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.