Telling History

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The coast road from Jacksonville to St. Augustine was nearly deserted at dawn. Stars still shown as only the first glimmers of light arose on the horizon. A trinity of fishing boats were close to shore, facing land, booms out – embracing all. I’m going to work and it is a blessing.

Earlier this month I sat for the City of Saint Augustine Tour Guide test. Passing it (after lots of coffee and late-night studying – I thought those days were long gone) has given me more direct access to the historical records and the people who keep those records of this very complicated city. Saint Augustine is a city of peacefulness and charity. And it is a city that has seen incredible brutality. It is a city that gave shelter to refugees; it is a city that oppressed its own. It is also a city of tenacity, kindness and faith.

St Augustine Chapel

Studying the history of anyone or anything is like peeling an onion – even the sweetest of them can make you cry. On a recent trip to the St. Augustine Historical Society I asked the folks there what the most important thing a Tour Guide could do. Without hesitation their answer was: “Tell the Truth”.  I’ll do my best to peel the onion.

My next field of study were the manuals to qualify for a Commercial Drivers (truck, bus, etc.) License. I took the written tests last week and will begin training on buses this week. Since the State testers don’t have trains, I have to qualify driving a vehicle commonly used by commercial drivers before I can drive a train. Buses are not exactly the same as 65 foot trains – especially when trying to navigate tandem trains through the winding Old Town section of St. Augustine – but being able to drive both are required. Who can I get to be my first passengers? Hmmm.

If things go as hoped, I will take the practical driving test in 2 – 3 weeks. After that, driving the trains and giving tours will begin. I’m told that the goal is for me to be ready to commence with tours in time for Spring Break. Now, if that isn’t motivation, what is?  Yikes!

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But, safely driving the trains, while very important, is only part of the process of being a great tour guide. Dates, names, places can become very confusing for visitors to a city. I’m thinking more along the lines of being a storyteller. Problem is, time will not be my friend. I’ll need to develop several narratives – short vignettes – for each point of interest and weave them into the journey through the city and through time.  As any of my friends (and even some new acquaintances) know, short vignettes are not my usual way of telling a story. I love the road less traveled! I’ll have to fall back on some previous training for my narratives.

Back in my youth, as a young and inexperienced policeman, I had the very good fortune of having as my supervisor a tall, red-faced, Irish sergeant known as “The Tom-tom”. One evening, after making an arrest for what I considered to be the crime of the century, I submitted to Sgt. Tom-tom a considerable stack of 5×7 file cards detailing all the gory details of this arrest. Tom- tom looked at the stack, took note of the actual crime committed and then looked at me.
“What is this b.s., kid”?
“It’s my report, sir”.
“No, it’s not. This is b.s. Now, take this b.s. and cut it down to one file card – both sides – and no more. If you think I or the state attorney have the time or need to read your Great American Novel you are sadly mistaken”

I gave it great effort and returned with a much abbreviated account of the events in question – the stack was reduced to a measly 3 file cards.

I told you, one file card! Take this back; get it right, even if it takes you until tomorrow morning to do it”.

It did. But, the final report contained all it had to – nothing less and certainly nothing more. Tom-tom taught me to cut to the chase when needed and fill in the details when requested.

So, developing a narrative for my tours to within the given time frame is possible. I think. But, I’ll need help from you to do it right.

If you have taken an historic tour, anywhere, what about it did you like most? The least? Please let me know!

Hope to see you soon.

Bill

The Front Porch

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Is there anything more welcoming than a front porch?
For years I have lamented the near demise of the front porch. As a kid growing up in a city neighborhood, the front porch was part of everyday life. It was a playground on too hot or too rainy days, a fort, and the place to plan all the events that we could cram into our summer’s days. It was also, and probably most importantly, the place that neighbors visited when strolling by one another’s house.

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Those old cement and wooden porches were the foundations of the neighborhood. We could play with Buster Madison all day long but he became even more popular when his parents came out onto their porch in the evenings after supper. It was then that Mr. Madison would treat every kid to a piece of butterscotch candy. Mr. Madison would tell us that what he was sharing with us urchins was a piece of Callard & Bowser Butterscotch –“the finest in the world”.  He may have been right, we just knew it was a special treat. To this day butterscotch of any type conjures up images of sitting on the Madison’s front porch with our little piece of England. At the other end of the block was Mrs. O’Leary. Her son was a policeman so we always settled down a bit as we passed her house. Ya’ never could tell when being extra nice would come in handy! Anyway, Mrs. O’Leary had some fine honeysuckle bushes in her yard. When she would sit on her front porch, we’d ask if we could pick a few (a few dozen, it always turned out) to get the honey. We could – if we didn’t trample her roses. Not being complete fools, those roses were treated with lots of respect for sure.
And, now, neighborhoods are mostly absent the front porch. We won’t even discuss gated “communities”. Our neighborhood, like so many others, has replaced the front porch with rear decks or sun rooms. Although, many of our neighbors have taken to setting up folding chairs by their front doors and garages to mimic the old porches. It works, kinda’. There’s even a sort of code: one chair, wave as you pass. Two or more chairs, you’d better stop and sit a spell. Our friends, Maria and Tom, usually have at least 4 and can somehow produce several others in the blink of an eye. Like true copy cats, we have assembled our hodge-podge assortment of “front porch” chairs, too. It’s great.
So, imagine my surprise and curiosity when it was announced that Jacksonville was holding this weekend its Second Annual Front PorchFest in the Springfield section of town (PorchFest) . Since The Redhead was up North visiting friends and family and my list of things that needed to be done had dwindled, I figured it was a good chance to explore another area of town and to see some front porches – I hoped.
Sure enough, Springfield is about 25 minutes from here, a hop, skip and jump from the downtown and Riverside areas. Tricky folks over there – hiding in plain sight. Arriving a bit early, 12:00 noon and the music was set for a 1:00 P.M. start time, I had time to walk around. It’s a mixed area, with Main Street being the closest thoroughfare. The neighborhood is filled with large, early 1900 era homes sitting side by side with bungalows and craftsman-style houses.IMG_3283 (799x1024)Some have been converted to professional office spaces but most are home-sweet homes. Mixed in is an ample dose of abandoned and run down houses and buildings. I’m told these are being bought and renovated on a rather steady basis. None the less, home is where the heart is and this place, it turns out, has plenty of heart!
For a bit over three hours the hands of time had turned back. Front porches everywhere! People were walking around on the sidewalks and in the road. Food trucks, set up on the periphery, sold everything from fresh ground beef hot dogs (yep!) to fish sandwiches to organic fruit “hand pies”. The Redhead will be happy to learn I was very sensible and stuck with the fish. I did get the address for the local bakery making those hand pies, just in case.
But, the music was reason most everyone was there. The Methodist Bell Ringers set up on the park green, A Soul Group was singing to heaven and us up on Silver Street. IMG_3296 (1024x768)Blue Grass was around the corner. IMG_3301 (980x1024)A folksy gal was on third and the popular Firewater Tent Revival was just up the block. Note the Drum Kit(note the drum kit)

Too much? No way! All of this was within a short stroll and a few hours. Evening would bring out larger musical groups, some of which I had had the pleasure of hearing at the Riverside Art Mart or my beloved Lillie’s. For me, previous and much looked forward to engagements (plus some unseasonable heat) kept my time at the PorchFest too short. So, I hoped to find that one special group or singer that would be “better than good”.

I was not disappointed. Complicated Animals is a duo now in Jacksonville, but singer, Monica da Silva, originally hails from Brazil. They call their style of music, Indie Nova. Their arrangement of, “Take a Walk on the Wild Side”, was an intriguing blend of Lou Reed meets Suzanne Vega meets Astrud Gilberto, without a hint of pretension. Wonderful stuff. Complicated Animals http://www.complicatedanimals.com/ can be found at several venues right here in the Jacksonville area when they are not touring. This Saturday they sung, just for me I think, from the front porch of a charming old colonial. Complicated Animals (1024x768)
How wonderful front porches are!

Hope to hear from you. Better yet, stop by. The front porch is all set!