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Tuesday, January 23, 2018


       Wouldn't it be great to have a reunion inviting all of your far-flung friends?  I did the next best thing last week. I headed up Florida's east coast for my Old Acquaintances Tour.  In seven days I saw eight friends trading stories along the way. 
Here are some of them.

       My first stop was visiting Polly in West Palm Beach. I had not seen the retired attorney in years. She now volunteers at a fancy thrift shop where I scored this colorful Betty Boop bobble-head.

       Where do people with money go to die? I found one place last Wednesday when I visited Kim and Carol. Last year they shocked me with their news, "We've sold our house and are moving to a retirement facility".  They are the first of my friends to take this step. They now live in "The Waterford", an up-scale old folks home in Juno Beach. I stopped to visit.
       I've known Kim since we were twelve and now, at 71, he and his wife share a beautiful garden bungalow. Every room has a string switch on wall. If you fall (and can't get up), you crawl over to the string, give it a tug, and someone comes to help. They signed a contract that says they will be taken care of "until the end".  
For now I'm taking my chances, no strings attached.

     Pierre and I were  fraternity brothers at the University of Florida fifty years ago. He never left Gainesville choosing to pursue photography and raise a family there. Unfortunately he contracted diabetes and has dealt with it for decades. Despite two liver transplants and failing vision, Pierre soldiers on with a smile on his face and hope in his heart.
      He moved back to the family home in New Smyrna Beach recently where we caught up on a very cold day. Kept warm by his electric fire place, we traded stories then strolled six blocks to greet the roaring Atlantic. With limited vision, he likes living within walking distance to the bars and restaurants of this funky beach town still undiscovered by the Disney crowd.

      Another college buddy, Chuck, is giving a similar seaside town a try.  There is no funk on St. Simons Island, Georgia. He and his wife enjoy a perfectly maintained, historic seaside village surrounded by gated communities, golf courses, and former slave cabins.  Still, they admit, it can be boring at times. They are considering their next move.

    All the beaches I saw were beautiful but after you leave South Florida, the blue water turns  caramel.  It has something to do with churning sand. It limiting a shark's vision is the reason why New Smyrna is called "the shark bite capital of the world" (Pierre and his three children, surfers all, have never been attacked).

       Many of my friends are making their last move, retirees asking themselves, "Where should I spend my final years?".  There are fortunate people who say, "I don't need to go anywhere, where I am is just fine". I have not met many of them yet.        
    As much as I love Coconut Grove, it is not a place for the elderly.  On any walk you risk getting run down by a roaring Harley or electric skateboard. At some point,  Francesca and I will probably look for a final destination too.

        Leaving Georgia I returned to the northeast corner of our state to visit Sally and Morris. They chose Amelia Island after he retired from his university's presidency. They were attracted to its beach-front gated communities and members of their family already living there. It felt safe and pleasant (too cold for the usual no-see-ums when I visited). Most amenities are a golf cart ride away. 
    Miles of marsh lie beyond this sand trap.

  The three of us jumped into their Mini convertible and motored five miles north. After a town tour we stopped at the farmers market in historic Fernandina Beach.

 In forty-degree weather we had our choice of eight different pickles from this vendor.

 Sally, a ceramic artist, was my sixth-grade girlfriend. She stole my heart once more at our fifty-year high school reunion when she flashed the engraved silver necklace  ("GT & SW") that I gave her in 1959.

           American Beach is also on Amelia Island. Thirty years ago I read that is the only beach owned by African Americans in this country. It was a big deal from 1935 to the early 70's.  Now, it is a "ghost beach" waiting to be fixed up or torn down.

     New houses sit like vultures at its edges hungering for American Beach's valuable, forlorn land.  "Nana", at 35-feet Florida's tallest sand dune watches over it all.

      Front yard statues of black children flourished in southern white communities until the civil rights era.  I was shocked to see these two then realized their owners shared the same skin color, long-time residents of American Beach.


  Former Tastee Freeze, American Beach

  It was now time to head west. Gainesville is the home of old friends and the UF, my alma mater. Arriving early, I stopped at the ATO fraternity house I left 48 years ago.  Being the old man visiting my clean-cut, young "brothers" was a bit disconcerting but life, including fraternity life, goes on.

      My friends Ward and Tina love their college town and enjoy living near many, many, friends. Their house is a 1950's "modern" that's in the city but is surrounded by woods. A block away we hiked into a deep forest and found shark-teeth in the stream that ran through it. 

   It was cold but we jumped into Blue Springs anyway.  That's how much we love its clear, languid water that gurgle up north of Gainesville.

    Before I left town I toured one of my favorite places, The Florida Museum of Natural History. 
I marveled again at the Colombian Mastodon skeleton (13 ' high at the shoulder!) and the re-creations of Calusa village life. South Florida once belonged to them.
   I was reminded that our original people lived with Florida's "elephants" 10,000 years ago. Back then a local artist carefully incised this mastodon image into a bone.

     On my final leg south I visited Lake Wales, Florida. It has a Singing Tower and Spook Hill but the big draw is my sister, Donna. She and her husband, Bill, moved here years ago, preferring small town life over Miami.  Maybe coming here was their last move. I have to say their company- and inflatable hot tub- were quite relaxing.

     Just a few hours from Miami, I decided to take the long way home on Highway 27.  A mile down the road I stopped to visit my brother, Clay. Here he enjoys endless views of pastoral pastures. It's the spot he chose as his final destination.

     Long retired. Chairs at American Beach.

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