Helen Chappell - May 2007
What I Did on My Winter Vacation
“I dreamed I saw St. Augustine, alive with fiery breath,” Bob Dylan sang back in the day.
And now that I’ve seen this charming Florida city named after St. Augustine of Hippo, I can tell you that fiery breath smells powerfully of fried fish, fried conch and fried gator tail. But that’s how you know you’re in the South, by the powerful redolence of deep fried seafood. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. And I’m betting St. Augustine, being old school, would enjoy his namesake town as much as I did.
After all, St. Augustine was the one who prayed, “Lord make me holy. . . just not right now.” He would enjoy this town in the subtropics of what the local news calls “Central Florida,” where palm and pine woods, filled with palmettos and hung with Spanish moss, sit cheek by jowl with gated communities full of brand new Mediterranean Spanish Colonials spread out across the drained wetlands. Inside the ring of new development, the charming old town of Cochina, tabby, red roofing tile and wood hosts a historical Tourist Land to make St. Michaels proud. With a long and bloody history, starting with the Spanish killing the locals and pretty much anyone else who got in their way in from 1586 until the Elizabethan pirates invaded, and did the same, through a blood-soaked tug of war that passed the next three centuries. At various times, the English, the French, the Spanish, the Americans (again), the Confederacy and then the Americans (again) overran the place.
Now it’s pretty much overrun with developers, WASP retirees, tourists and college students. Happily, the blood flow has tapered off, until it’s just a few bar fights down at Scarlet O’Hara’s on Saturday nights, and even the karaoke is more painful than the drunken punches.
This is a lovely place. The history is rich, the sea and landscape beautiful, the architecture wonderful, the ambience welcoming and the restaurants divine. Even the act of doing something as simple as sitting quietly on a bulkhead beside the Intercoastal, watching the boats and the pelicans, soaking up the warm sun on your cold wintry skin becomes a daily blessing.
With the winter weather in the low 80s during the day and a crisp high 50s at night, a visitor from slushy Maryland puts on her resort clothes to step out to the Palm Coast Yacht Club for dinner.
For we who live just below the slushy Smith and Wesson Line, this is positively summery. Linen pants and sandals with a sweater draped casually over one’s T-shirt seem just right. But the place is filled with former Yankees who seem to be freezing, all nicely bundled up in their wool sports coats and Pendleton skirts.
Still, one is thinking one is looking pretty hot anyway. Until one retiree, who seems to be the self-appointed club bouncer and the Condo Commando of his gated community asks one’s two-and-one- half years older brother if one is Big Bro’s mother.
Then one is pretty horrified, especially when one realizes, after a look around the room that one is probably the youngest geezer in the room, and probably the only one there who actually knows who Bob Dylan is. One does not doubt many members know St. Augustine personally. In fact one expects to see the old gent bellying up to the bar, having a scotch rocks, charming all the ladies of a certain age with his amazing abilities as a raconteur.
Three vodka and tonics later, one is able to laugh at the geriatric bouncer and, happily, oneself. It’s things like this that make really good copy.
Moving right along, it is not only legal, but apparently necessary to drive on the beaches in St. John’s county. With four wheel drive, you can not only avoid the traffic on A1A, the old main drag, you can also roll down the sandy shores of the Atlantic, stop, go surf fishing, have a picnic and maybe even sleep there. As long as you don’t touch the dunes, which are large and truly lovely, covered in sea grass and wild vines, you can pretty much do anything you want.
Local rumor has it that actor Sean Connery owns one large McMansion fronting the beach. Painted a steely New England gray with puritanical white trim, it looks more like a Bar Harbor hotel than the beach home of James Bond. It does have a certain dour Scots look to it, incongruous amid the corals, blues and hubba-hubba yellow hues of its neighbors. As far as can be determined without a search on snopes.com, Mr. Connery has never actually been seen in the vicinity of St. Augustine, but that doesn’t stop speculative plans to actually park on the beach in front of Morbid Manor just to stalk him.
But there are better things to do than wait for an actor who may or may not make an appearance. As befits an old, old town with a long and often dramatic history, St. Augustine is crawling with ghosts.
And what better way to see the restless undead than by taking a ghost tour via ’74 Cadillac hearse? No way was that going to get passed up! So, at the witching hour of nine on a Sunday night, when one would expect most self-respecting ghosts to be home, watching Desperate Housewives, we set out to see- - - and feel- - - the supernatural.
With the ancient hearse’s horn mysteriously honking without a hand being placed on the wheel, and the unholy whining of what must have certainly been the spirits of long-dead fan belts providing an eerie soundtrack, our hapless guide, Al, drove us through the narrow streets of the old city, desperately trying to remember his docent patter as we stopped at an old inn, a cemetery, a barracks, and a couple of genuinely creepy Victorians in the garden district. One respectable looking mansion was the scene of the machete murder of a woman of a thoroughly obnoxious reputation. Sliced down on her front doorstep after a lifetime of creating trouble for everyone in town, she was. Not surprisingly, the man charged with her murder, a next-door neighbor who allegedly reached the end of his tether after some disagreement over local politics, was acquitted. Probably a lot of people thought he deserved a medal. That classic southern defense, “They needed killin’,” once again came into play. Sit through enough homicide trials, and you may end up, after hearing a long series of misdeeds on the part of the deceased, agree the victim needed killin’, too. Especially when local politics are involved.
However, the height of the tour was a stop at the beautiful old lighthouse. It may have been replaced by the Coast Guard with some newfangled device that works better, but it’s been restored and lovingly kept up as a romantic symbol of the maritime past. According to local lore, the place has more ghosts per square inch than WalMart has cheap plastic crap. I believe it. As Al was doing his spiel, I happened to glance toward the brick wall that separates the lighthouse from the keeper’s quarters. I saw a flash of yellow cloth behind the wall, as if someone were walking behind the wall.
When I walked over to investigate further, there was no one there.
I’m pretty sure I saw a ghost in foul weather gear.
Later, as our party was dissecting the evening over red wine at Scarlett O’Hara’s, we started talking about the fellow members of our tour. They included a honeymooning couple from upstate New York and two elderly, credulous retired teachers.
“St. Augustine in miniature,” I mumbled into my wineglass. “We took a hearse tour with the newly wed and the nearly dead.”