Now, however, she excused herself and went to her room, accompanied by Lucy Whalen. Left on the sun porch, the two husbands were subdued. "You know, retirement is great except for one thing," Ray Walton said at last. "The getting-old part. There's no use kidding myself about it, I've got maybe 10 more years to live if I'm lucky. And maybe I'll be able to play golf only five of them. That's why it's best to get as much out of every day as you can. There's going to come a time when you can't."
His eyes scanned the course until they settled on a figure in the distance, an oldtimer cautiously dismounting from a golf cart. "You want to know the best thing about living on a golf course like this?" Walton said finally. "Even if something happened and I had to be confined to a wheelchair, I could still sit here all day and heckle my friends."
It is useful to think of Charlotte Harbor, Florida's second largest, as a vast underwater golf course, the conformation of its rolling terrain determining where the water is shallow and where deep. Along the outer edges lie menacing sandbars, nature's own bunkers, and boaters like Jim Haas find the task of remaining in the harbor's narrow channels as challenging as a golfer does remaining on the fairway. For nearly 40 years a hardware-store owner in Mount Sterling, Ohio, Haas has lived in Port Charlotte three years, no small part of which he has spent bravely stuck on one sandbar or another.
His 24-foot powerboat, Lark, modest by Florida standards, is equipped to sleep two in an emergency and is capable of top speeds of 35 mph. "It gives me all the boat I need," says the 67-year-old Haas, a quiet, moonfaced man whose feet, clad in sandals and ankle-length socks, barely reach the deck as he sits at the controls, his eyes squinting into the sun. Haas goes boating two or three times a week, the salt air producing in him a sense of freedom undiminished by the fact that after a lifetime of cautious and purposeful endeavor he finds it more necessary than ever to plot his bearings and steer a steady course.
By his own estimate, Haas has run aground at least 50 times, at great loss of time, propellers and, very occasionally, temper. The harbor's poorly marked waters and tricky tides, rather than any real shortcomings on the skipper's part, are mainly to blame. For many years an ardent boater, Haas put in 60-hour weeks at his store in Mount Sterling but made a lot of weekend waves aboard a succession of nine boats he owned, the last of them a 32-foot houseboat that carried his wife Inez and himself on excursions down the Ohio River.
He thus comes by his seafaring more honestly than those in Port Charlotte who buy a boat upon retiring in the Noah-like belief that it might somehow be essential for survival in their new circumstances. A man quite familiar with this syndrome is Dave Brower, sales manager at Port Charlotte's Harbor Marine, where Jim Haas bought his boat. "Being in Florida without a boat is like being in the Sahara without a camel," runs Brower's favorite sales pitch, yet he allows that some of his customers tire of boating quickly. "A lot of these people use their boat a few weeks, then let it sit around for months," Brower says. "Then one day they come in and say, 'Hey, my brother Charlie's visiting from up north. I need to get my boat repaired in a hurry.' "
There are, certainly, other reasons for older (not to say ancient) mariners to use their boats. There was the time last March, for instance, when Jim and Inez Haas decorated Lark with colorful pennants and joined a fleet of 50 other craft to reenact the arrival into Charlotte Harbor in 1521 of the Spanish explorer Ponce de León, who was on a mission of colonization after having abandoned his search for the Fountain of Youth. The Ponce de León Festival, as the occasion is celebrated, ended with the Haases dancing the night away with other Port Charlotte couples to the music of Wayne King.
It is only through the tidiest of parallels that a spot discovered by Ponce de León is settled today by people who, having also found the restoration of youth to be elusive, are similarly engaged in a mission of colonization. If anybody doubts that the latter-day settlers are true pioneers, consider the late Jim Renshaw, a commercial printer from Chicago. In October 1956 Renshaw became Port Charlotte's first resident, moving into one of General Development's earliest model homes, a boxy dwelling at 102 South Easy Street. The address bespeaks the intoxication of all concerned. "It was wilderness," recalls Renshaw's widow Kathryn. "When we went out at night we'd have to leave the lights on so we could find our house."
People supposedly grow more fixed in their ways with age, but the retirees who followed the Renshaws into Port Charlotte have been remarkably willing to trade the familiar for the unknown. All told, General Development has sold 132,000 homesites there, making this one of the brightest success stories in the history of four-color brochures. To induce people to buy lots and eventually to settle, the company set up display booths in railroad stations of Northern cities, advertised heavily on TV (featuring such persuasive pitchmen as John Cameron Swayze, Bill Stern and Gabriel Heatter) and, to reach servicemen overseas, dispatched Volkswagen buses through the streets of France and Germany. Always the message was the same: $10 down and $10 a month would buy a lot in "Beautiful Port Charlotte on the Gulf of Mexico near Punta Gorda, Fla."
Some who settle in Port Charlotte do so sight unseen, but not Jim Haas, whose move there owed more to the gods of chance than to the gold-jacketed salesmen of General Development. When Haas sold his hardware store in 1967 ("I didn't want to be the richest man in the graveyard"), the only immediate plan he and Inez had was to make a long automobile trip to Florida, Louisiana and Texas. The trip was begun but never completed. Driving along Florida's Highway 41, the famed Tamiami Trail, which cuts through the town, they came to Port Charlotte, liked what they saw and within two hours arranged to buy a two-bedroom house on a wide canal.