A little more than three years ago when wife Linda and I had been full-time residents of Amelia Island for about three months the Fernandina Beach News-Leader printed an opinion-editorial I submitted expressing our observations about our new hometown.
Surprisingly a number of readers told me that they remember that piece and asked me if our attitudes or opinions have changed. They haven’t. In fact, they’re reinforced daily as we watch a Currier & Ives America unfold in front of us: Tom Sawyer painting the fence in front of Aunt Polly’s Victorian house; Ward Clever walking home from work with the newspaper tucked under his arm; Atticus Finch stepping out of downtown’s historic courthouse; big band swing music echoing from the beach-front Sandy Bottoms; kids playing a pickup baseball game or dad hitting fungos to them on the ball fields near Egan’s Creek; The Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopalian, and Catholic congregations co-mingling on downtown streets following Sunday services; the mailman greeting folks by their first names; the lazy cocker spaniel watching from the shade of a neighbor’s front porch as we walk or bike by; listening to the ocean waves crashing onto the beach through our open windows; enjoying an afternoon salt air breeze; listening to the squawk of seagulls from the harbor while reading the paper at a sidewalk table in front of Amelia Island Coffee and having locals stop and chat; volunteers building a park playground with donated equipment for children of all abilities, and so much more.
As I wrote in the summer of 2011 our last city of residence was Atlanta and we anticipated our move to Amelia Island like sleepless children on Christmas Eve awaiting the arrival of Santa and when we arrived here we reacted like kids who discovered a pony under the tree. At that time I said that before the newness and excitement of living here wore off I wanted to share observations made after living here just 90 days. Now, after three years, we’ve become members of the “we rarely cross the bridge club” and discovered that unearthing Amelia Island negatives is as rare as digging up its legendary buried pirate treasure.
Norman Rockwell Helped Paint This Picture
However, while enjoying our idyllic existence on Amelia Island, we must strive to ensure we don’t take certain things for granted, such as the dedication and work ethic of city employees whose efforts and training keep our island safe, clean and enjoyable. And I know from personal experience how efficient and professional our first responders are, as they answered my wife’s 911 call in less than five minutes last August when I suffered a stroke and their speed and skills probably saved my life. Even while serving in the military I’ve never experienced a more professional, well-trained, disciplined and courteous team.
We have also watched Fernandina Beach city employees effortlessly erect fencing, portable toilets, electrical and water outlets, stages, tents, etc. for a variety of community events ranging from the spring Shrimp Festival to the Blues Festival and BBQ and chili cook-offs and more, then following the events, observed as these same workers efficiently dismantled the fixtures, leaving the grounds spotless in an amazingly brief period of time. We’re also blessed with Chief Jim Hurley’s led Fernandina Beach Police Department that despite cutting its full-time force from 35 to 30 officers has presided over a crime rate that is the lowest in the town’s recorded history. We are indeed fortunate the town has such a capable and dedicated staff and we feel our tax dollars are well spent on these folks. Nassau County’s Sheriff Bill Leeper’s law enforcers are keeping crime in their jurisdiction at an all-time low as well.
The attitudes of event volunteers and coordinators, the police, neighbors, musicians, vendors, shop keepers, clerks, sanitation workers, corporate executives, entrepreneurs, and so many more make us proud to be their neighbors in this Norman Rockwell painted community of well mannered, friendly people ranging from toddlers to geriatrics, treating each other with respect, courtesy and dignity and we keep looking around for the family-run Bailey Building & Loan Association office. This is the only place I’ve ever been where the courteous sanitation worker will toss the morning newspaper on our porch and the postman welcomes us back home after a visit with our son and his family in Houston.
Everywhere on the island we have experienced nothing but courteous, honest and pleasant people and unique experiences including the plumber explaining over the phone how to fix the garbage disposal with an Allen wrench because he doesn’t want to charge us $85 for to do something we could do ourselves; pedestrians using the honor system by dropping cash into an open jar for ice tea and baked goods sitting on an unattended table in front of the Centre St. Coffee shop when it was closed for maintenance; the fresh vegetables, baked products, live music and more at the Saturday morning Farmer’s Market on Centre & 7th Street; chatting with personable barkeep and city commissioner Johnny Miller over the bar at the Palace Saloon; the Salty Pelican’s, Palace’s, and Dog Star’s outrageous Bloody Mary concoctions as they try to outdo each other every Sunday afternoon; the best bouillabaisse I’ve ever eaten prepared at Joe’s 2nd Street Bistro by owner Ricky Pigg, who has the best name for a chef I’ve ever heard; wine-pairing dinners all around the island hosted by Wines by Steve’s Steve Raszkin, his wife Donna, and their selection of great local chefs; the fun, family-friendly and adult-enjoyable evenings with pianist/singer John Springer at the Centre Street Courtyard Pub’s piano bar Thursday through Saturday; the distinctive British accent of expatriate Chef Brian Grimley that could make a tepid bowl of watery gruel sound appetizing as he describes the daily specials at the funky Lulu’s at the Thompson House’s South 7th St. downtown restaurant; the unpretentiousness of businessmen Ernie Saltmarsh, George Sheffield and Don Shaw as they buy, restore and preserve historic landmarks combining a capitalistic motive with a sincere and dedicated community spirit.
Everywhere we go we encounter only friendly and polite people who go out of their way to assist us. These include helpful and courteous clerks at Publix, Winn-Dixie and Harris Teeter; Flash Food ladies calling us “baby” and “honey”; polite, smiling and efficient tellers at our CBC Bank led by pretty Jacksonville Jaguar cheerleader Keri Haynes; caring police officers; well-dressed and polite high school students working at the local movie theatre and various coffee and ice cream shops; the all-volunteer auxiliary policemen; the locals gathering at T Rays South 8th St. Burger Station counter and so many more. They make daily life here incredibly pleasant with their smiles, “thank you’s” and “hello’s” and calling us by name.
Barbeque, Baseball, Beaches, Bicycles, Bikinis, & More
We enjoy watching the kids at the skate board park and basketball courts; the 1950s era Putt Putt miniature golf course at Main Beach that still sells ice cream, hot dogs and one of the best hamburgers anywhere; knowing school is out as you see neighborhood kids with surf boards strapped to their bikes heading to the beach; Pashence Marie, Crystal Foster and other bikini-clad gals serving cocktails during the Hammerhead Bar’s Bikini Sunday in a fun but not vulgar environment; children with jump ropes and chalk-drawn hop-scotch diagrams playing in the shade of an old oak tree on the street with their friends; a father and son fishing at the Atlantic Avenue crossing over Egan’s Creek; young and old walking their dogs along the city sidewalks; being able to ride our bikes to the movie theatre and then sitting on an old fashioned stool with a spinning seat at the counter of the next door Doo Wop Diner for a burger, banana split or thick shake before or after the film; living in a place where driving too slow is more common that going too fast and most traffic accidents take place in parking lots, not on streets; old friends getting together at the local pubs and coffee shops to discuss politics and sports; little league baseball and Pop Warner football at Central Park; kids walking and riding their bikes safely to and from school; watching an alligator sunning itself on the banks of Egan’s Creek, just a block from our house; a pelican diving for his lunch, a snow-white egret standing elegantly in the marsh and a bobcat scampering across the road in front of our bikes in Ft. Clinch; the front and back porches at the almost 160-year-old Florida House and its cozy Mermaid Bar; not caring how long I stand in line at the Publix checkout counter because there is a cute gal in a bikini in front of me; the intimate little bar at the Hoyt House B&B; not going to the beach on a beautiful sunny day because I know I can go tomorrow or the next day; going fishing whenever I feel like it; eco, historical and sunset excursions on Kevin McCarthy’s Amelia River Cruises; Walking from Public to next door’s Tony’s New York Pizzeria for a generous thin-crust slice and a $2.00 draft beer; couples holding hands and walking on the beach; live music drifting over beach sunbathers and swimmers from the Sandy Bottoms patio and Slider’s Tiki Bar; the smell of fresh baked bread wafting from the many local bakeries; historic Fort Clinch reenactments and the cool shaded roadway leading to it; watching football and baseball with neighbors and friends at Halftime and Beef O’Brady’s sports bars; the sunset views over the harbor and the kooky free sunglasses offered at the Front St. Salty Pelican’s upstairs Pelican’s Perch; the comfortable feeling you get when you cross Shave Bridge after being out of town; watching storms crawl across the ocean; the quirkiness of the 10 Acres Kraft Athletic Club Lounge and its sunset-watching Porch People; Wednesday dollar beer and wing night as we chat with Choo Choo Germano at his North 2nd St. Crab Trap; the helpful, fun attitude and recipe tips from Charlie Taylor and his crew at the harbor’s Atlantic Seafood; cookouts and Third Saturday of the Month Steak Night at America Legion Post 54; sitting on a beach boardwalk bench reading a book or watching the sunrise; receiving a personal greeting from downtown postmistress Debbie; the laughter of the children during recess at St. Michaels; Felix playing “Walk the Dog” on his harmonica downtown and saying in response to every question: “Yes sir. Do you want a pineapple?” The shaded canopies provided by the magnificent oaks dripping in Spanish moss along Buccaneer Trail, Beech St. and so many other island roadways; unpaved roads where they are least expected that should never be paved; horseback riding on the beach, kayaking on the marsh and jet skiing with George Morris, who knows every nook and cranny of the island; boating with seasoned Captain Flip Gallion; horse-drawn carriage rides downtown; residents waving at you when you drive through their neighborhoods even though they don’t have a clue who you are; the sunsets at the marinas and the sun rises on the Atlantic; the deserted pristine beaches decorated with driftwood-like sculptures on the two Talbot Islands on our Southern end; watching for whales, dolphins and submarines; the grandeur of the downtown area Victorian homes; taking visitors to Old Town and explaining why Ladies Street is called “Ladies Street” and pointing out the Pipi Longstockings house; town character and all-around nice guy Pajama Dave waving to us from his motorcycle, the door of his 2nd Street shop or making us laugh as he captains one of his sunset cruises; the smoke stacks belching sanitized vapor from the two ugly but much-loved mills owned by our generous and supportive corporate citizens, RockTenn and Rayonier; the beauty and solitude of Bosque Bello Cemetery; knowing we can visit the Ritz Carlton or Omni Resorts if we want to; being invited to a cocktail party at one of the beautiful gated homes on the south end’s Plantation; chatting with quirky Addison House B&B owner Bob Tidball and patting his dog Maggie, who each have their own bar stools at the Palace, Dog Star Tavern and Green Turtle; shrimpers and shrimp boats; walking to the docks to chat with friends who live on sail and motor boats; chuckling at retired AT&T/BellSouth veteran Charlie Freeman, who named his live-on boat “No Dial Tone;” the clink of metal balls, the cacophony of languages and the eclectic music played by Belgian-born Philippe Boets at the marina and Central Park Petanque courts; enjoying a leisurely lunch while overlooking the ocean from the porch of Fletcher Avenue’s elegant Elizabeth Point B&B; riding the St. John’s River Ferry even though we don’t really need to go to anywhere it takes us while laughing at the antics of Captain Happy; drinking an ice cold draught beer while listening to live music on the shady porch of downtown’s Green Turtle Tavern; town leaders and businessmen with peculiar nicknames such as Choo Choo, Smiley, Beano, T-Ray, and Pajama Dave; earning off season discounts at local businesses just by being a resident such as rooms at Dutch-born Johan Ramakers and wife TJ’s Amelia Oceanfront B&B and happy hour prices in a number of taverns and bars; best of all that sigh of envy from tourists when they ask where you are from and you say “I live here.”
Local Elections Can Fix The Broken Stuff
All communities have a down side and we’re not immune, but ours is one that may soon be fixed and is not visible to visitors: the city’s costly, repressive and arbitrary impact fees levied against businesses have tossed cold water on some business’ plans to open here and squelched the expansion plans of existing ones, but they have been declared illegal by a circuit court judge’s ruling. The city is appealing that order to the state’s Supreme Court in what many legal experts say will be a failed effort, and then maybe we can rid ourselves of those responsible for that mess and get on with the showing of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Also, despite running on pro business platforms some of the town’s elected officials appear to be mindlessly bungling along, but we are fortunate that, like all American communities, elections can generate changes that will help fuel our town’s entrepreneurial ship and generate candidates anxious to remove barriers that hinder businesses from generating revenues, expanding, and hiring more local employees.
Many who have visited us have said how fortunate they think we are to reside here year around, with many first-time visitors deciding that this is the place they want to be, going home and making arrangements to take the plunge and step into our Rockwell painting.
As I said three years ago, working as a journalist and then for international corporations provided an opportunity to live not only in Atlanta but in a variety of diverse locations including upstate New York, Houston, Dallas, Austin, Tampa, Washington DC, and Brussels and Paris. We enjoyed many of those locations, but this is now home and we couldn’t be happier. However, when you live on Amelia Island, where do you go on vacation?