Real Florida: Dessie's place

CRYSTAL RIVER — Modern Florida, for all of its conveniences, sometimes gets me down. I tire of the traffic, the sameness of the urban landscape, the people who fail to see the specialness of where they live.

At those times I long for a talk with my old friend Dessie. I long to sit in her living room, next to her fishing tackle and shotguns, warming my feet at her stone fireplace while stuffed bass and turkey watch solemnly from the cypress walls. To Dessie I was a "young 'un" — same as her late protege, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who wrote about Dessie in Cross Creek.

Dessie has been gone since 2002. Yet I think about her whenever I drive through Citrus County's expanding sprawl. I think about her astonishing house, built on the Withlacoochee River in 1930. It's situated 10 miles north of "modern" Crystal River, though it feels like it's a century away, tucked into the oak woods where owls ambush rabbits at dusk.

To visit her old homestead is to connect with Dessie and more innocent times.

• • •

The first time I met Dessie Prescott Smith I was pretty sure she was flirting with me, laughing a little too hard at my tepid stories as she touched me on the knee. I was 45. She was a high-spirited 90. By then she had divorced or outlived six husbands. "Kissin' wears out," was Dessie's philosophy. "Fishin' don't."

I was an outdoorsy guy, but she would have rejected me, too. I liked to fish, but I didn't hunt, and hunting was her passion. I was clumsy with tools; she had built a log cabin when she was 19. I was a city boy who talked about his feelings; she slaughtered hogs, was a barnstorming pilot, and cussed like an old soldier. She drove a 1956 Jeep into the 1990s; I once arrived at her farmhouse behind the wheel of a new imported truck. "I would never buy a Japanese vehicle," sniffed the World War II vet, still holding a grudge about Pearl Harbor.

She climbed in anyway, back-seat driving without mercy for the very long 20 miles to her favorite restaurant in Dunnellon, the Dinner Bell, where she didn't give me the opportunity to pick out my own lunch. She didn't like dawdling men and ordered for me.

One time, I asked if she had ever been bitten by one of the many moccasins that frequented her riverfront back yard. No snake had menaced her, she told me. But once, after she was attacked by a bobcat, a friend wondered if she planned to get a rabies shot.

"Not yet," Dessie said. "There are a few people I need to bite first."

• • •

Marjorie and Charles Rawlings moved to north-central Florida in 1928. The young New York couple naively bought an orange grove near Cross Creek thinking they'd make a fortune from their crop while churning out books and magazines from the front porch.

Dessie, 10 years younger than the woman she called Marge, took pity. "They were going to starve. They didn't know nothing about oranges or growing things. They didn't know nothing about hunting or fishing."

Dessie took Marge on hunting and fishing trips, drinking moonshine and staying out until dawn. One night, Rawlings showed up at Dessie's cabin in a sad state: Her marriage was failing. They had a heart-to-heart talk and got drunk. "Gal," Dessie said, "what you need is a river trip."

The next morning, Rawlings tried to back out. Nothing doing. The two women took a 10-day boat trip on the St. Johns back when it was wilderness. Dessie caught fish and killed ducks while Marge did the cooking. Rawlings wrote a wonderful essay about it for Cross Creek.

• • •

Rawlings died of a stroke in 1953, at age 57. A high-strung woman who was often depressed, she had found comfort in fattening foods, whiskey and a five-pack-a-day habit.

Dessie, of course, was no shrinking magnolia blossom when it came to hard living. She thrived on grease, grits and white lightning. But what kept her going was her feisty nature. Even in her 90s, she slept with a shotgun next to her bed.

"She used to scare me half to death when her hearing and her eyesight started to go," Dessie's caretaker, Candace Boothe, told me the other day.

"She'd hear the dogs barking, grab her shotgun and say, 'Let's see what's out there. You go around the house thataway and I'll go 'round the house thisaway.' I wouldn't do it. I knew I was going to get shot by accident."

In the two decades Candace worked for Dessie, they became great friends. "She was bossy, and you had to have boundaries or she'd push you around, but once she knew you were tough, she'd back off."

When Dessie's liver went bad, she had to slow down. Toward the end, she took to bed. Candace arranged the bed in the living room so it was facing the river. Her stuffed turkeys, bass and warthog shared the death watch.

Dessie died in Candace's arms on April 19, 2002.

• • •

Candace inherited the house, the cows, the 24 acres. It is a blessing and also a curse. It's an old house that wants to die. Candace is only 63, but she is crippled with arthritis and diabetes. She's a substitute teacher, a receptionist at a Catholic church in town and sells carrots to horse farms in the winter. She can't afford the taxes on the place.

In a perfect Florida, Dessie's homestead would be a state park. Candace doesn't want to sell it, but she may have to. Another piece of old Florida will vanish when she closes the deal.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at (727) 893-8727 or klink@sptimes.com.

Real Florida: Dessie's place 09/01/08 [Last modified: Friday, September 5, 2008 3:46pm]

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