea shells.
They held hands and walked up the beach, until they got to where some
of the houses were before two hurricanes hit in the fall of 1995.
About every third lot was vacant, with only a concrete foundation
“What happened here?” Nena asked, as they walked up to one of the
“Hurricane,” Jim answered, staring at the steel rebar and plumbing
pipes still sticking out of the concrete like antenna.
“It was two, actually, about a couple months apart if I remember
right. Did a helluva job out here.”
“I’ve seen pictures on the news before,” Nena said, bending down to
pick up a matchbox car that must have belonged to the little boy or
girl who use to live there.
“I remember that big one, Andrew, back in 1992 I think. That one was
real bad, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah. I went down from Ft. Stewart when that happened. We spent a
month down in Homestead. It was the worst destruction I’ve ever seen.”
Jim and Nena headed back to the Suzuki. They left town and continued
on until they reached Jacksonville. The stretch of I-10 between
Pensacola and Jacksonville is the most boring drive in America, Jim
thought. Slightly rolling hills with pastures and pine forests. The
only major town between the two is Tallahassee, the State Capitol.
It took them almost seven hours.
“In North Florida, you have to check your driver’s license just to
make sure what State your from,” Jim said. “A lot of cattle ranching
up here, though. If the Bible Belt has a buckle, I’m pretty sure this
is where it’s at.”
“Looks a lot like Arkansas. Kinda reminds me of home.”
They stopped at a rest area just before Jacksonville. Jim was tired
and fell asleep in Nena’s lap. They were woke up an hour later by a
Mag-Lite banging on Jim’s window.
“This ain’t a campground, son.” The security guard was shining the
light in Jim’s face. Jim gave him the thumbs up as he sat up and
“Damn rent-a-cops,” Jim muttered, as he started up the jeep.
“Ever since them tourists got killed at that rest area near
Tallahassee, they’ve had these armed guards at all the twenty-four
hour rest areas.”
They continued on until they reached Titusville, and Jim pulled off
at the Garden Street exit. The town had sure changed, Jim thought.
Once upon a time, the town had been a quiet little village on the
shores of the Indian River. When Jim and Kenny were small boys, the
local paper would cover every weekend Pop Warner little league
football game as if it were the NFL. Parents would fill the stands
at Sand Point park, watching their kids play for the city champions
hip title. A murder was hardly ever heard of in the sleepy coastal
town, which had boomed in the early 1960's with the growth of the
Kennedy Space Center, visible across the river. High school kids hung
out at the river on the east side of the A. Max Brewer Causeway,
drinking cheap beer and showing off their cars and trucks. They
surfed Playalinda Beach on their Summer break, and hung out at the
Barrell of Fun game room in Miracle City Mall. They didn't dress
"Gothic," surf the internet, carry half a dozen neon pagers and
cellular phones, or go on shooting rampages and blame their parents,
peers, or sexually explicit lyrics on their new compact disc.
Jim passed the Publix Supermarket where he had bagged groceries as a
teenager. The Wal-Mart next door had become a Scotty's Hardware, and
the town's fifth or sixth McDonald's with a super-indoor playground
had popped up across the street next to a new Blockbuster Video and
an Office Max. Jim’s mom had told him that a new Super Wal-Mart had
opened across town. Wal-Mart, Jim thought, had to be the Mecca of
the modern South. If there was one place that everyone in town was
likely to go for just about anything, it was Wal Mart.
The drive to his mom’s house was short, and Jim pulled into the
driveway exhausted. The house sat on Riverside Drive south of
downtown, nestled among old oaks, sable palms and pine trees on the
banks of the Indian River Lagoon. His mother’s name was Alice Reeves.
Alice’s name had changed three times while Jim was growing up. Reeves
was the name of his last step dad, whom his mom had married after Jim
was already in the Army. Jim’s real dad had died when Jim was not
even a year old. His mother still had the letter his dad’s company
commander in Vietnam had sent her. Sergeant James Peterson, Sr., was
killed during the defense of Saigon during the Tet Offensive of 1968.
He was only four months away from rotating back to the States. Jim
wished he’d known him. After the latest divorce, Alice had proclaimed
to her children that she would absolutely never marry again. She was
doing well for herself now, however. Alice finally owned her own
house, albeit mortgaged, and had been working a steady fifteen years
out at the Kennedy Space Center. She had survived the layoffs
following the Challenger explosion, and the cutbacks during the early
90’s. And, best of all, she seemed happy.
Jim hugged his mom and kissed her cheek as she came out the door to
meet him. He introduced Nena.
“What a lovely girl,” Alice said, taking Nena by the hand and
leading her into the house. “Why haven't you ever told me about her,
“Well, you know mom, I wanted to surprise you.” Jim kissed Nena on
“Y’all must be starvin’.” Alice turned the lights on in the kitchen.
“Go and unpack. You can use your brother’s old room. It’s all ready
“Mom, cooking’s not necessary. We can order a pizza or something.”
Alice was the typical Southern Belle, Jim thought.
“Now y’all settle in and I’ll have something ready in no time.”
After the late dinner, Nena helped Alice clean up. Jim smiled. She
seemed to be right at home, Jim thought. He fell asleep on the couch
listening to his mom and girlfriend talk about girl things and little
Jim woke up the next morning, still on the couch with a pillow and
blanket he assumed his mom had brought him, and smelled the wonderful
mix of cooking eggs, bacon, onion and green peppers. Omelet, Jim
thought as he sat up. He looked through the bar and was fully
surprised to see Kenny behind the stove.
“Well, if it isn’t Captain Ken,” Jim said, getting up and walking
into the kitchen.
The brothers gave each other a bear hug and laughed.
“What’s up, GI Joe?” Kenny said, putting his shorter big brother back
on the ground. “I thought you’d sleep all day. The Army must’ve made
you soft!” Kenny punched Jim in the arm.
“Not as soft as you,” Jim replied, slapping Kenny in the stomach.
They both laughed again. “When d’ya get in?” Jim asked, looking
around for his mom and Nena.
“Couple hours ago. If you’re looking for mom and that gorgeous
girlfriend of yours, they went shoppin’ on ya.” Jim saw the note on
the bar. I guess mom saw that Nena needed just about everything, Jim
thought. He pulled up a chair from the kitchen table.
“Yeah, she is gorgeous. And all mine, so don’t get any thoughts,
Kenny laughed at his big brother. “Oh, come on now, you’re not still
sore about that girl Penny, are you?”
“Hell no,” Jim said, grabbing a beer from the refrigerator. A
half-warm Corona, he popped the top and dropped in a slice of lime.
He sat down backwards in the chair, carefully turning the bottle
upside down and watched the lime settle to the bottom.
“I know what she turned in to.”
Jim remembered hearing about Penny Johnson at his ten year high
school reunion. The former varsity cheerleader was sitting in the
county jail serving a six month sentence. She had been picked up in
Merritt Island by the sheriff’s department, strung out on crack and
hustling Johns. Goes to show you that you never know how a person
will turn out, Jim thought.
Kenny fixed them both a plate and sat down at the table with Jim.
They spent the time catching up since the last time they’d seen each
other: four years earlier when their grandpa had died. Kenny wasn’t
doing too good himself back then. Jim had paid the bail to get him
out of jail for the funeral. The cop who released Kenny had played
football with Jim in high school. They finished their breakfast and
went into the living room. Kenny decided it was time to tell Jim what
had happened in Key West while the women weren’t around.
“Damn,” Jim said, still amazed at his little brother’s ability to
attract trouble like a magnet. “What are you going to do with it?”
“I don’t have a clue.”
Kenny removed the medallion from the Crown Royal bag and
handed it to Jim. Jim carefully studied the medallion, looking at
the island engraved on the back. The island looked strangely familiar
to him. Jim went to his briefcase where he kept his Army paperwork,
resume and a few other odds and ends. He searched around until he
found what he was looking for.
“Yeah, here it is.”
Jim pulled a folded military-style map from the briefcase. He
unfolded it on the coffee table in front of Kenny. The engraved
Island on the medallion and the larger drawing on the map were almost
identical. Jim put the medallion down on the map near the Atlantic
side of Hispaniola and told Kenny where to look.
“It looks like the engraving on the medallion is of this island, here
off the north coast of Haiti.”
Kenny looked closer at the map. “Well, I’ll be damned, it sure does!
How’d you know to look here?”
“From what I presumed, this medallion probably came from some sunken
ship or something, right? Well, if you know a little about pirates
and buccaneers, this little island off of Haiti was a stronghold of
French Buccaneers during the seventeenth century. I’m reading a book
about it right now. Pretty cool shit, looting and pillaging and all.
The name was Ile de la Tortue. The French staged a lot of raids on
Spanish cities and ships from there.” Kenny seemed transfixed by what
Jim was saying.
“But I don’t see any mention of this wreck shown here on the
medallion, between the Island and the mainland, anywhere on the map.
There are several wrecks that are known, shown with a similar symbol
to that one.” Jim pointed to a few off the coast of Cap Haitian, near
a reef symbol.
“One of these here,” Jim pointed to a sunken ship symbol, “is
supposed to be the Santa Maria, one of Columbus’ ships on his maiden
voyage to the New World.”
Kenny picked up the medallion and put it back in the bag.
“So, what do you think I should do?”
Kenny walked to the front window. Things were getting a little bit
complicated for him. Hell, somebody wanted this thing bad enough to
have Snake killed for it, Kenny thought. I don’t need this kind of
shit in my life.
“I don’t no, man.”
Jim stood at the window next to his brother. It looked like
a perfect day outside to Jim. The sun was high in the afternoon sky,
crystal clear and blue. Jim watched as sea gulls dived for mullet out
on the Indian River flats. The smell of rotting sea weed, piled up
along the shore, permeated the air. The dock Jim’s grandpa had built
for his mother almost ten years ago, rickety and worn with time and
in need of repair, was still there. A small flats skiff was tied up
alongside. Jim thought he might dig out his old fishing pole and
tackle later. Home, Jim thought.
“Do you think whoever paid that guy back in Key West knows where you
are?” Jim asked, not taking his eyes from the scene outside.
“Na, I seriously doubt I’m in any of their little black books.” But
you never know in this business, he said to himself.
The door opened and Alice and Nena came in, loaded with J.C. Penny’s
and Wal-Mart bags and laughing together.
“Well, good morning, sleepy. I see you’ve had your reunion.”
Nena dropped her bags and kissed Jim. She looked fabulous in a peach
summer dress, new shoes and her hair cut back and styled. A new
“You look fantastic!” Jim said, giving her a hug.
“Well, your mom had a lot to do with it.” Nena winked at Alice.
“My pleasure, Honey.”
Alice walked into the kitchen. “What’s this!” she said, staring at
the stove, sink and table. “I know I taught you boys a little
somethin’ about pickin’ up after yourselves.”
Alice grabbed her much larger sons who still fell in line like little
“Oh yeah, well... we were about to get to that, yeah... you know,
but... ow, easy mom...” was all that they could get in before being
deposited in the kitchen. Kenny scraped and washed while Jim dried
and put away. Just like the old days, Jim thought, and smiled.
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