My favorite column from my too-short tenure as features editor at The Key West Citizen, which gave me the opportunity to meet several larger-than-life individuals then at the ends of their lives. People who enriched me, and who have haunted me to this day.
Shine is dead; long live Shine!
Originally published Feb. 20, 2000 in The Key West Citizen| (c) 2000 Thomson Newspapers
for us all
Life is full of surprises. Too often, death is one of them.
Kermit “Shine” Forbes died at the Lower Keys Medical Center Wednesday night from complications of pancreatic cancer and a defeated liver. His death came as no shock, really – though tough, Shine was 84 years old, and he had not had what anyone would call a soft life. And he had been very sick for some time, his condition steadily not improving toward the inevitable.
The surprise for me isn’t that he died, but how much the news of his passing knocked me for a loop. I can’t say that I really knew the man. But part of me thinks I did.
I met Shine only once, for a Citizen profile Oct. 10, in honor of his 84th birthday five days earlier. But a funny thing happened on the way to writing that story: This man with the sagging boxer’s body, who loved his Fort Street house, “The Ponderosa,” like he loved his life, and who still got a charge out of talking about taking a swing at Ernest Hemingway back in the day, became Key West for me.
I mean it.
I was starting only my second month in town, and here I sat, drinking a few beers with Shine and Citizen photographer Rob O’Neal in the middle of a warm, drizzly afternoon underneath a massive tree with a snaking vine strung with stuffed Teddy bears, beer cans, beach balls and other colorful odds and ends. Chickens wandered around us, clucking and pecking the dirt. Cars drifted by with drivers set back in their seats, hands reaching out and laconically waving.
“Hey, Shine! ¡Oye, Shine!
And Shine’s one good eye would drift to the street, and then resolutely back on the past, to tales of riding Flagler’s railroad out of town, of bootlegging and boxing, building bridges, dishing out Navy meals, diving for nickels and dimes and contraband liquor, digging ditches for the W.P.A.
He was one big story waiting for someone to tell it to, never tiring of his own details.
Newcomers to Key West hear all the tales of how this town used to be this or that. How if you wanted a wild ride, you should have been here 15 or 20 years ago. The lost weeks, and months, of drunkenness. The bolita. The cocaine. The smuggling. The backstreet cockfights. The Stock Island dog races. The settling of bar tabs with gold doubloons. The sexcapades. The freewheeling writers, from Hemingway to Harrison.
That stuff had been so built up for me when I got here, it was impossible to reconcile it with the adult Disney World that Duval Street had become at the end of the 20th century. But here was Shine, a man whose very demeanor suggested a thousand myths, who’d lived here all along, seen it, done it, endured it, laughed at it. Here was a chance to shake hands with the past. It lived and breathed right in front of me, minus a couple of teeth.
Here was Key West, living in a rattletrap Bahama Village home where outside light shone in through the bathroom wall, and the bill collector kept calling, unsympathetic to the fact that not everyone is real clear on how credit cards work.
Though gravity had done its part, Shine still had the carriage of an old boxer when I met him. His broad upper body hinted that he wasn’t a man to be tangled with, even at 84. And maybe that’s why his gentleness was so disarming.
His home was a monument to family and friends, many from days past. Boxing buddies. Drinking buddies. A daughter who had died, maybe of AIDS. The crew at Hooters. Randy Wayne White. The inevitable Papa.
But in the end, the past can’t sustain us against the steady onrush of time. The future is always there, prowling around like some ravenous wolf, ready to take us all once the campfire starts to dim. Ready to surprise us one last time.
I had planned on this column being about something else this week – my sad efforts to get in shape and tackle the Seven Mile Bridge Run April 29. That will wait; that’s still ahead. And the future always gets its due.
But the past deserves a few more minutes of our time, before that devouring wolf drags it into the woods, forever dark and deep.
Thanks Shine, for letting me share a little of your history, and Key West’s. Thanks for letting me bask a little in your ragged, wonderful glow.