Seeing “old Florida” and geo-caching

Sun., Savannah Morning News column

March 1, 2013

Once again, it’s the little things that make a weekend escape out of town worth the bother because there are moments when it really does seem like a lot of hassle finding someone to walk the dogs, straightening up a bit because someone is coming into the house to walk the dogs, getting together snacks for the road, remembering to charge your Sonicare, leaving just the right amount of lights on and getting your oil changed, all the while politely thanking the jiving technician for trying to tell you your battery is low and your tires are looking worn and driving this way is dangerous, and you really should do something about it, right now, at the dealership, even though you want to say to the double-talking salesman, “Really? I should do this here where it’s twice as expensive?”

But then you are on I-95, locked into cruise control, holding steady in your lane, facing south – in this case, heading for a book festival on Amelia Island, Florida’s northernmost barrier island (just south of Cumberland), where if you get a hankering for “old Florida” you can visit Fort Clinch State Park, a 1,427-acre wilderness park of massive dunes, salt marshes and bobcats. It’s billed as “the real Florida.” It’s easy to see why. The vegetation is thick and gnarly and it’s stunning. Except for the paved road this must have been what it was like when the Spanish, the English, the Native Americans, the Confederate soldiers and the Yankees all hunkered down either in the dunes or the rice fields.

If you can get past the cutesy factor of nearby Fernandina Beach, Florida’s northernmost city, there’s plenty of old Florida to see plus a nifty little restaurant on the inexpensive side called Timoti’s that offers a meaty local white fish called sheepshead. And if you time it right – which I did not – you can visit the American Beach Museum, commemorating one of the few residential beaches African-Americans could visit in the 1930’s and well into the 60’s. MaVynee Betsch spearheaded plans for the museum. She was known the “Beach Lady” or the woman with the 7-foot-length of hair. She was the great-granddaughter of Abraham Lincoln Lewis, president of the very successful Afro American Life Insurance Co. in Jacksonville, Fla., and sister of Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, the first African American female president of Spelman College.

In less than two hours away from home, you wonder why you don’t do this more often. Even if you are staying in a generic, nondescript motel whose anonymity and secrecy lost its thrill for you decades ago (but there is that single remote control for the television; no confusion there). Even if you have forgotten that thanks to Smartphones there are no more secret hideaways; everyone can track you.

All of this happened the same week someone visiting from Brunswick clued me into Geocaching, a GPS-related scavenger detective game. Am I the only person on the planet who hasn’t heard of this hide-and-seek game played with apps on your phone where you hide a box with “treasures” inside which you take and then replace? Using the phone-as-Geiger counter, we tracked down said box under a random boxwood tree alongside an Enmark station on Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd.

“Are you looking for something?” a man sitting in a car asked.

“It’s kind of hard to describe,” I answered as though I was not the only one to be in the proverbial dark. “But we’re OK. Nothing important.”

When we opened the box we found seven or eight folded pieces of paper, each containing a handwritten poem for Valentine’s Day. I chose a poem by Robert Burns. My friend Lynn left a key chain from some bank in Berryville, Ark. Then we replaced the box and went on our merry way.

All very peculiar. As it happens, at the book festival in Amelia Island, I set up next to a woman selling her book of poetry. To attract people to her display, this woman, Stephanie Andrews, put out a bowl of poems written on folded pieces of paper since “National Put a Poem in Your Pocket Day” is coming up. This is a “trick” authors well versed in marketing use to attract potential customers. That and good eye contact. Most people offer chocolate (very effective).

The first poem I chose was by Robert Burns. Two Burns’ poems in one week.

I would have preferred chocolate.

Looking for Percival Cohen

Savannah Morning News

Feb. 22, 2015

Some days in Savannah you might have to reach for a pen and paper to draw all the arrows to make all the connections – and then you still might be wrong. You still may have questions. But no matter where you start, there are a lot of relationships here, tangentially, directly or obliquely, which might explain the warning I got when I first got to town: be careful what you say, everyone knows everyone.

Then there’s Percival Cohen. No one is quite sure about him, who he is related to, who he was or what his title – president of the Savannah Compress Co. – meant. First, the compress business. After five phone calls, I have deduced, “compress,” accent on the second syllable, relates to cotton as in compressing or squeezing it into bales, a job this industry-starved country no longer knows anything about but something that makes sense since Cohen died in 1927.

Next, Cohen himself.  Now that Cohen’s Retreat, that odd and curious mélange of businesses on Skidaway Road, is starting to make waves, a lot of people want to know. Who is that guy? From the oil painting Savannah artist Bellamy Murphy produced from a photograph, the one that hangs in the lobby, we know what he looks like: stern, a bit grim, disciplined. From the name etched in the stately two-story brick building set back from the road we know how he spelled his name. From the bits and pieces new owners and/or partners, Karen Langston and Colleen Smith, have been able to cobble together we know he was compassionate. He was generous. In his will Cohen, a bachelor, left money to the Bethesda Home for Boys, the Fresh Air Home on Tybee Island and $50,000 for the construction of a home “so men would not die old and lonely.” He also donated money for a water fountain for horses. Years ago the fountain was moved to the middle of Victory Drive, just east of Bull Street.

We know he is buried in Laurel Grove North (home to Savannah’s white people) in the Jewish section. He rests next to members of the Minis family and across from a grouping of 1,500 tombstones of Confederate soldiers (including eight generals). An ornate iron fence surrounds his brick vault that sits on the corner of Sycamore and Pine streets. Before Interstate 16 sliced through the cemetery, this dirt road used to continue south to Laurel Grove South (home to Savannah’s African-American population).

George Cohen, a Realtor and a wag around town, does not claim to be related to Percival, but he does remember gazing at the stained glass window an earlier Mr. Cohen donated to Congregation Mickve Israel. Was it Percival Cohen? George is not sure. What George does remember is working with Cohen’s Retreat’s Karen Langston at Lady Jane, a well-known, upscale women’s apparel shop on Bull Street back when George’s father, A.J. Cohen, the fourth-generation owner of the shop, kept everyone entertained and ran a pretty good business. The man, who died a year ago at 93, could tell a story.

Karen’s connection with partner Colleen goes back to the days they both went to Armstrong State College when the school was downtown. That was before they formed Savannah Plush Textile, a company the women used to operate from their homes.

“That’s why we bought the building,” Colleen said. “We needed more room.”

Be careful what you wish for. This five-acre property is perfect for dreamers like Karen and Colleen. There is a restaurant they rent out to Chef Kirk Blaine, who made his reputation at Driftaway Café, down the road on Skidaway. There are rooms of merchandise grouped under the Brown Dog Market, including lots of art for sale on the walls.

There are sixteen 500-square-foot cottages in the back; 12 are residential, four are offices. There’s a room for weddings, bar- and bat-mitzvahs, and bridal showers and room enough for Savannah’s Martha Nesbit to give cooking classes.

But no one, not even the respected Rabbi Saul Rubin who wrote the comprehensive book of Savannah Jewry from 1733 to 1983, “Third To None,” knows anything more about Percival Cohen.

Will the real Percival Cohen please step forward.