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Beauty for Ashes . . .

Ecclesiastes 4:10 Pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.

We pulled into the parking area of the Florida vacation cottages where we planned to stay for two months. A lady leaned out the window of a departing car and excitedly said, “Hi! We’re going to an Arlo Guthrie concert! Bye!” She waved and they were off. Though we were weary from nearly three days of traveling, her enthusiasm was infectious.

For several years we’d taken one-month vacations in Florida, staying in houses or condos available for short term rent along the Atlantic coast. It was easy to find rentals after the crash of 2008, but as the economy improved, it become increasingly harder. By 2014, it was nearly impossible to find one. After months of searching, it looked as if all suitable places were already booked or beyond our budget.

A new place appeared on the search radar, a cluster of cottages on the Indian River Lagoon just north of Fort Pierce. The photographs looked inviting. We read glowing reviews. It was right on the water and pet friendly which meant our dog would be welcome. After what we thought was adequate due diligence, we put our money down.

The place was quiet after the greeting party departed. We looked around for a place to check in. To our puzzlement, there was none. We called the owner who eventually arrived on site. She gave us the two-cent tour, handed us the keys and took off. It was a swift plunge downhill from then on.

The smell of mildew inside the cottage was overwhelming. The furniture was tattered. The kitchen was filthy, the paint chipping, the ceiling stained, the screens were ripped, the smoke detector had no batteries, the shades were broken and a cess pool festered outside the kitchen window. And this is only a partial list! The bathtub was layered with gunk that defied description. The toilet gurgled ominously when flushed. It only got worse. Eventually, we had raw sewage backing up into the tub. When we sought out the owners to let them know of the conditions, we were met with hostility. As in swearing at the guests hostility. Eventually, we figured out the glowing reviews were ringers written by family and friends.

We weren’t alone in our challenges. People occupying other cottages began congregating in the morning, exchanging stories of problems that had cropped up over the previous twenty-four hours. It became a game: who had the worst story, and, what had the owner’s response been? We joked about it. Gallows humor, I suppose. In the midst of the trials, we picked each other up with kind words and knowing smiles.

Our cabin was a duplex. The other side was rented by the woman who had greeted us on arrival and her husband. We got to know them, discovering intelligent and talented people who were anything but boring. We shared wine and music and stories—and turds gurgling up in our respective bathrooms. Gross, but we determined to make the best of the situation.

We also met other interesting people, a writer and his wife and an older couple who had been staying at the same cottage on the grounds for nearly two decades (under different ownership). The older gentleman invited us to his church, took us out on his boat, and helped us through the difficulties. The writer and his wife were in a remodeled cabin which was considerably better than ours, although not without its problems.

We’ve remained friends with our duplex partners and the writer and his wife. The older couple sadly have gone through tragedy; he succumbed to an aggressive form of leukemia. The writer has since published a wonderful book—Uncommon Character: Stories of Ordinary Men and Women Who Have Done the Extraordinary, a work that was in progress during their stay. Our duplex partners bought a place up the coast in Sebastian and are thriving in the music community there. If you go to the Tiki Bar on Monday nights, you’re in for a treat if Mike is on keyboards!

We’ve since bought a condo in Fort Pierce and occasionally cruise by the place we dubbed ‘The Swamp’. It’s still in operation, although with all the health violations, I’m not sure how.

It was a trying vacation, but something magical happened: strangers joined forces and helped one another. Besides that, we made lifelong friends. When I consider this, I have to be grateful we landed there. Sometimes, the worst in life brings out the best in people.

A peaceful sky over the cottages

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