Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Coast

The 'Coast' for the last forty years has been my wife's family beach home on Alligator Point, an eight mile peninsula, fifty miles south of Tallahassee, Florida. Twenty years ago my father in law, Jack Yaeger, completed a unique and incredibly beautiful house hanging over the water, on Alligator Harbor, the richest bay for sea life in the entire state of Florida. Though smaller than many homes in the area, it is an eclectic monument to his design skills and building virtuosity. The house could be a Frank Lloyd Wright spin off, sitting on a hand made limestone foundation which he built, rock by rock, over nearly twenty years before construction of the actual house commenced. His architectural creativity encompassed the entire lot to include a Buddha rock garden, a collection of stone mosaics, cantilevered suspended steps, two outdoor showers and a number of limestone and granite walls designed to preclude structural damage to the house in the event of  hurricane flooding. The inside includes hand blown glass windows with sea life motifs and hand carved four inch doors between several of the rooms.

“Smilin Jack Yeager", was a larger than life character, near and dear to my heart, and merits special mention. He was the eldest child of a prominent Tallahassee family. His father was a crusty hunter type and his mother was a beautiful but bawdy lady, reminiscent of her contemporary May West. Jack was the most handsome young man in the area, an elite athlete and like his father, a passionate hunter/fisherman. While a still a teenager he was the stand-in for Johnny Weismueller in several Tarzan movies filmed in the area. He was paid $50 a dive and was able to share a drink or two with the hard drinking Tarzan as well as his costar, Cheetah, the side kick chimp .

In 1941 when the United States entered War War II, Jack enlisted, and was assigned to a squadron of thirty pilots flying missions in the Pacific theater on a daily basis. He primarily flew P 38 Lightnings and was a test pilot for the P 47. He was an 'Ace', with five confirmed 'kills' before he was 21 years old. He had eleven recorded 'kills' by the end of the War, and the number would have been higher, had the War Department continued to tally the Japanese student pilots he shot down just prior to the end of the conflict. Of the thirty original pilots in his squadron, my father in law was one of three to survive the war. It is an under statement to say he was monument to testosterone.

My relationship with Jack was a little 'stressed' at the onset. I first met him in Tallahassee when I was invited to 'meet the family' in 1970 just before graduating from Georgia Tech. I wore old bluejeans, high top black Converse sneakers, and a long sleeve Batman T-shirt which made me appear scrawnier than my actual 6 foot, 145 pound frame. With long black curly hair and a goatee, I was quite the contrast to my well groomed, brown haired, blue eyed, muscular framed future father in law. He referred to me as "Wild Bill Hickock", kept his distance, but was always polite. I gained some favor that weekend when I was able to dissect the heart of a deer he had shot, accurately identifying the chambers and the valves; and even more favor when I was amenable to eating half of the heart which he grilled in the backyard.

Though providing well for his family Jack was never an enthusiastic professional man. He completed law school but did not practice. He joined his father in a fire and causality insurance firm which did not suit him well. He redirected his passion to hunting on the Wascissa River and building his place on the coast. Every Wednesday and non hunting weekend, he would drag a small trailer of limestone rocks he collected throughout the week, down to "The Point". He initially built the only stone A-frame I have ever seen, which slept the family of four. Over the next twenty years he sculpted the Oriental rock garden, house foundation, utility building and retaining walls, primarily from the limestone rocks and boulders indigenous to the Florida panhandle.

Nothing is more ephemeral than plant life or human structures on the Gulf Coast of Florida, where the warm water for a thousand miles can deliver energy to the frequent hurricanes funnelled toward the inevitable landfall somewhere in the area. A house may wash away like an Andy Goldsworthy rock pile loosely stacked on an incoming tide. Mr Goldsworthy intends to see the end of his efforts as captured in his beautiful film Rivers and Tides depicting the construction and the destruction of a number of his works. In contrast, nothing is more permanent than one of Jack's rock walls. Was he reaching for immortality as any sculptor would claim, or goading the creator to revere his art and guide the storms elsewhere?

Having never resolved this ontology, I approach every opportunity to visit this home as possibly being my last. We have made far too few trips there as my working, bike riding and gardening duties generally present a direct conflict. We have lately learned it is as easy for my daughter to fly there, as it is for us to drive, which results in a nice family gathering, especially on holidays. Recently, she and a friend flew in from a Baltimore winter scene, and were picked up by Charlotte. I departed Macon the following day and headed South.

I crossed the Florida line near dusk, that magical moment of fading daylight when colors seen through dilated pupils are particularly stunning. I was pleasantly greeted, as always, by lines of Live Oaks, Georgia's state tree. On this long stretch of road the oaks appear most majestic, their broad horizontal limbs dripping with Spanish Moss. (Many years ago when I had the "what can go wrong" attitude of a typical young person, I would drive this part on moonlit nights with the car lights off. Moonlight on an abundant display of Spanish Moss was always such a treat.)  Entering Tallahassee, these biological wonders give way to a  mishmash of chain stores and restaurants displaying their plebeian signage. An encore of the Live Oaks provide the last aesthetic dimension before the lifeless government buildings, of Tallahassee's core. These buildings and the streets from which they emanate are at least well lit and able to guide the weary traveler through the half way point of the city.

Darkness and fatigue set in south of the city on the last fifty miles of my journey. Most of the locals heading to the coast had departed by this hour. When I finally exited the city, I seemed to be the lone remaining driver. In addition to my fatigue I knew I had to face the reality of abundant wildlife along this isolated stretch of rural road. On previous trips I had seen deer, fox, possums, dogs, wildcats, armadillos, raccoons, weasels and bears, a zoo like spectrum of uncaged animals. I resorted to my 'night time rural wildlife' defensive driving strategy I had seen perfected by my aforementioned colorful father in law, where I straddle the center line, as Jack would do, turn on the brights, and slowly weave to the right and to the left, scanning for approaching wildlife. I survived one near miss with a large raccoon, arriving at Jack's abode, just as the clan was sitting down for a late dinner

While I always enjoy these family gatherings at my father in law's home which I now own, I have never adapted to the basic coastal custom of boating. Most residents at Alligator Point and neighboring St Teresa have a life centered around boats, but we have never owned one. I hate the noise, the bumpy ride, and the smell of diesel. Sail boats are even less desirable, mostly because I hate the wind. All bike riders hate the wind. That reaction was formed and cemented early in my cycling career, with no exceptions.

On the other hand, walking the beach and shell collecting is our main activity. Going to the end of Alligator point, one passes a long line of homes on lots with minimal vegetation. Some of these dwellings are small and on the ground and others are massive, precariously perched on a comical array of stilt pilings. The last half of the beach journey is along a bird sanctuary in a pristine state. It is rare to see another human being on this end of the point. One does see flocks of birds, porpoises swimming along at walking speed, and soft waves quietly lapping in a comforting undulating drone.

My solo walk to the end of the point today was most spectacular. Officially a winter day, we were given a low 70’s spring-like temp with a slight sea breeze and a warming sun, shining through a mixed type cloud coverage, seemingly on command, not to block the sun directly. Early on the way back, the water beckoned me to enter. Sensing I was the only person on the beach, I removed all of my clothes and entered. The dip was thorough but brief. Once re clothed  I was pleasantly chilled on the outside and warmed on the inside. This elicited a most intense feeling of well being, a feeling, I realized, I had not felt for too long a time..

I made it home just before dusk. Like the day before, the light greatly amplified the visual treats. Sitting on the small deck Jack constructed on the west end of the lot, we viewed the three buildings, the walls and the gardens, with one panoramic view. Reflecting on the polarities of Jack Yeager's life, I acquired a heightened appreciation for what this tranquil piece of land must have meant to a man whose youthful years were spent fighting in daily death duels high above the Pacific Ocean.

"Smiling Jack Yeager" the man of restless, constant activity, never did settle for anything close to a sedentary life. He was the victim of a large heart attack early in his 70's which subsequently precluded many of the activities he so enjoyed. After frustrating months of treatment with drugs which lowered his blood pressure to dizzying levels, his doctors abandoned any chance of what would have been an acceptable recovery for him. He asked the doctors what would happen if he stopped taking the medications. They told him he would likely die within a week. Before leaving the office he quipped:

   " Well, I only hope I can do it well"

One week later he died at home.