Last Saturday, I rode east on Florida Highway 100 until I ran smack-dab into a sign reading: “Welcome to Palatka.”
Palatka is a faded town on the Saint Johns River, with so many mossy oaks it’ll catch your breath. There’s a downtown small enough to pitch a baseball through, and a diner named, Bradley’s—which boasts the most mounted deer in the tri-county area.
It’s political season in Palatka. Posters everywhere. One reads: “Elect Gator for sheriff.” The sign beside it: “Crickets, red wigglers, ammunition, and boiled peanuts.”
We stayed at a friend’s house. Miss Leslie rolled out a spread. Her husband, Tank,—a goodhearted man who resembles a piece of military defense machinery—operated the deep-fryer.
And by dog, we had a party.
The buffet line had all the trimmings you’d expect in the deep South. Field peas with enough ham to make a cardiologist nervous. Venison, casseroles, deep-fried everything.
The conversation didn’t follow any ground rules. One woman talked about the health benefits of cow pies. Miss Jane—distinguished English teacher and highly-decorated hell-raiser—recited a toast which made someone laugh so hard he swallowed his cigarette.
A group of fellas in the corner talked about the finer points of sausage. John told a story about when a hog bit off his buddy’s finger.
Then, there’s white-headed Nana, whose candy-apple red blouse and earrings matched her pocket book. She looks like the cover of a Better Homes and Gardens magazine—only sassier.
Nana said, “I feel lucky to have lived in Palatka all these years, it was a perfect place to raise children. And even though we don’t have many shoe stores, we get by.”
They do more than get by.
They live easy. Sure, they have problems, this isn’t heaven. But it’s pretty stinking close. If you don’t believe me, you ought to visit the curbside stand that still sells raw honey using the honor system.
No thefts since 1947.
Well. Except for the incident when three high-schoolers stole the honey-stand’s six-hundred-pound purple chicken with a pickup truck and towed it twenty-seven miles. One kid was spotted mounted on the bird, slapping its hindsection, riding down the road shouting, “Hi-ho Chicken, away!”
That kind of stuff doesn’t happen in New Jersey.
This is a small town. A place where kids go barefoot, and people keep windows open. Where you don’t need reasons to throw Saturday lawn parties. Where everyone knows everyone, where neighbors are cousins. Where out-of-towners get fed-to-death, and conversations end around two in the morning. Where love isn’t cheap, but it’s free if you want it.
You might think such things are a fantasy this day and age. They aren’t.
They’re just down the road.