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St. Petersburg Times

Vain New World


June 27, 2004
Copyright © 2004 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.

Oh, Juan Ponce de Leon. What have you wrought?

We can understand your generation's desire for gold. Everybody wants to get rich, the quicker the better, especially now. But we who settled the New World are even more interested in the legend that says you were searching for invigorating waters, a fountain of sorts that would return even wrinkled conquistadors to their salad days.

Oh, Juan Ponce! When you caught sight of the new land on April 2, 1513, you named it La Florida because it was the Feast of Flowers. But if you could only see La Florida now.

Nobody is allowed to look older than 40, your excellency. Everybody is required to be on a first-name basis with a plastic surgeon or the neighborhood artisan who will tattoo a youthful rose just above the crack on their perfectly proportioned rumps. The prematurely gray are expected to color their hair or cover it with a ball cap, worn, of course, backward. There is no reason to offend more attractive younger people with unsightly yellow teeth. Dentists can make even old people presentable.

In modern Florida, Ponce, nobody who wants to be considered young is allowed to drive a Pontiac or a Lincoln Town Car. Youthful older people drive Jeeps and Hummers. They instinctively avoid meatloaf at the earlybird. Instead they drink martinis and eat sushi at midnight bistros. Nobody is impotent in La Florida, if you don't mind such a saucy word. Thank you, Viagra.

Oh, Senor! You ought to see the tight butts and perky breasts on Clearwater Beach on a sunny weekend morning. You ought to see the earrings and the pierced belly buttons and the pony tails. And that's just the older men.

One more thing, your highness. Sorry about those Calusa aboriginals and their poisoned arrows. In La Florida, we like to believe we will live forever.

Ponce de Leon lives on

Listen: Florida has always been a place for starting anew. Its first people trooped onto the emerging Peninsula about 12,000 years ago. The native people managed quite well, thank you, until the arrival of the first European tourist.

Oh, Ponce de Leon! Five centuries after your first walk on the beach, your presence remains. It is almost impossible to find a town in our midst that lacks at least one street named after you. In St. Augustine, America's oldest city, turn off Ponce de Leon Boulevard onto Old Mission Avenue, and then take Magnolia east. You will discover Fountain of Youth National Archaeological Park.

In St. Augustine, which was founded in 1565, folks take their legends very seriously. "This is the original Fountain of Youth,'' declares the woman who issues $6 admission tickets on a warm morning when jasmine blossoms perfume the air.

Wise-acre historians elsewhere, your worship, contend that you probably never set foot in what became St. Augustine, and that you never put quill to paper your thoughts regarding a fountain of youth.

Historians think you first came to the New World with Columbus, helped settle Hispaniola and discovered for Spain the island later known as Puerto Rico. They say you ruthlessly governed the Carib aboriginals, sometimes letting loose greyhounds against the unruly who objected to being treated as slaves. When slaves died, you sailed to the Bahamas and captured more.

The islands under your rule apparently provided little material treasure other than aboriginal flesh and bone, which only whetted appetites for more ambitious exploration. Carib Indians, according to legend, apparently talked about magic springs in Bimini and a magic river west of Bimini that rejuvenated old men. Perhaps the Caribs believed the legend, or perhaps they were trying to get you Spaniards out of their hair. In 1512, at any rate, you sailed north from Puerto Rico hoping to find Bimini. Instead, in the spring of the following year, west of Bimini, you came across a lush, tropical land that also had nice beaches.

Where you landed precisely is open to disagreement. Your navigators, after all, lacked the GPS devices that today are routine accessories even on our Hummers. Historians say you made landfall somewhere between Cape Canaveral and St. Augustine and encountered native people known as the Timucuan. Covered with tattoos, Timucuans were apparently taller and longer-lived than you sickly Spaniards. So perhaps there was something special about the water in La Florida after all.

"It is not preposterous to imagine the Spanish being utterly captivated by the magical natural discoveries of the New World: snakes with rattles, eels that sent currents through tropical waters, birds with indescribably beautiful colors and awkward shapes, new beverages and foodstuffs and breathtaking scenery,'' says University of South Florida historian Gary Mormino. "Considering the mysterious new worlds unfolding, is not a Fountain of Youth possible?''

Fountains of youth

Oh, Ponce! Did you not find anything liquid worth drinking? Did you not write anything down? Did you mean to help future tourist attractions compete for the title "Fountain of Youth''?

Some say you sailed from today's Jacksonville up the St. Johns River to what is now called DeLeon Springs State Park in Volusia County. A century ago, an enthusiastic Chamber of Commerce fellow, his typewriter on fire with muse, touted the spring because the water "reinvigorates the frame exhausted by fatigue, weakness or heat, hardens the flesh and leaves the skin smooth and unctuous. The liver and kidneys are stimulated to greater activity and relieved of congestion and many cases of wonderful cures of kidney disease, catarrh, fever sores, rheumatism, boils, crysipelas, jaundice, asthma, nervous depression, etc. are known.''

Despite stories of smooth, boilless epidermi, not to mention the rheumatism- and jaundice-free lifestyles of DeLeon Springs bathers, others were convinced that Warm Mineral Springs had to be the real fountain. Just off U.S. 41 between Venice and North Port in southwest Florida, the spring attracts tourists by the hundreds to this day. Filled with minerals and perpetual 80-degree water, the spring feels like a hot tub to the youngish old folks who swear by the place.

Oh, Ponce! Even St. Petersburg, once known cruelly as "death's waiting room,'' has a Fountain of Youth. Built in 1901, it lies a few hundred feet beyond the rightfield fence of Progress Energy Park on Fourth Avenue South. It's a peaceful garden spot, hidden among lush shrubbery and shade trees. You can sit there for hours and have the place to yourself.

Years ago, the fountain was a mecca for tourists and residents who daily filled jugs with the magical water. Casey Stengel, who played for the Boston Braves when they trained in St. Petersburg in the 1920s, delighted in posing for Chamber of Commerce photographs while swilling the fountain's sulphur-tasting potion. Of course, Casey still got old. By the time he was managing the Yankees in the 1950s, his face was wrinkled and his earlobes sagged to his spikes. Still, he did make it to 85.

In St. Augustine's Fountain of Youth, hope springs eternal. There are beautiful gardens, histrionic peacocks and historical exhibits to get the blood boiling. Fine and dandy, but most folks want to glimpse the storied fountain and perhaps drink deeply.

"I'm 123 years old,'' chortles the guide, Joe Kobza, though he looks more like 60.

He leads his flock into a dark room. Inside, water trickles from a fountain. Cameras flash; video cameras hum. This is it? Kobza pours water into paper cups and hands them out like communion chalices. Everybody drinks eagerly. Everybody makes make faces. The water has the distinct taste of rotten eggs.

Nobody turns young right away.

Tattoos and tummy tucks

Listen, Ponce: Deborah Olivieri says she relates completely to the ancient Timucuans of your day. She eats fish; they ate fish. They shot arrows with bows; as a youth she accompanied her dad to his archery range.

Also, she likes tattoos. She owns Ms. Deborah's Fountain of Youth Tattoo Studio Inc. at 78 Lemon St. in St. Augustine. Many of Ms. Deborah's patrons look like they stumbled in from a cast party for The Pirates of the Caribbean. But more and more youthful old people are looking for a different kind of Fountain of Youth.

"We've done 80-year-olds,'' Ms. Deborah says. "I did a 78-year-old not long ago. I did a butterfly on her right forearm. Older people are a real challenge because their skin is very thin and elastic. But she really wanted it. She works in a cafeteria at a nursing home and wanted everybody to see her tattoo when she served food.''

At her next birthday, Ms. Deborah will hit the half-century mark. But she has coal-black hair, perfectly white teeth and three rings in her nose. She has the lovely, smooth skin of a teenager. Of course, her smooth skin is covered by tattoos.

Her last tattoo was permanent blue eyeliner. Her first tattoo, a unicorn on her buttocks, was inked more than two decades ago by husband No. 1. "It's a little lower than it used to be,'' she says with false modesty.

In between her first and last tattoos are about a hundred others. They include flowers, vines, animal horns, a mermaid, a heart and lady luck. She has a tattoo that says "Mom'' and a tattoo that celebrates a former boyfriend, "Richie.'' She has tattoos on her breasts, hips and arms, legs, hands and feet. She has traveled all over the world for tattoos, though she has inked a few herself.

"This skull and marionette strings I did myself,'' she says. "It's a self-portrait. I guess I was having a bad day.''

Sometime in the future, Ms. Deborah hopes to open another business, a bed-and-breakfast in Yucatan for tattoo artists, a place where they can kick back and relax, eat organic food, look at the clouds and blue water and maybe not get stared at disapprovingly by old fogies who don't understand what being young is all about.

Maybe the real Fountain of Youth is in the Yucatan.

Old is out

In the youth business of modern Florida, Ponce, there is some argument regarding tattoos. You have the young people, and the young old people, who value them. The competing view comes from another corner of the market.

"I do not like dealing with tattoos.''

Mila Mician speaking. Over in Tampa, a block or so off Dale Mabry, is her business, Body by Mician. A former Army plastic surgeon, Mician specializes in making aging people look younger. She does breast augmentations and butt lifts, fixes eyes and noses, and even improves calves and tummies. But she draws the line at removing that "I'm out spending my children's inheritance'' tattoo from your upper back.

"Tattoos are nonpredictable. To remove them is time-consuming and expensive,'' she says. "It costs 10 times more to remove a tattoo than it costs to get one. If it's a small tattoo, or if it's the name of an ex-husband and you hate him, I might be able to excise it. If it's a big tattoo and you liked it at one time, I say keep it. Stand behind your decision.''

Mician was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and speaks with a charming accent. She became a U.S. citizen in 1967, got her medical degree from the University of Florida and retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel more than a decade ago. In the bright lights of her office, she appears to have striking purple hair. "I lie about my age,'' Mician says. Oh, we could find out, Ponce, but why bother in a story about the Fountain of Youth?

"Who wants to be old these days?'' continues Mician, who is sponsoring a Plastic Surgery Fashion Show, starring her patients, on July 16 at Grande Occasions at the Town Center in Tampa at 8 p.m.

"Who wants to have gray hair these days? I have older women patients who now date much younger men because they look so good. This one woman complained to me about her boyfriend's immaturity. I said, "Well, at least he's not 18.' She said, "He's 22!' ''

The doctor tucks their tummies and gives them cleavage Charo would envy.

"Sometimes I say no. I say, "You would be better off getting a new boyfriend than having surgery. You look fabulous.' But if you are a dancer or you work at that restaurant - what is it called? The Hooters? - I understand that your breasts are your livelihood. They tell me, "I know they will be heavy and make me miserable later. But I'll be able to get my breasts fixed again after my career is over.' ''

How about those butts?

"For a while, everybody wanted to be Jennifer Lopez. They wanted a J.Lo butt. Of course, I did some J.Lo butts. With the butt, you want to make the incision in the crack so your patient can wear a T-back. What I like about what I do is it marries medicine with art.''

She has a Web site. Most every plastic surgeon in Florida does. The Fountain of Youth Institute - you would love it, Ponce - has one of the grandest. It tells the story of C. Randall Harrell, M.D., who practices on U.S. 19 in Pinellas County's Palm Harbor.

He was born in Georgia, canoed in the Okefenokee and spent happy times in Florida with his Jacksonville grandparents when he was a boy. Jacksonville is an hour's drive from St. Augustine and the Fountain of Youth National Archaeological Park. Harrell, who has wavy red hair and a devil-may-care mustache, loved the park. He loved the possibility of immortality.

And now the desire for immortality - for resisting aging with all your might - is right in the open. Those makeover television shows, Ponce! And Ted Williams' head is in a freezer, waiting for the day his genes can be resurrected.

"People used to sneak into town with bags over their heads to have cosmetic surgery,'' Harrell says. "Now they are very proud of their surgery. It's a celebrity thing.''

Photos of celebrities he has improved hang in his office, including singer Judy Collins and former Dallas Cowboy quarterback Roger Staubach. Harrell's office workers, by the way, are all attractive enough to be TV anchorwomen. One of them - Marissa Morris, the office spokeswoman and the doctor's wife - used to anchor WFLA-Ch. 8's newscasts.

"I still do some trauma surgery,'' Harrell goes on. "But mostly, I do this now. It's a very exciting time to be a plastic surgeon. At one time, after you reproduced, it was time to go to the grave. Now we live another 50 years beyond having children. We don't want to age like our parents. We don't want to look like our parents. And we don't have to.

"I have done breast reductions for women in their 80s. Vanity doesn't go away with age.''

The only certainty

We all want to live forever, Ponce. You wanted immortality and fame. That is why you returned to Florida in 1521 even though you were 61, old for a European. This time you sailed up the west coast and made landfall somewhere in today's Lee County, perhaps Estero Bay.

The Spanish crown would have appreciated your ambition to establish another colonial outpost. You would have been the toast of Madrid! Think of all the young senoritas who would have wanted to dance with you!

Unfortunately, you picked the headquarters of Florida's fiercest aboriginals, the Calusas. They had encountered Spaniards before and knew what to do.

Ponce, you arrived with 200 soldiers, Catholic priests, horses, livestock, seeds and building material, but the Calusa warriors did not meet you with applause or flowers or the keys to their cities. Fox News was not around to show it, but we know from historians that they threw spears and fired arrows in your direction. One arrow embedded in your thigh. Historians think you were carried to the ship immediately.

Historians don't know if you died on the ship, or if you died of infection in Cuba, the ship's destination. They just know you died, as all men and women must do, later or sooner, no matter what.


Florida: A Short History, by Michael Gannon, University Press of Florida.

Florida's Indians, by Jerald T. Milanich, University Press of Florida.

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