Leaving St. Augustine

We left St. Augustine this morning. Some days we see the sights on the way out of town, dragging our trailer into town, vulnerable as parking pariahs forced to hoof it to the sites unfriendly to the gross asphalt demands of the campers-pullers and truck drivers who decide to visit. I was hard pressed to find the needed motivation to go into St. Augustine. I wanted out. I was comfortably seated in the captain’s chair of our big red van, a cup of free coffee garnered at the overpriced campsite we’d just left waiting patiently for my attention in one of our numerous cup-holders in the console of our van. I was happy, my only complaint being that my underwear was a tad snug. Even after driving into town and finding an adequate parking spot on the side of the road I was hard pressed to get excited about one more tourist destination.

But, having driven so far and suffered so much, with the oldest town in America right down the road, we opted to go and check it out. It was worth the visit, though as with many things we anticipate and conjure in our minds, it was good for reasons other than we’d expected.

My parents took us to St. Augustine some 25 or 30 years ago and my memory of the place is decidedly sketchy. Basically all I can recall is its fame as the oldest town in America. I learned a bit more this time.

There is a fort there, Castillo de San Marcos, obviously of Spanish origin. Building was begun in 1672 and completed in 1695. It was the Northern outpost of Spain’s new world holding and the best-preserved example of Spanish colonial fortification in the continental United States. How could we say “no” to that? It was a remarkable edifice, made more so by its age and defensibility. It traded hands on more than one occasion, first the Spanish, then the Brits, and later the French. It’s history is more complex than is fit to share in a “blog” but suffice it to say I found it interesting.

We happened to come on the right day as there was a merry band of local history buffs all dressed in period costume there to share their love of history and their passion for firing the muskets and cannon so particular to the forts of that era. They were quite good at it despite their amateur status. They were all well clad, their uniforms, red and blue for the Spanish, white and red for the Brits. There was a fine reenactment of the passing of the fort keys from the Spanish to the British, complete with histrionic weeping from the Spanish women, suffragettes to a lost cause. Wine was shared between ranking officers and an edict, signed by the King was proclaimed by the British who shouted their approval with cries of “Hail King George!” and “Long live the King.” The Spanish shouted something with equal passion, though in their native language. After the ceremony everyone marched to the upper terrace for the changing of the colors and a brief, secular eulogy for the death of a much loved fellow thespian. Apparently even actors and history buffs are immune to the sweep of death’s grasp. Alas!

Afterwards, we had time to tour the fort, though our time was mercifully short. We’d been forced to park along the street some blocks away, unable to find the slots provided for turtles like us. The sign said, “One hour parking only.” Good news! Definitive bounds on the time we had at our disposal, limits for our tour of history with the promise of a fine for dawdling at historic sites. We spent an hour and a half, but were missed by the local Meter Maids. They perhaps knew already that we’d suffered rejection at the City Park in Jacksonvile (intentional misspelling).

The question topmost in my mind, as it is with many of these elaborate fortifications is, “Why is it here? What were they so determined to protect? What did men fight and die to have here?” As with many parks and local oddities that attract national and international attention, there was cruising through town a little tourist train loaded with the infirm, the obese and the indolent rich. The driver, whose job it was to fill the empty time with bits and pieces of information about the various sites and their prospective interest, provided a possible answer to my questions as he shouted over the trains public address system.

“St. Augustine is home to the first 9-Hole golf course in the United States.”

That would certainly fill in some blanks in my mind, but would men fight and die for the privilege of a game of golf? Perhaps for 18 holes, but for 9? Golf was invented in Scotland so, were there any Highlanders in the British regiment I can see them being quite vigorous for the chance to play, especially after a long sea voyage. But, it’s a stretch.

Why would anyone in their right mind want this piece of soil, ridden as it is with humidity, mosquitoes, sand fleas and hurricanes? The exhibit provided the answer: to protect the lucrative Caribbean trade routes. Spain was apparently the envy of its Renaissance neighbors in the 17th century largely due to their land holdings and trading posts in the U.S. and Caribbean islands. With land prices as high as they are in modern-day Florida one can well-imagine that property was a hot commodity so many years back. Regarding the trade routes one has to wonder if it was the Spanish who invented the “Cruise.” Were the islands as popular as they are today for vacationers? Were there resorts then as there are now? Did people think about scuba-diving and parasailing in the tropical waters yesterday as much as today? Surely they’d have cried for some relief from the constant nag of high humidity and mosquitoes.

None of the above. Spain did however bring back “exotic dyes, sugar, tobacco, chocolate, pearls, hardwoods, silver and gold.” That’s good stuff, worth giving one’s life for. I am skeptical that the ones spilling their blood ever saw any of that wealth, but that is beside the point; someone got their mitts on it and someone else paid dearly for it.

Not much has changed in Florida. Mosquitoes, humidity and hurricanes still have their way with the tropical paradise, and while we never came close to giving our lives for any of the valuable stuff there, we certainly paid dearly for it. The kids parted company with their hard-earned dollars at the gift shop and we have come away slightly more historically informed than we were, and highly entertained by the local historians dressed in period garb.

Gracias, Fort Castillo de San Marcos!

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