Hold Your Judgment, America: Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos (Hard Candy, Redux)

As of Friday, the United States Coast Guard officially ended the search for 14-year-old fishermen Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos, the two boys whose capsized boat was found far north of where the boys were last seen. I cannot imagine the immensity of the pain ripping through their families and their community in Tequesta, not just today, but for years to come.

I’ve followed this story closely. El Cap and I have a life geared around Florida, boats, and the water. Everyone seems to have disdain for the parents and what they did wrong in regards to the boys in the boat. I’ve read and heard a lifetime’s worth of disdain and scorn about those parents. Perhaps you are one of those people who feels the parents may be partly to blame, that allowing two 14-year-old boys alone a boat was begging for this type of tragedy.

Please, Internet, hold your judgment. I know we’re Florida and the popular dog to kick right now, but odds are, you have no clue what you’re talking about. El Cap works for a tow boat company; I’ve worked for several different boat companies. Couple that with the time we spend on our own boat or kayaks, and rest assured, we’ve both seen more than our share of stupid boating tricks. I can tell you that I’ve seen teenagers on boats and I’ve seen adults on boats, and every stupid human trick I’ve seen on a boat involved grown-ass men.

Did Perry and Austin have good parents? I have no idea; I don’t know them. I do know this: Allowing two boys with local waterway knowledge and experience to take a boat they’d run many times into the Loxahatchee River and along the ICW doesn’t make their parents bad parents.

See, people in boats on rivers and in the ICW is what we’re about down here. People move here to offer their kids the kind of life Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos had from an early age. Unless you live in south Florida and know the water as they did, I’d bet money these boys would put you to shame in the water. Did they misbehave and venture out of the ICW (Intracoastal Waterway)? Perhaps. Clearly, they left the ICW but why or under what circumstances remain unknown. No one knows what happened. But even if they did leave intentionally, it was misbehavior on par with a teenager from Oklahoma sneaking out after curfew to have some beers with a friend.

To those of you who don’t understand this, sending teenage boys like these two out in a boat on a Florida river or the ICW is absolutely no different than kids in Montana being able to go sledding or snowmobiling, or kids in Ohio being able to ride their bikes around town. Florida – south Florida especially – is a glorious tangle of rivers, lakes, bayous, and bays, a patchwork of dredged land held together with salty sinew. We have more water than land down there. To those boys, the water wasn’t a scary place. It wasn’t a dangerous place. It was as familiar to them as their own street. They knew the local waters; likely, they could read a chart better than most of you.

If they did intentionally leave the ICW – if they hadn’t lost steerage or had an incident that brought them there inadvertently – they were simply being teenagers, pushing the limit, testing boundaries. I’ve talked to a grown man who used to head over to the Loop Road, close to Miami off US 41, until his dad found out and put a stop to it, lest the young kid be killed. Odds are, every one of you reading this did something foolish, too, as a teenager. Drinking and driving? Jumping off the roof of your house? Showing your ass in your new car? Riding your bike in between traffic? Every one of those things could have killed you. Boys will be boys. Teenagers will be teenagers. Just because Florida boys play in boats and not on land doesn’t make their parents any worse than yours, or any worse than you are.

If you are a parent, I guarantee your kid will do something stupid that maybe could kill them one day, too. And I hope it ends better for you than it looks like it will for these two families. If it doesn’t, I hope you are shown compassion many of you are not showing these families today.

So how about you hold that judgment, eh, Internet?

Hard Candy, Redux: Tear Down That Wall

When we (El Cap and I) decided to move back to the ‘port, I knew what I was getting myself into. Our little town may appear a waterfront ideal, but by the time we cautiously decided to look at two houses (one on Beach Boulevard and the other – the one we now call home – in the much-maligned “Ward Four”), I had covered Gulfport and its myriad of issues (and if you don’t live here, trust me, for a 2.5 square mile town, we have issues. The smaller the stakes, the bigger the drama and all that) for almost a decade. One of the biggest problems new Gulfportians have with Gulfport is that they visit for a weekend, fall in love with Beach Boulevard, buy a house largely on impulse, and then realize that our downtown is not representative of the town.

Oh, don’t misunderstand, Gulfport has plenty going for it – we live here, after all, and I’m glad I do – but despite our devil-may-care, anything-goes, “we’re a drinking town with a fishing problem”, hippie-meets-good-ol’-boy-vibe, the town is not perfect. Our non-brick streets look like a teenager’s pre-Acutane face, our sewers tend to fail (to be fair, the city’s started to repair and replace those), we undervalue our waterfront, and the northeast corner of the city (that’s Ward Four again) gets systemically neglected, the old guard is having trouble with a newer, younger generation wanting to take the city in a new direction, and the houses often need more than a little work.

Ah, yes. The houses. That’s the chief complaint I hear: People working on their houses are absolutely furious with our planning (we call it “Community Development”) department. For the first 20 months, we were lucky: Our home needed mostly cosmetic work. We moved in and painted and cleaned and re-landscaped and did all the things new homeowners do. After a year and a half, though, we decided the time had come to make our kitchen functional.

Kitchen, Pre-Renovation
Look beyond the shiny fridge to the grape wallpaper and “custom” cabinetry.

Here’s our old kitchen, Well, half of it. Don’t be fooled by that shiny new refrigerator. We bought that pre-renovation when we couldn’t stand the old one any longer. That dishwasher? A portable. Which is about as much fun as when I had to unfold my couch to go to sleep every night, or when my dad and I were renovating my bathroom and I had to go to the Walgreens to pee.

So, we met with a kitchen designer. Two, actually: One we hated and one we loved. We also looked at IKEA kitchens but Tom Pitzen of Olde World Cabinetry (and the artist who designed Gulfport’s Historic Waterfront Sign, among other public art) created a kitchen design that would cost about the same amount.

Now, about that designer we hated: Among many things I disliked about them, they told us the renovation would cost about $60,000. Of course, they added, they needed to have their general contractor go up in the attic and make sure that wall behind the refrigerator wasn’t a load-bearing wall. We had no intention of spending $60,000 on a kitchen but as we believed the wall to be load-bearing, we thought it was a swell idea to confirm that before we started swinging sledgehammers.

Long story short: The uber-expensive designer’s contractor said it wasn’t, we didn’t hire them, and about five minutes before El Cap and my dad started ripping down that wall, El Cap went up in the attic one more time and said, “You know, I really think this wall is load-bearing.” We called out another contractor who said hell, no we couldn’t take down that wall without the roof coming down with it, and we embarked on the arduous process of finding an architect who would draw up plans to put in a beam to bear the load and getting an engineer’s stamp on the plans, and also of the installation of the beam and the ultimate removal of the wall.

Old Kitchen
That oven was the best $76 could buy, I’m certain. Also, seriously, grapes on the wallpaper.

Now, if you’ve ever done any work on your home, or owned rental properties, you fall squarely into one of two schools: The “get the permits” school and the “permits are for suckers” school. When we started the project, it became clear that my dad fell in the latter school whilst I fell in the former. While I understand my dad’s point of view, I disagree with it. Bear in mind, when we started, I still worked for the local paper, and a good portion of the “have I got a story for you” calls and emails I received were people with a “scandal” about Gulfport Community Development.

For almost 12 years I looked into a goodly number of these alleged scandals and found, without fail, the frustration on the part of the person crying foul stemmed either from them lying to the planning department, not pulling a permit and then getting caught, or attempting to get the planning department to approve plans that involved structural changes but lacked the approval of someone (an engineer) qualified to make sure those same changes didn’t make the house collapse. I am typically a “forgiveness, not permission” type of person, but not with city government. I also figured after over a decade of calling the planning department with public information requests and chasing down every complaint someone gave me, the inspectors would be damn delighted to learn I had attempted to bypass the rules.

So, of course, by the time we realized we had to, as former President Reagan said, “tear down that wall,” we had already pulled our permits and assured the city’s planning department we weren’t making structural changes. I figured it would be open season on us. So El Cap took our stamped plans into Community Development, copped to the error, and they basically said, well, gee, the plans look good and you haven’t done the work yet, so cool.

That was it. No problems. No trouble. We’ve had, as I said just yesterday, a damn delightful experience with Gulfport’s Community Development. We’ve passed our first plumbing and electrical inspections and the inspector has also offered some helpful tips, like Norm from This Old House, but with a city ID.

They’re actually just good guys. Seriously. I mean, I imagine if we’d tried to cheat they wouldn’t be as understanding, and I think that’s quite common, but by and large? They’ve been one of the easiest things we’ve done thus far.

So the moral of the story is this: All of those folks who beleaguered me for 12 years about how awful our Community Development people treated you? Every last one of you I found had tried to outsmart or cheat the city in some way, and now that I’m in your place, I feel vindicated.

Also, dusty. There’s drywall dust everywhere. But that’s another post for another day.



Sebastian Inlet State Park

Not too much now, because I’m sitting on the dock of the bay. Well, the inlet. The past two days have been… wonderful and horrible. Wonderful because a leisurely drive down A1A reminded me that not all of our coastlines are 3-for-$10 t-shirt shops and trinket stores; horrible because I can’t believe a few miles inland at Pahokee such poverty exists in stark contrast to the riches funneled out of the town to those who raise cane. Sugarcane, that is.

One more day to go on this pilgrimage into sunshine. I alternately crave my Tempurpedic and regret every little hovel I will not see this trip.

By the way, if you ever camp at Sebastian Inlet State Park, try and get site #14. The view is inspiring.

Sour Orange Pie, Where Art Thou?

I just checked in to Highlands Hammock State Park, and there’s a lot on my mind but it’s been a long day involving Gertie The GPSs’ cranky attitude and insistence on taking me an hour out of my way. I am out of the hell that is Orlando and into the woods. I had heard the restaurant here had sour orange pie, and that kind of kept me going, except the restaurant is no more. This makes me sad. Now all I can focus on is the pie I am not eating.

I will find you, sweet pie, and when I do, I will eat you.

I’m going for a walk in the woods. It’s gorgeous here. But then, it’s been gorgeous at every camp site. The state park service knows their shit.

After that, I’ll map out my route and perhaps transcribe my notes. Also, does anyone know anything about a now-closed orange souvenir shop on 27 called Shonda’s Souvenirs? It had a pineapple out front.

Why? Because this is Florida. It’s how we do, people.

If you want to see photos, check out my Picasa gallery.

Bartram. Damn Him.

Ravine Gardens State ParkI 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.

Manatee Springs State Park
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).

Angel's Diner
Try the pusalow. Seriously.

Bartram, I would like to note, never stopped there. I’d like to believe either Stetson Kennedy or Zora Neale Hurston did.

You Can’t Drown a Rattlesnake

The east coast of Florida in Fernandina is simply breathtaking: high coastal dunes and creamy buff sand meets blue over and over again. A1A, a road not included in the original Guide to the Southernmost State because it didn’t exist in one long form yet, is a thin ribbon cutting through the oaks and pines and twisting through beach houses and flats. Florida’s northeast coast of Florida deserves more than what I gave it today on my eager way to my camp site in Little Talbot Island State Park.

The park is one of seven state parks that comprise Talbot Island State Parks, and is a typical Florida state park. By typical I mean well tended with breathtaking vistas. We pulled into our campsite about an hour ago. The sun was just dipping into our line of sight over Myrtle Creek, and I clipped the leash on Calypso so she could stretch her legs after a long day of stops-and-goes in the van. We’re about 150 feet from the water, so I thought she’s enjoy a good roll in the sand.

As she did, I noticed a fishermen crouched by the water’s edge, fiddling with something in the water. Curiosity trumped my disgust at finding people near our camp site (I’m not a chatty camper) so I approached him and asked, “What’d you catch?”

“A snake,” he said. I moved closer (I like snakes) and saw it appeared to be a young rattler. It also appeared that he was holding the snake’s head underwater.

“I caught it with my rod and reel,” he said, then explained how snakes could swim if they wanted to (really, Darwin?) and that the storm made them swim to shore from islands. He intended to drown it.

“But don’t tell no one, ’cause it’s illegal,” he said.

“I know,” I told him. I watched. He was trying to drown the little guy by holding his head in the sand under the water. It didn’t appear to be working.

At this point I walked back to the camper; the snake was gorgeous and it was making me sad to watch this city dweller disguised as a redneck. I told El Cap what I’d seen and he wanted to see the snake, so we walked back down to the water. He talked to the guy and asked why he was killing the snake.

“Well, you wouldn’t want it waiting for you when you walked outside your camper, would you?” he said.

“No, but he wouldn’t want to be there, either,” he said and walked away. You can’t argue with assholes. I didn’t say anything but listened as the guy’s buddy came over and asked him why he didn’t let it loose in the woods surrounding us. I guess the peer pressure was just too much, because the guy finally walked away from the camp sites and water and tossed the snake into the grass. The snake slithered away, I assume, gasping for breath and trying to figure out what just happened.

As I understand it, rattlers can hold their breath for up to 45 minutes, so, you see, you can’t drown a rattlesnake.


Because you can’t drown a rattlesnake, asshole.

After about 10 minutes or so, the snake was holding on to life with a tenacity seen only by overweight men at an all-you-can-eat buffet, so he brought it on land and tried to stuff its head in the sand. Still, no joy.

Nothing to See Here

Tiki pilingAs I cross over the Matlacha draw bridge into Pine Island, the mangroves fall away to reveal a gulf coast fishing village peopled with artists, fishermen, and locals enchanted with old Florida.


If Sanibel is the prom queen of gulf coast islands, think of Pine Island as her mangrove-encrusted tomboy little sister. Instead of beaches, walls of state-protected red mangroves surround and prop the 34-square mile island up on green water, preserving the calm, slow lifestyle of the 9,000 folks who call Pine Island home.

There’s nothing to see here. Nothing on Pine Island calls to mind other Florida coastal towns; those root-heavy trees protect, too, the island’s roots from developers and droves of tourists seeking New York, Ohio, or Michigan-ified Florida.

Matlacha mangroves
Think of them as soldiers in the anti-high-rise war.

This is the Florida that our ancestors tried to bury in the muck of shopping malls, time-shares, and miniature golf courses. These are the people mocked by our Yankee heritage. Here is the land we forgot to love and then just forgot.

Nothing to see here, really. Instead of “cuisine,” folks serve platters of food, and you can get grits but not gourmet or pork in lieu of Pacific Rim. You can fish the World’s Most Fishingest Bridge but don’t even think about asking for sushi.

Here we now seek solace, the waters that calm the noise in our head and quench the thirst in our soul. Here is a dolorous souvenir of yesteryear’s Florida, a nugget of land we forgot to offer the highest bidder before the government hit the brakes on the dredge-and-sell dream.

Sandy Hool on Matlacha
Nothing fancy at the Sandy Hook restaurant.

Nothing to see here, not really. Go south and you’ll find Sanibel, Fort Myers, and Naples. You can take a boat west to Cabbage Key or head north to Sarasota and Venice. Go east to Palm Beach if you must, but Pine Island’s too far off the interstate to travel, especially since it foolishly lacks shopping malls, Holiday Inns, and putt-putt or other golf courses. Just a bunch of crusty fishermen and shopkeepers, not much else to see here.

Nothing to see here, nothing at all. Just the present the rest of us traded for the future, and the past we sold before we knew we had it. Green and red and aquamarine and silver explode around the island as the sunset lights the streets, palm groves, and trailers. Shrimp nets draped across the boats behind homes remind Islanders of their heritage and, hopefully, their future.
Nope, nothing to see here.

The view from Knoll's Court
Seriously, no beaches here. You probably shouldn’t visit.