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A patriotic faith-renewing trip

| Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012, 9:14 p.m.
Boca Grande Island, Florida.
Boca Grande Island, Florida.

We had a fine Thanksgiving dinner, 12 of us perched cheek to jowl around a table with children, grandchildren and friends. My wife and I were in Florida ameliorating the pain of a shocking election defeat.

I should say we were in Old Florida because we were at the Gasparilla Inn on Boca Grande island, a monument to a fading American WASP culture with its understated taste, good manners and no flash.

On a balmy night you can conjure the strains of Lester Lanin's orchestra wafting from inside the rambling white inn.

Gasparilla is a tiny place with lovely weather, few cars, no gas stations, no traffic lights, silent golf carts, no billboards, unlocked doors, no crime and cheery and polite people. Dogs are free to wander.

We brought our dogs Lucy and Ethel from Washington. They loved the beach and the ocean. It was their first experience with each. They found two dead fish in the receding tide, picking them up to run with, displaying them to people walking the beach as if they had caught them, chasing my grandchildren in and out of the surf, fish held proudly high.

We hadn't wanted to fly the dogs from Washington to Florida and back. Too iffy and stressful for them.

I decided to drive down in my tough Ford Expedition. This was not the dumbest decision I'd made this year; there were others. It wasn't the dogs; they were fine, uncomplaining, good riders, lovers of fast food stops, (two-quarter pounders, plain, no buns, one four-piece chicken McNuggets, no sauce. Two cups of water, no ice.) It was the distance and time involved. Boca Grande is on the Gulf Coast, all the way across Florida) Roughly 1,000 miles one way. Ouch.

On the way back to Washington, I worried a little about car trouble. The Expedition drives smoothly for such a tank but traveling through 100 miles of forest and swamp with only an occasional gas station and no stores prompted mild concern.

We were low on gas late in the afternoon when we rolled out of the Georgia swamps and into the small town of Santee in central South Carolina (population 740), famous for its cat fishing tournaments. We stopped at Smiths, a huge roadside store selling gas, fireworks, pecan fudge, peach preserves and souvenirs. We chatted with Lee Kelley, the friendly fellow who owns the place, started in the ‘40s by his father-in law, Mr. Smith. Lee brought his wife out to meet Lucy and Ethel, who are sociable characters like the Kelleys.

When I tried to start my car it screeched like a chain saw cutting through sheet metal -- and died. Lee Kelly called a friend of his, a tow truck driver named Snake Corbell, who showed up in 10 minutes and hauled us to a tiny garage (“We Repair RV's”) owned by his boss, one Baby Huey Herron, just a few miles down the road.

These middle-aged country men and their mechanic, Dan Remer, turned out to be amiable, honest and helpful people. They went out of their way for us, including getting new parts from a dealer 90 miles way. They found us a clean room at a Santee hotel, carried our bags to its top floor and brought our car back with a new starter, new flywheel and a reasonable bill, the next day.

Baby Huey's real name is Paul, said his mother, Miss Mary, who runs the tiny office in the garage and used car lot. “Snake's real name is Jeff,” she whispered. “I hate the name Snake,” she said, “but Jeff likes it.”

Snake, 51, and known locally for his collection of poisonous snakes. He has 40, including a puff adder, a couple of cobras, and more than a dozen copperhead rattlers, all of which he keeps in the small house he shares with his girlfriend of nine years, Linda. “She don't like ‘em much but she's come to tolerates ‘em,” said Snake. He has been bitten seven times, he said.

Our new friends in Santee, kind and decent, speak as well for the country folk of South Carolina and its way of life as the good people of Gasparilla, Fla., represent theirs. Spending time with all of them makes me like America a lot and renews my patriotic faith a bit, despite the depressing national vote.

Richard W. Carlson, a former U.S. ambassador to the Seychelles and former director of the Voice of America, is vice chairman of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

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