|Mark's Trail, Part 2|
CHAPTER SIX - The Beginning, Middle and Nearly the End
I still remember the day we cruised up to St. Augustine, Florida, mooring at the city marina there. Many of your traveling sailors moor their boats rather than docking because it’s cheaper. (It’s called “living on the ball,” because the mooring buoy is usually a large white ball.) When you visit a harbor town and see dozens of boats anchored in neat little rows, you’re looking at a “mooring field,” filled with transient boaters and people storing their boats out there. Most people have dinghies – usually small inflatable boats with tiny outboards – to take them ashore.
We don’t have one of those, so we took the launch, which comes by every two hours on the hour. I took my bicycle with me, and I rented a bike for Marley.
St. Augustine is the oldest city in the U.S. and is now one of the quaintest. Well, quaint, but packed from ear to ear with tourists and tourist traps. There are your standards; the t-shirt shops, gift shops, museums, restaurants and bars, but also don’t miss the Ripley’s museum of oddities and the alligator farm.
Between buildings left by the Flaglers and the Lightners, St. Augustine is rich in architecture. This building houses a museum and the city municipal offices.
The coolest thing about our oldest city is that there is a small college - Flagler College - right in the middle of it, so you get that whole college vibe along with everything.
And the coolest thing about the college is that much of the campus was donated by the family of the railroad and resort magnate Henry Flager. This man practically built Florida – or at least its east coast. He made his money with Standard Oil in the late 1800s and then built his empire in Florida, with some 14 large hotels from Jacksonville, down to Key West, and they were all connected, conveniently, by his Florida East Coast Railway. His efforts contributed a great deal to the development of Florida, and practically built Miami, so much so that they reportedly wanted to name the little city after him.
“The Flagler Dolphins?” “Flagler Vice?” Okay, just doesn’t sound right, does it?
It’s hard to imagine the impact Flagler and his railroad and his hotels had on the state, and to think, it all was based here in St. Augustine. Just think of the cities that were built, and the millions of people who's lives were affected because of one man – amazing.
But back to us on that surreal day in the “first city.” Things started out just peachy and ended up like peach pie – that is, even better, and everything just seemed to go so right – except for one small thing that skewed wrong. We rode our bikes everywhere, through the touristy areas and the rest of town. Marley wanted to see it all, and I wanted to see it with her. We stopped into the national cemetery, where my great, grand-uncle William Putcamp was buried. He defended Florida against the French, or so I have been told.
The thing about loneliness is that you often don’t realize you are in the middle of it until you, even briefly, step outside. That is, you don’t feel alone until you have been found. Spending the day with Marley was like being found after decades of wandering - we became quick friends. She was no longer a stowaway and she wasn’t even a girlfriend, as our difference in ages really put a cold shower on that one. We were like a niece and uncle on vacation, or, if you will, a long-estranged father and his grown daughter.
I have lived for decades by myself, and I have enjoyed it – it’s tough, but it has its benefits. For example, yes, I go to bed each night dreaming about having a beautiful woman next to me, but, as I’ve said often, at least I don’t wake up each morning dreaming about ways to kill her. Relationships are complicated and I guess I have just wanted to keep things simple.
Before that day, I had felt my strongest remorse for my independence after a rather peculiar accident that nearly killed me. I won’t go into the details except to say that a bullwhip, a Piper Cub J-3, and a Swedish Monarch were involved. I spent five days in a third-world ICU where it quickly became obvious to me that, even though I didn’t seem to mind living alone, I do not want to die alone.
Then there was the time, on a boat trip in Vermont, in a small cove off Lake Champlain, when I got my anchor stuck. A fairly strong current dragged me into some sunken limbs. My large claw anchor had grabbed hold of something solid about six feet down, and it just would not let go. Looked like I would have to go swimming.
But here’s where it got weird. Folks, I did just about everything I could to avoid getting wet. I changed into my swimsuit and stood on the back of that boat and explored all kinds of different solutions for – honestly? – at least an hour. Crazy! I was pretty sure that all I had to do was jump in, swim down the line, pull the anchor free and bring it up. Why was I so afraid? The cold water? The monsters lurking within?
Here is what I figured out. Best I can figure, I was frozen by the fear of failure. Standing on my boat, I had only one solution left, and if it didn’t work, then I would have no solution left. So, as long as I stood there on my swim platform, naked save an ugly swimsuit, I had a solution right in front of me. But I refused to take it, and I can’t tell you how many times in my life I have balked like that, nearly naked and frozen with fear.
With how many women, I thought, have I avoided the real solution for fear that it wouldn’t work? Well, it was at that very point, when that very point crossed my mind, that I took the plunge into the chilly waters of the Adirondack Mountains. I quickly pulled myself down the rope to the chain, I grabbed the anchor’s claw with my right hand and the neck with my left hand and pulled, wrestling with it for a few seconds before it came loose. I got a foothold and pushed myself and 30 pounds of ground tackle to the surface. I hooked the anchor onto the swim ladder, climbed aboard and wrapped myself in a towel, giddy with relief.
So there I was, sitting on the Stolen Gun, dripping wet with realization - what an interesting feeling that was.
Sorry, I got a little distracted, there. Where was I? St. Augustine, right.
Thing about St. Augustine, is that is where our trouble began, or at least I got a smell of smoke from an approaching fire. It was where Marley first got a spell of the “we-gotta-goes,” as in drop-everything and scram. We were downtown at the Curious Crab, splitting a seafood platter when she became very quiet. She stared out into the harbor for several minutes while I polished off the platter and then she just stood up and said; “we gotta go.”
I objected, of course, and she said "please" a few times, the way a woman says “please,” that tears at your heart a little and kicks you in the tail a lot. So I paid our tab and we left, and I mean left. We didn’t wander back to the marina; we beelined it. She sweet-talked a boatman into giving us a ride in the launch and we got on the Gun and took off. Headed north. Just like that.
I tried to figure out what was bothering her – of course she wouldn’t tell me – and the only thing I could see that seemed really odd, the thing that she was really nervous about, but seemed to be drawn to by some kind of force, was this large boat that had just pulled into the harbor. It had a silver finish, and the name; “Gangsta” plastered on the back in huge letters.
My buddy, The Surly Detective, now had a kinder demeanor for some reason, like he was either about to ask me a favor or was about to kill me.
The Gun in the foreground, with a tourist "pirate" ship and a commercial blimp over St. Augustine, Florida. Notice the clean, white hull on my boat before weeks spent in Southern waters stained it with tannin.
“Mr. Putcamp, why Stolen Gun?”
“What?” I said, just to rattle him.
“Why did you name your boat the Stolen Gun? Could you tell us that?”
“Well, yeah, sure,” I said, “no big deal.”
“Oh, okay,” he said, perking up a little. “Umm, would you please wait a second?” He fumbled with his papers as he glanced toward a mirror on the wall and nodded, smiling and then he stacked the papers neatly, placing his pen on top of the stack. A few seconds later, the door opened and about a half-dozen people walked in and quietly gathered around the interrogator. Most were in uniform except for an old lady in an apron and hairnet who looked like she had raised all of them.
“What’s this?” I said.
“Oh, ummm, well, we are very interested in this part of your story, sir.”
“Am I being interrogated by the kitchen help?” I said pointing to the hairnet.
“Oh no, sir, she is like a mother to us... and she loves your story – our TV cable is, how do you say? Ka-put, so would you please…?”
"Yeah, sure, whatever. So, the Gun, huh? Yeah, that’s what I named her, but it’s not as exciting as you might think.
"See, I bought the boat in Pompano Beach, Florida on a Thursday afternoon. Well, Friday morning I get stopped by the cops. Man, I hadn’t even owned the boat for a full day when I get blue lights all over me. See, the police in Boca Raton – a few miles north of Pompano – they patrol on boats, see? And one of them caught me as I was cruising through a manatee zone. Whatever. He said I was going “a little fast, but not serious.”
"Anyway, he didn’t give me a ticket, but he did run my registration number. He was a cool guy and we had fun talking about boats and fishing and crazy things that people do on the water. Anyway, he punched my number into his laptop and a few seconds later he gives me this funny, puzzled look.
“Man, this system is a mess,” he said. “The state of Florida thinks that this number belongs to a stolen gun.”
“Thanks!” I told the police officer. “You just named my boat!”
Mom looked disappointed, but everyone else thought it was funny.