I found this out today, when a friend from middle school posted his obituary. The first thing I thought of? War songs. And then I thought, man, I wish I had sought him out and told him how much he’d set my life on this particular course.
You see, without Mr. Byers, I wouldn’t have a book. At least, I wouldn’t have written the book I wrote. I wouldn’t be interested in history. And I sure as shit wouldn’t give a rat’s red ass about the WPA, which kind of figured prominently in the book.
In eighth grade I didn’t know who I was yet. I didn’t know what I cared about, aside from Duran Duran and cute boys. I loved to write, but mostly poems that, honestly, weren’t exactly Pablo Neruda. And then I ended up in Mr. Byers’ history class, which was decidedly so much more than names and dates.
“Late is wrong,” he said the first day “and wrong will be punished.” Not a grand statement, of course, but if you’ve ever met a 12 year old, you know the importance of simple things. Even as he said it, though, he smiled. And you couldn’t be in his class and not smile, too.
We quickly moved from that to other things. History — a subject often relegated to phys ed teachers — often gets left behind the more practical (some would say) subjects of language arts and math. Mr. Byers would not allow this to happen; he forced us to care. With every new epoch of history, he had songs and posters. We’d walk into his class one day, and it would be covered, say, in election memorabilia from Herbert Hoover’s presidency, or war posters. When he taught us the Great Depression, he played us this song — of course, it wasn’t the Annie version. That’s how he drove home the horrors of the Depression, with this song. And then he moved us into FDR and why his New Deal was so balls-out awesome. He took an alphabet soup of agencies — FERA, WPA, CCC —and led us through them, explaining how these agencies pieced a battered economy back together and forever changed the landscape of America.
Years later, I rediscovered the WPA when I found the Guide to the Southernmost State, I remembered those long-ago classes. And while the narrative in Backroads doesn’t explicitly talk much of the WPA, the original book was a WPA project and my writing was informed by what I learned long ago in Mr. Byers’ class.
Only as an adult did I realize not everyone loved the WPA; not everyone loved President Roosevelt and his New Deal. This came as a shock to me; how could someone not love the man who saved America by using Americans? Clearly, these people had never taken Mr. Byers’ history class. I wonder, too, if I’d had a teacher less enthusiastic about the WPA, what my attitude upon discovering the writing the WPA would have been. Would I have pursued it? I want to think I would have, but honestly, when I realized the book was part of the WPA, my mind raced back to that classroom, those lessons, that man. Without his teaching, I do not know that I would have written the same book, if my writing style would have been informed the way it was.
I never told him. I never told him that, but not for him, there would be no book, not the book I wrote. Oh, yes, there certainly would have been a Backroads of Paradise, but it wouldn’t have been the same. No connection to the Great Depression so great that when I took an oral history of a woman who lived through it — just this afternoon — I asked her how she felt about FDR, and she told me she thought he was great and went on to talk about how awful Hoover was. At that instant, I remembered Mr. Byers and his “We’d Like To Thank You Herbert Hoover” song. I didn’t know he had died this afternoon, but all these years later, he was the reason I asked, he’s the reason I felt a spurt of excitement when she elaborated on why Hoover sucked and she liked FDR.
A few months after Mr. Byers covered the Great Depression, a few friends of mine and I organized the Lip Sync show at JFK. And then we got to the intermission, and nothing was planned. Dave Byers to the rescue: He stood in front of the crowd and, as was his custom, did what he knew: He led them in a political song, one that came slightly after my hero, FDR, led our great country into WWII. And every voice in that gymnasium — even the ones who hadn’t taken his class yet — every voice lifted to join him in a rousing chorus of song. Everyone loved this man and the way he taught history.
And so, tonight, with the world a little less rounded, a little less aware of itself and its history, I hear it again. Bear with me, as I play it again, in his honor, and I say, one last time…
When Craig Pittman told me my publisher had asked him to read my book, Backroads of Paradise, I vacillated between thrilled and nervous (this is actually a common state for me). Thrilled because, Craig Pittman, whoo-hoo! — and nervous because, well, Craig Pittman. In Florida circles, he’s kind of a big deal.
He liked it, and said so.
Then I had the chance to review his book, Oh, Florida! Turns out we both like each other’s writing.
Here’s my review on Goodreads, which, of course, links to the full story at Creative Loafing Tampa.
I reviewed this for Creative Loafing, and I also know Craig, so know that. However, I was prepared to shred this book if I didn’t like it. I did. A lot. Rather than paste in my whole article about why, here’s the link to what I’ve already said. Big deal to me is how Pittman doesn’t treat Florida as though we have only idiots.
So we have these awesome bookshelves in our living room. They stretch almost to the ceiling from about mid-thigh height. It’s one of the reasons I fell in love with the place.
|If you read my earlier post about my mom, look closely.
You can see wood shavings in this photo.
The problem for book lovers is that if you give us bookshelves like these, we try and fill them. Actually, there is no “try” – filling them with beloved manuscripts happens organically. For me, that means that, 17 months after signing the lease on the bookshelves, they’re overflowing with books about Florida. When you factor in the past year spent pulling books off to find the (seemingly) random fact to add in to the spicy goodness that was (I hoped) my master’s thesis, then pushing them back on the shelf again in no particular order, you have a mess. Or, at least, I did.
So yesterday, I decided I would put things right. Part of it was to blot out the 9-11 coverage on Fox “News” but mostly, I couldn’t take the dust and disorganization anymore. Also, I’m looking for my underwater camera (that’s another post) and I’d arrived at the quirky part of the search that we all come to when we’re desperately looking for something we simply cannot find, where bizarre ideas seem possible. I thought perhaps the camera was behind a book.
|No, the Emmys aren’t mine. I wish they were.|
- Early History through Explorative Narratives (also called “Lies told to the crown about Florida and one cool Bartram book”)
- Essential Florida (The WPA Guide to the Southernmost State, Florida Poems, Cross Creek, Everglades: River of Grass, and Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams)
- Everglades and Keys Fact and Fiction
- Tour and travel guides
- Hiaasen, MacDonald, and Randy Wayne White
- Books about Florida for which I don’t have enough to make a category
- Jimmy Buffett’s fiction and not-really-about-Florida-but-still-written-by-him books
Also, I’m wondering if anyone’s seen my camera….
In the 1990s I lived on Morse Boulevard, just outside Orlando, and I loved it. Other than buying groceries I did all my shopping by walking around the corner to Park Avenue. I found birthday gifts at local shop. A local florist make me a Christmas wreath for my front door. I sipped coffee at a non-Seattle-based shop that was neither trendy nor pricey. Friends and neighbors would walk down the street and get sushi at a hole-in-the-wall; the bookstore next door always had a lively game of checkers at its sidewalk table. The Mill restaurant had food for non-sushi lovers and we could walk there in 10 minutes.
Orlando seemed very far away, but it wasn’t. Not really. We’d drive to Church Street to get terrified at Terror on Church Street and marvel at the tourists who’d managed to wander away from the theme parks for an evening. We’d use the parking garage that had flowering bushes on its outside so we didn’t have to fight street traffic, but we’d move the car if we wanted to head down Colonial to Dekko’s to go dancing.
I worked, once or twice, as a stagehand for Orlando Opera Company, and the company shared space with Southern Ballet in a building donated by Florida Power. Before every matinee my friend Angi and I would climb a narrow ladder up to the roof and spread Visqueen over the long, narrow skylight. Lake Ivanhoe curved along the building and, while I hated the climb, I loved the view.
In case it isn’t clear, I loved everything about Orlando and Winter Park. The only thing wrong was that it was way too far from the beach, and I need salt water like beagles need to howl. I moved back to Pinellas county.
At first I visited frequently, but over time the visits grew less frequent. I went back this week, and what I saw shattered my heart.
Dollar General, automotive chain stores, and fast food chains dominate the landscape. My college and early 20s memories are all that remain of a unique, untouched community. I don’t just mean Orlando; Park Boulevard has changed utterly, populated with the smaller chain stores you see in every small town trying to make itself distinctive from the next small town 20 miles over. A few holdouts remain, but the personal feel has disappeared under a cloud of assimilation.
Sadly, this is not confined to Orlando. Over the past few days the joke in our small camper has become “Look – a Dollar General. We must be downtown.” At times I feel adrift in Anytown, USA.
My thesis chair and Florida guru Dr. Gary Mormino wrote an article for the Tampa Tribune years ago. In it he referenced a 1990s postcard of the Orlando skyline. “Welcome to Orlando!” the postcard read. One problem: the skyline didn’t belong to Orlando. When polled, area readers thought it might be Halifax.
“There is no here, here,” Dr. Mormino laments in his article, and as I drove down US17 and 441 through the Orlando area and a dozen other smaller towns, my heart breaks for Orlando, for Winter Park, and for every little town in Florida who has lost its “here.”
Dollar General stores all look the same, whether they’re nestled under live oak trees or set amidst palm trees, and, after eight days of driving Florida’s back roads, those stores symbolize the loss of our “here.”
I see Florida towns as we travel from stoplight to stoplight through sand, forest and lakes, and some of these roads reveal the very worst of Florida: her homogenized outer skin, a veneer that is peeling up like cheap pressboard furniture that’s been through a flood. This is the US 19 through Largo or the Ulmerton Road of the state. This is the worst Gulf or Gulfport Boulevard we could conceive. This is neon and sandy asphalt and Anytown, Anywhere. This is hell.
I believe St. Pete Beach is trying to keep some of its “here”, despite what the people throwing around threats and yelling at commission meetings may say. I believe Gulfport wants that, too. I do not know they have the funding or the leadership, but I hope it finds the former and suspect it may have the latter. I’ll be honest, I’d feel better if the city planners had been more vocal about how to keep our here, here. I’d feel better if Gulfport hadn’t already started the march toward low-budget chain stores along its namesake boulevard. I would feel better if we could at least agree on what our “here” is.
Take a drive yourself and search for the here: some of it remains throughout Florida. It bleeds through in old diners with Cuban coffee and restaurants with frogs legs and catfish. It traces the rolling hills of north Florida and it invites you to roll down your car windows and breath in south Florida’s salt air. It knows who it is and can’t try and pretend differently. Each here has its own identities, filled with its own history and imperfectly beautiful. It has no apologies.
It has no Dollar General stores.
I spent about 20 minutes taking pictures at the Goofy Golf – octopus, dinosaur, Easter Island head (he was my favorite, and also apparently an institution at any Florida minigolf that is not a chain establishment. Only in Florida do we have franchised minigolf.) and the gamut of the sorts of things you would expect to find at a minigolf establishment along Florida’s coast.
Panama City Beach offers untold riches of chintzy touristana. They did it first, and they did it best. Before them there was only gator wrestling and mermaids. Come on Florida, you can do better than that!, Panama City Beach must have said.
Unlike the newer, glitzy flavors of chintzy tourism, the shalmtzy flavor syrups that drizzle throughout the city are more traditional ones: wooden roller coasters, Ripley’s and a more authentic version of International Drive. The gimmicks here hatched I-Drive; the extreme and the overdone cut its teeth on Panama City Beach’s gritty fluffy sugar sand before corrupting our state’s chewy center.
Goofy Golf remains. Established in 1959, it stands in tropical shades of purple, gold and lame´. You do not feed live gators here (as you may at some of the chains); you do not see a plane crashing into a faux mountain. You are surrounded by high rises and planned shopping experiences; nothing is left to chance. The beach, glittering aquamarine against fluffy buff sand, is down there, if you care to look.
It is tourism for tourism’s sake, and the technicolor icons of the minigolf course sum up this pastel tourist life.
I can’t sleep. It’s 4:30 in the morning and I’ve been lying awake for two hours. Even a cheezy dime store romance from the KOA lending library (Why is it that the two times I’ve been in Tallahassee I’ve ended up at the KOA? What’s wrong with me?) didn’t help. The healthy shot of 151 I poured myself didn’t help. If this blog doesn’t put me to sleep I’m heading over to Facebook to play some stupid time wasting game.
Not working. It’s now 5:05 and all I can think about is everything of Florida I am not going to see in the next two weeks. There just isn’t enough time; there’s too much of her and not enough of me.
Picture Florida as a piece of orange slice candy. You know the ones I mean: chewy orange slices with a crusty sugar coating. You can’t eat too many; the flavor will overwhelm after one or two.
I’ve spent the past few days peeling at the state’s chewy orange center, and now I’m worried I won’t have enough time to lick at its sugary outer layers. There’s just so much to see, so many places almost no one knows about that I’ve yet to explore, and I really don’t have enough time to give them the attention they deserve.
Take today: we have a less-than-three-hour drive to Port St. Joe, where we will camp on the beach. Sounds great, right? Yeah, I thought so, too. Then we drove through Monticello yesterday and I realized that I really wanted to walk around the town and explore the idea of poverty juxtaposed with pre-civil-war architecture. I want to spend enough time there to make the place breathe for the people who haven’t been there.
So, OK, add an hour. If we leave our campground at 9 (this has yet to happen but hope springs eternal), we can still be in Port St. Joe by 1, right?
Not so fast, math wizards. Because there is still Natural Bridge Battlefield, which is only important because I just two days ago realized it referred to the river disappearing underground rather than some land formation arching over the river. So, OK, add another 30 minutes.
PLUS there’s Tallahassee, our capital and an awesome town even if it weren’t. We need to take a look there.
Wakulla Springs. That’s where Rico Browning worked his magic with Creature From the Black Lagoon; it’s where Tarzan and Cheetah frolicked. There’s a great boat ride there and a lodge.
Just hell. Oysters. Because we’re going right through Apalachee Bay. And with oysters come beer. It’s the law in Florida, in case you didn’t know. Indian Pass Raw Bar and Moe’s are currently vying for our dinner business, but who knows what we’ll drive by that I don’t already have on my radar?
And then we get to the park. The beach. The panhandle’s diamond gulf coast, except by the time we set up camp we’ll have about an hour to enjoy it. Then it’s sunset, dinner, bed, and time to do this all over again. All the while all I can think about are the people and places I’m missing.
Just bloody hell. These are the places that everyone visits, and I’m going because I want to go there; it’s totally selfish. But what about the other places? What about the Sopchoppy cemetery? What about Double Bayou? What about Blount’s Bay? What about all the little places with real people and real lives who deserve to be seen? They are no less valuable than the hairdresser who bought Moe’s; they are of equal interest as the people who narrate the tour down the Wakulla.
I am failing you, Mr. Kennedy. I am failing and I am sorry. I just don’t have the resources to do this on an extended basis. There’s too much of Florida to see.
Florida has too many riches; she simultaneously has too much chewy orange center and sugar sand coating. I love all of it and wish I could gather it up in my arms, weave it into some great lime and sand afghan, and spread it out over the state for the whole world to grab a corner and snuggle up.
The Florida Sleep. I would love it if everyone could snuggle under the blanket of Florida and rest, knowing that they would all meet at some point. But that won’t happen; the chances of a Miami boy meeting a girl from Panama City are slim, as are the chances of the two respective worlds coming to a mutual place of understanding.
What is my point here, I wonder after a few scant hours or sleep and even more hours of fretting? Do I want everyone to find the best oysters, or am I after something more?
Of course, I am after something more. Florida is more than oysters and sand. She is more than Disney and the Keys. She is salt and sun and citrus and pines, but she is more.
She is sleeping with your windows open in August and feeling like you could disappear in a pool of sweat.
She is watching the sun set over the shallow turquoise Gulf and knowing that you are home.
She is wading through the swamp, knowing that each step could invoke the wrath of a gator or – more realistically – a snake.
She is railing against big sugar and the oil rigs and everything else that threatens what you love, whatever that is.
She is Florida, and she is sunshiney and wonderful and perfect in all her flaws.
If only I could know I could show you all that, I would sleep. It wouldn’t be just any sleep.
It would be the great sleep, the one that bears the weight of our history and our future.
It would be the Florida Sleep.
I really, really wished I had paid more attention in my Nature Writing class with Dr. Hallock, because here in north-ish Florida there’s all this Bartram stuff. We just left Ravine Gardens State Park, pretty in its own right thanks to the last Depression America had, and on the way out – after touring the loop encircling the ravine and enjoying a quiet lunch by the terraced amphitheater – I see a cabin with a sign, “William Bartram Trail.”
For those of you not familiar with early Florida literature (although I’m not certain that Bartram, who wrote shortly before the Revolution), let me put it to you this way: Bartram was a breath of fresh air compared to the flat out lies told to the crowns financing Florida expeditions. See, “early Florida literature” is really just a euphemism for “reports to my boss to justify my large government travel budget.” That’s right, folks, besides from providing graduate students with scads of archaic language to wade through, these writers weren’t writers at all – they were government workers who had to justify their jobs. 500 years and nothing’s changed, except for the lack of brave new lands to visit and irrevocably alter in the name of “keeping your job.”
When you consider this body of – we’ll call it literature just to give it a name, if not an accurate one – literature consists of self-serving accounts of what the king’s money was doing for the home country, you start to realize that these books are aggrandized reports home designed to make the explorers look good (and therefore stay employed, because if your explorers look good, you look good.)
Consider the narrative of LeMoyne, who explored La Florida in the mid 16th century with a group of Frenchmen: the pictures contained in this government report include water dragons and reptiles (I’d guess alligators) with snake-like heads and man-like arms (for those of you not intimate with crocodilians, gators have comically small, useless arms.) There’s also a touching sketch of the Indians (yes, I said it) stabbing a man through the penis (clearly the source of all his power) and sawing off his other extremities with Stryker-like precision.
Fun stuff, good times, but wholly inaccurate as far as I can tell. Of course, that’s just how Europeans described the natives. Couple that with how a few Europeans can beat down limitless earlier Americans (don’t believe me? Read Pizzaro’s account of what he did in Peru) and you’ve got yourself pretty much every exploratory account of the New World.
Enter William Bartram. The guy liked plants, mostly, and as nifty as they are, it’s hard to make plants into man-eating vicious beasts. Well, mostly. It also helped that he explored Florida well after the Spaniards and the British wove themselves along the eastern coastline of America; it’s harder to lie when there isn’t an ocean between you and your boss. They could pop in any old time and see that those dragons were, indeed, tarpon. Fun to work on the end of a line, but not exactly fire-breathing beasts.
I like Bartram. He wrote real words. I mean, he’s no chamber of commerce travel writer, but I like that, too. He wrote about what he saw up and down Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas in what I consider more realistic terms. He loved his birds and plants, so that was a lot of his work, not massacring injuns.
Sunday morning before I left the house I took one last look at my bookshelves. I have great bookshelves in the house I rent: they cover one wall from floor to ceiling. My hand paused over my copy of Bartram’s Travels. I wanted to take it. I knew I would want it; knew I didn’t remember half of his expedition. All the same, I had packed a lot of stuff. I ended up leaving the book.
So, of course, within two days we’re at Manatee Springs State Park, with a spring so blue and encircled with knobby-kneed cypress that I never want to leave the waterside. As I take it all in, I notice a plaque that tells me William Bartram discovered this spring in the late 1700s. The plaque bears a transcription of his notes about the springs, but says nothing of how he happened across the cerulean oasis. I assume he navigated his way down the Suwannee River to find it, but that’s just a guess.
It is also just a guess how today’s lunch stop ended up on the trail. I’m not surprised, mind you, just curious. I can picture my copy of Travels sitting on the top shelf of my bookshelf, right hand side. Taunting me.
What a fun thesis it would have been, following Bartram. Of course, that would have taken me out of Florida, and we all know that I turn to stone if I look directly at another state’s history. Also, I’m having a lot of fun now. After lunch we stopped at Angel’s Diner, Florida’s oldest diner (it opened in 1932), and had milkshakes (pusalows, actually).
Bartram, I would like to note, never stopped there. I’d like to believe either Stetson Kennedy or Zora Neale Hurston did.
This is our state’s most tragic loss. Not knowing what we stand to lose allowed us to swallow miles of beach with condo canyons and surrender the Everglades to sugar cane and irrigation. Our state’s beauty has become a commodity with the most beautiful parts garnering the most pages in tour books. If your town doesn’t fit with the accepted view of paradise, well, you don’t get the prize: visitors.