O Southland, sorrow home, melody beating in my bone and blood! How long will the Klan of hate, the hounds and the chain gangs keep me from my own?
– Margaret Walker
One thing about Momma and car trips was that she never was too far from a Diet Coke and a bag of Sun Chips when we were on one. As for Dad, I still recall what great rite of passage it was to be introduced by him to the Saturday morning triumvirate of RC Cola, Moonpies, and comicbooks. I still think of it anytime I insist to someone that ritual dictates that two or more things must be done together. It is among the top most memorable instances in my life when ritual embedded itself in my customs, and gave me reason to think fondly on one thing or another called “tradition”. My father also somehow managed to convey to me that the highest expression of this ritual would be its performance while seated on top of a milkcrate. Yet all that being said, I don’t believe that my parents were excessively passionate about coke. Sweet tea, yes. Momma got into the sun tea craze. Dad nearly burned the house down when he left a pot with Luzianne bags on the burner when he took us out for haircuts. That was after Momma died, when he had a rough time keeping track of things by himself. I often wonder what Momma would say today looking back on those sun tea days, if she would laugh at herself or still swear by it. I can’t say it’s a bad way to make tea, especially not there in the northeast Florida sun. One thing that was a bad idea of theirs, however, was to take a cooler full of coke cans onto a canoe. That’s what they decided to do when preparing for our six mile trip down the Ichetucknee River.
There was always a tinge of embarrassment in my father for being somewhat of a chronic tenderfoot in all outdoor recreational matters. He was a paper-pushing federal employee. Not being in any outdoor or physical trade was likely at least part of his lowly, sub-redneck status, as he saw it. Aside from that, he did also grow up in Jacksonville; the pre-consolidation Jacksonville, meaning the “city”. While he would regale his children with tales of his vacation times spent on the forested family land on Amelia Island, eating raw sea turtle eggs and having the cops of black American Beach ask why he’d wandered across the color line, he really wasn’t much of a Florida cracker. Not in any Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings way, at least. Dad was first and foremost, and will always be in my mind, a US Government man. Maybe his brothers could raise a goat or shoot a deer, but Dad could find a place to park in DC. It may have been all those drives to DC, with the odd roadside refreshment here or there, which accustomed him to the possibility that people on a trip might get thirsty. That kind of good, US Government man thinking was optimized for the weekend Ichetucknee jaunt in many ways, but not in its neglect for the basic principles of physics.
We piled out of the van and launched our rental canoes into the slow-moving water of the Ichetucknee. The river is fed by a spring, and is consequently purported to have crystal clear waters. At the boat launch it may have looked clearer than many Florida creeks, with some thick underwater vegetation visible for a distance, but it was still brackish. Many of the Florida waters of my youth were those, inland, brackish Florida waters, thick with rotting vegetation. Rivers of sun tea, made by my Momma Florida. My brother and sisters took one of the rental canoes, and my parents and I took the other. My older siblings all had, my parents figured, a combined age equivalent to at least one responsible canoer. I, as the youngest at age six, would be best kept under their direct supervision. Besides, our canoe had the humongous cooler full of coke cans— many more than we three could ever possibly consume during our six mile voyage.
Our ballast issues became evident right away. For whatever reason, it was not enough to turn back. Not even though we were right by the launch still. Not even when my sisters and brother began pointing out multiple alligators floating mere feet away from us. Our canoe rocked, rolled, and before long it turned over for the first of many times. Dad grabbed me and swam me toward dry ground, but first we approached some floating land before realizing our mistake and doubling back to the opposite side of the river. We were generating ample amounts of attention to ourselves, and our alligator sightings continued. Driftwood would make us jump. It wasn’t long at all before my sisters and brother rounded a bend and were out of sight. For hours this chore of ours continued, alone: losing balance, flipping, looking for alligators, uprighting, resecuring the cooler and cokes, continuing. I cursed that cooler so many times. I cursed the corn syrup that was going to bring us down, our fault for not understanding the land. Dad’s fault. Momma’s fault.
We finally made it to the spring, source of the Ichetucknee. With great relief I jumped out of the canoe and into the crystal clear waters. I could see my feet in the sand below with the water curling around my shoulders and neck. Small fish darted around as though floating in the air. “Remember Silver Springs?” asked Momma, “In Silver Springs we rode the glass bottom boat, and you could see everything below. Do you remember Cross Creek? Do you remember Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ house? Do you remember Cedar Key? Do you remember the Okefenokee?” That was Momma, always asking me if I remembered Florida. “Other places don’t have these things. Other children don’t watch fish swim around their feet in springs below moss canopies.” She died, and all my memories of her got carried away into a brackish obscurity, bobbing up and down along the way: “Do you remember?”
I think of this story as a point of departure. Before Ichetucknee my parents could protect me. My existence was a series of impressions, my home was a nursery. The danger of the alligators or the sinkholes or the hurricanes were a mythology for me. A lived mythology, but a separate reality. After Ichetucknee these impressions which had formed me into a lifelong Floridian and child of my mother began to settle on top of a new dimension of experience like only so many textures. This new dimension was that of danger. Of solitude. Of independence.
I began to observe the new dimensions back home. Lazy Acres, in Middleburg. Only a few of those “lazy” acres were ours. They stood on the banks of the north fork of Black Creek. The creek rolled imperceptibly east from Lazy Acres to where the north and the south forks split. There was Old Middleburg, settled in a familiar Florida pattern: where there’s a fork there’s a peninsular, and where there’s a peninsular there’s a good place to load barges. Old Middleburg, from the peninsular tip to Blanding Boulevard, sported Main Street. Main Street was not much to speak of. To say “Main Street, Middleburg” with a heavily affected accent was itself a common local joke. There was not much there besides our Methodist Church and a boat ramp. Old Middleburg had some amazingly old structures, but nothing to make a whole day out of. You could visit the Civic Center or the Historical Society (if either were open).
Blanding Boulevard lead north to the High School and eventually to Jacksonville, and it lead south to Keystone Heights, splitting southbound in Middleburg into County Road 215 to the Florida National Gaurd’s Camp Blanding. Along Blanding you found the real traces of what was ‘modern’ Middleburg. There was the elementary school, built around the old wooden schoolhouse on the Old Middleburg side of the road. There was Smokey’s Barbeque, with its forever unexplained Big Boy statue out front, and which succumbed to multiple insurance-related fires over the years. There was the Self-Service Car Wash, a few gas stations, and a McDonald’s. There were also the empty clay shoulder lots which would occasionally host vendors, including Seminole Leah and her mother’s produce stand.
Where Main Street hit Blanding it crossed over into Everett Avenue, and south of that was where County Road 218 crossed Blanding. At 218 and Blanding stood the Baptist church, the Winn-Dixie supermarket, and Black Creek Video Rentals. 218 going east formed the only passage across the south fork of Black Creek. The area on both sides of the south fork was particularly prone to flooding. In fact, all of Middleburg was stymied to the east and south by the south fork, with its swamps, floodplains and conservation areas. To the north growth was stymied by Jennings State Forest. To the west of Blanding, then, was all the ‘new’ development.
Everett Avenue crossed Dillaberry Branch (a tributary of the north fork) into the Johns Cemetery area. Here is where our neighbors from across the creek lived, such as Harvey. South of Johns Cemetery and west on 218 was the neighborhood surrounding Omega Park. Beyond Omega Park, 218 lead to the Middle School and a number of trailer parks. South of Omega Park was Peppergrass Street, an area of big lots and mixed incomes and races. Below that was Foreman Circle, also known as Hill Top. It was settled by black homesteaders and remained synonymous with black Middleburg. Across Mill Creek from the Hill Top was what passed for “South Middleburg”, dominated by an empty wooded lane called Alligator Boulevard.
Lazy Acres lay just north of the North Fork Bridge on Blanding, which, together with the South Fork Bridge on 218, connected the unincorporated community to the rest of the world. Where Lazy Acres met Blanding at the bridge, just south of the Elk Lodge on Long Bay Road, was a colony of feral peacocks — something which one doesn’t easily forget. This was my Middleburg, Florida. It was the Middleburg, Florida of the late 90s, with a population no greater than seven thousand. It was also a completely different Middleburg than we experienced on the water. From my home the water could take me west and north to Jennings Forest, or it could take me east to Main Street, church, or the “Ravines”, which was the area opposite the peninsular tip and home to “Redneck Beach” (only accessible by boat).
From the Ravines we went east to Asbury Lake, or even further east to the mighty St. John’s River. All along the way cows and horses would wade into the dark water of Black Creek, with manatees and alligators occasionally surfacing. Figs and berries stretched themselves out into the tunnel of creek and forest, turtles and ducks lingered around the surface everywhere, and leeches, catfish and water moccasins haunted the depths. Then suddenly Black Creek emptied into the St. John’s, that old Nile flowing north to the Atlantic. I never ventured this far alone. This was highway water. South on the St. John’s we could travel to Green Cove Springs, or north around Fleming Island to Doctor’s Lake. Most often, however, we would proceed north all the way to downtown Jacksonville. My home was primarily a network of places connected by waterway at this early age. My Florida was an exception to a natural, fluid state of water. Sometimes it was only floating on top, and sometimes it would give way and sink down below. Always set against the danger of water was our solitude and independence.
Another thing I remember: After Momma died no one else was able to console me like Seminole Leah. I don’t know why. I don’t even know how she found out. I kind of believed that Seminoles knew everything that occurred in relation to life and death. After all, the legend was that some might be able to turn themselves into alligators. Leah found me at school on my first day back. She found me and walked straight up to me. I remember seeing her at her mother’s stand selling watermelons all summer, looking at her out of a car window or from my bicycle across Blanding, and never approaching. Yet Leah came directly to me, and she looked me in my eyes with an unbroken gaze, and offered her condolences. In St. Augustine’s Castillo de San Marcos I had crawled into the dark and cold corner of seashell walls where Seminole hero Osceola had been held prisoner. In Fort Moultrie, South Carolina we visited his grave, surrounded by wrought iron fencing. “Daddy,” I had asked, “why did they fence him in?” He smiled, “Well, I guess they were afraid he’d slip away again.” And I knew that Leah would have walked through wrought iron and seashell alike to find her neighbors in grief, in order to offer them the condolences of those for whom Florida itself had been lost. For years later, and to this day, I would visit the Castillo de San Marcos to find that Osceola chamber, and to sit in quiet condolence and neighborly love.
Painting of Seminole Chief Osceola by Charles Bird King