Fortress of Solitude
Jack Armstrong had always been fascinated by that place Superman went to think and be alone. But he had always wondered why the Man of Steel had built it in the arctic cold. That just didn’t square. After all, Superman seemed the smart, logical type. Why was his escape house made of ice and set into a freezing, barren landscape? Who knew? It seemed a rather depressing situation, and alias Clark Kent never seemed happy while he was there. If Jack Armstrong ever got the chance to have his own secret citadel, it would be on a beach somewhere. “Someday, I’m going to have my own Fortress of Solitude,” Jack would tell his wife. “Good. Do I get to come?” she would ask, teasing. “Of course. It’s going to be your Fortress of Solitude as well. Our little secret haven away from all of this.”
And finally, after all that slogging and grinding for his country and its men-in-uniform-loving denizens, Jack had found it, at last.
But the house wasn’t anything to brag about, at least to most folks. And that’s exactly what they had wanted. It was off the proverbial beaten path and not anywhere near where the vast majority of out-of-staters spent every spring break and summer vacation, pictures of which clogged up everyone’s social media feed back in middle America. Jack had long ago noted how people from certain states tended to all go the same places, all the time. Overcrowded, uninviting, and boring. Jack and his wife wanted anonymity and isolation.
They had found it almost by accident, tucked back into a thick grove of coastal palms and twisting live oaks that kept it almost invisible from the main road — officially known as A1A, here, by its local moniker, “Ocean Shore Boulevard.” There wasn’t much to it before they began work; it was a single story, cinderblock rambler, maybe a bit more than 1,500 square feet, that resembled the tract houses built during the fifties after the war. In fact, it had been built in the middle of the war — 1944.
During the war, a Navy base that didn’t exist anymore had once required housing for young officers preparing to fly Navy Corsairs. And the house that Jack Armstrong and his wife were now methodically modifying had once sheltered pilots who would serve their country in World War Two, Korea, and Vietnam. Local rumor had that in the years after the war that an astronaut or two had once lived there during the heady days of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. And the fact that it was only a 30-minute drive south to Cape Canaveral gave that story some credence.
Jack himself was convinced of the truth of it because the seller was a holding company whose chief executive officer, as it were, was an individual with the last name of Young. And one of America’s most famous astronauts had the last name Young. This alone was enough for Jack.
Their sons had come to visit once so far, and they had been slightly shocked at the spartan setting. It was much smaller than the house they’d grown up in. But after a few days, it had grown on them. “I think I like this, Dad. You don’t have to climb any stairs,” observed their oldest, a quiet, former power-hitting third baseman who’d put himself through college on a baseball scholarship in the ACC and who now, recently out of culinary school, prepared award-winning gourmet meals back in the small southern state in which he lived. He grinned. “Your knees will thank you.”
He was right after all. Jack’s knees had taken a pounding over the years — much more than your average fifty-something former athlete guy — first while using his own D1 football scholarship to get an undergrad degree, then through entry-level training and multiple deployments in the Marine Corps, and all the added 10ks, half marathons, and triathlons he had run for no reason other than an overabundance of the competition bug that he and all his Marine Corps buddies were afflicted with. The single level house made dealing will all of the ramifications of his physical exploits a lot easier.
On the other hand, their youngest son, an engineer who helped design golf courses, had been typically much more animated and conversant. “Holy cow, how much did you guys pay for this thing?” “Are you getting a tax break, Mom?” And with an insight that had come with two decades of being his father’s son, “Dad, how long does it take you to carry your board down to the beach?” He knew how to get right to the heart of the matter.
No, when you passed it by in car or on bike, the house was no ostentatious bastardization of modern blight designed to catch the eyes of every single passerby like almost everything being built near the water nowadays. Sure, there were a few of those monstrosities popping up along this still overlooked stretch of the coast in Loxahatchee County, but the locals had managed to slow down the sprawl that had overtaken Palm Beach to the south and Jacksonville to the north. It was matter of civic pride worn like the proverbial badge of courage. The locals liked it just like it was: Most of the coastline still looked like it had in 1970s, and people wanted to keep it that way.
It took walking by it to appreciate the true hidden gem it was; the house was solid, of that there was no doubt. It had apparently survived half a dozen hurricanes over the decades and not once had it been damaged significantly. Whoever had built it had done their job very well. If it was that astronaut Jack liked to think it was, then the guy’s own engineering skills were on display now, seven decades later. It was low slung and spread out, which enabled it to withstand the high winds during storm season, but it did need some work in a few places. There had been a few renovations and Jack liked what had been done so far; the place had a sort of breezy, Key West feel to it.
The best thing about the one story house was its location. It sat just off the east side of the aforementioned main drag, and it had an easement across the protected state park land to the beach. The easement was one of those funky quirks of property law that permitted a landowner who had been in an area before everyone else the right to retain direct access to the surrounding public property.
For example, if you owned a farm and your only path of access to the main highway was a driveway that ran across another piece of property, a person couldn’t purchase that other property and close off your access to the highway. They couldn’t force you to take the long way around either. Since you had already been there and had been using the easement, you retained it, even over the objection of the new property owner.
Much of this depended on what was in the deed or the contract of sale or even state law on the matter. But an easement could also be created simply by virtue of the holder using an easement without the other property owner’s permission; if the owner of the property across which the easement ran never complained and “sat on his hands,” the “trespasser” could very well be granted a permanent easement by the courts.
In the case of the house in Loxahatchee County, the state had given all property owners along the coast an easement out to the beach back in 1960 after the state had by eminent domain taken sizeable parcels of the land running along the coastline in order to create protected areas. What had been private property extending to the beach was now state property, but the state was directed by its own courts to give each property owner access to the ocean.
So the easement out from the Armstrong’s “backyard” — as it were — out to the beach was maybe the biggest thing the small house had going for it. That and the additional fact that the closest commercial or rental properties were over a mile in either direction. The neighbors on both sides were private citizens too, and their homes were similarly tucked away, back from the main road.
And Jack had already put his easement to great use.
It was six a.m. He got up as quietly as he could, moved into the small living room, and gathered up the gear he had set out the night before. He flipped the switch on the coffee maker and watched in the half-light of the new dawn as the amber liquid began to slowly drip into the camping mug.
He flipped up the screen of his Dell notebook and looked at the weather report; 65 degrees already and rising. A slight off-shore wind. Perfect conditions for this time of year. He’d already laid out the body suit before going to bed. The water here was always so much warmer than anywhere else, except deep south Florida, or maybe the Gulf off the Pensacola pier. The Pacific was always cold, even in summer. Here, he could enjoy it year-round, even during the mild winters.
He walked out the sliding glass door in back, locked it behind him, and sat down in one of the Adirondack chairs on the back deck. The modest deck needed work, he observed. And he would get to it. He wasn’t certain yet whether it would remain; they might just tear it down and build something new. But that wasn’t important right now. It was covered with a pergola of sorts, but the wood was weathered and rotting in places. The lattice work across the top provided decent screening from the sun which this very minute was just starting to rise over the horizon to the east.
He enjoyed the quiet solitude of these early morning moments that seemed to play on the senses so much more acutely in a place like this than somewhere back in the larger world. His late father had once observed, “If you miss the morning, you miss the best part of the day.” And time had proven his father correct in this observation. It was as if each sensory organ was on a heightened state of alert. He could hear, see, and smell better somehow. The senses seemed more open to the songs and tunes of the environment.
He could see the sea off through the palms and live oaks, the waves softly breaking against the beach. He lifted the camping mug with the fresh, steaming coffee. He let the warm vapors slowly flow out across his face, put his nose into the cup like one might do at a wine-tasting, hesitated, then lifted it to his lips. Oh it was good. So good. In a few long draws, he finished the cup and set it down.
The waves probably wouldn’t be big and it wouldn’t matter; Unless a storm was coming in off the Atlantic, the swell out here was usually just enough to drive a long board forward at a decent clip. But just as he started to grab the longboard, he felt a gust hit out of the west that shook the gnarled live oaks ever so slightly. He looked up at the towering loblolly pines that dotted the property here and there, seemingly out of place among the live oaks and palms, and noticed they were now swaying in the strengthening breeze. He pondered it for a minute. A wind like this coming from the west would hit the waves coming in from the Atlantic to the east. This was the classic off-shore wind. The waves might actually be a little bigger if the wind held.
He left the long board behind and grabbed something smaller and more maneuverable, a board he could turn and play around with if the opportunity presented itself. He then walked back across the property through the live oaks and sand, careful not to trip on the exposed roots that permeated the path to the open beach. This was the easement, and small signs on both sides proclaimed, “STATE PROPERTY. PROTECTED AREA. KEEP OUT.” It was very nice buffer, he had to concede. It kept interlopers from getting too close.
At last, he emerged from the tree line and made a few observations. There were a few early walkers with dogs in both directions, but he was essentially alone; no one was in the water yet. At the water’s edge, he stood for a few minutes and looked out. As his eyes continued to adjust in the slowly emerging light from over the horizon to the east, he could barely make out the white caps of some pretty nice waves breaking over the submerged outer sandbar in the distance.
It was time to paddle out. He secured the board’s leash to his right ankle, picked up the board, and walked out into the water, sometimes the most difficult part of the entire endeavor, fighting the tide and the few waves that managed to make it all the way in to the shore. He struggled to get to the depth where he could start paddling, and finally, he was paddling out, slowly but surely.
After about five minutes of paddling, he was where he needed to be. He sat up on the board and rested. He scanned the water to his left and right and saw no one else. He had it all to himself. For the time being anyway. It was now his favorite part of the day.
And so he sat, drifting on the board, scanning the sea for the next possible set. And on this day, he was lucky; after a while, they begin to arrive. The waves were “rights” meaning they broke from left to right from the surfer’s perspective. So being a right-foot back rider, he was able to face the waves as he surfed them. This allowed him to see what the wave was doing and adjust.
He continued this pattern for a while: Paddle out. Wait. Catch a wave and ride it in. Paddle back out. Sit up. And wait. Look around and think. Ponder. Watch the sun slowly rise behind him to the east. The time between sets allowed him to think and observe things in quiet repose.
He was right where he wanted to be. Out here, he was anonymous. There were no ties to the past. The name wasn’t known and did not conjure up memories in people of things that were long ago now faded history.
It was different here than any place they had ever lived. Different from the state where he grew up; different from the state where he went to college. He had tried to go back to those places, and the places and the people had never changed. There truly was no going back; no going home again, as one of his favorite writers Thomas Wolfe had observed. That was all the past to him now. The present was here.
Here, people knew him only by what he was now. And the entire situation was refreshing. It infused him with a new sense of contentment and gave him a much-needed feeling of regeneration.
Everything was new again.
This was the main reason they were here. It was one of the few places they could go to live the way they wanted to live. They knew a few people in the area with whom they’d been friends for many years. But it was a small circle. And it would remain that way.
When they were here, the pull of the world slackened. The old commitments still existed, but they weren’t the top priority. The old things that the world deemed so important just seemed to fade into the background. And the comfortable feeling of being separated from all of the “noise” was palpable.
He considered all of these things as drifted and felt the swells pass under the board. The sun was now fully awake and rising, warming everything around him. Their little spot along the coast was coming to life. In these moments, whatever was happening anywhere else was insignificant.
He locked himself inside the moment, soaking in the silence, the clarity, the sea, the salty air, and the solitude. He realized he could make the moment go on as long as he wanted. He had earned it.
And as long as he was locked inside this moment, none of what else might be going on outside of it mattered.
Glen Hines is the author of five books, including the recently published Of Time and Rivers, and the highly-regarded Bring in the Gladiators, Observations From a Former College Football Player Who Was Never Able to Become a Fan, all available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. He is the writer and producer of the book and podcast Welcome to the Machine, available on most podcast platforms. His writing has also been featured in Sports Illustrated, Task & Purpose, and the Human Development Project.