Several weeks had passed since we had received the two shots. Winter seemed longer than usual since this Covid one had not been broken up with a trip, so I agreed when the spouse said, “Let’s go somewhere.” We, of course, wanted some place warm and not too crowded. The spouse is enamored with “old Florida,” places that look like the towns she remembers from her youth – big trees, Spanish moss, water of some kind. Each of us came across an internet article that listed the “ten best small towns in Florida.” Both thought Crystal River might suit the bill, even though neither of us had ever heard of it before. That is not especially surprising for me, but the spouse has lived in many places in Florida and has visited relatives in even more—Gainesville, Leesburg, Lakeland, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Ft. Lauderdale, Coral Gables, Coconut Grove, Boca Raton, Sarasota, Bradenton, Vero Beach, Sebring, Marathon, Punta Gorda. You get the idea.

The spouse had one major concern. Crystal River is eighty miles north of Tampa in an area that the Florida PR people now bill as the Nature Coast, and she wondered whether it would be warm enough in late March for her to go swimming, which was an essential requisite for the trip. Internet research convinced her that while it was not guaranteed, the odds were that temperatures would be high enough to Australian crawl about. And then two other discoveries clinched the deal. An apparently nice resort within our budget had an available room, and Crystal River offered manatees. We read that the waters around Crystal River had many freshwater springs where the water bubbled up at a constant 72 degrees, that manatees collected at these spots, and that one could go swimming amongst those mammoth creatures. This seemed to be a real come-on for her. Me…not so much. Nevertheless, the spouse did her magic and booked us into the Plantation at Crystal River for a week and got us convenient flights and a car.

          The trip going was uneventful as was the return journey. We drove from Tampa International up to the Plantation (no one seemed the least embarrassed by this name that carries unfortunate echoes of more than just the gracious Old South of mint juleps, which were not on offer at the resort) in our Alamo Altima (a better car than we own) in the late afternoon. A rather ornate and large fountain graced the front of the entrance, but it was under repair. By the end of our stay, however, it had been put back together and delighted with water-spraying manatees and onlooking putti. We were disappointed that it did not have lights on it at night, but during the day, it was quite a sight.

          The resort had a collection of buildings, none taller than two stories, which had it fitting nicely into Crystal River, for the town is a low-rise place. One of the many reasons Crystal River felt different from other places in Florida is that there were no high-rise buildings. We had a first floor “room with a water view”; the water being a canal. The Crystal River area is punctuated with bays, streams, and protected marshes and wetlands that have access to the Gulf but are nine miles from the shore. But, as elsewhere in Florida, there are canals. This canal was about thirty yards from our backdoor (yes, we had a backdoor opening onto a miniscule patio) and featured a steady stream of boats, mostly pontoons and kayaks. Almost all the waters around Crystal River are no-wake zones, so the boats were blissfully quiet.

          We spent many happy hours sitting outside this door, which overlooked a croquet court. I learned that many people have no idea how to play that game, but they seem to have a good time trying. Two horseshoe pits were wedged between the court and the canal. A flawed beach volleyball court was off to our right. The flaw was not in the court itself, but in its placement. We saw many people hitting a ball over the net, but sooner or later, the ball would inevitably escape into the canal. Most often the players could retrieve it, but we also saw people walking along the canal frantically, but unsuccessfully, trying to retrieve a floating ball. Perhaps a collection of Plantation balls ends up on a Honduras beach. To the left of us was a shuffleboard court, and beyond that was the swimming pool, a hot tub, and a Tiki bar. A popular route from guest rooms to the well-utilized pool went outside our door, and each day we gave greeting to a large sampling of our fellow guests.

          On an early morning walk on our first day, I saw a trailer with “Royal Order of Jesters” on its side, and later that day I saw a goodly collection of men on the path and at the pool with “Jesters” on their shirts. On the second day, I asked a man about the Jesters. He explained that they are a subset of the Shriners, which are, of course, a subset of the Freemasons. Each year, Jesters from the Southeast come to the Plantation to initiate new members, and a mild form of hazing was going on. The initiates had to wear jester costumes and wait on the established members. To the spouse’s chagrin, some smoked cigars…at the pool(!). (The smoke smelled good to me.) Much laughter came from the group, but although they were drinking, no one was drunk, not at least in the late afternoon. However, I can’t swear that that remained true at night when the Jesters hung around a meeting room at one edge of the resort far from our room.

          Seeing the Jester logos, I was reminded how many people (out of proportion they are men) are attracted to organizations that have elements of secrecy, rituals, and initiations, and wonder why I don’t fall into this group. Instead, I am simultaneously amused and repulsed by them. I felt that in particular when the spouse reported the snippets of a conversation of three Jesters she overheard at the pool one morning. The men seemed to be planning next year’s initiations. She heard: “Can you see flashing lights through a hood?” “We can put plastic on the floor. Is syrup too sticky? We could use flour instead.” “We could use colored water. The audience won’t be able to tell what it is.” “We need to decide on costumes. How about transvestites? Yeah, they can be ladyboys.” Hmmm.

          Another conversation, however, reminded me that organizations with these sorts of initiation rites can serve more purposes than providing some sort of unappealing (to me) male comradery. I asked a man sporting a Jester logo how long after becoming a Mason it took him to decide to become a Shriner and then a Jester. He immediately corrected me. “Freemason,” he said, but continued by saying that when he was a young man, he accompanied his then father-in-law who took ice across a lake to a camp. He learned then that the camp was for what he described as “Shriner kids”—children with disabilities or under treatment for serious illnesses. He told me that he realized he wanted to be part of a group that sought to help these kids, and the Shriners did that through their hospitals and programs. He told me that he had not decided to become a Shriner after joining the Freemasons but became a Freemason in order to become a Shriner.

          In my usual life, I don’t intersect with Freemasons or Shriners often, and I don’t believe I have ever met a Jester before. Thomas Fuller said, “Travel makes a wise man better but a fool worse.” Of course, I would like to think I fall under that first heading, but perhaps my status really is somewhere between those two categories. Even so, I would like to think that my conversations with these men at the resort made me a bit more understanding of a part of society from which I am normally separated.

          The resort had another group of guests outside my usual social realm, and my observations of them definitely challenged some of my preconceptions and prejudices and perhaps made me a bit wiser.

(continued April 7)

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