BIG TORCH KEY
Tim Chapman has almost finished building the most macho house in the Florida Keys. With his bare hands, of course. With his larger-than-life personality contained inside and outside the walls. His house is a fortress. His house is ready for a fight. • Just like he is. • "I think every real man, at some time in his life, should build his own shelter,'' he declares in his pugnacious way. • Chapman is a surprisingly agile 270-pounder who has muscles on top of muscles. His brawny house on the most remote island in the inhabited Keys sits atop bridge-quality pilings above a backyard canal and a flooded mangrove swamp. The walls are 16 inches thick, filled with cement and steel. The metal roof is held in place by thousands of extra-long stainless screws, steel straps, wire and bolts.
Chapman built his house to withstand a catastrophe of biblical force: 300 mph winds, Category 5 hurricane tides and the uncivilized aftermath that could follow.
"If my house blows down in a hurricane, then nothing else will be left in the Keys either,'' he announces, sounding as if he might be curious — if not eager — to test his house and himself against a big one.
Chapman, 58, is something of a fortress himself.
He reads Emerson, Thoreau, Walt Whitman, even the journals of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
"Ernest Hemingway would never live in today's Key West,'' he says, thinking of sodden and pusillanimous strollers on Duval Street. "He would live right here on Big Torch Key. It's the old Keys.''
If Hemingway were alive, he might be pals with Chapman, who grew up in a Miami suburb near the Everglades and became an expert hunter and fisher. He smokes big cigars, can hold his whiskey and says "I like to fight.''
His legend may be even bigger than he is. Chapman remembers the time he saw a motorist change lanes to run over a harmless milk snake. After scooping up the lifeless reptile, Chapman chased the other vehicle to a red light, dragged the driver out from behind the wheel and recalls, with some relish, his attempt to shove the snake down the man's screaming throat.
"I was brought up to never to kill anything you don't eat,'' Chapman later explained.
Hemingway, the artist, seemed to have a psychological and physical need to measure himself against danger and other men. Chapman, a Miami Herald photographer for 37 years, has covered eight wars, 50 hurricanes and human nature at its worst.
In 1978, three days after a crazed prophet named Jim Jones persuaded more than 900 followers to drink cyanide-laced fruit drinks in Jonestown, Guyana, Chapman talked his way on to a flight to South America and was among the first journalists to witness the carnage on the ground.
He gagged at the smell and the sight of so much death. Lacking a bandanna, he wadded a chamois cloth into his mouth. That helped. So did letting his camera become his eyes. It provided just enough detachment to keep him going. His photographs of the bloated bodies were published all over the world.
"I had to get the photos,'' he says now. "Without them the world wouldn't have believed what had happened. I will take Jonestown to the grave.''
• • •
He loves to fish in the Keys. He loves to cast a fly in the direction of a muscular tarpon, the most macho of all saltwater game fish. When a 100-pound tarpon feels a hook's sting, it leaps from the water in panic, shaking, rattling and tumbling. Then it dives deep and refuses to give up for hours. A tarpon is not a fish for sissies.
When Chapman was building his fortress in the Keys he wanted to be close in spirit to his late father, George Chapman, whom he tries to emulate to this day. The buffalo nickel his marksman dad blasted out of the air years ago with a .22-caliber bullet is buried in the foundation of the fortress.
"My dad was the toughest man anyone ever met. He was a staff sergeant in Patton's Third Army, 87th Infantry, and was in combat for 110 straight days. But he cooked better biscuits than my mother.''
Chapman's dad tried to teach his only son to be tough.
"He came from that generation of men who could do anything with their hands, do the plumbing, electrical work, rebuild engines, take care of their families even though he only had an eighth grade education. He could shoot doves out of the air with a single-shot shotgun. Down in the Everglades, he'd run the bays at night in his boat when there weren't any markers or lights to a place where he caught the fish they now call a goliath grouper. Huge fish. We ate grouper stewed, smoked, fried, baked for weeks at a time."
He launches into an anecdote that, like many of his stories, is compelling, believable and completely unverifiable.
"One time, when I was a boy, I was shooting doves over a field and this guy came out of a nearby house and said, 'Son, are you the one who has been peppering my house with bird shot?' and I said, 'No, sir. It wasn't me.' The guy didn't believe me.''
George Chapman, eyes glittering, walked up. Asked what was wrong.
"Your little bastard . . .'' were the only words the complainant managed to get out.
"My dad laid him out with a broken jaw.''
• • •
You are Tim Chapman. You were born in rural Kentucky. Your relatives prayed to Jesus and made moonshine. In Miami, your blue-collar family is poor in material things. To some people you are inferior. You are a redneck. You answer with your fists.
Your work ethic, your brains and your resourcefulness are your other weapons.
In 1968, when other teenagers are flipping burgers in Miami, you are catching snakes by hand in the Big Cypress and selling them to a scientist for 50 cents a foot. During the day you lay roofs and pour cement. A building contractor tells you: "You're too young for this work, legally speaking. But I'm going to let you. If it don't kill you it'll make you a man.''
You are Tim Chapman, 18. You feel things deeply. You want to defend the natural Florida you love.
You block a developer's storm drain with a cement plug to keep his stinking pollutants out of Biscayne Bay. You buy a chain saw to chop down billboards.
Instead, after high school, you head for Canada, live with an Ojibway woman, are lulled to sleep by the howling timber wolves, and wake early every morning to guide tourists to lakes where they angle for wily muskies.
You return to Florida, pick up a camera, get married, graduate from the University of Miami and in 1972 take a job at the Herald. You are more dedicated to your newspaper job than your marriage. You have that bad temper. You have that roving eye. When your wife finally leaves, you tell her:
"I would have left me years ago.''
• • •
Chapman put his son, Eric, through medical school, paying in cash. He doesn't believe in credit cards.
When he bought his lot in 1982 he paid $17,000, cash. It was in a sparsely developed area, about 20 miles from Key West, on Big Torch. It was 8 miles from busy U.S. 1, down a lonely, serpentine road on a barely dry spot in a mangrove swamp where mosquitoes hovered in clouds. It was on the water. There were tarpon, lots of them. There were neighbors, but not many.
He was 32, but already thinking of retirement and of a weekend place to escape the 20th century.
So now he owned a lot in the Keys. But now he had no money left to build the dream house. He began saving hunks of his Herald paycheck.
• • •
When Chapman is not covering wars or hurricanes, he drives through Miami, listens to a police scanner, smokes cigars and drinks eye-opening Cuban coffee by the quart. When he hears something interesting, he speeds to the scene, snaps a photo and e-mails it to the office.
He tells people:
"My dad said, whatever you do, do it the best you can. I want to honor that, tell the story . . . of one man in a photo so good it tells the story of mankind. I want to be the best newsman that ever lived, the fastest, with the best news judgment.''
In the newsroom, stories abound about the intense, gung-ho photographer who can swear in several languages, start a fire without matches and feed himself, if necessary, with roadkill. He once cut the tail from a dead Tamiami Trail alligator and brought it back to Miami, and a barbecue, in a Herald vehicle.
In the middle of a civil disturbance, Chapman takes his last photo and heads for the only produce stand still open in burning Miami. "(Bleep) it,'' Chapman tells the reporter cowering in the backseat. "This is my town, and if I want to buy melons, I'll buy melons.'' He purchases his melons, saunters through a crowd of angry men and returns to his vehicle. Then he tugs on his Army helmet — his preferred headgear in dangerous situations — and burns rubber.
On an assignment in Haiti, a self-possessed young reporter hands him a long to-do list. He reads it carefully, blows cigar smoke in her face and says, "I'm not your errand boy.''
In Miami, a rare freeze discombobulates the tropical iguanas at a state park. Stunned by the cold, they begin dropping from trees. Chapman calls an editor about what is happening. Editor sounds skeptical. An hour later, the editor hears an ominous plop on his desk — followed by the terrifying sight of Chapman massaging the cold-stunned iguana back to life.
"If somebody ever writes a history of the Herald, Tim will have an important role,'' says columnist Carl Hiaasen, famous for his satirical novels about Florida. He says he has always liked working with Chapman.
"He's an authentic character who is completely fearless. Some people think he's crazy," Hiaasen says, "and there may be some truth to that."
• • •
People who read Florida novels often ask Hiaasen about his most glorious creation — the wild man known as Skink.
Skink sups on roadkill, lives by his wits and emerges from his wilderness refuge to discipline the developers, politicians and con men who are trying to wreck Florida.
Years ago, Chapman owned a golden retriever. Bullet was a splendid animal except for one bad habit, digging. He dug under the fence, lolled in neighborhood pools and risked death crossing streets to return home.
Somebody advised Chapman how to train Bullet. Use one of those electric collars, the friend said, and zap Bullet whenever he nears the fence. Chapman loved Bullet and was concerned that zapping would hurt too much.
So he tested the collar on himself.
The electric jolt blasted him off his feet.
A few years later, Hiaasen published Stormy Weather. In it, Skink kidnaps a cretinous tourist he catches videotaping the aftermath of a Cat 5 hurricane. Skink fits the lout with an electric dog collar and zaps him whenever he says anything stupid.
"I borrowed from Tim's personal experience,'' Hiaasen says.
• • •
When it comes to the opposite sex, Chapman has never been known for restraint. Back when he was young and pretty, certain women apparently found it hard to resist his unique mix of smart and crazy. For a while, his expressed ambition was to share his charms with every TV anchorwoman in Miami.
The womanizer disappeared in 1997.
He met a beautiful woman — his own age for a change — in the courthouse in Miami. She supervised bailiffs and looked criminal scum in the eye without blinking.
Charlene Hall, born in Florida, was canny and tough. She loved surfing and fishing. Charlene was also, conveniently, not currently married or dating another man.
They have been together since. She doesn't mind Tim's rat snakes or monkey skulls. Tim tolerates her eBay splurges and trips to Nordstrom. She has no problem with his guns and knives. He is fine with her makeup. She never touches his hammers and saws and wrenches and pliers. She puts up with his obsessive neatness and need to plan for any emergency.
She likes his friends, especially Hiaasen, who she says listens intently to Tim's craziest stories when they go to dinner as if he might be planning another Skink saga.
• • •
He wanted to build the best house in the history of houses.
He drew up plans based on what he had learned from covering hurricanes. If a house survived, he always tried to understand why. He began building six years ago — he'd saved thousands of dollars — working on weekends and vacation and living in a battered RV.
He dug through the limestone and coral with a pick and shovel and laid a foundation 18 inches deep.
In the Keys, freshwater is expensive. He built a 20,000-gallon cistern, with 12-inch walls, to collect the rain.
He put solar panels on the roof. They generate enough electricity to heat the water.
The pilings that hold the house 14 feet above the swamp are driven 7 feet into the rock.
The slate floors in the two-bedroom, one-bath house are a foot thick.
The inside walls and rounded ceiling are made of pine. Italian marble in the bathroom. Homemade furniture, made of oak, built by his late dad.
Tim's father had loved cedar. To honor him, Tim drove to Kentucky, harvested trees and stored them two years in a warehouse. After they dried he trailered them to the Keys and milled the logs into boards and built the master bedroom where he and Charlene sleep.
• • •
Last spring, as Tim was putting the finishing touches on the house, Charlene felt a lump in her breast.
"Maybe it's nothing,'' Tim told her.
The tests at the clinic showed otherwise.
"Don't you dare ever bring another woman into this house!'' she ordered him.
She had the mastectomy.
On her first night home, he gave her a sponge bath.
He took a leave from work to take care of her. "That's my new role,'' he says. "I've never been a caretaker before.''
He tells friends about his plans to be the best caretaker in the history of caretaking.
It's hard, though. He likes the feeling of being in control of his own destiny and the feeling he can protect loved ones from every danger. Charlene's cancer is beyond his control.
Tim doesn't smoke cigars inside the fortress. It's his gift to the woman he loves. He smokes on the back deck as he watches the canal for the tarpon.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8727. His latest book is "Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators."