Sometimes we take history for granted.
It is easy to walk into Fort Clatsop along the Oregon Coast and revisit the story of Lewis and Clark as they searched for a path to the western shores of America. At this National Historic Site, historic markers guide you along their journey.
While visiting the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Gardens, history was staring us in the face and we didn’t realize it. After walking through the gardens, we came across a collection of old and dilapidated boats. They looked like the type of junk you often seen dumped to the side of the road in Florida to just get rid of them. We did not give them much thought. I thought they might be old boats representing the Keys.
Before we left the gardens, we stopped in the air-conditioned visitor center to cool down while watching their short films. “Cuban Chugs” was the odd title of one. Sandy had thought it had to do with the fat Cuban palms in their collection. We watched it last.
A compelling story unfolded. Chugs are the name given to the boats, if you can call them that. Tens of thousands of refugees risked their lives to escape Cuba as Fidel Castro came into power. Most of them came to Florida’s shores by water.
Some arrived in old fishing boats, filled beyond capacity. They might have been the lucky ones. Cubans fabricated boats out of almost anything that would float, foam, buckets, drums and plastic sheeting. Seeing this collection, it is easy to imagine that many had not made it to safety.
After watching the film, we walked back to that part of the gardens and slowly wandered between these pieces of history.
The display is a collection of over a dozen chugs that brought people from Cuba across the treacherous and shark-infested 90 miles to the United States. Setting foot on land meant freedom.
One is boat made of foam with plastic sheeting over a welded rebar frame. It has a uniquely mounted wheel system, which probably allowed it to be quickly taken from cover and hurriedly be pushed and pulled to the beach.
Another is no more than three tire inner tubes and 2x6s bolted to a foam floor. There is a place for a sail and rowing stations.
These boats serve as a reminder of the journeys of these people desperate for freedom, who with little more than perseverance and ingenuity left Cuba with only the clothes on their back in search of a better life in America.
Now here’s the twist to the tale.
If you live in the Keys, these chugs wash up all the time. They’re an annoyance. Sometimes the people in them make it to shore. Sometimes they don’t. Barely six months ago, the Keynoter had an article about the chugs “littering the Marquesas”
So what we find fascinating, and historic, is also someone else’s trash removal problem. It’s all a matter of perspective.