Thursday, January 17, 2008

An Apologia from Florida

January Greetings from ...

Guess who ..

Yes, you all deserve a big ‘apology’ from us. We promised you a ‘virtual’ trip with us around the circumference of North America. Big plans, had we, to entertain, educate and reflect with you, as life encountered us on the road. But chapters have been few, with big gaps of time in between and so much yet untold that is already dimming on the cortex of our aging brains.

We’d like to blame the ‘media’ we’re working with. In truth, if we were willing to spend days tanking up on caffeine at internet cafes, we might have accomplished this. But the “day light” hours are the ones we use to travel and explore. And it is a rare situation that provides both “hydro power” and “WiFi” in the evenings.

It just doesn’t happen in WaltMart parking lots and State Parks, though no doubt its ‘supply’ will come with the growing ‘demand’. In Florida now all ‘McDonalds’ and ‘Dennys’ have internet access .. just what I don’t need - to sit in an eating place and add another floating life ring to the several that now sit upon my hips. I refuse to replace my rotting, chlorine-ridden bathing suit with a new one, until I’ve lost 10 pounds. And at the rate I’m going, there’s going to be a lot of ‘skinny-dipping’ next summer at the lake. (Now the ‘state’ of blogging has really deteriorated!)

So here I am, while Peter cleans the camper, in what they call a WiFihotspot’ at the Community Centre at Spruce Creek Senior’s Community, a Del Webb retirement development where my brother and dear sister-in-law live (Bill & Sue Eberhart). Around me ‘the ladies’ are playing card games. I doubt if we will ever be at one of these tables, and not because we’re having particular trouble identifying with the ‘retirement’ set, but because I’m afraid that in such an encounter, we’d come off demonstrating the IQ of plants. Think we’d rather join Andrew, Sarah, Tim and Melonie in a game of ‘scrabble’.

So this is a long introduction to the ‘Floridian Chapter’ of our blog. Better put in a picture to keep you awake.

Peter took this shot of me holding hands with a conquistador because we not only need to apologize to you, but to ‘Florida’ herself. It’s a way of showing solidarity with a place whose history and reality we have never acknowledged nor thought much about. Florida to us for most of our lives has been a place from which people come back with tans .. after enduring highways of crass commercialism and hucksters anxious to sell you a piece of mosquito-ridden swamp.

Now, after enjoying ourselves here for over a month, we wish to acknowledge our ignorance and publicly give dear ‘Florida’ her ‘due’.

So, remember Ponce de Léon of Spain? He’s the one who gave Florida her name after explorations brought him to her shores in 1513 in search of the 'fountain of youth' (Promoters would like you to believe he found it - see again, above).

We just returned yesterday from a wonderful stay in St. Augustine, a city founded by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in 1565, 42 years before the British settled at Jamestown and 55 years before the pilgrims stepped off onto Plymouth rock. Pirates plundered Spanish galleons and British Frigates from here. The many 'blind passes' and shoal draft harbours of Florida's coast were the ideal place to store the bounty. The French and the Spanish vied for control here (we visited a Huguenot cemetery). And, of course, the early settlers played a big part in all of this. Florida was the scene of the Seminole Wars.

Did you know that slaves, escaping their colonial masters, came down to Florida and were protected by the Spanish? Here they were emancipated in exchange for serving as militia and adopting the Catholic faith. Fort Mose is a free black community where these recruits and their families worked as sailors, blacksmiths and cowboys, fishing the tidal creeks and gathering shell fish in the marsh.

A much later wave of ‘conquistadors’ came with 19th century capitalist magnates from up north. When not summering in their Newport Rhode Island mansions, they were down here building hotels and laying railroad track to ensure that people could make the trip comfortably in 35 hours from New York.

Henry Flagler was one of them. Along with Rockefeller, he founded Standard Oil, and soon began to turn his profits into luxury hotels all over Florida. This one above was his first, opening its doors for the first time in 1888 . Made of poured concrete in a manner characteristic of the Spanish Renaissance, the "Ponce de Leon" launched the "Mediterranean style" that has been popular in Florida ever since. It took two years to build, a great feat without benefit of modern construction equipment, and at a cost of 2 million. What would that translate into today? Someone do the arithmetic.

Take a look at some of the interior features ...

This was one of the first hotels to have electric lights!

Thomas Edison personally built two clocks for the hotel. This one, the day clock, was illuminated through an onyx face, from a window behind (now boarded up for protection)

Below find Flagler's third hotel, the Cordova, that sat vacant in St. Augustine ever since the Great Depression. In an amazing reversal of fortune, Richard Kessler, a contemporary entrepreneur from Orlando, purchased the building (1997) upgraded it to the most modern standards and rechristened it the "Casa Monica Hotel".

It opened for the first time in 70 years back in December of 1999. In April of 2001 King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia of Spain stayed here while visiting in St. Augustine. Who says circles don't comes 'round?
Meet John and Mabel Ringling, great friends of the Flaglers and long time residents of Sarasota, Florida. We are sitting with them in the lanai of their fabulous mansion, Ca d’Zan. Though Ringling made fortunes with invested money from Ringling Brothers’ “Greatest Show on Earth”, he died post Depression with $300 to his name. Thankfully, he deeded his estate to Florida State University, which maintains his art and circus museums, as well as the extensive grounds and gardens – a ‘must see’ if you are in the area.

above and below - "Ca d'Zan"

Alberta 'Tim' settles into the sun on the patio - "This is the life."

Just a little glimpse at the legacy left by these Floridian brothers ...

One of the most amazing exhibits at the Ringling Complex is a new 3,800 square foot miniature replica of the circus, made by hand and assembled over a life time by Howard Tibbals. With this bird's eye view, one gets a sense of the magnitude of what it meant when 'the circus came to town'. No wonder kids in small mid-west towns caught up in the magic, ran away with the circus. I'm sure I would have been one of them.

We'll end for now by highlighting one famous act in the person of Unuz, Franz Furtner (1907-1994), a superb hand balancer whose trademark was the one finger stand. Ernest Hemingway wrote of his act, "In your dreams you watch Unus stand on one finger, and you think, Look at such a fine, intelligent and excellent man making his living standing on one finger when most of us can't even stand on our feet."

next blog - less talk and more photos