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…
Part of me wants to play this cool and be all, “Yeah, it’s cool, you can pre-order my book” and the rest of me — the real me — has an almost-insurmountable compulsion to run around the house screaming “My book! MY BOOK!”
So severely conflicted on this am I that it took me 19 full days to write this post, which has to be some sort of record for something, even if it’s a record for how batshit crazy things get inside my head.
Forget all that. The post has arrived, as has the book. It feels as though I’ve lived a lifetime since I first had the idea, which I suppose happens to many writers, unless, of course, you happen to be James Patterson, because that man is a machine. And if you are James Patterson, hi. Buy my book, OK?
Technically, the book has not arrived: You can pre-order it now on Amazon (or from the University Press of Florida) and they’ll ship it to you on October 4, the actual release date. Also, if you want it as an ebook, you have to wait — I mean, not much longer, but apparently the something about metadata or other things I don’t understand and don’t you dare pretend you do, either. The takeaway? You will have the chance to buy the ebook and no, I don’t know when but soon.
When UPF offered me a book contract, my editor told me in no uncertain terms to never promise people a publication date (well, until the Press itself released one) so I would make jokes when people asked me. My favorite one?
“Well, I’m not certain but I’m hoping sometime before we elect a new president.”
I made it with a whole month to spare.
I love Gulfport, but I also love living near downtown St. Pete. I wouldn’t want to live near downtown at all, but I do love that I can be there in less than 10 minutes (finding parking may take slightly longer.) The waterfront – which is public access, every bit – is, as the mayor said recently, a jewel. When I was in college, St. Petersburg’s downtown was a place one did not go alone, or, really, at all. Things have changed, and I am thrilled.
One of the things I do – and I really enjoy – is speak to people about my work re-tracing the tours from the WPS Guide to the Southernmost State. I’ve lectured and taught at OLLI at Eckerd College for just over a year now, and I love it. There’s something incredibly rewarding about having a group of students who attend your lecture – and pay to do so – when they don’t get college credit for doing so. They just attend because they love learning and find the subject interesting.
This year, OLLI expanded its reach to include satellite campuses at the Westminster retirement communities, and last night the downtown St. Petersburg Westminster crowd (Westminster Palms), instead of heading to the Vinoy Verandah for drinks or walking a few blocks to get dinner, chose to hear me speak about eating your way across the Florida panhandle. I was incredibly flattered, so as a thank you, I made the class sour orange margaritas. Now, the sour oranges didn’t technically come from the panhandle, but they did come from Florida and who hasn’t sat through a class where the lecturer droned on and on in a monotone and you couldn’t wait to leave? Think of my lectures as your reward for those times. You’re welcome.
Read more about it here. If you follow the links you can even find my recipe for sour orange margaritas.
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.