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Re-enactors invade Florida

December 15, 1998

ST AUGUSTINE, Fla. - They celebrate Christmas in the South of course, but somehow they don't seem to make as much of an issue of it.

Maybe it's just an illusion precipitated by sand castles and palm trees over snowmen and Douglas fir. Maybe things seem more frantic because in cold weather more people are crowded into indoor spaces.

Undeniably though, there is always more of a Christmassy atmosphere in the North, and it is this sort of cozy, sentimental, quilt-and-berry atmosphere that I will do almost anything to avoid.

And, nothing against the Hagerstown scene of yard sales and sub shops, but no matter how good the marriage, there are some days that you just need a little space.

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Or so I'd hoped when I headed to Florida for the weekend.

But right off things started getting weird. I was strolling up San Marco Boulevard hitting a few antique shops and - what was that? Couldn't be. But I would have sworn I saw a Civil War re-enactor ducking into a second-hand shop across from the Fountain of Youth.

Now St. Augustine certainly has a long and storied tradition of heritage, but it has nothing to do with cornfields or Bobby Lee. The Spaniards were building a fort on this site about three centuries before Sumter became a household name and the pirates, not the yankees, were the team all the locals were trying to beat.

I shook it off, bought a newspaper and a couple of oranges and headed for the beach. Florida, like here, is having a mild winter and the local columnist (I always like to read the local columnists when I travel, since they're the ones who always have such accurate, crystallized views of their communities) mentioned how hard it was going to be to get into the Christmas spirit if the temperatures didn't start dipping down into the 60s.

Then I glanced up from the local page and you are not going to believe this, but I swear I saw a man in a slumped, blue-wool union cap and swimming trunks getting into his car.

That afternoon I did a little Christmas shopping - everyone's getting cigars this year, although in the interest of common sense the children won't get lighters with theirs - and walking back to the hotel there ... there in the shadow of the magnificent, palm-fringed, stone Spanish fort, was a full garden of white canvas re-enactor tents and about a hundred blue and gray troops. I am not kidding. I'll be hanged if I know what they were re-enacting, but there they were. The only difference was that these Civil War soldiers were all staying at the Ramada.

Somewhere I read that the Union occupied parts of Florida during the war. It never dawned on me that anyone would want to re-enact an occupation, being almost the same as wanting to re-enact a coma, but I guess there is no law against it.

But it felt too much like I was being followed. That evening there was a boat show, tall ships sailing into the harbor all decorated with Christmas lights.

So I'm sitting on a bank of fossilized oyster shells, and out on the water are a dozen sailboats with blinking, white lights clinging to their sheets and starbursts of color outlining evergreens and Santas and reindeer and elves, and to my right is a crowd of hundreds all possessed of some wild hybrid of beach party and Christmas spirit, screeching and cheering, smooching and eating, and in back of me are the silent dignified stone walls and rounded turrets of the fort, glowing yellow with the lights of the town and standing in front of the fort is an entire nest of Civil War re-enactors.

And I'm thinking to myself: America has come to this.

The Spaniards might not have fought so tenaciously for this sandy spit of land had they known. And yet, all things considered, it still beat being in a shopping mall in the North.




Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail Columnist

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