Reader Reactions & Anecdotes

 

Addendum: 24 August 2008

Ponderings Department: Fay

Fay, the tropical storm that yearned to be a hurricane but never quite made it, finally moved out of town and plodded its angry way west toward the Panhandle. While it was here, it most certainly got my attention.

In my 30-some years of residence in Florida, I’ve witnessed some pretty awful weather, from hurricanes and floods on the one extreme to inert, baking drought on the other. And every time, when coming out on the other side, I’ve been humbled, moved by the terrible suspicion that the world has been grabbed by the lapels, given a vengeful shaking, and delivered a dreadful reminder: “You jerks are in charge of nothing. You are here at my sufferance. Make me mad enough and I’ll take it all back.”

I’m hardly what a priest or a preacher or a rabbi or an imam or any other practitioner of an organized religion would call a religious person. Yet I have experienced too many personal miracles, too many narrow escapes, too much inexplicable and unearned absolution to be smugly sure that I am my own man, that I am in charge of my destiny, that what I see, hear, feel, smell, and taste constitute reality. By that token, then, I have my own religion: There’s Somebody Out There who owns it all and runs it.

My dear little cat comes and goes in my house, enjoys her domination of the tiny creatures that live within the tall walls of my rear garden, and within her frame of reference it’s all part of her reality. But of my ownership of her world, of my readiness to grant her full cat privileges there so long as she doesn’t violate my rules, she hasn’t the tiniest clue. She’s not programed to understand that level of my universe, my reality. She simply accepts me as the presiding, albeit inexplicable spring source of her sustenance and protection, and the house and garden come with the deal, like clouds and grass and tuna fish. Moreover, she seems to understand that if she displeases me enough I can take it all away and banish her to the dreadful world beyond the tall walls. Consequently I am her deity, and in her way, she worships and obeys me. So is it so hard to extrapolate — to believe that there’s a larger, analogous reality beyond what I myself am programed to comprehend?

The sophisticate, the theologian, the ultra-cool and cynical can scoff and dismiss me as hopelessly puerile and superstitious. But I’m willing to bet that the scoffers have never sat in the midnight gloom of a power-dead house in the middle of a flooded, blacked-out town, listening to the shrieking wind and the lashing rain and the shutters and shingles tearing away and the glass breaking, blinking against the flash-bulb glare of incessant lightning, feeling the oppressive heat and the sense of imminent implosion. If they had, they couldn’t be so supercilious. They would have to cut me some slack, because there’s no way they themselves could endure such a night without at least once recognizing their total impotence and feeling the presence of a stupendous, angry intelligence.

What’s the old saying? There are no atheists in a foxhole?

23 August 2008

Of Legends and Gratitude

St. Augustine has been my home since 1979, when my late wife and I, tired of the frigid winters of the Chesapeake Bay country, moved into a jillion-year-old casa next to an ancient orange grove in the downtown historic district. In the subsequent 30 years, the town has metamorphosed from a sleepy little Old World village into a walking mall for rich and restless adults from all over the globe, and I, alas, have metamorphosed from an aspiring Scott Fitzgerald into a poor man’s Walter Matthau.

But Florida as a whole and St. Augie in particular have been kind to me. I learned to admire and respect my neighbors for their industry and generosity and laid-back ways. And they, in turn, indulged me amiably as a weird kind of Yankee who had no job, choosing instead to spend his days writing books and painting pictures and banging on the piano.

Last week I learned the truth with special poignancy. There was this huge banquet at the World Golf Village, and they made me put on a suit and tie and sit with famed Florida author Stetson Kennedy and the son of author Patrick Smith while Secretary of State Kurt Browning cited the three of us as “Florida Literary Legends.” But first, renowned impersonator Don Runk III, complete with white hair, a glass of booze and a huge cigar, twitted us in his persona as Mark Twain:

Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to the Inaugural Literary Legends Awards Banquet of the Florida Heritage Book Festival, celebrating the books, and in this instance, the authors, that bring Florida to life. Personally, I thought Florida’s been alive since Juan Ponce De Leon came here in 1513, but what do I know! Just remember, I am not one of those who, in expressing opinions, confine themselves to the facts. I have been cautioned to talk, but be careful not to say anything. I do not consider this a difficult task.

I was once introduced in London in 1899 as one of the Worlds Greatest Authors and said I was sorry to have my name mentioned in such company, because the World’s Greatest Authors have a sad habit of dying off. Chaucer is dead, Spenser is dead, so is Milton, so is Shakespeare, and I’m not feeling too well myself. When I was asked to introduce our honorees I was pleased but explained that it usually takes me 3 weeks to prepare an impromptu speech. So, I’ll give my advice on attempting the same, should YOU ever find yourself in this situation. Get your facts first! And then you can distort ’em as much as you please.

Literary Legends
Hunter, Twain & Kennedy Share a Joke

With that being said I have a few words regarding our three Literary Legends, as we honor these icons for their contributions to Florida Heritage and Literature. To our three inductees, I preface my remarks with this: An Author should always value a compliment; even when it comes from a source of doubtful competency. Therefore, I submit the following authors, to those assembled, as the Florida Heritage Book Festival Honorees for 2008.

Our first honoree has a first name that means “God has been gracious — has shown favor ” and a surname that means “one who hunts.” When Jack Hunter was born doctors gave him up as stillborn, but he defied their diagnosis and as he grew up he ignored school books as boring and mostly irrelevant but graduated, with honors, from High School and College. (Personally, I never let schooling interfere with my education.)

Jack Hunter has written 16 novels including The Blue Max which publishers disdained as un-publishable (I can identify with that, had the same problem myself.) The Blue Max later went on to sell a million copies and became a major motion picture in 1966 starring James Mason and George Peppard. He added The Blood Order and The Tin Cravat to complete the Blue Max Trilogy. His book Addie, set in St Augustine in the 1880’s, he wrote under the pen name Lee Thompson. And Mr. Hunter has The Ace scheduled for publication next month. (Now it could be the Ace of Hearts — Diamonds — Clubs — or Spades, but I don’t want to give away too much of the plot.) Congratulations, Mr. Hunter, on this well deserved honor.

Our next 2008 honoree has a first name that means “Cowboy Hat” and a surname that means “Chief with a Helmet.” Fitting, I think, since Stetson Kennedy has worn various hats as part of his writing career! Of his 1942 work Palmetto Country, his friend Woody Guthrie, a folk singer and composer said “I don’t know of a book on my whole shelf that hits me harder that Palmetto Country. It gives me a better taste and look and feel for Florida than I got in the 47 states I’ve actually been, in body, and tramped in boot.” His undercover agent work, formerly titled I Rode With the Ku Klux Klan, re-titled The Klan Unmasked, revealed the inner workings of the Klan and other hate mongering groups. His most recent work in 1995, After Appomattox, explains how the Old South converted military defeat into political and social victory. (Dad gum it . . . I knew the South won that skirmish . . . thank you for clearing that up, Mr. Kennedy.) In 2004 Stetson Kennedy was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in Tallahassee. I send my sincerest compliments to Mr. Stetson Kennedy on this honor. (You know, I can live for 2 months on a good compliment.)

Our final honoree this evening has a first name that means “Nobleman” and a surname that means “Tradesman.” (Though Patrick Smith sounds more like a pseudonym than Mark Twain ever did, the way I see it.) Patrick Smith was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in Tallahassee in 1999. Mr. Smith is a three-time nominee for the Pulitzer Prize: in 1973 for Forever Island, in 1978 for Angel City, and in 1984 for A Land Remembered. It’s been written that after reading A Land Remembered, you can never again drive through Florida without thinking of its rich history thanks to Patrick Smith’s vivid imagery.” Patrick Smith is author of over a dozen books and short stories: The River Is Home, The Last Ride, A White Deer, and others. It’s also been written that Patrick Smith “ . . . is in the same league with Ernest Hemingway, Marjorie Kinnan-Rawlings, Mark Twain and others who wrote so insightfully of the human condition.” (Wasn’t that nice that they included me!) I congratulate Mr. Smith, (if that’s his real name,) on this most prestigious honor.

I leave you with a couple of thoughts; “There is only one expert who is qualified to examine the souls and life of a people and make a valuable report — the native novelist.” Our three inductees share that distinction.

Well, I’ve taken enough of your valuable time . . . but before I go . . . many of you in attendance may have hopes or aspirations to follow these three into the wonderful world of literature. “For aspiring writers in the audience I have this advice: Write without pay until somebody offers to pay. If nobody offers within three years the candidate may look upon this circumstance with the most implicit confidence as a sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for.”

* * *

Accepting Award
Hunter's Acceptance Speech

When “Mark Twain” had finished and a five-minute film on me had been screened, I was propelled to the podium by my darling daughter, Jill, who told me (I’m deaf as a post and failed to hear the invitation) that I’d been asked to say a few words. I managed to mumble my gratitude, and when I returned to my seat, I became suddenly astonished by the realization that all those elegant ladies and gentlemen were giving me a standing ovation.

I turned up my hearing aids and settled down to listen to “Twain’s” kidding of Kennedy and Smith and to their thank-you speeches, and as I sat there my mind kept telling me that my neighbors all along, over all the years, had understood precisely what I am and what I am not and approved of me anyhow. Alone in the ebullient crowd, it was all I could do to keep back the tears.

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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