Tag: Old Florida

Wild Hogs in Florida

A NPR Morning Edition news report last September by Jessica Meszaro, “Meat Industry Turns Florida’s Feral Hogs Into Prime Pork,” reminded me of my encounters with wild pigs on the Quarter Circle A ranch in Manatee County in the 1950’s, particularly shortly after my family moved onto the ranch in 1957.

My father quit his ranch hand job on the Circle T spread near Lake Okeechobee for a similar position on the ranch outside of Parrish. Although the pay was not much greater, the opportunity to build his own new house, have a cow to milk, have chickens for eggs and meat, have a steer to butcher once or twice a year, and have a garden as benefits enticed both my parents. His salary of $250 a month, supplemented by beef, chicken, eggs, milk, housing, and utilities, allowed him to buy a decent truck, a serviceable car for my mother, and a horse he could train and use in local calf roping competitions. He felt he was in hog heaven.

Wild pigs added to that sense of wellbeing. He and Vick Blackstone, the ranch foreman, decided one way to lessen the destructive impact of hogs on the pasture land Vick was trying to develop to improve beef production would be to trap the feral pigs, keep them in a pen for a couple months to fatten them on grain, and butcher them for food to feed the ranch families. They built two large wooden traps out of two by ten pine boards that stood eight feet tall and were fifteen feet by fifteen feet square. A single hinged trap door four feet square propped up by a two by four driven slightly into the ground served as a simple mechanism for capturing the pigs. The traps were pre-baited with livestock feed, tomatoes from the local commercial farms, and, occasionally, carrion (road killed raccoons or possums) with the trap door tied open for a couple weeks so the hogs would get used to the structures. Once the traps were set for captures, my brother and I were often sent to check on them.

The first capture of two yearling hogs proved entertaining as my father and Vick took turns roping the 75 pound pigs as though they were calves, tying them off to posts, jumping down into the trap to hogtie their rear feet first and then their front feet, and putting burlap bags over their heads to reduce their struggles. The hogs were dragged out through the trap door, thrown onto the bed of a pickup truck, and driven to their brand new sty. My brother and I happily took on the new chore of daily feedings. The unpleasant task of mucking out the sty also fell to us after a fence with a gate divided the sty in half, so the pigs could be enticed with food to gather in one half of the enclosure while we closed the gate. We cleaned the empty half and repeated the process to clean the opposite half. We made sure we never leaned over the fence when we poured feed into the troughs. After the hogs got over their initial fear of being near people, they would charge toward the fence in efforts to get at us for days as if they were defending territory. That charging behavior occurred most frequently when sows were captured along with two to a half dozen piglets. One 250 pound sow that had three piglets grunted and charged us every day for three months before she was finally slaughtered and sent to a butcher.

Pork chops, roasts, and sausage filled our freezer. Pork and beef dominated the dinner table because the chickens were only replaced every 18 months or so. We gathered eggs every day from the thirty chickens that were kept in a wire cage that was suspended from the barn rafters, but the complex process of slaughtering and plucking chickens took most of a day, a task both Vick and my father put off until their wives repeatedly complained about not having chicken as a meal alternative.

Small herds or drifts of pigs were common sights along the length US 98, US 19, and all the other rural roads in the 50’s and 60’s, and, because the state was much less developed, the feral pig population did not get the attention the animals get today.

Wild pigs have become a problem in Florida as hundreds of thousands roam the state and destroy pasture land, crops, and residential property. There’s an effort now to turn the pest into a profit. According to William M. Giuliano in “Wild Hogs in Florida: Ecology and Management,” “Wild hogs are now found in every county in Florida and in at least 35 states and Canadian provinces, including most of the Southeast. Florida’s wild hog population is second only to Texas’s; the state is estimated to have more than 500,000 wild hogs in a relatively stable population (there are from 1 to 2 million wild hogs in the southeastern United States). Some of the highest hog population densities in Florida can be found north and west of Lake Okeechobee in areas with large forested tracts, dense understory vegetation, and limited public access. Hog numbers tend to be lower in areas with intensive agriculture and urbanization, and little water.”  The  Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission contends “the wild pig (Sus scrofa), also called the wild hog, wild boar or feral pig, is not a Florida native…and prefers oak-cabbage palm hammocks, freshwater marshes and sloughs and pine flatwoods. Wild pigs can reach weights of more than 150 pounds and be 5-6 feet long. They usually travel in small family groups or alone.

Laura Reilly, argued in 2014: “One solution to Florida’s wild pig problem: Eat them.”  She put forth that “Anna Maria restaurateur Ed Chiles’ three moderately priced indoor-outdoor restaurants, Anna Maria’s Sandbar, Mar Vista on Longboat Key, and Anna Maria’ BeacHhouse, showcases Florida foods, which includes Braised Punta Gorda Wild Boar Au Jus with Beagle Bay Organic Sauerkraut. That is a pretty upscale treatment for meat coming from “descendants of pigs brought by Hernando de Soto in 1539.” She did address a question most restaurant patrons would ask: “But is this wild pork safe? Field dressing wild hogs puts hunters at risk of brucellosis infection, and then there are the specters of dangerous diseases such as trichinosis, pseudorabies and leptospirosis. According to D.J. Conner, who regulates animals coming in and out of the state for Florida’s Department of Agriculture, if it’s cooked thoroughly (the USDA says that means an internal temperature of 160), it poses no greater risk than commercial pork.”

From chapter 9, “The Barn,” of Growing Up Floridian:

Lessons in how steak, pork roasts, and fried chicken got to the table were taught in that barn, too. Every six months a steer was grain fed for a couple of months before he was butchered to serve to families. Wild hogs were as frequently trapped, fed, and slaughtered. The anatomy lessons offered during those very real life moments identified livers, hearts, stomachs, and intestines in three vivid dimensions. Every eighteen months the chickens were replaced after they were slaughtered and distributed to the ranch families. I was not quite prepared for the spectacle of bringing to life the adage of “running around like a chicken with its head cut off.” Even at eight years-old, I had heard the saying many times but did not realize such a behavior could happen. When Vick and my father set up a huge iron scalding pot over a fire in front of the barn one Saturday morning, I had just finished cleaning the chicken area and washing off the red wagon with the hose at the back of the barn. Both men had hatchets and oak stump chopping blocks set near the bubbling pot. They went into the chicken cages, brought out two chickens at a time, and chopped their heads off. Then, they tossed the headless bodies into the grass. The white unbalanced forms ran or stumbled around the area for ten to twenty seconds, sometimes going fifteen to twenty feet away from where they were tossed. The actions of the headless chickens were the strangest I had ever seen, and I was hesitant about eating chicken for some weeks afterwards. After all the chickens were dispatched, both men plunged the bodies into the scalding water, plucked the feathers, dressed the birds, and wrapped them in white freezer paper. I carried a box filled with white packages to my mother so she could place them in our freezer.

 

The Great Florida Cattle Drive

Vick Blackstone would have loved participating in the Great Florida Cattle Drives. Unfortunately, he passed away in 1987, eight years before the first of the three reenactments of Floridian cattle drives that the Florida Cow Culture Preservation Committee under the auspices of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Florida Agricultural Museum coordinated. The first Great Florida Cattle Drive was organized in 1995 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Florida statehood and the second was in 2006. Vick was named Man of the Year in 1970 by the Rodeo Hall of Fame, and, in 1985, the Florida Senate and House passed joint resolutions citing Vick Blackstone for Outstanding Service to Florida Agriculture. Celebrating the Cracker cowboy heritage is always done with a tip of the hat to men and women like Vick and Faye Blackstone.

On July 22, an evening spent taking a look at 2016 Great Florida Cattle Drive: Unbroken Circles was offered at the Hideaway Cafe in St. Petersburg by father/son filmmakers Elam and Nic Stoltzfus with music by J Robert Houghtaling as he performed some of his original songs that are featured on the film. The documentary, narrated by Baxter Black, tells the story of the Great Florida Cattle Drive 2016, the history of Florida’s scrub cattle breed, and how they almost went extinct. A DVD, a CD, and a coffee table book were produced and are available for anyone who does not have the opportunity to see a live presentation of this Floridian historical event.

Carlton Ward, a photographer who participated in the drives, wrote “A lot has changed since the first Great Florida Cattle Drive in 1995. Florida’s population has grown from 14 million to 20 million and more than 2 million acres (more than 3,000 square miles) of natural and agricultural lands have been lost to development.

That trend was apparent as I headed south down Canoe Creek Road to the starting point of the drive. New developments sprawled out from Kissimmee and St. Cloud, covering what had been ranch country just a few years before. I learned from the trail bosses that it had been increasingly difficult to find enough connected land for a cattle drive from one decade to the next and that the prospect of being able to do it again is very much in question.

It’s when I think about the landscape of the cattle drive that my concern shifts from nostalgia for the heritage to fear for the future of Florida. Four years ago, I hiked across this cattle drive route on Day 53 of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, a 1000-mile, 100-day trek from the Everglades to Georgia tracing the best remaining wildlife corridor through the Florida peninsula. Our team’s mission was to show that a statewide wildlife corridor still existed and could still be saved.”

The cattle drives have been widely cover in newspapers and periodicals like the Los Angles Times and Western Horseman.  Mike Cleary wrote in the LATimes that “Most of the Great Florida Cattle Drive ’95 runs over private land, including hunting preserves where wild boar, deer and alligators thrive. But on Saturday morning, at trail’s end, the cattle will be herded across busy U.S. 192, a main road into a better-known symbol of Florida: Walt Disney World.

The cow hunters driving the cattle are expert riders nominated by the cattlemen’s associations in each of Florida’s 67 counties. The journey averages 10 miles a day, and at night the cows are penned in prearranged locations, where the cow hunters set up camp. Trailing the herd is a mile-long retinue of more than 30 wagons and about 400 horseback riders.”

Susan L. Ebert wrote in Cowgirl magazine that, “Last year’s Great Florida Cattle Drive, featuring the state’s famed cow hunters, delivered an unexpected surprise: women outnumbered the men!” She concluded with, “As momentum builds and the urgency to preserve Florida’s ranching legacy and wilderness increases, planning is already underway for the fourth Great Florida Cattle Drive, to be held in 2021 to mark 500 years of Florida Cracker tradition.” So, if anyone wants to participate in the next celebration of the cattle drive, start planning now.

Brahma Fear

Even before the Manatee County school bus slowed to a stop in front of the dirt road leading over the railroad rail cattleguard at the entrance to the Quarter Circle A ranch on State Road 62, my brother, Smokey, and I looked out the opened windows and scanned the small four-acre pasture in front of the tree line for cattle. What we didn’t want to see were the Brahman cows.

The Colvin ranch of 10,000 acres was the home range of several hundred head of Florida scrub cattle and several breeds of purebred cattle that the Colvins bought at auctions in whatever parts of the country they happen to visit. A champion Angus Bull arrived from a Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo visit one day, got out of the cattle truck, and walked right into a barbed wire he had never encountered before, requiring a local veterinarian triage visit. A few Hereford cows brought in from Nebraska required veterinarian attention several times during their first few months in the Florida heat and humidity. However, the purebred Brahman herd of about 40 cows required the least amount of veterinarian care, but were rotated through different sections of pasture land to give the cattle the best grazing the ranch could afford them. When the rotation schedule brought the Brahmans into the small entrance field leading onto the ranch or the wider pasture area around the four houses and barn of the ranch headquarters, my brother and I had to devise strategies for dealing with the herd.

The cows with their calves were usually skittish, dashed into a close-packed herd a couple hundred feet away from anyone who approached on horseback or on a tractor, and turned to stare at the intruder until they determined whether or not danger really existed for their offspring. When two small boys coming home from school began walking down the 300 yards of dusty, dirt road that disappeared into the tree line harboring Gamble Creek, the cows looked up from grazing, sometimes snorted, and, most often, went right back to grazing. A few of the 1,200 pound cows with wide-eyed curious calves on either side of the road would raise heavy heads adorned with short, very pointed horns and stare. We would freeze in place. After the closest cow lowered her head to graze, we quietly crept forward again. This cow and boy dance usually worked until we came within the last 200 feet from the tree line; then, we ran as if our lives depended on the few seconds we needed to reach the safety of the trees.

The first time we encounter the herd on the way home, we had no strategy in place and spoke nervously about running all the way to the trees or just walking like the cattle were not even there. Our chatter must have irritated the cow closest to the road. She ran several strides forward, lowered her head, and swung pointed horns at our rear ends as we screeched and stumbled in our awkward school shoes toward the lone pine 75 yards from the road in the middle of the eastern half of the pasture. The cow could not have been serious about wanting to reach us, because she halted after those first few strides and watched us scramble behind the pine. The rest of the herd gathered on the western side of the pasture to watch us exit the open field by keeping the tree between us and the Brahmans, going all the way to the barbed wire fence on the eastern edge, and climbing under the fence into the Palmetto scrub on the other side. Our journey home took three times the usual duration as we navigated palmettos, watched for rattlesnakes, and twisted through the trees along the creek to get back to the road. Smokey and I talked about strategy on the way home and decided being quiet while walking slowly after taking off our shoes would be the best plan, agreeing that we ran much faster without shoes. We had quite a few more dances through the herd over the next few years and a few barefoot races to the trees when we heard an aggressive snort or strides coming in the grass toward us that, a couple of times, left school shoes lying in the dust.

When we heard Tex Ritter sing “Bad Brahma Bull” on the car radio a few times during those mid 1950’s, my brother and I agreed that we were happy never seeing any of the several Brahman bulls, a couple of them retired rodeo bulls, mixed in with the herd of cows. They were put together once or twice a year in outer pastures removed from the area of the ranch where we typically travelled on foot.

Years later in 1974, the lines from “Brahma Fear” on Jimmy Buffett’s album, Living And Dying In 3/4 Time, “I’d like to ride the rodeo/But I’ve got Brahma fear/So I’ll just stick to airplanes/Gently pop my ears,” reminded me of my childhood moments with Brahman cattle. I, too, thought about rodeo possibilities, but I figured pain from football injuries probably paled in ctomparison to that inflicted by bulls and broncs in a rodeo arena.

In 1977, Chris LaDoux’s album, Sing Me a Song, Mr. Rodeo Man, offered an upbeat version of “Bad Brahma Bull,” and led me to find that the song was originally written by cowboy poet Curley Fletcher in 1915 as the poem, “Strawberry Roan,” and transformed into a song by Fred Howard and Nat Vincent (The Happy Chappies).  Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Rex Allen and Buddy Essen, Marty Robbins, and the Sons of the Pioneers recorded versions of “Strawberry Roan.” Fletcher rewrote the bronc riding song into a parody as the bull riding song in 1942.

From the 5th chapter, “Cowboy Hat,” 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.”

 

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.

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.

 

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…

Continue reading

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.

I’ve been “for the birds” most of my life…

 

The Pileated Woodpecker inspired one of my favorite childhood cartoon characters, Woody Woodpecker. Not only could I see examples of those majestic birds daily in the woods along the ranch’s creek as I walked to and from the bus stop on State Road 62, but I also often saw one or more of the other common woodpecker species flitting about in the shadows of the oaks and pines:  the Downy, Hairy, Northern Flicker, Pileated, Red-Headed, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers.

 

 

 

From “Cranes,” the 23rd chapter of Growing Up Floridian:

 

My interest in “birding” or birdwatching began at age six when my maternal grandmother made her first visit to the ranch in Manatee County from her Springfield, Massachusetts home to see her daughter and grandkids. As she and I walked along my favorite haunt, the ranch’s dark, lazy creek, a flash of black, white, and tantalizing red cast a flickering shadow amongst the water oaks and lit at the base of a huge pine tree. Gram grabbed my shoulder, squeezed, and pointed silently at the crimson crested head of a crow-sized bird who confidently hopped about the tree trunk in an upward spiral.

“That’s a pileated woodpecker,” she whispered.

“I see them all the time, but I never knew what to call them. So, I just call them big hammers. Smaller birds that act the same I call little hammers. There are four of five different ones.”

Two weeks after Gram returned to New England, she sent my first copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Birds, which allowed me to attach accurate names to many more soaring, darting, flitting shadows that populated my rural boyhood wanderings. The pileated, red-bellied, red-headed, hairy, and downy woodpeckers, described in great detail and compared with one another in the text, became more tangible and ordered in my mind.

 

 

Milking the cow…literally…

 

As I took this photo with a Brownie box camera, my mother milked our cow, Lulu, and gave a few squirts of milk to Rattler, the wandering mongrel.

 

 

From “Lulu, a milk cow,” the 7th chapter of Growing Up Floridian:

The rude introduction I received from our Jersey milk cow occurred one early December afternoon when I was seven. I had just returned to the ranch at the end of my second week in the first grade at Parrish Elementary School. I heard, before I left to catch the bus with my brother, that our father had found a cow that had recently given birth to her calf. The calf was kept by the local dairy farm in hopes the heifer would grow into a better milk producer than her mother, who only gave a little more than a gallon of milk twice a day. That quantity was more than enough for a family of four, and she delivered enough cream in that milk to allow us to create milk-based staples.

 

In the style of John Holmes: “Map of My Country”

 

Writing in the style of a poet is a way to practice creating poetry while creating original poetry. The poem, “Map of My Country” by John Holmes, is a powerful self reflection. 

In 1954, Holmes typed a copy of the poem with lengthy annotations, explaining the choices behind the evolution of the poem. This annotated version has been recreated here:

http://dca.lib.tufts.edu/features/holmes/world/map/map01.html#stanza1

One way to write in the style of a poet is to go line-by-line through a poem and ask a question that would get at the heart of the line. Then, the writer could answer that question in the rhythm and with the substance of the original line. What follows is Holmes’ poem and my attempt to write is his style.

Memorial Day connection:  According to Adele J. Haft in “The Map-makers’ Colors”: Maps in Twentieth-Century American Poetry in English,” the Navy adopted John Holmes’ “Map of My Country” (Holmes, 1943; see Holmes, 1999) for the “libraries of its ships and stations” (Eyges, 2007, 117). The first of several American collections dominated by map metaphors, “Map of My Country” opens with a sprawling twelve-part poem (3–34), an autobiography so expansive that it not only pays homage to the American people and places that enriched Holmes’ life, but also charts his generation and the literature that molded those who lived through two World Wars.

“Map of My Country” by John Holmes

A map of my native country is all edges,
The shore touching sea, the easy impartial rivers
Splitting the local boundary lines, round hills in two townships,
Blue ponds interrupting the careful county shapes.
The Mississippi runs down the middle. Cape Cod. The Gulf.
Nebraska is on latitude forty. Kansas is west of Missouri.
.
When I was a child, I drew it, from memory,
A game in the schoolroom, naming the big cities right.

Cloud shadows were not shown, nor where winter whitens,
Nor the wide road the day’s wind takes.
None of the tall letters told my grandfather’s name.
Nothing said, “Here they see in clear air a hundred miles.
Here they go to bed early. They fear snow here.”
Oak trees and maple boughs I had seen on the long hillsides
Changing color, and laurel, and bayberry, were never mapped.
Geography told only capitals and state lines.

I have come a long way using other men’s maps for the turnings.
I have a long way to go.
It is time I drew the map again,
Spread with the broad colors of life, and words of my own
Saying, “Here the people worked hard, and died for the wrong reasons.
Here wild strawberries tell the time of year.
I could not sleep, here, while bell-buoys beyond the surf rang.
Here trains passed in the night, crying of distance,
Calling to cities far away, listening for an answer.”

On my own map of my own country
I shall show where there were never wars,
And plot the changed way I hear men speak in the west,
Words in the south slower, and food different.
Not the court houses seen floodlighted at night from trains,
But the local stone built into house walls,
And barns telling the traveler where he is
By the slant of the roof, the color of the paint.

Not monuments. Not the battlefields famous in school.
But Thoreau’s pond, and Huckleberry Finn’s island.
I shall name an unhistorical hill three boys climbed one morning.
Lines indicate my few journeys,
And the long way letters come from absent friends.

Forest is where green ferns cooled me under the big trees.
Ocean is where I ran in the white drag of waves on white sand.
Music is what I heard in a country house while hearts broke.
Not knowing they were breaking, and Brahms wrote it.

All that I remember happened to me here.
This is the known world.
I shall make a star here for a man who died too young.
Here, and here, in gold, I shall mark two towns
Famous for nothing, except that I have been happy in them.

 

From the “Epilogue” of Growing Up Floridian:

“Remapping My Country” (with respect to John Holmes)

Massachusetts, a rectangle, ends as a boot,
kicking back the salty waves of the Atlantic,
a barrier island sheltering Cape Cod Bay,
where people can stop for a Sandwich between
Plymouth and Provincetown.
Buzzards Bay intrudes at the ankle,
while Vineyard Sound is ground under the heel.
Nantucket looks longingly at the toe
and westerly at the dust kicked up over Martha’s Vineyard.

My snow-suited youth understood little about latitude lines
crossed when visiting a grandfather’s stone house in New Hampshire.

Reds and yellows of New England falls
dappled the rural hills in memories
of September jaunts to Vermont.
The sight of lobster traps in stacks pulled forth
scents of Old Bay seasonings bubbling around
red claws and protruding feelers that fed
galloping appetites born in piles of playful leaves.
Road signs spoke only of overlooks, not of what to look over.

Parental tales of trips taken twenty years earlier
in a Hudson Commodore did not realistically inform the imagination swaying in the back of a Mercury Comet.
A child’s mind must explore his own byways,
and he must sculpt his own dragons in the clouds.
A black bear on a stone wall frightening chipmunks
did not intimidate a latter day Mohican Cooper inspired.
Fly fishermen down a distant stream did not decorate
the AAA triptik followed up the east coast.

A Studebaker Daytona, ten years later, on the same route
populated by Firebirds, Fieros, Camaros, and Thunderbirds,
shared the roadway with 18-wheeled behemoths jockeyed by
ratchet-jawed rooster cruisers defying the double nickel.
The flat tires fixed on the shoulders refocused the destination
that was not intended as a permanent relocation but as a
waypoint during an exploration.

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, written in the year of my birth, set a traveling rhythm twenty years later.
His journey was not retraced, but the spirit was embraced.
The only Mary Lou I knew populated Ricky Nelson’s song
on a worn out eight track tape,
but letters from Floridian tourists set new waypoints that
beckoned off interstate exit ramps.

Brautigan’s Confederate General at Big Sur altered my reality.
Trout Fishing in America took me down a humorous path.
Richard’s images entwined within me on western mountain slopes and rolled down shimmering highways into setting suns.

Topographical symbols reveal the contours of my life.
Straight, curved, dashed, and solid lines link moments.
Circled cities connected by yellow highlighted routes merge
melodic memories that bridge kaleidoscope reflections
with echoes resounded through my years.

1950’s Bicycle memories

 

My parents decided my brother and I could share a bicycle as Christmas present in 1957. They must have been enticed by a Sears catalog ad:

 

 

Fortunately, they were not frightened by bicycle safety manuals of the 50’s that vividly etched in the minds of readers the dangers of poor bike riding practices.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From “Christmas Bicycle,” the 2nd chapter of Growing Up Floridian:

Gleaming in the morning’s first rays stood a brand new J. C. Higgins bicycle. White accents on the fenders offered sharp contrast to the fire engine red frame and the shiny black white-wall tires. A big kid’s bike. No training wheels. I realized I did not know where to start. I had never ridden a bike before. I thought about waking my brother, Smokey, but his sleeping late behavior on this Christmas morning was going to cost him this time. I was going to give the bike a whirl first.

Caressing the brown leather seat, I tried to figure the easiest way to guide the bike off the porch. Wheeling the metal pony in a tight arc, I brought the front tire to the edge of the steps with a black plastic handlebar grip in each hand. The front tire’s rolling bounce on the initial step started a momentum that a sixty pound body could not control. Black grease teeth marks descending along the left leg of my jeans testified to the dangers of taking on a ride that might be too big for me.

Soundtrack of my life…

                                                                              

Creating a “Soundtrack of My Life” can be a self-reflective exercise to explore one’s self through connections to specific pieces of music or songs that symbolize moments in a person’s life with an explanation of the connections. A person could just cobble together a list of songs that were memorable over the course of his or her life, but why were the songs significant? One way to begin is to create a timeline of one’s life by identifying each major event, important event, or just memorable event with a brief written description of that moment. Then, remember or find a song’s lyrics that connect to the event and explain the connection. I used this exercise in both middle school and high school classrooms. The results were often quite remarkable, particularly when young students found that contemporary, popular songs they liked did not connect to their important moments in their lives. The students had to explore older songs and a variety of genres to make the connections they felt were important. When I introduced the idea to adult friends, a frequent response was, “That’s a lot of work.” I agree there is some thought involved, but using a computer and iTunes makes the task enjoyable and fairly easy.  The result can be a playlist that is enjoyable to hear once in a while when nostalgia tugs on one’s brain. I offer here a PowerPoint version of my soundtrack followed by the written version.

Soundtrack Taylor2b

 

Although I was born in Boston, and was considered a Yankee during most of my early years, I spent my formative childhood on a ranch in rural, central Florida. So, the cowboy image has significance in that I grew up in an environment that celebrated the rodeo-Florida Cracker Cowboy way of life about which many present-day Floridians know little. The cowboy persona blurred and merged with a Gulf coast sailing/fishing “salt-water cowboy” mentality when I moved to Pinellas County and spent my teen-age years and young adulthood surrounded by a marine environment. The violence of the Vietnam War, the deaths by assignation of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy, and the civil unrest of the entire country vividly colored my thoughts about who I was becoming and what I wanted to do with my life. Blue skies, clear water, and sailing adventures dominated several years spent wandering the country, going to college, and rocketing about listening to Elton John, James Taylor, and much great music of the 60’s and 70’s. While I explored paths open to me and thought few people really knew me, I have always concluded that the years spent with important people in my life was enjoyable, offered opportunities to grow, and foretold of more good years to come.

According to Robert Frost, “a poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom,” and I think life and responses to songs should follow a similar course. Nature has delighted me from my formative years on a ranch in Manatee County through decades of exploring what Florida has to offer from the Keys to Pensacola, and, more recently, on a morning runs along Boca Ciega Bay in Gulfport that offered views of dolphins breaching, ospreys snatching fish, pelicans diving, and Great Blue Herons patiently waiting for a baitfish swirl. My life has been influenced by turbulent events in the Sixties, intellectual explorations in the Seventies, loving relationships through the years, and a focused career in teaching that ties many of the moments together. Music always presents a score for my most significant moments no matter whether the sounds come from live concerts, vinyl records, eight-track tapes, cassette tapes, cds, or Ipods. As the years have rolled by, singular songs or performances etch echoes that resonate and pull smiles on my lips, release sighs into the air, and coalesce memories into momentary consciousness that delight the senses and offer reflections to ponder.

As a boy growing up in a rural Florida cowboy environment, I knew more names of rodeo champions than those of Major League Baseball’s homerun hitters or the NFL’s leading quarterbacks. Although I did not hear Michael Martin Murphy’s voice until the early Seventies singing romantic ballads like “Wildfire” and “Carolina in the Pines,” his 1990 song, “Cowboy Logic,” captured a philosophy that I was not so much taught as shown though the actions of the everyday cowboys in my day-to-day boyhood life and though stories of the Western television shows and movies I watched and the paperback Westerns I read. When Murphy sang,

“If it’s a job, do it. Put your back in to it.
‘Cause a little bit of dirt’s gonna wash off in the rain.
If it’s a horse, ride it. If it hurts, hide it.
Dust yourself off and get back on again,”

I knew he telling the truth as both he and I saw the world. I fell off my share of horses, bicycles, and slippery decks, but I always got back up and tried again. My parents, coaches, and teachers grew up in an era of “if you’re hurt, just walk it off.” That cliché applied to many aspects of my life, including sports, education, and romance.

When he sang that a cowboy has “…got a simple solution to just about anything,” he captured a core philosophical note I have most often lived by: life should not be that complicated. He also argues

“If it’s a fence, mend it; If it’s a dollar bill, spend it
Before if burns a hole down in them jeans
If it’s a load, truck it. If it’s a punch, duck it.
If she’s a lady, treat her like a queen.”

I did actually learn to mend fences (literally) as a boy, but have not been so efficient at mending fences metaphorically with people in my life, as I tend to let people who cause problems drift from my life. I have also never been one to accumulate much in terms of monetary wealth and so have never had a pair of jeans that burned. I have driven pickup trucks most of my life; my favorite, a ’49 Ford, I drove until I tired of having only a hood vent for air conditioning. I have successfully ducked most punches thrown my way, but a couple have landed that delivered lessons both physical and emotional. And most of the women in my life I have tried to treat royally with varying degrees of success; those romantic actions call to mind a voice and a song I have listened to since I was a teenager.

In 1968, Lou Rawls released Soulin’, a recording I wore out after a few years, and after replacing the first record, I later replaced that one with tapes, both 8-track and then cassette. The song I most listened to that caught a romantic teenage mind was “It Was a Very Good Year.” In the song, images of a lifetime of romance is offered in simple vignettes for ages seventeen, twenty-one, thirty-five, and the autumn of one’s years. “When I was seventeen…small town girls…And soft summer nights” were my romantic focus, with those soft summer nights often spent on St. Pete Beach with a background chorus of waves rolling on the sand. Before “I was twenty-one,” I saw and heard Lou Rawls in person on a nightclub stage in Denver, Colorado. The melody came to life in a number of ways because there were plenty of “…city girls/Who lived up the stair” during the time I spent in the west and then wandered back east. Years later, “…girls/Of independent means” came and went “when I was thirty-five” or so, bringing this song sung by both Rawls and Frank Sinatra to life again and again.

Now that one could argue “I’m in the autumn of the year,” I do think most of my years have been “very good” and will continue to be so. Each year I have viewed as an example of “…vintage wine/From fine old kegs” which have been enjoyed “from the brim to the dregs.” Life should be lived in this way: savoring each moment one can while accepting tasty sips along with the bitter lessons that do seem to have to come from time to time. Some of those moments can be personal, while others are shared within the culture or nation.

Too many shared bitter moments happened in the 1960’s, and three of them were captured in a historical retrospective through Dion’s 1968 “Abraham, Martin And John” written by Richard Holler that reached number four on the Billboard hits list. When I first heard him sing,

“Anybody here seen my old friend John?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed a lot of people,
But it seems the good they die young.
I just looked around and he’s gone,”

I felt a palpable wave move through me as I vividly recalled the events of John F. Kennedy’s assignation five years earlier, his funeral, his three-year old son’s salute as his father’s coffin passed, and the effects on the entire nation. I, like many others, thought Kennedy, the first national figure I admired, would lead this nation in positive directions.

The losses of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in subsequent years, emotional body punches to the nation and to those of us who perceived the renewed hope they offered, profoundly altered my view of the world. Dion struck powerful notes when he linked Abraham Lincoln, King, and the Kennedys, described them as friends, and painted the image of seeing Bobby “walk up over the hill,/With Abraham, Martin and John.” In a seventeen-year old’s mind, Dion’s soulful, doo-wop voice became very reverent in this song and expressed a shared veneration of those leaders that so many felt.

One of the ways to recover from tragic events is to look in new directions; often songs can offer inspiration for those directions. In 1969, “Crystal Blue Persuasion” by Tommy James and the Shondells reached number two on the Billboard charts, and although years later Tommy James and co-writers, Eddie Gray and Mike Vale, explained that they wrote a “a sort of semi-religious poetic song,” the message suggested to me, clearly, if someone was open to new ideas, “peace and good brotherhood” could be achieved. Those ideas resonated with me, and, as much as any other single message, got me to examine what I wanted to do with my life, helped inspire me to choose a career in teaching, and look at the world in a more positive light rather than a cynical one the experiences of the 1960’s could have produced. Over the years I have seen that “people are changing,” and, in my limited influential role as a teacher, I have tried to help students understand possibilities of “a new day…coming.”

The beginning of a romance often signifies a metaphorical new day in one’s life; that new love focus gives someone a redefined hope for a positive future that may last. Nat King Cole’s romantic ballad, “Red Sails in the Sunset,” first captured such a possibility for me. Although I am not aware of consciously hearing the song when Cole took the tune up the charts to number twenty-four the year I was born, when I did begin listening to the singer’s ““unforgettable” voice, with its honeyed velvet tones in a rich, easy draw,” I was hooked. Having “Red sails in the sunset,…carry my loved one home safely to me” created an image that sent a young heart racing whenever Cole’s voice floated out of stereo speakers. In St. Croix’s Christiansted Harbor years later with a camera at sunset, I happened to photograph a small sailboat with red sails maneuvering to the dock and knew I had to return to the States to find someone I had left behind. I “went sailing no more” for quite a few years.

Although I never had an interest in becoming an astronaut, a friend in the early 70’s nicknamed me “Rocketman” because I traveled about the country from one end to the other in either a tiny Volkswagen Beetle or by hitchhiking and seemed to be zooming off in some direction for the slightest reason. “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long Long Time),” a song composed by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, reached number one on the charts in 1972. There were times when, halfway across the continent from friends, I was “lonely out in space,” and was “not the man they think I am at home.”

Many of the Elton John/Bernie Taupin songs like “Your Song,” “I’m Still Standing,” and “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” connected to specific moments in my life. In one romantic moment, I can remember saying, “I don’t have much money but boy if I did/I’d buy a big house where we both could live.” Of course, I never did have enough money to buy a big house. In another moment after a relationship breakup that ended badly, I realized I was “still standing better than I ever did/Looking like a true survivor, feeling like a little kid/…Picking up the pieces of my life without you on my mind.” There are times when anyone wonders if he will regain stability to stand on his own again after a major disappointment. After having a number of romances that failed to blossom as desired, singing the blues took on a more realistic meaning, and I could understand “why they call it the blues” because “Time on my hands could be time spent” in more enjoyable ways if I could solve the gender differences dynamic more successfully.

No matter what the relationship dynamic, parts of one’s self can be kept hidden from others. I have been well aware of a reluctance to reveal my innermost self at times or well aware of the consequences that have resulted when I did. The song which best explored that emotional response, “You Don’t Know Me,” a song written by Cindy Walker and Eddy Arnold in 1955 and sung by Arnold that year, reached number 10 on the country charts. Although at age four, I did not likely hear the song, I did hear Arnold’s version on country stations in the car as a child since my parents turned the dial to country music on any trip. A more contemporary version by Kenny Loggins (1977) on his Celebrate Me Home album offers a vibrant soulful version of the moment when

“You give your hand to me
And then you say, “Hello.”
And I can hardly speak,
My heart is beating so.
And anyone can tell
You think you know me well.
Well, you don’t know me.”

My friends and associates today may not see me as “afraid and shy” or someone who would “let my chance go by,” but those moments have occurred and probably will again.

Perhaps a soundtrack to one’s life reveals that inner self that other communication vehicles do not. My foundation in old western or country values has directed a large portion of my life. I know a solution exists for every problem. Each year, even those visited with traumatic events, became a “very good year,” and the years have segued into the beginning of a very enjoyable autumn. Although too many bitter moments through the years have been endured by me and the nation as a whole, I still believe we, as a united population, will walk together “up over the hill” someday. In my hopes lives the idea that in my lifetime a leader will emerge who will persuade the world community that a “new vibration” worth tuning into offers peace and brotherhood. As the days continue to rocket by, I am not so much concerned that people don’t know me as I am that people know themselves and offer themselves the opportunity to sail safely into a sunset with a loved one and make the best of their lives. As I listen to new songs that prompt smiles or tug at the memories born of yesterday’s tunes, logic and love blend to remix notes of delight, tease at the edges of wisdom, and lay the tracks for the continuing soundtrack for my life.

“Soundtrack Found Poem”

When I was seventeen
It was a very good year
A new day…was…coming
People… were…changing

Ain’t it beautiful?

Didn’t you love the things that they stood for?
Didn’t they try to find some good for you and me?

When I was twenty-one,
it was a very good year.
I…packed my bags…
and I think it’s gonna be a long, long time
’til touchdown brings me ’round again.

“Well, there ain’t no way to know.”
“Kid, you’ve still got a ways to go.
When I was thirty-five
it was a very good year.
Look over yonder.
What do you see?
Red sails in the sunset, way out on the sea.

You think you know me well.
Well, you don’t know me.
I’m not the man they think I am at home.

When the times are hard and the chips are down,
I’m just a friend…with…
a simple solution to just about anything.

I think of my life as vintage wine
from fine old kegs,
from the brim to the dregs
… poured sweet and clear…in…a very good year.

Gator tales

From the Bradenton Herald this week came the headline, “Nine busted for poaching alligators and taking more than 10,000 eggs” on a news story by Mark Young. The article indicated that the “Florida Attorney General’s Office announced nine individuals ranging in age from 22 to 73 were busted Wednesday on a variety of charges related to poaching alligators and illegally harvesting more than 10,000 alligator eggs.”

Recently, a fairly large alligator was photographed crossing a green on one of the golf courses I have played.

(An American alligator walks onto the edge of the putting green on the seventh hole of Myakka Pines Golf Club in Englewood, Florida in a photo by Bill Susie.)

These alligator moments brought to mind my childhood encounters with alligators and, unfortunately, memories of my father’s contributions to the decline of the alligator population in the 1950’s through his poaching practices. At the time, he could get $4 or $5 a foot for hides, so on a successful night he could make $80 to $100 because he never took more than two gators on any given night. Since he only made about $3000 a year as a ranch hand, that extra cash helped pay for automobile and rodeo expenses.

 

From the 16th chapter of Growing Up Floridian:

Tanned gator hides tacked along back-porch walls, which bore witness to our father’s midnight flashlight-directed hunting prowess, dismayed us. In the outside closet off the carport where our father parked his 1958 Ford Ranchero, rolled bundles of salted gator hides waited for a visit from the quiet Cuban who showed up in the middle of the night every three or four months. Hides came off the walls and bundles disappeared from the closet suddenly every once in a while. Invariably, the next day an officer from the Florida Fish and Game Commission would drive on to the ranch and have a terse conversation with our father. We were never privy to those conversations, but we knew some cleverness had taken place when our father began grinning as the FFGC truck would disappear into the tree line. How he knew about the visit ahead of time we never found out, but he never got arrested for poaching.

Memories of Dogs…

I used My Dog Skip by Willie Morris (1995) as a read-aloud in middle school classrooms for about 12 years, which means I read the entire text aloud six times a year at a rate of about 2 1/2 pages a day. Reading the text to the classes would take about 8 weeks. I would pull vocabulary words from each section,  would have students write definitions for the words in the personal dictionary sections of their notebooks after an oral discussion of the terms, and would give students extra credit on their essays for effectively using up to ten of the words in a major written assignment. So, I got to know the book fairly well…and never tired of reading the memoir over and over.

Willie Morris began with:

“I came across a photograph of him not long ago, his black face with the long snout sniffing at something in the air, his tail straight and pointing, his eyes flashing in some momentary excitement. Looking at a faded photograph taken more than forty years before, even as a grown man, I would admit I still missed him.”

Of course, Willie Morris was one of several writers who inspired me to write a memoir and sent me in search of old pictures of my first dog.

   

Note: The shadow indicates I’m using my mother’s Six – 16 Brownie box camera.

From the 11th chapter of Growing Up Floridian:

“Rabbit Chase”

Timidly emerging from the tree line, the black and white mongrel sniffed the air and peered up the dirt road. I saw him from the picnic table bench that summer day because the small black animal sharply stood out against the white, dusty, shell-packed road that curved away from the trees, split in two just beyond my family’s house, then ran by the ranch’s other two houses, and reconnected in front of the wide two- story barn. Each split ran in front of those two ranch-hand houses separated from each other by a wide flat piece of clover-covered pasture, in the middle of which sat a creaky old windmill that pumped water into a ten-foot long concrete water trough.

The dog started up the road, looking from side to side as if some danger might pop out from behind the mature pine trees populating the pasture on both sides of the road. The mutt, clearly undernourished with visible rib lines apparent under his shaggy coat, had a white blaze on his chest, a white patch on his right ear, and a couple white-stockinged front feet that brightened his otherwise dark wispy form.

I waited until the mutt was almost in front of the house but still a hundred feet from the picnic table before I spoke.

“Hey, boy,” I called in a quiet, soft tone.

The dog looked, ducked around with his tail between his legs, and started back the way he came, but glanced toward the table and paused. His tail wagged twice before he continued down the road.

Sandhill Crane population seems healthy locally

Seven different pairs of Sandhill Cranes herded offspring around the River Run Golf Course last Friday. The chicks ranged in size from about 10 inches to over 4 feet tall. Two family groups less than 100 yards apart loudly proclaimed their rights to the territory for about five minutes. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission contends the resident population of Florida Sandhill Cranes is between 4 and 5 thousand birds, while another 25,000 greater Sandhill Cranes migrate to Florida in the winter. There are six subspecies of Sandhill cranes—greater, lesser, Florida, Cuban, Mississippi and Canadian with the Cuban, Mississippi and Florida subspecies of Sandhill cranes being non-migratory. National Wildlife Federation link with subspecies info.

 

Link to Will McLean’s “Courtship of the Sandhill Crane

 

From the 23rd chapter of Growing Up Floridian :

The loud rattling kar-r-r-r-o-o-o I often heard at sunrise as a boy on the central Florida ranch immediately brought to mind the image of an elegant, gray bird of almost five feet in height that stalked both the marshes and flat open land I roamed. The long black bill, white cheeks, and brilliant red cap marked the sandhill crane as the classiest member of my favorite Florida birds. Long running strides the bird used at takeoff coupled with the powerful wing strokes that propelled the crane aloft were athletic moves which defined the stately bird as a beautiful symbol of wild Florida.

Although I often saw Sandhill Cranes on golf courses up and down the state in later years, my most enjoyable view as a child was a sunrise takeoff when several of the birds were silhouetted against the red-orange sky as they gave their rolling calls that bounced off the tree line and came echoing back. Several others wading in a marsh below, would looked up, and give an answering call. Several times in more recent years, I have observed a pair of cranes sail overhead across I-75 into the sunset as I returned to Florida from a trip north. Each of these sights was a classic National Geographic moment I have enjoyed over and over again.

Poetic drama in the Caribbean

I saw this scene unfold while working on the Yankee Clipper, part of the Windjammer fleet, in the Caribbean in 1972. When I saw Don Ray’s painting, I had to get a print and was inspired to capture the battle in poetic form. The real life drama was caught on film:
https://www.facebook.com/intothebluetv/videos/1201673946572026/

 

Caribbean Collisions

(In response to Don Ray’s painting of a flying fish being pursued by both a Magnificent Frigate and a dolphin fish.)

Fins folded, the flying fish lifts,
bursts from beneath the sea’s surface
to glide at forty-five miles an hour
across the crests and rifts.

Coryphaena hippurus, chartreuse purple flashes,
agitated dark dorsal flags flying,
dart underneath in patterned pursuit
anticipating winged dashes.

Overhead, a frigate’s black wings reflect cobalt blue;
narrowed in diving descent,
his deeply forked tail alters flight
and allows hooked bill to pursue.

Adapted after a million years of predation
silver herring aircraft take off
with the lower lobe of the caudal fin whirring
in instinctive defensive navigation.

Feathered pirate, Fregata Magnificens,
descends, snaps his hinged, hooked trap,
plucks the airborne sard,
claims the prize, and ascends.

Undeterred, dorado drive pinnate prey
through waves into gusts to glide
over furrows and undulating ridges
to bank off swells in an aerial ballet.

A dance of the eons is enacted on the oceanic tide
by a triad of species entwined;
evolved adaptations of flight and fight
on a sun dappled sea collide.

M. Taylor

A take on “Floridays” by Don Blanding and Jimmy Buffett…plus a tribute to both

Chapter 27 of Growing Up Floridian, “Who was Jimmy Buffett’s Unpopular Poet?” takes a look at my early connection to Jimmy Buffett, and Buffett made an interesting connection to an artist who was famous a bit before his time.

Don Blanding  (1894-1957) was a poet, novelist, and artist of the Tropics. He wrote Floridays in 1940.

  

 

 

 

 

“To You”

A book of sounds and scents and sights
Of Florida-days and Flori-nights,
Flori-stars and Flori-moons
And Flori-suns of Flori-noons.
Flori-fragrance on the breeze
And blended blues of Flori-seas.
Patterns drawn with pen and words
Of Flori-folks and Flori-birds.
An hour of friendly chit-and-chat
Of flori-this and flori-that
With pictures when you care to look.
I hope you like this Flori-book.

Don Blanding, “Im Mo Ko Lee”
Fort Pierce, Florida, 1941.
From Foridays.

——
“To Jimmy Buffet” (In the style of Don Blanding)

Buffett’s songs of rhythms and aromas and crazy ways
Of Flori-beaches and Flori-bays,
Flori-boats and Flori-jets
And Flori-casts of Flori-nets.
Flori-catches in the Keys
And bleached blondes in a Flori-breeze.
Measures sung with guitars and drums
Of Flori-tales and Flori-chums.
Melodies of camaraderie in tropical climes
Of Flori-bliss and Flori-rhymes
With images that grab your eyes
And take you on trips through Flori-skies.

——

“Floridays”
by Jimmy Buffett 1986
For Don Blanding, Wobby Wiemer and “Groovula”

I come from where the rivers meet the sea
That’s part of why I’m so wild and fancy free
I was early into crazy ways
My folks said, “;It’s just a phase”;
They were hopin’ for better days

Now in my line of work I seem to see a lot more than most
Write ’em down, pass ’em around
It’s the gospel from the coast
Reflections not just replays
Takin’ time to escape the maze
Lookin’ for better days …

Pale invaders and tan crusaders
Are worshipping the sun
On the corner of walk and don’t walk
Somewhere on U.S. 1

I’m back to livin’ Floridays
Blue skies and ultra violet rays
Lookin’ for better days

I’m back to livin’ Floridays
Blue skies and ultra violet rays
Lookin’ for better days, lookin’ for better days
Lookin’ for better days
Lookin’ for Floridays

(Better days, better ways)
Everybody’s lookin’ for
(Better days)
Somewhere beneath the shinin’ star
(Better days)
Take me won’t you take me to
(Better days)
Sure could use a few
(Better days)

Floridays…

How do Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a buzzard, and a hummingbird come together?

On the third hole of the Buffalo Creek Golf Course, a wake of buzzards often circles overhead. Whether that action is a symbolic comment on my golf game or not, I am not sure, but any time I see a turkey vulture or a black vulture, I am reminded of the poem, “To a Buzzard Swinging in Silence.” The hummingbird connection is twofold: Lynn and I just took a trip to AZ to see my mother-in-law, Martha Bodenchuk, and to visit Patagonia’s Paton Center for Hummingbirds…and I wrote a poem in the style of Ms Douglas in response to a hummingbird.

MARJORY STONEMAN DOUGLAS April 7, 1890 – May 14, 1998

Ms Douglas’ “To a Buzzard Swinging in Silence” was published most recently in Florida in Poetry, in 1995.

“To a Buzzard Swinging in Silence”

by Marjory Stoneman Douglas

I never knew how fair a thing

was freedom, till I saw you swing,

Ragged, exultant, black and high,

Against a hollow, windy sky.

You that with such a horrid gait

Lumbers and flops with red, raw pate.

I never knew how beauty grew

From ugliness, until you flew

With soaring, sombre, steady beat

Of wings rough-edged to grip the fleet

Far coursing horses of the sky —

To ride, to ride them gloriously.

Oh, brother buzzard, you whose sin

On earth is to be shackled in

To horror, teach me how to go

Like you, to beauty, sure and slow.

Like you, to slip such carrion ties

And lift and lift to high, clean skies,

Where winds and sun and silence ride,

Like you, oh buzzard, glorified.

——

In the style of Ms Douglas’ poem,

“To a Hummingbird”

I did not understand how bright a thing

was winged flight, till I viewed your skyward fling,

shimmering, motionless, then darting away,

emerald against the bluest day.

You with an elongated, pointed beak,

amid tubular flowers holding the nectar you seek.

I did not understand how sheer speed

from tiny wings could lead,

with twisting, turning, tattooed tacks

on courses flown on invisible tracks,

to flights of dreams of silver days.

To gaze, to gaze along the slant of heaven’s rays

and find the summit of ambition

in the constant ambrosia-seeking mission.

I must be taught to search like you

for life’s most vibrant enticing hue.

Like you, to taste sensual dessert,

Like you, to move in symphonic concert

and flit and flit in cloudless realms

beneath the gods’ anointed helms

where buds and blooms and aromas waft.

To you, oh hummingbird, my hat is doffed.

My mother – a cowgirl by desire

 

This past Mother’s Day led me to reminisce about my mother’s mention, years ago, of her adventure of riding in the opening parade of the 1954 Boston Garden World Championship Rodeo held between October 20th and October 31st. I went through some old photographs and found the purple and gold ribbon she wore that identified her as a Parade Guest when she carried one of the flags on horseback in the opening ceremonies. Pictures of her on horseback from her teenage years through early adulthood always captured her in her happiest moments.

From the 6th chapter of Growing Up Floridian,“Faye Blackstone”:

Faye, who enjoyed an audience, described how she and Vick met when they were both rodeo performers, and a picture of them getting married on horseback in 1937 was evidence she pointed out to back up her story. She told us that she started riding and trying to perform tricks when she was younger than we were. A few pictures of her as a young girl getting progressively older climbed up the wall near their bedroom door. One wall of the living room was divided in half by pictures of Vick riding bulls, roping calves, bull dogging steers, and riding broncs with a saddle and without, while the other half held pictures of Faye barrel racing, standing on a horse at a full run, hanging off the side of her horse almost touching the ground, and bouncing off the ground into the air about to remount as a horse ran through a rodeo arena. Others pictures captured Faye riding in colorful opening parades of rodeos in Madison Square Garden, Boston Garden, the Cow Palace in San Francisco, and the Frontier Days Rodeo in Cheyenne.

“My mother rode in a rodeo parade in Boston Garden once,” I proffered.

Faye looked up from pouring glasses of milk, tucked a blonde curl behind her ear, and agreed, “I know. Your mother and I have talked about those days a few times. She was very pretty back then and is still a good lookin’ woman who can sit a horse well.”

Celebrating that 1960’s TV Western atmosphere

     My aunt and uncle, Pris and Mike, with my cousins, Valerie, Pam, and Leslie, came to the Quarter Circle A Ranch on State Road 62 about seven miles outside of Parrish the fall after my brother died. In this picture, Aunt Pris poses with Val, sitting tall in the saddle; Pam, holding Leslie; and me on a little pinto that would rear on his back legs if I dug my heels in and pulled back sharply on the reins.

         The television airways were dominated by western tv shows: Bonanza, Cheyenne, The Dakotas, The Rifleman, Stoney Burke, Marshal Dillon, Laramie, Wagon Train, The Virginian, The Wide Country, Rawhide, The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show, Have Gun – Will Travel, and Gunsmoke. With such a lineup of westerns each week in the fall of 1962, there is little wonder we all wanted to be cowboys and cowgirls.

Indiantown, 1956

         My brother and I embarked on our careers as bandits when we arrived in Indiantown. With our toy guns, Mexicali hats, and inspiration from the Cisco Kid (Duncan Renaldo) and Pancho (Leo Carrillo), we raced through the palmetto scrub looking for wrongs to right.

Exploring Floridian Reflections

 

12 year-old me in July of 1963 with my 4-H Hereford steer getting ready for the Manatee County Fair.

                                                       

 

                     Inner cowboy adrift on literate shores

 

      The Six-Word Memoir is the challenge to describe one’s life in only six words: My rural, Cracker-cowboy, Florida childhood took a detour when my parents were divorced, and I spent my teenage years on the beaches of Florida’s west coast. My passion for reading led me in and out of college and along twisted paths and hallways of educational institutions. A variety of teaching positions on several levels actually enhanced my appreciation of well-written literature. Teaching Shakespeare, Frost, Poe, and MacDonald have offered stimulating journeys that invigorate my mind. My explorations were most rewarding when youthful student intellects engaged and shared the adventures.

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