It’s midday Friday and I’m on I-95, moving upstream towards St. Augustine in an asphalt riptide. This is not a particularly comforting behavior for me, so I calm myself by slipping in a CD and listening to B.B. King. B.B. is telling of meeting the Queen of England early one morning on the streets of London. The Queen, just back from a party, rolls down the window of her limo, and—lamenting the great confusion she must face in the world—asks B.B. for some advice. The bluesmeister tells her: “Better not look down if you want to keep on flying….You can keep it moving, if you don’t look down.”
And now I am passing over the rain-swollen St. Johns, traveling beyond the Tomoka—which I make a point to always see because its subtropic shores enthrall me—and then, farther north, over the spartina marsh that leads to this oldest of Florida cities. Once here, I dodge the horse-drawn tourist carriages, and at the ritzy and historic Casa Monica relinquish my car to an enthusiastic valet kid and check in. I’m here for a writers’ conference, one of those miraculous events when people who spend an inordinate time inside their heads actually attempt to communicate with their fellow humans.
I see Bob Morris right away, slouching in a comfy old sofa; Bob’s an old bud, and a fine writer, now specializing in black comic mysteries set in Florida and the Antilles. We walk down the street to where we are both to speak in different sessions, and on the way, run into Stetson Kennedy, who is walking the same street by himself. Stetson’s a living icon, having infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, and then written an undercover book that exposed the power of that racist militia in Florida—”The Klan Unmasked”. In the pre-happy face Florida of the 1940′s, this was a very dangerous behavior indeed, and the Klan—which included some lawmen and elected officials— promised to lynch Stetson for his work. Thankfully, they were unsuccessful.
In addition to other books like “Palmetto Country”, Stetson also wrote perceptively about the real Florida for the WPA Writers’ Project in the 1930′s beginning when he was 19. He’s 91 now, a little trick of time switching those digits around backwards, like someday they will do for us all. He’s in a guyabera, small guy, but with a strong sense of life engagement about him. I embrace him, and we walk into one of the old Flagler buildings.
When researching the WPA Guide, Stetson roamed the state for five years—often with author Zora Neal Hurston—talking in great detail with black folks to better understand how they saw the world. It was a brave thing to do in a time when the fiercely racist Florida was still deeply segregated. The richness of the oral histories was stunning: Stetson learned of mythic places like “Beluthahatchee”, a blissful refuge where “all unpleasant doings and sayings are forgiven and forgotten.”
Back in the 1950′s, Stetson bought a remote slice of land and water south of Jacksonville to live. Friends like Woody Guthrie would come and hang with him, rejoicing in the spirit that bound creative and caring souls together against the big chill outside. Stetson named his spread “Beluthahatchee.” Guthrie wrote some 80 songs while staying there, including “Beluthahatchee Bill”, an ode to Stetson and his indomitable spirit and courage.
This Flagler College is a compound of hotels once built by railroad czar Henry Flagler in the late 1800′s, a Spanish Med style as grandiose as it gets, lots of steeples and cupolas and an intricate weave of bas relief of fish and frogs and angels, all together at once, a whack-up-the-head reminder that the rich are, indeed, different from you and I. Like so many obsessed & very rich Florida folks, Flagler was way off the grid, but the best of his insanity remains here, imbedded in the architecture. His contemporary, the renegade Ed Watson, wanted to be the Flagler of the western Glades, but destiny would have it otherwise.
I find my way to my two-person session in which writer Les Standiford and I are to talk “In Conversation”. I’ve read Les’ work—he is a skilled storyteller of both fiction and non-fiction, and I’ve always looked forward to chatting with him, although not necessarily in front of a group of people. A guy who impersonates Mark Twain introduces us to the audience—this is, after all, Florida, and people can be just about anything they want. And then Les and I chew the fat for 45 minutes or so until Mark Twain asks the audience for questions. I make a point to remind folks that Kipling once wrote that the magic of literature is not in the man but in the words. Les and I chuckle at this, knowing the best of ourselves is not in this public moment but in the doing, in wanting to raise higher ideals to a place we can barely describe right now.
The session over, I walk out to sign books. An attractive dark haired woman in the session walks out with me and tells me of once reading an essay of mine in which I wrote about bears in the woods, a narrative that laments the way we are losing our wildness in modern Florida. She said it moved her to tears, and I thank her for having the heart to tell me that.
I sign books, shake hands, go back to my fancy hotel and put on a sport coat, and return for a showing of our PBS film “In Marjorie’s Wake” in the massive Flagler-era dining room. Like much of the rest of the compound, the room is over the top in aesthetics and its own mythology: More angels and seraphins and gargoyles and cosmic stuff going on in great arched domes and atop stained glass windows. When I arrive, young students from the college are finishing up their cafeteria meals; in one corner, there are inflatable plastic palm trees and sharks, and Buffett’s “Fins” is playing. Another out of body Florida moment.
I meet Holly, a cool young undergrad who helps me set up the a/v for the doc screening. Students are leaving and the high backed, ornate wooden chairs are rearranged to accommodate the newly arriving audience, which is now pushing against a rope across the wide dining room entrance. The rope opens, the crowd descends, and our movie—which tells of a 1933 river trip author Marjorie Rawlings once made on the St. Johns with her friend Dessie–is ready to play. I briefly introduce the doc, and then stand back while the 150-odd folks soak it in for the next hour. I notice the plastic palm trees and sharks have deflated by now.
After the film, Betty Jean Steinshouer, a quite-brilliant scholar who impersonates Rawlings, spends the next 45 minutes, nailing both the mannerisms and the persona that once distinguished the mercurial Florida author, no script, just going with it from the heart. Rawlings leaves and Betty Jean returns as herself, filling in the blanks about why she is impassioned to do what she does. She then generously praises both Stetson, who is still here, and myself, as “national treasures.”
The show is over, and I mingle out into the grand lobby. Several folks say very nice things about the film. One clearly unhappy woman— reminiscent of Rawlings’ own description of a Cross Creek neighbor as an “efficient, angry canary”— accosts me, trying to make fun of the “national treasure” thing. “Does that mean you’re irreplaceable,” she says, intending to mock. “No, I say. “It means I’m recyclable.” She mutters something and walks away.
It’s hot here in Florida, even by 9 pm. and, sweating, I walk out by myself, over to my old hotel, and standing there on the outside patio, watch the grand old Florida architecture flicker to life around me. It could be an intricate movie set for a Gatsby scene, but the solidness of the structure communicates far more to the soul. It is Florida, but like most of our place-based romantic tableaus, it is so much more—almost more than the human imagination can absorb. I think of the woods and creeks of Stetson’s real-life Beluthahatchee, think of all those brave, off-the-grid writers and artists with kindness in their hearts, and realize how fortunate I am to know, and to newly meet them, every now and again.
And then I exhale big, like I always do when clearing my spirit of confusion.
And I think finally:
Better not look down if you want to keep on flying.
You can keep it moving, if you don’t look down.