Oakhaven: Heston House

by Tim Gilmore, 11/23/2018

They were born in this house, Paul in 1918 and Charlie in 1921, and they died in this house, Charlie in 2005 and Paul in 2009. Linden died out beneath the linden tree, Tilia floridana, Florida lindens, working on his boat, in 1987.

St. Paul Avenue turns unpaved off Heston Road, in the woods behind St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, and falls deep through the shade of venerable oaks, hickories and cypress trees. In the decade this 1908 house has stood empty, water oak branches and dead power lines have fallen across the footpaths, but the palisades of citrus trees the Heston brothers planted in the 1970s still abut the leaf-strewn drive.

Linden was born here first, in 1915, and lived most of his life in the 1940s house where he raised a family, closer to the pavement of Heston Road. Alice came last, in 1926, living decades in the Harbor Point House, built in 1900, on Campbell Avenue, across Atlantic Boulevard and beside the St. Johns River. She too died at home. Lastborn, she died last, in 2012.

Grapefruit, limes, lemons and half a dozen varieties of orange frame the oaks and palms that open onto the gray two story house and its red rooflines. The long gray beards of Spanish moss sway gently along the attic dormers and the windows banding the face of the house above the central front door and its portico.

In the mesh of fog that rolls in off Little Pottsburg Creek, it’s too easy to see an old man’s flannel shirt moving behind the palmetto fronds. The house of the Heston bachelors extended with their long lives, marrying time to place. If they’re not still here, this place was never theirs. Their body heat shelters the citrus.

photograph from 2011, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

Sometime in the storms of the last five or six years, the old boathouse collapsed in the creek. It’s down there still. It was Linden who ran a 20 foot Thunderbird fishing boat called the Rapid Rabbit out of Mayport still thriving as a fishing village, back in the 1960s. He might, when he wasn’t out fishing, band tires together to help make buoys. Linden willed that when he died the Rapid Rabbit would be sunk 13 miles off the Mayport Jetties to form an artificial reef. Divers now call it Rabbit’s Lair.

The front of the house is full of eyes. The late November sun shines a clean dull glare through the oaks and the blinds on the antique wicker furniture inside. Azaleas choke the back porch, whose ceiling beneath a thin rotting balustrade on a second floor balcony threatens to collapse.

photograph from 2011, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

Someone raised the sash on an upstairs window, a decade ago perhaps. The rain has soaked the carpet inside ever since. Maybe it was Paul. It was Charlie who left his name all over the house.

Whenever Charlie wore a nametag, he’d pull it off at the end of the day and stick it to a filing cabinet or closet door. Beside his tie rack hung with red ties, white ties with diagonal pink stripes, brown ties with gold quatrefoils or diamonds, an old white door says, “My name is Charlie Heston. My name is Charlie Heston. My name is Charlie Heston. My name is Charlie Heston.”

photograph from 2011, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

Charlie built the 28 foot hull for a boat he called Rip Tide in 1962. He outfitted the boat with an unwieldy box called a LORAN, acronym for Long Range Navigation, a system he’d used when piloting planes in World War II. It wasn’t very accurate but, Charlie said, “We at least knew what ocean we were in.” He used the LORAN to help find and mark early artificial reefs. Charlie berthed Rip Tide at his dock on Little Pottsburg Creek until he died.

courtesy Jacksonville Offshore Sportfishing Club

In August, 1986, Charlie was fishing in a dinghy in the Bahamas with Sam Skinner, Jr., former board chair of Skinner’s Dairy, one of the largest dairies in the South. The Skinners once owned about 3500 acres of what became Jacksonville’s Southside. Charlie said when he emerged from diving for lobsters, Sam was gone. He left no trace. No one ever saw him again. The Skinners’ family physician presumed Sam had a heart attack or a stroke and dropped into the ocean while Charlie was diving, said they must’ve missed each other underwater.

Beneath the rise of the stairs, a dark maroon sofa cuts an acute angle, expectant. Just opposite the small fireplace sits a midnight blue armchair. The once gold carpet resembles the leaf mold of the grounds outside the house. The flora wants in, paces itself. It has much more time than you and I.

photograph from 2011, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

Just outside blasts a shotgun. Just the other side of the shotgun, cars clog multiple lanes of Atlantic and University Boulevards in both directions. Another blast, a noise that will not be denied, opens up all space and sound, which close behind the blast. Unease settles in the weary trees. Something’s been swept away and made room for listening. “My name is Charlie Heston. My name is Charlie Heston.”

photograph from 2011, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

In the sitting room, Wakefield wicker chairs, a faded dusky turquoise, decades and decades old, angle toward each other, contemplative in conversation. The autumn floral patterns on the cushions, on the armchair behind the wicker, on the valances on the windows, have faded in their lost pink and gold.

So also dimmed, irretrievable now, are those days of early childhood, of eagerness and curiosity, when the way to the two story South Jacksonville School came by water and horse-drawn wagon.

photograph from 2011, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

In the 1930s, Alice displayed blooms she’d collected from the 13 acres around the house along the desk and curtain rods in her upstairs bedroom—wildflowers and trumpet vines and orange blossoms. She’d fill glass jars with bouquets of Black-eyed Susans. She’d care for damaged butterflies and dead diaphanous-winged dragonflies.

She’d imagine a world that included only blooms and bright wings. Her bedroom, self-contained and entombed lovingly from all outside, except for the outside she’d brought in, became that world.

Her brothers shared and sometimes fought over worn copies of Field and Stream magazine, the bright images of men in boats casting fly rods, trees and marshes fading out behind them. Stark-colored images of wild turkeys in snow looked exotic. Paul and Charlie rigged flies on lengths of sugar cane and caught bream behind the house in Little Pottsburg Creek.

photograph from 2011, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

Six decades later, Charlie said he’d like to write a book. He’d fished in Chile and Argentina, in Alaska and Russia, in the Bahamas and the Outer Banks, but he said he’d call the book, if he ever got around to writing it, What’s Around the Corner.

photograph from 2011, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

Paul fished less than his brothers. He played tennis. His name appeared in headlines. 8 Nov 1931: “Suit in which Paul Heston, noted professional tennis star, sought $8,500 damages ordered dismissed in circuit court Saturday at the request of Heston.” Friday morning, 18 March 1932: “Paul Heston in Finals Pro Tennis Tourney Open Champions of Five Countries in Field at Coral Gables Today.” Later he operated laundries down on urban Main Street.

On October 13, 1977, the Associated Press reported, “An 89-year-old church floated majestically on the St. Johns River yesterday as it moved to a new site where it will be preserved.” The story quoted Thyra Dickson, assistant to the director of the Jacksonville Museum of Arts and Sciences, now the Museum of Science and History, to which the Carpenter Gothic-style St. Paul’s Episcopal Church was being moved: “The little river church is one of the original churches built along the waterways here and one of the few left standing.”

St. Paul’s being loaded onto the barge, 1977, photo by John C. Christian

The church was wheeled from Atlantic Boulevard to Little Pottsburg Creek, then loaded onto a barge to be taken downtown. Watching the church leave the creek was Lillian Heston, who’d attended as Lillian Holden when she was a little girl. Mother of Paul and Charlie and Linden and Alice, widow of Paul, Sr., who’d died 34 years before, in 1943, Lillian said, in 1977, “I will be 87 years old in November. I must have been six years old when I first went to the church.”

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, now San Marco Preservation Hall in Fletcher Park

(It was, in fact, the little 1888 church’s third move. It moved again, in 1994, to Fletcher Park in urban San Marco.) Lillian said she’d never attended the large modern replacement St. Paul’s at 5616 Atlantic. She said things just weren’t the same.

Before the ghosts that aren’t quite memory, that aren’t quite history, since those whose memories this history belonged to are gone, who were the Heston boys’ childhood ghosts? Childhoods always feature ghosts, because children, being new, can’t otherwise imagine the world that came before them. What loves and losses have the trees absorbed invisible on this 1797 Spanish land grant? Who did the boys think they saw in the woods outside their windows at night, or down off the rippling reflections of moonlight on the waters?

In the old wooden two-story barn, rotten wicker chairs sit between pressurized containers and empty water heaters. Rusty handsaws hang on nails. Rust chips and falls on buckets of paintbrushes, fuel cans, a corroded cash register from a century ago, and the name “Heston” on various discarded signs. “My name is Charlie Heston. My name is—” An upstairs door stands open to the crisp Thanksgiving air, but there’s no easy way to reach it. The outside staircase beneath it has rotten and fallen away.

Back in the house, upstairs in a bedroom, an old Underwood typewriter, its keys and hammers heavy and stuck, fossilized, waits perhaps for me to write this account, or, more likely, for Charlie to write his book.

photograph from 2011, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

The brothers, Paul and Charlie, never married. All their lives, the lifelong bachelors called their parents’ house home, and the house lasted all their lives. Now without purpose, it seems to have given up.

It’s when the sun shines pale and dirty through opaque windows across the old man’s bed that Emily Dickinson’s poem sounds imperceptibly in the room. “The Bustle in a House / The Morning after Death / Is solemnest of industries / Enacted upon Earth.” I note how the bed’s been made, the worn and mildewed comforter tucked around the edges, the pillows arranged at the head.

photograph from 2011, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

At which old man’s bed am I looking? Who made his bed as though to return? How long ago did he last expect to rest here? I see none of Charlie’s nametags affixed to the headboard. “My name is—”

The years of mornings that have lapsed since death, since the bed was last made, bring back Dickinson’s poem: “The Sweeping up the Heart / And putting Love away / We shall not want to use again / Until Eternity—”

photograph from 2011, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

For what makes me look over my shoulder, what makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck, why am I concerned the beating of my heart may’ve grown too loud? It’s the body’s indentations on the bed. A red rug lies at the foot of it. Books, folders and papers are piled in corners. A dark brown chair waits out of place in the shadows of a corner with a dim green door to 13 wooded Heston acres. Over how many nights, over how many years, did the old man’s body sculpt its place in this hard bed? Could some forensics expert reconstruct the man from the mold? Surely not, but the intimacy comes too close. I’m in somebody else’s bedroom, uninvited, an alien, an intruder in a life not mine. “My name is—” I may as well be a ghost. Surely the old man is coming home.