A traveling day. Nathan Martin is going to town. He is going to have a meal with the woman he loves. He usually hates wearing a shirt, but Vida will tsk tsk if he shows up with chest bare. He also needs to decide what to do about footwear. He hates shoes even more than he hates wearing a shirt.
For as long as anyone can remember he has tramped through his North Florida woods in naked feet less human than possum. They're yellow, padded and bristling with nails more like talons. Those feet fear no stone, stick or snake. But maybe, just a little bit, they fear Vida.
He growls: "I only wear shoes for town or church.'' He last bought a Sunday pair two decades ago at Walmart for $25. He rescued a second pair from a dumpster about 10 years ago. Grumbling, he throws them into the back of the truck. If Vida gives him the stink eye for showing up for chicken and dumplings with feet exposed, he'll put them on.
At 72, Nathan Martin is a throwback to a Florida that is all but gone. He lives without running water in a dilapidated house illuminated by a single light bulb and heated by a wood-burning stove, not because he has to but because he likes it. He has a phone he rarely answers, has never used a computer or owned a television or had a credit card. "I was born too late,'' he says. He would have been at home in the 19th century.
When he dies a part of Old Florida will pass away with him. He has a lot of relatives in Gilchrist County, but no children of his own. He's the last of his kind.
Henry David Thoreau moved to Walden Pond as a social experiment. "Simply, simplify," wrote the Walden Pond philosopher who enjoyed scolding the masses of men leading lives of quiet desperation. Nathan Martin lives in the woods because he was born there and because the simple life comes naturally to him. He knows his way of life suits almost nobody in 21st century Florida, population 19 million.
Unlike Thoreau, he lacks a Harvard education. He was finished with school after eighth grade. With his backwoods accent, he sounds not like a well-bred New Englander but a character who just shuffled out of a novel by his favorite novelist, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.
Like Thoreau, though, he's whip smart. "He pretty much has read his way through the library,'' says his friend Jack Pribyl, who taught science and coached football at St. Petersburg's Shorecrest School for decades. For the record, Nathan Martin hasn't read everything in the library. "I ain't into terror, sex or space," ruling out the genres of mystery, romance and science fiction.
But he has worked through tons of books, especially histories. On his bedside table is The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, hardly a casual read. "I like the Civil War period,'' he explains. "Know anything about the Battle of Olustee in North Florida in 1864? You don't? Well, I'm interested in the Second World War, too. It's fascinating. The Germans was a cultured people. They was civilized. But they fell for Hitler." He is also partial to works about natural history and how-to books that might increase his skills of self-reliance.
He knows how to hunt, fish and dress what he has killed. He knows where to find wild blackberries. He grows his own vegetables and chops his own wood. He builds his own tools and recycles even paper plates.
He likes listening to hooting owls. He never passes up an opportunity to watch fireflies. He enjoys looking at the Milky Way from a rickety front porch because he has no use for a satellite dish.
Like Thoreau, he lives alone in a lonely place. His place is about a mile from the nearest paved road in one of the state's poorest and most rural counties. But like Thoreau, he is also far from being a hermit. He likes chewing the fat with visitors who drop by. If they don't drop by, he looks for someone to talk to, because he is curious about what they can teach him. And of course, he passes on what he has learned to them. Sometimes his audience is a stranger who has sat down at the picnic table in the middle of a field near his house, or another bookworm at the public library, or a squirrel hunter he has encountered in the woods.
He is splitting wood, perhaps his favorite pastime. For the heavy work, he owns a museum-quality chainsaw he has kept running smoothly over the decades. For nitty-gritty chopping he employs an ax new when Jimmy Carter was president.
When he travels to town — when he visits his Vida — he often brings firewood. In the old days he sold it for $5 a truckload. Now he just gives it away.
He learned many of his skills, his frugality and his appreciation for tradition from his daddy and granddaddy. He can build a house. He can manufacture shingles from a hunk of cypress. He can find you a well full of water with a dowsing rod. "I done it many a time.''
He can skin a catfish. He can smoke a mullet.
He can tell a story.
"Now I ain't going to tell you a lie or any filth,'' is how he often begins.
"Now when I was a young-un I had me a mule I called Jane. Rode her everywheres! You didn't have many girlfriends if you rode a mule, but I'd ride miles and miles hoping I'd meet a purty girl at a cane grinding or a peanut boil or a hog slaughter. On the way home I'd go coon hunting. I never cared that much to eat coon. Or possum. I liked squirrel. Mama made them with fresh biscuits and grits. Three times a day.
"I was talking about my mule. One time on my mule I came across a moonshine still the revenuers had just busted up. It was just laying there, dripping moonshine. I had me a canteen and filled up. I got so drunk I fell off the mule. I was only 12 and I thought my daddy was going to lick me. But he said, 'Any of that shine left?'
"We was poor, but everybody was poor. White folks, black folks. I played with a lot of black kids and I never thought anything of it because I was a kid myself, but I know life must have been hard to be a black person. It had to be. But like I say, everybody was poor when I was a boy.
"When I was born Daddy paid the doctor off with a can of lard. When I was coming up we didn't have window screens. We didn't have electricity until I was 7. Mama had a garden and Daddy hunted. I trapped fish. I gigged frogs. When I was 12 I shot myself in the foot with a .22. Still got some lead in there. Never cared much for deer hunting, but I was good at squirrels. I don't hunt now. No reason except I had to hunt them to put meat on the table. It wasn't about sport like it is now. But, listen. Not hunting don't make me special, and I ain't against hunters. Sometimes I'll help somebody butcher a deer.
"A big event when I was a boy was the hog slaughter. Gilchrist County was the hog capital of the South. People from different families would bring hogs in to whoever was having a slaughter and they'd get their meat for the year. We always did things according to the moon. When the moon was full you slaughtered your hog because the heavy pull of the moon would keep the blood a-flowin'. We also planted corn and beans and other things that came out of the ground when the moon could pull on them. When the moon was down, you planted your root crops. The pull of the moon from the other side of the earth would help your potatoes and carrots take root.
"What was I talking about? Hogs. We done wasted nothing. You made soap out of lard. I made a great head cheese, which is really made out of meat from the head. You fertilized your potatoes with hog hair. You fertilized your roses with hog blood.''
When he was 17 he enlisted in the Navy during the Vietnam War and spent time in Europe, saved his money and made loans to city-boy sailors who had lost their pay playing poker aboard ship. Europe, especially the Netherlands, had some interesting beer, but after he returned to Florida he found no reason to leave. He has never visited Miami or seen Cinderella's Castle. "I don't like what I've heard about Orlando. Too many people,'' he says.
He married young. He was 21. Sherry was 16. She was a pretty girl whose medical condition prevented getting pregnant. It was okay with Nathan. He loved her. Eight years later, she told him, "Nathan, you're too country.''
After the divorce, he went a little wild, drank a little too much, loved a few too many women. He turned his car over once, took a good look at himself, settled down. He thought about Vida Cannon. She was thinking about him, too.
He had known Vida when she was a girl. While he was dating her best friend he had his eye on her. They ended up marrying other people. Decades passed by. Her marriage went bad too.
She saw him once in a while in town. He was still hunky. He was still nice. She got in touch with him. They have been together 22 years. People who know her sometimes wonder how it can be so. Nathan has wonderful qualities, but he is rough under the collar. She is beautiful at 65, refined, God-fearing and lives in a real house with air-conditioning and television.
But she appreciates his intelligence and the fact that he can fix anything. He worked for a half century in the timber business and at the county roads department and has money in the bank. But mostly she is moved by his kindness. "I don't think Nathan has an enemy in this world,'' she says.
Fourteen years ago, they married. There is some controversy about who popped the question. Nathan claims it was him — he was standing in the parlor outside the bathroom — but Vida shakes her head. She recollects that it was she who lit a fire under him.
They live apart except on weekends. Vida sometimes visits Nathan's property during the winter when the mosquitoes and the chiggers are not biting, but she has never entered his run-down house. She is afraid of what she might see, including a bathroom without a sink or a toilet. She is an indoor plumbing kind of gal.
They live about 10 miles apart. When he visits, he no longer travels by mule. He drives a paintless 1985 Ford Ranger with more than 300,000 miles on the odometer. His truck, which he calls "Fred,'' after the fellow who sold it to him 14 years ago for $600, needed only a new starter. The engine protests when he turns the key, but it rumbles to life. In the cab are all his valuables — a photo of Vida, insurance papers, a machete, an ancient .22 rifle, a hairbrush, a back scratcher, a Spam can full of nuts and bolts, plastic bags that somebody wastefully threw away, an egg carton missing only the eggs. Maybe he will trade firewood for eggs.
If you drive to Vida's house with Nathan, you can't go in his truck because of all the junk and because the floorboards are rusting away. So he throws his shoes in the back of your truck. On the way you won't have to keep up your end of the conversation.
"I was born there, on the other side of the fence. I'd show you except for the No Trespassing sign. See that tree? A blackjack oak. They was all over the place when I was a boy, but they got timbered out. I just heard sandhill cranes. See that store? It's the onliest grocery left in town. There's where I bank my money. I can't tell you how much has changed around here. Lots of Yankees now.
"I'm a Baptist when I go to church, but I'm not much of a churchgoer. See that plant next to the fence? A prickly pear cactus. The pears taste kind of like a ripe tomater. I knew four brothers from one family who married four sisters from another family. Now you tell that to a Yankee and they think it sounds like White Trash Tobacco Road, but the truth was there wasn't many people to marry. I knew a lot of older women who dipped snuff, but I don't believe I ever saw a woman smoking a pipe.
"Down that road is the Suwannee River. If you sit by the bridge in the spring you sometimes see giant sturgeons leaping out of the water. I don't think you're supposed to eat them now because they're protected, but I ate a few in the old days and they ain't that good. See that house there? Old man lived there, he got sick and his family was going to put him in a rest home, he sat in the porch swing and put a bullet in his head, poor soul.
"Oh, it was so different when I was a boy. So many stories. So many superstitions. One time I stepped into a pile of ashes and Old Man Register, that was his name, he was kind of a healer, he bent down and talked to my burned ankle and blew his breath on it and took the pain away. Yes, I know it sounds crazy, but I'm just telling what I remember.
"Oh, the grownups, they like to scare the kids. There was this one about a woman who had the face of a snake and lived over in Fanning Springs. A couple times a year she'd lay in the bathtub and shed her skin like a snake. Then there's the story about this little boy who liked to go under the house and spoonfeed milk to a rattlesnake. Somebody kilt the rattlesnake and the next day the boy just lay down and died.''
Nathan Martin steps out of the truck at Vida's house. He points out her flower garden and the vegetables he planted for her. He points out her bird feeder and her grove of pines. Over there is the mower he uses to cut her grass. That's her barn.
Vida steps out the screened door and waves. She looks like she's in a good mood, so Nathan risks leaving his shoes in the truck and enters her fine ranch-style home in bare feet.
In the South, supper is the evening meal. Vida has been cooking all morning and is going to feed Nathan and a couple of city friends lunch, which she calls dinner.
On the menu are chicken and dumplings and pork and sweet potatoes and mustard greens from Nathan's garden. She has made corn bread from scratch and her brownies, which are more like cupcakes. Everything will be washed down with sweet tea.
With Vida watching intently, Nathan says a fine grace and the eating commences. "You like the corn bread?'' Nathan says. A minute later: "How do you like that chicken?'' Vida beams from her side of the table.
They retire to the den and sit side by side. They fence like an old married couple. Vida picks on Nathan's infamous wardrobe. She plans to throw away the worn-out trousers he repaired with fishing line. She hates his denim jacket, ripped to shreds decades ago by a bobcat kitten.
"If you wear it into the house,'' she says, "I'm going to burn it.''
"No, ma'am. I love that jacket.''
For the millionth time she grimly notices his yellow possum feet.
"Sometimes they get to me,'' she admits. "I'll use an emery board on those calluses, but the only way to clip those terrible toenails is to use rose clippers.''
It may not be Hallmark card love. But it's definitely love.
In the afternoon, Nathan Martin likes to walk to the cemetery at Jennings Lake. He'll pull weeds, pick up scraps of litter, wipe sand off the stones. The old ones, his kin, are buried there. He talks to them.
"More and more Yankees are moving in,'' he'll say, or "I got an owl nesting in the oak next to the house.''
GAC Martin. Born July 24, 1849.
"He fought for the Confederacy when he was about 12. Everybody called him Chap. He was a farmer, a sawyer, a bootlegger. I think he come here from Georgia."
Son Martin. Born Oct. 1, 1874.
"This here one is where my granddaddy is. He wouldn't let you shoot a dove. He called it 'God's bird.' He was tough as nails. He never rode on anything but a mule. He chewed tobacco every day of his life and died without ever seeing a doctor even once in his life on March 13, 1962."
Laura Martin. Born July 19, 1878.
"Grandmama was Son's wife. She was very superstitious. She'd take a broom to her daughters if a daughter whistled in the house. To whistle in the house was to invite the devil in.''
Nathan takes a big step to the right.
Wilburn Martin. Born Sept. 26, 1912.
"My daddy could outwork anybody. He was not an educated feller, but he knew how to do things. He could clean a soft-shell turtle, which we called cooters, in nothing flat. He could slaughter a hog and defeather a chicken just like that. He could fix a broken tool, take down a tree, build anything. He was a great backwoods mechanic. You probably noticed that Mama isn't next to him. When I was young I could never bring myself to tell anyone, but now I can, I guess. Mama run off with another man so she ain't here.
"I'm going to tell you something else real terrible. But on Jan. 27, 1979, my daddy died of a massive heart attack on the front porch. My brother and I found him. Rigor mortis had set in. We had to pick him up and carry him inside the house. It really hits me hard when I think of it.''
Charles Martin. Born Feb. 8, 1936.
"My brother. He was a real good man, a real hard worker. He had the heart problems too. He was only 54 when he passed.''
Nathan likes to think he is in good health. He's got high blood pressure and takes pills, though sometimes they make him dizzy so he stops. He hopes that walking in the fresh air, listening to owls, watching the stars and chopping wood will buy him a few more years. But who knows? When he dies, no children of his own will stand at the grave and mourn him. He is the last of his kind.
Nathan Martin. Born March 27, 1942.
Those words will be written on his stone.
He has left instructions.
"No shoes in the coffin,'' he says. "I plan to be comfortable.''
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8727.