28 Jul Florida, My God!

To read about Ron’s four months in Micronesia, go to the archive to your left and click on “Marshall Islands Story Project.”

Jill and I spent a week in Florida visiting family. Her parents live in Sun City, just south of Tampa. Their house backs to the Little Manatee State Park and so they see a lot of wildlife. Bobcats wander the neighborhood on occasion. Wild hogs root near the back yard. The alligator control people took two gators from the pond across the street but they have yet to get the big one (nine feet). He’s cagey, they say, and won’t take bait. Jill’s parents, who have lived here for only a year, regaled us with gator-attack stories. Said Mrs. Eicher: “Why, a jogger decided to take a rest on a foot bridge. She dangled her legs in the water and a gator snatched her and ate her up!” Mr. Eicher said: “A laborer was hot after a hard day’s work. He jumped into an irrigation canal for a swim. A gator got him.” They seem to relish these stories and tell them nearly with delight, as if describing a wondrous sunset. I suppose that, as people who have not been eaten by gators, they feel lucky.

Their neighbors across the street heard scratching at their front door one morning. When they opened the door, they found a turtle as big as a dinner plate waiting to pass through. Apparently their new house was in the path of a turtle route. The route might have been there for centuries. The homeowners picked up the turtle and took it to the pond on the other side of their house. The one thing life in Florida makes clear is that we are crowding out the animals. We visited my brother and his wife at their gated community in Orlando. Inside the front gate there’s a bulletin board for neighborhood announcements. This week it said, “Bobcat alert.”

Apparently every middle-class home-owner in Florida has a large screened back porch, which they call a “cage.” These cages are quite big – generally as big as a two-car garage and twice as tall. They look like aviaries and every time I glance at one I expect to see parrots flying around inside. I did see a parrot perched on the shoulder of a man shopping at a Goodwill. Wherever Jill and I travel, we visit the Goodwill or Salvation Army thrift store. You never know what you’ll find. In a Maine Goodwill, I bought an Irish wool sports coat for six dollars. In its interior pocket was a forty-year-old pay stub belonging to the original owner. It, too, was from Ireland.

After it rains (it rains a lot in Florida), fire ants crawl to the top of the cage that belongs to Jill’s parents.  This is where the ants attempt to dry off. Lots of these tiny ants fall through the cage screen, however, and drop into the swimming pool, where they gather in seething clumps. They don’t drown.  “That’s how tough they are,” Mr. Eicher says. He likes to swim every day. You can do that in Florida.

 Jill and I didn’t see any alligators during our visit, except for a small dead one by the side of the road. At this time of year, gators spend most of their days on the bottom of their lakes, we were told. Every lake has gators. We walked into the swamp on two occasions and we heard many things plopping into the brackish, leaf-blackened water. My brother said he once saw a ten-foot python hanging from a tree on one of his nature walks. Florida’s the kind of place where people feel no qualms about setting loose their exotic pets. All Jill and I saw were birds –egrets and herons, which are lovely — and lizards. I’ve never seen so many lizards, not even in the Marshall Islands. Speaking of which, I’m surprised how balmy and tropical Orlando and Tampa are, even though they are 30 degrees north of the equator. When I was living smack-dab on the equator, I wasn’t any hotter or sweatier than I was in Florida.

While we were antiquing, a store-owner cornered Jill and chatted at length, apparently under the belief that this would make Jill buy something. When the woman learned where Jill’s from, she said, “Baltimore? They have a lot of blacks there, don’t they?” Jill explained that, yes, it’s a diverse city with a diverse population of African Americans. As if this were encouragement, the woman said, “I wouldn’t live in Orlando. They’ve got three or four murders a day now.” Jill was dumbfounded. Baltimore, which ranks among the cities with the nation’s highest murder rate, averages – at its worst – one murder a day. The woman continued, “They’re even throwing bricks at people from the overpasses!” Actually, the brick-throwing occurred in Jacksonville many years ago over the span of a month. I haven’t heard of a similar incident since then, at least not in Florida. Orlando seemed to us quite benign, like one big shopping mall where every other business is named Gator-this or Gator-that.

While at another antique store, I heard this exchange behind me: “Oh, the Taliban. They’re a nasty bunch.”

“Damn right. Terrorists. they’re gonna ruin the world.”

“Oh, I mean nasty, nasty.”

“You mean unclean?”

“They’re all homosexuals, you know.”

“I didn’t know!”

“That’s why they hate women.”