Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Old Goat

Just in case you missed it, the sun just moved into Capricorn. I know this at the very least because my husband’s birthday is coming up. He gives everyone fair warning starting in July that there are only six more shopping months until his birthday. Usually those born when the sun is in Capricorn are described as dour, somber, conservative, serious and concerned with material things. Those who know my husband would seldom associate these traits with him. If you stand back and squint, you can squeeze the goatish traits of a heart as big as all outdoors, the ability to eat practically anything, that knees thing he has going on and of course that cute beard. Perhaps I’m not standing back far enough.

When I think of goats, though, I go back to Sanibel Island, Florida. I never saw an actual goat there. While there is abundant wildlife in this bit of paradise, there are, as far as I know, no goats. But there was a fascinating character who was the owner and cook of Jack’s Place called Jack the Old Goat. He had the seafood staples essential to good living for me in the 1960’s, namely fried jumbo shrimp. He also served red snapper, swordfish steak and I think my father even ordered shark once.

Jack was a hunter. My father thought he was a hunter too, although as far as I can tell he was actually someone who purchased hunting equipment including plaid shirts, went out in the woods and had friends who shot and ate things. My father wanted to be one of those people. He thought Jack was the bee’s knees. Jack was the real deal, pith helmet and all.  One slow day at the restaurant, Jack showed us a small collection of things he had shot. One of them was a rattlesnake skin nailed to the inside door of his shed over five feet long. The snake wasn’t from Sanibel because there were no poisonous snakes on the island, so this was a timber rattler from the mainland.

In the 1960’s, Florida was not just a-buzz but veritably screaming with wildlife, including scary critters like snakes, alligators, stingrays, wild boar that would chase your Jeep as fast as it would go across a field and gar, a fresh-water barracuda-like fish that could grow as long as our boat. Watch your toesies. I never wanted to shoot any of those things although I was willing to make an exception for “palmetto bugs,” the cute name Floridians gave to cockroaches half as big as your foot. Well, half as big as my foot. I was little when we lived in Florida. Jack’s monster rattlesnake skin was impressive and was yet another lesson in just how much more like bait I was than like a predator. The snake, now flat and definitely dead, was scary and beautiful at the same time. While I was glad it wasn’t alive, at the same time I was sorry it was dead. It was matter of proximity. And I vowed silently to read Jack’s menu more closely.

Jack also had a great collection of seashells. He had a huge albino King’s Crown and the restaurant’s tables were set up as shadow boxes with angel wings, Florida conchs, lightning whelks, horse conchs, sunrise tellins, apple murexes, pen shells, buttercups, bubble shells, limpets, Scotch bonnets and alphabet cones. Then the shells lay in drifts, feet deep, on the beaches, brought up by hurricanes and lesser storms. The live ones slimed away in the mud flats on the mangrove tree lined bay side of the island. It was a collector’s haven and drew notable scientists like conchologist and malacologist R. Tucker Abbott. My mother, brother and I were fortunate enough to be invited to attend a field trip with Dr. Abbott, not realizing he was **OMG** famous because, well, the letters O, M and G hadn’t actually been brought together yet. And Dr. Abbott was famous if you had oversized seashell books on your coffee table. In the 1960’s, we were ignorant about the effect of collecting live shells. Collecting live shells is illegal now to preserve them from eager shell collectors killing every shell on earth.  So I still have our family’s collection from our several trips to this beautiful place, although now I know enough to feel guilty about having them. I'm a mollusk murderer.  I enjoyed it but I didn't mean it.  Well, you know what I mean.  Obviously, Dr. Abbott wasn’t around all the time, so Jack the Old Goat was our resident authority on island wildlife of all kinds.

Sanibel Island is a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico just next to Florida’s “knees.” It is remarkable for being a rare sandbar barrier island that is perpendicular to the mainland, a product of the Caloosahatchee River flow that mixes Florida’s usually plentiful freshwater with the salty waters of the Gulf in San Carlos Bay. The flow of the river pushed the natural sandbar formation pattern so that Sanibel curls around the bottom of the estuary. This protective arm, plus the shallow depths of the water, warm temperatures and, in the 1960’s, relatively unknown destination made the perfect cradle of primordial ooze for the huge variety of wildlife. Today, the Ding Darling Wildlife Preserve holds just a snapshot of what I knew as wild Florida. If you’re a bird-lover, you’ve probably already heard of it. When we were there in the 1960’s, Ding had the land set aside as a preserve, but back then that meant preserved as in people were not allowed on the property.

While there weren’t any poisonous snakes on the island, that didn’t mean there wasn’t danger. We stayed out of the water on the lighthouse end of the island where the undertow was swift. One day, walking around that end of the island, I watched my brother throw beached pen shells out into the bay. I noticed something pretty behind him in the sand near his Converse lowtop sneaker and bent low for closer inspection. It was beautiful, pale, nearly white, and long with rust and brown ringed spots down its long back. As I poked my nose closer, my little friend opened its mouth and showed me all its great big long sharp teeth and hissed! I shrieked, my brother broke the most recent sand-speed record and we left “Alien” to inspire science fiction in the future. When we told Jack our story, the Old Goat’s eyes grew large. He said we were lucky we didn’t get any closer, saying we had encountered a leopard eel. Jack said it was one of the few poisonous things at the island. I was and still am unwilling to verify this.

This startling incident is remarkable for its rarity. Usually, we lived by the tides. Low tide, we shelled. High tide, we fished. Low tide, we shelled. High tide, we slept. And somewhere in there, we visited Jack the Old Goat, Bailey’s General Store, Timmy’s Nook and the Captiva Chapel-by-the-Sea. We spent a Christmas there once and helped decorate the motel’s Christmas tree with sand dollars and sea shells.

Sometimes you find a place on this earth that speaks to your soul. Sanibel is that place for me. One morning when I was 7 or so, while my family slept, I left our room at the Reef Motel and walked the sands of the Gulf towards the sunrise. In the colors of my favorite calico scallops and baby horse conchs, the sun rose from across the water and behind Ft. Myers. The warm, shallow waves washed over my bare feet and sloshed on my nightgown as I watched the coquina clams also in their pink, orange, yellow and purple sunrise colors dig eagerly into the newly laid sand. All of a sudden, I had one of my earliest spiritual awakenings. I knew at once I was attuned to the rhythm of the earth and yet profoundly connected to something so much more than sand or water. I was at peace. In my child’s way of thinking, I knew I would be OK. I would always be OK as long as I remembered I was connected to both the earth and spirit. It was one of my first steps in spiritual awakening, something like my own winter solstice.

I returned to the motel, got in trouble with my mother for “running away” and didn’t mind so much. I knew I was going to be OK.

I have returned to Sanibel several times since my family left Florida. The first time, I was afraid. After all, places only stay the same in memory. Blind Pass has filled in, many houses have been built on what was undeveloped land or not even land at all and Jack the Old Goat is gone. Even forays to the historical society have not turned up an “old-timer” who knew Sanibel in the 1960’s like I did. In a way, that’s satisfying. That Sanibel, the sunrise Sanibel, is mine.

To say thank you to the Universe and Jack and Mom and Dad and my brother and the Bailey family and Dr. Abbott and all the people who were kind to answer a little girl’s questions, I purchased a brick which now graces the garden in front of the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, the only museum in the world devoted to seashells. My name is there, along with actor Raymond Burr and the couple hundred or so others who found the energy of the universe and spirit on a sandbar at the bottom of an estuary. Thanks, Old Goat.

If you go to Sanibel Island, please don't collect live shells.  And don't feed the alligators.

Best wishes.

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