The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Sunday, January 22, 1995               TAG: 9501210034
SOURCE: Stephen Harriman
                                             LENGTH: Medium:   72 lines


TO KNOW Key West, you have to understand the language. Stay with me on this; it's not hard.

Conch. Pronounce it ``konk.'' That is the most important single word in the island vocabulary. It has several meanings depending on its use as noun or adjective.

1. A conch is a sea mussel that lives in a large spiral shell. It is very good to eat - so good, in fact, that the people here have eaten up the entire supply in these waters and now conchs have to be imported. You can see conchs in their natural state in the Key West Aquarium; you also can see them on the tables of almost every restaurant in town. There are 21 accepted ways to prepare conch, I'm told, but the preferred ways are in chowder or fritters. Not unlike clams in taste and texture.

2a. A conch also is a (human) native of the Florida Keys, but mostly Key West. You have to be BORN here to be a conch.

2b. A freshwater conch is an immigrant who has resided here at least seven years. Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams were freshwater conchs. Harry Truman and John James Audubon were just visitors.

3. Conch house. This is NOT a place where you eat conch (as, say, a fish house), but a residence unique to the island - specifically a cottage-like structure of Dade County pine, which hardens with age, built by master ship's carpenters of tongue-and-grove construction using only wooden pegs and fasteners because nails cannot be driven into the wood. Termites are not interested in conch houses, and hurricanes have a hard time knocking them down. A derivative term is ``conch architecture,'' which I'll get to in a minute.

Cayo Hueso (Kay-o Wesso). That's ``island of bones'' in Spanish, and that's what the Conquistadors found when they arrived in 1513. Evidently, some bad stuff had been happening amongst the indigenous people. Over time, Cayo Hueso became phonetically transmorgified into Key West. So, you see, the name has nothing to do with geography.

Margaritaville. What singer Jimmy Buffett calls his hometown, after the alcoholic drink consumed here in great volume. Wrote a song about it. The name isn't widely used, but Buffett's place on Duval Street, called Margaritaville, of course, is a popular tourist stop for rock 'n' roll, pop and rhythm and blues. He's there occasionally.

The Conch Republic was as short-lived as it was imaginative - and effective. It's a wonderful story that tells a lot about this community.

In 1982, two years after the Mariel Boatlift, the U.S. Border Patrol set up a roadblock south of Miami to search vehicles leaving the Keys for illegal aliens and drugs. The Overseas Highway (U.S. 1) can be maddening enough to travel without that hassle. The ``blockade'' had an immediate, negative impact on tourism. Key West was outraged.

The islanders voted to secede from the United States and establish the Conch Republic. Even had a flag - a queen conch standing against a gold-bladed sun on a bright blue field - which still flies in many places. With lightning-like speed, the Republic (a) declared war on the United States, (b) surrendered and (c) applied for foreign aid.

Washington took notice. The roadblock was removed. ILLUSTRATION: Drawing

Conch definition No. 1 is a sea mussel, which is tasty in chowder.



The Phillip Burton House on Angela Street in Key West is an example

of a conch house - a cottage-like structure built from Dade County

pine by master ship's carpenters.

by CNB