Palatka, Florida—My daddy once told me that when folks die, they go to stainless steel dining cars that serve onion rings.
That’s where I am.
Angel’s is the oldest diner in Florida. It’s a rail car made of metal and checkered floors that carries people back to 1932.
On the walls: photographs of successful gator hunts, old pictures. On the menu: the usual American fare—along with frog legs, gizzards, and chicken livers.
Waitresses in camouflage T-shirts take orders, then pass paper tickets to a man in a white apron.
The joint is crowded. I’m at the counter, sipping coffee. Some fella’s elbows are touching mine. He’s from Wisconsin, and he’s eating onion rings.
“We’re buying a house here,” he says with a mouthful. “We knew we wanted to live here after only ONE visit. This place is just so darn special, don’cha know. ”
It sure is. Palatka sits on the Saint Johns River, surrounded by trees draped in moss, and porches with dogs on them.
Billy Graham got baptized up the road. They dunked him in Silver lake, then
ordained him in a clapboard church beneath the live oaks.
I visited that very church this morning. I listened for the shouting of a young Billy, still bouncing off wood floors. My father was no saint, but he loved Billy Graham.
In Palatka proper, there are old brick roads poking through paved streets, ancient storefronts, and a downhome community college.
Last night, I spoke at the Florida School of the Arts. I arrived at the auditorium early. The soundman flipped on stage lights to reveal a Grand-Ole-Opry themed stage.
“We built this just for you,” he said.
It made my eyes wet. “Why,” I asked, “would anyone do that?”
“‘Cause this is Palatka,” was the response. “We support people we love.”
Love. It abounds here. I met a woman who works at a domestic violence shelter. Her skin was midnight,…