There is something about this part of Florida. There is a certain feel to it, the closer you get to the Atlantic Ocean. Maybe it’s the cashiers at rural gas stations who call you “sugar” even though they are still in high school.
Or it could be the American flags in the abandoned field, next to the giant crucifix made of hay bales. Or the large sign next to a little country church that reads: “Body Piercing Saved My Life.”
I drive through Starke, I pass a band of Hari Krishnas standing at the traffic light. A bald man in a white tunic is playing bongos, another is playing the kazoo.
A woman knocks on my vehicle window. She looks just like my aunt Eulah, only she wears a sari and facepaint.
“Hey, sugar,” she says. “Blessings upon y’all.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” I say.
“You want a flyer?”
“Have a nice day, sugar.”
I am not interested in Hari Krishna, but this woman looks like she could be kin. When I look at her, I cannot shake the idea that I am talking to my aunt Eulah.
The same aunt who I once stayed with for an entire summer. And when my cousin and I got caught placing an M-80 in the neighbor’s mailbox, she had to discipline me.
I never forgot that. She made me go into the yard and pick out my own hickory switch.
“My own what?” I said.
“You heard me, a hickory switch.”
“What does a hickory tree look like?”
“You’re walking on thin ice young man.”
I drive past a Christmas tree farm surrounded by free-range ostriches. Every few feet there are huge live oaks with Spanish moss in the branches.
Hampton is nice, so is Keystone Heights. Ever since Lake City, I have counted sixteen thousand Baptist churches.
Old trailer homes, suspended on blocks. An abandoned house with a blue-and-orange mailbox painted with: “GO GATORS!”
One of my cousins attended the University of Florida against his father’s wishes. His father was so put off by it that when my cousin sent a stuffed gator home, my uncle allegedly lit it on fire.
That same uncle used to tell a good joke about a Florida graduate changing a lightbulb. I can’t repeat it here.
But I like the University of Florida. I have had several friends who attended. Once, my friend Greg and I got invited to a giant—and I mean humongous—fraternity party.
Greg stayed with his grandmother, I had a camper shell on the back of my truck. I camped in front of Walmart.
Security busted me early in the morning and told me to get lost or they were going to call the police. I was just glad the man in the official uniform didn’t tell me I had to pick out my own hickory switch.
The frat party was the biggest shindig I have ever seen. Someone even rented an inflatable bouncy castle. My friend Greg and I were pretty excited about this. We spent the entire party jumping in the bouncy castle and didn’t talk to a single college girl.
I have just pulled over at a Dollar General to buy snacks. In the parking lot, I see an elderly man, shirtless, barefoot, smoking a cigarette, and giving himself what I believe to be an insulin shot.
He waves at me. I wave back.
“It’s a hot one today,” he says.
“Watch out for the Hari Krishnas,” I tell him.
“Not them again.”
I pass Lake Geneva, Putnam Hall, and we’re talking old-time Florida here. It’s like stepping backward in time when folks in Clay County used to do things like get together and have street dances and beat each other with hickory switches.
And the churches keep flying by. I have passed a hundred. A few Assemblies of God, some Brethren congregations. Tons of Baptists.
Billy Graham was ordained in Palatka, just up the road. I visited the clapboard chapel where it happened. Billy was baptized over in Silver Lake. He probably preached at some of these places.
I pass Etoniah Creek, laden with small cypress trees in boggy marshes.
And Interlachen, which features some of the swankiest mobile homes the 1970’s had to offer.
Old Camaros on cinder blocks. Trees suffocated with incredible vines. Ravine Gardens State Park. Lake Swan. Goose Lake. The Mighty Saint Johns River.
I am a son of the Florida Panhandle, my greatest memories come from the other side of the state, only miles from the Alabama line, but the Sunshine State is a piece of me.
These are my people. They are the kind who either love the University of Florida or set fire to the mascot and shout “Roll Tide.” Or bark like Bulldogs. Or whoop like Seminoles. Some of our folks are a little weird. Others join Hari Krishna.
But they are special people, with creek water in their blood, who tell you to go pick out a hickory switch. But when you do, they don’t have the heart to use it.
So instead, they give you a stern talking to and say, “Promise me that you’ll never put an M-eighty in a mailbox again.”
And after all these years, I have kept my promise.
Have a nice day, sugar.
Naqomi - June 29, 2019 11:10 am
The first time that I saw the ocean was in the 1950s when I was in elementary school and my Girl Scout leader took us all to Panama City. When we got there, I thought that it had snowed because the sand was so white. In the 1950s, there were no hotels or condominiums. There was a Piggly Wiggly where we bought groceries to cook our own meals because there were no restaurants or fast-food restaurants. We rented a little cabin down a sand road about 1/4 mile from the beach. The water smelled like rotten eggs which I found out later was from the sulfur in the water. There was a little store at the end of our dirt road that sold soft drinks, candy, popsicles and souvenirs. Although my Girl Scout leader was probably in her 50s, she would do crazy things. One time there was a boy thumbing a ride as he was walking down the beach. We dared her to pick him up. She slammed on her brakes, backed up and picked him up. It turned out that his father was a professor at a nearby university; later he came to live with her and her husband for a while in Birmingham. Another time, she was driving along and saw up ahead that the police who were stopping cars and checking their driver’s license and insurance. Before we got there, she told us that her driver’s license had expired and that when she had gone to renew it, she flunked the written driver’s test. All of us were too young to drive and we didn’t know what they would do to her. When we got to the checkpoint, she rolled down her window and told the policeman that she was down there with her Girl Scout troop. He said, “OK lady, go on through”. He never asked to see her license.
Tom Zaccardi - June 29, 2019 11:38 am
Pretty darn good description of that part of Florida. Living all those years in Gainesville, and then elsewhere in Florida, and now back home here in Santa Rosa Beach, it is amazing the number of folks who have never been over here and yet call themselves Floridians.
Janie F. - June 29, 2019 12:23 pm
Though I was born in Blakely, Ga near Kolomoki Mounds I came to Central Fl as a 4 or 5 year old. In my 64 years of life I’ve seen our little town go from a small safe neighborhood surrounded by thousands of acres of orange groves to a place I hardly recognize. The orange groves are being pushed over and burned at an alarming rate to be replaced by tons of concrete and houses by the thousands. Our way of life is slowly being destroyed and it’s a real shame.
The Florida of my youth is but a memory, the kids born here now won’t know the beauty of all those orange trees standing side by side mile after mile or the sight of palmettos and pines gracing wooded areas.
I love that you write about the places in our state that have held onto their history.
angie5804 - June 29, 2019 12:53 pm
oh the memories! Gold Head State Park, the Ravines, Strickland’s Landing (no longer there), Keystone Heights, Palatka, then further down to Ocala, Lochloosa, Micanopy, Howie-in-the-Hills, Astor on the St. Johns, Mount Dora, to Winter Haven where we raised our kids.I grew up in Jacksonville but have still not fully explored Florida.Our hope isto be back within the next year. Maybe our final move…
Sue Riddle Cronkite - June 29, 2019 1:25 pm
What’s an M-80, Sugar?
Gerald - July 29, 2019 1:02 pm
BIG with a capital B firecracker. If you closed the door it could destroy a mailbox.
Clark - June 29, 2019 2:03 pm
I grew up listening to Jerry Clower then read Lewis Grizzard as a young adult. You’re the next of the great southern storytellers! I look forward to your story every day and appreciate what you do!
Shelton A. - June 29, 2019 2:49 pm
My grandmother (Dad’s side) and my mom made me pick out my own switch…and I knew it better be a good one.
Jess in Athens, GA - June 29, 2019 2:54 pm
Sean, that was an interesting read about our home state. I was born on a cattle ranch in Kissimmee and am a fourth generation Floridian. I’m so old that when I was born Florida was still considered to be a Southern state. Like you I love old Florida and native Floridians…the ones that have families stretching back generations because they know what a great state Florida used to be. Not so anymore as far as I’m concerned. I had planned on returning once I retired from the Army, but Florida got waaaaay too crowded for me. I settled in Athens, GA, and now am a certified Bulldog fan……..go Dawgs!!!!!!!
Linda Moon - June 29, 2019 3:27 pm
Being a lover of all Four Seasons, I’ve never spent a lot of time in Florida. It seems to be a one-season state: no Fall leaves and colors, no Winter snow, no Spring with early blooms – – only one Long Hot Summer. After reading your post, I think I’ve missed a lot. You have a nice day, too, Sugar! Find some shade and sunscreen and stay cool!
Ken Dunn - June 29, 2019 4:50 pm
Glad you and Jamie are enjoying your tour of “cracker’ country. You can spot a Florida “cracker” a mile away because they will have a Seminole or Gator shirt on. Kinda like L.A. where we have Alabama or Auburn shirts on. I’m like you and have blown up a lot of things with M-80’s- no mail boxes though because that is a Federal offense. To the person who wanted to know about a M-80 it’s a piece of fireworks that packs a wallop just about a 10th the power of dynamite.
Allie - June 30, 2019 5:05 pm
I have two degrees from FSU, still live here but trying to get out. (Areas surrounding TLH probably some of the last bastions of Old Florida: Apalach, Forgotten Coast, Nature Coast, Monticello, et al).
Proudly an LA native and get funny looks when I wear Alabama gear. Hay, sugar. Numbers don’t lie. I did not wear it during a year-long gig in Knoxville. Didn’t want my tires slashed.
Jack Darnell - June 30, 2019 2:03 pm
I like Palatka, while in GITMO my son’s closest friend was called “Palatka Joe.” We never drive thru there and the subject not come up.
Good ‘un. Not sure about that bouncy thang!
Sherry & jack
lovemonteelou - July 29, 2019 1:49 pm
I love driving through the Florida Panhandle. It is like going back in time.