Tuesday, February 22, 2005


Book captures the essence of the city before the storms

Six months after the hurricanes ripped our community, some are ready to write ‘finis’ to the saga of the storms. “Get over it,” they say, as they cash their insurance checks and celebrate their new pool cages.

.But Punta Gorda residents, like many other folks from Arcadia and Port Charlotte, know better. For every broken brick or bit of smashed siding, there’s a heart or psyche also rent that may take much longer to heal than any bit of brick and mortar.

That’s why it’s good to look back to what was before the summer of storms, and rejoice in memories of an era and lifestyle that we’ll never see again.

Angie Larkin’s book, “In Old Punta Gorda,” speaks to that need to remember. The slim volume, produced by Old Punta Gorda, Inc., offers a whimsical look back made even more poignant by the damage the little city sustained.

The book is available at the Peace River Writers Center and the old train depot, or by calling 639-1887.

Larkin understands the essence of history, in that recorded words and memories are not the provinces solely of kings and rulers, but rather should reflect the voices and thoughts of common men and women. Hence a book that pays homage to the giants of the city’s history, by conveying the words of average men and women who remember what Punta Gorda was like before the bigger hurricane, that of development, blew into town.

Larkin wrote a regular column for years for the old Punta Gorda Herald, and carried her work into the modern manifestation of that paper, the Charlotte Sun-Herald. Just as folks anticipated her column because of its emphasis on local people and places, so will those who read “Old Punta Gorda” find remembrances of common things past.

Here’s how Gussie Peeples Baker, whose family seems to have come with the bricks to Punta Gorda, remembers a ride with her father, Vasco Peeples, through what is now Punta Gorda Isles.
“Her dad took her on a jeep ride to “Fiddlers Flats,” as the point was sometimes called. They bounced along the marshy land, looking at the vast expanse of muck and mire.

‘The mosquitoes like to have hauled us right out of that jeep,’ Dad said, ‘We’re going to build a road down here. We think the area is going to grow.’ I said. ‘Don’t bother, you’ll be wasting your time.’

It’s fortunate Baker didn’t make her living in real estate, since her prediction about growth in the former mud barrens was off by a few thousand new residents.

Today Punta Gorda Isles rules the city. All five City Council members live in or near the finger piers of dredge-and-fill design that make up PGI. But, as Larkin’s book reminds us, there was a PG long before there was a PGI. And what a rip-roaring little city it was! Here’s how Larkin describes the shoot-‘em-up days of yore.

“Law and order came slowly to the little settlement of Trabue/Punta Gorda. Kelly Harvey, the original surveyor of Trabue described the village as ‘overrun with bums, riffraff, gamblers, toughs and adventurers. There were five murders in the year 1886 alone.’ The first lock-up was an old boxcar and it was usually filled. In 1904 City Marshall John Bowman was gunned down in his own living room while playing with his children! The Marshall (sic) had been for a long time in the pursuit of a gang of thugs, ‘the Tigermen,’ but they managed to ambush him instead.”

There’s such a thing as a little too much color, so I suppose modern residents should thank Police Chief Chuck Rhinehart for keeping the peace a little better than did the unfortunate John Bowman. Now, that wild and wooly action is confined to City Council chambers!

Those excerpts give the read an idea of both the book’s substance and Larkin’s lively style of writing. All too often the fun’s beaten out of history by well-meaning lecturers and authors. But Larkin understands how human nature is unchanging, and infuses her accounts with the spirit of that nature.

To her credit, she includes a healthy section on the city’s black community, which is too often neglected when describing Punta Gorda’s past.

The result is an edifying and unifying account of life in the city past, a sure balm for those of us working to rebuild what was lost during the summer of storms.

James M. Abraham, an independent book reviewer, can be reach at book-broker@hotmail.com.

Thursday, February 03, 2005


The Lord maketh a fine murder mystery

Lost in the sound and fury of the religious right’s rise to social and political prominence is the quiet, traditional message of The New Dispensation.

But that gospel of salvation and unconditional love preached by the man after whom they named Christianity is explored with conviction by Joseph H. Hilley in “Sober Justice” ((Riveroak).

Hilley, a lawyer from the low country of Alabama, does the safe thing in picking a subject about which he’s familiar. His lead character, Mike Connolly, is a lawyer who has fallen far from his religion.

When the story opens, Connolly is thinking about his next drink. He shacks up with a stripper, has emergency rations of gin stored in his every hidey- hole, and governs his life by how close he will be at any given moment to the next drink.

He’s chosen by a judge to take on a controversial case, one of those “red balls” that every lawyer worth his or her briefcase ducks with grace and desperation. Head honchos in the area are implicated in a strange murder, and the millstones of justice are swiftly rolling over a sap who happens to be nabbed near the scene.

The suspect, a poor black man, hardly hears the cavalry when Connolly, flush with a bad case of the shakes, shambles into the attorney-client room of the local jail to confer.

But again, remember the message of the New Testament. It’s delivered in ways as clear and self-evident as the tale of the Prodigal Son, and as subtly as Jesus’ description of the lilies in the field.

Connolly may be beyond salvation in the eyes of his fellow lawyers. He may be "‘buked and scorned" by his own daughter and despised by his ex-wife. But, as a child of this world, he is still a candidate for redemption.

In this age in which miracles are brought courtesy of Steven Spielberg or the next great computer simulation, Hilley’s not afraid to bring some of that wonder to his novel.

Connolly’s life takes a turn for the better when he winds up in a church. In short order, he has a revelation reminiscent of that experienced by Antipater in Robert Graves’ “King Jesus.”

Connolly gets a chance to experience the wonder of the Lord he once called father, and the brief moment leads him to forsake the juniper juice.

And temperance comes not a moment too soon. A cover-up is underway, and Robinson gets swept up in the shenanigans. He’s abducted from jail and shipped to a mental institution, where he’s given enough PCP to make him think he’s at a disco in Hell.

Connolly, blessed with new energy and determination, manages to not only track down Robinson, but also follow the snaky plot through to its conclusion.

Here’s where the wings come on: Hilley actually has Connolly undergo two additional miracles ?? not the "I just-hit the-lottery" sort of occurrences, but rather physics-defying stuff. Water doesn’t turn into wine, (remember we have a recovering alcoholic here), but the laws of time and space are bent by the real boss.

Here’s how Connolly’s spirit-guide, a practical clergyman named Father Scott, explains the miracles that saved Connolly’s life.

“’Look,’ Father Scott said. “Like I told you before, I don’t have all the answers. I can’t tell you why. I can only tell you who. You have encountered the One who made something from absolutely nothing. Time doesn’t set boundaries for Him. He exists beyond time.’”

That may sound complex, but any true religionist will recognize Father Scott’s description of faith and God’s power. Among such people, to even question such miracles is akin to asking if one is really breathing. The answer is in every breath one takes.

To extrapolate, Hilley’s book reaches across the unfortunate chasm that separates non-religionists from those who see the Word as the Alpha and the Omega. His book is full of what one would expect in a murder-mystery. There are lots of tussles, some pretty girls, and even a sort of car chase. But through it all is a spirit not often extant in the world of Mike Hammer and the Continental Op, the presence of God.

More information on “Sober Justice” and books in a similar vein can be obtained at www.cookministries.com.

Hilley’s effective blending of the spiritual and the grubbily mundane may, like honey, draw more to the word than a stiff dose of old-time religion. That would be a well-deserved benefit of Hilley’s gripping, well-turned tale.

James M. Abraham is an independent book reviewer. He can be reached at book-broker@hotmail.com.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005



by Henry B Stevens

What I need
is always near
a leaf, a blade of grass
a patch of open sky

My mother on walks
would return with
a bird feather
which she examined carefully

And later would mail
to me or her brother
who also understood
the particular

and how the whole
could, would be
viewed from anywhere
just by bending over.

this is an audio post - click to play

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