Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Only Necessary Word

Captain Tony Tarracino is a legend in Key West. Born in 1916 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, he fled to Key West as a young man, barely surviving a severe beating provided by some Mafia thugs pursuing him after discovering his gambling scam. To say The Captain lived a colorful life would be the same as stating that the surface of the sun is a little warm.

Throughout his 92 years on this earth, Tony worked on a shrimp boat, captained his own fishing charter boat named The Greyhound, and served as a gunrunner during the Cuban revolution.  He owned and ran one of Key West's most popular bars, Captain Tony's Saloon, and it was there he gave a young guitar player his first break.  The kid had just bombed out in Nashville, and had come to Key West to try and become a bar musician.

Tony liked the kid and, although he already employed a featured band, offered to let him play during the musicians' ten minute breaks, for ten dollars and three Budweisers per night.  That kid, Jimmy Buffett, accepted, and the two became great, life-long friends.  Buffett's ballad, The Last Mango in Paris, is a tribute to his friend and first boss. When Captain Tony ran for Mayor of Key West one year, Buffet served as his campaign manager. He won.

But all his other outlandish accomplishments aside, Captain Tony seems best known for his philandering with the opposite sex.  If prompted, he would proudly tell you of his thirteen children, born to eight different women. Even in his final days, he kept court on a barstool at Captain Tony's Saloon, posing for pictures with the tourists, signing body parts of buxom women who smiled and giggled when he gave their ample rear ends a flirtatious squeeze as they turned to leave.  In his golden years, he talked of how much he loved the scent of women, and how much he enjoyed the feel of their soft skin.

Alan and I were actually enjoying a beer at Captain Tony's Saloon a few years back when The Legend appeared and took his seat on his bar stool throne.  Immediately, a crowd gathered and a line of autograph seekers and picture posers formed in front of him.  I had heard a little of Mr. Tarracino, and I turned to catch a glimpse of the Old Salt, but I honestly had no desire to meet the man.  As a first-hand victim of an adulterous ex-husband, I don't have much patience for those who proudly boast of their infidelities, legend or not.

But when we were visiting Key West once again last week on vacation, a title emerged as I perused a shelf at the local bookstore:  Life Lessons of a Legend.  It was a book written about Captain Tony, by an Iowa School Superintendent and Parrothead, Brad Manard.  Brad met Tony one night as he visited his saloon on vacation, and asked if he could write his story.  He spent a week dining and interviewing the man, getting his incredible life lessons down for all eternity.

I read the entire book on my flight home, and I have to say, I was too quick to judge Tony Tarracino.  Because despite his questionable decisions regarding women and an arguably nasty gambling habit, I found myself genuinely liking the man.

Tony had a word that drove him through life:  Compassion.  He said it was the only word in the dictionary worth anything, and all the other words "should be thrown out." Compassion was the only necessary word.  Tony showed it in the way he treated people.  He loved people (not just the women), particularly when he served as mayor of Key West during the early 90's.  He said he felt like the father of 28,000 people, and he treated the citizens who elected him as his children.  The local merchants say that it wasn't just that Tony loved Key West so much, it was that he loved the PEOPLE who resided there even more.  He was a wealthy businessman at the time, but he fought tooth and nail to protect the "little guy" from the big business moguls who threatened to take over the island, pushing everyone else out.

He was a chronic over-tipper and knew most of the homeless by name.  He helped them as best he could, never judging their situation or questioning their downfall.  His friends say that he felt so lucky to have the privilege to give to those down on their luck, and he did so with a happy, loving, compassionate heart.  He talked incessantly about finding "the jewel" in others.  He contested that even the most ornery old cuss had a kind, tender spot, way down deep somewhere.  He believed that if you looked hard enough, you could find it in everyone.  He always had a kind word for everybody he met.

I wish I had left my Coors Light on the table that day and strolled over to Captain Tony's barstool.  I'd have shook his hand and thanked him for reminding me to be slow to judge (even when it came to philandering old men), to search for the good in people, and to practice compassion above all else.

Captain Tony died on November 1, 2008, surrounded by loved ones and family.  The entire island of Key West cried that night for their lost legend and father.  Then, they lifted their tropical drinks in a toast to him, and promised to carry on the lessons he'd spent a life learning.  I've decided I will, too.

Thanks for Reading!!

21 comments:

Jessica said...

What a lovely (philandering aside) man. Thanks for sharing this!

blueviolet said...

I think it's pretty cool that you happened to end up reading that book and realizing that there was an incredible amount of good in his soul. This was really interesting!

Cheeseboy said...

What a cool guy and a normal Joe. I am sure he will be missed. They should have his bar stool bronzed.

Mumsy said...

This was very interesting and I enjoyed reading it. Thank you, for sharing it.

Eva Gallant said...

Wow. Thanks for posting this interesting tale.

Margaret (Peggy or Peg too) said...

I love Captain Tony!
Just goes to show you that people can do horrible things but that doesn't make them 100% horrible does it?

Great Post!

Kyna said...

What an interesting little biography. There are so many different, cool stories out there in the world. It's funny how you can both like someone and not like some of the things they did, isn't it?

Pearl said...

So cool. It's the characters among us, the ones who don't fit the mold, that really leave their mark.

Pearl

Chrystal said...

I love this! I want to read this book now. We all need a little reminding to find the good in people. Thanks!!

Teresa Evangeline said...

One of the biggest lessons I am now learning, is that Everyone is working out their own "stuff," some faster, or so it seems, than others. Everyone has good residing in them, too, despite their personal weaknesses. It would be nice, though, if everyone would learn their lessons in life without hurting anyone else in the process, wouldn't it?

Pat said...

What a great story about an interesting character...thanks for sharing.

Looking for Blue Sky said...

Love this story - I'd never heard it before x

ReformingGeek said...

That was a nice story. Thanks for sharing!

Charlene said...

Thanks for telling the legend's story.

I know compassion is a good word but I think kindness is a better one. It can be compassion or it can be some other thing.

Being Me said...

Oh, how I absolutely adore your posts about people. Truly captivating, every one I have ever read. Thank you for bringing these people to a wider audience, post by post xx

Shan said...

It's always good when we can stretch and grow. Sounds like he did that. Sounds like you did it, too. This was a lovely tribute.

Kakka said...

Thank you for sharing. I will have to try and find a copy of the book to read. It is sometimes surprising when we find the other side to the story.

notesfromnadir said...

Thank you for sharing this story. Anyone who says compassion is the only word worth anything is a person you want to know. I love reading about people with good hearts who help others. Captain Tony sounds like a great person & I'm going to find a copy of the book about him.

Getting My Words Out said...

Joan, I think biographies is your calling, particularly of historical figures giving your penchant for history. You have a way of drawing people into WANTING to take a closer look at someone and their story. Or you could weave your own personal stories (which I especially love more than anything else you write) in - parallel tales if you will. I'll say it again...I really love the way you write. You have a way of making me want to read more!! Well done (again)! :D

The Urban Cowboy said...

Captain Tony sounds like an awesome guy.

Anonymous said...

I too was too quick to judge until reading Life Lessons through twice! Captain Tony truly was an incredible man with a fascinating story that he chose Brad Manard to capture and write for him to live on forever. Great Lessons! I've purchased over 25 copies to share with friends.....Kathy Mullen from IOWA

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