Wesconnett, Dead End Transylvania

by Tim Gilmore, 2/8/2015

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I’ve never seen Jesus look this way. It’s not right. I don’t remember this gap in his teeth, one eye looks suspiciously bigger than the other, the protrusion of his toes from his sandals seems obscene, and I think I know a fake beard when I see one.

Or maybe it’s just easier to criticize the cheap stained-glass Jesus than look beneath him at my mother’s sister’s body facing upward in the open casket. If I may be so selfish, my mother died almost 30 years ago, and there’s no one to remember growing up with her anymore.

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I’m not sure why the drive from Orange Park back toward Riverside needs to pull me aside toward Wesconnett, but I let it make sense, though I don’t understand it.

The truest truths often are the ones that come to you. You’re not looking for them. You’re not working on them. Not that you know of. Likewise, sometimes, you have to let old roads, roads that barely still exist, pull you onto them.

So I take Old Wesconnett, hardly a road at all. Now it’s only a different exit, which curtails into a cul-de-sac, from Blanding Boulevard onto Wesconnett Boulevard. But the old road, of which only this dismembered arm remains, once took black baseball players across the sandy soil and rocks to the Wesconnett ball park, where Wesconnett played the Yukon Raw Buffaloes and teams from Mandarin and Jacksonville, all separate entities in the 1920s, when Charles Fennel remembered going to the games. He was 78 when he told me about it 16 years ago. I can’t find him now.

Red Caps

Team photo of the Jacksonville Red Caps, by the famous photographer and chronicler of black Jacksonville, E.L. Weems, courtesy Center for Negro League Baseball

What we now call the Negro Leagues, prior to black players integrating into the Majors, is more than just one or two Minor Leagues, each comprising any number of baseball franchises. Across the rural townships and lost collections of homes that Jacksonville’s engulfed, there were the Southern Negro League and the Negro Southern League and other less-known and poorly organized leagues.

There are as many baseball leagues and teams and rivalries between them sunk into the past-hungry landscape as there are small towns and hamlets. And whereas about 200 cemeteries and graveyards dot what’s now Jacksonville (several of them considered lost), because so many of them were family and tiny community grounds prior to the 20th century, there must be nearly as many lost baseball diamonds.

And I’m sure my walking the bases at Wesconnett Park has everything to do with the funeral I’ve just attended and how I’m still looking for my mother walking upright, not rolling in that wheelchair, through the landscape of my 40 year-old life, and why I constantly imagine myself past and seek to create, in the present, some me that might still stand in the future beyond me.

I take first base, second, third, so peacefully, sadly but calmly, marveling as much at the amount of trash by the shattered chain-link fences as I am by the hundred year-old wooden sheds I can see in the pinewoods behind newer old houses.

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Walking down 105th Street, I pass a small abandoned and blackened house, where trees have signs tacked to them asking for information about the arson that evidently destroyed the home whose family name is still tacked above the back porch beside wind chimes and beer coolers.

Wesconnett Playground, though bearing a city Parks & Recreation sign, is tucked behind apartments, past which a small sidewalk winds. To get to the empty basketball courts, you’d have to ignore the feeling that you were trespassing.

Just like Old Wesconnett’s now lost in the land, or maybe runs under the present roads, Old Timuquana Road slopes down from the multi-lane present Timuquana, dead-ends in the crooked pylons that hold the new road above Fishing Creek, which meanders sunken and muddy through communities that no longer exist and into the Ortega River.

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I follow Old Timuquana down to the creek that nobody knows. It’s perfectly figurative. Maybe, though I hope not, it’s what I’m doing with the thousands of pages of my writing I pull forward across my life.

I’m not ashamed to speak to hundred year-old wooden houses with rusted tin roofs, tucked behind trailer parks and churches.

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I walk down Lyle Lane where several sinewy Dobermans bark ferociously behind a chain-link fence. There’s an old well barely visible behind a rusted and sunken trailer home.

But wandering Fishing Creek under [new] Timuquana, I come up on the abandoned house at the dead end of Transylvania. Approaching from Wesconnett Boulevard, as I discover on my way back, I’d wander into these acres shrouded by the creek and trees and dirt roads beside these inter-city throughways, by moving past trailer homes and pickup trucks with angry semi-racist bumper stickers.

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Transylvania dead-ends in a dirt road that moves through lines of pear trees and circles by old oaks and a mosquito-ridden swimming pool beside fallen broken brick walls.

I remember one of the last mornings I woke up early in Dublin last summer, when my wife and my children still slept, and I walked through lower-class neighborhoods just north of the city center where we stayed in the Castle Hotel by Parnell Square. I walked past the Transylvania Romanian Restaurant, with the profile of Vlad Tepes on the side of the building, the alley before it steep and narrow, as so many old European streets, but fronted with the trash of the backs of seedy restaurants by Dublin’s council flats.

Trans Dublin

Because my mother died when I was 12, I’ve always believed that I’ll die young. Because my father’s lived so long—he’s about to celebrate his 91st birthday, I’ve always believed that I’ll live to be an old, old man. I’ve always felt old, though I still believe that I’ll die young—though I hope I’m now too old for that.

For just a moment, I think that I could make myself home, if I had to do it, if no one would have me, here where Transylvania dead-ends at Fishing Creek by Old Wesconnett (though technically I’ve walked into the neighborhood called Lynnwood). If I were destined to become some unknowable recluse, I could buy this secluded acreage by the throughway and the trailer parks, and ignore the world and find my way to be creative.

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But mostly I’m happy to come out of it, mesmerized by how landscapes layer landscapes, and roads counter and bury the older roads, and how the rusted-roof houses of the roads that slope down to the creek beneath the new roads remain, and how intensely I identify with them.