Solomon’s Castle, a palace hidden in a Florida swamp

Solomon's Castle is silver plated, and features stained glass created by Howard Solomon.
Solomon’s Castle is silver plated, and features stained glass created by Howard Solomon.

ONA, Fla.
There are roadside attractions that are centres of power, author Neil Gaiman says. His book American Gods takes us to a few of them, and we’ve visited some ourselves, like the House on the Rock and Rock City, and they are truly powerful in their kitsch.

Then there’s Solomon’s Castle, which isn’t in American Gods, but easily could be.

The silver palace in the middle of a Florida swamp is the brainchild of writer, sculptor, and lifelong eccentric Howard Solomon, who built the castle’s outer walls of old typesetting plates, news-side-in. There are metal-sheathed guards, and a full-size boat in the boggy “moat.” Everything, from the stained glass to the strange menagerie we will encounter inside, was created and installed by Solomon over decades. He died in August at 82, but his wife still lives in the castle.

Behind the castle is the full-size Boat in the Moat, which features a restaurant and more puns.
Behind the castle is the full-size Boat in the Moat, which features a restaurant and more puns.

Our tour guide, Ricky, is scripted within an inch of his life, and he spends an hour blasting facts like buckshot. He kind of warns us about the puns.

It seems Solomon was some sort of three-dimensional-word genius, weaving language and sculpture and play to justify his junk collecting.

Ricky shows us a three-foot sculpture of a woman called Busting Out. She’s just been released from prison and she represents freedom, he says. He tells us what old car part and found treasures went into making her, ending with the bicycle chains that are her hair.

“We call this a permanent permanent,” Ricky says with an eyebrow wiggle.

Howard Solomon's garboyle.
Howard Solomon’s garboyle.

Next up is a half-size truck that Solomon let his grandchildren play in. “The fish market truck is covered with the same stuff the castle is built with, only it’s painted black. Howard said it would take three people to operate this thing: Somebody to steer it, another one to push it, another one to run alongside barkin’ at the tires.”

There’s a selection of guns and rifles, each with their own pun. “I asked Howard, how come this rifle’s got a clock in there?” Ricky says. “He said, ‘It’s a Minuteman rifle. … It’s for killin’ time’.”

It would take days to examine the curiosities Solomon created in this sanctuary that he called his time castle, where it’s okay to touch things so long as you’re respectful, and you can get up close to see each piece of flaking rust or to peer more closely at masterful wooden reproductions of classical art.

Howard Solomon, a self-portrait in wood.
Howard Solomon, a self-portrait in wood.

I ask Ricky where Solomon found his material and he laughs. “Anywhere and everywhere. People’ll’d bring him stuff.” Then he’s back on script.

“The garboyle over there, guys, I had not a clue what it was when i got to the castle. The garboyle is 800 pieces of metal. They say it lays eggs, it eats the eggs, and then it becomes … eggstinct.

“Now let me introduce you over here to Lionel.” Without skipping a beat he’s moved on to the life-size metal lion that’s leaning toward us. “Now, if Howard was here, he’d let you know it’s got two glass eyes up front and two steel balls in the back. Then he’d ask you, ‘Know what this is?’ “ He’s holding up a baseball bat that was lying at Lionel’s feet. “No, ladies, it’s not a ball-buster. Howard would let you know.

“That’s the Lion’s Club.”

Lionel, who comes with his own club.
Lionel, who comes with his own club.

The Lion’s Club indeed. If you have the stomach for the puns, Solomon’s Castle is tucked away in the backroads of inland Florida. We had an adventure trying to see this place five years ago and we’ve been wanting to come back ever since. It was absolutely worth the wait.
4533 Solomon Rd., 863-494-6077

Mermaids and chemical warfare at Yeehaw Junction

YEEHAW JUNCTION, Fla.
It was hot as steam pipes outside the car and though we’d just stopped for a pee break, the building-cum-roadside-attraction was so cool I was wandering around taking pictures.

“Mom. Mom. Mom mom mom.” I’ve explained to him for more than 20 years that it just has one syllable. Say it the one time and see what happens. Maybe he’ll get there. In the meantime: “Mom! Did your bathroom have a naked mermaid? Because mine had a naked mermaid.”

It’s what you’d expect an establishment at a crossroads that was in the early 20th century a “supply and recreation centre for cattle drovers,” which is a nice way for a big historical marker to say: “brothel.”

The Desert Inn was a gathering place for local farmers near Yeehaw Junction — also called Jackass Junction because patrons rolled up on their burros — with separate rooms for African Americans and Seminole aboriginals. There are hundreds of crossroads like this in America. A few dozen have historical markers.

I turned to Google for more because I intended to write a fluffy post about the brothel, and discovered that Yeehaw was exposed to a lot more than pioneer-era bosoms. It was exposed to biological warfare.

Secret tests were performed here in the 1960s, and the government would maintain — will maintain — that the chemical agents sprayed on the area were harmless. At least two sets of tests were conducted over Yeehaw during the Cold War, as Project 112 sought to find ways to stunt the growth of Russian wheat. The trials were secret till 2002, when a senator demanded an inquiry into decades of rumour after revelations by CBC Evening News.

Puccinia graminis tritici, or TX, was sprayed from F4 fighter jets over Florida, Alaska, Hawaii, and parts of Britain and Canada — off the coast of Newfoundland and “southwestern Canada,” which probably referred to Suffield, Alta. — during the joint U.S., UK and Canadian program. TX is toxic to plants and can spark cancer in animals but the government said it was harmless to humans over the long term. But anyway, the point of the tests was to see whether the chemicals would kill plants, not people. People were secondary, and anyway there have never been more than around 240 in Yeehaw.

TX is wheat rust, “a fungus which kills wheat, and is an offensive test if you want to take the breadbasket away from the enemy,” Michael Kilpatrick, the Pentagon’s director for employment health support, told the Sun-Sentinel soon after the news broke in 2002.

There’s big sky out here on the flat land where a fighter jet would look out of place, now or in the 1960s. It’s incredible to me the testing was kept secret for so long. But I can be naive that way.

You can find food and drink at Yeehaw Junction, which is along old Highway 60 between Orlando and Tampa, but if you find special companionship you’ll have to take them somewhere other than the now-shut-down motel out back.

My bathroom didn’t have a naked mermaid, by the way.

My bathroom mannequin scared me so bad I nearly peed on the floor, which clearly defeats the entire purpose the of thing.

My tribe: On holding tight and letting go

I have written many times and in many different ways about the small group of women with whom I have become close over the past six years. Meeting almost exclusively on Facebook, we laugh or cry or rage in a way we can’t with our day-to-day friends. In December, some of us rushed to the side of one of those women, who was very ill. We have since lost her, but we’ll never completely let her go.

* * *

My tribe is small.

We are a farmer, an immigrant, a journalist, a funeral-home director, a teacher, a former executive, a homeschooler.

We are, before all that, mothers and friends.

We have other tribes. Families, best friends, confidantes with shared history. Yet we hold each other in a special, guarded circle.

We are funny, and smart, and boisterous and loud, though we know when to be quiet. Like when the food arrives.

Or when our heart breaks.

We have our phones with their cameras ready at all times, but we know when to take pictures. Like before we eat.

Or before we cry.

We have secret pacts. Like: everyone has to use the washroom at every stop, even if you think you don’t have to.

Or that we’ll always always be there.

Each of us travelled hundreds or thousands of miles to gather in body, in the shadow of anticipated loss, but with the hope that we weren’t about to lose one of us.

Over and over I caught us trying to hold on to the moments, the phrases and cadences and genesis of in-jokes. But words resist corralling. We won’t remember the words.

We’ll remember the scenes.

Five of us with limbs crossed or bodies tucked up safely on alien yellow furniture with bright red and orange flowers and a crooked middle cushion. Voices rising and colliding, separating in laughter like a wave, then rising one at a time in a fountaining pattern.

Twenty-three seconds of video where we smiled goofily and waved awkwardly while our strongest voice recorded love and laughter in case we didn’t get to see our dear one’s face. Five of us staring into the clear eye of a smartphone, willing all our compassion through it.

In the car, the hollow desperate sound of five women weeping in complete silence.

Connecting with the one of us who couldn’t be there, squeezing in so we could all see her face, sharing our news and letting her cry, because we had all had a turn already. The familiar warmth of tears on cheeks and chins.

Walking into the thin, precious air of the ICU for an unprecedented 58 minutes, surprised by her moon-like and pale face, yet her sudden smile warming each of us from ribcage to throat. Perplexed that we had come just for her (we had come for us), she said: “Thank you. This was on my bucket list.”

Those words we will keep.

My tribe is small.

We are a healer, a pillar, a clown, a helper, a pragmatist, a gentlewoman, a protector.

We are, before all that, friends and mothers.

We have other tribes. But this tribe is knit with confidences and compassions we guard jealously. We are small. Yet we are fierce.

A walk in the the park: La Mauricie National Park

Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

Some trails in La Mauricie National Park are perfect for Ski-Dooing.
Some trails in La Mauricie National Park are perfect for Ski-Dooing.
Ski-Dooing on a mountainside in La Mauricie National Park.
Ski-Dooing on a mountainside in La Mauricie National Park.

The first time I drove to La Mauricie National Park, I was all alone and I thought I knew what sort of adventure I was setting myself up for.

I wanted to write about the free-for-2017 Discovery Pass, and La Mauricie was the national park near me that was open in winter, so I dropped my family in Otterburn Park for winter camping with their Beaver and Cub troupes and headed (later than I meant), north toward the park.

After several hilarious-in-retrospect adventures with an ancient GPS, I found myself alone with Joe the Truck on mountain roads that were sheer ice with packed snow over them. Plows had spent the winter clearing the road and building great snowbanks on either side, meaning there was almost no way I’d find myself ditched if I slid too exuberantly. It was like bowling with the kiddie bumpers up.

We had so much fun on the road, up and down, side to side, around curves and past a covered bridge, that I was barely disappointed when the GPS lead me directly to the wrong entrance to the park — an entrance that was closed for the winter. Hey, y’all, sometimes it’s just about the drive.

Nope. There's more road and forest out there, but Joe the Truck and I weren't allowed to check it out.

Nope. There’s more road and forest out there, but Joe the Truck and I weren’t allowed to check it out.You can click through here to find out what happened when I went back the next weekend with most of my family to try my hand at winter camping.

I give La Mauricie National Park three (completely arbitrary, out of five) stroller wheels. The trails were great and we loved the way station where we could start a fire and share our marshmallows with other travellers. More than half the park was closed for winter, and trail maps weren’t super easy to follow. We hope to bring it up to four or more stroller wheels when we go back during the summer.

Find out how to get your Parks Canada 2017 Discovery pass (it’s free this year).

Inside La Mauricie National Park, several trails were open for the season.
Inside La Mauricie National Park, several trails were open for the season.

How giving a lift to a stranger led me to a murder

This story was first published in the Montreal Gazette and is republished here by permission.

___

The best tales are the stories within stories.

One starts: “I’m trying to get to Heywood and quite frankly I have no idea where I am.”

The other, more ominously: “You don’t want my love. You don’t love me.”

___

He was almost in the middle of the road. A tall man on the far edge of middle age, he was leaning on a thick cane and squinting through the freezing rain. He had dark skin and was hatless, but had a scarf wrapped loosely around his neck and shoulders. He held one hand up and I ground the truck to a halt. It was a late January afternoon and there were few other fool drivers in this slushy mess with its hidden slippery patches.

“I’m trying to get to Heywood and quite frankly I have no idea where I am,” he said into my open window last week. A delicious whiff of smoke blew in.

I twisted my head around. “Damn. I’m new to the area, so — it’s that way, I think?”

“Yeah, it’s over there. I think I have to get to those buildings. But there’s a fence in the way. The guy just left me here.”

I didn’t ask about the guy. Cabbie? Uber? Bus driver? “Are you trying to get to the hospital that’s around here? I had to go there once and I got so lost. It’s a bitch to find.”

“Nope. Kildare and …”

Kildare? I grabbed my phone and thumbed to Google Maps. I was still stopped in the middle of the road, which isn’t the sort of place I generally like to be, so I said, “You want to get in?”

His eyebrows raised, like that wasn’t the response he was expecting. I shoved the evidence of my recent bargain-retailer shopping spree in the back and he folded himself into the passenger seat, shoulders filling most of the space, head nearly touching the roof of the little truck. He gave me an address on Côte-St-Luc Rd.

“That’s in the opposite direction! No way you could have walked all that way in this,” I said, and we were off into the murk of worsening weather.

___

Almost exactly 32 years ago, on January 16, 1985, the sky was clear and there was nine centimetres of snow on the ground. It was far colder than the day I stopped on a Montreal street in the rain, minus-21 Celsius, and the drama that was playing out on a road not far from here was ever so much darker.

Pastor Raymond Steele had determined that his secretary — the young woman who was helping him locate his wife and son — was a witch. Moustachioed, with straight brown hair and thick eyebrows accenting a pale face, he looked her in the eye and said, “You don’t want my love. You don’t love me.”

Linda Quinn’s five-hour nightmare started then.

Steele, ordained by the Universal Life Church of Enlightened Reason sect, set out to ritually rid her of Satan. Forensics and the testimony of a former friend, who was there throughout the ordeal, paint a bloody, horrific picture.

Steele hung her with chains from a pipe in his basement. He let his dogs bite her 50 times. He stabbed her over and over. For five hours. When she died of blood loss, he poured boiling water over her corpse and packed her into a three-foot-long steamer trunk — she was five-foot-five — in the garage attached to his home.

When her sister came looking for her, he held her captive, rambling, all night, till she was able to escape to call police from a neighbour’s home.

___

My guest had the sort of English Montreal accent one hears from Lachine natives or Wagar High School graduates. Self-assured, comfortable, delivered with the entertaining sort of conviction that listeners will believe every story. Of course.

We want to believe.

He was a filmmaker, he told me, though he started out videotaping brises — “of Sephardic Jews,” he specified twice for some reason — and now he had a meeting with someone to secure funding for something new. “And if that doesn’t work out, I have another guy near here who’s my No. 2 choice. And if that doesn’t work out —” he rattled off the name of a guy who owns a string of successful car dealerships.

A who’s-who of Montreal names poured out of him then. People he’d worked with. His mother worked with. They owned clubs or they were musicians, but the only name I recognized for sure was Biddle.

“You’re pretty Montreal deep,” I said, so he’d know I was listening.

“I think you’ve gone too far.”

“No, it should be just up there.”

“I think you’re going the wrong way. Cavendish is back there.”

“Yeah, where I picked you up … you want Cavendish?” I eased into the left lane. “You’re lucky you found someone who likes to drive. And who likes an adventure.”

I spun a slippery U-turn as he said in his big voice, “You want adventure? You’re gonna have to stick with me. I have adventures for you.” Now that he’d tossed his cigarette, I could make out the barest remnants of wine with lunch. “Have you heard of Raymond Steele? Back in 1985 in Huntingdon. How about the Universal Life Church of Enlightened Reason?”

___

During the trial, it was revealed that Linda Quinn, who was engaged to a Huntingdon man, was eight weeks pregnant. It was also discovered that Steele had called police just before he started exorcising the devil from her. He told the dispatcher that he was a clairvoyant, and that five hours hence the Sûreté du Québec would torture a young woman to death.

The trial took less than two weeks. The evidence was damning, especially in the face of the friend’s testimony. Steele fired his lawyers and represented himself. He admitted to the killing.

When the sentence came down — life in prison — the Montreal Gazette reported that the courtroom cheered: “Bravo! Bravo!”

___

His phone rang. “Hey. I’m almost there. Yeah. I got turned around, but then I was picked up by this gorgeous lady.” I had overshot the building and had to spin another U-turn. The rain was harder, tinnier as the sun went down, taking the temperature with it. Then I pulled into the wrong apartment complex and turned tightly in the courtyard. He was gleeful.

“Oh man,” he half-shouted into the phone. “She’s gorgeous and she’s a wild one. She’s got one of those big cars with four-wheel-drive and she’s driving over sidewalks and everything.” I rolled my eyes and bumped over the edge of the curb.

My new friend told me he’d been a real-estate agent. He pointed out houses along the way that he’d sold. So when he said a girl had been killed in the basement of his house in Huntingdon, I wondered whether he meant it was his home, or a home he’d sold, or just a story to make the hairs on one’s forearm lift. Steele’s house was damaged by suspected arson while the trial was going on, and the Gazette reported that it was owned by Steele “and another man.”

“The Universal Life Church of Enlightened Reason. You have to look up all the words or you won’t find it.” He was halfway out of my truck, one hand on his cane, the other on my door frame. “Being involved in that is a black mark on my name.

“The only one.”

Raymond Steele successfully appealed his conviction, but pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. He was granted day parole in February 2016, and full parole Oct. 26, 2016.