Part 2: Gathering Clues in Pursuit of a Legend.

Punch Bowl, 1942

ALL RIGHT, so everybody and his brother had once known where the damn thing was. So why didn’t we?

Beyond the “clues” to be found within these intriguing photos, there was even a map:

No matter what the clues held in hand, I somehow knew that once I’d set sail on this kind of journey, there was no telling exactly what I might come across. That hunch turned out to be “right on the money,” as shall be explained.

Kayak Biscayne Time Warp POST

WAS it pure foolishness to set out looking for this watering hole beloved of pirates, Indians, and pioneers? Maybe. It might be something in the Florida air down this way, but stories of every kind, nuance, texture and purpose seem to flourish unreasonably here, as if nourished in the very atmosphere like air plants. In most “normal” places, people appear to tell stories about others’ lives and deeds. “Real life” is not “story;” it is understood. Here, there is no such nice distinction to be made, and stories quite often tell people’s lives and deeds. Otherwise put, some tales carry a “gravitational pull” revealed simply in the telling, sufficient to pull effortlessly within their orbit listeners who happen to hear them, should completion or development of the story call for a larger cast of characters. What in the H–, you say? Utterly preposterous! Why, that idea doesn’t even make sense?

FloridaYou may be exactly right, logic-wise, but it doesn’t matter. I’m telling you: right now and at this very moment, there are forces at play larger by far than our ability to comprehend, and more ancient than anything we might even dream of. So it always has been. And we are part of this “whatever it is” not isolated and apart, as seems so convincingly the case, but in absolute unity, and without exception. Fact is, it is essential to the Human heart to belong to a story, to have some anchor save us from drifting. We call its lack, meaninglessness, and it will kill a body nearly as fast as starvation.

So: if we’re going to be woven into a story, and will in fact run as fast as we possibly can to jump in to the right one, should we see it passing by, it seems to me the wiser move to stop the philosophical chatter, open our eyes, and pay attention to the actual story we are helping bring into being day by day, one moment at a time, through our choices– our actions and deeds and decisions, or (in equal force) our silences, omissions, and states of indecision.

All I knew at one certain moment, for example, was that I had to find the Devil’s Punch Bowl. There were no two ways about it. And so I did.  Floridians have grown accustomed to living in an atmosphere saturated so completely by the dreams, visions, and occasional nightmares of one or the other great visionary, that before long we have thoroughly confused the hype and anticipated sequel with whatever nugget of truth the tale might have once held. To the extent story and meaning have become interchangeable, it’s no medium wonder we are always left thirsting, like curious children, for more.

Once upon a time, a man named George Merrick dreamed an outlandish dream of a special, new kind of “planned community” to be built (of all places!) upon the land where his father’s rambling citrus groves lay. He named his vision Coral Gables, after an architectural flourish atop his family’s Miami home.  People showed up.

MerrickAug. 23, 1925

 Label it what you will, that unique sense of Florida: lurid. Surreal. OutRAGEOUS! “Over the top.” Ridiculous. Two descriptions that cannot be omitted: Necessary, and Perpetual.

And once the stories have been told (and that, you can always safely assume!), just turn your back for but a moment, and you’ll find that any number of stories have already somehow reproduced, and boom! More stories! There are stories for every occasion, and then some. There are even stories of stories.

A wonderful contribution of my own German-born paternal great-grandparents to the ever-unfolding “Florida Dream.” They envisioned and created a citrus grove/ tropical plant nursery/ tourist attraction they called “Bonita Groves,” in the Redlands area, near Homestead. Consider how many stories and diverging themes are interwoven in this fanciful tableau!

Plenty of ’em, in fact. Some are like sparks kept alive and passed on, from one generation to the next, reborn countless times with each eager anticipation of a re-telling. Something within both teller and listener knows that, in a simple sharing of story, we are experiencing a direct link with those who’ve come before, and (hopefully) those yet to come. It is now, as it always has been, that any or all of us can hope to live on forever, only through story. As long as there’s one person still breathing to tell and another to listen, a really good story will never die.

In Florida, why ask why? Home is where the orange is.

TALES of every sort are plentiful here, and always have been. Put together a manatee and a sailor who’s clearly been out at sea for way too long, and what do you have? That’s right, a mermaid! One hell of a great story, the Hell with its lack of foundation! By God, there should be mermaids, at least as much as unicorns, if the Earth in all of its mysterious dimensions is to somehow seem complete.

Ditto “The Fountain of Youth,” a timeless favorite with a “punch” of a concept that still knocks out a crowd! The myth is essentially re-created for a modern and more urbane (but no less hungry) audience, in the Cocoon films.

And my God! What child’s imagination can possibly resist the allure of Indians and explorers, or pioneers and pirates, especially when combined all together into one factual (if vaguely mystical) place, actually somewhere on a map?

Orchid Hunters Eugene Savage

Early Cocoanut Grove pioneers pictured taking their leisure in a wild fig tree, in a vast and virginal subtropical wilderness we can only try and imagine, today. And we really can’t.

AND then there are the pirates, so persistent in our collective memory because their romantic criminal legend somehow bespeaks freedom and partakes of the sea, and the combination is irresistible. (The eternal promise of their buried treasure, on land or left behind in broken ships, long settled to the sea’s floor, doesn’t hurt either):

Above and below: from the Captain Blood series, by the magnificent illustrator Dean Cornwell.

IT is easy to imagine maybe getting a little carried away in pursuit of a legend, especially when it is so local, and its promised end is literally an ancient, welcoming “drinking fountain,” that for millennia offered up by the salted Bay an unending flow of refreshing, sweet water. And maybe, still does even today.

 THE legend of the perfectly round well is made whole by its exquisite and primeval setting: sheltered under a cavernous stone ledge that is part of a fantastically textured, narrow ribbon of ancient stone rising up just by the bay’s tide. The rock “bluff” snaked along the bay’s shore as an impressive ribbon of ivory, unifying on the one hand the vast field of green hues of both subtropical jungle forest and ancient and open Everglade to the East, and the equally sensational deep blue and aqua tones of an expansive and impossibly clear bay stretching far as the eye could see, glinting golden in the sun, on the other.

 

Dreaming

When Magic Gets Personal.

THE allure of such adventure is undeniable, generally. But when the bay in question is named “Biscayne,” and the very area of the site has always, from earliest childhood, been an inseparable part of one’s personal history, an element of the personal is added to the pull of the siren’s song by which it is rendered wholly irresistible. I was a “goner.” Consider Kleinberg’s description of the site as below (1) Wainwright Park, and just above (2) Vizcaya (as numbered on the map, below), together with the relation of each to the place marked by the red dot (but actually a stab at a (3)): my one and only childhood home. We thought of and felt about the entire area figuratively, if not literally, as our “backyard.” If “home is where the heart is,” here is where at least part of ours most certainly was.

Wainwright Park. Vizcaya. If you tried, you could not name two places held more dear, more deeply personal, nor more part of the young lives of my siblings and myself, than either “bookend,” or for that matter the Bay shore connecting them. My earliest memory of the Park: a family picnic in the mid 60’s, when it was much more a magical wood and less a sanitized “City park.” I can still picture exactly in my mind’s eye the bay that day, as we sat upon a blanket by the seawall. Usually at least a little choppy, the surface that afternoon was so preternaturally smooth that the whole of it looked like a vast field of the most beautiful blue glass you can imagine.

Later, through all the phases and stages of my life, my connection with the Park remained deeply heartfelt. The very first place I went, when I dared (shakily) venture out unaccompanied into a world with Scott no longer alive in it, was here. I was moving purely on instinct. My heart needed to hear everything the forests and the bay waited in infinite patience  to remind me.

Wainwright

I have returned there to paint, many many times over the years:

Wainwright Park, III (Calm After the Storm). Done in the summer of 1992, in the week or so after Hurricane Andrew had made its visit.

Return to Wainwright, a happy painting captured on a couple of especially beautiful afternoons.

As to the other “endpoint” on this enchanted span, my entire family also shared a special connection with the magnificent Villa Vizcaya.

Vizcaya, Entry

Over the years, we enjoyed and appreciated the place together, and independently.

Sunday Afternoon, Vizcaya

FOR several years, my brothers and our friends and I enjoyed the occupancy of a most excellent tree-house immediately on the Bay, along the furthest bend of the mangrove wood lining the Southern edge of the property visible from the house. My brother Greg started calling it “the kingdom that nobody else wanted.”

I can show you very nearly its exact location, though the tree-house itself seems to have disappeared exactly  as mysteriously as it showed up in the first place. Below is The Bathers, a watercolor sketch done by the famed John Singer Sargent during his 1917 visit to the great home. From my time spent there, and the placement and perspective of the medium bridge in the distance, I know that the sketch was done on the very outer tip of the mangrove peninsula and that the swimmers are facing open bay. We swam in this very place, often.

 

Sargent Bathers POST

 See the first “indentation” in the tree line to the Left, just about middle of painting? Just there lay the medium white sandy shore that we called our private “beach,” with the tree-house just above. It was a blessed and most wondrous place, and an excellent time to be free.

Farm Courtyard, Villa Vizcaya

I only very recently learned of another family “connection” to the punch bowl site. A couple of days ago, as I’d finally begun to try and hammer into prose the chaos of words and images before me, I called my Dad and asked him whether he’d ever heard his father speak of the Devil’s Punch Bowl, down along the Bay between Vizcaya and Wainwright Park. He paused for a moment, and then said “Oh, you mean the Pirate’s Punch Bowl! Yeah, Daddy once told me that he and your grandmother used to visit the place for romantic trysts, back when they were young, in the 1920’s.”

Gr & Gr - Newlyweds

Howard Bruce and Annelise Petersen Crockett, newlyweds, 1920’s. They are remembered, and well-loved. May they rest in peace.

“It was apparently quite popular for that use, back then,” he told me.  “You know, a romantic kind of place.” “Wow!,” I said, “I can easily imagine,” picturing the sharing of an epic sunset over open Bay, or the magic of moon quietly ascending. “So, they never called it ‘the Devil’s Punch Bowl?,’” I asked.

“Naw,” he recalled, “Never.”  “Didn’t the homeowner mind all the comings and goings?” He laughed. “Paul, this was the early ‘20’s,” he said. “There weren’t any houses there. Just Vizcaya, and then there would’ve been Villa Serena, I guess. You know, the William Jennings Bryan place. Aside from that, it was pretty much jungle.”

“Ideal!,” I exclaimed. “Those would have been the days, all right.” “Hell,” he said, “even when I was a boy (which would have been in the late 30’s, early ‘40’s) there was an open sea wall or path that you could just walk along, I mean with no kind of obstacles or obstruction, all the way down to Vizcaya. And there, there were these guards. Well, they weren’t really guards, back in those days. Two guys, more like caretakers. They’d generally just sit there. Course, they looked tough enough to us, being just kids,” he said. “And if they saw us walking around, they’d make a commotion and loud hubbub, and threaten us with jail, and so forth.”

“Some things never change,” I observed.

To: Part 3

 

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4 Responses to Part 2: Gathering Clues in Pursuit of a Legend.

  1. Niki says:

    A wonderful story of life lived to its fullest while searching and finding something that stirred the heart strings…

  2. Jeffrey Lawrence says:

    Doing research on Miami 1900-1930. Writing novel based around Paul Chalfin and building of Vizcaya. Recreating the lives and stories of those involved at this time in history.Enjoyed your telling and flashbacks of those you met that day, except for the overnight jail stay. Any additional stories you have on your grandparents etc. I would love to hear. I hope all is well with you as of this posting.

    Jeff

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