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Hippos Eat Birthday Cake and Other Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

By: Marc P. Vallin

M.A. Candidate University of South Florida St. Petersburg Department of Journalism and Media Studies Committee: Dr. Mark Walters and Dr. Xiaopeng Wang

Dedicated To: All of my Boy Scout leaders: They nurtured in me, a sense of adventure. & My Family: Without your love and encouragment, this would not be possible.

Table of Contents Florida Oddities Seeing the Real Florida: Way Down Upon the Suwannee


From the Tree to the Table: Adventures in Squirrel Hunting 9 Hippos Eat Birthday Cake 13

Finding Solitude In Urban Sprawl A Humbling Hike on the Beach 22 Escaping By Water


Heritage, Hospitality, and Hemingway Civil War Civilized


A Lesson in Southern Hospitality While Exploring a Cemetery Channeling A Great And Then Drinking At His Bar




Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

Why is it that some people migrate to Florida and always look and act like the folks that visit just to get that rosy half-baked glow before lining up at the airport, ready to head back north of the Mason-Dixon and others move to the state and are immediately assimilated? Being a Floridian is not so much a matter of living in a certain state as much as it is living with a certain state of mind. Many people come to visit a Florida that they believe is the land of the mouse and beaches ringing with the sounds of tropical steel drums. While that is not a bad impression on the surface, Florida is so much more for us natives. We are never quite sure when we might run into an alligator or rattlesnake on a bike trail or get whisked off by a friend on an adventure that oddly resembles trespassing, only to end up in a hidden graveyard or snacking on a critter that was alive no more than an hour prior. This book began out of a bit of spare time I had over the winter break. Though feeling blessed to finally have a breather from the stresses of school and work, it seems that my idle mind becomes quickly discontented. I began picking up books about Florida and I realized that most of the literature is either contained in travel books or in books that simply scratch the surface of all that Florida has to offer. For this book, I wanted more. I wanted to capture the true essence of Florida as experienced by a native. I hope that as the reader of this book, whether a Floridian or an honorary Floridian, you are inspired to enjoy some of the adventures and understand why so many people continually return to enjoy all that Florida has to offer.

Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

Florida Oddities lorida is full of odd. What most outsiders think is absolutely absurd, simply gets chalked up to everyday life in Florida. Floridians are still blazing a trail into the untamed wilderness but, we are always aware that we are no longer in our domain. Living in such a wild state makes for quirky people and just plain odd activities and attractions that we enjoy.



Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

Seeing the Real Florida: Way Down Upon the Suwannee t was 8 a.m. when I arrived at my friend’s home in Cross City. The bitter cold cut through my three thin layers of clothes with needle-thin blasts. But, it didn’t matter because today, we were heading to the middle of the splendor that the real Florida landscape has to offer, the Suwannee River. I stepped out of my car onto the still frosty ground that gave with a crunch. The first thing I was greeted with was my friend Council Vaughan yelling, ‘watch out for the attack dog’ as a dingo, who I later found out was named Penny, bounded straight for me. Penny came to a skidding halt right at my feet and began to get acquainted with me through sniffing. I petted the dog who eagerly soaked it up and hopped into the driver’s seat of my car. Grandpa Vaughan and Council’s father came out of the house and shooed Penny the dingo out. “Mornin’,” said grandpa Vaughan. “You can call me grandpa. I see you’ve met Penny. She loves to go for car rides. Grandma’s still sleeping so, let’s get on out of here before we wake her.” There wasn’t much time to lose and other introductions could be made later. Fish get up early and besides, we had someone waiting for us.

Above: Old cypress and pine trees line the banks of the Suwannee.

Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

The Vaughans and I all piled into a truck pulling the small boat that we’d be spending the day in. We headed to the nearest gas station on US-19 but, not to fill up. This place is special. Not only is it a gas station but, it is a Hardee’s restaurant, a place to buy your fishing license and tackle, and a place to get various gear used in hunting including a deer attraction spray called Fat Factor. The Fat Factor sat where the knock-off colognes usually sit at a gas station. Nestled between fine chocolates and large lolli-pops, this attractant that no deer can resist just screamed out, ‘buy me for that romantic evening of deer hunting and, while you’re here, pick up one of those fancy plastic wrapped roses.’ After buying fishing licenses and looking around at the rather questionable items in this general store of sorts, it was time to get on the road, the person we were waiting for had arrived. Phil pulled up with his boat Fish Buster in tow, while Council and I were still in the building. When we got out, we knew he was there. “C’mon boys,” shouted Phil, a friend of Grandpa Vaughan. “The fish wait for no one.” He spat a brown stream of liquid from his ever-present plug of tobacco. A man of small stature at about five foot six, Phil’s imposing demeanor doesn’t quite fit. But, he commands respect simply by the authoritative manner in which he says things. It’s not quite a barking of orders, more a superior knowledge that comes through when he is talking

about what he knows. Regardless, we doubletimed it to the truck as Phil turned abruptly, got into his truck, and sped off. We followed the Fish Buster down two-lane roads to Miller’s Marina and launched the boats into the Suwannee River. Quite possibly, the best part of a fishing trip on the Suwannee is taking the boat out to the actual fishing spot. Real Florida landscape is alive and well in places like this. As Grandpa Vaughan drove the boat out to the first spot we would fish, I was able to watch the natural landscape go by. Miles of saw grass with the occasional cabbage palm poking up from the sea of light greenish-brown stretched to the very limits of my vision. Reaching to touch the wisps of cloud that were in the sky, cypress trees presided over the entire landscape. Active osprey and bald eagle nests sat precariously atop the towering trees. As I surveyed the beauty that was around me, Council pointed to the sky. A bald eagle flew in a nearly effortless manner while holding a large fish. I was left in awe, only able to watch this beautiful bird soar above our heads. It glided until it was out of sight. I lowered my gaze back to the horizon to see the great abyss that is the Gulf of Mexico. As far as I could see, there was glass-flat water with a few bumps of sea birds waiting for a meal and channel markers reminding people they were still within the grasp of civilization. We followed a sweeping right curve in the saw grass that took us to the first spot to


Above: Pelicans glide over the Suwannee in search of a morning meal.

Below: A Great Blue Heron stretches its wings while standing in the shallows.


Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

throw out our lines. The anchor dropped into the muck that is the bottom in these swampy areas. We hooked up the live shrimp and began to fish. On my first cast, I ended up with a big hit. It felt like I had landed a big one but, to my surprise, it turned out to be a six inch sand trout. Council laughed so hard at my excitement over the diminutive fish that it shook the boat. “Okay, so, for a Floridian, perhaps I’m a bit more of a city boy than I’d like to think,” I responded to the laughter that only got harder when I had trouble unhooking the fish to place it back in the water. Focus came back over the boat as Council’s fishing pole jigged with the motion of a hooked fish. He began to reel. “This is dinner,” he said. What he pulled out of the water, almost made me fall over the side of the boat from loss of composure. It looked as if he had caught the twin of the fish that I had just placed in the water. “Gonna have to catch a lot of those to make a dinner son,” said Grandpa Vaughan. It went like that for a while. Council and I were casting and would land a small sand trout nearly every time. Don’t get me wrong, catching little fish is better than not catching any fish but, sand trout are so boney that they really are not good for eating albeit, they make good bait. Grandpa Vaughan was sitting patiently at the front of the boat. He had a few nibbles on

his bait but nothing hooked. He sat with Zenlike stillness waiting, willing not just any fish to bite his hook but, the right fish. When it hit, he was ready. His pole bent hard and fast. He popped out of his chair as if propelled by springs and gave it a tug back. “Yep! I hooked that one,” was all he said. I grabbed the net and readied myself to scoop up the fish. Sure enough, at just two inches under the maximum size limit of 20 inches this fish was certainly going to make part of a good meal. We fished for a while longer at the first spot but decided to move to a place that Phil nicknamed ‘the honey hole’ because some of his best Suwannee River catches were landed in this spot. Before he drove off, Phil said, “Now, y’all are gonna catch something here.” I was a little less confident than Phil’s prediction when we arrived at the honey hole. I don’t know what I was expecting but, what we got was a replica of a setting from some sort of horror movie filmed in the swamps of Louisiana. The fishing was straight out of a horror film too. After the boats dropped anchor, we threw our lines toward the pilings of a dilapidated boat house complete with a half-moon symbol on one of the doors for the outhouse. It was not completely uninhabited, there being a new fishing pole leaning against the wall. But, it was hard to not let my imagination run while thinking about where the owner of the pole must be. We continued to skim the oyster covered

Above: Grandpa Vaughan proudly holding his first trout of the day.

Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

Above: The old fishing cabin by the honey hole teeters on the pilings on which it is built. Top Left: On the left is the fishing cabin. In the distance, smoke billows from a brush fire. Bottom Left: Where the Gulf of Mexico and the Suwannee River meet.



Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

Above: My only catch at the honey hole. Below: Phil motoring to another fishing spot.

bottoms with our baited hooks. No luck until I felt something extremely heavy on the other end of my pole. My first thought was of a big fish but soon, I realized it was the oyster bed. It took a while to release my hook from the craggy oysters and even when I could reel in my line, it still was extremely heavy. Out of the water came a snarled rock of oysters. I brought it in the boat to remove the hook and Grandpa Vaughan decided that he was ready for a snack. He took his fillet knife, pushed it into the crack between the oyster shells and twisted. The shell popped open with a crack. He slid the knife under the oyster, tipped the shell above his mouth, and slurped the creature down. Council and I both decided we were not hungry when he offered us some of the other oysters so, the only ‘honey hole’ catch was thrown back into the water. We continued trying other spots around the mouth of the river with not much luck. We stopped in inlets with nicknames like ‘dead boy’, after the legend of a dead Native American boy mysteriously found floating in the inlet. No one knew where he came from or why he had not been touched by the abundant alligators in this inlet, isolated by the cypress swamp save for a small waterway that led to the rest of the river. With no luck in the inlets, we moved on to the very edge of the river, right where the Gulf and the Suwannee meet. This is

where the expanse of the Gulf stretches as far as the sun that had made its turn toward the Western end of the horizon and was now beginning to slowly sink toward the water. Again, Council and I had luck landing small sand trout and Grandpa Vaughan sat calmly until he hooked another large speckled trout. Right as we were pulling the fish into our boat, there was a commotion from the Fish Buster. Phil hooked a red snapper that was as big as the trout in our boat. He said we could keep it for our dinner. Satisfied that we had enough fish for dinner, Grandpa Vaughan suggested we head in. I for one was cold and happy the suggestion was well received. We loaded the boats onto the trailers, said our goodbyes to Phil, and headed home. When we arrived, Penny was there to greet us. She eagerly sniffed around our cooler of fish while we unloaded our gear. Grandma Vaughan came out and shooed the dingo away from the cooler. If I had to think of the ideal southern woman, I don’t believe I would have given a better example than Grandma Vaughan. Even at her older age and with chronic joint problems, she possessed an elegance that is reserved for southern hospitality the way it was supposed to be. “Afternoon,” she said. “Penny’s saying y’all did well. Fresh fish is going to be perfect with the okra and hush puppies.” We got cleaned up from fishing and

Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

then helped prepare a dinner of fresh fish, okra, and hush puppies, all fried. Dinner was relaxing as we sat on the back porch watching the sun go down while sipping iced tea. It was getting close to bed time anyhow. Tomorrow, we’d be hunting squirrels in the Vaughan’s backyard.

Top Right: Phil and Council’s father heading back after a long day of fishing.

Right: Cormorants rest in an old cypress along the bank of the river.



Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

From the Tree to the Table: Adventures in Squirrel Hunting

Above: Council Vaughan scanning the trees for squirrels.

hether you call them varmints, tree rats, or simply squirrels, they all are one thing: A tougher animal to shoot than we’d all like to think. It didn’t help that it was such a cold Sunday morning in Cross City that I shook while aiming the firearm I had not picked up since I left the Boy Scouts at age 18. But, besides the long gap in practice and the bitter cold (by Floridian standards), the squirrels proved to be elusive creatures that stood just out of view behind a branch or clump of leaves which prevented a clear shot at them. But, for all their wily tricks, it didn’t stop us from picking off a few. Council and I were up with the sun and drinking coffee while the frost was dissipating from the windows. We were scoping out the yard from the warmth of the house, looking for movement in the trees or on the ground. Nothing. Not even the critters were awake yet. As we sat surveying the landscape, Council was giving me a crash course in squirrel hunting. I listened intently, trying to take it all in as we were watching for brown fur to streak across the yard. He explained to me how to properly use the squirrel shotgun and the do’s and don’ts of squirrel hunting which included: aim up into the trees or down onto the ground and try not to shoot the house.

Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

Above: Council showing off the first catch of the morning. Below: Penny is fixated on the fresh squirrel as Council tries to keep it from her.

The squirrel shotgun is the right tool for the job because there are only six small pellets in the shot rather than some shot that might completely obliterate the creature, leaving virtually no edible meat. “In the winter time is the best time to hunt them because they won’t have as many parasites. In the summer they can get a little buggy in them,” said Council. This didn’t make me any more excited to be eating these creatures. But, I’ve had them before and hey, they honestly do taste like chicken. Besides, Floridian natives like the Miccosukee and Seminole tribes have survived on small animals like squirrels since they have been in the state and the first crackers to move into the land of flowers also found good uses for critter meat. Warmed and awake from the coffee, we decided to go outside to find the squirrels. The frost crunched under our feet as we walked, making even more noticeable the bed of leaves on which we treaded. With not a sign of a squirrel, we trekked the Vaughan land watching the trees. Finally, came the chatter that we were listening for. Council raised his 22-caliber rifle. The shot would have to be dead accurate to hit a squirrel with one bullet. We watched intently for a few seconds. When it came into full view, he squeezed the trigger. The boom rang out, a flurry of leaves exploded from the tree and fluttered toward the ground. Ahead of the leaves was the squirrel carcass which hit the ground with a thud. Then, past my


legs shot the brownish-red flash of Penny the dingo. Council ran toward the dead squirrel and stood between it and Penny. They began vying for the prize. Penny made the first move, lunging for the squirrel but, Council responded and snatched the squirrel from under Penny’s jaws as her teeth clacked together. The dingo chased him down, leaping for the squirrel. Each jump culminated with a clack of teeth. By this time, the Vaughan’s neighbor Jim was awake. “Better watch out! A couple of weeks ago, I got into a wrestling match with her over one of those varmints…She won,” he shouted from the other side of the fence. Council made his way behind a shed while being circled by Penny like a hungry shark. He plopped the first squirrel of the morning onto the same table that the fish had been cleaned on and we walked back under the trees in the yard. More squirrels were beginning to wake up now but, so were the other critters. Buzzards began circling overhead which sent the squirrels running for cover. While the birds circled, their shadows ominously broke through the treetops blotting out the sun in spots, making them appear to be much larger flying creatures, almost a form of dragon. Eventually, the birds lost interest and continued flying to better scavenging grounds and the squirrels once again, began their chatter that sounds almost like a person trying to force air through their back teeth and out the side of their mouth.


Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

I realized that while squirrels were making quite a racket, these wily creatures were hanging out just over the fence in the neighbor’s yards where we were not allowed to shoot. We watched, but could do nothing, as potential prizes scurried around trees within a stick’s throw. The varmints chattered and went about their business knowing that they would not be harmed if only they would stay on the other side of the fence. We tried to attract them by putting small pieces of bread on the ground but to no avail. Eventually, the Vaughan’s neighbor Jim saw this futile game we were playing and, much to the detriment of the safety strategy of the squirrels, he allowed us to shoot on his land as well. We approached the fence line and waited for what seemed like more than a half hour. Waiting seems to take longer when there is unpredictable anticipation in the mix. We didn’t know if any squirrels would come near us. The mere presence of a dog standing between us, even one that rarely barks, could scare the critters away. We just stood and scanned the trees in careful anticipation while watching the steam from our breathing rise and dissipate. Before I knew what we were looking at, Council raised his gun and squeezed the trigger. Another flurry of leaves and plummeting carcass. He asked, “did you see where that one hit? We’ll pick it up in a bit.” We continued watching the same oak trees. There were more critters hiding up

there. A squirrel head poked from a nook in the tree. Then, the rest of the body. I waited until I had a clear shot. I raised my gun and aimed while slowly squeezing the trigger. The butt of the gun was tightly braced against my shoulder as if it were an extra appendage that was reaching out to touch the branch on which the squirrel sat. At the exact moment that I felt I would touch this animal, the kick reverberated through my shoulder. The squirrel fell from the tree. We hopped the fence to retrieve our prizes and the reality of hunting finally sank in for me. When I approached my kill, it was still alive. I didn’t know what to do. Should I shoot it at point-blank with a shotgun? Should I knock it on the head or use my knife to finish the animal? I called Council. He didn’t respond with a word until after he fired one point-blank shot into the back of the animal’s head. “I’m glad you didn’t shoot it. There would have been nothing left,” he said with a smirk on his face. Though the brutality of hunting is everapparent, there is something about it that almost makes you feel even more in touch with the wild than you ever were before. Perhaps it is the knowledge that, as a direct result of the hunting, you will have food as well as other resources that come from the animal including its pelt. It’s almost as if you are harvesting a renewable resource. Whatever the reasoning, I was able to watch something that normally would make me squeamish. Soon, was

Above: Council retrieving one of the morning’s catches.

Below: The three squirrels that we caught lying on the cleaning table.

Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

the real test: skinning the squirrels so they could be prepared for eating. With all three squirrels lined up on the cleaning table, Council began with the first squirrel. He first was going to show me how to skin a squirrel in order to just get to the meat and not save the pelt. He began by removing the feet then, he made a width-wise cut in the skin and got his middle and index fingers into the cut and under the skin. With each hand, he gripped tightly and pulled in opposite directions. It is amazing how easily an animal’s skin peels from its body. After learning by observation, it was now time for me to get my hands dirty. I was going to learn the much more delicate job of preserving the pelt. Again, Council showed and I followed. Again, the feet were removed but, we then made the first cut in the white fur of the belly, width-wise then, from head to tail while carefully working the skin from the meat. I started off wary about getting my hands dirty but, as I learned the proper technique, the work didn’t get cleaner or easier, I simply became more comfortable about what needed to be done to turn an animal into food. I’m not advocating hunting or saying that it is a bad thing. It is something that our ancestors did in order to survive and something present day hunters love because it brings them closer to the wilderness that they respect and cherish while allowing them to harvest some of its bounty. Floridians back to the earliest residents have sustained themselves on animals like squirrel and other critters. It was a truly unforgettable Floridian experience and a first for me to see an animal, other than a fish, go from critter to dinner.


Above: Council demonstrating how to begin skinning a squirrel when one does not wish to save the pelt.

Below: Removing the skin from the squirrel if one does not wish to save the pelt is a relatively quick process. If cuts are made in the correct places, the skin will simply peel away with a bit of force.


Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

Hippos Eat Birthday Cake s 6,000 pounds of beast rose from the water, I was really unsure what to make of it. After all, Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is a place for native Florida animals. But, sure enough, the imposing creature lumbering onto land was a hippopotamus named Lu. He was showing off for the crowd that had gathered to help celebrate his 49th birthday. Much of the hippo’s history is the history of Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. Born at the San Diego Zoo on January 26, 1960, Lu was a bouncing 90 pound baby African hippopotamus who worked for the Ivan Tor’s Animal Actors Troupe that wintered in Homosassa when the park was a tourist attraction full of exotic wildlife not native to Florida. Lu was there when the Florida Park Service decided to purchase the park n 1989, as a manner in which to showcase the beauty of native Florida wildlife. Lu was there when all the other exotic animals were relocated to zoos willing to take them in but, he remained unwanted, mainly because caring for 3 tons of hippo can become rather expensive. Citrus County residents, many of whom grew up as school children visiting the park, began a letter writing campaign to allow Lu, who has lived all but four years of his life in Homo-

Above: Lu the hippo hams it up for the camera on his forty-ninth birthday.

Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

sassa, to stay in what has become his home. On May 5, 1992 then Florida Governor “Walkin” Lawton Chiles, the last real Floridian, in my opinion, to hold the gubernatorial seat, declared that Lu is an Honorary Citizen of the State of Florida and therefore, he is entitled to live and steal the show at the park full of native animals. Being granted citizenship was a win for Lu but, I’d like to think that the best days for this beast are holidays such as his birthday. When I arrived at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, it was right as the park visitor’s center was opening but already, there was a small crowd milling around the doors waiting to hop the first pontoon boat that takes visitors on a trip down Pepper Creek that ends up at the entrance of the animal park. People were already clamoring about the birthday of the hippo but, the first attraction was the landscape along the manmade creek which included an active osprey nest in a pine tree that towered above the forest of palmetto bushes, cabbage palms, and cypress trees. The boat ride from the visitor’s center to the actual entrance of the park is one of the best parts of the trip to the wildlife park because volunteer boat drivers share their knowledge of the park and the scrub and hardwood forest as they ferry visitors

back and forth. The ferry pulled up to the boat dock just as three busloads of children from a local elementary school were walking to the entrance of the park. They were buzzing with the excitement of attending the birthday party of the hippo. As I approached birthday celebration, flanked by a sea of munchkins, little voices began calling out, “Good morning Lu!” Lu answered the calls by swimming toward the school children and wiggling his ears while looking at the crowd with his black marble eyes. The children cheered while some wished Lu a happy birthday as he continued to swim and look, as if taking in the spectacle around him. With all eyes on Lu the hippo, it was easy to forget that other animals call the park home as well. But, the American Alligators in the exhibit next to Lu soon let everyone know what they thought of such a large crowd not paying attention to them. The noise began like an old clunky car trying to start but, it became a deep intimidating grunt as a gator raised his head and tail high while his mid section was still submerged and the water vibrated all around him as two other gators were making their way onto the beach to sun themselves. One of the park rangers said that


Top Right: Ospreys stand guard by their nest which is in the tallest pine tree on the bank of Pepper Creek. Above: Alligators sunning themselves on the beach of their habitat. Left: Commanding attention, the enormous bull alligator lets out a booming grunt.


Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

sometimes the gators grunt when no one is paying attention to them. The ruckus from the gator exhibit did the trick as park visitors quickly shifted to see what the commotion was. Satisfied that it was nothing more than a jealous gator, onlookers began to move back toward Lu’s exhibit so the birthday party for the hippo could begin. A volunteer ranger named Vicky Iozzia entertained the crowd while playing guitar and singing a song that she wrote specially for Lu’s birthday celebration. Iozzia works with Lu and even wrote a children’s book called I’m Lu the Hippopotamus. “Lu won my heart over. Whether it is doing the program or squirting him with the hose as he holds his huge mouth open, I love his antics,” said Iozzia.

Above: Homosassa Wildlife Park manager, Art Yerian, shows off the birthday cake for Lu the hippo. Below: Lu playing coy before receiving his cake.

Right: Lu the hippo lumbering onto land in his habitat.

Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

Lu’s song finished and the crowd all wished him a happy birthday as the wildlife park manager, Art Yerian, tossed a cake that looked like a watermelon straight into the gaping cavern of Lu’s mouth. The hippo chomped his cake while he triumphantly swam in the pool with his head raised high as the children and others in the celebration excitedly clapped and cheered.


Lu’s Song (for his 49th birthday) by Vicky Iozzia

There’s a hippo in our park, and his name is Lu, He’s a former TV star, an entertainer, too, He’s the best hippo we’ve found, Yes, he weighs 6,000 pounds, And his worldwide fans, they number more than few. People come in great big crowds to see him every year. He has nowhere else to go, and so you’ll find him here. He will open his mouth wide, watermelon lands inside, And when he wants another piece it’s very clear. Now a hippo’s not an animal like you or me, He lives here in his lagoon, he has no privacy, So when you hear his tail spin, and you see him sport a grin He will fling his dung and then he’ll say he he! It is Lu the Hippo’s birthday. He is 49. And he wants us to stop singing so that he can dine. He can’t wait to eat his cake. We don’t want to make him wait. So let’s let him eat, before we cross the line.

Top Left: Park manager, Art Yerian, tossing the birthday cake into Lu’s gaping jaws.

Bottom Left: Lu chomping on his birthday cake.

Bottom Right: Volunteer ranger, Vicky Iozzia, singing Lu’s song as a part of the day’s celebration.


Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

It was now time for photographers, including me, to take up a perch inside of the hippo exhibit so Lu could do what he does best: show off for the cameras. As I approached the ledge that got me as close to a hippo as I ever want to be, Lu began opening his mouth so wide that it felt like I would fall in and be swallowed in one bite. He then gave me what I think was the equivalent of a smile as if to ask, ‘Did I scare you?’ This enormous yet kind creature laid his head on the side of his exhibit and looked right at me while wiggling his ears. I could have reached down and tapped him on the nose and believe me, I was tempted but, I kept my composure, thanked the enormous ham of a hippo and set off to see the rest of the wildlife park. As I walked around the boardwalk that is the wildlife walk, I got to observe all types of native Florida animals including red and grey foxes, a black bear, a bobcat, and even a beautiful Florida panther. This park’s resident panther is named Don Juan. He took a liking to snacking on family dogs and commercial livestock and became a nuisance in South Florida. People wanted him killed but instead, he was humanely trapped and brought to Homosassa after a stint at the Tampa theme park Busch Gardens where his exhibit was sandwiched between restaurants and a roller coaster. I stood for nearly a half hour and observed this beautiful panther while taking photos. He was receptive at first, simply going about his business and oc-

Top: Lu the hippo shows off his teeth and enormous mouth.

Bottom: Lu shows off what made him a star as an animal actor by smiling for the camera.

Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

casionallywatching me to see what I was up to. But, after a while, he became tired of me snapping photos and gave me a look that said it was time to move on or risk becoming hors d’oeuvres. I made my way over to the exhibit for the foxes, who, much more subdued than old Don Juan, seemed content to simply lounge rather than wander and glare. While watching the foxes relax, I heard a noise that sounded a lot like an army of hyperactive children honking their bicycle horns. But, when I turned around, I saw that a flock of ornery flamingos were making a scene along the creek in their habitat. I’m not quite sure what they were honking about but, whatever it was, I sure hope it was important because those birds are relentless. Along with the flamingos, there were sand hill cranes, white ibis, herons, and roseate spoonbills. I’m not entirely sure why but, I absolutely love the roseate spoonbill. So many people think that flamingos are beautiful but, they remind me too much of cranky people that bicker just for the sake of hearing themselves. Perhaps that is why I like the spoonbill. Aside from being a truly unique looking bird, the spoonbills are a bit more like those people that exude a quiet confidence. They are beautiful and come with less fanfare than the flamingo. The honking continued and I decided to check out the wildlife encounters pavilion where about fifty school children were crowded around a ranger who was holding some type of animal. As I approached, I re-

Top Left: Don Juan stalks his habitat while occasionally pausing to check out park visitors. Top Right: Roseate spoonbills preening themselves away from the commotion of the flamingos. Bottom Left: When Don Juan has had enough of the photos, he will let you know. Bottom Right: A red fox taking a mid-morning nap.



Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

alized the animal was an opossum. The kids jockeyed for position in an effort to pet the animal. The ranger continually reminded them to be gentle and the children overly complied by petting the opossum with one or two fingers, just enough to feel the tips of the animal’s hair. Opossums are not uncommon animals but, I’ll have to admit, it was my first time being so close to one and frankly, they’re pretty cute. A must see for every visitor to Homosassa Springs is the manatee exhibit. These gentle giants swim gracefully in the lagoon made to protect rehabilitation manatees and outside near an observation platform close to the head spring. Even with their enormous body size, manatees glide through the water as they lovingly care for their calves that can often be seen nursing at their mother’s side. The wildlife park has a manatee educational program for visitors that showcases the resident manatees that have been rehabilitated but cannot be released into the wild. One of the volunteer rangers named Chuck Beyerlein, braved the cold water and brought treats of carrots and sweet potatoes to the sea cows. Three manatees swam right up to where the food was and the Beyerlein hand fed the animals. While he was feeding the manatees, Beyerlein taught the crowd about manatees and answered any questions curious visitors had about the enormous creatures.

Left: School children jockey for position in an attempt to pet the opossum. Bottom Left: While teaching the crowd, volunteer ranger, Chuck Beyerlein feeds Amanda the manatee a treat of sweet potatoes. Bottom Right: A manatee swimming in the water of Homosassa Springs. Visitors are treated to the sight of these gentle giants swimming right up to a viewing platform.

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It was getting to be about that time that I head home but first, I decided to take a walk down the Pepper Creek Trail which is a paved one-mile trail that leads back to the visitor’s center parking area. This is an excellent way to finish off the day at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. Reportedly, a superb trail for bird watching, all manner of creature eluded me. But, it was a relaxing walk back to my car nonetheless. The opportunity to see rare native Florida animals coupled with celebrating the 49th birthday of a 6,000 pound African hippopotamus, made for an unforgettable day in real Florida.

Above: A manatee slowly gliding through the water right near the Homosassa Springs viewing platform.

Below: In the winter, mother manatees can be seen with their calves. Calves often stay with their mothers for up to two years.

Above: Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park likens back to a time when the small roadside attraction was a favorite of travelers through Florida.


Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

Finding Solitude In Urban Sprawl eing the most densely populated county in Florida, Pinellas County can get a bit crowded. Sometimes, us Floridians just need to get away from the hustle and bustle that surrounds the visitors to our fine state. With a little effort, one can find solitude even in the urban sprawl of Pinellas.

Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine


A Humbling Hike on the Beach

Above: Clearwater Beach is pack with beach goers during the spring season.

rmed with a few bottles of water and my camera, I set off on a Friday afternoon for a hike that is not for the faint of heart. This trek took me a total of eight miles from Clearwater Beach to Caladesi Island State Park. This is the point when I am telling people about this hike that most of them ask: ‘Hey. You just said it’s an island, how do you walk there?’ Though it is a valid question, I have to chuckle because no one takes into account that island may now be a misnomer. Before September of 1985, Caladesi was an island. Then, hurricane Elana reared her nasty head and blew straight toward Pinellas County before stalling in the Gulf of Mexico. The hurricane battered the Tampa Bay area coastline while remaining just offshore. Elana then, headed north and made landfall near Biloxi, Mississippi. The enormous force of the hurricane closed the pass between Clearwater and Caladesi, making it one large peninsula and thereby, creating the misperception. Though a walk on the beach, especially beaches as pristine as Caladesi and Clearwater, sounds nice, slogging through eight miles of sand is intense. You must be prepared to complete the entire hike because, once you get to one end, you have to make it back or you will end up stranded.


Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

Above: The sound of waves washing ashore, greets the lonely beachcomber. Top Right: Sea Oats grow abundantly along the relatively deserted stretch of beach. Right: An old crab trap harkens back to a simpler time.

I deliberately picked a Friday during college spring break because, the beaches are at their busiest when filled with masses of college students hoping to soak up as much of the sunshine before they head back to finish out the remainder of the spring semester. The beaches are always busy during this time but, the amount of people squeezed into such a small section of beach near pier-60 was shocking. As I wound my way through the masses, avoiding errant footballs and Bocce Ball games, I labored against the wind and soft sand. The portion of the beach farthest from the water was least crowded yet still busy. Finally, I broke free of the crowds and the shadow of the high-rise condos. The amount of beachgoers continued to thin as the buildings became houses then, disappeared altogether. The only people left ahead of me were walking. It was as if we were a procession of ants, all marching in the same direction. Some stopped, others turned back. I continued until it was just me in my solitude, with the buildings and the other people in the distance. When you find yourself alone on an undeveloped beach, take a moment to relish this rare solitude. As the waves crash against the shore, even the birds are silent. It’s as if there is no point in making noise because all the sounds will be swallowed by the great blue abyss of the sea anyway.

Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

Above: People ambitious enough to make the trek decorate the tree with shells. Top Left: The empty beach stretches until hikers are welcomed to Caladesi Island State Park. Bottom Left: The solitude of the expansive beach makes it the domain of shell and shark tooth hunters.



Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

My aim was solitude. Therefore, I could have turned around right here but, I wanted to get utterly lost in an even more remote location. I wanted to become a speck on the white expanse of beach laid out before me. The very end of the peninsula, the most difficult place to reach, is the least inhabited place on Caladesi. It is where empty beach stretches until the waves lap at the edge, eventually swallowing the sand. Pools form near the waterline, creating a virtual buffet for sandpipers and seagulls looking for an easy meal. After the four mile trek and a bit of a rest, heading back didn’t seem too bad, until I felt a sharp pain in the ligament on the inside and rear of my right knee. The sand had taken its toll and my body was begging me to stop. With no way to get back other than the sand, I labored toward civilization, trying to keep on the most solid, flat ground available. I would like to think I am no slouch when it comes to athletic activities but, this certainly made me feel quite a bit older than I have felt in a while. Limping back toward the main part of Clearwater Beach, I saw the shoe impressions in the sand from when I was hiking without a care. Now, I was just hoping to avoid any further injury on the way back. The sun was setting as I made my way to what was once a packed section of beach. By this time, the crowds had thinned out.

Left: Cabbage Palms, the state tree of Florida, blow in the wind. Center: Sparse footprints along the waterline are quickly enveloped by the waves that kiss the shoreline. Right: The beginning of a sunset‌the end of another day.

Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine


One of the best places to watch the sunset on Clearwater Beach is from Frenchy’s, a favorite of locals and visitors alike. This beach bar normally has a relaxed family atmosphere while the sun is up but, it becomes raucous in the evening. Blues and southern rock bands belt out the tunes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers Band, and Robert Johnson while people play pool and crowd around the bars to see whatever sports games are on. I was not interested in the game though. I wanted to see the real action. There really isn’t much better than watching the deep-orange sun melt into the water while enjoying a grouper sandwich and a frosty beverage. Though the hike was difficult and I surely would be sore the next day, finding an empty beach and seeing this sunset made it all worthwhile. It was time to empty the sand from my shoes and head home.

Top Right: While the sun melts into the water, it welcomes the moon that greets the night.

Bottom Right: The sight of the iconic watering hole, Frenchy’s, is like a welcoming center for thirsty hikers and beach goers.


Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

Escaping By Water

Above: A pelican sits like a sentry warning motor boats to turn back at the beginning of the Ft. De Soto Kayak trail.

ne of the best ways to escape the insanity of life in the overcrowded cities is to take to the water. Though it comes with the added work of procuring a boat if you don’t already own one and then hauling it to where you will actually launch the boat into the water, you soon find out why so many Floridians are almost compelled to spend time on the water. Taking a kayak trip does not have to be an arduous journey on or off the water. Many county parks have kayak and canoe outfitters positioned right next to a launch point. These outfitters provide everything except for the will to actually paddle. They usually charge by the hour for use of their boats and equipment but, avoiding the hassle of lugging a boat around is well worth the money. Two of the best parks for paddlers in Pinellas County are Fort De Soto Park and Weedon Island Preserve. Both of these parks are in St. Petersburg, which is a city of just over a quarter-million people with a vibrant downtown that allows visitors to feel like they are in a bigger city than they really are. When one wishes to escape the hustle and bustle of life with other people, many folks visit Fort De Soto or Weedon Island. The parks have well marked water trails that even the novice paddler can navigate. The excellent flats fish-

Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

ing adds another element to these trails that keeps people coming back to try their luck at catching sea trout, snook, and even small sharks like bonnethead and blacktip. For a first time trip, paddling is probably enough but, the truly adventurous can try to catch dinner while seeking solitude. Launching your boat at Ft. De Soto Park is simply a push off of a beach and a step into the boat. The journey along the 2.25 mile trail boasts many sights, including an active bald eagle nest which, until a couple of years ago, was unheard of in Pinellas. For the first mile or so, paddlers do not have to contend with motor boats which makes for a peaceful trip, perfect for bird watchers hoping to see a multitude of species that frequent the estuaries. Paddlers are generally treated to the sight Great White Egrets wading in the shallows and White Ibis hanging out in the snarl of mangrove trees that line the trail. The really lucky sightseer may get to see osprey or the eagles circling overhead while looking for fish. The Ft. De Soto Park water trail is susceptible to high winds which seem to be blowing straight in your face the majority of the time. A strong enough wind can turn a relaxing time on the water into a seemingly never ending battle to get back. Despite the risk of fighting the wind, it is still worth getting on the water in the morning when the wind is less likely to be blowing. Keeping close to the mangroves as I paddled at Ft. De Soto, I heard the clicking sound

of little legs skittering in the branches. I looked closely at the trees and saw that, what looked like spiders were actually mangrove crabs. I’m not sure if it made me feel better that there were not hundreds of spiders in the trees or if I was more uneasy that there were tree climbing crabs lurking just above my head. Continuing along the trail brings paddlers out to a bit more open water where large schools of mullet streak under the boats and pelicans take their kamikaze dives directly into the water while fishing. But, with more open water, comes higher wind and a tougher paddle. After about 20-minutes, I decided to get back to the shelter of the mangroves and head back to where I launched the boat. While heading back, I noticed an opening in the snarl of mangrove branches and roots. It was big enough to paddle into but, there was no sign of where this tunnel in the trees went. I continued deeper into the trees. The tunnel began closing in. The crabs seemed awfully close as the tree branches scraped the top of my head. I continued for what seemed like an eternity until the tunnel began to open. At the end was the kayak trail. I realized that I had traveled maybe 300 yards in the tunnel of mangroves. No spectacular feat but, a bit of an adventure off the beaten path nonetheless. I fought the wind all the way back to where I launched the boat. Paddling gets difficult when heading into the wind. Since most kayak trails are out and back, visitors to the


Above: Both the Ft. De Soto and the Weedon Island kayak trails are well marked with numbered signs that correspond to the trail maps. These trail marker signs are popular places for birds to snag small fish and crabs to eat. Below: Mangrove crabs are known as a keystone species in the estuary ecosystem. Not only are they food for the juvenile fish and birds that hang out there, they also eat dead leaves thereby, helping to regulate the chemical makeup of the mangroves.


Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

waterways generally find themselves stunned that the wind is slowing their progress nearly to a crawl on at least one leg of the journey. But, even if the winds really get to blowing, simply remember that it is worth the fight to get away from it all. The Weedon Island Preserve is a bit of a different feel from Ft. De Soto Park. The drive into the park begins getting more remote the farther one travels on the peninsula. Buildings give way to pine trees which then disappear as palmetto bushes and other scrub brush becomes more prevalent. The few oak trees are replaced with mangroves which soon form a tangled web of roots and branches. This is where the adventurous kayaker can explore. There are two paddling trails. The North trail, at 2 miles long makes for an easy paddle for the novice kayaker. I was interested in paddling the South trail because it snakes its way through 4 miles of the park’s mangrove trails while cutting across bayous and bays that can house fish as large as tarpon and shark as well as the clouds of bait fish that hustle to the relative safety of shallower water. During low tide, though paddling Weedon Island can become nearly impossible, the effort is worth the sight of two or three roseate spoonbills feeding in their distinctive manner of waving their heads back and forth, scanning the mud for tasty critters to dig up. High tide makes for trails that wind through tightly packed mangroves that create a navigation challenge even for seasoned paddlers. The going gets especially tough

Above: Great Blue Herons take flight to a new fishing spot. Bottom Left: A Great White Heron hangs out in the tangle of mangrove branches. Bottom Right: An active Bald Eagle nest is a highlight for visitors to Ft. De Soto park.

Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine


Above: White Ibis navigate their way through the roots of the mangrove forest in search of mangrove crabs and other tasty meals. Top Left: The tunnels that snake the Weedon Island Preserve mangrove forest seem to stretch endlessly creating waterways just wide enough for two kayaks to pass. Bottom Left: The boardwalk that traverses Weedon Island Preserve is just barely visible through the snarl of mangrove branches. For those not interested in paddling, walking this boardwalk makes for a nice escape.


Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

when two kayaks going opposite directions attempt to pass each other. But, most people are polite and will allow others to pass with maybe a little bump of the boats. I find it’s best to stay to the right and greet people with a happy hello. As I passed through the tunnel of mangroves, I couldn’t help but imagine what it was like for the original inhabitants of what is now the Weedon Island Preserve, the Tocobaga Native American tribe. It must have been so isolated to live here but, the fishing and hunting would have been spectacular because of the lack of competition from other humans. At times, the mangrove tunnels close in, making it seem like there is no way to pass through without getting a paddle stuck in the trees. The best way to avoid this problem is to break down your paddle and use it like you would in a canoe. Most kayak paddles come apart for storage and feathering, which is when the paddle blades are angled opposite each other so wind resistance is reduced. I use the paddle’s ability to break down to my advantage when in tight spots by using only half of the paddle and laying back when the trees hang so low that ducking simply will not work. Paddling Weedon Island Preserve is a much more serene experience than the Ft. De Soto kayak trail mainly because of the isolation one feels when paddling surrounded by the mangroves. Occasionally the trail will open into small lagoons no more than a

couple hundred yards long but, mostly, paddlers peacefully wind through the seemingly endless maze until they loop their way back to the dock. If a serene day on the water is what you are looking for, avoid the motor and go with paddle power. Taking life slowly is exactly what many people need to deal with the craziness that can come with city life. The beauty of living in Florida is that we can step right out into our backyard and with a little bit of work, we can find solitude even in a county of urban sprawl.

Above: Watching over the waters of the kayak trail for schools of fish to swim by, a pelican diligently stands atop a sign.

Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

Heritage, Hospitality, and Hemingway hough modern Florida seems to cater to tourists and those expecting a beach vacation, the state offers so much more. Florida has a rich history shaped by characters from all walks of life.



Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

Civil War Civilized oing to a civil war reenactment in the South is always a fun experience. You’re half expecting the Confederate States of America troops to win a battle that they never won in the first place and the fortunes of the war to be changed lest the crowd revolt. But, every year in mid January, the largest civil war reenactment in the state of Florida happens riot free with the over 3,000 reenactors and 20,000 spectators leaving having had a fun day and maybe even having learned something in the process. Though many reenactments stay as close to history as possible, in some cases, the recreation of history isn’t as important as the passion that people put into the reenactment. In fact, the real Brooksville Raid was two days of Union forces harassing nonmilitary targets near the Anclote River in order to disrupt Confederate supply lines. When the raids were finished, five Confederate and three Union troops were dead. It seems that each year I attend this weekend long reenactment, the weather gods enjoy wreaking havoc on the global thermostat. It is never really weather that one can say is perfect. Generally, it is far from that, either bordering on blazing inferno or arctic tundra. This year, as I stepped out my front door with what I was pretty sure were icicles crys

Above: A Confederate artillery crew poses for a photo before the battle. Below: Union troops march to the battlefield.

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tallizing on my nose hairs, I promptly ran back inside to grab gloves. Though it was sunny, the chill of the night air had not quite dissipated enough for the liking of a Florida boy. When I arrived at the Sand Hill Boy Scout Reservation, which is where the battlefield and camps are, I had to stop to allow Union regiments, who were already doing their morning drills, to cross the road. As I watched the soldiers marching in their tightly packed formation, it was almost as if they had opened the gate back to 1860 by simply marching across the road. Horse-drawn carriages ferried people from one end of the reservation to the other, people in period dress were walking around a military camp and to my left on the battlefield, Confederate soldiers were at their morning drills. I quickly parked my horseless carriage and made a bee-line to see just what the soldiers were doing. In a perfect square, these men fixed their bayonets and unfixed them with rapid speed, raised their weapons, aimed, lowered their weapons and got back into tightly filed ranks. Steam poured from the top of this square of uniformed men like a fog rolling in over this lake of grey. They had been working hard this morning but, they had done it with joy because they were smiling. As their commanding officer was talking to the regiment, he quipped about not coming back to life and rejoining the battle. His joke started a rumble of laughter from the soldiers. The commander issued orders that turned the entire regiment in unison and had them marching back to camp.

As I walked in the general direction of the marching soldiers, the smell of smoking turkey and barbeque mixed with the warm, sweet smell of freshly popping kettle corn wafted toward me. Attracted like a paperclip to a magnet, I went to the tent which sold the sweet and salty popcorn treat. Now, if you’ve never tried kettle corn before, you have really been missing out on an excellent edible experience. First, you have to watch things being done. The person doing the cooking dumps oil in the gigantic iron kettle and allows it to heat over some sort of flame. Once the oil is hot enough, in go the popcorn kernels. The kettle corn cook stirs with a big wooden paddle that looks fit for steering a canoe rather than cooking. Now, the fun begins. The kernels begin to wildly pop while the cook is frantically stirring. Sugar is mixed into the kettle that is now nearly filled with popcorn and everything is dumped onto a tray where the popcorn is salted. Most kettle corn vendors will scoop the still hot tasty snack straight from the tray into bags. I savored my popcorn breakfast burned fingers and all, as I walked around looking at the other vendors selling everything from 1800s replica costumes to beds. One tent that particularly caught my interest was the blacksmith because he was actually making what looked to be some sort of hanger for a lantern. Watching this lantern hanger being made is not what kept me around. What made me stay for a while was a fascinating contradiction which presented itself.


Above: Union troops are lectured on battle etiquette and proper fighting formations. Below: Though certainly a male dominated activity, many women take part in bringing the living history aspect of reenacting truly to life.


Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

Above: Captain Allan Turnbull stands in front of the 37th Alabama Infantry Regiment colors. Below: The 97th Regimental Field Music Band practices battle marches in the chilly morning air.

At events like The Brooksville Raid, it is so simple to forget about the present day in which we live. As I stood watching the craftsman at work, it was almost as if I was transported back to 1860 until I began listening to the conversation he was having with two sol diers. They were discussing the current political standing of the United States on the world stage and what could be done to gain respect back from other countries. It’s this blending of the new and old that gives reenactments such a paradoxical feel. We enjoy being transported back in time when attending reenactments but, never far from our thoughts are the current issues with which the world deals. As I was mulling this over and munching my kettle corn, I headed on over to the Union camp. I neared the clearing in the trees while a band was beginning to play. The 97th Regimental Field Music Band was practicing their songs near a smoldering camp fire. Again, I was transported back in time while listening to the musicians. The smell of campfire took me back to times I spent in the woods as a Boy Scout just sitting by the fire telling stories or just talking. The same camaraderie that was ever present in Boy Scouts was evident from the soldiers and their families in camp. As an outsider, I felt almost as if I was intruding on family time. But, the reenactors warmly welcomed visitors to their camp and invited them to stay and chat for a while. After a lap around the Union camp, I wandered toward the Confederate camp and a group of children armed with pop guns and

rubber band shooters were playing war among the trees. I walked right through their battle, stepped around a ‘dead’ body, and even got shot several times but, I made it to the Confederate camp. The field was filled with tents and soldiers milling around fires or lounging under the shade of canvas canopies. Standing in front of the tent and near the tattered flag of his 37th Alabama Infantry Regiment was Captain Allan Turnbull of Ocoee, FL. I asked him why a Floridian was portraying an Alabaman regiment and Turnbull said, “We do this to honor the soldiers and their memory. Even if people aren’t directly related to soldiers who were once in the regiment, they still enjoy helping others understand how people lived during the Civil War.” He admitted to me that many in his regiment had Yankee uniforms also just in case they needed more union soldiers during a battle. He said that most of the reenactors genuinely love what they do and try to make the reenactments a family affair. Turnbull’s sons, who are both too young to fight, are both drummers, his daughters and wife, participate in the reenactments as well. After he mentioned that many people enjoy reenacting with their families, I started to notice how many families were there as reenactors. Not your typical family hobby but, enjoyable nonetheless. I said my goodbyes to Turnbull and other members of his regiment that had begun to gather while we were talking and walked toward a campfire cooking setup that

Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

Above: A young bugler waits for the battle to begin. Top Left: Civil War reenactments are filed with firsts for many people. These children watch as a chicken is slaughtered for dinner. Bottom Left: A Largo Crackers batter foul tips a pitch while the Dunedin Railers’ catcher readies to stop the ball.


would make any avid camper jealous. There were two tripods connected by a crossbeam from which hung cookware over a fire pit. A grating covered part of the pit over which a giant stew pot was. The soldier a fire pit. A grating covered part of the pit over which a giant stew pot was sitting. The soldier watching over the pot from under a canopy said that they were cooking black eyed peas for lunch and would be starting chicken stew for dinner as soon as they were done preparing the chicken. I looked where he was pointing and saw a group of people gathered behind a tent, all intently looking at something. Sure enough, they were preparing the chicken for the stew. People watched and some made funny faces while two reenactors were busy plucking the feathers from the headless carcass of a chicken that was hanging over a cast-iron pot filled with blood. Some of the children watching the reenactors work asked questions or moved in for a closer look, others recoiled and made faces of disgust. At one point, a girl asked if the chicken was a boy of girl and one of the people preparing the chicken held up a rooster head and said, ‘he was a boy.’ This was too much for the child, who continued to look but, more out of what seemed like a morbid curiosity than anything. I chuckled a bit as I was watching the crowd and thought to myself: ‘now this is living history.’ I too had had enough of seeing how my food looks prior to finding it at a grocery store so, I decided to watch the 1860s style


Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

Above: A Confederate gun crew, including a pet dog, lounges before the battle. Below: Confederate troops begin to line up before battle.

baseball game. The teams were the Dunedin Railers and the Largo Crackers. The rules are different from modern-day baseball, making the game a learning experience even for those who are well schooled in the game. One of the strangest rules is called a Crank Call. If the umpire and team captain cannot resolve a dispute, the umpire can request that the fans, who are called cranks, make the decision. This rule may have worked in the 1860’s but, I can just imagine Major League Baseball umpires deferring their decision to allow a fan to make the call. A riot would ensue. But luckily, 1860’s cranks were not quite as rabid as today’s modern fan. The game ended with a cheer of ‘Hip, hip, huzzah’ from both teams and an announcement that the battle was about to begin. The Confederate artillery had already taken the field about 100 yards from the baseball field. The Union cannons were set up on the opposite side of the field nearly 300 yards away. The Union infantry soldiers began marching to the field a seemingly endless stream of men was flowing from the woods and making its way to the other side of the battlefield. They began to form up into regiments just behind the tree line. The cavalry followed and made an about-face just beyond the trees and away from infantry. By this time, the Confederate infantry began their march to the sounds of cheers from the crowd. Flanked by their cavalry who peeled off and formed up across from their enemies on horseback, the infantry formed regiments

to the side of their artillery. While I was watching the soldiers take the field, a boy, dressed in a rebel uniform walked with his family to where I had set up to watch the battle. He looked at me and said, “them yanks are gonna win today but, I’m gonna shoot a couple of them myself.” Taking aim with his cap gun rifle, the boy fired in the general direction of the Union army, apparently picking one off because he began to cheer. The troops began closing the gap between their infantry lines. At the same time, the Confederate artillery boomed one by one, shaking the ground and signifying a start to the battle. Rifles began to pop in the distance and a corresponding series of booms roared from the cannons on the opposite side of the field. The cavalry began advancing toward one another first, at a trot, then, an all out run and clash of swords as they met in the middle of the field to the side of the battle going on between infantry regiments. More series of explosions rang out from the Confederate cannons as well as the barks of a dog wearing a rebel flag bandanna, working alongside his master to run a gun crew. The Confederates began to get routed by the Union advance. Even one of the Confederate cavalry soldiers took a fall off of his horse after clashing with Union troops. This was no Gettysburg in terms of dead bodies littering the battlefield but there were a few soldiers on the ground either acting injured or dead.

Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

An announcer came on a public address system and said, “It doesn’t look good for the South but, don’t tear your tickets up yet folks.” “Yeah, the rebs will kill them yanks tomorrow,” exclaimed the little Confederate next to me as he aimed his rifle. The battle finished and the dead and injured soldiers resurrected themselves. The soldiers released volleys from their rifles and cannons as a salute to the crowd and began their march off of the battlefield. Before I headed home, I followed the soldiers back to their camp and was treated to the sight of a company of soldiers disciplining three of their deserters. Now these young soldiers didn’t run away on purpose, it was all part of the reenactment when they were escorted off the field in shackles even before the battle started. It was all in good fun when their company exacted punishment upon them. The commanding officer had the men line up in two lines facing each other. The deserters then had to run between the two lines while being whacked with the men’s hats. This was all in good fun of course as everyone was smiling and laughing. That really was the impression I was left with. These men and women that honor the Civil War soldiers by reenacting battles, whether it is the largest reenactment in the state of Florida or a small one in a county park, do it because they love it. It is all done in the spirit of fun and bringing history to life.


Above: Confederate soldiers are debriefed after the battle. Top Left: Union and Confederate cavalry troops skirmish away from the main battle. Left: A company off Confederate soldiers disciplines three deserters.


Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

A Lesson in Southern Hospitality While Exploring a Cemetery

Above: The view of the cemetary as visitors come off of the trail and into the cemetary grounds. Top Right: The road that runs perpendicular to the discreet trail entrance that leads to the cemetary. Right: The dirt trail that winds through the woods and leads to the cemetary.

hile driving back to my friend Alex’s house for the evening after a day at Pensacola Beach she suddenly shouted, “turn here! There’s something I want to show you.” I made an abrupt turn down a side road and drove for about five minutes when Alex told me to cross the ditch on the left hand side of the road. I reluctantly agreed. As we hopped the ditch as wide as a Volkswagen Beetle, I realized that in North Florida, having a vehicle that can run over these cute little German creations almost approaches necessity. My two wheel drive, four-cylinder car may be good on gas but, it is not cut out for a doozy of a drop like this. After we puttered up the side of the minivalley, Alex told me to head for a break in the oak trees. We got to the edge of the woods and hit a sugar sand trail that had me now wishing my car was outfitted with tank tracks instead of tires. Around the twists of the trail my car struggled, until we finally broke into a clearing and packed earth. It was then that I saw where we were headed. A group of graves lay directly in front of us, hidden from the rest of the world but well maintained. We had stepped into another age in Florida. This small amount of memorials liken back to a time when people were well

Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

Above: A lonely headstone next to an unmarked grave is highlighted in the gloom. Below: The Allen family plots look tranquil on a sunny day.

outnumbered by deer in our state and light pollution was almost non-existent. But, who are these men, women, and children buried in Milton and hidden in the oak trees? The next time I was there, the day was grey and misty, two years since the first time we had visited the grave site. A sharp contrast from the sun drenched, first time I had been there. We crossed the ditch that had been dry on my last visit, now filled with water, which splashed up over my car in a spray of mud. The once loose sugar sand trail was packed albeit muddy. When we stepped out at the grave sites, the day was eerily dark and windy. It created an atmosphere that felt like it was out of a horror film. The wind rustled through the trees carrying with it the mist that frosted our faces with a cold that cut right through our jackets. Being out on a day like this made me notice the graves that were unkempt and unmarked. The graves of three Confederate soldiers were well marked and relatively well taken care of but, some of the other graves along with the rod-iron fences surrounding the grave sites were dilapidated. A married couple, spending eternity together, had lost four infants that were each buried near their parents in marked graves. Several small unmarked graves were nearby. “Wow, looks like the Allen’s couldn’t hold onto their kids,” said Alex. Sometimes, when the obvious is difficult to think about, the simple act of someone stating it aloud forces one to conceptualize the sad


truth. An entire family of Allen’s was buried right at this site and there were others in newer graves across the clearing. We respectfully explored the grave sites for a bit while reading each one but, the weather quickly got to us and we decided it was about time to escape to the warmth of my heated car. We once again drove down the now-mud trail but, this time, up and out of the ditch and onto the road to make the trek home. While waiting at the stoplight to make a left turn, Alex pointed out a house that was built on the corner of the highway. It looked like their land backed onto the cemetery. We decided to speak with the people who live in the home. Perhaps the grave sites had not been abandoned in the woods and forgotten. Living near Tampa which, for Florida standards, is a big city, I forget that in the not too distant past, it was not uncommon for neighbors to knock on each other’s doors at random times of the day simply to say hello, to share the news, or sit down and enjoy a cup of coffee together. This practice of trusting one’s fellow man is still alive in small towns like Milton. But, my natural distrust made me extremely wary of approaching this house. We decided to approach the front door together but, we left my car parked in a fashion that would allow a quick escape if necessary. I got out of my car and back into the misty grey late afternoon. There were two shadows lurking in the house behind the drawn curtains. They were gazing out and in that same instant, a chill ran through me that shook my


Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

body. I was convinced it wasn’t from the cold. As we walked toward the house, one of the shadow figures was approaching the front door. The door slowly floated opened, revealing a spacious room and ‘hello, how can I help y’all from a kindly lady named Mrs. Medlock. I explained what we were doing in their driveway and she invited us into her home where her husband was relaxing in a chair by the window with a cup of tea. He was wondering why we were interested in the cemetery. I explained to him that I wanted to learn about the people buried at the cemetery and who takes care of the surrounding land. “Well, that’s old Harold Allen’s people buried out there. He takes care of half and I do the other half,” said Mr. Medlock. “Old Harold’s great-grandpa, the first sheriff of Milton is buried there as well as those confederate boys.” This was Southern hospitality. Sure no biscuits and gravy or sweet tea but, we were asked, as total strangers, to come in and sit down to chat about common interests in order to learn from each other as friends “Y’all were wondering about the Confederate soldiers, said Mrs. Medlock. “They say that land was part of a camp down to the creek bed and three other soldiers are buried there.” The three marked graves of Confederate soldiers are on the actual grounds of the Allen Cemetery. Two have the last name of Jernigan and were privates in 15th cavalry

Left: A full view of the Allen family plots shows the dilapidated condition in which this cemetary was left. Right: Wrought iron gates surround a few of the grave sites.

Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

regiment based out of Mobile, Alabama. The other soldier’s last name is Mitchell. He was a corporal with the 6th Florida Infantry Regiment. There’s not much mystery to the marked graves but, the story really gets interesting when one learns that legend has it, Confederate gold is buried near the creek bed along with the three other soldiers in unmarked graves. We sat and discussed the possibility of gold being buried right in their backyard and the Medlock’s produced an old map that showed the area parceled off with a creek cutting right through the land and next to the cemetery. There were no definitive markings depicting where the Confederate camp once was but, Mrs. Medlock pointed out where she believes they camped. “If I was looking for the gold, that’s where I’d go but, seeing as I’m not as spry as I once was, I’m not looking,” she quipped with a chuckle. Alex and I said our goodbyes to the Medlock’s and thanked them for sitting with us for what I realized was nearly an hour. We came in search of the history of the people buried in the Allen Cemetery. What we left with was


something even more valuable: a lesson in openness and hospitality to one’s neighbors that is dying in the big cities but, alive and well in small, off the beaten path towns. As we were heading back to Pensacola, we discussed the possibility of searching for the legendary hidden gold. But perhaps, like some of the towns in Florida, it is best to remain off the map. We wouldn’t want to spoil a truly hidden treasure.

Above: Even the marked graves are left in poor condition in this cemetery that time forgot.


Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

Channeling A Great And Then Drinking At His Bar t’s true that it is not a rare thing to be looking at an old house but, a home that truly embodies the essence of a person and the nature of a place is a real treat. Now, I know that this sounds like the hackneyed phrase of someone hyping up a place that may not deserve it but, the former home of Ernest Hemingway in Key West represents, to many, the soul of Key West. Lacking the will to write, I decided I needed inspiration. And, what better way to get inspired than by channeling one of my heroes? So, on a Tuesday at two in the morning, I began my drive. When I have to drive somewhere and really just wish to get to the destination rather than enjoy the trip and stop in odd places, I prefer to travel at night. You avoid the traffic, and places just seem different when it’s you on your own in the middle of the blackness that is a Florida night when unimpeded by light pollution. In the focused beam of your headlights, the eyes of deer, opossum, and raccoon flash like Christmas lights, only to be put out as soon as your car passes. If you drive slowly with your windows open, you can hear the grunts of gators lurking in the swamps. But, as I said, the drive was not what I was after. I guess you could say I went in search of Hemingway’s ghost that day.

Above: The Key West home that once belonged to Ernest Hemingway and his wife Pauline Pfeiffer is a tropical paradise for visitors and its many feline inhabitants as well.

Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

Contrary to what many believe, Ernest Hemingway was not the original owner of his Key West house. In fact, the house was built in 1851 by Asa Tift, a Key West marine architect and salvage wrecker and Hemingway and his second wife Pauline Pfeiffer bought the two story home and one-acre property in 1931 for $8000. As visitors approach the Hemingway home, the first sight they are greeted with is the high wall with an even higher fence that surrounds the massive (by Key West standards) compound. As they enter the gate, guests are welcomed by one or more of the 60 resident cats that are all descendents of an original six-toed polydactyl cat owned by Hemingway. Each cat is given a unique name and cared for by the staff. Many of the names liken back to Hemingway’s era. The cats roam freely within the grounds while guests enjoy their tours. I was greeted by a small grey and black cat with tiger stripes. He leapt into the ticket booth and came right up to me while I was paying my admission for the tour. As I turned to walk into the house, I saw other cats of all different colors lounging in bushes or darting around the legs and attempted scratches of visitors. One calico stopped just long enough to allow a man to scratch its head but, the cat was quickly off, leaving the would-be pets for another cat that might feel more obliging. But, my friend today was Hairy Truman. The little grey and black flash brushed past my ankle and hopped onto a chair which is

strategically placed by the front door. Throughout the tour, Hairy Truman followed the group. Coaxed along by treats, freely distributed by our guide, the little black and grey striped cat upstaged a tour that he has enjoyed probably more times than the average tour guide. The house has expansive windows and charming Key West style architecture but, the crowning glory is the pool. Built during the winter of 1937 and 1938, the pool was the first residential swimming pool in Key West. When Hemingway returned from Spain to find that the $20,000 pool had been built he exclaimed, “Well, you might as well take my last cent,” and threw a penny from his pocket into the pool. The penny, which was retrieved by his wife Pauline, is still encased in the pool deck today. After a stop in Mr. Hemingway’s writing studio and a goodbye to my new-found feline friend, I was off. There was more to be done on my Hemingway day in Key West. As I walked along Whitehead Street, I tried to imagine what the walk must have been like for the famous writer as he trekked to his favorite watering hole. Things seem to have a way of being sanitized once folks realize that tourists are fond of visiting. The streets of Hemingway’s Key West must have seen this sanitizing effect since the tourism industry really began booming in the Keys. There are still the remnants of what was obviously a gritty town filled with fishermen, salvage wreckers, and other colorful people. If one looks closely, the raw soul of what Key

Above: Hairy Truman lounges in a chair by the front door waiting to greet visitors.

Below: Another cat avoids visitors by hiding in the foliage that adorns most of the Hemingway home grounds.



Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

Above: A view of the swimming pool from the porch that surrounds the second story of the home. Top Right: The first residential swimming pool in Key West. Encased in the deck is the penny Hemingway claimed was his last when he learned the price of the pool. Middle Right: One of the many polydactyl cats lounging in the sun on a bench. Bottom Right: The grounds of the Hemingway home can be traversed by brick paths like this one that snake their way through the foliage.

Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

Above: Feral chickens roam around many of the yards and streets of Key West, likening back to a time when the island was a much grittier place. Below: Sloppy Joe’s has many reminders of Papa Hemingway, the saloon’s most famous regular.

West was is hidden in the alleyway with the dilapidated boat, in the house that sits cockeyed on it’s foundation from one too many storms and too few repair jobs, and in the rampant chickens that still run freely around Key West. I came face-to-face with one of these feral fowl and stopped in my tracks. I looked at him and he looked right back. We were both waiting for the other to make the first move. The wild rooster flinched first. I stood my ground and he turned to his left and walked off as if we had not just been involved in an epic standoff of man versus fowl. It made me laugh because I imagined that same thing happening to the adventurous writer on his way to his bar. Hemingway probably would not have given the rooster time to make up his mind, he would have headed straight for him and shooed him out of the way if the bird didn’t move. But then again, the roosters of Hemingway’s Key West were probably tougher, just like the entire island once was. One thing I think had not changed much from Hemingway’s days in Key West is the raucous atmosphere of Sloppy Joe’s Bar on Duval Street. The sounds of island music coupled with a rowdy bar crowd can be heard long before the bar is in full view. As I walked in I was greeted by the sight of a wooden cat behind the bar that reminded me the writer who so loved this bar actually used to be a part owner and run a gambling ring out of the back which, according to Ernest, was where the real money was.


Lacking any gambling at the current Sloppy Joe’s Bar, the back was filled with the smells of fried food and other pub fare which wafted my way along with faint cigarette smoke and some kind of liquor that had been spilled on the floor. In any other joint, this may have been the cue to leave but, at Sloppy Joe’s, it would seem kind of strange if things were not slightly dicey. I sat down at a table, ordered up some conch fritters and a Key West Sunset Ale and began singing along to my favorite Jimmy Buffett songs. It seemed like everyone else knew them also but, that’s the funny thing when you’re in a bar like Sloppy Joe’s: it doesn’t really matter if you know the entire song, what matters to most people is if they are having as much fun as the next person. That attitude made me realize why Hemingway loved this place so much. It was a release. The bar was a place he could go to simply forget about the stories clamoring to come out of his head. As I began my second Sunset Ale and got my basket of conch fritters, I decided that everyone needs a mental vacation even if it is only for an abbreviated time. Looking around the bar, Ernest Hemingway memorabilia popped out among numerous other photos, stuffed fish, and world-wide flags plastered to the walls and ceiling of this Key West landmark. It isn’t Hemingway’s ghost that is still in the Keys, just his spirit. The essence of unbridled freedom that Hemingway exuded is still very much alive in the island that he so dearly loved.


Tales From The Land of Citrus and Sunshine

A cloud of cigar smoke made by a family thoroughly enjoying their vices together jarred me out of my own thoughts. I saw that the sun was heading toward the water, which meant it was about time for me to get heading home. As I was leaving the island of Key West with empty cans of Red Bull Energy Drink clinking on my car floor, I felt that my hunt to channel Hemingway could not have been done anywhere else. It was recognition of his sense of adventure and wonder of the world around him that inspired the great writer. The Key West of Hemingway’s days is alive and well, his spirit is still very much alive there too. Though visitors now encounter a cleaned-up version of the island, there’s still enough quirkiness that Mr. Hemingway would feel right at home.

Above: A view from outside of Sloppy Joe’s Bar shows a sleepy Key West street. Below: Inside Sloppy Joe’s, locals and tourists alike imbibe in the shadow of Papa Hemingway.

Acknowledgments Dr. Mark Walters and Dr. Xiaopeng Wang

Thank you both for your confidence in me and your guidance through every aspect of this project.

Mr. Michael Colapietro

Your tireless editing efforts helped to shape a collection of tales into a final product.

Ms. Jennifer Phillips

Thank you for helping edit these stories and for being an inspiration whether you know it or not.

Ms. Alexandra Sanborn

Thank you for the original art and showing me such a cool cemetery. You are a true friend.

Ms. Vicky Iozzia

Thank you for showing me your love for Lu the hippo and allowing me to use your song in the book.

Mr. and Mrs. Medlock

Thank you for showing me what real Southern hospitality is all about.

Captain Allan Turnbull

Thank you for sharing with me your zeal for Civil War reenacting.

Grandma, Grandpa, and Council Vaughan

Thank you for your hospitality and for showing me some truly amazing Florida adventures.

Hippos Eat Birthday Cake and Other Tales From the Land of Citrus and Sunshine  
Hippos Eat Birthday Cake and Other Tales From the Land of Citrus and Sunshine  

This book was published as my applied research project to earn my Master's degree.