A Walk in the Park: Silver Springs State Park

One day, there were two people who wanted to ride on the boat. Their names were Melani and Jillian. When they were rowing everywhere, they saw two baby alligators. One of the mothers of the babies came out with its whole body and it attacked the little girl’s brother. Her friends were up by the bridge, and they saw everything.
— Jillian, age 5

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

OCALA, Fla.
We were in that part of Florida because I was researching the post-sideshow lives of carnival workers. So it was kind of fitting that we stumbled on this old Hollywood starlet, Silver Springs State Park, who has starred in the Creature From the Black Lagoon, and James Bond, and Sea Hunt.

These artesian springs provide fresh water to more than half of Florida. But also, because they are exceptionally clear — you cannot tell whether you are looking six feet down or 65, they are the perfect backdrop for filmmakers who need an underwater stage.

We took the glass-bottom boat tour — designed starting in the 1870s to show off this wonder — and then rented kayaks. 

The wildlife warning “if you see the baby, the momma is nearby” had been impressed upon us by the good folks over at Wildlife Inc. the day before, so we responsibly kept our distance when we twice paddled past young napping gators.

“There’s a big one down there!” hollered someone from the bridge as Melani and 5-year-old Jilly headed toward home base to return their tandem kayak. Twenty-one-year-old Trevor was close behind them, having sped away from me when I told him he looked very redneck-y with his ball cap and a snoozing gator over his left shoulder.

Melani eased the kayak to a safe space to take a look at the sunning eight-footer, and Jilly dropped her paddle into the water to help out. The sound and the sudden jerking motion of the boat made the gator open her eyes and lift her head, which made Jilly scream, which made the gator say, “Nope nope nope damn humans” and slither away through the water, cutting off Trevor’s kayak and slapping the tip of it with her tail.

The little audience at the top of the bridge hollered their approval.

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We’re awarding Silver Springs State Park the ever-elusive yet completely arbitrary five out of five stroller wheels, and not just for alligator sightings. We can’t name all the birds we saw, and there were dozens of turtles and hundreds of fish. The park is rich with history going back thousands of years to when indigenous peoples used this water and harvested the land. The paths are wide and clear — though we only got to walk a bit of them because of time constraints.

The food at the canteen is very well priced, and there are many tables throughout the park to picnic instead. Entrance to the park is only $2. The glass-bottom boat and kayak cost extra (you can launch your own kayak for $4), but the price is reasonable and the experience well worth it. We were on the water for a total of three hours and retreated to our Airbnb exhausted and happy.

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.

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.

Skin and bones: How Mad Anthony was twice buried

ERIE, Pa.
Pennsylvania loves its war heroes. Oliver Hazard Perry, Alexander Kelly, Nicolas Biddle, dozens of others.

But only one of them had his bones boiled for transport: Mad Anthony Wayne.

mad-anthony-wayne-blockhouse

He wasn’t mad, though, at least not in the Ophelia sense of the word. He just liked things a certain way and had fits of temper when he was defied.

Mad Anthony, who started out as a tanner and land surveyor, was only moderately successful as a commander during the American Revolution. He even called for his own court martial, to clear his name after an especially poor showing at the battle of Brandywine in 1777. Once the war was over, he was set to killing Indians and then signing peace treaties with them. He excelled at this, proving that the word “hero” can be gravely misused. Yet he’ll be remembered for his nickname and for his death more than for his exploits in the theatre of war.

mad-anthony-wayne-rocking-chair

Gout killed him, eventually and painfully, and he was interred in a brass-tacked box in the shadow of the blockhouse at Fort Presque Isle, near what is now Erie.

His family plot was 650 kilometres away in Radnor, Pa. The family wanted him home, but not, you know, right away. It took them 12 years to come get him.

When the box was opened, much to everyone’s surprise it was discovered Mad Anthony hadn’t had the good sense to decompose, and his son couldn’t fit a whole body and coffin on his little sulkie. So they cut Mad Anthony up and put the pieces in a big old kettle to boil his flesh off. The bones were packed for transport. The flesh was put back in the box in the ground.

It is said that the son dropped bones (accidentally, one assumes) along the route and that Mad Anthony haunts the road to Radnor, looking for the lost parts of himself.

anthony-wayne-memorial-plaque

As though the story weren’t creepy enough, the good folks of Erie have rebuilt the blockhouse (it burned to the ground several years after Mad Anthony’s death) and, as part of their educational display, have posed at the top of the winding, narrow staircase a sickly looking mannequin in a white wig with a jaunty hat nearly falling off the narrow cot. Visitors are welcome to read several informative posters if they can take their eyes off the mannequin.

Although our preschooler was comfortable enough to dance at his bedside, our 20-year-old opted to take the stairs back down and wait for us on the ground floor.

anthony-wayne-blockhouse-erie

Through the blinds: Once-removed from motel theatre

PLATTSBURGH, N.Y.
The drama played out in muffled sounds across the smooth black parking lot of the motel.

Knocking first. Insistent. Hollow. Without echo, although the long low brick was mirrored on our side.

We lifted our second-storey blinds enough to spy on a blond woman pacing on the asphalt, phone in hand, periodically banging on the door, circling a car that was black but for the orange “city taxi” sign on top. The other side of the motel was mostly low-income housing, monthly rentals in front of which were colourful plastic chairs and swept-clean walkways. The curtains were drawn on all but two: through those windows we could see a large TV flickering; another had a fox skin on one wall and at least three taxidermied heads on the opposite wall. 

We didn’t want to get involved in the theatre downstairs, but I was in the midst of an allergy attack and my meds were in the car. Melani took her time and reported back, Benadryl in hand.

“I think the person inside called her, and she’s worried about whatever she heard.” The idea gave the flat thumping a more ominous tone, made this feel like something other than a lovers’ tiff.

There were words exchanged between the woman and the cab-driver, and the woman and a man who was sitting nearby, in front of his own motel unit. We couldn’t make out individual words.

A pattern emerged, more frantic with each repetition: knock, say a few words to the man, or the cabbie, pace, knock again. Melani was dying to help, because she’s like that. I was dying for her to, because I can’t stand not knowing the story. It seemed impossible that this one could have a positive ending. We hunkered down and hoped it wouldn’t escalate dangerously, peeking out the blinds less and less often.

“There’s an ambulance there now,” Melani hissed some time later, and my stomach flipped. The cab was gone, and the paramedics were pulling on gloves, leaving their doors open as they spoke briefly with the woman. The man who had been sitting on his front stoop got up, stood closer to her. There were people on the upper balcony — but not on our side, which was made up more of transient weekend visitors, not long-term residents as across the lot.

A paramedic banged on the door and waited. From across the way and through the dark, we could see the woman’s panic rising. The paramedic looked over his shoulder at his partner, but we couldn’t read his expression. A police car pulled up and parked behind the ambulance with its lights off. The cop got out of the car slowly, and he seemed perfectly relaxed. He hung back, staying out of the paramedics’ way, but within sight of the other players in the drama.

The paramedic put a hand on the window, looked back at his partner again. He did the one thing the woman, in her fear and excitement, hadn’t thought of: He pushed the window open. He leaned his head inside and yelled something — a name we couldn’t make out. He yelled again, then stepped back.

The entire complex was still but for the carnival lights of the ambulance.

The door cracked open and then, a breath later, was pulled all the way open by an elderly woman with a cane. The paramedic said something to her, and she must have answered him, because he poked his head into the room, then turned away and shrugged at his partner. They each stripped off their white gloves and returned the ambulance.

We put the blinds down for a few minutes — spying was fully indecent now that we knew there was no danger. Still, the next time we peeked, there was a pile of things on the walkway in front of the woman’s room. Residents were in motion, too — the blond woman with the phone, the man who had been sitting to watch, someone else from an upper floor. They rushed up and down the central stairs, heads together, into and out of a different room. The taxi was back. The driver didn’t get out this time, though he popped open the trunk. The blond and the man had a brief, intense conversation that ended with a hug.

When the taxi pulled away with the blond inside, every door closed and most lights flipped off.

The motel was silent, as though nothing had happened at all.