|By: Paul S. Cilwa
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|Topics: #Florida #St.Augustine #Autobiography
|That time we moved to St. Augustine, Florida.
The little beach house we rented on Anastasia Island was only a two-month refuge while Mom and my grandparents went house-hunting. They found a place within walking distance of my school. We moved into the house at 312 St. George Street in St. Augustine, Florida, in November of 1961.
It had four bedrooms, one of which was a converted upstairs porch (my sisters, Louise and Mary Joan, slept there), and a converted downstairs porch (my room).
My grandfather, Vernon Brown, usually held court in the living room. In this photo, he is wearing the goatee that so upset my grandmother. He was suffering from a bout of some kind of dementia (years later identified as an electrolyte imbalance) and read Gone With The Wind over and over…and, each time he did, he would grow the goatee and draw one on the photo of him Gramma kept on her dresser. Gramma would cry and erase it, then hide the photo until he shaved off his goatee.
In spite of Grandpa's growing dementia, he was much loved by my sisters and me. We enjoyed spending time with him; he taught us to play checkers, and never tired of telling us stories and listening to ours.
As Christmas approached, Grandpa decided to leave his retirement and become a shoe salesman. For some reason, it never occurred to him to buy the shoes wholesale; he ordered several hundred dollars' worth from the Sears Roebuck catalog, then placed an ad in the St. Augustine Record for someone to actually go door-to-door and sell the shoes, which a woman answered. Gramma had to follow him around, canceling the order and trying to explain to the poor woman that she hadn't been hired, after all.
Fortunately, we didn't live in the kind of house where the kids can't play. We had the run of the whole place. Often, the living room became transformed into some sort of doll house or space ship.
Mom's room was upstairs, at the front of the house. You had to go through it to get to the girls' room, but, fortunately she didn't seem to be interested in much privacy.
The back yard was roomy, dominated by a huge pecan tree. We had a swing set, and there was a sort of garage-like structure that contained old tools and stuff. It was dark and smelly and we kids didn't go in there much.
The house was just a few blocks from historic, downtown St. Augustine, providing plenty of opportunities to play in ancient buildings and exercise my growing interest in photography. Here is probably my first photo of a sunset.
This was my first Christmas old enough to know the truth about Santa Claus, and also old enough to not say anything to my sisters about it (unlike the previous summer in Vermont, when I had figured it and out of the blue started warning my sisters that, if they didn't behave, Santa wouldn't bring them anything. (I was trying to be supportive.)
Rather than try to figure out what I might want for Christmas, and remembering the previous summer, Mom just handed me a Sears Toy Catalog and asked me to pick out a few things from it. Well, there was only one thing I really wanted: a battery-and-manually operated 8mm movie projector.
The thing was pretty minimal. It took 3-inch reels of 8mm movie film, which was the size that came back after getting a roll of home movie film processed at the drug or camera store. A 3-inch reel provided about 3 minutes of viewing time. However, I did not own (nor did I ask for) a movie camera. Instead, in my passion for retail store catalogs, I had discovered a company that sold 3-inch reels of heavily-edited cartoons and movies from the previous several decades. Called Castle Films, I included with my Christmas order four films from Castle: a Betty Boop, a Popeye, an Our Gang comedy (who I knew as The Little Rascals), and a Woody Wookpecker cartoon.
On Christmas Eve I went to bed early along with my sisters; but this only meant I woke on my own sometime after midnight. Now, although I had requested the projector and movies, I didn't know for a fact that I was going to get them.
But I was awake. And the house was dark and quiet. Heart pounding—what if I were wrong, and there was a Santa? Mom never told me there wasn't; she would just respond with, "What do you think?" What if I went into the living room and he was still there?
But my curiosity got the better of me. It was, indeed, dark. We had a small Christmas tree, but it wasn't lit. In the middle of the room was a pile of wrapped packages, but it was so dark I couldn't tell which were mine, much less what was in them. But, at least the presents had arrived! And so I went back to bed.
In the morning I discovered that the projector and films had, indeed, arrived. However, I couldn't use it until night fall, as the battery-operated flashlight bulb that projected the image was rather dim.
Finally, night came. My sisters were to be my audience. This wasn't as hard to arrange as you might have thought, as we hadn't brought our old TV with us from Vermont, and Mom hadn't yet replaced it. So my sisters were starved for entertainment.
The batteries ran the bulb but the rest of the unit had to be operated manually. That is, I had to turn a metal crank that pulled the movie film past a hook that would pause the film just long enough for it to register as an image before the next came along. Thus, we did enjoy the illusion of a motion picture.
We watched all four three-minute films. Including loading and unloading time, the entire "Evening Of Entertainment With The Cilwas" was somewhat underwhelming; and, in fact, I rarely used the projector ever again. (I don't even remember what became of it.)
But my interest in motion pictures, especially home movies, was undaunted. And, in years to come, I would readdress the whole "Evening Of Entertainment With The Cilwas" concept several times.