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Key West. It was first visited by Ponce de Leon in 1521 on his quest to find the “Fountain of Youth,” and is now known as the Conch Republic to its locals and loyal visitors. Its warm waters and tropical breezes have made it a mecca for boaters, fishermen and sun seekers. Its laid back, unconventional atmosphere has attracted the curious and the creative ever since. Artist and authors have found their inspirations, strolling its quaint streets and frequenting its many colorful eateries and bars.
Of course, Key West’s most famous author is Ernest Hemingway. In the studio of his Spanish colonial villa at 907 Whitehead St., he composed many of his classic works, including “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and “To Have and Have Not.” The home happened to be home to the island’s first swimming pool and a colony of six toed cats, a gift from a sea captain, that still roam the premises. Tennessee Williams, John Hersey and Ralph Ellison owned homes on the island, as well as Judy Blume, who still resides there. Robert Frost was a frequent visitor to Casa Marina.
But being a Children’s Librarian, I was most impressed to find that poet and author Shel Silverstein was among Key West’s notables. I literally stumbled upon this fact while walking down Duval St. The Key West Sidewalk Project, an annual competition, selects various author’s works to be etched into the sidewalks, creating moments of “ plein-air” reading for visitors. Here, in front of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, I found the following sentiment –
IN MEMORY OF SHEL
If Eternity is measured by memories treasured
In the hearts of loved ones and friends-
Then Shel surely knows that he lives where he goes
To the Place Where The Sidewalk Ends.
D. SULLEN STUART
For those not familiar with Shel Silverstein, he was a poet, singer-song writer, cartoonist, screenwriter and author of children’s books. His life story certainly lent itself to the Key West life style. Born in Chicago, he attended the University of Illinois, from which he was expelled. While attending the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. During his time in the military, several of his cartoons were published in “Pacific Stars and Stripes.” After returning to Chicago, he began submitting cartoons to “Look,” “Sports Illustrated” and “This Week.” In 1957 he became one of “Playboy’s” leading cartoonists. With encouragement from his editor at Harper & Row, he began writing children’s books, of which ”The Giving Tree,” is probably his most well- known. His poetry anthologies include, “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” “A Light in the Attic,” and “Falling Up.”
Music was another of his many talents. He wrote hits such as “The Cover of Rolling Stone” for the rock group Dr. Hook, ”One’s on the Way” for Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash’s best known hit, “A Boy Named Sue.”
Concerning Shel’s personal life, he kept a rather low profile. He had one daughter, Shoshanna, nicknamed Shanna, born June 30, 1970, to Susan Taylor Hastings. Tragically, she died at the age of 11 from a brain aneurysm. It was the most devastating event of his life, from which he never fully recovered. Her mother, Susan died in 1975. His book, “A Light in the Attic” is dedicated to Shanna. He also had a son named Matthew with a woman named Sarah Spencer of Key West. She drove the Conch Train, and was the inspiration for Shel’s song, “The Great Conch Train Robbery.” Although Shel was not a born” Conch”, he embraced the Key West ideal. In an interview with” Publisher’s Weekly” he stated, “I’m free to leave…go wherever I please, do whatever I want; I believe everyone should live like that. Don’t be dependent on anyone else – man, woman or child, or dog. I want to go everywhere, look at and listen to everything; you can go crazy with some of the wonderful stuff there is in life.” Shel died on May 10, 1999 of a massive heart attack in Key West. He is buried in Norridge, Illinois. His son Matthew survives him.
Where the Sidewalk Ends
There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.
Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.
Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow.
And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.