Agnes Currie, my 8th grade enthusiastic English teacher, prompted me to read two classic books by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings depicting northern Florida's untamed and isolated frontier. The Yearling and Cross Creek were unforgettable books and left me anxious to read them again.
Less than twenty years later I landed in St. Augustine, Florida, hometown to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. In St. Augustine I met people that could have been characters in her books.
From chapter 14 of my book Sailing to St. Augustine is the rest of that story:
Jane and I first got to know George Tappin and his wife Mary in 1972, our first winter in St. Augustine.
Captain George was an easy going southern gentleman.
George’s background of Dutch ancestry goes back to his father, a ship’s captain that emigrated up to North Florida from Barbados before the Flagler era when North Florida was still a wild unsettled frontier.
George’s father ran his own freight riverboat along the St. Johns River connecting the isolated outback settlements when river travel was the only means of transportation up and down the St. Johns River to Jacksonville.
George told us that his father’s riverboat had a loose schedule and would pull into shore along the wild cypress swamp lined shores anywhere.
It was customary for his customers in those days to place a flag on a pole along the shore to signal the freight boat to pull in.
The freight consisted of cattle, lumber, turpentine, and passengers. Anything going to town or headed back up river was loaded and transported.
Roads in those days in North Florida were almost nonexistent with only horse trails through the tall pine forests and dark cypress swamps. The up-bound and down-bound freight boat was of vital importance to these remote otherwise isolated outposts.
George’s mother, also of Dutch ancestry, came down to North Florida, but was from Maine.
These people did not come to North Florida for the social life. They settled in a very remote nearly inaccessible region where neighbors were not neighborly and getting to town was either by river ferryboat, or a tedious horseback ride through pine forests and cypress swamps filled with hordes of hungry mosquitoes, poisonous snakes, and aggressive alligators.
The Tappin family all lived in a log and ship-lap sided cabin nestled away in a stand of ancient orange trees.
Their isolated backwoods home was already an old house when they moved in.
|This is the humble backwoods home where George Tappin was born and grew up. The house was almost 150 years old when I took this photo back in the 1980s.|
At the time when the Tappin family moved into this area it was also at the same time and place in back country North Florida where Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was inspired and wrote her best-selling books: The Yearling and Cross Creek. These hauntingly memorable books left a lasting impression on me. When I was in the eighth grade and reading those epic tales of the wild North Florida existence, little did I ever know that in the course of my life I would soon enter that strange backwoods world and meet people much as they were depicted in my reading as a youth.
Many evenings, over the course of years, Jane and I listened eagerly to George’s fascinating stories.
I have a fond mental image of George rolling his eyes back while he would peer out of our anchored vessel at an approaching storm and exclaim, “Oh Lordie, it’s blacker than smut.”
Captain George, in a few words and with descriptive gestures, could tell a captivating story picturesquely describing the outback of rustic rural North Florida in his youthful years when the place was overflowing with no-count rogues and social misfits. One such rogue was his friend known only as Sullivan.
Sullivan and his family had settled far out in the everglades of southern Florida near to Lake Okeechobee. In those days there was no communication with the outside world, and the only access to the area was by bateau through the serpent swarming swamp lands surrounding Florida’s not yet drained expansive everglades.
George told of when his friend Sullivan and Sullivan’s family were all trapped by a killer hurricane that they had no idea was coming. The hurricane totally flooded the entire area around Lake Okeechobee. There was no land in sight anywhere in this forlorn watery world.
All of the trees had been blown down flat by the savage storm’s wind, and young Sullivan courageously clung for his life to what remained of their tiny shanty home. He lived in the rafters and then on the roof-top for days while the flood waters rose higher and higher. He said that he had to fend off huge alligators and aggressive poisonous water moccasins.
Young Sullivan was the only survivor of his entire family.
Jane and I later met this rugged survivor who still resided in Mandarin, had a 65-foot shrimp trawler and also a fleet of school buses that he leased to the local school district.
Growing up in North Florida in the 1920s, financial opportunities didn’t exactly abound. George, being the enterprising soul that he was, figured out a way to generate some cash flow.
Boot-leg booze was in big demand during the prohibition days. George did what he considered to be the only natural thing to do and stepped in to fill that demand. Moonshine distillation made for a profitable business. George fed his family and bought himself a big fancy long automobile. By and by George did get busted and went to jail.
George told the judge that he was just doing his best to feed his hungry family.
George said that in those days the bail bondsmen were the ones that turned in the bootleggers, and then the bondsmen would sell the jailed bootleggers the bail bond to get them out of jail; a business merry-go-round.
The judge took mercy on poor George and let him go with a warning and small fine. It was true that George was feeding his family, and he continued to do so throughout the rest his life.
In the 1930s George opened and ran a small gasoline station and general store in Mandarin at the time when the first roads were being cut into the back country.
George had an endless collection of strange and interesting tales to tell.
George told us of a customer that came in to fill up with gas and had some long cane fishing poles tied to the side of his car. When the man bent over to fill his gas tank, a hook from one of the poles snatched the vein in the man’s neck. George maintained that the man was stone dead in less than two minutes.
George’s countless stories captivated Jane and I night after night, and now I only wish that we had recorded and compiled more of those unique experiences that made up the life of a this very rare one-of-a-kind individual.
Here are a few quotes from Captain George:
“If you want to commit murder, you need to do it in St. John’s County. If you do it somewhere else; you at least need to drag the body there.”
“You will never catch a thief stealing a plow.”
“Women got the first 30 years of my life, and GM got the rest.”
“I want a big house, long car, and a young wife.”
George’s second wife Mary was known as, “pistol packing Mary. She walked like a man, talked like a man, and she dressed like a man in her bib overalls and baseball cap. Mary was one tough lady and held the purse strings tighter than tight. Yes, she really did pack a pocket pistol and always kept it ready for action.
I can remember riding down the highway with Mary along with her constant companion, her little dog Bimbo.
If Mary happened to spot an empty Coke bottle discarded by the side of the road, she would pull over, stop her pickup truck and have whoever was riding along with her run back to fetch the bottle. She could turn it in for its five-cent deposit. Mary never let a nickel slip by.
One day George, after a long day of fishing offshore by himself aboard their 55-foot shrimp trawler Terry, asked for some money to go buy a pack of cigarettes. Mary gave him a dollar bill. When George returned to the boat with his cigarettes Mary asked for the change, and that might have been one of the last straws of their marriage.
Mary had refused to go out fishing in the ocean with George after some hair-raising incident.
This left George in a dangerous position alone on the boat and also made the work load nearly impossible for one person to handle.
George was as powerful a person as I have ever met and as able a boat handler as there ever was but out to sea unexpected things happen that can overpower any human effort no matter how powerful the person, and George knew it!
We were amazed at what came after his divorce from Mary. Something very strange happened to Captain George’s very traditional, no nonsense, hard working shrimp trawler Terry.
We couldn’t believe our eyes when we recognized the profile of the Terry coming up the bay. The old shrimp trawler Terry had a new flamboyant coat of paint that was applied in a patchwork pattern with so many different blazingly bright colors halter-skelter that a pattern of symmetry could not be discerned. Somebody was definitely making a statement!
Surely our conservative old friend Captain George Tappin couldn’t be at the helm, but there was his boat bold as brass coming down the river on its way out to fish offshore.
Then with my binoculars I noticed that Captain George had a sizable crew, and they were all women.
It was impossible to believe that George had actually gone out and hired himself an all girl crew. This went far beyond just making a liberal groundbreaking statement in an industry that over the centuries had always been the sacred bastion and last frontier of the men’s world.
What had happened?
Had our dear old friend George actually stepped over that taboo line from arch-conservatism?
Was he spearheading some kind of new revolutionary free-spirited, free thinking movement?
What else could it be?
The girls took over George and his shrimp boat Terry. First it was the paint job. Unique unto itself, never before had such a spectacle ever presented itself in little old St. Augustine and boldly gone out to sea.
George was out of his conservative closet!
George was flying high and having the time of his life. He had taken his pent-up life’s frustrations and boldly flushed them down the proverbial toilet all at once. The shit of his life was gone, the air was clean, and now George breathed better. Captain George and his all girl crew even took a vacation fling trip over to the Bahamas Islands on board a cruise ship, living it up like the rich and famous.
We thought that this must be George’s mid-life crisis or a second childhood, but then we weren’t so sure that he ever had a first childhood growing up as he did in the wilderness of North Florida.
This was no small thing for little St. Augustine, and the whole town took notice.
The weekend edition of the St. Augustine Record newspaper published a special feature about Captain George. The headline read: “That Shrimper Is My Wife” Boat Captain Enlists All Female Crew.
Record journalist Susan Love wrote:
“Going against the old seafaring adage that woman on ships are bad luck, a St. Augustine based shrimp boat has taken on an all female crew.
Capt. George Tappin, a shrimping captain of more than 40 years has hired on three women to work his shrimper “Terry’ with him.
Patsy Zittrauer, 20, has been working the longest of the three. She had so much fun she recruited her sister, Pam McConchie, 22, and her sister-in-law Pam Zittrauer, 22, to work the boat with her.
It all started three months ago…George hired her on as crew along with a regular hand...The job is a sharp contrast to those they have held previously... The women are a real oddity to the shrimp harvesting industry…“Terry” and her crew start out each morning at daylight and return each evening at 6… It is interesting to note that before becoming members of the “Terry” crew none of the women had been out on the ocean in a boat.
George eventually had his fun fling, and the girls that lit up his life moved on.
It must have been George’s destiny to wind up with an eccentric headstrong woman because in his next encounter he connected up with another strong willed lady that had gained a fierce reputation of driving out unwanted neighbors by dynamiting their homes.
George moved in with this lady at her Porpoise Point home and bought her three freezers to hold the catch that he landed from his hard earned efforts aboard his fishing trawler Terry.
This was the same old type of situation over again and was not going to work out. In spite of the fact that George’s new woman had found a good market for the catch and was getting top dollar, the end result was exactly the same. George was again working hard and making lots of money, but when the cash was counted out someone else was spending all his loot.
George next started dating Ruby Weaver, the widow of one of his old shrimping buddies, Captain Weaver, from Fernandina Beach.
George had respected Captain Weaver for his incredible physical strength. George loved to relate how Captain Weaver could snatch up with ice tongs a 500 pound block of ice in each hand and then carry them off to the ice hold of his shrimp trawler. Captain George used to say, “He was much a man!”
A couple of months went by with the courtship of Ruby Weaver. Then one day George showed up at our house with Ruby’s daughter Esther and no Ruby.
Esther smugly stated to us that she had stolen George away from her very own mother.
So it was, and this was going to be Captain George’s new woman.
I can say one thing about Esther and that is that she did indeed actually pull her own weight aboard George’s shrimp trawler Terry. That was more than George had ever gotten out of any of his previous wives.
“I want a big house, long car, and a young woman.”
Those were George’s own words, and he was on his way to fulfilling them.
He had the young wife, he traded cars like most people changed clothes, and all he was lacking was his big house.
|George Tappin’s shrimp boat, Terry, docked in St. Augustine, Florida, at Marine Supply and Oil Company on the San Sebastian River.|
George lived with Esther in a shambles of a run down house trailer. George just didn’t really care too much about such things.
He felt success and was in seventh heaven in his long car with his young wife.
George was in his second childhood with Esther, and Esther was smugly happy with her man. They were having a lark and even made some road trips to visit old friends.
One trip in particular was nothing short of an over-the-road nightmare.
They set out driving up to North Carolina to visit their shrimping friends Mack and Audrey McLeod, the previous owners of our shrimp trawler Secotan, which Jane and I later purchased in partnership with George.
When we heard their story of their three day randomly rambling road trip, we were totally at a loss for comment.
George and Esther never did find their friends and spent the entire three day trip driving up one freeway and down the next because neither George nor Esther could read the map.
George was happy just driving and Esther didn’t ever worry much about anything. Eventually Esther recognized some familiar landmarks and thus got them back to North Florida where they recognized more landmarks and knew they were close to home.
I am amazed when I see adults like these two with such limited knowledge going through life and doing all of the things that they do just by their instincts that most often do see them through many a brush with catastrophe.
A good example of this was Captain George’s boat handling abilities that he had acquired over a lifetime of accumulated trial and error observations, and instinctive and deductive interpretation.
Captain George knew the weather patterns better than the NOAA forecasters, his ear was tuned to the engine’s health by its arrhythmic heartbeat, and he could diagnose its fitness with uncanny precision. He knew the rhythms of the sea and the movements of its creatures and navigated the maritime waters day or night by some type of built into his head computer. This was his life, and he had the instincts and knowledge that he needed to survive.
One of the first thoughts we had when Jane and I visited the Tappin family home place in remote Mandarin was that anybody that would go to the extremes that this family did to be out of the mainstream of society must be a little bit crazy or just bonafide social misfits or both.
When we got to know this family a little better our suspicions were proven correct. They were not just a little bit crazy, real insanity was well established in the family.
Our friend Captain George was by far the sanest one of the entire group, and after I get done telling you some of his antics here in this story you will have a good perspective of a family removed from the mainstream.
A good place to start is with George’s maternal grandfather who was a street cleaner and garbage collector in St. Augustine. His father, George’s maternal great grandfather had been a sea captain of Dutch descent from Maine, and how and why he wound up in the outback of North Florida was unclear.
Here is where a major event that occurred in the Tappin family history began.
According to George, George’s maternal (the garbage collector) grandfather and George’s father (the Dutch sea captain from Barbados and St. John’s River freight boat owner), got into a heated argument that escalated into an armed shooting match.
George’s pregnant mother stepped into the fracas and attempted to break up the dispute.
When the gun discharged, George’s pregnant mother took the bullet in her belly while carrying her baby Cecil. Baby Cecil lived, but the family thereafter blamed Cecil’s erratic mental state and craziness on that shooting incident.
This story seems as though it could have easily been a chapter out of one of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings classic books. The Tappin family and their fight for survival seemed to have been the model for the Rawlings books.
George’s beautiful little sister had been abducted and raped when she was a teenager by some passing strangers who were never apprehended.
These disgusting low-life’s left George’s poor little sister a cowering frightened recluse. She was as timid as a wild deer and would silently run off, slipping away from all strangers to hide, cowering and trembling, in a fetal position. She never left the homestead and was haunted by this event her entire life.
A half sister of George’s escaped the area to marry a rich farmer from North Dakota who was awash in money gleaned from his oil wells. She was however caught in a mental web of her own making.
Pleasant, good-natured and attractive, she fell into a radical fanatical religious cult group and subsequently built her own recluse escape from reality with that cranky cult.
George’s younger brother Cecil was not good looking, motivated, talented, or intelligent, but possessed an easy going attitude that allowed him to slip through life without any aspirations. He was content as long as he had enough cash to scrape along with and buy a few cigarettes. Cecil rarely left the family homestead or sought out a wife. Nothing much inspired easy going Cecil.
George’s mother, on the other hand, was a special case. She spent her simple life isolated in the backwoods of North Florida where survival was a hardscrabble existence.
Formal education was non-existent, and the neighbors were distant, distrusted, and disliked. Mrs. Tappin was trapped in the humblest of circumstances. In her younger years a trip to the nearest town, Jacksonville, was only possible by boat on the St. Johns River, which was lined with deep dark cypress swamps and teaming with alligators and aggressive water moccasins. She was trapped with no place to venture even in the full light of day.
George’s mother was his father’s second wife, the first wife died. When George’s father’s first wife died, he needed someone to take care of the kids—there was no courtship only a deal concocted with her father.
|This photo was taken in 1980s at the Tappin family homestead in Mandarin, Florida. On the left is my wife Jane and to the right is George’s mother, Mrs. Tappin.|
The family was the basic unit where even the youngest were required to do as much as physically possible, pulling their weight and contributing their efforts. Fun and games never entered into their daily struggle for survival where their meager marginal existence was their only lot in life.
One day George arrived at our home in St. Augustine with fear in his eyes. He was visibly shaken by something dreadful.
This was a thing that Jane and I had never before witnessed in our easygoing self-assured old friend George.
George proceeded to nervously relate this bizarre sequence of events that led him to his state of anxiety.
This episode took place in the mid-1980s. With pleading eyes George came to us and sought out our help.
This is not something that independent minded George would easily do, only as a last resort of desperation.
First, George rattled by his insurmountable problem went to the police for assistance. They listened to his story and told him that this was none of their business. They could only respond if an actual assault or murder took place.
George’s family and home life laid the foundation for his instinctive sense of survival. All of George’s family eagerly plotted their own agenda to commandeer the family homestead, which now was worth a small fortune as Mandarin was developing around them.
This rivalry took on a life of its own when George’s mother concocted a devious scheme to get rid of George, and she didn’t like Esther either.
First she conspired with her son Cecil to actually do the dirty deed of dispatching his brother George promising Cecil that she would testify that the murder of George was just an act of self defense.
This was serious business but Cecil couldn’t bring himself to do it, and then he confided in his big brother George.
George knew the determination of his old twisted minded mother and if she couldn’t get Cecil to do the killing she would use Cecil’s gun to kill George herself, then hang the blame on Cecil and get rid of them both at the same time.
Jane and I had known this clan a long time, and when George, the toughest man we knew was stricken with terror, we knew it was time to take this situation seriously.
These people lived their entire lives violently without batting an eye. They summarily dispatched anything that interfered in any way with their existence.
The end result to this episode finally came when the family jointly sold all of their land to a developer with promises of a life estate where they could remain on the land as long as they lived.
Cecil took his money and moved into a nursing home, losing his life estate in the land first.
George took his money and moved his house trailer over to his half sister’s place and also lost his life estate in the land.
George’s mother remained on the land in her ancient tumbling down log house along with George’s poor little sister whose custody was ultimately turned over to George’s niece.
(This niece had a record of nursing indigent older folks with assets that were at death’s door. After willing their estates over to the niece, they would soon pass away.)
In any event, George’s old mother soon passed away, and lo and behold, the niece wound up with the inheritance and stayed on with the life estate. Ironically the niece outlasted all of them.
|George Tappin in the wheelhouse of his shrimp trawler Terry in 1973.|
George and His Paint Story
The biggest in the business and also the standard of the industry in marine paint was International Paint. They had their own distribution system utilizing their own trucks and drivers, but their inventory control back in those years was less than chancy at best.
It turned out that International Paint’s truck driver for North Florida and South Georgia was looking for a little extra cash and ran into our friend George Tappin.
That truck driver made a proposal to George that sounded like a golden opportunity.
The truck driver sold George some of the most expensive marine anti-fouling boat bottom paint for a ridiculously low price because the cans were dented, and the driver maintained that he couldn’t bring them back to the plant in that condition and would have to dispose of them on his own. So, by selling them to our friend George everybody would be happy. George could make a few extra bucks, and, of course, the driver that wouldn’t have to drag the dented cans off and dispose of them by himself.
Soon our friend George began developing a route for his regular paint customers and business rapidly began to boom.
George even bought the biggest and longest Cadillac available, like the ones used by drug runners with a special air suspension ride that could easily be adjusted by just the touch of a button for excessive loads to transport his dented cans of paint.
George’s long car had every button and doodad that could possibly have been bolted on to an automobile, and George was as happy as a little kid with a new toy. Remember what George always used to say,
“Women got the first 30 years of my life, and GM got the rest.”
“I want a big house, long car, and a young wife.”
George’s business was good; he was happy, and he was prosperous.
Old Captain George knew every shrimper and boatyard on the southeast coast of the U.S. Loading his “big car” beyond its limit, George just mashed the button and flipped a lever and in seconds the sagging back bumper of his long automobile was no longer dragging the ground but was up like magic and perfectly level.
George now had a truck load of concealed merchandise loaded in the trunk of his leveled out long automobile and could drive past the Florida/Georgia weight station with confidential ease and without stopping for inspection.
Soon George’s business developed into a high cash flow industry.
One of George’s best paint customers was a small fish camp outside of Jacksonville, Florida, on the St. John’s River near Mayport and the ocean inlet.
This quiet little out of the way fish camp turned out to be a front for one of North Florida’s drug dealers, and the Feds had it under their strict surveillance.
The owners of the fish camp were there to supply their loyal customers with whatever they wanted and desired.
One day when George made another of his frequent stops at the fish camp to deliver a load of his dubious paint that now no longer came in dented cans, he decided to buy several pounds of fresh mullet from the fish camp.
George had been feeding his whole family since his youthful years as a bootlegger so it was only natural that he would bring home to his 95 year old mother fresh fish, which she loved.
Wrapped up in newspaper, his five pounds of fish and ice made a sizable armload.
When George stepped outside the quiet little fish camp he was instantly apprehended, hand-cuffed, and whisked away to jail with no explanations.
George was guilty by association period and sent off to the slammer where he was incarcerated in the same cell with the “The Outlaws” motor cycle gang.
George was innocently mystified by these doings and his suspicions began to mount about all of that paint that was now arriving in cans without dents.
The cops thought for sure that George was a drug king-pin dealing in dope and was one of the drug dealers; this is why they had the fish camp staked out. George told the judge that he was just selling paint and explained the story of the paint.
George had his day in court, still astonished, amazed and shaken by the turn of events.
The judge asked George if he had ever been arrested before and naive George then told him of his bootleg business back in the 1920s and of the revenuers busting up his still while he was trying to feed his family.
After George told his paint story, it was discovered the truck driver was stealing the paint. The law went after the truck driver. George was free to go, but he was out of the paint business then and there.
Quite ironically a short time later while George was driving his big Cadillac down auto-row in Jacksonville, Florida, where he was well liked and well known by all of the auto salesmen, the strangest thing happened to him.
The drive shaft decoupled on George’s Cadillac at the forward end. It dropped down on the road and dug into the pavement and then catapulted George and his big Cadillac end over end directly in front of one of those friendly auto dealers.
The automobile salesmen couldn’t believe their good luck, and George went home that day with another new “long car.” The salesmen just loved George, and George just loved their attention, and they all were happy.
George’s days of being a shrimp boat captain were over, due to his age. He took a job being a night watchman until he was struck down by cancer a few years later.
George never was a religious man in any way, but when he was dying the preachers swooped down on him like so many hungry vultures to pick his bones, and poor George was a captive audience.
In painful submission seeing that the end was in sight poor old sickly George finally capitulated in actions only and let the vulture preachers lead him down to the river, shroud him in a white robe, and do their mumbling.
As George, who had been a devote non-believer all his life, told Jane and me, “You never know, they could possibly be right?”
On his deathbed he did get rid of one preacher when he gave that preacher the keys to his “long car” and that was the last George ever saw of that preacher man and his long car.
George was one of the very best friends that Jane and I have ever had. He was a fine gentleman of the most genuine kind and a truly trusted friend.
The last words George ever spoke to me while he lay on his death bed were, “John, I would give anything if only I could just walk out that door.”
Note related post: https://bingsbuzz.blogspot.com/search?q=Marjorie+Kinnan
Note related post: https://bingsbuzz.blogspot.com/search?q=Marjorie+Kinnan