Rocket men, the Caribbean and deviancy

IN THE MID-1970s, I was sharing a home with a sports writer directly on the beach in the San Juan, Puerto Rico, suburb of Santurce. There was a lime tree in the backyard that supplied my rum-and-Cokes with a nice, free squeeze.

For reasons I cannot recall now, I later moved next door where I rented a room in a home owned by a couple of gay guys from New York City.

Both homes were spectacular, not least for being directly on the beach. Well, you had to cross the two-lane street outside, the one that paralleled the ocean’s edge, before you actually set toes into the sand.

Elton John’s Rocket Man was popular at that time, and whenever I hear the song, it takes me back to San Juan. So does I can see clearly now by Johnny Nash.

But I associate Nash more with the second of my two stays in San Juan, the one where I lived with a blonde from Brooklyn named Mary. We did not live right on the beach but three or four blocks inland and right across the street from a small restaurant where I often ate chicken and rice.

Nash’s song was on the restaurant’s jukebox. I had Elton John’s LP with Rocket Man, but I only heard Nash on that jukebox, but I heard it a lot because I liked chicken and rice a lot. Still do.

Speaking of Rocket Men:

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The Waco Spaceman

Billy Bob deployed one iron anchor and then the other. The wooden space ship was bouncing loonily.

Moments earlier, before skidding onto the moon’s surface, he opened a big silk parachute he had purchased at the military surplus in Waco.

The parachute and two anchors combined to slow the ship down pretty darn good, and he was skipping along the moonscape now at diminishing velocity.

Billy Bob was a deacon at the Second Baptist Church in Waco, so he was praying to God Almighty.

He had built this spaceship out of wood planks, and he’d shellacked it 37 times for re-entry protection. Billy Bob sat in a wicker chair inside the wooden rocket in a steel septic tank he had uncovered in a Waco junkyard.

The tank was kept intact by a compressor he’d purchased at Home Depot. The blastoff from his backyard was done with dynamite. The trip had taken two days during which Billy Bob dined on Cheetos, Moon Pies and RC Cola.

Suddenly, the spaceship stopped.

Billy Bob opened the septic tank, then the wooden door, and stepped out. He had a goldfish bowl over his head, duct-taped at the neck. A scuba tank — full of mesquite-flavored Texas Hill Country air — sagged on his back.

How you doing, honey?

The voice startled Billy Bob, and he swung around. There was a hole in the ground, and the most dazzling woman he had ever seen was standing there, half out of the hole and half in. Her smile was stunning.

Billy Bob later learned that millions of Moon People lived below the surface, and that 95 percent were lovely women whose average life span was 32. Men, being in critically short supply, were highly prized.

Billy Bob never went back to Waco. And he quit being a Baptist too.

(I wrote Waco Spaceman many years ago. Billy Bob was a Rocket Man.)

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But let’s return to the sands of Santurce.

The second home in which I rented a room was owned, as I already stated, by two gay guys from New York City. I never met but one of them, a little fellow who was likely about 45 years old at the time. He liked adolescent boys, and some adolescent boys liked him too, especially the money he paid them.

They would ride their bicycles up and down the street in front of our house in the warm, breezy afternoons — almost all afternoons were warm and breezy — and my landlord would walk out and bring one in. They would disappear into his bedroom for a spell, and then the boy would leave, mount his bike and depart.

This happened very often. I asked the landlord how much he paid the boys. It wasn’t much, just a dollar or two. Of course, that was four decades ago when a dollar meant something.

As I write this, I see a black-vented oriole on the fan palm in my yard.

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(Postscript: Here’s another version of life on the beach of Santurce that I wrote over a decade ago. It addresses not only the New Yorker and his boys, but a beautiful girl from Chile and an Army Ranger who slept with a Bowie knife beneath his pillow.)