We know more about Lamar Graham than we do Juan Ponce de Leon, the Spanish explorer who discovered Florida in the 16th century and according to legend searched for a fountain that would restore youth. Lamar Graham's daughter says, "If there's such thing as a fountain of youth I wonder if my daddy drank from it."
Her dad was born on Dec. 8, 1909, in Fitzgerald, Ga. No need to count on your fingers. He's 101 and a couple of months. The automobile, the phonograph and the radio were still young when his family moved to the west Florida village then called Bradentown after World War I. Many children received no schooling in those days, but Lamar did. In history class he may even have heard about Ponce de Leon, though he can't remember the details now.
He is positive nobody elbowed him in the ribs and said: "Maybe you're Ponce de Leon's cousin."
Some historians say Ponce was born in 1460. Others say 1474. Historians think he was related to noblemen and fought in the war that reclaimed Spain from the Moors.
In 1493 he joined Columbus on the second voyage to Hispaniola. In 1504 the natives rose up against the Conquistadors, but Ponce restored order and was rewarded with the governorship. He became wealthy, married, had children. On his next adventure he encountered an island we now call Puerto Rico.
In 1511 rumors surface about lands even richer than Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. King Ferdinand of Spain urges Ponce to find out. Ponce equips three ships, gathers a crew of 200 and sets sail in March 1513. On Easter Sunday somebody shouts "Land Ahoy."
It's spring. Plants are blooming.
Ponce calls his discovery "La Florida" — it's the Land of Flowers. Nobody today knows where he waded ashore. It could have been somewhere in Melbourne Beach, though St. Augustine likes to believe the Conquistador landed there. A tourist attraction in the middle of town is called the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park though there is no good evidence that Ponce knew anything about miraculous waters that staved off mortality.
The native people, known as Timucua, had inhabited the Land of Flowers for centuries. No matter, Ponce claimed La Florida for Spain. Returning to his ship, he sailed south, saw the Keys, turned north and stopped somewhere between today's Marco Island and Charlotte Harbor. The native Calusa were less naive than the Timucua. They began firing arrows. Ponce and his soldiers returned to their ships.
• • •
What was Florida like?
Ponce de Leon probably heard that question when he returned to Spain. Lamar Graham hears it whenever he meets someone younger than he is, which is every day.
"Well," he tells them. "Florida was different than now."
There was no escape from the heat in the summer except when the breeze blew. The sand gnats were ravenous at dusk; the salt marsh mosquitoes boiled off the mangroves after dark. Few people had screens on windows.
Rattlesnakes ambushed rabbits and unlucky settlers among the backyard palmettos. Hungry alligators lurked at every river bend. Panthers and bears waited for darkness on the edge of town.
Lamar was raised on fried mullet and grits. Most folks got around on foot or on horseback. Only rich people had cars.
As a boy Lamar got a job delivering telegrams. One day he looked through an open front door and saw a pretty little girl playing with dolls. He didn't think "I'm going to marry her," but he did.
Edith Lucille Jones!
Smart as a whip!
A half-century later she helped him research his possible kinship to the man who named Florida.
• • •
Ponce was the toast of Spain, where King Ferdinand knighted him, awarded him a coat-of-arms and gave him a new title, La Florida's governor.
Ponce announced plans to start a colony in Florida. In 1521, he loaded 200 soldiers, farmers, artisans, priests and livestock onto two ships. We think he landed on the southwest coast somewhere near Charlotte Harbor. We know that the native Calusa, probably the fiercest of the native peoples, did not welcome the hairy men dressed in shiny armor. They began firing poison-tipped arrows. One struck Ponce in the thigh.
The colonists fled to Cuba for help, but Juan Ponce de Leon died from his wounds. There is no record of his last words, but maybe he cursed himself for never finding that fountain.
• • •
Growing up, Lamar Graham loved swimming at Anna Maria Island. He carried the golf clubs of the Bradenton swells for 25 cents a round. In high school, he played baseball and took Edith to dances on the Manatee River. Sometimes they borrowed his daddy's automobile, a Graham Paige, and parked in the woods for some necking.
They married in 1937. He served as a radar specialist in World War II and worked in the credit bureau and then the post office after that.
Their daughter, Dee, was born in 1952. He taught her how to fish for reds in the river and bass in the lakes. He took the family to Gettysburg and Mount Vernon for history-centered vacations. Lamar retired from the post office in 1974. He got his ham-radio license and looked forward to years of leisure.
Lamar's wife, Edith, had other plans.
• • •
Lamar's mother, Marion, born when the Plains Indians were still battling for survival, was 98 at her passing in 1978. Edith and Lamar Graham were fascinated by the family roots.
At the time, the personal computer was more science fiction than reality. Genealogy required phone calls, letters, travel and hours at the library.
The Grahams had no idea what they'd find. They started with Lamar's parents and worked backward. They looked for names in family Bibles. At city hall they looked up birth and death certificates, ambled through cemeteries and perused old newspaper clippings. When they found a promising name, they'd write or telephone the deceased's next-of-kin and arrange an interview. They'd scour the kin's Bible for names, look at photographs, listen to family stories and start again.
Lamar had fond boyhood memories of his Grandma Delia, born in 1856. She and Grandpa Joe lived in the woods an hour away from Bradenton. Grandma Delia was suspicious of modernity; she refused to look at the camera when a family photograph was taken. She wasn't prideful — pride was a sin in her moral universe — except when it came to cooking. She was proud of her stewed tomatoes and biscuits.
Edith and Lamar discovered something new about Grandma Delia. Her maiden name had been Sanchez. They traced the name back to St. Augustine, time-traveling through the generations to the 17th century. That's how the Grahams came to qualify for membership in the Los Floridanos, a club for the descendants of Spanish colonialists.
Some folks would have been satisfied. Not the Grahams. They took a trip to Spain and followed the trail to the 16th century, into Ponce de Leon's era.
They discovered a relative who had married a woman who was kin to a Don Nicholas Ponce de Leon. Don Nicholas, they believed, was related to the Spanish Conquistador who waded ashore on the Land of Flowers on a spring day in 1513.
Edith Graham died in 2009 when she was 94. She went to her grave confident about her husband's roots. "There was Juan Ponce de Leon," she told her daughter. "There was Ponce's children, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Then there were 11 generations leading back to your daddy."
• • •
Dee Graham, 57, is generation 12. She takes care of her daddy in the house where he has lived for seven decades. She is chaplain at Sarasota's New College of Florida and Florida State University at the Ringling College of Art and Design. She is also a daddy's girl.
They watch television together. His favorite programs are Two and a Half Men and Desperate Housewives. Sometimes they fight about the volume. He wants it up. Otherwise, he likes to read about history when his eyes are up to it.
He never brags about his ancestry. "My daughter is more excited about it than I am," he says.
He celebrated his 100th birthday by renewing his driver's license. Parked neatly in the garage is his prized 1994 Chrysler LeBaron with 60,000 miles on the odometer. A bumper sticker attests to his loyalty to the Confederacy, but truth is he's more loyal to his late Grandpa Joe, who fought for the South.
He hasn't driven in two months, since he tripped on a rug at home, banged his head, went to the hospital and caught pneumonia. During his convalescence he was tempted to dance with the nurses.
These days he scoots around home on a walker, just to be on the safe side, always refusing help when he needs to stand or let his two dogs out. He has a computer — "I'm not afraid of technology. I'm an old radio man" — and uses e-mail. His daughter signed him up recently for Facebook.
It's 2011. He is 101 years old. Maybe he will find a few more relatives on Facebook.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8727.