Happy Birthday Billie Holiday, welcome back Mad Men

Max and Becky gaze out from inside a sentry turret at Castillo de San Marcos.

Max and Becky gaze out at Matanzas Bay from inside a sentry turret atop Castillo de San Marcos.

St. Augustine, April 8 giving way to April 9 – A relatively quick update on the state of our inertia.
Or likely not-so quick. It’s never quick, but it’s usually dirty.
We’re still here. We’ve been here more than a week. We rolled into St. Augustine last Monday night. We were a moment away from leaving town. Then Becky got trapped in a conversation with a former boxer named Arturo Augustine Valerio. At least that’s what he called himself. Before we knew it Mark Badgley walked into the scene and asked if we’d ever heard of Jefferson Pepper. Still coming to grips with that one.
Everything that’s happened follows from that brief interlude. Serendipity is king of the road. We are mere peasants, groveling for bread in its immense shadow.
Now it’s Monday night again, quarter after 10, and we’re back in the McDonald’s adjacent to the Working for Jesus 24/7 Garage.
Back in the McDonald’s where we met Tony Eugene Reid. Back where we met a 64-year-old former rafting guide named Kenny who needed help uploading a photo to his Zoosk profile. Kenny wore a tattered old T-shirt. “Raft naked,” the shirt recommended. “It will put color in your cheeks.”
Such is the surpassing strangeness of the road when two computer illiterates are called upon to give technical support to a stranger. For the record, we succeeded.
We woke up today yesterday at the Red Carpet Inn on the north side of town, Sunday being our annual Mad Men season premiere motel junket. A year ago we holed up in a methamphetamine dive on the outskirts of Albuquerque as Megan Draper Zou Bisou Bisou’d all around a befuddled Don Draper. This time we enjoyed comparatively luxurious accommodations as Don got back in the game and got under the sheets with his neighbor’s wife, the former Lindsay Weir.
As for our interminable automotive saga, we finally got the behemoth checked out by a licensed mechanic. Joe at Rick’s Muffler Shop on Ponce de Leon Drive is our new mechanic. Joe’s our man.
He made some adjustments. He tightened air hoses that our previous mechanic had loosened. Joe said the Jesus repair shop even installed our new O2 sensor incorrectly. He fixed that, too.
Today Joe’s replacing the behemoth’s motor mounts. The situation, he said, isn’t urgent. While I’m terminally frugal cheap, I am able to imagine how stupid I’d feel if the engine ripped free from its moorings at some inhospitable locale high in the Rocky Mountains. By the time Joe finishes, we’ll have spent a bit more than $450. In return, we got a new oxygen sensor, a good story and some peace of mind.
All of which means we’ll probably head out of St. Augustine this evening. Becky and Max are headed to the Ripley’s Believe it Or Not Museum while I sequester myself at yet another McDonald’s, the third golden arches location we’ve sampled in St. Augustine.
We slept at Rick’s on Saturday night (we had permission). It was our first night outside the No Overnight Parking Walmart since we got here.
Rick’s Muffler sits on the western fringe of historic St. Augustine. The Rhythm and Ribs Fest rocked and rolled just a few blocks away. Cars were parked on the grass up and down Ponce de Leon Drive. Our spot was closer than most.
JJ Grey and Mofro were the headliners. I’d caught bits of them on Prairie Home Companion, and had for some time nurtured a dull but persistent interest in checking the Mofro out. Now here they were, $5 a pop for adults. The festival also offered a litany of kid-friendly diversions. It was a good night to play the tourist.
As for JJ Grey and Mofro, consider us won over. They laid down some serious old-school rhythm and blues. Tight, greasy and reeking with soul. By the time they got to “Lochloosa,” their show-stopper, the beery crowd swayed and sang along with earnest gusto. It seemed as if we were the only three interlopers who did not know the lyrics by heart.

Max had a lot fun, too, though his afternoon got off to a rocky start. The bumper boat ride, which cost three tickets (at $1 apiece), brought him to tears. Not near tears. Real, live, salt-water tears of bewildered disappointment. He’s a sensitive kid. He didn’t get in his quota of bumping. He absorbed the bumps. He got caught along the boards and got whacked repeatedly. He survived.
After we squandered $10 on run-of-the-mill carnival rides, Max found his sweet spot away from the epicenter of the madness. On the back side of the festival grounds, adjacent to the main stage, a handful of kids awaited turns at manipulating souped-up, remote-control cars. They raced and turned and crashed them on a makeshift track, kicking up dirt sprays and unleashing unrehearsed smiles.
There was no cost. A lesson is inherent. It almost never fails. We’ve had the most rewarding experiences where the cost of admission is nothing. Perhaps this follows from who we are. I’m sure it does. So be it.
Everything improved from there. Max even got to make his mom look foolish as they dueled side-by-side. Knowing full well that discretion is the better part of incompetence, I opted for the role of photographer. I’m no great photographer, but I’m loads better with cameras than I am with video games and remote-control cars.

Max tells his mother to eat his dirt as they prepare to race.

Max tells his mother to eat his dirt as they prepare to race.


When the racing was done, Max effortlessly insinuated himself into the narrative of two attractive young Florida women. Amber, whose 18-month-old Braden was at home in Gainesville, and her friend Holly, did their best to make Max feel like a big shot. They were enjoying a night out at the festival, where the beer flowed freely and contraband wafted through the Spanish moss. They were doing a little partying, yet managed to incorporate our little Lothario into their escapade.
I know it’s easier to wow the chicks when you’re 5. I get that. But I can remember going to concerts and dreaming of making friends with pretty girls. I also remember striking out every time I was bold enough to try. It will be interesting, perhaps harrowing, to see what happens when he breaches his teen years. As for me, I can wait. I’d do just about anything to hold back the hands of time.
He’s an amazing kid, even if he is testing our patience more and more frequently. After four years of smooth sailing, he’s turned a bit insolent over the past six months or so. I tried to explain to him the other day how lucky (or maybe unlucky, for the jury will be out a long time) he is to have two laid-back parents. Of course this was a waste of time.
I understand. I know you can’t reason with 5-year-olds. I hope we don’t indulge him egregiously. We try to admininster appropriate discipline, but he’s floating in a zone of indifference right now. Hopefully it’s just a stage.
The other night at the Red Carpet Inn, I raised my voice to heretofore uncharted decibels to reproach him for insulting his mother. He shuddered, but I think he sensed my heart wasn’t in it. He’s a pretty shrewd judge of character. Kids, they’re pretty smart people.
It’s hard to expect too much of him. As humans, we exist naturally in a navel-gazing bubble of selfishness. We are solipsistic ingrates. The effort required to look beyond the bubble and consider the plight of the other is painful and tedious.
Yes, Sartre, hell is other people. It is the way of the beast. Thankfully, I am haunted by piercing memories of myself as thoughtless, self-indulgent child. Sorry, mom and dad. The fear that Max will one day see me as nothing more than an inconvenient old man keeps me in check and hopefully raises my parenting to at least middle of the road.

Max is flanked by new friends Holly, left, and Amber.

Max is flanked by new friends Holly, left, and Amber.

After dropping the camper at Rick’s on Monday, we ambled through winsome St. Augustine on our way to Castillo de San Marcos National Monument. I wasn’t walking well at all. Becky and I took turns running on the beach Sunday afternoon.
“Running” is gross hyperbole in my case. I plodded north, out of the heavily trafficked St. Augustine Beach. I shuffled along to the Band of Heathens. I was half-able to admire the  sanderlings and royal terns and pelicans. As I limped through no-man’s land, I wondered if pelicans ever turn violent. I imagined what their rapier beaks could do to the soft flesh of an aging white whale who was depleted by a couple miles of beach jogging.
Fortunately, no birds or humans were injured on this excursion.
As for luscious old St. Augustine, Spanish architecture and Spanish moss conspire to cloak a big tourist trap with the feel of an old-world village. St. Augie is about in our blood.
We got to the castillo, and Max made quick work of his latest junior ranger badge. I’m losing track. It’s the third badge/patch he’s earned on this leg, which just reminds me of all the stories which have piled up behind us. I haven’t gotten to the hit-and-run attack we made on Antietam on the opening afternoon of this journey.
As for the castillo itself, it’s hard not to be impressed by the immensity of the structure, not to mention the immensity of the history it contains.
Amy Mest was our helpful ranger du jour. Did I mention I love NPS rangers? Blonde, blue-eyed and enthusiastic, Amy’s not long out of Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester, N.Y. She did an internship in the Tetons, then was dispatched to the northernmost outpost of the old Spanish Empire.
I gather it wasn’t her first choice, but being assigned the post less coveted has made all the difference.
“Before I was here I lived in western New York, and St. Augustine is not even a sentence in the textbooks up there,” she said. “I think it’s fascinating and unfortunate that they don’t share that early Spanish heritage and legacy. They skip right from the British colonies to the (Revolutionary) war. It’s like, but wait: People have been living here for 450 years.”
The castillo, later was known as Fort St. Mark under British rule and then Fort Marion when it fell to U.S. hands, is constructed of unusually durable coquina, which is largely an almagam of fossilized shellfish.

Max and Becky pose in front of a parapet overlooking glittering Matanzas Bay.

Max and Becky pose in front of a parapet overlooking glittering Matanzas Bay.

Castillo de San Marcos has reigned unbeaten since 1695, overlooking both the waterside and landward approaches to St. Augustine. It has withstood the vagaries of the centuries and the bellicosity of man. Its most violent altercation came in the autumn of 1702, when the British laid siege to the fort for 51 days during the War of Spanish Succession. The entire population of St. Augustine took shelter in Castillo de San Marcos.
It’s the oldest structure in town. The Redcoats made sure of that. Spanish reinforcements were dispatched from Havana, and when they got close, the British burned St. Augustine to the ground and scampered back to the Carolinas.
It is the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States. It went unconquered throughout its military life, the fortress equivalent to Rocky Marciano.
“It has this long chain of words it has to claim,” Mest said. “It’s the longest continuously occupied European settlement, because the natives of course had settlements before us. The places like Pensacola which might have been founded before here were destroyed by hurricanes. Or there was a French settlement (Fort Caroline) to the north of here, but the founder of this town (Pedro Menendez de Aviles) destroyed it. St. Augustine has never had a storm or battle that destroyed it. One of the unique things about this particular fort is that it’s never been conquered.”
Amy said she managed to squeak through to full-time status prior to the sequestration insanity. I asked if she feared for the future of the national parks, what with the vultures of privatization always licking their lips and looking to suckle at the federal teet.
“It’s definitely a concern, because I love the parks,” she said. “I mean, the parks are places where the government really gives back to people, and places that people really enjoy and don’t have as many criticisms of as they do of other government agencies. This is it. I would hate to see it. I do think we’re going to see reductions.”
Amy signed Max’s certificate and handed him his latest badge, and we made our way out of the castillo. I’m getting ready to make my way out of this post. I recall saying something about a quick update. I am such a liar.

DSCF2422

Mom and son, living it up and Rhythm and Ribs in St. Augustine.

Postscript: Way up there in the title line, there’s a tribute to  Eleanora Fagan, aka Billie Holiday. Sunday was her birthday. She would’ve been 98, though she lived only till 44. I’m not any kind of jazz aficionado, let alone an expert, but she possessed one of the singular and enduring voices in American music. Maybe she didn’t have the greatest range or technical flair, but her voice was soaked with soul. It remains searing and ineffable.
So, happy belated birthday, Lady Day. Here’s Billie Holiday with her musical other half Lester Young, the wondrous tenor saxophonist who gave his name to the greatest cat who ever lived. And yes, I love you Lester Beans. Miss you, too. I’m funny that way.

Now that we’ve experienced transcendent beauty, I shall give equal time to the flip side of life on earth. I’ve been to a lot of festivals at a lot of different places in this checkered but beautiful nation. I’ve never seen such disgusting port-a-potties as we encountered Saturday night in St. Augustine. I’m not sure what the hell was up with that.
It’s a nice place,  St. Augie. And it’s not like they were giving out free beer or anything. My thoughts go out to the poor bastards who had to wade into those dens of foul putrescence and do the clean-up work.

Hard to look on the bright side of life from inside the bowels of humanity.

Hard to look on the bright side of life from inside the bowels of humanity.

One other thing: Thanks to my father-in-law, the unimpeachable Tom Breslin, who took it upon himself yesterday to acquire the domain name unclesamsbackyard.com. Now you can get here without having to mess with the annoying wordpress url. Thanks, Tom.

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