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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)

They laughed with him. I looked at him long enough to realize that it was Buffett, without the mustache, before quickly glancing down at the stack of six Buffett cassettes next to my yellow Sony Walkman on the table. Say something, I told myself. But I couldn't, or wouldn't, before he and the cute brunette sprinted toward the surf, laughing all the way.

Nah, someone else, I told myself as I placed the earphones back in their rightful place. But that night at Rick's Cafe on the west end of Negril, where the tourists trek nightly to catch the sunset while sipping rum punches, a swarm of spring break teens sat around someone on the terrace, someone who was making them laugh. Buffett? I concluded it was when after dinner he showed up next door at La Kaiser's Cafe, a reggae club on the cliffs along the shore. I turned, and there he was, in front of me, eyebrows raised, as close to me as you are to this page. So, what did I do? Not only did I not say a word, I turned away. Thirty minutes later, I walked past him like he didn't exist as he sat on a bar stool in the middle of the milling crowd, approachable by anyone but me.

At the time, I wasn't inclined to delve too deeply into anything. And, as I've said, I'm a shy guy. But years later, I would understand that my apprehension about approaching Buffett also had a lot to do with my growing detachment from everyone around me. Here I was in a more carefree place, but still keeping others out.

Not too long after returning from Negril, a new Buffett song, "Bring Back the Magic," spoke to me about the need to allow someone in. In 1989 I did, which led to another chapter in my life, and another decade of Buffett as traveling companion -- not just for me, but for my wife and children, too.

"I DON'T KNOW WHY I HADN'T INTRODUCED JILL AND GARY SOONER. They both love sailing and Jimmy Buffett."

That was the central line of the rehearsal dinner toast from Lisa, my best woman. A tropical wedding reception with tiki bars, Hawaiian leis and hula dancers at the Key Bridge Marriott followed, then a week in Oahu, then the beginning of a life in Arlington that was increasingly less about me and more about a wife and work, a home and mortgage, and kids -- Ben, one year after we exchanged vows, and Ethan and Grace five years later. Quickly our lives became consumed by baptisms and birthdays, carnivals and camp outs, puppies and vet bills. But each summer, a life raft drifted offshore. We grabbed it.

The Buffett show had become a shared event with a like-minded soul. I was no longer flying solo with a group of friends or taking someone I knew I wouldn't be taking the following year. We'd park the '79 yellow Volvo (a.k.a. "Banana Boat") decaled with iguanas and parrots, open up our foldouts, sip margaritas and nibble on grilled chicken until the mania around us started to merge into the pavilion. This was our time, our date for the year, a contemplative but adrenalin-laden escape from parenting. We could dance, join the group singalong, simulate sharks, sail moonlit bays in search of our own suppressed dreams and ponder ancient puzzles beneath a mango tree.

But the music was becoming about our kids, as well. Tropical love songs were bumped by Buffett lyrics about barefoot children running in the rain, finger painting in the sand, a Rastafarian who could sing fish out of the sea, and, of course, pirates. I sold my dad's old fishing boat, built a play pirate ship in our back yard and watched toddler Ben strum his green plastic guitar as he watched a Buffett video.

The music touched our losses, too. My father, my captain, died of a heart attack just weeks after his last fishing trip. When I learned through Buffett's song "False Echoes" that his father had been afflicted with Alzheimer's disease, a subject I was then writing about in my public affairs job at an academic medical center, I gathered up the latest studies and sent them off to Buffett's store in Key West. Silly thing to do, part of me thought. He has plenty of resources. But I'd do the same for any acquaintance or friend, so why not for him?

I'm growing older but not up.

My metabolic rate is pleasantly stuck.

So let the winds of change blow over my head.


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