Conch Republic and National Picnic Day

Warm, balmy breezes blowing through the window; lazy sunbeams dancing on the wall; grass popping up through the sleeping ground. Yes, these are what we should be seeing now in the Great Lakes. But this little missive is being written on a February day with a high of 51 and bright sunshine, so by the end of April, we could have another foot of snow on the ground for all I know.

So, 23 April. Sir Francis Bacon calculated that it was on this date in 32 AD that the Christ was crucified on Calvary outside of Jerusalem; to that few scholars have ever had a great deal to say. But Brian Baru was killed at Clontarf on this day in 1014, and he was a myth only to those who don’t believe in Irish Exceptionalism (if you’re Irish, you’re exceptional). And on 23 April 1564, Will Shakespeare was (traditionally) born in Stratford-upon-Avon, and died there on that same date in 1616, which is also St George’s Day, which celebrates yet another decapitation that took place way back in 303. On this day in 1702, we solemnly remember the passing of Margaret Fell, co-founder of the Religious Society of Freinds, known as the “mother of Quakerism.” And speaking of pioneering women, Charlotte E. Ray became the first African-American woman licensed to practice law in the United States on 23 April 1872.  And, for those who really get into the esoteric, GRB (Gamma Ray Burst) 090423 was observed/captured on this day in 2009; it is the oldest and most distant (13 billion light-years away) object known to man; that explosion happened before Earth was formed. It’s also National Cherry Cheesecake Day (for those of you who like that kind of thing) and National Talk Like Shakespeare Day (if you did, according to some linguists, no one could understand you). But today we’re talking about important stuff, like micronations and picnics.

As Cuba became the playground of the rich and famous in the ’40s and ’50s, Key West became a waystation to the nightclubs of Havanna.

Way back when the Earth was young and dinosaurs weren’t all CGA, the little island of Key West was a fishing village, smugglers port and little more. By the time of Prohibition, it was realized that it was a lot closer to Cuba and a steady source of rum than the mainland, so the town grew. A fella named Flagler built the Overseas Railroad earlier in the century, and the extension that went all the way down the Keys to Key West was billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Well, it was mostly destroyed in the hurricane of ’35, so it matters very little to us. As Cuba became the playground of the rich and famous in the ’40s and ’50s, Key West became a waystation to the nightclubs of Havanna.

In the spring of 1982, US Border Patrol authorities set up roadblocks on US 1 to search for illegal drugs and immigrants coming up the Keys.

Other than a boat or an airplane, the only way to get to Key West is on the Overseas Highway (US 1) that connects Key West with the rest of the Florida Keys of Monroe County, Florida. This roadway also carries electric power, telephone, telegraph and natural gas lines down from the mainland. It is, literally, Key West’s lifeline. In the spring of 1982, US Border Patrol authorities set up roadblocks on US 1 to search for illegal drugs and immigrants coming up the Keys.

Latitude 25

One of many versions of the Flag of the Conch Republic; this one, a beach towel

In retaliation, the City Council of the City of Key West declared the Conch Republic on 23 April 1982. Now, this declaration had about all the legal validity as a divorce decree written on a cocktail napkin, but it created what some oddballs call a micronation. Stamps and even passports bearing the Conch Republic seal have been sold as souvenirs; one 9/11 hijacker was said to have had a Conch Republic passport. While they boast a military force that possesses nothing more powerful than any civilian arsenal, a navy of civilian pleasure boats and an air force of single-engine aircraft, the Conch Republic is about as dangerous and independent as Chicagoland.

With 62,000 more-or-less permanent residents on the Rock and desalination plantadequate for perhaps only 40,000 in winter, anything that happens to US 1 hurts.

I was stationed on Key West with the Army from 1975 to 1976, and aside from the large Navy population )about 1/3 of the residents) the citizens of the Conch Republic are mostly involved one way or another in either tourism or in commercial fishing. With commercial fishing dying out, tourism becomes all consuming. With restricted egress, any traffic in or out becomes problematic.  While even the most ardent Conchs in their most inebriated states will agree that Key West is still a part of the US, the declaration did point up a salient fact: Key West, the southernmost city in the Continental US, is terribly vulnerable to the least disturbances on its lifeline. With 62,000 more-or-less permanent residents on the Rock and a desalination plant adequate for perhaps only 40,000 in winter, anything that happens to US 1 hurts.

If you ever get that far down the Florida coast, toast the independent spirit of the Conch Republic. Frankly, it lost its appeal for me, even then.

Today is National Picnic Day in the US, and no one is quite sure why. The concept of a picnic is familiar to most, but its origins are somewhat obscure. Other than a farm hand’s or a hunter’s repast in the field or forest, the idea of finding a scenic location far from the cares and woes of routine dates from the 18th century, and was primarily restricted to the upper classes. Though the term may have appeared in a 17th-century dictionary as pique-nique, the actual usage began as pique un niche meaning to “pick a place,” an isolated spot where family or friends could enjoy a meal together away from distractions. The term morphed into pique-nique and after years of usage entered common French usage, and entered English sometime in the 18th century.

Tewksbury Lodge

An anachronism in a flower field…too bad.

In modern usage, the picnic has been confused with the newer and growing habit of tailgating at athletic events and other outdoor venues. In American hands, the picnic has also gone mainstream, the kind of event that can be enjoyed by anyone with a brown bag and a sandwich on a lawn…any lawn. But the traditional picnic with the basket and the ants and the blanket is almost extinct, except for the photographers’ models that you’ll find on the internet. For me, I’ve had my fill of eating out-of-doors…out of cans and pouches…cold. But, it’s the thought that counts. Try it sometime.


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