Lily, is That You?

While I was in Cassadaga Microsoft, with the respect for the biological end user that is a hallmark of its brand, informed me that no, I was not going to use my baby laptop, because Microsoft was going to install an upgrade. Right then. I left it plugged in and went downstairs to Arthur’s Bar in the hotel, and listened to the two singer-musicians of Dueling Pianos. My evening, therefore, was actually more fun than if I’d written a blog post right then.

The upgrade, to all intents and purposes, went fine, although it did not fix the problem I had with photos. The laptop got powered down and put away and I didn’t use it again while I was in the camp.

My room at the St Francis Inn was on the third floor. The third floor was not original to the building which was built during the first Spanish period. Sometime much later, in the 1800s, an owner added the third floor. The stairs were a workout, especially my first night there when I was hauling my luggage up them.

The name of my room was Lily’s room. It was beautiful and comfortable, with a view overlooking the courtyard (where I spent nearly every other evening I was there) and a view of St George Street and the house across the street which was part of the St. Francis Inn. There was a quilt the color of unbleached muslin with green embroidery on the bed. About ten thirty, Florida time, I pulled out the laptop, powered it up and checked email. All was quiet on the home front. I closed the laptop, leaving it on and plugged in, and put it on the built-in shelf that was next to the bed. My email program was open to the In Box page.

The room was comfortable but in one area it was not conveniently set up. There was no actual bedside table or space. My glasses and phone were on a little circular table by the window, not easily reachable from the bed, and the built-in shelf was more than an arm’s length from the bed. This configuration had a lot to do with the shape of the space and the desire to add a full bath to the space itself. I’m just saying. I wrote in my travel journal for a bit, turned out the light, and after a while I went to sleep.

At 11:50 pm I woke up because a computer voice was talking to me. I floundered up toward wakefulness. At first I thought it was my phone, but by the time I was fully awake I knew it wasn’t. It wasn’t an alert or an alarm. It was a spam e-mail, being read to me by a computer voice.

I crawled across the bed and swung my feet over the side, banging my toe into the wall. That hurt. It didn’t change my state of consciousness. I didn’t “wake up” when I hit my toe, and now it was even more obvious that the voice was coming from the laptop and was reading me an email begging for money, courtesy of the Democratic Campaign Committee. That was the most annoying part of the whole story.

I grabbed the laptop and opened it up. Sure enough, it opened right up to a DCC email, and each word was being highlighted as the annoying voice droned on. I clicked on it to shut it down. I clapped the computer shut and tossed it back on the shelf. I went back to bed and lay awake, looking at the ceiling, waiting the bloody thing out in case it decided to start up again, but it didn’t and finally I fell asleep.

In the morning my toe still hurt. I looked on the PC to see if I’d dreamed the whole incident (except the toe seemed evidence against that theory) and there was the offending email. I also noticed, then, a new choice on my menu bar; “Read Aloud Speech.”

I noted down this weird incident in my journal, powered down the laptop and set out to do Fun and Educational Things. As the days went by I forgot about the near-midnight read-aloud session.

My last night there I thought I’d leave a nice review on TripAdvisor. I wanted to check a few things, so I went to the inn’s website. At home, I’d been to the inn’s website at least three times. This time when I opened it on the little laptop, the page that came up was not the home page. The page I got said, “Inn’s Ghosts.” The very first example was the ghost of a young woman named… Lily. I was staying in Lily’s room.


When I went on the spirit photography tour in Cassadaga, Dawn, our guide, gave a long talk about the nature of spirits as the Church of Spiritualism sees it. “Energy is never destroyed; it is transformed,” she said. They believe the current personality, as well as our electrical energy, continues after our biological body dies. Energy, Dawn said, – who was pretty darned energetic herself, pacing around the room, shifting from side to side as she talked – is drawn to energy, so spirits are drawn to other electrical energy. They like cell phones and flashlights, radios, televisions and electric lights. This is why lights often flicker in haunted places, or radios will come on with no one near them, or will change stations apparently on their own.

Or, maybe, a laptop computer will start reading an email out loud for no reason.


When I saw the page I rolled my eyes, but even then I didn’t connect it with that first night event. I think I said, out loud, “Thank you for the nice room, Lily,” just to be polite. It wasn’t until the next morning, heading home, when I was rereading parts of my travel journal while my plane sat on the tarmac at O’Hare, that I saw my notes about the email. And I said under my breath, “Damn it, Lily!”


Here are three theories that would explain the middle-of-the-night Read Aloud session.

 — Theory One: I was dreaming and/or sleepwalking and I opened the laptop and played the email myself. I think I have had one sleepwalking incident in my life. One time while friends were visiting, I woke up in the middle of the night because the phone was ringing. I walked down the hall to answer it. I thought I was awake. I picked up the ringing phone to hear a dial tone. Then I woke up and realized I hadn’t really been awake before that. I woke up Spouse coming back to bed, and he said he hadn’t heard the phone. Our friends, sleeping in the room right next to the phone, didn’t hear it either.I think I was awake in St Augustine, though, and the reason was the stubbing the toe incident. Nothing changed in my awareness after I stubbed my toe except that it hurt.

— Theory Two:
Lily is a ghost and she likes to play with computers. To accept this, you have to accept the possibility of ghosts. The inn’s page about “Lily” is disappointingly vague. In fact, as the story reads now, it should be the unnamed nephew, who killed himself for love, who haunts the room, not Lily. Nothing is said about how Lily died. In fact, she was sent away and it’s unlikely she died in the house. In ghost literature, Lily is a traditional “woman in white.”

But she –or someone– did turn off the TV that one time. Theory Two works better if the ghost who visits that room is someone other than Lily.

— Theory Three: Microsoft is a jerk. Something in the upgrade triggered a spontaneous activation of the Read Aloud Speech option. That might be it. When I got home I powered up the PC, plugged it in and left it on for a day and a night, and no one read me any more emails. The event has never been replicated.

I’d love to end with something snarky. I’d love to be hyper-rational and explain how this was a glitch of modern technology rendered strange by glamorous surroundings – or go the other way and argue passionately about how it was Lily. If I’ m going to be an open-minded skeptic, isn’t it reasonable to question the idea that a PC would behave weirdly only one time, in a specific way, and then never replicate the weird behavior again? I don’t know, though. I’m still mulling it over. What do you think?


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Between the Lines: A Thought Exercise

Scene One: The bulrushes along the banks of a wide, placid river. The land beyond it is flat and green.

Egyptian Princess: (Falls back, panting. She is sweating.) By all the gods!

Body Slave: (Holds a newborn infant.) It’s a boy, highness.

[Princess holds out her arms and the body slave places the fussy baby in them.]

Princess: It is going to make noises like that all the time?

Body Slave: For a while, highness.

Princess: Now what’ll I do? Father will kill me. (Pause.) Literally.

Body Slave: The river’s right…

Princess: No!

Body Slave: Well, you can send it to the slave barracks to be raised. After all, that’s where the father came from, right?

Princess: Shut up, you.

Body Slave: I’m not judging, highness. I’m just saying.

Princess: Well, he’s not going to the slave barracks. Have you seen how my father treats them? They die like flies in the rainy season.

[She looks at the Body Slave and narrows her eyes.]

Body Slave: [backs away] Oh, no, highness. Not a good idea. I don’t know anything about raising any babies.

[With an effort the Princess levers herself upright.]

Princess: Why isn’t there an old wise woman in a hut, or a hermit in a cave, who could raise him? There’s never one of those when you need them.

[She stares into the distance. Slowly, her spine straightens and her shoulders square up. She lifts her head.]

Princess: No. He will be raised in the palace. I am a daughter of the royal line, and he is my son.

Body Slave: How will you get that past your father?

Princess: I’ll say….  I’ll say I found him. In the river. Where I was making a sacrifice to Sobek.

Body Slave: You don’t sacrifice to Sobek.

Princess: Shut up. I do now. You, go find me a gathering basket.

Body Slave: May I make a suggestion? Tell your father you stopped at the temple of Hathor on your way back with this… foundling, and the goddess ordered you to raise him.

Princess: Good one! (Pause.) Well?

Body Slave: (Bows) Off to find a basket, highness.


Scene Two: The royal palace. The baby is squalling and the Body Slave bounces it gently but a little desperately. Before them, on a vast chair covered in gold, sits the Pharaoh. At his left, two steps down, stands his trusted adviser. 

Princess: … and then I heard the voice of Hathor, goddess of motherhood and the hearth, saying, “This child will be raised by the royal family and will have a great destiny.”

Pharaoh: Really.

Princess: Yes, Father.

Pharaoh: You. Slave. Is this true?

Body Slave. Ow. That’s my ear. (Bows low.) I did not hear the voice, oh Great One. The gods to not speak to the lowly like me. But I saw the basket floating on the waters of the Nile, and at my lady’s bidding I waded out and drew it to shore.

Pharaoh: This inspiration wouldn’t be connected your recent weight gain, and its sudden loss, would it, daughter?

Princess: I don’t know what you mean, Father.

[Pharaoh stands and comes down the steps, waving a hand at his advisor, who follows. They step stage right.]

Pharaoh: Well, this is just great.

Adviser: If I may, oh Great One; allow her to have the child with her. I guarantee within a year she’ll ship it off to the slave barracks where it belongs.

Pharaoh: You think so?

Adviser: No offense, oh Great One, but she’s never had much of an attention span.

Pharaoh. Well, that’s true. But that story!

Adviser: It’s not a wonderful story, oh Great One, but it’ll do.

Pharaoh: It will have to. (He turns.) I am the ruler of all Egypt, but I honor the will of the gods. The child will be raised in the royal household, and he will be your responsibility, daughter. Not the royal nurses’ or the concubines’. Yours.

Princess: [Bows low.] Thank you, father. Oh Great One, Hathor smiles upon you.

[She reaches for the baby, who stops squalling and begins to coo.]

Pharaoh: And what will you name this child?

Princess: I… um… Moses, I think.

[She bows again and begins to back out of the royal presence. The Body Slave follows.]

Pharaoh: And, daughter?

Princess: Yes, father?

Pharaoh: I hope you don’t think I’m stupid.

Princess: (Pause.) No, Father. I’d never think that.

[She bows again.]






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Three Travel Accessories

These three travel accessories made my Florida trip easy. Two of them are variations on the same theme, and each one fulfilled its function admirably.

The Baggallini Travel Lanyard

The Baggallini Travel Lanyard

I love the Baggallini travel lanyard. It has a place for a passport, a long opening for your boarding passes, and a zippered pouch on the other side for cash for tipping drivers or even shelling out for that $8.00 bottle of water. (Of course I’m exaggerating. I never saw a bottle of water for more than $5.50.)

And a little cash for tips and whatever.

And a little cash for tips and whatever.

The lanyard may be overkill, but I’m usually traveling with an overloaded carry-on and a big ol’ purse, so I like the convenience. I did feel silly traipsing through Jacksonville International with it flapping around my neck, when there were no more than 30 other people in the terminal, but I did not feel silly fighting my way upstream against the throngs of people on the concourse at O’Hare. I didn’t feel silly at SFO either, for that matter. I can wear the lanyard under a jacket, making it less visible and more secure.

I see on their website that they offer a travel organizer and a passport purse crossbody too.

The floral pattern is a plus.

The floral pattern is a plus.

Margaret Speaker Yuan gave me this lovely mini-purse for my birthday last year when the writers group was in Hawaii. It is similar in design to the lanyard, but bigger and more attractive. There is room for ID, credit cards, cash, a tube of lip balm and a cell phone. (The Baggallini won’t hold a cell phone.) It’s one-twentieth as heavy as my purse (that’s a guess). And it’s pretty. This was the only purse I carried outside while I was in Cassadaga and St. Augustine. It was perfect.

Moleskine, the emperor of journals.

Moleskine, the emperor of journals.

I took a Moleskine journal as my travel journal. The dimensions are those of a trade paperback book, and it’s about half an inch thick. It’s Moleskine, so anything I say about the high quality will be obvious. It’s perfect bound. The spine is strong and flexible and I’m saying that as someone who abused it a time or two, bending it so I could write while standing, or shoving it in into my bag with a bunch of other stuff. The binding might be leather. It’s tough and flexible too, and seems to be moisture resistant. I wouldn’t want to drop it in a pool, but it weathered rain and spray like a champ. The cover is also not slick. A couple of times, when I reached into my tote bag and flailed around to find it by touch and drag it out, this was really handy. It also meant I didn’t drop it into the alligator enclosure, a definite plus.

The silken paper takes ink without smearing, even in high humidity.

The silken paper takes ink without smearing, even in high humidity.

I love the silken texture of the paper and the way it takes the ink – and holds it! No smearing. The journal has a fabric bookmark and an elastic loop, so you mark both the last place you wrote, and a page you want to refer to. It has a nice envelope in the back, a great place for receipts. It’s also a perfect place to put business cards that you collect so you will know where to find them, and then forget where you put them when you get home. Included is the Moleskine accordion fold-out pamphlet that tells you about Moleskine and should include a little card with a quality control number on it. I used the journal every day of the trip. I’ve used it since then, pulling out notes for my blog posts. It’s wonderful.

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I Met my Deadline

This morning around 8:30 I emailed off a 36,000 word novella to my editor. It’s a piece I have a contract for with Falstaff Books. I delivered it on the deadline.

Now we’ll have to see if Jaym Gates, who is the chief editor at Falstaff and who edited Strange California, likes it, and what she will want in the way of rewrites. The theme of this line of novels and novellas is “Shattered Cities.”

I said, “Yes” to this project when Jaym invited me mainly because it was an opportunity to work with her again. She asked me back in the fall of last year. I accepted the invitation, and then a little bit later got a request from her for an excerpt, up to 5,000 words, and a synopsis. Well, I had a little more than 5,000 words already written (I had about 8,000) so I sent those off. At this point I had no acceptance letter, no contract, nothing. It was just like submitting to any other market, except that I’d been asked.

And I waited.  And I didn’t hear anything.

While I was waiting, I worked on the project. The theme is “portal fantasy,” which is one of my favorites, and by a stroke of good luck, I had an alternate world already where metals conduct magic, and I was able to set my story there without a lot of development work, because I’d already done most of it.

You’d think that would make the story easy. It didn’t.

Several months later I got an email from the publisher, with a draft contract attached and some particulars, with Jaym copied. I hadn’t heard anything from Jaym herself.  I reviewed the contract and sent it back with changes, and got a signed one back in about ten days. And then I got serious because I was on a deadline.

The signed contract came back about a week before I left for Florida.

It wasn’t until last week that I heard from Jaym, and fortunately what she had to say was good news; she loved the excerpt and thought the synopsis was exactly the kind of story she was looking for  with Shattered Cities. I hope she likes the finished product. They can still reject it if she decides it isn’t right for them. I hope she doesn’t.

I’ll keep you informed. This will be my first experience with something like a real book, so I might have lots to share about editorial letters, rewrites, cover reveals and all that.

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The Sunset Cruise

Tuesday evening I met Kat Hooper and we took a sunset cruise on the Schooner Freedom. The water was calm, so calm that on the way back the captain fired up the engine for a few minutes to get us moving. The scenery was beautiful with the lowering sun tinting everything orange and copper, the city standing out in shades of cream and red. Pelicans flew by and dolphins played around us on the way back.

The Schooner Freedom under full sail.

The Schooner Freedom under full sail.

I walked down to the office from my B&B. While I was waiting for Kat, a lithe young woman with tanned skin and blond hair strode up. She was talking on her phone. She ended the call and jammed the phone into the pocket of her shorts. She sighed heavily enough that I could hear it five feet away. Staring off into the middle distance, she stalked past me. I hoped she was on the crew of the pirate ship Black Raven and not our boat.

Sunset in St Augustine

Sunset in St Augustine

She was crew on our boat. She was professional; whatever had upset her on the phone call did not surface during the ninety-minute cruise. She was lively, funny and friendly as she ran through the safety features and explained how to use the head belowdecks. She gave a good explanation, but I’m glad I didn’t have to use it, because I wasn’t sure I would remember it. Captain Steve motored us away from the dock and then our trio of sailors leaped about, raising the sails (with a little bit of well-supervised help from two passengers. That’s part of the cruise). Once we were away from the docks, the crew opened the ice chests and offered wine and beer.

From the Strait, St Augustine in the sunset.

From the Strait, St Augustine in the sunset.

Walking down to the berth, Kat and I met a couple who were celebrating an anniversary. They’d gone on a sailboat cruise on their honeymoon and were commemorating the experience. The boat will hold 27 passengers and I think we had about that many.

The blond woman, Sydney, told the women sitting next to me that the boat weighted 33 tons. I’m not positive I wrote that down right, but that’s what I remember. It also seemed like the cruise was tied to the Bridge of Lions schedule, although I thought we cleared the underside of the bridge by five feet. (It didn’t look like we were going to clear it!)

The Bridge of Lions at Twilight

The Bridge of Lions at Twilight

A cosplay pirate boat blew past us at one point. Behind us, the Pirate Ship Black Raven was well into its raucous, not-completely-historically-accurate cruise. I heard Captain Steve on our radio say, “Over, Black Raven. Yeah, that’s good.”  A few minutes later the dreaded marauder put on a burst of speed, shooting across our bow, hooting and hollering so loud we could hear them easily. Kat took a sip of her white Zinfandel and said, “Oh, dear, I hope they don’t try to board us.” Thank goodness, they did not, and our cell phones and valuables were saved.


The cosplay pirate boat, a DIY project.

The cosplay pirate boat, a DIY project.


The scourge of the seas, Black Raven.

The scourge of the seas, Black Raven.

The woman to my left had been a librarian for many years. Now retired, she was writing a series of articles about her own personal philosophy, of which forgiveness was a cornerstone. She hoped to turn them into a book one day.

It was nice to find out all the things Kat and her family were doing. Her dreams of a quiet summer were dashed in a good way because several research projects had suddenly come her way. A lot of work, but a lot a value for her and her students.

Having seen a sand-dredge from the lighthouse, I was sure that this vessel was one until we got closer. Plainly it’s a barge.

Grounded barge.

Grounded barge.

The Cut, which is the opening to the ocean from Matanzas Srtait, was artificially made (I think Captain Steve said in the 1950s, but I haven’t checked that) after the previous opening which was farther south began to silt up. It’s now completely filled in.

Pelicans skim the water.

Pelicans skim the water.

Pelicans flew parallel with the boat several times, and we saw one or two egrets in the shallows. Kat and I drooled over the houses on the long narrow island facing us and facing the city, although I wouldn’t want to live there during hurricane season.

Dolphin fin with a mansion in the background.

Dolphin fin with a mansion in the background.

The return trip was the second time on the entire trip that I felt cold. It was a novelty. I had a long-sleeved blouse in my tote but it was too much trouble to dig it out, so that tells you that I wasn’t very cold.

Schooner Freedom also offers longer afternoon cruises that follow marine wildlife and some day I’d like to take that one. For a chance to visit with Kat, a fun evening and some beautiful scenery, the evening cruise was perfect.

Dolphin fin

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Amputation, Anyone? The Military Hospital Museum

The tour of the Spanish Military Hospital Museum was one I had not planned to take. For some reason, I don’t know exactly why, when I walked down Avila Avenue on Sunday the hospital did not attract. It might have been that I was just hungry and distracted. On Tuesday, after the Distillery tour, it’s equally possible that the New World gin and tonic, the taster shot of vodka and the taster shot of rum were influencing my decision. Anyway, I went in on a whim.

The hospital’s original name was Our Lady of Guadalupe Hospital, named after the American continent’s visitation by the Virgin. It dates from the second Spanish period which ran from 1783 to 1821. Originally the hospital comprised two buildings, one directly across the street but the second building burned in 1818.

I was the only person on my tour, and Katie, my docent, provided a bonus. She writes fanfic! She writes English Regency period stories set in the Harry Potter universe. Since the hospital’s history overlaps the Regency period, a lot of what she has learned for the tour is information she can use in her stories, especially if she has a potion master character, since the apothecary piece is a big part of the tour.

Yikes! Do you think my insurance will cover this? 17th century surgical instruments

Yikes! Do you think my insurance will cover this?

First, though, she walked me through the eighteenth/early nineteenth century amputation process. Amputations were surprisingly common. In a subtropical climate before pharmaceutical antibiotics, infection was a serious and often fatal business. It was better to remove the affected body part if the surgeon could. Katie had an array of instruments – a tiny guillotine-like thing that many cigar aficionados might recognize (used for amputating parts of fingers) while a chisel and hammer which was used for amputating a whole finger. For larger limbs the surgeons used knives to carve away the flesh, leaving a flap to sew up across the site, and a saw. Amputations happened quite quickly. They could remove a leg in a minute and a half. The patient was drugged on opioids (actually laudanum, an alcohol and opium mix).

The hospital’s survival rate for major amputations was about 70%. That’s poor by our standards but for the time that was miraculous. Up north in the newly-minted United States, the rate was about half that. Again, climate might have helped, especially in winters, but basically, Spain’s adoption of hygiene practices had a lot more to do with it.

In the eighth century, Berber Muslins conquered the Iberian peninsula. They ruled large parts of Spain for about seven hundred years. The middle eastern caliphates were at least a century ahead of Europe (if not more) in the areas of science, mathematics and medicine, and Spanish doctors practiced hygienic techniques even if they couldn’t articulate the reason for it. For example, surgeons washed their hands and their instruments with hot water and vinegar before and after each surgery. Once a patient was released, the mattress covering for their cot was washed in boiling water and lye soap. The Spanish moss that was used as mattress stuffing was also boiled, then carded and combed almost like wool. This killed any insects and also took care of a lot of germs.

Katie handed me some treated moss. It changes in both color and texture after boiling, which is good. Spanish moss would be itchy! The color was a chocolate brown.

You may feel a slight pinch as we drill this hole in your skull. Trephining tools

You may feel a slight pinch as we drill this hole in your skull.

Hospital surgeons also did trephining to relieve pressure in the brain. For those of you who did not read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, trephining means cutting a hole in the skull. This gives the brain a place to swell into without bruising itself against the walls of braincase. Later, when the swelling had subsided, the surgeons covered the hole with a silver coin. They probably didn’t know exactly why they used silver, but silver is seen as a metal with antimicrobial properties, so once again, it’s something that would have reduced the potential for infection.

The apothecary.

The apothecary.

Katie led me into the second room, which was the apothecary. Wounds, she said, were often packed with a substance called “lint,” made of isinglass and silk. Laudanum was, as you’d expect, the go-to pain killer. Other medicines included castor oil, mercury, quinine bark for malaria and other fevers, calendula as an anti-inflammatory and valerian to aid with sleep. Lots of herbal medicines were delivered in the form of an infusion or tisane; leaves steeped in hot water. Some were condensed into a tincture (preserved with alcohol). Cochineal, which is an insect and imparts a lovely red color to things, was also used as a medicine. “I like to say, ‘take your bug juice,’” Katie said.

I think this is calendula.

I think this is calendula.

I enjoyed all the tours I took (possibly I enjoyed the distillery tour the most) but the two best tours for a writer, especially a fantasy writer, were the Oldest House Museum and this one. They both gave me real world details. I’m trying to incubate a magical story, set in St. Augustine, with a female apothecary, old magic and maybe a Spanish soldier with a piece of silver in his skull?

This fine herbal and alcohol concoction is also tranquilizing. Gin and tonic.

This fine herbal and alcohol concoction is also tranquilizing.


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The Castillo de San Marcos

The Castillo de San Marcos pretty much draws the eye from anywhere on St. Augustine’s waterfront. The best pedestrian view is from the Bridge of Lions, but once you hit Matanzas Strait you can’t miss the stone walls to the north, perched on the very tip of the point.

Interior of Castillo de San Marcos

Interior of Castillo de San Marcos

The Castillo’s thick walls are made of coquina, which made the fort impregnable. British men o’ war ships would fire cannon balls into it, only to have the “crunchy” rock dent, sometimes even holding onto the ball (or so the story goes) rather than shatter.

Here is a close-up of coquina, although you can't see the tiny shells.

Here is a close-up of coquina, although you can’t see the tiny shells too well.

In 1702, British forces from Carolina, commanded by the Carolina governor James Moore, besieged the fort unsuccessfully for six weeks. Because they had attacked Spanish settlements north of St Augustine on the way down, the St Augustine alcalde knew they were coming, and sent messages requesting reinforcements. He also moved livestock, provisions and civilians into the fort. Moore shot cannon balls at the fort walls every day with no success and was routed by a reinforcement fleet from Havana on December 30. It is also reported that he set the city on fire before he left (and that he was forced to burn many of his own ships.)

I can attest to another benefit of coquina, especially in warm humid May weather; the thick walls naturally insulate and inside the fort’s buildings it was about ten degrees cooler.

The docent at the counter was chatty and helpful. His favorite story, or one of the them at least, is about the moat. The fort had a dry moat originally. It was in the twentieth century that someone decided a wet moat was needed. (I didn’t make a note of exactly when.) A wet moat would have been easy to dig, though, because the water table here is about eight feet. Once the water filled it, the fort’s foundation began to shift and cracks appeared in the thick walls. The Army Corps of Engineers hurried to drain the moat, and everyone said, “Let’s not do that again.”

This worrisome if artistic crack is what happens when you flood a moat alongside the fort walls.

This worrisome if artistic crack is what happens when you flood a moat alongside the fort walls.

The fort’s array of cannon was formidable.

Row of cannon facing northeast.

Row of cannon facing northeast.

Cannon facing the northwest bastion which is three inches shorter than the others.

Cannon facing the northwest bastion which is three inches shorter than the others.

Cannon detail.

Cannon detail.

Francis Drake burned St Augustine the first time. To the Spaniards he was a pirate and to the English a patriot. It seems like this burning of towns wasn’t very sporting of the British, but then again, Pedro Aviles Mendenez, founder of St Augustine, slaughtered 17,000 Huguenots in Matanzas Strait, so I guess nobody was really using their company manners.

The stone bastions were used for signalling.

The stone bastions were used for signalling.

The interior. Nice and cool in here!

The interior. Nice and cool in here!

The view from Avenida Avenue.

The view from Avenida Menendez

Across the street from the Castillo is the Pirate Museum. I recommend it. It is one hundred percent set up for kids to enjoy… and it is one hundred percent enjoyable and informative. Florida is practically Pirate Central for obvious reasons and the artifacts they have recovered from shipwrecks here are fascinating.

Diorama displaying archaeological discoveries.

Diorama displaying archaeological discoveries.

Pirates, of course, were brutal to the people on the ships they plundered, but they offered stock options to their own crew (every member got a share of the haul, even if some – the officers – got a bit more than others); and they elected captains by vote. And, as we all know from the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, sometimes they unelected them, and sometimes they unelected them rather harshly. And, yes, there were women pirates and women pirate captains, quite successful ones.

Nautical tools on display at the Pirate Museum.

Nautical tools on display at the Pirate Museum.

Because I started the day at the lighthouse and the gator farm, I had my rental car. I could have walked to the Castillo and back, but I truly would have preferred not to especially when it started getting hot. If you’re active and athletic, find out if your B&B offers bicycles (the St Francis Inn did). That could be the perfect compromise.

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And Now a Word About Alligators

(Advisory: The sixth photo down is a snake picture. Scroll past it if snakes freak you out.) 

The main alligator lagoon forms the ground floor of the rookery, guaranteeing that no tree-climbing rodent predators (rats, etc) will be climbing trees to steal eggs. There is a smaller lagoon—a lagoonette?– in the center of the park. As I’m getting ready to leave this woman hops down into it, surrounded by about fifteen alligators. She has a pouch on her hip, a long pole and a microphone.

I don't think you could pay me enough to take this job.

I don’t think you could pay me enough to take this job.

“It looks like our big fellows here are slow and lazy, but they can move surprisingly quickly so we ask that you keep away from the edges of the enclosure, and do not drop or throw things into the enclosure. As the same time, we know that accidents do happen, so if you do drop something let a park employee know and we will retrieve it for you.”

Note to self; do not lose your glasses in the alligator enclosure.

See the gator approaching her with its mouth open? That's Warren.

See the gator  on the right, approaching her with its mouth open? That’s Warren.

“Many people think that alligators are the most dangerous in the wild, but the most dangerous place to be with a gator is where I am right now; among those raised in captivity, because they associate humans with food.”

Wave to Warren the Gator, everybody! From a safe distance.

Wave to Warren the Gator, everybody! From a safe distance.

What are you doing then? Get out of there!

“Gators raised domestically will do what this one right here is doing.” That gator is sliding toward her with its mouth open. “That’s Warren. See, he’s approaching demanding food.”

She throws him something from the pouch.

“And yes, we do name all our gators, because that’s something else people didn’t know until fairly recently. People thought crocodiles and alligators were primitive and acted mostly on instinct, but crocodilians have surprisingly complex brains. They are the only reptile to have a cerebral cortex, like humans, and they are smart enough to recognize their names.”

I don't think this is official park artwork. Are they birds? Or the spirits of bipedal mammals who didn't move fast enough?

I don’t think this is official park artwork. Are they birds? Or the spirits of bipedal mammals who didn’t move fast enough?

Wait, what? Able to tear your leg off, fast enough to catch you if you’re running, and now they’re smart, too? Oh, hell, no!

Standing there I have an epiphany, a terrifying moment of revelation, when the veil of denial shreds around me and I confront the terrible, naked truth.

Those four Lake Placid sequels SyFy did weren’t bad movies, they were documentaries. The reptiles are smarter than the primates. It was all true!

Galapagos Tortoise

Galapagos Tortoise

I petted a ball python. I also got to pet a baby caiman, whose snout was wrapped with one strip of packing tape, probably to reassure people that it couldn’t bite. The tape didn’t look too tight and the caiman didn’t seem distressed; it didn’t seem all that thrilled either. Reptiles are a hard read.

Park employee with a ball python.

Park employee with a ball python.

I saw turtles and tortoises including a Galapagos tortoise.

A caiman with its friend the turtle.

A dwarf caiman with its friend the yellow-spotted turtle.

I did not take advantage of this, but you can buy a photographer’s pass. You can get an annual one (I don’t remember the price) or a two-day pass for about $78. The special pass lets you into the park at 8:00 am (before opening), and lets you stay after 9:00 pm when the park closes, and allows you up onto a viewing platform overlooking the rookery. Photographers and bird lovers, this is the deal for you. Clearly, late April, early May is a great time, because it’s mating season and nesting season and there is plenty of action.

It’s a pretty interesting place. If you’re in St Augustine, check it out.

Two sandhill crance next to "Warning, Alligators" sign

And remember, alligators outside of zoos are plenty dangerous too.



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For the Birds

When I think of Florida, I generally think of three things: Disney/Harry Potter World, Cape Canaveral and alligators. My two recurring fears as I planned the trip were that the airline would lose my luggage, and/or that I would lose an appendage to a ruthless reptilian killer. (Spoiler alert: neither incident happened.)

Alligator snout and eyes. Icon of Florida, at least in my imagination

Icon of Florida, at least in my imagination

I had browsed the St Augustine Alligator Farm in the guidebooks and online and was undecided. First of all, my sense of alligator farms was formed mostly by books and movies depicting a sordid roadside attraction featuring a pond with one gator and an overall-wearing guy who wrestled it… and Karen Russell’s brilliant book Swamplandia. Honestly, neither image attracted. On the other hand, I was in Florida. It seemed clear that the Gator Farm was touristy, but I was a tourist.

St Augustine Alligator Farm Historical Plaque

The Historical Plaque

There were two deciding factors. The first was simply the proximity to the lighthouse. The second was the offhanded comment the docent made when I pointed out, with great excitement, the roseate spoonbill flying over the treetops below us. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “They nest at the Gator Farm. Egrets, spoonbills, hundreds of em.”

Roseate Spoonbill. This is what a roseate spoonbill looks like.

That’s what a roseate spoonbill looks like.

Really? Tell me more.

“Oh, yeah, a bunch of storks, other birds. People buy special passes and come early in the morning and after closing to take pictures.”

It was obvious that I needed to go to the Gator Farm.

Egrets and storks nest in an oak tree

Tree full o’birds

So I did.

The Alligator Farm is touristy, with a dino-primitive theme, and the employees are playing the theme from Jurassic Park with the gift shop with more than a touch of irony. The Farm calls itself the Zoo For You. It is a zoo, and if you are philosophically opposed to them, you shouldn’t go. They are accredited with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Baby Albino Alligators

Albino gators aren’t eldritch and otherworldly at all. Nope, not at all

The educational piece is good, with lots of information about reptiles, specifically crocodilians (as you’d expect). There are, one of the tour guides said, 21 species of crocodilian in the world and they have at least one of each. I don’t think I saw all of them. They have tortoises, turtles, and snakes; Nile Crocodiles (their latest exhibit) and gators or crocs from all over the globe. They have an enclosure housing one of the world’s creepiest predators, a Komodo dragon.

Komodo Dragon

Anyone remember that Matthew Broderick/Marlon Brando movie, The Freshman?

The Farm has a small aviary with hornbills, parrots, macaws and toucans.

Toucan eats a bite of banana

Who knew what a toucan do?

But the jewel in the crown is something they didn’t even plan – a natural rookery.

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret

Either the rookery was there already and they worked around it, or the local waterfowl figured out pretty quickly that a set of palm trees over a lagoon with a ton of alligators in it, where food appeared regularly, was a pretty good community in which to settle down and raise a family. The rookery, located over the main gator lagoon, provides for wood storks, ibises, three varieties of egret, three varieties of heron and spoonbills.

Little blue heron mama

Little blue heron mama

Little blue heron babies

Little blue heron babies

I took a few dozen pictures of reptiles.

Family of woodstorks.

Family of woodstorks.

I took over one hundred photos of birds.

It was a good day!

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To The Lighthouse

As I dragged my flabby carcass up the 219 steps of the St Augustine lighthouse the metal stairs began to hum. Sound filled the spiral stairwell, voices. I could make out tones, intonations, rhythms but not the words. Louder, more chaotic they grew and I squished myself against the wall as four women appeared from above, loping past me like a quartet a gazelles in spandex shorts and tank tops. They rounded the curve below me and vanished, their voices swindling.

Spiral staircase -- only the first of 219 steps.

Spiral staircase — only the first of 219 steps.

My first, uncharitable thought: “At least it’s quiet now.” Alas, that was not to be.

I stopped for breath at the next landing and then trudged on, and at the landing after that, here they came, up from below, three of them at least, chins up, arms pumping. They had vanished up the curve when the fourth woman appeared,panting. She stopped for a hamstring stretch, then off she went.

I decided I hated these women.

Lighthouse. Through the live oaks it doesn't seem so high.

Lighthouse. Through the live oaks it doesn’t seem so high.

(“It’s fourteen stories to the top,” one of the docents said to a man and woman, both gray haired and slender, as I headed for the doorway. “You know that, right? Fourteen stories.”)

It doesn't look so tall here either, but that's because of forced perspective.

It doesn’t look so tall here either, but that’s because of forced perspective.

Of course I met the women again, coming down. I said to the fourth woman, gasping as she brought up the rear, “How many laps?” and she held up four fingers as I went by.

There is also a docent at the top of the lighthouse to share the structure’s history and answer any questions, even those about annoyingly fit women racing up and down. “They come every week,” he said. “It’s their Monday workout.”

Okay! Now it's looking tall. (View from near the top.)

Okay! Now it’s looking tall. (View from near the top.)

He also pointed out the stunning views in all directions from the top. He suggested I remove my hat, because it was windy up there.

The Pacific coast has a chain of beautiful lighthouses, and I don’t remember any of them being quite so tall. Of course, not to harp on it, the Pacific coast has hills. The Trinidad lighthouse, for instance, may be only one story high, but it sits on the point of a headlands. You just have to build higher when you’re starting at maybe four feet above sea level.

Looking west to St Augustine.

Looking west to St Augustine.

I saw an apparatus sitting out beyond the outer island and pointed to it. “Is that an oil rig?”

“Nope. That’s a sand dredge. It scoops up sand and we send it down a pipeline to south Florida for the beaches,” he said. Who knew? Not me.

In about the middle background of the photo is an apparatus.

In about the middle background of the photo is the sand dredge.

Lighthouse Park is more than the light station; there have been military installations here, and plenty of archaeological work going on. The park includes a play area for young children, a nature trail, and some nice exhibits about shipbuilding. The lightkeeper’s house hosts a self-guided tour and has lots of historical tidbits.

The view to the north.

The view to the north.

Going back down was a little easier. Then, due west across the A1A was the Gator Farm, which was impossible to resist.

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