In the Confederacy’s charming cradle

Max postures as the Fat Man glows in the St. Augustine night.

Max postures as the Fat Man glows in the St. Augustine night.

Editor’s note – What day is it? Wednesday, April 10.  It think. I’m getting a little confused. We’re stuck in St. Augustine with the automotive blues again. We slept last night at Rick’s Muffler Shop, safe in the Fat Man’s genial glow. Our accommodations were courtesy of the nice people at Rick’s. It is the Fat Man’s legacy.
It’s fair to say most people wouldn’t be thrilled about the prospect of camping at a muffler shop. It’s also fair to say we are not most people. Esther Molnar, who was married to the Fat Man for 27 years, showed us uncommon hospitality. She set us up with an electrical connection. She afforded us access to the men’s room.
We were thrilled. A power hookup? We don’t do it often. It costs too much money to run the behemoth, so we skimp on lodgings. It’s why we spend entirely too much time at that ubiquitous blight on the economic landscape I like to call the Walton Family General Store. RV parks and state parks usually run $30 and more. So this was a rare treat.
We’d use our convection oven for the first time. Giddy with anticipation, we laid in stores. We got frozen jalapeno poppers. We bought DiGiorno pizza. We got nacho fixings just in case. We would camp in style!
Becky figured out the convection oven. She got the poppers popping. Then, just as they were popping out of the oven, crispy and transfatty, a circuit breaker tripped.
Our faces sagged. Our hearts plummeted. Crestfallen, we were. So much for luxury.

No pizza for you! No electricity. Well baby, we’ll always have Rick’s. And we’ll always have the men’s room.
We rolled with the shot. We’re pretty good at this. We embrace simplicity. What really took some adjusting was the occasional visit of a hell-bound freight train on the Florida East Coast Railway line on the tracks across Ponce de Leon Boulevard. At least they sounded as if they were bound for the nether regions.
We were engrossed in “Hitchcock” when the first train arrived. We had to pause the movie, for we couldn’t hear a thing. The sound was infernal. The freight train rumbled like thunder. It roared and it hissed and it squealed with the fury of a thousand tortured souls. And it took a good five minutes in the passing.
This is Americana. This is what we wanted. I guess we should be happy. We are happy.
Rick’s opens at 8 a.m. We got up early so we could get out of their way. I’ve always thought of 8 as early, though I know it’s not for many. I felt better about my world view when I encountered Rick’s usually engaging staff.
Poor Joe looked like he just rolled out of bed on the back end of a tequila bender. Lil’ Allen hadn’t changed into his work shirt. Esther managed a smile, though it looked like an effort. She handed me a folder of yellowing newspaper clippings. They offer fragmentary evidence of the life of Rick’s Muffler Shop.
Rick Molnar, aka The Fat Man, was born Enrico Leonardi E Fiew de Molinaro in Sicily on Jan. 3, 1936. He lived a vagabond’s existence early on. He spent time in Switzerland. His family came to the U.S. and settled for a time in Westmoreland County in western Pennsylvania. At some point they moved on, and the Fat Man attended Andrew Jackson High School in Jacksonville. He served with the Marines. He taught math and physics  at Jacksonville Naval Air Station. He managed a Midas shop in Jacksonville before opening Rick’s Muffler in a former bait and tackle shop at 210 Ponce de Leon Boulevard in 1975. That’s where we slept last night, a bit fitfully thanks to the obstreperous trains and the near-constant swoosh of traffic on U.S. 1 (aka Ponce de Leon Boulevard).
They called him “Muffler Man.” And “Papa Rick.” And, yes, the “Fat Man.” Twice he ran for St. Johns County Commissioner, first as a Republican and then as a Democrat. He seems by all accounts to have been an influential, beloved cog in St. Augustine. There’s a clipping from a forgotten journal called “The Traveler.” There’s no date, but I’m guessing it’s circa 1976-77, shortly after he opened for business. His trademark beard is absent. Same for the overalls.
Asked why he liked muffler work so much, he said, “Because I’m weird.” Only the reporter transposed the “e” and the “i” and came up wierd. And no one caught it. Then someone doubled down on the typo:
“Because I’m Wierd,”  is the headline. The Fat Man might’ve thought himself weird. More likely he was employing a flair for self-deprecation. Nonetheless I’ll bet he was embarrassed when he saw the headline. 

Rick Molnar died in a VA hospital in Gainesville on June 29, 2007. The heartbreak is etched into the creases around Esther’s blue eyes. But, you know, more about that later. I’m not done with Rick’s Muffler Shop yet. 
For now we’ll travel back to Easter Sunday. We spent the afternoon in Charleston, the the Confederacy’s charming cradle. What follows is an account of our slice-of-life afternoon in beautiful Charleston:

Sunday, March 31 – We spent just a brief time in fair Charleston. She did her best to seduce us with her charms. They are considerable.
Charleston seemed as ideal a place to spend Easter as any. It’s flush with winsome architecture and voluptuous trees. On a sunny Easter day, it resonates with the tranquility of a pastoral ode. Branches flow and twist and reach out to each other across narrow streets, forming arboreal canopies which suffuse the city with comforting shade. Spanish moss hangs from live oaks. Palmettos warm the ambiance with tropical flavor.
Oh Charleston, you are lovely as Scarlett O’Hara before Fort Sumter.
I could get lost in the welter of your charm.
Yet I left with just one regret: I wish the Confederate Museum had been open. Here in Charleston, they don’t keep their Confederates in the attic. They’re on full display.
Beneath Charleston’s beguiling charm beats the heart of an unregenerate Confederate.
We strolled without hurry along Meeting Street, admiring Charleston’s Museum Mile.
We stumbled into a succession of beautiful spaces. First was an unnamed space tucked into a grassy little square on the west side of Meeting Street. Here we met L. Mendel Rivers, whose bust is cast in bronze. L. Mendel Rivers, no doubt to his considerable chagrin, came along too late for slavery.
He served in the House of Representatives for almost three decades. The monument said he “spoke for his neighbors” and “strove to keep his country strong.”
They named a street for him here. A building, too.
Rivers was an obdurate segregationist. He supported Strom Thurmond in 1948. What did he say on his neighbors’ behalf?
When Truman integrated the U.S. Military, he called him a “dead chicken.”
Disillusioned with his own party, he crossed the aisle in 1952 and supported Republican Dwight Eisenhower’s bid for the presidency. When Ike backed the movement toward desegregation, he lost Rivers.
I have to admire L. Mendel Rivers on at least one account. He had a countrified way with words. Asked if he was going to support Eisenhower in 1956, he delivered an all-time interpretation of the “Fool me once, shame on you” adage:
“Hell no! Ain’t no education in the second kick of a mule.”
L. Mendel Rivers, finding himself increasingly isolated, reinvented himself as a champion of the disastrous escapade in southeast Asia. By the time he finished up his career in the House, he glibly billed himself as the “Grandaddy of the War Hawks.”
We bid adieu to L. Mendel Rivers and walked south along Meeting. When we got to the intersection with Broad Street, we took a stroll in Washington Square.
Washington Square is a
 bucolic wonder. We entered from Broad Street. We passed through a wrought iron gate and stumbled straight into a statue of a fellow named Henry Timrod.  It was erected in 1901.
Mr. Timrod is often accorded status as poet laureate of the Confederacy. He was frail and tubercular but an ardent supporter of the sunny south. His flowery odes to Confederate nationalism couldn’t have hurt old Jeff Davis’ recruiting effort. From Timrod’s “A Cry to Arms” comes this uplifting cri de coeur:

Ho! woodsmen of the mountain side!
Ho! dwellers in the vales!
Ho! ye who by the roaring tide
Have roughened in the gales!
Come! flocking gayly to the fight,
From forest, hill, and lake;
We battle for our Country’s right,
And for the Lily’s sake!

Oh for the lily’s sake. Lily, oh Lily. Beautiful Lily. What self-gratifying nonsense.
Now, the name Henry Timrod struck a vague chord of resonance. Sounded familiar. It turns out Henry Timrod enjoyed a brief second act  as Bob Dylan’s bete noire.
Long about 2006, after Dylan released the album “Modern Times,” alert scholars noted where Dylan had cherry-picked some of Timrod’s passages.
There was an ephemeral flare-up among the vigilant sentinels of the national culture. Could the great bard of Hibbing be a plagiarizer. Heaven forfend!
The New York Times got into the act, and singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega followed up with an op-ed piece suggesting Dylan was guilty of something more than engage in the folk process. Here is a rundown of Dylan’s Timrod-taking.
It was a tempest in a Southern urn. When I think of Dylan’s Timrod controversy, my mind falls upon an old blues refrain. To twist it a little:

Dylan did more for you, Henry Timrod,
Then the good Lord ever done.
Hell, he brought you back to life,
Which you know He ain’t never done.

A 42-foot granite obelisk rises in the center of the square. It is a miniature version of the Washington Monument, and it is dedicated to the Washington Light Infantry. Max and I played tag around the monument. My favorite element of the park is a crumbling monument to Confederate General Pierre Gustav Toutant Beauregard. Max felt the urge to go, and he used the cover provided by Beauregard’s monument to relieve himself.
The old soldier was an unrepentant Confederate himself. He refused to swear the oath of loyalty to the Union that would grant him amnesty until Robert E. Lee persuaded him to do so.

I did take a moment at Washington Square to interview Max. I asked him how the trip was working out for him so far.
“Good,” he said. “I’m enjoying the McDonald’s screen time and fun and a lot of things. I like my LeapPad and a lot of things.”
Yikes. What else, I asked?
“Playing tag you’re it,” he said. “I like, let me see … oh mermaids. I like mermaids. Mermaids aren’t real. I do like Hot Wheels racing cars.”
Well, he’s getting older. Maybe his answers are not as precocious as they once sounded. All parents fall prey to detecting genius in their kids. That’s of course absurd. Besides, he’s only a kid, I know. Cut him a break.
In his defense, he did produce a gem in Durham. He was planted in front of the TV when Michelle Obama appeared with a public service announcement urging parents to get their kids away from the TV and out into the fresh air.
I asked him to rephrase his reaction to the message.
“It’s a commercial that wants you to get outside, but it’s on a TV show,” he said. “That’s crazy. Because they want you get outside and that’s on a TV, that commercial.”
Sweet, sweet cognitive dissonance.


We moved on from Washington Square, plodding eastward toward the water. We found our way to Waterfront Park, where we found the hopeful spirit of Charleston. We lingered here while Max splashed and frolicked in the Pineapple Fountain. He met a friend named Evan, and they basked in the pleasure of each other’s company,  By the time the sun was dropping over Charleston, they were soaked to the bone.
Evan’s mom is Crystal. She works at Black Market Minerals downtown. She gave Max a rock elephant with a broken leg. It still stands, though. He also got half a heart, with Evan keeping the other. May they meet again someday.

Max and Evan, not quite as wet as they would get.

Max and Evan, not quite as wet as they would get.

Our faith lifted, we knew we better get moving before the light vanished and Max started shivering uncontrollably. Our chance encounter with Evan and Crystal was the highlight of our hit-and-run foray into Charleston. It was the only bit you could tell was real.
We took off Max’s shirt and hustled to cover the two miles back to the behemoth. We got there in good order and soon began our exodus from Charleston.
I asked Becky if we might make one final stop. I’d noticed the sprawling square on the west side of Meeting Street as we approached Calhoun Street. A heroic figure in bronze stood atop a giant pillar, commanding Charleston like a Confederate colossus. Must be John C. Calhoun.
I would feel bad if I left Charleston without saying hello to John C. Calhoun. So Becky swung around on Calhoun Street. No parking was available, I scrambled out at the stop light.
And there he stood, the Sultan of Slavery, the nattering nabob of nullification. John C. Calhoun stood there in all his glory, bronze and immortal.;
He was, the monument avers, a champion of “Truth, Justice and the Constitution.”
God. Look at that bastard up there. His bronze great coat raises up over his back like shoulder pads, giving him the look of an old-school defensive end.
He stands beyond the reach of mortals, a god on a heavenly pedestal. His head tilts downward. His countenance is dismissive. He glowers at the groundlings like a goddamn superhero.
And h
is hair isn’t even white.
What towering insouciance, I thought. That is a fuck-you posture if I’ve ever seen one.
It wasn’t long before I’d had enough of John C. Calhoun.
It’s time to say goodbye, sweet Charleston.
The sky darkened as I walked toward Meeting Street and the behemoth. Dark clouds gather above Calhoun.
How fitting. He was a veritable Thor of the Confederacy. Thunderheads followed wherever he went.
It is only a shame he did not live long enough to see the fruits of his labor.
I found the camper, got in and Becky began to look for the egress. Despite it all, I enjoyed our visit. Charleston is undeniably beautiful. And it’s not a meretricious beauty.
But, you know, caveat emptor.

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2 Responses to In the Confederacy’s charming cradle

  1. Kenny says:

    Love that shirt, Maxie. Keep representing, yo.

  2. Jim Peterson says:

    Have always loved that video of Dylan’s “When the Deal Goes Down” and not only because Scarlett Johansson makes me want to howl like a wolf, have my eyes fly out of their sockets, and hit myself repeatedly in the head with a brick like in a Tex Avery cartoon… aw hell… yes it is.

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