by Ray Allen
Part 1 - Mama and Papa
Chapter 6: The Harbor Pilot
In 1928, Papa heard there was an opening for a Harbor Pilot at the Port of Miami. The pilots are US government employees who work in all major ports, and board incoming and outgoing vessels to help them into and out of the immediately surrounding waters. As any ship approaches an American port, a Pilot Boat is sent out to meet it. Once alongside, the Pilot climbs on board the visiting vessel, and then assists the ship's captain into the port. They do the same for departing ships. The Biscayne Harbor Pilots in Miami today are some of the busiest in the world, since the city's cruise and cargo ports are now so large.
In Papa's day, he knew about the Harbor Pilots, and decided he'd like to be one of them. After all, he'd be able to stay home, the job paid well, and who knew Miami's waters better? He passed the tests, and in 1928 began a new career that was to last until 1945. He was the seventh Miami Harbor Pilot. There have been only 44 since the office opened in 1911.
His years as a pilot were the highest earning years of Papa's life, and carried his family comfortably through the Great Depression. His children were growing up, and they all remember the sleek red touring car the family could now afford. For Mama, it was a far cry from earlier times when he'd often be off at sea for weeks or even months at a time.
My mother always told of one time when he had been gone longer than planned that created real problems for his family. Like many men of his time, Papa was blissfully unaware of the hard work and difficult problems his wife had to deal with every day. He loved Mama, but simply handed her a few dollars each week for the household expenses, the same way his father had always done.
Mama was a great manager of money, but one time no management talent would help. Papa signed onto some ship, and was to be gone for a week. But things changed, and he was gone for almost three. Needless to say, Mama's "grocery money" ran out, and one day she found all she had in the house was onions. My mother, then a little girl, remembers eating nothing but onions for three days, hoping Papa would walk in any afternoon. But he didn't. They always said it gave them a good idea of what real poverty must be like.
Of course, Mama solved the problem by simply walking over to one of Papa's sister's houses, and borrowing a few dollars. Over the years, the Dillons helped each other like this all the time. Many times, Papa was the lender. But it was an experience my mother says her family never forgot. For the rest of her life, she never liked onions.
Being married to Ray Dillon was wonderful, but Mama could never claim he was the perfect husband. He loved to have a good time, and sometimes drank to much. He was always "out", and Mama wasn't. And after a few years, there were other women. Exactly what was going on was never clear, except in a couple of major situations that were still years in the future. Throughout it all, he was a dedicated family man, loved his wife and kids, but he also thought a man should be somewhat independent. Mama, with four children at home, knew he was a "man about town", and was willing to put up with a lot. But in later years, everyone learned that even Mama had her limit.
Papa loved being a Harbor Pilot, and as the city grew, so did the port. We have an old clipping from the Miami Herald that has Papa suggesting that the city needs some sort of "traffic cop" in Government Cut to direct the ships. They were seeing increased traffic, and his past career with the police and the difficulties of growing ship traffic seem to have converged. This was a suggestion that never was followed. But another one he used to talk about all the time was about location of the cruise port. In those days, the few cruise ships that called at Miami were docked right up against Biscayne Boulevard. I remember Papa saying in the 1940's and 1950's, "Doggone, the cruise port should be out there on Dodge Island." Dodge Island was the long thin island that was created when his father and Mr. Flagler saw to the dredging of Government Cut years before, and the long skinny island made from bay bottom just sat there, running alongside the channel. In Papa's day, all the incoming ships just sailed past it. But of course, today, the cruise port is on a much-expanded Dodge Island, which is now home to the largest cruise terminal in the world. Even though he later captained many of the P&O cruise ships that sailed from Miami during the 1950's, how Papa would marvel at the huge cruise liners that now make Miami home! And the wonderful glamorous cruise terminals that line the Dodge Island waterfront.
Now that the Dillons had a wonderful home and Papa had a good regular job, everyone remembers these as great years for the family.
The Old Nest had a huge yard, since Papa had had it built on a full half of a city block. He also had ordered a fancy cement wall that surrounded it all, with a big iron gate at one corner. In the middle of a big lawn west of the house was a round fish pond with a big urn rising in the middle that was supposed to be a fountain. I never saw the fountain work, but I think Papa saw the big Spanish mansions going up in Coral Gables and elsewhere, when Spanish revival architecture became so fashionable in Miami, and he decided to have a few of those things for his home. Big iron gates and an elegant Spanish fountain were there, but they just didn't work with the Old Nest. In fact they made no sense. But Papa didn't care. He liked beautiful things, and if he had some that didn't really go together, he never noticed. Good taste was not one of his talents.
Another item I remember in this category was a massive crystal chandelier hanging in the dining room at the Old Nest. Papa had gotten it in Cuba, and was very proud of it. The dining table Papa had had made years before, with massive carved legs from an old piano was large, but this chandelier was larger, really hotel lobby size. It must have been a good four feet wide and about five feet tall. This meant that this dazzle of crystal prisms hung from the ceiling to almost two feet from the top of the table. When we all ate dinner, the chandelier was practically in the bowls of food, and it was impossible to see through it to someone on the other side of the table. You'd have to lean down and look under it. To make matters worse, with hundreds of crystals, the thing was impossible to clean, and always looked dusty. Mama did her best, but it was hopeless. Of course, Papa loved it.
The chartreuse piano and massive crystal chandelier were only the tip of the outrageous iceberg when it came to Papa's taste. Over the years, I remember various other things that were unforgettable. There was a ship model about 3 feet long made completely of little square pieces of mirror, like the ones you see on a revolving ball in a disco club. This ship sat on the mantel for years, and it was a favorite of not only Papa's, but of course, all the grandchildren. Something that bizarre always makes a lasting impression on a child. Papa would take it down and show us how it was made. Some friend of his had crafted the whole thing, and since it was mirrored, the curve of the hull flashed light all around the room. It was made to represent a large motor yacht, and I remember the portholes along both sides were a sort of electric blue glass, and some other details, maybe a smokestack and other things on top, were red, so the whole effect was one of a dazzle of reflective color. Was it beautiful, or was it hideous? Surely, it was more fitting for a cheap waterfront bar in some exotic island port, but there it was, on Papa and Mama's mantel. Artificial flowers of every description were all around, and from time to time, other very unusual and often bright and shiny things appeared, mostly souvenirs from Papa's latest trip to Cuba.