But here in Palatka, people still get together for barbecues.

PALATKA—It’s early morning in Florida. There are billions of crickets singing. I am overlooking the Saint Johns River, which cuts straight through Putnam County, and it’s hypnotizing.

If you were to ask what I am thinking about right now, I would tell you flat out: I am thinking of taco dip.

This is because I am a man. Men don’t think complex thoughts. We think painfully simple things. If you could peek inside a grown male’s head, it would shock you. You would find nothing but cobwebs, empty potato-chip bags, and Dale Earnhardt posters.

There is a bass boat out this morning. A man teaches his son to hold a rod. The kid tries to cast, but can’t get the hang of it.

Behind me is a narrow mainstreet, lined with storefronts, a bingo parlor, some gift shops, street lamps. Five or six steeples pepper the skyline.

There’s Angel’s Diner, Florida’s oldest dining railcar. Their burger is a spiritual experience on a bun. That’s not just my opinion, Billy Graham once ate it and felt the same way.

Speaking of Billy Graham, he preached his first sermons in these parts. He was a nineteen-year-old when he was baptized and ordained here.

They say the tall skinny kid with the oiled hair could be heard shouting in the woods near Silver Lake. He would holler sermons at a specific pine stump for practice. Years later, I understand the stump finally repented.

Young Billy went on to preach in local country churches and shout to roomfuls of people who fanned themselves with paper bulletins.

It all started right here.

Just down the road is Saint Augustine, the oldest city in the United States. It’s got more history than you can shake a taco at.

Though, today Saint Augustine is more of a tourist attraction. The last time I was there, a man wearing a banana suit approached me on the street and asked if I wanted to play putt-putt golf for half price.

I declined.

Then he offered to sell me a Rolex for ten bucks. What could I do?

The watch lasted a week.

Palatka is nothing like that. This is a sleepy American town where old men gather at Bradley’s restaurant to drink coffee until noon and flirt with the waitresses.

You can buy jars of honey from a roadside stand using the honor system. You can get your hair “did” in a salon where the ladies inside probably graduated together.

You can attend a cookout at someone’s house, even though you’re the new kid in town. Like me.

I went to one such party last night. The shindig featured Palatka’s main players.

On the outdoor patio, tucked in the woods, was a group of men with white hair, telling lies to each other. They sipped from plastic cups. Others spit into them. The crickets were deafening.

I wish you could have been there, all you would have heard were bursts of laughter, interrupted by sips from SOLO cups.

The food was exquisite. The buffet featured the greatest hits of Southern fare. Deviled eggs, ham, pound cake, you name it.

But there was one dish in particular that moved me. The dish was called taco dip. I don’t know what was in it, but when I ate it I heard classical music.

The night went on. I kept eating the taco dip. The old men kept telling stories.

I don’t know how I fell in with these people in Palatka. This is my third time visiting town, and if I didn’t know any better, I’d almost think I belong here.

The older I get, the harder it is to find a place to belong. And it’s even more difficult in this day and age to find people who don’t want to one-up you. But things are different here. People are different.

“That’s just how we are,” said one man. “In Palatka, once we love you, we love you.”

Somewhere in the world, a corporation is building a new shopping complex. Another grocery store, another Walmart, another Bonefish Grill. Do we really need another Best Buy?

Another year passes; another young family leaves their small hometown in search of a Starbucks. Another bulldozer takes down another baseball diamond. A historic building gets demolished and replaced with a Home Depot. Another entrepreneur publishes another real estate magazine.

But here in Palatka, people still get together for barbecues. Old men still call each other by nicknames like “Mole,” “Weasel,” “Tank,” or “Doc.” Fathers still teach sons to fish in the early morning.

The man in the boat trolls toward the bank. I see the boy, holding his rod. I hear the screaming reel.

The kid pulls in a fish. The father says something to the kid. I can’t hear the father’s words from where I sit, but I hear his body language. He’s nothing but happy.

The boat fires its motor. It disappears into the dark. And the crickets sing a farewell chorus that would make old Billy proud.

I have got to learn how to make that taco dip.

30 comments

  1. GaryD - June 30, 2019 9:34 am

    Palatka sounds nice. I gotta visit there one day.

    Reply
    • Sharon Sala - July 30, 2019 2:54 pm

      You made me homesick. I grew up near a little town called Paden, Oklahoma. The best squirrel hunter in town was a man named Tom. He was blind, as in no eyes, and he could drop a squirrel out of a tree at thirty yards. But he was only one person of the wonderful world in which I grew up. Oh, by the way. I might have that recipe for taco dip.

      Reply
  2. Naomi - June 30, 2019 10:37 am

    Sean, I wish my husband of 40 years had “cobwebs” in his head. He’s a good man but after he has his coffee and reads the Marietta Daily Journal, he comes into the office where I am and gives be a list (mostly verbal; sometimes written) of things to worry about–things I didn’t need to worry about like, “Did you update your will? “Did you read this article about computer scams?” “Do you know what you are going to do with all of this junk that we collected after you die?” “Do you know when we are supposed to change the oil in our car?” And, there are a few other questions that I have no idea what he’s talking about. That’s why I get up before him and come into the office to spend some time with God and drink a cup of coffee and read your blog. His oldest son and daughter-in-law (We are in a 2nd marriage.) They took us out for lunch on Father’s Day a couple of weeks ago. His daughter-in-law is a good person with a good heart. She sat across the table from me and started giving me a list of things to worry about that I didn’t know I was supposed to worry about, like “Did you lock your car before we left? “Why didn’t you shut your garage door?” “I can’t believe you leave your purse in your car; someone might break out the widow and steal your purse.” After about 30 minutes of this, I told her that I had enough to worry about; now you’re telling me all of this stuff that I didn’t know that I was supposed to worry about. We have a close friend who will do anything for us but he comes over quite frequently. I know it’s him because he rings the door bell about 20 times. I usually close myself in the office and tell my husband to please talk to him in the living room. He wants to discuss how to solve all the problems in the world. I can’t even solve the problems with my own family; I sure can’t take on the whole world. I have decided that’s God’s problem; I do what I can, which amount to posting opinions on FB. All I can do is pray and leave the rest to God or I will lose what little mind I have left. As I am writing this, I am listening to a preacher (who is located in Atlanta) on TV preaching on some of the things I just wrote about.

    Reply
    • Anne Chandler - June 30, 2019 5:10 pm

      I cracked up reading your comment! I could have written similar thoughts and loved reading yours.

      Reply
  3. Dennis Lowery - June 30, 2019 10:59 am

    I would drive thru Palatka once a month going to Naval Reserve service at NAS JAX. Nice town.

    Reply
  4. Connie Havard Ryland - June 30, 2019 11:34 am

    Palatka sounds like a lovely place. I love small towns. Mostly I love to read what you write about small towns. You have a way of jumping right over the ugly parts and seeing the beauty in everything and showing it to everyone else. You are a blessing.

    Reply
  5. Jo Ann - June 30, 2019 11:42 am

    Thank you, Sean, for telling us about the small towns most of us have never visited. There are a lot of small towns that the big city people don’t know about & don’t want to know about. Thanks for reminding us that there are lots of small towns all around the US & we’re still important.

    Reply
  6. Karen - June 30, 2019 12:05 pm

    We were really made for a simpler life. Really. You get that. Your writing gives me peace. Thank you, Sean.

    Reply
  7. Ruth Ledyard - June 30, 2019 12:12 pm

    I have such fond memories of the St. John’ river. We would stay in a fish camp over 60 years ago, and I would get up with my sweet, wonderful Daddy at day light to go fishing. I didn’ want him to go by himself. We would fish all day and he would put me on the front of the boat. He would position it where he thought a fish would bite.If it didn’t, he would either reposition the boat or change my lure. When I finally caught one, he would have me hold it up and smile for a picture. We would not come in until till dark. When I think back he probably did very little fishing because he unselfishly spent the days trying to make fun for me. He was such a great daddy!

    Reply
    • angie5804 - June 30, 2019 10:35 pm

      My father-in-law had a little trailer on the St. Johns in Astor. Lots of good memories from there.

      Reply
  8. Judy - June 30, 2019 12:24 pm

    It is funny to me that I share memories with so many about such a small sleepy town like Palatka. My grandfather was a maintenance engineer with the paper mill for several years in the mid 60’s. We would spend a week each summer visiting them. That week would include time on the St Augustine Beach. This spring, I took a trip along the East Coast to visit family. While my grandparents no longer live there, I do have an uncle that does. We drove through the town and by the old home. The next day we visited St Augustine. It was, all in all, a wonderful trip.

    Reply
  9. Shelton A. - June 30, 2019 12:54 pm

    Palatka is a very nice little town. It’s on the way to Gainesville. It’s just a short jump to St. Augustine. All the ‘big town’ stuff is just a half hour away (either east or west) more or less…leaving Palatka to just be itself. I always liked Palatka…for the food (no taco dip-but good down-home cooking or a great cheeseburger) and for the folks.

    Reply
  10. Carol - June 30, 2019 4:07 pm

    We had a family barbecue yesterday ,
    They are wonderful, no taco dip. But I have made it.
    Love all the stories of the small towns,
    Carrabell , Fla use to be our place to take the children back in the 60,s and 70’s. One store, phone booth for the police station, one drugstore with ice cream and Julie’s
    Best seafood in the world.
    Memories forever.
    The children are now 60 and 56. But still talk about thoes wonderful times as well as the old days at PC beach.
    Time moves on and a new generation make memories of the new changes. I pray they are all for the better🙏
    Love ya !

    Reply
  11. Linda Moon - June 30, 2019 4:50 pm

    You turn simple things into complex thoughts. I guess you do a lot of head-cleaning. Sleepy American towns like Palatka – located in the heat of Florida, or Mentone, Alabama – located in the seasons of North Alabama, are few and far-between and fabulous and wonderful. I once had a friend who said it was our duty to teach our children how to cuss, spit, and tell lies. Maybe some of those white-haired men learned lie-telling from a wise (or no so wise) Mama. If Palatka had four seasons and mountains, I’d join you and those old guys there. And that’s no lie!

    Reply
  12. Jill Conner Browne - June 30, 2019 6:23 pm

    Get that taco dip recipe & share it. Pronto.

    Reply
  13. Joe Patterson - June 30, 2019 7:43 pm

    Thanks again small towns are the best

    Reply
  14. angie5804 - June 30, 2019 10:32 pm

    “The older I get, the harder it is to find a place to belong.” Exactly.

    Reply
  15. Linda Lansford - July 1, 2019 12:39 am

    Tank is my neighbor and Mole and Weisle are friends . Doc was my hubby. I am a widow now. No bs in Sean’s stories they are all real.

    Reply
  16. Phyllis Stallings - July 1, 2019 6:23 am

    Sure wish there were more Palakas! I just visited St Augustine and although beautiful I was scammed right there on St George Street. Broke my heart.

    Reply
  17. Alisha Gipe - July 1, 2019 11:54 am

    My home town! Reading this makes me homesick. Somehow I’m in Pennsylvania. Everyday I beg God to let me go home…it’s where everybody knows my name!

    Reply
    • Carrie Pignato - July 1, 2019 2:16 pm

      Hey Alisha!! It’s Carrie, from church. I was thinking of you not too long ago and wondering how you were doing in PA. Hannah has come by the church a few times when I’ve been here and it sounds as if she’s doing well.

      Reply
  18. Martha Flemister - July 1, 2019 1:16 pm

    This dip recipe is not called taco dip but it is so worth sharing. Someone shared with me and I want to share with you and your readers. This is called

    AVACADO OR DIRTY DIP

    1 TOMATO CHOPPED 3 GREEN ONIONS CHOPPED 1 RIPE AVACADO CHOPPED
    1 CAN CHOPPED GREEN CHILIES (I PREFER MILD BUT SOME ENJOY HOT)
    1 CAN CHOPPED BLACK OLIVES CHOPPED
    3 TABLESPOONS COOKING OR OLIVE OIL 3 T WHITE VINEGAR
    SALT AND PEPPER TO TASTE

    . MIX, CHILL AND SERVE WITH COOL RANCH DORITOES

    I DOUBLE AND SOMETIMES TRIPLE RECIPE 99% like

    ENJOY

    Reply
    • Janet Mary Lee - July 1, 2019 5:24 pm

      Martha!!! Many thanks!!! I just love Sean’s reader, too!!!!! Amen n Amen!!

      Reply
  19. Carrie Pignato - July 1, 2019 3:15 pm

    I married into Palatka and have been here 20+ years. I’m so thrilled that you, Sean, feel as if you almost belong here. Maybe one day you’ll move here and then truly feel as if you belong. My parents, from Tallahassee, sent me this article and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and reading about the places I either know so well (Bradley’s) or have heard of but never had the pleasure to visit (Angel’s). Working at First Baptist Church in downtown Palatka, we might be one of the churches you were referring to. We would love to have you come and visit the next time you come to town. We also have people visit town to attend bass tournaments or visit from one of the river cruises that go up and down the St. Johns and stop here to tour our antique shops and look at our murals on various downtown buildings. One of these murals depicts Billy Graham and his history here in Palatka. With my MIL teaching at Peniel Baptist Church’s K-12th grade school for about 30 years, which was one of the places Billy Graham got his start, and one of my father’s life long best friends being the son of TW Wilson, who was a close friend Billy Graham’s as well as being a longtime associate in the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, I’ve always been interested in the part Palatka played in Billy Graham’s life. I would love to know who the “Palatka’s main players” at the shindig were and if I either know them or know of them. Thanks again for a great article!!

    Reply
  20. Ken Dunn - July 1, 2019 3:52 pm

    Kinda reminds me of Graceville, Fl. except no river- just Holmes Creek which starts at a springs north of town and flows to the Gulf. Not much left in downtown like in the booming 50’s but still really nice. Still go to the Circle Grill there for the finest steak and jumbo shrimp in these parts.

    Reply
  21. Gigi - July 30, 2019 6:23 am

    Recipe for the taco dip, please.

    Reply
  22. Patricia - July 30, 2019 6:23 am

    Pakala. Sounds like paradise. Glad that you found it and shared it with your world ❤

    Reply
  23. Patricia - July 30, 2019 6:26 am

    Sorry. Palatka😏

    Reply
  24. Debo - July 30, 2019 11:31 am

    Sean’s readers are just as awesome as he is.

    Reply
  25. Stephanie - July 30, 2019 3:21 pm

    My grandmother was born in Palatka and my great-grandmother leaved there all her life. I remember visiting there almost every summer as a child. Mom would drive back to Florida from North Carolina with me and my brother ( Dad stayed at home). Loved those visits with cousins and roaming the town with them. Mom is 93 so perhaps a return visit is needed especially since reading your story today. Thank you for bringing back those memories!

    Reply

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