“Alligators in B-Flat” is the title story of my latest book and also the name of the first video Maurice Rivenbark and I did together. This work was inspired by a 2007 National Public Radio Story about “B-Flat — nature’s favorite musical note.’’ I convinced Bill Mickelsen, the principal tuba player from Tampa Bay’s Florida Orchestra, to drive with me in Gatorland in Orlando to try an experiment. You’ll have to read the story and watch this famous video to find out what happened!
Some of you know I spend part of the year at our house on the border of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We have wonderful views and gobs of wildlife. Elk trot through our neighborhood. Bobcats, skunks and turkeys occasionally visit. We also encounter black bears — so many we never leave garbage or even bird feeders out at night. Even when we take care, though, a bear sometimes shows up on our deck to take advantage of seed spilled by feeding chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and downy woodpeckers. I grab my trusty airhorn and give the bear a good blast. Gone in six seconds.
I tell you all this because I have a pretty good bear story to report.
As some of you also know, I like to ride my bike on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s not exactly a ride in a St. Petersburg park. The long ascents are murder. My nose runs. I pant and say bad words. But riding — giving my body hard work to do — is a way to maintain my own sense of wildness. And I’ll be honest. I’ve had a few health problems over the years. At 68, I swallow a bunch of pills every morning. Maybe the challenging rides will keep the grim reaper at bay a little while longer.
I always load my bike on my top-of-the-car rack the night before a ride. It helps me get a faster start in the next day.
This morning, as I drove toward the Blue Ridge Parkway, I was surprised to see so much dirt and dust on the windshield. What the hell. How did that happen? Before I reached for the wipers, I took a longer look. The dust that had seemed abstract at first began to take the shape of distinct bear tracks. Not the tracks of a large bear, but tracks from what looked like a first-year cub or maybe two first-year cubs. Anyway, I was sure bears had been on my roof with bad intentions.
At the Blue Ridge Parkway, I unloaded my bike in almost a panic. At first, the bike looked perfect. Then I noticed a toothmark puncture on the handlebar. Kind of cool, actually. But why would bears take the trouble to climb up on my car to chew on the handlebar? Hmm. Just under the handlebar is the canvas bag where I carry a spare tire and tools. The bears, it turned out, had made short work of it — and not because they needed my tools. They were after the precious pack of energy gel I’d stuffed in there and forgotten.
I love my bears. I don’t fear them but I respect them. I respect them because they are so good at being bears. They’re wild. They’re always hungry. If you make a mistake, they will find the mistake and take advantage of your slightest moment of carelessness.
It’s aways a little humbling, and a little thrilling, to be schooled by bears.
When I was a kid all the Miami old-timers had shutters. They had learned their lessons well, thanks to a series of devastating hurricanes that plagued South Florida.
A 1926 hurricane virtually destroyed Miami and brought on the Depression — three years before the stock market crash. The 1928 hurricane crossed over the state, spilling water from Lake Okeechobee, destroying small towns, and drowning more than 2,500 souls. In 1935, the most powerful hurricane ever to hit the United States blasted the Central Florida Keys with 200 mph winds, killing more than 850 people. Some drowned, some were sandblasted to death. In the late 1940s, a couple of smaller storms flooded southern parts of my state, prompting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build canals to drain the Everglades.
My parents moved to Miami in 1951. My dad immediately built wooden shutters, on the advice of older neighbors. Many of our better-off neighbors had hurricane awnings (see photo) they could easily swing down when storms approached. We couldn’t afford them — homemade had to make do.
But you know what? The bungalow my parents bought is still standing. So is a second, sturdier home we lived in when I was a Miami Shores teen. Thanks to shutters, we kept out the winds from hurricanes named Donna, Cleo and Betsy. The first house I bought in 1974, and lived in until I moved to St. Pete in 1977, wasn’t as fortunate. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew’s Cat 5 winds broke the windows and lifted off the roof. I’m guessing the owner wished he’d sprung for shutters the moment he suddenly saw the open sky.
I live in a West Florida townhouse now. I bought shutters in 2005, after four powerful hurricanes crossed our state, barely missing St. Petersburg. At least once a summer since — and sometimes several times a summer and sometimes in the fall — I dutifully put up those shutters when storms threaten.
For years, I have been a curiosity among neighbors who lack hurricane experience. Why am I going through such trouble? Wow, those hurricane shutters must have been expensive! Why did you waste your money? That’s what insurance is for, chuckle chuckle.
Everything changed this summer. Hurricane Harvey’s destruction of Houston got everybody’s attention. A few weeks ago, Hurricane Irma leveled the Keys, ripped up the east coast, and scared everybody to death. My Tampa Bay area never got more than tropical force winds — but, oh, the damage. Trees by the thousands were torn out of the ground, with some punching holes through windows and roofs on their way down. In Pinellas County, 80 percent of us lost power, some for more than a week. All from 50 mph winds. Just a run-of-the-mill tropical storm.
I’ve had most of my shutters up since August. They’ll stay up until hurricane season wanes. And you know what? I’m no longer the neighborhood goof ball. Neighbors ask me every day about my shutters. What are the options? How much do they cost? Can I put them up by myself? A stranger stopped by the house just an hour ago to ask advice.
I ain’t Florida Boy Trash no more!
Seriously, it’s important to keep the wind out of your home. That means protecting doors and windows and fortifying your garage doors. If you can afford ’em, buy shutters. If you can’t, use plywood. That was good enough for my dad and has been good enough for millions of Floridians over the decades. Build them now. Don’t wait until the day before the hurricane hits.
Yes, you may have insurance. But if the wind gets into your house and takes your roof — and the roofs of thousands of others — good luck finding someone to fix it. It can take six months or a year.
I now return you to regularly scheduled Weather Channel programming. Looks like a storm called Nate will be a hurricane by the time it reaches the Northern Gulf on Sunday.
Fall always has been this Floridian’s favorite season — for reasons both natural and psychological.
- Florida seasons are 180 degrees different from seasons north of us. Summer, for example, is our most challenging season just as winter is the harshest season in, say, North Dakota. In colder climates, spring is celebrated. Winter is over. Here in Florida, fall (eventually) heralds the end of heat, humidity, biting insects and hurricanes. We can open our windows in late fall. And winter is heavenly. Think about it: our fall is like a northern spring. Our winter is like a northern summer. Fall in the north is a little bittersweet: nice, but everyone knows dreaded winter and snow-shoveling is on the way. Spring in Florida is similarly bittersweet. We enjoy it while it’s here, but soon we’ll be worrying about hurricanes and zika.
- A lot of folks who move to Florida, and even a few natives, never outgrow their attachment to what constitutes “Autumn” in other places, namely the changing of leaves, pumpkins growing in patches behind wooden fences, men in flannel shirts chopping wood, apple butter slathered on homemade bread. Get over it.
- Our fall is different. It’s about bird migrations, fish migrations, the lack of humidity and rain, the occasional cool crisp mornings. Folks who seldom venture into their backyards — who don’t know a cardinal from a crow — probably won’t recognize fall. Likewise, a diner who habitually orders salmon in the restaurant might not be excited on Oct. 15 when stone-crab season begins. Stone crabs are another sign of fall. So are mullet, schooling by the millions, getting ready to spawn.
- I feel the same way about citrus. I don’t want to eat oranges from California or Mexico. Nothing wrong with them, but I am a Floridian. I look forward to the first navels of the season in late September and early October. To me, native navel oranges speak volumes about fall. For the same reason, I never drink orange juice concentrate. Fake juice. It has to be fresh-squeezed fruit from a Florida tree. It’s something I look forward to every fall.
We first came to the mountains when I was a boy. Floridians then, we camped in Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the way to visit relatives in Chicago. Later, my dad rented a cabin for a few weeks every summer. Back in the day, Floridians rented in Franklin or Highlands because they were the easiest to reach on the bad roads. Later, he rented in Glenville and Black Mountain. He had already started thinking about buying a little piece of property for retirement. My dad was always slow to spend a buck and to make a decision. Before he could pull the trigger he died of complications of leukemia. Only 64.
In 1987 I began renting in the Waynesville area for a few weeks every summer because of its proximity to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Asheville. In 2013 we finally bought a place on the park border. We’re here for a few weeks during the seasons and the rest of the time we rent it. The mountains have always been an especially great summer getaway for Floridians — Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings spent escape-the-heat time here — and on some days I see as many Florida plates as NC plates.
Sometimes I see bears in the backward. From time to time we’re visited by the elk that travel up from Cattaloochee Valley. In the summer our feeders are attacked by greedy hummingbirds. In the morning, I look out the window and see what I show in this photograph.
Debbie Downer, who lives in St. Petersburg, has been studying the Hurricane Irma forecasts. You know, Debbie. Every glass is half empty. So she is preparing! Spaghetti models show a storm that may be late making a right turn — and hit Florida, possibly sideswiping the east coast. But you know Debbie. If the storm continues to dilly dally and turns north even later, she is thinking (pessimistically, of course), it might just skirt Florida’s west coast — the worst possible scenario for gulf coasters. Such storms push water into Tampa Bay, making coastal flooding even worse — and exposes citizens to the strongest winds.
1. Debbie has her shutters ready to go. She knows how to fortify her garage door.
2. At Publix on Sunday morning, she bought cans of food for her hurricane kit and ten gallons of water. Because she is always anxious, she refilled her prescription for Xanax.
3. At Lowe’s, she bought a new assortment of batteries for her hurricane kit. At home, she checked her radio. Working!
3, She’ll continue monitoring the forecasts. If they get worse — and Debbie Downer always expects the worst — she’ll begin freezing water in her freezer for later use. She’ll fill galvanized tubs with water for post-hurricane toilet flushing. And at some point she’ll fill her bathroom tubs with just-in-case water.
4. Debbie doesn’t happen to live in an evacuation zone, which means flooding is unlikely to be an issue for her. Still, if she loses her nerve, which is somewhat likely, she’ll evacuate. And because she expects the worst, she won’t wait until the last minute. She knows what the bridges and interstates will be like should thousands of panicked souls all flee at once.
Chances are, the storm will miss her west Florida town. It might even miss Florida’s east coast. Who knows, maybe it will drift out to sea. If those things happen, Debbie will be grimly happy. At least until she turns on the Weather Channel.
Debbie seldom looks on the bright side, but she caught herself doing precisely that just a while ago. If dipping into her hurricane supplies turns out to be unneccessary, she won’t have to shop for Christmas presents! “All my friends are going to receive cans of Hoppin’ John and Baked Beans in their stockings,” she told her mirror with a well-practiced frown.
September has always felt like the Florida year’s longest month to me. For the love of God, haven’t we suffered enough? I mean, the heat wave started in April. And now it’s the ninth month and in our hearts we know we might not experience a cool breeze until November, and we’re crazed, as crazed as can be. Where I live in West Florida we were gulping Gatorade until December last year. Don’t worry. I didn’t hurt anyone.
Still, the signs of the coming fall, even in humid September, are unmistakable. During my bike rides in St. Petersburg I start to see migrating bald eagles and other birds of prey soaring above my city or perched on the tops of pines. I see thrushes chowing down on the fruits of Beautyberry shrubs on street corners. Songbirds on the way south, including warblers and even the occasional rose-breasted grosbeak, sometimes stop at a favorite place of mine, Fort DeSoto Park, for chow and rest. Watch for folks toting binoculars. On the beach, you might see sanderlings, black-bellied plovers and least sandpipers, just back from raising families in the frozen north. But prepare to sweat off the mosquito repellent you applied only an hour ago. A Florida September is not a Gershwin tune. It’s the blues.
One more thing makes the month drag on for men (groused the cantankerous old bastard!). It’s the tropics, which also stay hot in September. Northern friends and relatives are wearing flannel shirts, drinking apple cider and watching their pumpkins get bigger. Me, I’m wondering if I might have to put up shutters one more time.
As a Florida boy, I have experienced my share of hurricanes — or what the old-timers in my hometown of Miam-Muh called “Hurry-Cans.” First one I remember in detail was 1960’s Cat 4 Donna, which cut across the Keys and the Everglades and into the Gulf before curving back into the Atlantic. It was big and powerful enough to damage thousands of roofs, uproot trees and flood low-lying Miami Beach. Hurricane Cleo, in 1964, was a less potent Cat 2, but it scored a direct Miami hit. I still remember the spooky lull as the eye passed over. Hurricane Betsy, the following year, was a much stronger and scarier Cat 3 when it roared across South Florida. At 15, I was smart enough to be scared by the howling wind, creaking roof and bent-over palms outside the one unshuttered window. You didn’t have to be a physics wiz to imagine a 20-pound frond blasting through the glass.
Hurricane Andrew? What can I say? I’m glad I lived in St. Pete. However, I visited South Florida for a story a few weeks later and witnessed the unspeakable damage. Houses flattened, including the one I had previously owned. Vehicles upturned and sand blasted. My botanist friend Roger Hammer drove me through Homestead and pointed to a two-by-four that had rocketed through the upper trunk of a royal palm like an arrow.
Now we’re all reeling from news accounts of the tragedy in Houston. And we’re beginning notice a new one, Hurricane Irma, in the distant Atlantic. By the time you read this, it might be a Cat 4 storm, a catastrophe should it hit land. Some models have the storm eventually curving to the northeast out to sea. Let’s hope. But another has it reaching the Caribbean Sea and its hurricane-friendly warm waters.
Everyone who lives on the Florida coast should pay attention.
If you live on the water, I don’t know what to tell you. A Cat 4 or a Cat 5 is going to flood your house. Your ten-foot seawall won’t do much good. Evacuate sooner than later when the time comes.
I have shutters. I bought mine and I can install them in a matter of hours. They’re expensive. If you are young, strong and handy, go to a box store as soon as possible and buy lumber. Build your own. They will work.
Whenever I put up my shutters, I can usually count on at least one humorous neighbor (who has never experienced a hurricane) to give me the tsk tsk along with the accompanying “That’s why I have insurance.’’ Insurance is good. I have it too. But if your house is damaged and uninhabitable— if thousands of houses are damaged — good luck finding a carpenter.
It’s critical to keep the wind out of your house. If gets in, it will likely take your roof. Protect your doors and your windows. And make sure you fortify your garage doors. I spent six months a few years back reporting the University of Florida’s “wind engineering” program. (Go to Amazon and download it as a Kindle or buy the little paperback for $5.95.) During my research, I watched a video taken in UF’s Cat 5 wind tunnel. A poorly designed garage door lasted about three seconds in the big wind.
Finally, everyone should have a box or two of hurricane supplies. That means water, batteries, canned food and — of course — coffee. And yes, make sure you have an old-fashioned pot you can make it in.
August 30. Only two more months of Florida hurricane anxiety.
Maybe more — I believe in global warming.
- Travels, William Bartram, 1791
- Palmetto-Leaves, Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1873
- Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston, 1937
- The Yearling, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, 1938
- The WPA Guide to Florida, edited (among others) by Stetson Kennedy 1939
- The Lion’s Paw, Robb White, 1946
- Everglades: River of Grass, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, 1947
- The Deep Blue Goodbye, John D. MacDonald, 1964
- Oranges, John McPhee, 1966
- Ninety-Two in the Shade, Thomas McGuane, 1972
- Condominium, John D. MacDonald, 1977
- A Land Remembered, Patrick D. Smith, 1984
- Tourist Season, Carl Hiaasen, 1987
- The Man Who Invented Florida, Randy Wayne White, 1993
- Florida: a Short History, Michael Gannon, 1993
- A Naturalist in Florida, Archie Carr, 1994
- Anna in the Tropics, Nilo Cruz, 2002
- Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams, Gary Mormino, 2005
- Shadow Country, Peter Matthiessen, 2008
I’ve been writing Florida stories for a half century now. Everybody wants to know who was the most interesting character. It’s hard to say, really. But Nathan Martin would be near the top. My pal Melissa Lyttle shot the photographs and made the video.
BEST OF JEFF SERIES
By Jeff Klinkenberg, Times Staff Writer, Wednesday, April 2, 2014
A traveling day. Nathan Martin is going to town. He is going to have a meal with the woman he loves. He usually hates wearing a shirt, but Vida will tsk tsk if he shows up with chest bare. He also needs to decide what to do about footwear. He hates shoes even more than he hates wearing a shirt.
For as long as anyone can remember he has tramped through his North Florida woods in naked feet less human than possum. They’re yellow, padded and bristling with nails more like talons. Those feet fear no stone, stick or snake. But maybe, just a little bit, they fear Vida.