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Start your New Year off with a Florida bucket list

By Craig Pittman
Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders play soul and rock 'n' roll at Mr. Joe's in Madeira Beach. Cochran Wayne Singer, 6/20/1980

Last month, Florida singer Wayne Cochran died at age 78. He didn’t get the outpouring of grief and glowing obituaries granted to two other singers with Florida roots, Tom Petty and Gregg Allman, who died this year. But anyone who ever saw Cochran perform — or even passed him on the street — will never forget him.

Cochran was a white guy who sang get-down funk and soul in a gravely, urgent voice while wearing outrageous outfits and a foot-high pompadour. Although his performances influenced everyone from Elvis to the Blues Brothers, his Miami Herald obituary noted that his hairstyle "was arguably more famous than his songs."

In recent years, following the footsteps of Al Green and Little Richard, he abandoned rock ’n’ roll and joined the ministry. His church services still centered on his riveting performances.

"I believe in the power of music," he said in an interview. "If you don’t want to get ecstatic, don’t come to this church. There ain’t no tombstones sitting in there and if they are, we’re gonna resurrect them. We have a good time. We boogie."

When news of his death got out, one of my friends expressed his regret at having never seen this wild man at work.

"I wanted to see him preach," my friend said. "Best not to procrastinate on your bucket list items, I suppose."

That mournful comment sparked my imagination. A Florida bucket list! What a great idea! Florida is chock-full of wonderful things to see and experience beyond the usual theme-park fakery. Why not make a list and try to hit as many as possible?

After all, we are the Most Interesting State in the Union, a place where every day brings a fresh dose of what-the-heck. We are the place where a possum broke into a liquor store and got drunk, where a dead shark turned up in a Walmart parking lot and an alligator attacked an airplane — all things that happened just this year. You can never be bored with Florida.

I quickly drew up a list and started checking off the ones I had already taken care of. Splash in the Suwannee River? Check. Marvel at the Florida Caverns near Marianna? Check. Visit the former bordello credited with giving Yeehaw Junction its name? Check. (P.S. for my wife: Please note the word "former" in there.)

I’ve gone on a Big Cypress Preserve swamp walk with acclaimed photographer Clyde Butcher, and squeezed into the nation’s smallest post office in Ochopee (there was just enough room for me and the stamps). I’ve ridden an airboat through the Everglades and taken the "ghost tour" through St. Augustine.

In recent weeks I knocked off a few more. On a trip to Lakeland, I visited the campus of Florida Southern College, which has the most structures designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in one place — an even dozen. While I enjoyed strolling around the campus viewing his distinctive handiwork, what was even more enjoyable was imagining the reactions of Polk County folks in the 1940s as Wright stalked around in his ever-present cape.

Heading to the Keys this month, I drove out of my way to see my first endangered Key deer. I did so after first visiting the National Key Deer Refuge office, which happens to be in a strip mall on Big Pine Key, next door to a pack-and-ship place and a martial arts academy.

And I stopped in at the Key West bookstore run by famed author Judy "Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret" Blume, and actually witnessed her running the cash register. (Darn right I got an autograph.)

But there are oh so very many more items on my list. I want to camp out in the Dry Tortugas, where the stars shine so brightly because they’re unimpeded by any city’s artificial illumination. I want to drive on the abandoned Disney runway that has special grooves that make your tires play "When You Wish Upon a Star" when you hit 45 mph. I want to wade through the Fakahatchee Strand and see a ghost orchid in bloom.

We are about to enter a new year, full of hopes and aspirations. Traditionally this is a time for making resolutions and figuring out how to live a better life. I encourage you to start your new year by making your own Florida bucket list.

After all, with all the hurricanes, sinkholes, lightning strikes and shark bites that happen in Florida, your chances of kicking that bucket tend to be higher here than anywhere else. But at least if that happens, you can ask Wayne Cochran to sing you a song.

Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.