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24 May 2008

Ode to St. Augie

I’ve often said that English is the most beautiful and nuanced language in the world. And one day not too long ago I witnessed what amounted to a textbook confirmation of its effectiveness.

As a novelist and painter, I suspect I’ve given two-thirds of my life to staring out windows, dozing in porch chairs, sharpening pencils, folding and launching paper airplanes, feeding cats, and trying to remember the name of my junior high school gym teacher — all in the interest of visualizing the way things were and relating them to the way things are. In a world that honors superhighway fast, super-glitz, super-big bucks and super-clout, I am a side-street Too-Loose la Trek.

That’s why I like St. Augustine so much. We were made for each other.

It’s the nation’s oldest city, a waterfront municipality that was bustling with wheelers and dealers and saloon keepers and soldiers of fortune and ladies of the night years before the landings at Plymouth Rock. Today, I, the nation’s oldest teenager, live and work in a couple of houses whose land deeds date from 1603 and stand side by side on one of the oldest streets in that oldest city. (The houses have been brought up to date a bit, of course, since the original places had no automatic dish washers and microwave ovens and like that, and I’m not — even if the city codes permitted — very big on fireplace cooking and backyard privies.)

Living areas of the houses are on the second floor, while kitchen, utility, and storage are on the first floor. The design, especially the second floor porches overhanging the street, derives from the 17th Century need to make it tougher for pirates, marauders, and enemy military units to get at the defending locals. Today it makes it tougher for UPS, Fed-Ex, assorted tradesmen, and old friends from the North to find the right freaking doorbell.

From the porch of my second-floor office I can see a piece of the bay and the boats bobbing at anchor there. A few hundred yards north is where Admiral Don Pedro Menendez stepped ashore in 1592 to set up shop in the name of Spain. Some fewer yards east stands the great gray fort the don built to command the Matanzas bay and its inlet from the Atlantic, and when I drive past it every day it isn’t hard to imagine the helmeted heads and muskets and pikes and flags silhouetted among the crenellations on those formidable walls.

When I go down to the plaza to the south, I pass ranks of architecture built by boilerplate Spanish dudes four centuries ago. When I drive out some of the state roads west of town, I can find instant wilderness, with miles of towering forests made impenetrable by palmetto thickets and bayonet grass, swamps teeming with primordial life forms, turgid streams hosting gators and snakes. Even International Golf Village Drive, which leads to one of the glossiest and most sophisticated playgrounds in the Southeast, is flanked by scenes that would be right at home in that old King Kong movie. Whichever way I go, town or country, I get a clear picture of how much time has passed, and what it must have been like to live around here in olden times.

Which, I’ve decided, couldn’t have been very much different from what it’s like to live here today. The pirates and marauders have been replaced by tourists and sightseers who, when they’re not tearing off shutter-dogs and lifting flowerpots as souvenirs, are knocking on the doors and asking to use the bathroom. Instead of invading armies, we get hordes of motorcyclists, en route to Daytona’s seemingly interminable Bike Week, thundering and blattering and rattling the windows in the ancient canyons. The fort daily confronts the onslaughts of camera-slinging fatties in shorts and funny hats from San Diego and Omaha and Dubuque and London and Munich and Tokyo and Quebec — any place anywhere in the world that’s home for travel nuts. Nor does the wilderness escape; when it’s not serving as a location for movie crews, it’s being hacked at by developers who want to replace Kong and his contemporaries with high rises.

In the Historic Preservation Area, where I live, furriners of every persuasion and language consider the whole kaboodle to be a walking mall devoted entirely to their convenience — sort of a Disneyland for Paunchy Adults — and they give you dirty looks for trying to drive into your own driveway. If I went to the towns where they live and did only half of what they do routinely in my town, I’d be hauled in and told to call my lawyer. What is it about tourists from Elsewhere that makes them think they have special license to act like jerks when they’re in Herewhere?

So, as you can see, the town is like me, and I’m like the town. We’re both antediluvian and try to be pleasant even so, but below the surface burbles a lava-like stratum of WalterMatthauean up-yoursness.

Anyhow, back to my point: I was out on the office porch one fine day, standing on a step ladder while changing a bulb in one of those 17th Century lanterns, when I heard a little kid whining in French. I peered down at the street, and coming along was a youngish couple, dragging this malcontented little fellah between them. In his high-pitched caterwaul, it was like “Papa, chevrolet toupé citroen crepes,” over and over again.

As I watched, the father leaned down and murmured in a cautionary tone, “Pierre, non mon mons sans souci chateau de thierry.”

“Papa, chevrolet toupé. . . ”

Papa’s murmur became stern, more pointed. “Pierre, non mon mons.”

The kid’s whine became a screech. “Papa! Chevrolet toupé crepes suzette!”

Whereupon Papa took the little blighter by the shoulders and, kneeling into a nose-to-nose glaring, roared, “Pierre, just shut the damn hell up!

As the trio disappeared down the street, there wasn’t another peep out of Pierre. I had a close call, though, nearly falling off the ladder due to my laughing so hard.

Yessir, English is one helluva language. Especially suited to St. Augustine.

-0-

On the more somber side, I need only to stroll into my garden for a return of the eerie thrill I first felt when the town archeologist assured me that as far back as Christ — and even beyond that — itinerant aborigines were camping on the ground beneath me.

It’s harder to envision the thousands of square miles of jungle-like wilderness that existed as late as the Civil War in the triangle formed by the fishing villages of Daytona, Miami, and Tampa. It gets easier, though, when I take that road leading from U.S. 1 to the World Golf Village. For the state of Florida, as for all things, there was a beginning, and on that drive it’s quite apparent how dismaying the virgin territory must have appeared to the early arrivals. It’s amazing that anybody stayed long enough to set up one fishing village, let alone three of them in a peninsula-wide triangle.

In my novelist’s trade, the traditional requirement is that a story must have a beginning, a “muddle,” and an ending. And on one of those drives it occurred to me that I, personally, and Florida and the town where I live have a way of compartmentalizing everything in that tidy way.

My beginning some eight decades ago, like St. Augustine’s four centuries ago, was rooted in a kind of frontier mentality, with a sense of great challenges and exciting rewards ahead. My “muddle,” like my town’s, contained all the features of drama’s Act Two, what with economic hardship, a king-size war that made living to the age of 30 a matter of considerable doubt, the subsequent struggle to raise and educate healthy, law-abiding, God-fearing youngsters in the face of great social and political upheaval. And now I’m coming through Act Three to the ending, with a sense of the denouement and resolution playing out.

I’m hoping this last part is where the metaphor unravels. I’m hoping that Florida’s and St. Augustine’s stories, although well advanced, are nowhere near playing out. I’m hoping that my progeny, now deep into their own “muddles,” have a long time to go before they reach their Act Three.

I kid you not. Every time I take a look around me, taking in this beautiful old town and the vibrant state it belongs to, one thought overshadows all others:

These are the Good Old Days.

Today is the only day I have. Yesterday is gone forever, and nothing can be done to change it. Tomorrow isn’t here yet, and I can’t live it until it arrives.

The trick is to fill today — the Good Old Day I’ve got — with thoughts and attitudes and deeds that will be tomorrow’s fond memories.

God, how glad I am that my home place helps me so much as I work on that.

Jack

Copyright © 2008 by Jack D. Hunter.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.

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