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Man living in seclusion on Orange Lake behind new night ban on airboats

CITRA

The quiet man tries to live quietly in the quiet woods, except when he must turn on the power saw. Then for a while things get loud.

After he finishes cutting lumber for bathroom walls or a new kitchen table or a bedroom chifforobe, the woods grow quiet again. A quiet man might hear the jackhammer attack of a pileated woodpecker on a pine or an armadillo crunching through the palmettos.

"Woods is a quiet place," Richard "Whitey" Markle says with a country drawl. "You're supposed to hear nature."

Some quiet men learn by experience to appreciate quiet when they hear it. A hell-raiser as a young man, Whitey liked loud music, pot, liquor and friendly women. At 66, he still enjoys the occasional vice — tobacco juice sloshes ominously in the fruit jar he totes through his house — but not like before. These days he prefers a plate of smoked mullet and vine-ripe tomatoes to an illicit doobie. Speaking of pot, even groovier for him is a smoking cauldron of homemade shrimp creole, heavy on the okra, followed by a quiet tune strummed on his guitar. Sometimes he plays Song of the Lake.

Oh you come through the marsh,

O'er the reeds and the pads,

For the gator and the frogs you explore,

But unlike the marsh hawk, so silent and peaceful

You invade with a deafening roar.

The quiet man lives on a lake that in recent years has sometimes lacked quiet. At night, on weekends especially, a different song of the lake is performed by a fleet of airboats with powerful engines and throbbing airplane propellers. First he hears a distant rumble. Then comes the crescendo that grows to a mighty whine. Airboaters are gigging frogs. Airboaters are hunting alligators. They're having fun raising their own kind of hell.

In the woods along the lake, a quiet man is tempted to shout his anger to the heavens. But he doesn't. His revenge takes a quieter, more effective form.

He lives south of Gainesville on Orange Lake. The late Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote her beloved novel, The Yearling, while living nearby at Cross Creek. William Bartram, America's first real travel writer, explored the woods close to Whitey's property in the 18th century. For some people, the lake and the adjacent forest are Florida's spiritual heart.

Whitey could be a character in a Miz Rawlings story. He was born in the Duval County woods along Broward River, wore overalls, went barefoot, shot rabbits with his .22, ate mullet and grits and taught himself guitar. His daddy, Conrad, who made a living as a mail clerk, could do anything with his hands. His mama, Earleen, taught her white-blond boy how to sew, garden and cook. She also advised him to "go ahead and watch your daddy make that table." Thus he learned carpentry. Mama said, "Stand next to your daddy next time he's got the car hood up and see what to fix." That's how he learned auto mechanics.

After junior college he headed for Tallahassee, where he majored in Industrial Arts at Florida State and, not surprising for a repressed country boy who suddenly found himself living in the Age of Aquarius, illegal substances.

For a while, he kept the drug devil at bay. He got married, had a child, joined the military reserves and learned to be a machinist. One night he got busted for cocaine. After the judge gave him four years, his wife filed divorce papers. At a minimum-security Marion County prison, he gazed at the woods through the window screen and thought about taking off like a rabbit. Instead he got a job building things for the prison. Impressed, his jailers dispatched him to teach reform-school girls how to use hammers and saws and screwdrivers and paintbrushes.

After his release he hung on to the reform-school job; at night, for extra cash, he ran a trotline for catfish at the lake or netted mullet on the coast. In 1978 he had enough for a down payment on 5 acres. His nearest neighbor was a half-mile away.

He heard the occasional airboat at night.

He lived quietly on Orange Lake in a cozy homemade shack that lacked indoor plumbing and electricity. He dreamed of a better house. But that would cost real money. He took on still another job, this one at the University of Florida's college of architecture, teaching students basic carpentry and welding. He started a bluegrass band — acoustic instruments only — called Whitey Markle and the Swamp Rooters.

He also worked on himself. He made friends with his estranged daughter. He courted a lady or two. He grew peppers, okra and sweet potatoes. He raised hogs and chickens. Every morning, on an ancient stove he found abandoned on the road, he cooked a fresh egg with bacon and cheese and served over white bread.

He tended his orange trees and made his own marmalade. He sometimes ate deer found freshly killed on the road. He bathed in a child's wading pool, drank from his own well and avoided the fangs of the cottonmouths that slithered into his yard when the lake came up during rainy season.

He began the construction of a two-bedroom, octagon-shaped house. He laid the concrete, sawed lumber, put on the roof and built the walls and furniture. His air was conditioned by the breeze blowing off the lake and through the woods and onto his upstairs porch, where he slept behind a screen during summer. Chuck-will's-widows lulled him to sleep with their mysterious cries.

"Whooo-cooks-for-you?" the barred owls called in the middle of the night. "Whooo-cooks-for-you-allll?" Whitey hung up a sign at the entrance to his property.

"Owl Holler," the sign said.

As the years went by, it became harder to hear the owls.

• • •

The first airboat was developed in 1905 by a team led by the famous telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell in Nova Scotia. Bell's associate, Dr. Glenn Curtiss, brought an airboat to Florida in 1920. Flat-bottomed, with the prop positioned above the water instead of under the water, an airboat proved to be the perfect vessel for skimming across the shallows. Airboats were used extensively in the marshes of the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee and Indian River, by hunters, froggers, fishing guides and scientists who needed to explore otherwise inaccessible wilderness.

Miccosukee Indians in South Florida still use airboats extensively. A few years ago, an elderly airboater was honored by former Eastern Air Lines employees for his heroics in the rescue of 70 survivors of a jet crash in the Everglades in 1972. In 2005, quick-thinking airboaters saved hundreds of Hurricane Katrina victims in Louisiana.

Over the decades in Florida, the number of airboats has gone up. At the same time, the number of out-of-the-way places for airboat users has gone down. Airboats are loud and waterfront homeowners often come to resent the noise. In recent years, a handful of Florida counties have banned or curtailed nighttime airboat use.

RUH, RUH. VRRRRRROOOOOOM!

Airboat drivers and passengers always wear ear protectors. Otherwise they'd go deaf.

RUH, RUH. VRRRRRROOOOOOM!

To a man skimming above the lily pads in his prize airboat, even the muffled roar of a big engine is pure symphony.

In a house in the woods, a few hundred feet from Orange Lake, a quiet man said, "Enough is enough."

• • •

In the 21st century, quiet is an endangered species.

The car stereo in the next lane burps "BOOMPITTA-BOOMPITTA" without mercy. In Starbucks, a woman shrieks into her cell phone as if she is alone on a desert island. Motorcycles without mufflers screech down the interstate at 100 mph. On radio and cable TV, blowhards shout their opinions without shame.

"We live in a noisy world," Whitey Markle says. "People just ain't as polite as they used to be.''

At UF two decades ago, he started working on a master's degree. His topic: "Airboat Noise Around Orange Lake as a Community Planning Issue." For years he made a study of airboat engines, decibel levels and local laws. Okay, airboats weren't as loud as 140-decibel jet engines. But from a mile away, on a quiet night, a person could hear them loud and clear. Low frequencies penetrated the woods and Whitey's house.

"Sometimes, when there were a bunch of them in the lake a few hundred feet away from my house, it was hard to talk on the telephone or hear the television. But that wasn't so bad. It was after I went to sleep."

Froggers and alligator hunters work at night. Duck hunters like to get on the lake before dawn.

RUH, RUH. VRRRRRROOOOOOM!

"Okay, that wakes me. The airboat shuts down for a while, but I'm lying there waiting for it to go again. So I drift off. I'm asleep again. RUH, RUH. VRRRRRROOOOOOM! Lord, I sit up in bed. Engine shuts down again. I'm so angry I can't go to sleep again."

He got his master's in 1996. But he couldn't hear the owls.

• • •

Sometimes he says "ain't" or says "don't" when he should have said "doesn't." But with his freshly minted master's degree, he felt confident enough to testify at Alachua County Commission meetings. Of course, the airboaters testified, too. Fishing camp owners complained that an airboat ban would put them out of business.

Whitey Markle — and now he had allies who included other waterfront homeowners, kayakers and environmentalists — kept at it. Nothing happened until 2009, when a sympathetic county commissioner suggested that the quiet man try to get something put on the 2010 ballot and let voters decide. The challenge: Whitey and friends would need to gather more than 11,000 signatures in a short time to make it happen.

They got 12,000 signatures. The proposed ban — no airboat use in Alachua County lakes at night — went on the ballot.

Brass-knuckle politics followed. Alachua County Citizens for Change, the pro airboat organization, raised $40,924 to fund a campaign. One ad featured a fist with the letters "H-A-T-E" etched on each knuckle, suggesting that an airboat ban was tantamount to racial discrimination. Quiet Lakes of Alachua raised $7,653.80 to spread its word.

The pro-airboat side took the position that banning airboats at night would lead to higher taxes for future law enforcement. Without airboats, sportsmen would have to find a quieter, less efficient means to approach frogs, fish and alligators. Airboat sales would go down. Fuel sales would go down. A few folks wondered publicly how anybody could pay attention to Whitey Markle, a convicted drug felon who was probably growing pot quietly in the woods next to his hippie house.

"We also think that the people behind the ban want to build a development along the lake. They know the airboats will hurt home sales," said Jeff Septer, who owns Twin Lakes Fish Camp, known as "The Peace and Quiet Camp." His wife, Michelle, said, "Please, no more government intrusion into our lives."

On Nov. 2, Alachua citizens headed to the polls. In a year when angry conservatives across Florida said "no" to almost everything, 56 percent of Alachua voters said "yes" to the airboat ban. Starting in January, airboats can't legally patrol county lakes between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Whitey Markle hopes for a good night's sleep.

• • •

He has a new lady friend, Cecilia. She lives in Fernandina Beach and drives over on weekends. He intends to give up chewing tobacco for her. He is also cleaning up a debris pile next to a shack that would fall if it were not for rusty screen and cobwebs. That's for Cecilia, too.

In the downstairs bathroom, he has decorated tiles with his own artwork of garfish, a lake species most people never eat because of bones and strong-tasting meat. When properly cleaned they taste to Whitey like $35-a-pound lobster.

Maybe he'll throw a romantic dinner. He'll cut oak with an ax and start a fire in the wood-burning stove. He'll play a guitar tune, not the bitter Song of the Lake but something for Cecilia, Thinkin' About You, Babe.

As the moonlight peeks through the pines, he'll lay down the guitar. He and Cecilia will listen to the fire crackle and maybe the crickets. Deep in the night, he hopes they hear the "Whooo-cooks-for-you? Whooo-cooks-for-you-alll" call.

The sign is back on the road.

"Owl Holler."

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8727.

.on the web

Moment with Markle

For more of Whitey Markle, go to video.tampabay.com.

Man living in seclusion on Orange Lake behind new night ban on airboats 11/25/10 [Last modified: Thursday, June 20, 2013 3:25pm]
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