By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 2/23/2020
Occurred: 2/8/2009
Topics/Keywords: #Florida #Photography #St.Augustine #Travel Page Views: 4133
All about my very short visit to my old home town.

This month's trip, just completed, was to St. Augustine, Florida, where I grew up. Unlike several previous trips, this one went without a hitch. Which means my story about it may be less fascinating! But I do have pictures.

As long-time readers know, I travel free thanks to my daughter Karen, who is a flight attendant. But the trips are standby, and it's quite possible that I can show up at the airport yet not be able to board my flight, as I am always in last place among those who have also requested to fly standby. I admit I was nervous this time, as the flights between Dulles airport and Jacksonville were both oversold.

I took Friday off from work so I could fly out that day. The flight to Dulles from Phoenix had plenty of extra seats, so that was no problem. The flight to Jacksonville was nearly full, but I did get a seat and arrived on time shortly before 7 pm EST. I rented a car from Dollar and headed south on I-95 for St. Augustine and my sister Louise's house, arriving there about 8. She and her husband, Mike, made me welcome and ordered dinner from Appleby's. I couldn't help but note that the Alfredo I had tasted much better than Appleby's Alfredo had tasted in Cabo San Jose.

Dad and Mom, circa 1952.

Louise and I then retired to the room that was now Louise's computer room, but had been our Mom's room until she died. Louise had recently discovered several boxes of Mom's stuff she didn't realize were there, and there were lots of photos that I, the family photographer and archiver, had never seen. I took them home with me, and will be months scanning and restoring them. However, here's a sample: a photo of our parents, which I recognize as having been taken sometime in 1952. (I recognize it from the setting, which was our Aunt Gene's house.) There were also photos of our step-grandmother's parents, tin-types, and all kinds of faded landscapes of unknown places we regretfully had to toss.

There were other keepsakes as well: Mom's first doll, who she named "Rain-In-The-Face" because it had been inadvertently left outside overnight and been found in the morning with its wooden head saturated; her First Communion dress, and several yearbooks. Louise related an interesting story regarding one of these.

"I bought an electronic keyboard," she said, "and when I found these boxes of Mom's, I knew I should go through them but I kept putting it off. Finally I decided I would do them today…but I decided first, to play around with the keyboard.

"I picked out the melody to 'Auld Lang Syne', and then I played it in different instruments, and different accompaniments. 'Auld Lang Syne' in Big Band style, in violin, in banjo, and so on. Finally I felt guilty for putting Mom's boxes off so long, so I turned off the keyboard and went in the other room, pulling the first thing off the top of the box, which happened to be one of these yearbooks, and I opened it to a random page. There, in the middle of the page, underlined by Mom, were the words, 'Auld Lang Syne'.

"I felt like it was a message from her, and then I thought I shouldn't make too much of it. But it felt like a message. Or something."

Of course, I agreed, it had the hallmark of contact from The Beyond. Of course, the self-described rationalist would insist that it was "just a coincidence." They can do that because they've never bothered to figure mathematically just what the odds are that such a "coincidence" ever occur, even once—not to mention, occur repeatedly, to people in all walks of life, every day of the year, every year throughout history.

We finally went to bed about 2 am.

So, Saturday morning didn't start early! But Louise and her little Shih Tzu, Rummy, left with me for a tour of our old haunts.

I had decided to get pictures of our old homes. We'd lived in five different ones in St. Augustine and St. Augustine Beach between 1961 and 1969. I did miss one, darn it! We'd only been there a couple of months in the summer of 1963. I'll have to go back to get that one! I won't bother posting them here now (I intend to post then-and-now photos soon).

We had lived in St. Augustine Beach and I was happy to see, with all the changes that had been made, that the old Beachcomber was still in operation (and, apparently, doing well). The beach itself was surprisingly busy for an early February day, not only with the usual wet-suit-clad surfers but also picnickers and dog walkers and others just enjoying the beautiful day.

St. Augustine Beach.

St. Augustine pier, which had been rebuilt after one of the hurricanes that used to pester Florida's Atlantic coast on a regular basis, is once again starting to sag but is obviously still popular with fishermen. (People used to enjoy it for simple walks but not so much now that they charge to go on it.)

St. Augustine Beach Fishing Pier.

We stopped for a little lunch at McDonald's, then dropped by Tom's Souvenirs and Seashells which is owned by our friends Bill and June Grohowski, where I bought an excellent ball cap. I then took Louise home so she could start working on dinner.

Rummy, Louise and Paul on Louise's front porch.

I then swung around into town, first to see our old house on St. George Street, including the picturesque Maria Sanchez Lake immediately behind it.

Maria Sanchez Lake.

Maria Sanchez Lake is lovely, and my grandfather used to fish in it though he always threw the fish back in—the lake, we were told, was "polluted" and the fish from it could not be eaten. Actually, the lake collects water from an adjacent salt marsh.

Salt marsh south of Maria Sanchez Lake

These days, a look across the marsh is capped with a view of the State Road 312 Bridge. That wasn't there when we lived here.

The Bridge of Lions was, but it is currently being rebuilt. It crosses the Matanzas River, which separates the mainland part of St. Augustine from Anastasia Island. A "temporary" bridge routes traffic across the Matanzas River while the construction proceeds. There are currently far more sailboats and houseboats in the river than there used to be.

Matanzas River; Bridge of Lions construction on the left.

In downtown St. Augustine, right across from the bridge, the old Exchange Bank building still stands, though the Exchange Bank is long gone.

The former Exchange Bank building.

This six-storey building, which has dominated the St. Augustine skyline since before I arrived in 1961, used to have an electric display on its roof that alternately displayed the time and temperature. In the summer, when temperatures commonly exceeded 100 very humid degrees, it was customary to lower the display by ten degrees so as not to scare the tourists.

When I worked at the radio station in 1972, my office was on the 4th floor of this building, at the north end—you can see the windows in the photo above.

Cathedral of St. Augustine.

When writing about my memories of the Cathedral of St. Augustine a few months ago, I was surprised to discover I had no surviving pictures of the building in which I had spent so many hours of my youth, what with being an altar boy and in the choir. So I was happy to see it hasn't changed much, and was able to correct that lack.

Through the years, I had managed to roam pretty much every corner of that edifice, even being asked once to change the fluorescent tubes that backlit the clock in the tower.

It was always difficult to photography the interior of the Cathedral, because it was so large—too large for flashguns—and relatively dark. Now that digital cameras are here and so much more sensitive to light than photographic film, that's no longer a problem.

Cathedral of St. Augustine, interior.

St. George Street north of King Street is the traditional tourist section of town. Actually, the touristy part used to start north of Hypolita, with the section from King to Hypolita being occupied by stores like Hahn's Music Box, Sears Catalog Store, dress shops, the St. George Pharmacy and the like. Now, however, the entire stretch has become occupied by T-Shirt shops, art galleries, tourist food places, and one store that had named itself in a painfully honest manner:

At last! A place to buy junk.

The nation's Oldest Schoolhouse was still in operation, I was glad to see.

The Oldest Schoolhouse in the United States.

But that was about it for the historical aspects of St. George Street. The painstakingly restored buildings managed by the St. Augustine Restoration and Historical Society, for which my mother had worked for some 20 years, now all housed souvenir and T-shirt shops, rather than an insight into life in the 1600s and 1700s.

Site of the former Old Spanish Inn.

When I was in my teens, I got a part-time job lighting candles for a Candlelight Tour of Old St. Augustine. One of our stops was the Old Spanish Inn. I loved having the run of the place while waiting for the tour to arrive, quiet and lit only by candles. In reality, however, the building had never been an inn. Tours are now given of the De Mesa house, as it is currently known, by appointment; but it appeared closed when I got there.

My Mom used to work at the Old Spanish Inn as "interpreter" (guide). She was there for years. After that, she spent years working in one of the other restored buildings demonstrating candle-making. Among the visitors when she was there was the King of Spain, who she always regarded as a personal friend afterwards. Now, the building appears deserted.

Mom used to work here, not as long ago as it looks. Victor Kowal's vision of the Cathedral, circa 1950.

As I made my way up the street, my attention was captured by an artist who was set up just in front of one of the stores. Or, rather, by his work, which was at once photo-realistic yet fantastic. Many of his themes were the very buildings I was photographing. His name was Victor Kowal, and if you are looking for museum-quality art for your home or office, I suggest you check out his web site.

The Love Trees.

Finally, as I returned to my car (which cost $6 to park in the lot of the Old Drug Store), I remembered to check up on the "love tree" which I had to point out to tourists 30 years ago when I drove the Trolley Tours in yet another part-time job. The two trees, a palm and a live oak, which had grown to be intertwined without harm to either, were now much larger but were still very much alive.

Toni, Me, Lisa, Jack

I had told Louise I would be back at 6 pm and came in three minutes late. We weren't planning to eat until eight-ish, but my niece Lisa (daughter of my other sister, Mary Joan) and her two youngest had come by to see me. Toni is seven and Jack is 17 months. Both are adorable. Toni is quiet and earnest and spent her time at Aunt Louise's creating art with some kind of special paper the kids can use now. Jack smiled and laughed the entire time he was there, whether he was pounding on the glass front of Louise's curio cabinet with a rock turtle, or running headlong into the woods in the dark.

Unfortunately Lisa's husband was unable to make it; he was working a double shift. Nor could Lisa's two older children, who were otherwise occupied. Hopefully I'll be able to catch up with them on another trip.

Jack runs for the woods.

Soon, more visitors arrived: Louise's oldest son Kevin (first child of his generation in our family) with his lovely wife Charlotte and "their" Zachary (not to be confused with my grandson).

Toni Kevin with son Zachary Jack with his Aunt Charlotte

I love that the kids have a close-knit family with a lot of cross-visiting and holding. I know I gave that up with my kids when we moved away from St. Augustine; it's the only part of that decision I feel badly about. (Not that it was a decision, exactly; I had to go where the work was.)

"Little" Zachary

During the day, Louise had told me that Zachary had been in a car accident with his other grandparents…and that he would tell me about it. "He's a little storyteller," she warned. She also cautioned me to not tell him that the elderly man who had caused the accident had died. "Zachary doesn't know," she explained.

Zachary hadn't been in the house five minutes before he came up and said, dramatically, "Uncle Paul…let me tell you what happened to me." He then gave a heavy sigh, and proceeded to give a courtroom-ready blow-by-blow description, ending with the old man in the other car having to be removed by the "Jaws of Life".

Mike, who had apparently been overlooked in the warning, said, "You know, that guy eventually died."

I inhaled sharply, wondering if it was too late to preserve Zachary's innocence, but he was quite capable of doing it for himself. "Oh, no, Grampa," he said. "That man is all right. He did not die!"

Louise served an awesome dinner consisting of turkey, Jasmine rice (that was my contribution) mac and cheese for the kids, and a green bean casserole with French-fried onions.

After everyone else had left, Louise and Mike and I chatted for a bit and then our other sister, Mary Joan, arrived with her husband Calvin. They had been at a previous engagement, a car show, in Georgia and had gotten there as soon as they could. We had a nice visit, and by the time they left it was after 1 am.

So I packed and got a few hours sleep before I had to leave in the morning. My plane didn't leave until around 1 pm, but I had to return the rental car and I didn't know how long it would take to get through airport security. Plus, I wasn't absolutely sure I'd be able to board another oversold flight. But this one had more room on it than I would have guessed; and my return flights—both of them—turned out to be uneventful (though the temperature on the second, longer, flight was a bit high for my comfort).

So: The verdict is, this trip was a success. I am hoping to go back for my 40th high school reunion, if they have one. If so, that will probably be in June.