Summer has arrived in North Florida, which means the wily Honey Man is waiting patiently at his accustomed spot at the corner of U.S. 98 and State Road 267 south of Tallahassee, every Monday, Friday and Saturday.
With his tupelo honey and mayhaw jelly stacked on the hood of his bug-spattered pickup, he sits in the nearby shade and makes eye contact with the unsuspecting motorists who pass by every few minutes. Hypnotized, they pull off the road where he can sell them a little bit of heaven starting at $5 a jar.
"Now tupelo — that's the Cadillac of honey," he says, explaining that beekeepers in the spring set their hives along wilderness rivers when the giant white tupelo trees erupt with blossoms.
"Now tupelo honey — there's nothing like it, really. First off, there's never a lot of it because of the difficulty of getting them hives deep into those swamps. I mean, it's not easy! And THEN — AND THEN — you got to get the hives out and work that honey. So I don't expect to get much this year.
"Look at that amber color, son. Isn't it pretty? Let me tell you, it tastes even more special. It's real distinctive, real delicate. No, son, we don't add nothing to it. It's perfect like it is. Even diabetics like me are allowed by their doctors to eat tupelo honey. IT WILL NOT GRANULATE.''
By now the grateful motorist clutches several small jars and is eyeing a gallon jug.
"What else we have right now is the mayhaw jelly. Now your mayhaw berries get ripe in May, come from a swamp tree that's sort of like a hawthorn, which is why they're called 'mayhaw' — get it? Our mayhaw jelly is real special. You ought to try some.
"What happens here in the South is folks go wading in the swamps and net the mayhaw berries that are falling in the water. Back home, they boil the berries and squeeze them and add some pectin and lime juice and I'll tell you — mayhaws make the best jelly in the world."
Having stashed the honey jars in the backseat, the motorist now obediently returns for containers of jelly.
"You'll want to put it on your toast," the Honey Man advises, bagging everything up. "But it's good any time."
Motorist nods, climbs behind the wheel, starts the engine.
Honey Man approaches, raps on the window.
"Here, take this," he says, holding out a white pamphlet.
"No, son. It's something that will get you home safely."
It's what the Honey Man calls the "Traveler's Guide."
"Turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways," says the line from Ezekiel 33:11.
• • •
His name is Preston Bozeman. Florida born, he is 74 and grizzled and sweaty and the first to tell you in a graceful Southern accent about his human shortcomings.
"I used to be a traveling salesman," he says. "I was on the road all the time, selling welding supplies. Well, let me tell you, son. All the jokes you've heard about traveling salesmen is true. I was a heathen from the word go. I smoked and I drank and I pursued the pleasures of the flesh.
"Now one day in 1980 I'm sitting at home in Tallahassee on a Sunday morning. I didn't go to church back then, but I did watch TV and when I was flipping channels I got to where this preacher was talking. At first, I couldn't make sense of what he was saying. Then it hit me. HE WAS TELLING ME I HAD TO REPENT MY WICKED WAYS! So right there I turned to God. I told him if he saved me I'd try to serve him. And that's what I have tried to do."
A recreational vehicle, hauling a boat, pulls off the road.
"I see you been fishin'," Preston Bozeman says.
Richard and Jill Spurlock, nearing the end of vacation, admit they have been catching spotted seatrout near Dog Island. "But vacation won't be complete without some of your honey," Jill says.
"It's real special this year," the Honey Man says. They drive off with a gallon of honey and a Traveler's Guide.
"I wish I had me some fish right now," Preston Bozeman says. It's 11 a.m. on a Friday. "One time this guy stopped for honey and he was wet to the waist 'cause he'd been throwing a cast net for mullet over by St. Mark's. The prettiest mullet you ever saw he had. So I traded him honey for mullet. Put them in the ice chest where I keep my lunch."
When the day was over, he took the mullet over to Patsy Owen's house and she fixed them supper. She is Brother Clyde Owen's widow. Brother Clyde was Preston Bozeman's pastor and his best friend. A beekeeper, he was also the original honey man. Preston Bozeman still gets his honey and mayhaw jelly from Patsy Owen.
"I need to tell you something about Brother Owen. He was the kindest man I ever knew. He supported missionaries in India with his profits. He also preached at Victory Baptist Church in Tallahassee, which is where I met him. He wasn't a good orator, but I get teared up when I remember the prayer meetings we used to have. When he started praying I got the chill bumps because I knew the Lord was in the room. Well, his prayers helped get me through some real hard times.
"Well, he got sick about 10 years ago. It was his heart, you know. That's when I started helping him with his church and his honey. God called him home in 2009. He was 82 years old. I get choked up thinking about him."
• • •
Noon. Ninety degrees in the shade. Florida Hades.
Preston Bozeman is wearing his summer outfit — tie shoes, socks pulled high, long pants, long-sleeved shirt, straw hat, scarf around his neck. "The deer flies are bad right now," he says, perspiring, "and the no-see-ums will drive you wild first thing in the morning. The seed ticks that will give you Lyme disease are in the tall grass. But they're God's creatures."
He reads his Bible, the King James version, from Genesis to Revelation, while waiting for customers, twice a year. He's working his way once again through the Acts of the Apostles, one of his favorite chapters, because it tells the story of Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus.
"He was a sinner like we all are. God took away his sight for three days. Then he became a different person. Let me tell you, it's hard to be a good Christian, because you got to have faith and accept things you don't understand.''
He was tested on July 29, 1988. Finishing work, he headed home, driving along the shaded streets of Tallahassee, thinking of supper and what he had to do tomorrow, until he reached his own street and beheld the sight of his own yard, filled with cars and trucks and weeping friends and relatives.
"Something had happened to my own son. John Preston was a soil tester. He and another man, they were just doing their jobs, testing the soil along a road for the county. What happened is their equipment somehow touched a power line. They were killed on the spot. Just like that. Electrocuted."
The Honey Man wipes away his tears.
"The world isn't supposed to work like that. Parents aren't supposed to outlive their children. He was almost 28, in the prime of his life, and then it was over. It was devastating for me, for my wife, unbelievable. You can never recover. I had to tell myself that God brought him into this life and it was up to God to decide when it was time for him to go.
"It was harder for my wife to accept. You know, we ended up getting a divorce in 1994. I guess I didn't have the compassion or whatever she needed at that time. Anyway, I feel very bad about what happened between us.
"You know, we're still on a friendly basis, though. Not long ago, she stopped on the road where I was selling and we talked and I gave her a jar. She wanted to pay, but I just said, 'No, just take some,' and finally she did.
"I keep thinking that maybe, one day, who knows, one day maybe we'll get back together. God works in mysterious ways.''
• • •
Swoosh go the brakes of a Peterbilt truck.
Smokey Rowland, who hauls airline parts and gravel across the country, has stopped for his tupelo fix.
"I drink tupelo honey right out of the bottle," he announces.
"Well, sir, that's a good thing,'' Preston Bozeman says. "It's real special this year.''
He bags it up, adds the Traveler's Guide, says, "Have a nice day.''
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8727.