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Story Tools

Date of Issue: February 13, 2008

Anna Maria, I Love You

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Test your knowledge of Anna Maria to see if you can figure out what year the following story was written, and what has changed and hasn't changed about this Island since the story was first published.

Twenty years ago my wife and I came to Anna Maria to spend the winter. We are still here. In that time the island has changed considerably; but then, I suppose, so have we. Twenty years is apt to change most things.

We came down on the train. Friends met us in Bradenton and drove us out.

There was, and still is, a long rickety bridge that swayed like a swing as the car went across it. At the island end of the bridge was a small cluster of houses. Then for five miles the road twisted, for no apparent reason, between jungle on the right and one great white sweeping beach on the left with the Gulf blue and green beyond it. Where a sign said “City of Anna Maria,” with nothing whatsoever except the sign to indicate it was a city, three pheasants ran across the road. I thought: “Some city!”

Later I learned the pheasants belonged to Harry Ditmas who drove the mail truck. He hoped to populate the island with them, but they never prospered. I suppose raccoons ate the eggs. This island always has been a paradise for raccoons.

We rented a house on the bay, with no nearby neighbors. It had two bedrooms, a living room, a dining room, kitchen, bath, three mice, several giant Florida spiders, a chameleon, and a blacksnake.

Our first morning when I went across the road to swim, the blacksnake, which was basking on the front step, went with me. Gertie, my wife, watched from the window. When I got back she was packing. She was, she told me, on her way back to New York. She didn’t go.

Before the end of the month something had happened to Gertie, who never before had seen an island - in fact she had seen hardly anything smaller than Philadelphia. Marjorie Rawlings once wrote, “There is an affinity between people and places … If there be any such thing as racial memory, the consciousness of land and water must lie deeper in the core of us than any knowledge of our fellow beings … And along with that deep knowledge of the earth is a preference of each of us for certain kinds of it.”

Gertie had found her affinity.

In those days fiddler crabs by the millions would retreat from the tides, going back and forth with a sound like wind in dead leaves. For a week Gertie was terrified of them. Then one day in sheer desperation she picked up one, put it on a fishhook, and caught a 2-pound sheepshead. After that you couldn’t have got her away from here with dynamite.

Which is one of the strange things about this island. People love it - and I mean the word as something beyond mere liking - or they can’t abide it at all. Usually it takes only a short time to learn which. But there is no way of knowing ahead of time how the individual will react.

There was a time when most of us who lived here claimed - and not without some justification - that people who really loved this island had at least one thing in common: we were all a little cracked. We claimed this happily and pointed with pride to some of our better examples:

The lady who would hold her dog up to the telephone so it could bark for a faith-healer in Boston; the dog had a cold and the lady didn’t trust Florida veterinarians. And the old lady with arthritis who swam nude because she couldn’t get full benefit of the water in a bathing suit; if the tide carried her down the beach she might walk home again along the road, explaining placidly that no one could possibly take offense since we all understood the situation. We did.

Everyone knew I wrote for a living, but no one paid the slightest attention to what I wrote, with the exception of one story. In the opening paragraph of this one was the statement that: “If you unscrew a screwball anywhere in the United States, blindfold him, turn him around twice and turn him loose, he’ll wind up in Anna Maria.”

Within two days after the magazine came out everybody on the island had read that story and most of them had mailed copies to their northern friends.

After the war change caught up with us. New bridges are going up now to connect us to the mainland and to Longboat Key to the south. Bulldozers are doing away with the mangroves; dredgelines are changing fiddler crab flats into canals and building sites.

As a result we have more people, fewer fiddler crabs, fewer mosquitoes. No one person any longer knows every other person on the island. And most of our new arrivals either have no flamboyant characteristics or prefer to keep them cautiously hidden.

But it is still a good island. There is still the water, and the gulls, and the great white sweep of beach. There are still a few bits of jungle where a man can walk and think and see no life except the birds. The fishing is not what it used to be - no old timer anywhere in the world will admit that it is - but I can still walk out my front yard into the Gulf and catch whiting and trout and redfish; and if the fish aren’t biting I can put down the rod and swim.

And here a man can have as much privacy as he wants, or he can have companions to whoop it up all night long. Even better, he can have as much of each as he wants when he wants it.

For I have never known a place so free of group-made social restrictions.

The individual can make restrictions for himself, of course; but he is also free to make his friends among any and all the people he wishes. And we have them here from almost every profession and every walk of life.

The big difference between this island and a city is that here you can know any of them you want to know - the new and the old, the cracked and the uncracked.

I love it.

 

* Editor’s note. According to Wyatt’s daughter, Peggy Diamant, who lives in Anna Maria with husband Bill, her father wrote the story around 1956 for the Ford Times, a travel magazine published by the Ford Motor Co.

Peg’s father and mother moved to Anna Maria in 1936, bringing along 6-year-old Peggy, who was fascinated by such a wild and beautiful place as Anna Maria Island.

The first home the family lived in is now the site of the Waterfront Restaurant on South Bay Boulevard in Anna Maria.

“Our nearest neighbor was at the Roser Cottage,” said Peggy. “And that was about the edge of town. There were just a few buildings around here.”

“My how things have changed since then,” said Peggy.

One of Peg’s friends dates back to 1937. She is Polly Moore Senseman, whose parents, Jack and Sally Moore, opened Moore’s Stone Crab Restaurant. Polly comes back occasionally to visit her daughter Susan (owner of the former Nica Rose jewelry boutique) and other family members on Anna Maria and in Cortez.

“But then again, a lot of things haven’t changed,” she added.

Her father’s story of Anna Maria is “reprinted” with her permission.

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