The Barefoot Boy From Miami

Jeff Klinkenberg wants to go to the Everglades again, and this week he will. He’ll go to visit a new friend who embodies old Florida. 78-year-old Bud Marquis will receive an award for his work saving people from the crashed Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 close to midnight on December 29, 1972. The frogger/game warden/avocado grower/carpet installer steered his airboat toward the crash site and pulled people from the wreckage. Marquis told a compelling story of everyday heroism set against the backdrop of old-time Florida, and present-day Florida heard his story when Klinkenberg retold it in the September 16, 2007 edition of The St. Petersburg Times. In that retelling Klinkenberg added Marquis to an ever-growing compendium of, as Klinkenberg calls it, “real Florida.” For over 40 years, he has ferreted out people like Marquis and told their stories, logging more miles across the state than all but the most devoted pharmaceutical representatives; along the way he unearthed and amassed an impressive representation of “real Florida,” poking around every corner of the state, seeking out and recording the stories of both good old boys and tourist kings. He preserves their lives, but more than that he preserves the ground beneath the voices, the water surrounding them, and the skies above.

The first time I met Klinkenberg, I sold him a book called The Dangerous Book For Boys. The book tells readers how to tie knots, build go-carts, and create tree houses, among other things. It does not have a section on video games or other 21st century activities. Instead, it tells boys how to play stickball and speak in Navajo code. Klinkenberg sat in the bookstore reading it for well over an hour. Months later I listen to him talk about his memories of Florida as a boy and understand not only why this book caught his attention but also why he writes about such an eclectic assortment of people and places. He filled his youth with the things this book teaches today’s boys, and tonight he paints a picture of the state as it looked to a mid-century teenager, an amalgam of Stand By Me and Cross Creek, a place where boys hunted snakes and rubbed elbows with violent drunks and the world did not harm them. He has filled his life with a quest for that place, finding the holes where it still pokes through the mask of modern Florida, bubbling up through the veneer of mainstream society in odd corners of the state. When he uncovers such fissures in the hardened shell of today’s Sunshine State, he finds home. He traces those breaks in our folkways to a time before the chasm of his Florida narrowed to cracks, before the silt of globalism buried the muck of the places like the unpaved swamp road called Loop Road.

“It’s called the Loop Road. It loops off the Tamiami Trail for about 29 miles. It’s one of the wild roads in Florida, though not as wild as it was when I was kid in Florida. It’s unpaved. The federal government owns it; it’s part of Big Cypress National Preserve. When I was a kid, it was just Loop Road. Miccosukee reservation is Dade County. The Loop Road goes south and then becomes Monroe County, which is the county of the Keys. So you’re sort of in the Keys but you’re in the mainland. Back when I was a kid it was where people went who hated civilization, who didn’t like cops, didn’t like whatever. When I was a teenager, water snakes, black racers, things that weren’t poisonous but would bite us, we’d carry them around in pillowcases for a while and then let them go. It was just part of an exciting living down there. Lots and lots of people, boys did that. But then in the Loop Road there was a community called Pinecrest. It’s still there. It’s not quite the same. It was no man’s land. That’s where people lived in abandoned cars, cardboard boxes, and old school buses. About 100 people back there. Three roadhouses, taverns, including one called the Gator Hook, and we dumb 16-year-old boys would go in there after a vigorous morning of snaking, and we would get a soda and a sandwich. Ten in the morning, people were drunk. It was the first time I ever saw someone drunk and passed out on the floor. There was no electricity there. In fact, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon before they had electricity on the Loop Road. Screens, a sign that said ‘no guns or knives allowed inside.’ People got killed there once a month. My dad found out we were going in there, he about hit the roof. So when we went down there we just didn’t tell our parents we were going. That’s gone but I still love that road. It’s not as bumpy as it used to be, but if I have a chance I ride that road. It’s a road where it’s possible you’ll see a panther or a bear. I’ve got a friend that lives out there now, Lucky Cole…”

Klinkenberg seamlessly transitions into one of his many tales of “authentic Florida” people and places. Authentic Florida means different things to different people. Some find it in the water; some find it along back roads dotted with rickety boats and tin shacks. Some find it along the glitzy Art Deco strip of Miami Beach. To Klinkenberg it means, without exception, the people and places that echo fragments of his boyhood. Klinkenberg grew up in a Florida relatively unspoiled by malls and sprawling suburbs, and a look back over his career reflects an interesting parallel: the more he watched development encroach on the Everglades and descend upon the beaches, the more he sought to preserve his childhood Florida before it disappeared under the heavy fabric of a thousand prevailing versions of the Florida Dream.

Klinkenberg’s family moved to Miami in 1951, just before he turned three. In high school he started writing for a local paper. Eventually he went to college and became a journalist. For 56 years Klinkenberg has stayed in Florida, migrating north to St. Petersburg, where he has carved out a career with the St. Petersburg Times writing about Florida folk. He records a part of Florida often unseen by newcomers. His work affords his readers a glimpse into the Florida of his youth and a chance to see the state as he does. Through his stories they have the chance develop “Florida literacy”; his readers can learn to listen for “the minor voices of Florida.”

He didn’t always record those voices; Klinkenberg’s first editors paid him to listen to mainstream cries rather than minor songs. Early in his career he worked as a sports reporter in South Florida but, after a few months, said he “felt a little demeaned” chasing celebrities at the Miami News. When an editor offered him the chance to write about the outdoors, he says he seized the opportunity:

“I thought, ‘you know, this could be kind of cool, to do this.’ All of my friends from college thought I was absolutely crazy to do something like that. In their opinion it was a real comedown, to give up traveling all over the country and the celebrity of the National Football League to hang out with some grizzled guy who was catching shrimp at night. To me, it was a no-brainer. I was going to get to talk to authentic people, real people, and tell their stories.”

He followed the path of folk historians before him, and his tales of an almost forgotten Florida garnered an audience. Soon the St. Petersburg Times called and Klinkenberg came north to Pinellas County.

“Eventually I started writing about Florida. When I was growing up in Miami, when I was 10, 12 years old, the Miami Herald had a writer named Nixon Smiley who was writing about Florida, kind of history-based, kind of talking to old-timers. I read his stuff. It didn’t knock me out, but I thought it was interesting because I was interested in Florida. By then I was writing professionally. A guy named Al Burt started writing about Florida for the Miami Herald. He’d been a foreign correspondent for the Herald. He’d been wounded in the Dominican Republic, friendly fire, in 1965, crippled, and the Herald owed him a great debt, wanted to make him happy, so he decided he wanted to write about Florida. And he wrote about Florida ardently. Columns. Short, for the most part, but he took a very literary approach, and I loved that.”

When the Atlanta Constitution-Journal offered Klinkenberg a position in the early 1980s, he said that the then-editor of the Times asked him what it would take to keep him on staff.

“Eugene C. Patterson said, ‘I don’t want you to go. What would make you happy?’ and I said ‘Well, I want to write about Florida culture.’ So I started doing it. My approach was a little different than Al’s. Al was mostly writing columns and he was traveling, he was doing some reporting, but generally he was writing short columns, maybe 15, 18 paragraphs. By then I wanted to do maybe a little more reporting and my idol at that time, my model, was a guy named John McPhee. He was a naturalist who wrote books about eating, about scavenging off the land. He wrote a profile of Euell Gibbons where they went on a canoe trip and brought no food. He was very creative; he would kind of immerse himself into the life of someone he was writing about. Now, he might spend a couple of months, but I would spend maybe two or three days. But he was a great influence on me. Some newspapers wouldn’t let me do what I do; it would be considered a luxury. It wouldn’t be hard news; it would be ‘why aren’t you writing about crime, popular culture, politics?’ That’s what real reporters do. They don’t write these kind of quirky stories about history with a small range. They don’t try to collect these minor voices of Florida.”

Klinkenberg hears those minor voices in stories akin to old Florida rather than in crime, popular culture, and politics. He seeks out the retired frogger in the Everglades, the people who own the weathered dinosaur gas station on US 19, and the people who go to the annual CreatureFest celebration in Wakulla Springs. He listens for these voices because they echo his past as well, but also because as Florida has changed, fewer people know how to hear them.

“There’s nobody who does this anymore, really, the way I do it. At one time there may have been, but there just aren’t. I almost never run out of story ideas. There’s always something, usually in Florida culture. If something interests me I’ll just chase it down. Florida’s an amazing pace to do what I do because Florida is so different.

“Most of the people I write about kind of live in that netherworld, between the civilized and the uncivilized. They’re trying to cope with the civilized. In the 56 years I’ve been in Florida obviously Florida has changed a great deal. That said, there’s a lot of authentic real Florida that’s left. Here in town it doesn’t knock you over the head unless you’re really looking for it. When I’m driving or riding my bike, I can still be knocked out by it because I’m literate that way; I have this Florida literacy. I’m driving, I see a red-tailed hawk, I notice that. I’m walking along the sea wall at Demen’s landing and I see something gray in the water and I know it’s a bull shark. So even in town I notice real Florida. So when someone tells me, as they often do, that Florida’s gone, I feel the urge to educate them a little bit. Florida’s certainly changed but it’s not gone. As I drive away from the coast it’s easier and easier for people who may not know anything about Florida to notice they’re not in Kansas anymore.

“Florida is what I explore. I once interviewed a guy, back in the 70s. He was an insurance salesman from Montgomery, Alabama. Ray Scott. He said to me, ‘Well, son, I was like a blind dog in a smokehouse.’ And that’s how I’ve sort of felt writing about Florida. Like this blind dog: wherever I snap, there’s something meaty.”

The meat Klinkenberg snaps at reveals itself in every part if the state, so without hesitation he says he feels at home “all over Florida.” At first that might seem too broad a reach, but sit and talk to him a bit and you’ll understand two things: Jeff Klinkenberg rejects any part of Florida that doesn’t fit in with his definition of “real Florida,” and that definition stems from his boyhood Miami. How and where he grew up lies at the root of his single-minded pursuit of Florida mores. When he speaks about his work, it becomes apparent that the “real Florida” he records, the “real Florida” that evokes home, reminds him of his youth. Telling its stories has paid the bills, but it has also kept him close to the Florida he loves.

“I really believe in what I do,” Klinkenberg says as he relaxes in a chair at St. Petersburg’s Chattaway restaurant. When I read his work, I picture him in fishing shorts, cotton shirts with palm tree prints, and beach sandals, sipping a sweet tea or perhaps, after a long day tracking down shrimpers and writing about Ricou Browning, a rum and Coke or a frosty bottled beer. He comes close to that in person: he arrives at the Chattaway wearing a Hawaiian-style shirt and casual pants. I find the only disparity in his drink of choice: he sips coffee as tells me about finding “real Florida.”

You can’t ask him to pinpoint one region of Florida as his home because Klinkenberg finds his home wherever he can “snap” and find the meat that summons his Miami childhood. He belongs to the Florida he finds over 200 miles away from his St. Petersburg Times desk as he drives along Loop Road; he belongs to the Florida he finds in the waters of Lake Maggiore not five miles away from the same desk. He does not belong to the Florida of strip malls and high rises found in almost any corner of the state. Once you understand that, it makes sense that Klinkenberg finds home in every part of the state. A lifetime of visiting Florida hamlets has given him an Al Burt style of thinking of the state’s regions. He characterizes most regions by their “authentic” features.

He first describes the land west of the Apalachicola River, the same land Al Burt called Floribama. He speaks of a rural Florida, associating it with men who drive wooden stakes in the ground and rub bedsprings across them to drive earthworms by the hundreds out of the ground. The men then sell these earthworms. This area comprises Jeff Klinkenberg’s Earthworm Region. East of the Apalachicola he describes as “still rural” but with the sophistication of Tallahassee and amazing beaches. By his description he has just defined the Sophisticated Rural Region. North Florida, or Klinkenberg’s Spring Region, makes him think of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and William Bartram and the bevy of springs it contains. “When I think of natural Florida,” he says, “I think of those springs.”

“As you start to head south, the culture really starts to change,” Klinkenberg says as he moves into Klinkenberg’s Diversity Region, centered on Miami. South of Miami he names next the Florida Keys, the former “honky-tonk, run down” Florida Keys of the mid-20th century. “Hemingway and that glamour was long gone; it was sort of a Navy town,” he remembers of the 1960s Keys. Now, he associates “amazing restaurants” with the Keys but laments that instead of going to Captain Tony’s Saloon, which he calls “the original Sloppy Joe’s, a place where people went to get drunk,” tourists visit Margaritaville and other restaurants that trade in Floridiana as a commodity rather than a reality. These places suffocate the icons that embody his Honky-Tonk Region.

“That’s one of the things that scares me about Florida, because popular culture is so powerful that it’s like a tidal wave; it just can wipe out the authentic culture, the things that make Florida, Florida,” he says.

Next he speaks of the Everglades Region, calling it “the Everglades” and moving on without description. In Klinkenberg’s world the Everglades need no further description or boundary. If you do not know how to find the Everglades you do not know Klinkenberg’s Florida. He also acknowledges the Orlando area, calling it “hell.” If the Everglades remain the closest link to his Florida, the Klinkenberg Hell Region marks the sharpest departure from it. And so he shies away from the arteries that tie into central Florida. The development in and around Orlando, which includes the misnamed I-4, hold little appeal for him.

“I avoid I-4 if it’s humanly possible. I avoid Orlando. To me, that’s hell. I’d just as soon go to Las Vegas as Orlando just because of that traffic and this ‘not Florida’ place it’s been.” Some may think of Disney and the surrounding cacophony of tee shirt shops and mini-golf extravaganzas as Florida, but Klinkenberg chooses to focus on his Florida. While he uncovers it in places far from his youth in southern Florida, the 21st century Orlando has entombed itself in too many layers of contemporary lifestyles for his palate. They offer him the least evidence of home; he simply calls them “not Florida.”

In describing his Florida regions, he fails to describe immediately the geographic region surrounding his current residence. He doesn’t name this region; instead he maps its physical boundaries by describing pieces of authentic Florida to the south and north of it:

“I always feel like I’m home when I see that Skyway and see this beautiful bay and those mangrove islands and fishermen and I’m looking out there at those fishermen. I know what they’re fishing for. I’m looking at the tide, I’m looking at the birds, so I really feel that’s home. Monday, though, I’ll feel very at home in the Everglades, in the Big Cypress. When I get into Big Cypress and I start seeing those cypress islands in the middle of the sawgrass, and start looking for birds, my eyes are scanning the sides of the road for whatever. I’m looking for snakes.”

When he heads to his house from the north he has a sense of home somewhere between the Withlacoochee River and the Suncoast Parkway. “One side of the road is real Florida, all those ranches and things. I love to see that open land. Sometimes I ride my bike up there; I see deer and alligators. I’ve seen a couple of coral snakes,” he says, but adds that while he enjoys traveling the Suncoast Parkway, “It’s going to open that area for development.” Development, anathema to “real Florida,” marks his home region’s eastern boundary. He finds nothing authentic in I-4 and its sprawl. Places he remembers from his boyhood succumbed to such urban spread, and it still encroaches upon and narrows the cracks through which he teases out authenticity. Yet he remains insistent that “real Florida” persists and that he can find home almost anywhere he explores.

“I feel like I’m kin to William Bartram. I’m doing, and Al Burt did the same things, we basically did what William Bartram did. That basically was: we explore,” he insists. While Bartram wrote from a naturalist perspective and Klinkenberg writes more about people, he writes so people can see Florida through his eyes, just as Bartram showed his 18th-century readers Florida through his eyes. Klinkenberg’s eyes see the whole of the state rather than any one geographic region. They pierce the layers of today’s society that blanket authentic Florida. He belongs to the places where the quilting has either worn thin or never fully covered the Florida of his childhood. Through his writing he reclaims those enclaves and offers them as proof that authentic Florida still exists. He traverses the state but never travels far from his childhood. He still calls himself the “barefoot boy from Miami.”

Right now, though, this barefoot boy has to go. He will leave the Chattaway, navigate the downtown traffic, and find his way back south to Bud Marquis. Klinkenberg wants to watch Marquis get his award. On his way back he’ll drive Loop Road and, with a little luck, see a panther.

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I write. I take pictures. I love my dog. I love Florida. My 2016 book, 'Backroads of Paradise' did really well for the publisher and now I feel a ridiculous amount of pressure to finish the second book.

One thought on “The Barefoot Boy From Miami”

  1. I don’t know how I happened across this article. I was born in Florida but didn’t get to grow up there. had to be amazing to be a child in Florida in the 1950’s. I identify with Klinkenberg as we children of the 50’s were very much marauding pirates..the world belonged to us and we could pretty much explore all day long. No one would notice if we’d gotten abducted…unless perhaps we didn’t show up at dinner time. I did my marauding in Illinois..very tame in comparison but marauding nonetheless.
    Thanks for writing this article..You did a really great job of writing it.

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