So long Captain Tony

Blue skies forever

Originally published April 25, 2007

Updated Nov. 3, 2008

Capt. Tony Tarracino died Nov. 1 after being hospitalized about a week with a heart and lung condition, according his wife Mary. “He loved Key West and everyone here,” she told the AP. “I’ve heard him called the conscience of Key West.” Tony was 92.

Tony was one of my first portals into Key West during my visits in the 1980s. My pal Jimmy Buffett sang about Tony’s exploits in “Last Mango in Paris,” from the 1985 album of the same name. Here’s an edited blog from the last time I saw Tony. He was hanging around the bar even though he had sold it in 1989. I’m glad I wrote it down:

Capt. Tony Tarracino is 90 years old.

A couple nights a week he still holds court behind a large tip jar at Captain Tony’s Saloon, the original Sloppy Joe’s at 428 Greene St. [During Ernest Hemingway’s 1930s Key West years, this was the building he adjourned to after a day of writing.]

The tip jar is always full because Capt. Tony’s stories are priceless.

Capt. Tony hitchiked to Key West in 1947 with $12 and a penchant for 7 come 11. A fierce gambler, Capt. Tony was running from the New Jersey mob. When I started visiting Key West regularly in the early 1980s, Capt. Tony gave me gambling tips at the old greyhound race track on Stock Island.

He was a shrimper and captain of a charter boat called “Greyhound.” He was a caretaker for Tennesee Williams’ monkeys. Capt. Tony participated in the Haitian invasion in the mid-1960s and the Bay of Pigs rescue. Stuart Whitman portrayed Capt. Tony in the 1980 movie “The Cuba Crossing.” He ran for Key West mayor five times–one of his failed campaigns was managed by Jimmy Buffett. Capt. Tony finally was elected mayor in 1989. He has called his two-year term “the greatest two years of my life.”………….

About a week ago I was on a freelance assignment in Key West, Fla.

I needed to find Capt. Tony, who is arguably the city’s most beloved resident………

About a week ago I was on a freelance assignment in Key West, Fla.

I needed to find Capt. Tony, who is arguably the city’s most beloved resident. My friend Conchita Fritter accompanied me to the dark saloon.

She sat near the faded John Prine barstool, watching from a distance as Capt. Tony spun stories as if they were plates on his nubby fingertips. He has been married at least three times and has 14 children. One long-lost son, Keith Famie, turned up as a contestant on “Survivor II”. Capt. Tony had not spoken to him in seven years. But Capt. Tony is the original Survivor. He says the only exercise he gets is “going to other people’s funerals.”

I told Capt. Tony how I remembered his 1980’s house act of Curly n’ Lil. They were South Florida retirees who sang vintage country songs and fussed about amplifier settings between tunes. I was married back then. My wife and I would watch them leave Capt. Tony’s with Curly carrying his small amp and Lil clutching the evening’s tip jar as they faded away down Greene Street.

That seemed something to aspire to.

Last week Capt. Tony wore creased grey slacks and a natty sportshirt. He looked better than me. He sat near a souvenir stand that sold black and white picture posters of his mayoral campain slogan: “All you need in this life is a tremendous sex drive and a great ego. Brains don’t mean shit.” He paid more attention to female visitors than me. I didn’t get all of what I came in looking for, but I got something better.

He handed Conchita Fritter a neatly folded piece of white paper.

Capt. Tony instructed us not to open the paper up until we got back to our motel. His old eyes sparkled like the scotch Hemingway used to drink in the joint. I thought the letter would contain some sort of ribald joke or commentary. Of course we opened it up about about a block away from the saloon, safely out of Capt. Tony’s radar. The letter was typewritten and double spaced. Here it is. I don’t think Capt. Tony would mind:

To My Father

I am currently eighteen years old, and when I was born, I had no idea that my family would be so odd and different. My father is currently eighty-eight years old, and was seventy when my mother had me. I grew up my whole life with a father who could have been my great-grandfather in some other families. But there is a difference between my father and other people his age. His body is old, but his mind is as sharp as mine, if not even sharper.

I agree that people do stereotype others by their ages, for example I know that the person who is reading this probably at first thought, ‘Wow, that’s so weird, how could this person’s father be so old?’ I know this because I have heard it my whole life, over and over again. Growing up I would make new friends, and they would find out how old my father was, and they would begin to make presumptions about how he lives his life. Most people, like my friends would start to create images in their heads about what my father looked like, they would picture an old man hunched over with a cane, no hair and suspenders. But after they met him, they ended up thinking he was really cool, and how he wasn’t how they expected him to be.

This is because my father never let himself fall under the stereotype of an eighty-eight year old man, he has always been, and always will be Capt. Tony, and nothing else.

The point I am trying to make, is that in all of my father’s life, he never looked at an opportunity and said to himself, ‘I’m too old to do this, or I’m too young to do this.’ He always did what he felt and said what he wanted to. I have come to strongly believe that the reason why people find him so interesting is that he has never followed the same path as others have done his age. He found his own path, cleared a way, and has always fought through every obstacle until he could come over it. He is the definition of ‘When the going gets tough, the tough gets going.’ I think he fought his whole life, just to be his own person, and to show people that it’s ok to be yourself.—-TJ Tarracino. 3/7/05.

I could joke around and presume Capt. Tony sent his son’s essay my way because I was one of the more seasoned people in the bar on that evening, but I don’t presume I need a pep talk to be myself. I bet its more than that. Hemingway wrote “To Have and Have Not” in Key West.

Capt. Tony knows the difference.

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