Dan Fleser: Visiting St. Simons And Jekyll Islands

  • Tuesday, February 27, 2024
  • Dan Fleser

After a day on the road last week, yours truly and fellow traveler Mike dropped anchor near the Atlantic Coast in Brunswick, Ga. We were unwinding at a local watering hole when a good Samaritan approached, offering us free pizza.

He had more than enough pies for the group he was entertaining. He noticed us sitting nearby, noted our beverages and said you can’t have beer without a slice or two.

Along with digesting his generosity and his logic, our pizza man’s appearance also was food for thought. He had his long blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail. He wore gold hoop earrings. He could’ve passed for a pirate. While chewing on the circumstances, a wild thought suddenly struck me. I turned to Mike and blurted out: “We’re about to be shanghaied. This pizza is drugged.”

I babbled something about us waking up the next morning in the belly of a freighter steaming out to sea before discarding my amusement and returning to sanity.

Only my imagination was under the influence. The narcotic was our maritime setting. Two islands – St. Simons and Jekyll – were of particular interest. They were a short drive away, yet they were like worlds apart.

Visiting those islands the following day recalled a fascination that first took root in my childhood. I was 8 years old when I visited Mackinac Island, which is a vacation mecca in my home state of Michigan. The island is in the straits connecting Lake Huron and Lake Michigan between the state’s two peninsulas.

While its geography, quaint charms and ubiquitous fudge shops are appealing, the island’s history has been the biggest attraction for me and, I imagine, many others. Fort Mackinac, which looms above the harbor, was built by the British in 1781 in response to what happened across the straits at Fort Michilimackinac 18 years earlier. A group of Ojibwa Indians used the cover of a lacrosse game to attack British soldiers stationed there.

As a child, I pored over the historical markers describing and illustrating what happened. After maturing into adulthood and a career as a sportswriter, I have imagined an account of such an event. The lede might’ve read something like this: “For once, a game didn’t need hyperbole’s assistance to become a battle. It got there by way of its own grim device.”

My island hopping extended to Lake Erie a few years ago, courtesy of Mike and his family. His cousin, Cheri, and her husband, Gary, own a home on Middle Bass Island, which is part of a cluster of islands extending from just off the coast of Ohio into Canadian waters. Admiral Oliver Hazard Perry, commodore of the U.S. Fleet, launched the Battle of Lake Erie from nearby Put-in-Bay in September of 1813, wresting control of the lake from the British.

Beforehand, Admiral Perry had used Rattlesnake Island as a strategic vantage point to keep tabs on the British fleet. From a distance, the island resembles a serpent snaking along the water’s surface. In time, the name wrapped itself around rumors that the island had become an R & R getaway for mobsters.

Historically speaking, St. Simons didn’t suffer by comparison. Native Americans lived and died there centuries before any Europeans arrived. Its military history has encompassed the American Revolution, the Civil War and, most dramatically, World War II. On April 8, 1942, a German U-boat prowling the waters off the island’s coast sank two merchant ships in the middle of the night, killing 22 crew members. The blasts were felt as far away as Brunswick.

A museum situated a short walk from the beach recalls the harrowing night in detail, including the recollections of locals who experienced it. Think of the shock and the terror resulting from a far-away war suddenly and violently appearing at your doorstep.

My imagination didn’t linger much over that thought.

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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since 1988. He is a 2022 inductee to the Tennessee Sportswriters Hall of Fame. He can be reached at danfleser3@gmail.com.

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