Month: June 2017

The blink of a firefly…

One evening on a recent trip to the north Georgia Mountains, firefly flashes reminded me of the rare times I witnessed lightning bugs on spring nights in Manatee County, Florida. My brother and I were often sent to bed shortly after dark, so perhaps fireflies appeared more often than my childhood memories suggest, but I can only recall a few such magical evenings. I have observed the floating blinks of light on more frequent occasions in northern parts of the county throughout my life; however, Gardening Solutions on a University of Florida educational website contends “Fireflies,…not flies or bugs, but…actually beetles…include 56 species found in Florida.”

So, the bioluminescent creatures are out and about in Florida; an interested person just needs to know where and when to look for them. Marc Branham,  a University of Florida associate professor of entomology and one of the world’s foremost experts on fireflies, argues, “In Florida, some species are only out for about 23 minutes every night. It’s not 30 minutes, it’s not 20 minutes, it’s 23 minutes.” That is a small window for observations.

Perhaps firefly enthusiasts should ponder the words of Crowfoot, a Blackfoot chief, who said before his death in 1890, “What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.”

From the 3rd chapter, “Nighthawks,” in Growing Up Floridian:

On rare nights in the spring, a few fireflies blinked at the edge of the trees and deeper into the swamp. I knew what the little points of light were because my brother and I caught fireflies the last summer I spent in Massachusetts when I was four. I had not seen any for the first several years on the ranch and did not know their appearance was typically so brief in central Florida. These fireflies were too quick to catch and disappeared into the tall weeds, staying close to the ground in contrast to my northern experience when the bugs would slowly rise from the grass and float into the air or on into the trees. The northern species was slow enough to be caught by a young kid, and I could vaguely remember filling a small jar with blinking lights.

Florida’s native falcon…

If a tiny hawk hovers over an open grassy area in Florida between May and July, that little bird, or more accurately, falcon, is a Southeastern American Kestrel. The northern migrant species has already left for cooler climates. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation   contends “recognizing the difference between the two subspecies solely by physical characteristics is nearly impossible with the naked eye as the two birds are so similar. The most reliable way to determine the subspecies is by documenting the time of the year that the sightings occur.” However, the bird, also known as a sparrow hawk, offers a loud, ringing “killy-killy-killy” or “klee-klee-klee” no matter which species is darting through the air. That sound caught my attention recently on the Mainlands Golf Course in Pinellas Park as a family of four Southeastern American Kestrels dove from power lines to hover over fairways before descending to snatch a grasshopper or moth.

I became fascinated with birds of prey after my brother and I discovered a pair of American Kestrels nesting in Quarter Circle A ranch’s barn. My interest took me to the Parrish Elementary School’s library where I found The Hooded Hawk Mystery (1954) by ‪Franklin W. Dixon‬ in which the Hardy Boys solve a kidnapping and save a prince from India, who was held captive by a gang. My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Fleetwood, who encouraged my love of reading, suggested My Side of the Mountain  (1959) by Jean Craighead George in which Sam runs away to the Catskill Mountains in New York to live in a huge hollowed-out tree with his peregrine falcon, Frightful. Later, she challenged me to read T. H. White’s The Goshawk (1951), which was an autobiographical account of his attempt to train a male goshawk named Gos.  Armed with that information, I knew I was not ready to train a hawk without a mentor.

According to the Iowa Raptor Project research, “despite the generalist nature of this species (American Kestrel), counts of long-term Breeding Bird Surveys, Christmas Bird Counts, migration data, and even nest box programs are showing regional population declines throughout the continent over the last century.” Research presented at the 2017 Kestrel Symposium, Brandywine Zoo, Wilmington, DE indicated that American Kestrel populations have declined as much as 43% in the past century. A significant strategy being used to combat the population decline has been to encourage landowners to install nest boxes on their properties, monitor the boxes, and report success or failure to organizations that study the birds.


The American Kestrel Partnership’s Bosch KestrelCam, located in Boise, Idaho at The Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey, offers a sixth year of providing a window into the world of American Kestrels in their first days of life.

An Audubon podcast gives an interesting view of The American Kestrel, a Tiny Killer Built for Speed.

From the 10th chapter, “The Barn,” of Growing up Floridian:

When hay bales filled the loft, that space took on new dimensions for games of hide and seek or war with attempts to tumble bales on top of each other. There were times when we helped fill that loft by stacking bales as they came off a new-fangled conveyer belt that was propped up through the east end loft door. One fascinating surprise was finding a pair of nesting American Kestrels had laid four eggs in a corner just inside the western loft door. Smokey and I were able to sneak up every

day or so to watch the chicks develop. I read every piece of information I could find on falconry in our meager school library and concluded I was not ready to try to train a hawk to hunt. I was lucky enough to see the last chick take his solo flight into the nearest pine tree early one evening. I sat in the same spot in the loft several months later as a violent thunderstorm marched across the pastures delivering a great lightning bolt that exploded the biggest limb on that pine tree. The view from the loft gave a new perspective on the flat acres that rolled out from the barn to the south, west, and north. The view of the tree line to the east allowed me to imagine but not see the the dark creek flowing beneath the trees.

St. Petersburg Preservation Society

 

Literary birds in song…

When Juliet asked Romeo, “Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day.
It was the nightingale, and not the lark,That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear,” during a reading in my ninth grade English class, I thought I could easily picture the lark, but I had no image for the nightingale. I researched both in the school’s library and found that the Eastern Meadowlark I knew bore no resemblance to the English Skylark. The Nightingale’s song, comparable in some ways to the song of our Northern Mockingbird, was renowned in literary history, but the bird was not very striking in appearance. Both the English Skylark and Nightingale are nondescript little brown birds that Floridians could mistake for common sparrows. Yet Shakespeare used both birds as symbols of divine intervention in the love affairs of humans. Both lark species are early rising birds who “herald the morn,” while the common nightingale and mockingbird will sing at night.

The male Skylark’s song flight begins low down whilst rising steeply until it hangs high in the air above its territory, and the long, liquid warble can be heard from quite a distance. The Eastern Meadowlark offers a clear, mellow whistle, see-you, see-yeeeer. The nightingale’s song is only heard for a brief period between April and early June, and consists of a virtuoso performance of liquid trills and repeated phrases, ending in a crescendo. The Northern Mockingbird is “a world-famous singer, considered finer even than the famous nightingale of Europe….(who) sings a medley of songs belonging to other birds, repeating each phrase several times before moving on to the next…Most songbirds learn all the songs they’ll ever sing before they’re a year old. But the mockingbird continues to expand his collection throughout his life…(and) sometimes “sings” the sounds of people whistling, frogs croaking, and doorbells ringing. Although all adult male mockingbirds sing during the day, only a bachelor sings at night.”

 

 

From “Dragonflies,” the 16th chapter of Growing Up Floridian:

From the first week the fence was built, I paid attention to which creatures used the fence to their advantage. An Eastern Meadowlark was the first bird to fly to the wire from the surrounding pasture, but the yellow-breasted bird preferred to land on the posts and sing a melody that sounded like “spring-of-the-year” just after full sunrise. One Meadowlark liked the northwest corner post right outside our bedroom window, and if I just raised my head a little, I could see him from my lower bunk when he woke me. The Loggerhead Shrikes, cousins in appearance to the mockingbirds, had the most unusual behavior in regards to the fence; they skewered insects or lizards on the barbs to both kill and then eat the prey. If they were disturbed from their meal, they left the corpse of their kill dangling from the fence. Red-winged blackbirds, bluebirds, bluejays, cardinals, and mockingbirds were almost daily visitors to the fence year round, but if I kept a sharp eye out, I saw a Cooper’s Hawk or a Red-shouldered Hawk on a corner post in search of feather prey. I always scanned the fence whenever I entered or left the yard to see what might be balancing on the wire.

 

 

 

The Loggerhead Shrike from Larry E McPherson on Vimeo.

 

 

Acrobats in the night skies…

Long before I had ever seen a print of and read a discussion about
Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, I listened to and watched for real nighthawks in the 1950’s evening skies on the Quarter Circle A ranch in Manatee County, Florida. Hopper’s 1942 oil on canvas painting captured people metaphorically as nightbirds in a downtown diner late at night. The birds that entertained me during those adolescent  nights were acrobatic and curiously musical when their peent, peent preceded a roaring boom that reminded me of a distant locomotive going by in the night.

In 2005, Laura Erickson  described the common nighthawk as having “long, graceful wings marked with a crescent moon, flying in and out of
the glowing halo of streetlights.” She went on to verbally paint a picture of “the species’ characteristically erratic yet graceful flight (as) moth-like in purpose, (with) nighthawks swooping and darting through the sky in pursuit of lepidopterans and other insects.

Arthur Cleveland Brent reported the Seminole tribe of Florida called the bird “Ho-pil-car.” Other Native American tribes like the “Chippewas not only had the name “Besh-que” for the nighthawk but recognized it as a species distinct from the whip-poor-will, to which they gave the name “Gwen-go-wi-a.” Another Native American culture tale explained “why the Nighthawk wears fine clothes.”

Nighthawks featured in many cultures’ myths and were labeled as goatsuckers because “superstitious goat-herds in ancient Greece saw night birds fluttering open-mouthed around their livestock and believed the birds came out at dark to drink milk from the mammals’ teats.” A Japanese story suggests a nighthawk wanted to become as glowing as a star.  Nighthawk did become a metaphoric star via Marvel Comics.

 

 

From the 3rd chapter, “Nighthawks,” in Growing Up Floridian:

Nighthawks took to the sky as the bees left the clover. Flashes of white from their underwings reflecting the setting sun’s last rays signaled their swooping arrival in the air above me. First the repeated “peent” calls bounced back and forth, sometimes echoing off the thick tree line behind me. The dominant sound, however, was like loud blowing on the mouth of a bottle or a distant train whistle that lasted for only a couple seconds when one dove almost to the ground. The dives were steep, and the birds would pull up just in time to miss impact with the ground in a similar steep ascent. I heard the birds referred to as “skeeter hawks” several times, because, as I was told, they were supposed to eat their weight in mosquitos nightly. Whether they were chasing insects or showing off for mates, their display was far better than the grainy images on a black and white television screen that brought shows in via an antenna that stood ten feet above the roof of the house. A red-bellied woodpecker hammered on that television antenna for several mornings in a row once, driving my father to consider borrowing a shotgun. Fortunately for the bird, trees enticed him more than aluminum, and he gave up beating on metal.

 

 

Dragonfly afternoons…

What we, as humans, do not know about dragonflies, which have been around for more than 300 million years, is substantial. According to an NPR report on the studies of Martin Wikelski, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University in New Jersey, “Dragonflies are long-distance fliers that travel similarly to migrating birds,…build up fat reserves, wait for favorable winds, take rest breaks, and reorient themselves when they lose their way….(and) radio-tagged dragonflies (have been recorded) traveling 100 miles (160 kilometers) in a day.”

Science Magazine reports that”…the winged wanderer,…a mere 4 centimeters in length…may make migrations of 14,000 to 18,000 kilometers as it searches for pools to lay its eggs.”

As a boy growing up in Manatee County, I observed many different dragonflies and damselflies, but did not know there were over a 100 different species in Florida and 331 species in North America. I enjoyed the lilting flight of the Ebony Jewelwing as much as the power dives and slashes of the green Eastern Pondhawk. Catching a few to take a closer look at them became an obsessive challenge for a couple years.

From “Dragonflies,” the 16th chapter of Growing Up Floridian:

Sneaking up on a dragonfly is much harder than one might imagine. I spent quite a few hours of my youth on the ranch perfecting stalking techniques with limited success. Dragonflies perched on the top strand of the barbed wire fence that set the boundary between our yard and the surrounding pasture. I wanted to catch the crafty fliers to examine the different species and simply take on the challenge of catching them by hand. Trying to use my pillowcase butterfly net was not realistic. The dragonflies were far too fast and agile in the air. I already knew how to catch butterflies by hand, so I taught myself how to sneak up on a dragonfly that was perched on the fence and grab one wing in each hand simultaneously. Many attempts failed, but once I caught the first one, I knew hunting success was possible, and the challenge of snatching an elusive dragonfly never failed to motivate patient efforts.

Fox squirrel or skunk…which?

In Florida, the Eastern Fox Squirrel and the Striped Skunk can be mistaken for each other, particularly if the squirrel is one of the dark color variations. Both species have an habitual behavior of walking through grass in an ambling fashion with their bushy tails arched up over their backs to the back of their heads. Both have fairly pointed, narrow heads and inquisitive dark eyes. Although Eastern Fox Squirrels are most active during the day, and Striped Skunks are more active at night, both animals can be seen searching for nuts, berries, and insects in the early morning hours.

My mother, who had an easy affinity with all kinds of animals, hand fed chipmunks, squirrels, raccoons, and skunks at my grandfather’s house in Moultonborough, New Hampshire as a young woman and had a scurry of fox squirrels she fed on the Quarter Circle A ranch in Manatee County ten years later. The chipmunk picture was taken on a 2016 on a visit to my grandfather’s former residence, and little guy is likely a direct descendant of those clever little beasts my mother used to hand feed.

A recent encounter with a rabid raccoon by a hiker in Maine reminded me of the only rabid animal I ever saw during my years on the ranch. That bobcat my father shot after the stumbling crazy-eyed animal staggered toward him in the barn one morning. Since the local veterinarian was coming to the ranch that day to tend to some of the horses, the bobcat’s body was put aside for him. The vet confirmed the bobcat was rabid on his next visit to the ranch, and spent some time warning my brother and I of the dangers we faced if we ever came face-to-face with a potentially rabid animal. Fortunately, none of my mother’s wild companions confronted her after contracting rabies, but my father did not think the practice of “making pets of giant furry-tailed rats” was reasonable. My mother disagreed…and won that argument.

 

 

 

From “Fox Squirrels not Skunks,” the 11th chapter of Growing Up Floridian:

On my maternal grandmother’s first visit to the ranch, she arrived on a Friday evening about dusk and had little opportunity to see much of the surroundings before night fell. When I came out for breakfast the next morning, she was already seated at the dining room table with her back to the back door of the house that was entirely jalousie windows from top to bottom. A movement outside the door caught my eye, and, in turn, my movement caused my grandmother to look behind her. With a shriek, she bolted out of the chair and was behind me in the middle of the room in a heart beat.

“A skunk!” My grandmother shouted.

My mother, who was preparing breakfast in the kitchen, laughed, came striding across the floor with a couple of peanut butter laden crackers already in her hand, and replied “That is just one of my little friends.”

She opened the back door as the fox squirrel stepped down off the stoop and sat upright with his front paws outstretched, waiting for his treat.

“You have always had a way with animals.” My grandmother reminisced. “I’ll keep my distance all the same.”

Blacksmith memories…

The Village Blacksmith” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow written in 1840, the first poem of any substance I remember from Parrish Elementary School, struck me as a fairly accurate physical description of my father. He did not have a smithy, but he did often work under large oaks to avoid some of Florida’s brutal sun. He also did not go to church on Sunday nor did I ever see him shed a tear. However, the visual and auditory images Longfellow employed brought my father to mind immediately, and I could see him at his anvil as my 4th grade teacher read the piece aloud.

…The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands….

…His face is like the tan;
His brow is wet with honest sweat,
He earns whate’er he can,…

…You can hear his bellows blow;
You can hear him swing his heavy sledge,
with measured beat and slow…

I became familiar with farrier tools when my brother, Smokey, and I accompanied our father on horseshoeing jobs across Manatee, Hardee, De Soto, and Sarasota counties. We were expected to grab the correct tool when my father demanded one from the toolbox. My father’s contemporaries called him a blacksmith, but, in truth, I learned later that he was a farrier, one who shoes horses, mules, donkeys and occasionally oxen and is not necessarily skilled in other iron work done by the blacksmith. The farrier comes from the Latin word ferrarius, which means of iron or blacksmith, so the confusion between the two is natural.

Thirty years later I flashed back to those blacksmith /farrier moments when I watched the television show, Our House. From an online article in Equus Magazine, I learned “Wilford Brimley, America’s most famous farrier,…(from that 1986 television series) who shoed horses as crotchety old Gus Witherspoon…convinced the (show) writers to have Gus, the grandfather, go back to shoeing horses for some extra cash. As Wil likes to tell the story, he even got NBC to build him a shoeing rig. (“And a pretty nice one at that,” he recalls.) Brimley…referred again and again to how hard farriers work — and live. “My father wanted me to do something to earn an honest living, so I said I wanted to make that honest living shoeing horses,” he began his final story. “My father looked at me and said, ‘That’s a little bit too honest, son’.” As I watched those episodes, I wished my father had embodied some of Gus Witherspoon’s jovial qualities.

From the 17th chapter, “Blacksmithing,” in Growing Up Floridian:

The flash of the year and a half old 1958 Ford Ranchero sitting in the driveway just beyond the railroad-tie cattleguard, which offered vehicles a way to enter the yard but kept cattle and horses out, caught my eye as my brother and I cleared the tree line. The yard, surrounded by taut barbed wire to keep the ranch’s roaming cattle and horses at bay, had ample room for several vehicles and a horse trailer. After hearing bits of our parents’ conversation over the previous weeks about the problems created by the frequent breakdowns of my father’s 1950 Chevy pickup, I anticipated the newer truck. I did not expect a truck that
looked like a sleek car. The two-tone black and white body trimmed with a chrome sidespear that split the two colors gleamed as the black roof sat above the big windshield like a trim formal hat. My brother said our father must have been sold by the advertising descriptions of a truck with “double-duty beauty” and “the only truck with true passenger-car comfort and driving ease,” and the truck was comfortable and fashionable.

As I adjusted my schoolbooks to my other arm, I could see the Ranchero’s bed already gave home to a custom-made multi-sectioned box to house my father’s farrier tools. A stainless steel lid with a substantial lock protected the tools that facilitated his evening and weekend avocation, a self-taught set of skills that supplemented his work as a ranch hand on the Quarter Circle A Ranch. My brother pointed to the 90 pound anvil, secured by a strap attached to a bolt in the sidewall behind the left wheel well, that clearly weighed down the driver’s side of the truck a bit, but that weight would soon be balanced on the opposite side by stacks of horseshoes in a variety of sizes that fit into another custom rack fastened to the sidewall behind the right wheel well. A pair of bolts for anchoring the portable coal forge protruded noticeably from the bed of the truck. Clearly, our father had measured and designed storage space for his entire blacksmithing operation.

Sailfin Mollies with blue flags flying…

Sailfin mollies can be found fresh, brackish, and coastal waters all over Florida, but most people I have pointed them out to were unaware of their existence. A minnow is a minnow to many…and if someone only
sees a group of female sailfins, he or she might easily dismiss them as slightly larger than average mosquito fish.  Their bodies are light grey or silver, and rows of spots appear in straight line patterns along the sides, back, and dorsal fin.

However, the mature male of the species displays an enlarged dorsal fin and a wide tail that are tinged with iridescent blue.  As a child wandering along the dark tannin-colored creek, I often marveled at the shimmering blue tail of a sailfin near the bank, and watched as the male darted about his harem like a sultan trying to ward off any rivals.

 

From the 4th chapter, “Minnows,” in Growing Up Floridian:

From the moment I caught my first Golden Topminnow in Indiantown, fish fascinated me. The diversity of the species in the creek, which flowed through the swamp separating the headquarters of the Quarter Circle A Ranch from State Road 62, captured my attention on the first day I wandered along the creek’s banks. The variety of shapes, sizes, and preferred habitats of the minnows was lost on my brother and others like him who focused on fish that could be caught for the dinner table. Smokey concerned himself with how big the bass, bream, and bluegill were and only gave passing attention to my captures of Flagfish, Pygmy Sunfish, and Golden Topminnows.  

Rodeo Romances and Norman Rockwell’s 1954 “Girl in the mirror” Saturday Evening Post cover…

My mother must have been inspired more than a bit by Ranch Romances, Thrilling Ranch Stories, and Rodeo Romances, pulp fiction magazines that began publication in 1924 and ran through 1971.  According to Chelsea Anderson, “Ranch Romances was only one of more than 180 western pulp magazines created between 1920 and 1950 , and only a small part of the nearly 10,000 issues published in the entire Western genre.” In 1945 at age twenty, my mother had seen thousands of pages of magazine art and plenty of examples of pinup art that captured an immense audience in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s.  Although she appreciated western images the most, she still could see a little of herself in Ava Gardner and other iconic beauties of the day. Below is my mother opposite Ava Gardner on the beach.

Ava Gardner’s pinup pose competed with Coca Cola ads and western romance magazines as inspirational models. Of course, Outlaw, starring Jane Russell, hit the movie screens in 1943, my mother’s senior year in high school. At the time, Russell gave everyone a new perspective on the cowgirl look.  

 

 

 

The March 6, 1954 Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell, “The Girl in the Mirror” sent my mother looking through her photo album collection for a picture of herself taken in 1938.  The Post’s cover painting depicted Mary Whalen Leonard, Rockwell’s favorite model, contemplating a photo of Jane Russell.  According to a 2013 Saturday Evening Post article, Rockwell said, “I should not have added the photograph of the movie star,…the little girl is not wondering if she looks like the star but just trying to estimate her own charms.” Even though my mother was posing for the camera instead of contemplating her self-image in comparison to a magazine photo, the Rockwell painting and her own photograph connection clicked for her.

 

My mother’s 1954 pinup pose included her two sons.

From “Nighthawks,” the 3rd chapter of Growing Up Floridian:

If my brother joined me, we took turns playing a game of who could find a cloud formation that captured a person or a object on which we could agree. Abraham Lincoln appeared more often than any other person, although Santa Claus was a close second. Rabbits, cattle, and hippos wandered or ran through the clouds with a degree of regularity. In one instant, Smokey could not see my Statue of Liberty, and I could not see his locomotive, but we agreed that Bugs Bunny sat on a rock eating a carrot. If the horizon was filled with clouds, our imaginations could find substantial forms in seconds. On the rare evenings when our mother sat with us, we had to explain in detail which part of which cloud structure depicted what we saw, and, then, she would hesitantly agree. She contended she could see pictures or representations in the clouds as quickly as we did when she was young.

“My mind doesn’t work that way any more,” she complained.

“Why,” I questioned.

“I have so much to do that I don’t take the time to relax and smell the roses.”

“What roses?”

She gently laughed and explained, “That’s just an expression that means I’m caught up in washing clothes, fixing lunches, cleaning the house, and getting ready for work to such an extent that I’m not enjoying simple moments like this.”

 

Comments and feedback welcomed! Please!

Rodeo belt buckles…

  

 

 

Vick Blackstone walked like a cowboy, talked like a cowboy, and dressed like a cowboy because he was the epitome, in my mind, of what a veteran cowboy should act and look like. Actors who portrayed cowboys on television like Clint Walker, Chuck Conners, James Garner, James Arness, Clint Eastwood, and Robert Mitchum may have looked great on the the screen, but real cowboys like Vick were more scarred and worn. One of the affectations Vick enjoyed were the belt buckles he won as a rodeo champion, and he changed buckles and belts fairly often. When ever I encountered him, I tried to guess which event would be featured on the buckle before I looked.

 

 

From “Cowboy Hat,” the 5th chapter of Growing Up Floridian:

As we started to the barn, I noticed Vick was bow-legged, and his stride was an awkward mix between a slight limp and an exaggerated right leg extension.

“Why do you walk like that?”

“Son, if you had been thrown from as many horses and bulls as I have, you might have a hitch in your giddyup too. Too many rodeos. Too many eight second rides.”

He wore a silver belt buckle adorned with a cowboy on a bucking horse that read Saddle Bronc Champion 1942, one of many I saw over the years. I learned that Vick Blackstone was a well-respected rodeo performer when he was young and still had to ride once in a while in competitions despite being almost 50, an age when most riders had retired from all rodeo events. Vick did not talk much about himself to us, but we overheard conversations or his responses to questions about where he earned the championship belt buckle he wore on any given day. He was respected as a five-event cowboy, a competitor riding bulls, riding broncs bareback, riding broncs with a saddle, roping calves, and bulldogging. For twenty-five years, he won championships on the rodeo circuit across the country from when he was seventeen in 1930 until he was well into his forties. Once, a truck driver delivering feed to the ranch asked him about “that Largo rodeo when you won all five main events.”

 

Hurricane season memories…

Jimmy Buffett captured the essence of hurricane season in his 1974 song from A1A, “Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season,” when he sang,

“Squalls out on the gulf stream
Big storm commin’ soon…”

My closest experience with a hurricane occurred in 1968 when Hurricane Gladys passed the Pinellas peninsula on Friday, October 18th during my senior year in high school. The storm postponed our football game, allowed me to go on a date and see a movie, and gave me an adventure to write about.

Gladys was photographed from space by the Apollo 7 astronauts, tracked by Hurricane Hunter aircraft, and seen by radar imagery, all relatively new phenomena at the time.

 

 

 

 

 

Hurricane Haiku

At Pass-a-Grille Beach
In October sixty eight
Rambler rockin’

 

From the 26th chapter, “A Date with Gladys,” in Growing Up Floridian:

Wind controlled the steering wheel almost as much as I did and forced my gray turtle, actually a 1960 Rambler American, from one side of 66th Street to the other. Having worked up enough courage to ask Maureen out, I wasn’t about to let Hurricane Gladys cancel our date. As the only car on the road, I had the advantage of fighting the gusts across three lanes without the danger of hitting another vehicle. I managed to avoid curbs and telephones poles often by slight margins using the power of forearms developed from three years of high school football.

Traveling the Skyway…for the first time.

The original Sunshine Skyway Bridge, opened in 1954, did away with the need for the Bee Line Ferry boats that transported people and cars from Pinellas County across Tampa Bay to Manatee or Sarasota County.  Jerry Blizin revisited the event in an article in the St. Petersburg Times published on October 20, 2009. The extra 50 miles the bridge saved travelers helped mitigate the distaste they had for both the $1.75 toll and the fear generated by the bridge’s height.

Smokey, my mother, and I traveled across the five year-old Sunshine Skyway Bridge in 1959 to visit my maternal grandmother in my mother’s 1948 Morris Minor, which was slightly more powerful than a Volkswagen Beetle. We were not sure the car could reach the 150 foot summit since we could barely keep up with a cormorant that matched the car’s 45 mph as we headed north on the low span. Neither my brother nor I had been anywhere near 150 feet off the ground before, so the trip unnerved us both, and we clutched the armrests as our heads swiveled in every direction. When a dolphin breached, a pelican dove, or a mullet jumped, we gasped and pointed. We were chattering monkeys when we recounted to Gram Barr our adventure of leaving the flat palmetto scrub of Manatee County and soaring to the top of the Skyway Bridge, a mere 36 miles away. The Pinellas County beach environment contrasted sharply with the backwoods Florida Cracker territory the Quarter Circle A ranch provided.

Years later, I found trips over the old bridge were peaceful and particularly beautiful under a bright moon.

A second span added in 1971 altered the simplistic beauty of the origin engineering marvel, and the shipping accident in 1980 that destroyed the southbound span ended the nostalgic romance the original Skyway engendered.

 

 

A recent newspaper article described the current efforts to hold a half marathon race over the new bridge on New Year’s Day, but there was no mention of opening ceremony run in which I participated on January 11, 1987.

 

From “Travels on State Road 62,” the 4th chapter of Growing Up Floridian:

On the rare days when my mother had to go to work early, she would drop my brother and me off at the elementary school. The seven-mile journey to the two-story school on Highway 301 was slow because State Road 62 did not have a legislative champion, and, thus, was nothing but miles of patches and potholes that would take a toll on even the most durable cars. My mother’s 1948 Morris Minor automobile, a simple little beetle-shaped beast, took the bumpy ride while emitting a groan every so often. SR 62 connected to 301 in Parrish, and we would be dropped off in front of the school so my mother could continue on to the hardware store in Palmetto where she work as a secretary. As we motored along, static-filled am radio stations during my first grade year played Elvis Presley’s “All Shook Up,” Debbie Reynold’s “Tammy, ” and my mother’s favorite, “Old Cape Cod,” by Patti Page, which she said reminded her of fun times on that Atlantic beach.

Cornbread: Yankee vs. Southern?

 

My mother made Yankee cornbread that was sweet, soft, and moist. When her bright yellow squares were coupled with Boston Baked Beans, grilled all-beef franks, sautéed green beans with mushrooms, fresh unpasteurized milk from our cow, and blackberry ice-cream for dessert, a Saturday night evening meal became a savory sensation.  I tasted southern cornbread at county picnics or at the homes of friends, but I did not enjoy those coarse, flat, unsweetened cornbreads the way I savored my mother’s recipe. I will admit that I have grown to enjoy just about any cornbread variation at this point in my life, but I do miss those Saturday night meals of my youth.

 

In Robert Moss’s online post, “The Real Reason Sugar Has No Place in Cornbread, ” he gives a very detailed explanation for the increased use of sugar in cornbread recipes, which, he contends, has to do with the evolution of corn grinding as stone mills began to be replaced with steel roller mills. However, famed pastry chef Simone Faure, disagrees in her discussion, “Battle of the Cornbreads: Northern vs. Southern Style,” in Feast Magazine.  She argues that sugar has always been an option in southern cornbread recipes. Until I did a little research, I had no idea such a complicated debated about how cornbread should be created existed.

From the 13th chapter, “Lulu, a milk cow,” of Growing Up Floridian

Whole, unpasteurized milk became a part of every meal in our house. We had to drink at least one big glass morning, noon, and night and were encouraged to drink more between meals. Such consumption kept the refrigerator space balanced with the eight or ten eggs we got from the chickens every day and the ripe tomatoes we were allowed to pick from the farms a couple miles down the road. A stand alone freezer in the large closet and storage space at the end of the carport held a wide assortment of beef cuts from a steer that was slaughtered on the ranch every six months. None of the ranch hands were skilled butchers, so they traded a portion of the carcass, after they skinned and cleaned the animal, to the local butcher if he would cut the steaks, roasts, loins, and ribs into shareable portions. A similar process filled the rest of the freezer with pork. Wild hogs were trapped and grain fed for two months. Then, they were slaughtered and taken to the same butcher, who produced boxes of sausage, and packages of pork chops, roasts, and loins in such quantity that we were never without solid home-grown meals.

 

Summer time is rodeo time across the country…

The current edition of Rodeo News features the article,   “Back When They Bucked with Pat Ommert” with her picture from a performance years ago, which, in turn, reminded me of the years spent on the Quarter Circle A ranch in Manatee County, Florida with Faye and Vic Blackstone, who are both in the Cowboy and Cowgirl Halls of Fame.

Faye was one of Pat Ommert’s contemporaries and was credited with inventing some of the trick riding maneuvers rodeo performers still use today.

 

I noticed in both pictures that the women used white trick riding saddles, and I found a picture of Faye’s favorite saddle in Florida Cattle Ranching online.

 

 

 

 

 

Many of the cowgirls of that era were photogenic, and the camera liked Faye.

      

 

 

 

From the 7th chapter of Growing Up Floridian

Until Smokey and I were invited into the Blackstone’s house one afternoon for freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies by Faye, Vick’s wife, we really didn’t know how famous they were in the cowboy world. They had been managing the Quarter Circle A Ranch since the early 1940’s, and we knew they both still performed in some local rodeos. A couple of pictures hanging on the wall in the kitchen of Vick as a young bronc rider caught my eye, and, as I walked closer I recognized a much younger Vick.

“Wander through the house, boys, and look at all the pictures if you want,” Faye suggested.

The entire house was almost an art gallery or photo exhibit dedicated largely to the cowboy and his cowgirl. Vick and Faye had been photographed on horseback in many well-know rodeo arenas, standing beside beautiful horses, performing all kinds of rope tricks, and standing with many famous people. Action photos caught them as young rodeo performers at the top of their profession.

 

1924 Silver Dollars…

 

 

Until I went through my mother’s keepsakes after she passed away in April of 2013, I had not realized she kept the first silver dollars I earned when I was seven years old. She told my brother and me that she would put the money in a bank account for us, but she put the value of the earnings in the account and kept the actual silver dollars as mementoes for us. How do I know? When I brought the first dollar home, she examined the heavy coin and remarked that the dollar was minted in 1924, the year before she was born…and the next one I gave her, also dated 1924, elicited an explanation that all silver dollars were not made in 1924. For comparison, she used one of my brother’s minted in 1878. Those coins nestled in an old leather coin purse were among her treasured possessions.

 

From the 6th chapter, “First Paying Job,” of Growing Up Floridian:

 

The ranch foreman, Vick Blackstone, told my brother and me that he would pay us a silver dollar a day to walk along beside a flatbed truck and toss saw palmetto roots and trunk pieces up on to the truck bed. Vick’s enticement, shiny new silver dollars, produced a visible bulge in his Levi’s right front pocket. He pulled out a few to enhance his sales pitch.

“You can earn a handful of these by the end of the week,” he chuckled as he winked at us.

My brother and I were sold. Of course, we did not have anything on which to spend the money, nor any place to go anywhere near the ranch, but our parents had already taught us the value of saving money. We just were not sure of the reason behind saving “for a rainy day.”

Paper wasps and honeybees…

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Golden homemade butter…

 

For Smokey and I, as preteen brothers, churning butter took too much time from a Saturday afternoon. We had usually completed our morning duties and wanted the rest of the day to play along the creek or in the barn, but when our mother called us, we knew the churn would be on a small table in the carport not far from the kitchen door, and thick cream would already fill half the glass jar.  In hindsight, the classic country chore bred appreciation for the process of getting heavy, creamy butter to the dining table.

 

       

 

 

From the 13th chapter of Growing Up Floridian:

Lulu’s bounty in milk and cream allowed us to make butter, cheese, and ice cream. The butter was produced every weekend the cow was fresh with a hand-driven churn. Cream, poured off the top of the milk containers every day, went into a separate gallon jar. Typically, on Saturday afternoon, the square glass churn with wooden paddles on a steel rod that descended from a hand crank mechanism was filled with the cream. Although the churning only took fifteen minutes or so, unless there were two containers of cream, a chore was a chore. Rich yellow butter magically appeared after cranking the handle as evenly as we could for a quarter hour. My mother shaped the soft gob into a rectangle, and, if we already had enough butter in the refrigerator, wrapped the latest batch in white butcher’s paper for storage in the freezer.

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