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Cristina Bettencourt of Bowie grooves to the sounds of Jimmy Buffet at Merriweather Post Pavilion in July 2003.
Cristina Bettencourt of Bowie grooves to the sounds of Jimmy Buffet at Merriweather Post Pavilion in July 2003. (Kevin Clark - Kevin Clark)

Something else in Buffett's music was resonating in me -- the sea. Since I was knee-high to my father, my weekends were spent on a 22-foot sports fisherman off the Jersey Shore. Early on, I was ballast, but years later, my dad handed me a pole, too. We'd bottom-fish for fluke, troll for blues, trek miles out -- where eyes couldn't reach land -- to track tuna. Often we'd rock silently but for the sounds of waves splashing the sides of the boat, the seagulls and the radio static of a Yankees' game. Onboard music, by captain's orders, was limited to Zamfir and his pan flute -- a new form of water torture -- and Polish polkas that turned our Irish-Scottish ancestors over in their graves. Then, one balmy day in the late '70s, I handed the captain an eight-track tape of Buffett, to whom he paid his highest tribute: "Play that one again."

The composition was "Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes," and like many Buffett ballads about bayous and shrimp boats, it lent poetry to the sea. For me and my dad, these melodies gave voice to what we felt as we sat quietly aboard in the salt air, unable to express ourselves what the sea and these trips meant to us.

MY '80S KICKED OFF WITH GRADUATE SCHOOL AT AMERICAN UNIVERSITY, followed by an array of journalism jobs covering Congress, the courts, health and veterans affairs. I wanted an adventure, and Washington was a heady one. In kicking off my sandals for leather shoes, I'd taken a Buffett break, too. What I knew of his world didn't fit with the new one I was being lured into. It was time to focus, not flee. But in a sense, I saw later, I was fleeing -- from myself and memories of a war that had left me feeling isolated from those around me. I knew I had to face those ghosts.

I joined a Vietnam veterans group in McLean, where over 12 weeks I finally broke a decade of silence about my experiences. I was not cured but recovering, and you'd think that would have set me in a purposeful direction. Instead, it led me deeper inside to try to resolve the unresolvable -- the death of a member of my squad, the destruction of a village. So, rather than continue to carve out a career path like my peers, in 1983 I headed for a remote, lakeside cabin in southern Maine, where over the course of a winter I poured my ghosts onto paper, hoping to publish a novel. My only company was Fred, a Saint Bernard-golden retriever mix I had picked up at the SPCA, and the sound of a barely audible, classical music station out of Portland. As the temperatures reached sub-zero, and I warmed myself by the wood-burning stove, Buffett was nowhere in earshot.

He surfaced again in 1984, when I returned to Washington, where I was now ready, I told myself, to move ahead rather than back. I took a job as an editor for a legal magazine in Georgetown, and I rented a top-floor Foggy Bottom apartment, where I'd host Friday night margarita parties, disco ball included, for friends and colleagues. Life was good, life was fun, and Jimmy Buffett stopped at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia each summer.

I was discovering a different me, but a different Buffett, too: less mobile and more mellow, more contemplative Caribbean soul than country-folk singer, his concerts enveloped in a circus-like atmosphere. Buffett's children of the '70s had evolved into exotic personalities wearing grass skirts and feathered hats. Their tailgate parties had turned into luaus with Cajun queens and court jesters, Flamenco dancers and Elvis impersonators, parrots and pirates. Many of the fans were younger, too -- high school and college students. Buffett had attracted a new generation of followers. These fans were later coined Parrotheads by a member of Buffett's band, the Coral Reefers, and I saw them as live characters in his songs -- putting the top down and dancing the Conga line till daybreak but still searching for distant islands, their own Margarita-villes. The essence of Buffett, that sense of carefree escape, was still intact.

Given where I was, the ride now was more about moonlight and starlight, rhythms of the heart and romance. Let someone move you, Buffett's lyrics suggested to me. But as a single man in the mid-'80s, making myself vulnerable was the last thing I was interested in doing. I had just broken up with the woman I thought I would marry and had entered into a series of brief relationships that purposely left little room for real intimacy. I was better off seeking fun than a serious relationship, I told myself, and Buffett's music could help with that, too.

So, naturally I said "sure" when in 1986 a friend from graduate school asked if I'd be interested in traveling with her to Jamaica. Fodor's described a sybaritic, seven-mile stretch of pink sand, chicken grills and reggae clubs in Negril, a place where you could get by for a week with only a bathing suit and a T-shirt. The only other thing I had to pack was my collection of Buffett tapes. Off we went.

Of course, Fodor's hadn't mentioned the ganja-peddling Rastafarians walking the beach. So, the trip was very relaxing and uneventful, until day three, when I found myself sitting at a tiny, thatched beach bar at the Negril Tree House hotel. There was I, the bartender, three guys at another table and a guy standing next to me who looked and sounded just like Jimmy Buffett, with a cute brunette on his arm.

"Got one I can borrow?" asked this Buffett clone, nodding toward a pack of cigarettes on the guys' table. "All I got are OPs."

"OPs?" one of the guys asked.

"Other people's," he laughed.

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