Rustic house is home to seasoned flower child

SULPHUR SPRINGS

Tom Henninger's house is rustic and unfinished. He built it beam by beam.

With several atriums and a rooftop cupola, it's a cross between a young boy's treehouse and an old man's mountain cabin.

At 62, the aged flower child is trying to figure out where he falls between the two.

It's strange, he says. He's the same size as he was when he was 29, still dresses the same, still wears his hair long, still collects friends around the world like the patches on his backpacks.

Still invites strangers to crash on his couch, talks to his tropical birds and tinkers with his eccentric musical instruments.

Still feels like life is just beginning.

• • •

He grew up in Seminole, before condos and trailer parks replaced the citrus groves and pastures. He played ball and used cow patties as bases. When he got thirsty, he plucked an orange from a tree.

Eden, he called it. But the tree of knowledge beckoned.

He enrolled in the University of South Florida, and despite his love of art, he majored in industrial management — what a good boy does, he thought.

In 1969, when others his age were at Woodstock, he married and joined the Army.

Everything was happening so fast.

But something made him press pause. Mononucleosis spread to his liver, then his pancreas. As his fellow soldiers headed to Vietnam, Henninger could only lie in bed and think.

Nothing's going to be settled over there, he concluded. Nothing's going to change.

I'm against killing.

To leave the Army, he had to become a conscientious objector to the war. His paperwork reached the Pentagon, and eventually, he was discharged.

He got a job pushing pizzas while he figured out what to do. He thought of art, and maybe a little business. His pregnant wife pressured him to get a real job. When he didn't, he says, she packed his bags.

Just before his 30th birthday, he painted a self-portrait in bright colors. Its features were abstract and undefined, a silhouette facing forward and looking at carbon copies of itself.

"I was frustrated," he recalls. "I wanted to break out."

He may not have known it then, but he'd already begun his journey on that road less traveled from his favorite poem.

And that, he says, has made all the difference.

• • •

He answered a newspaper ad to drive a van for Flower Children Inc. Every morning, the young street vendors would pile in, and he'd drop them off on corners for a day of selling flowers.

Eventually he took over the business. A St. Petersburg gas station became its headquarters. He named it Eastside Westside, after lyrics in the song Sidewalks of New York.

While his ex-wife kept his daughter, the flower children became his family. Some were teenagers on their first jobs; others, adults between stages in their lives.

When teens fought with their parents and adults faced divorce, he let them stay at the shop. He wore a different hat every day — cowboy hats, top hats, safari hats — just to make them laugh.

One day, a girl gave him a pin. It said, "It's never too late to have a happy childhood." He always kept it.

He traveled the world with a girlfriend he never married but also never let go.

He began to build a house in Sulphur Springs, and around it, he planted bamboo. It would grow taller than his house.

When he learned to make flutes out of the bamboo, his flower shop filled with music. When he began to collect tropical birds, their squawking added to the song.

But times changed. It became dangerous for young ladies to sell things on street corners. The flower children grew up and got jobs at banks and hospitals, even the United Nations. His arrangements filled their weddings.

The supermarkets started selling flowers at cheap wholesale value, just to get customers through the doors. Henninger couldn't keep up.

He furnished his last arrangement, for his father's funeral. And in 2005, he closed his shop.

• • •

The winding path leading to Henninger's house is covered in seven types of bamboo. There's Buddha Belly, whose tummylike segments make walking sticks for wise men. There's a type of bamboo that looks like it's weeping. There's black bamboo that runs wild.

Henninger is all of those things.

In fact, his entire home is a sort of reflection of himself and everything he loves, from the ceramics he sculpted to the clawfoot bathtub he salvaged from a junkyard and an artifact his late mother once found in China and he broke as a boy. He keeps the pieces tucked in a drawer.

Across from his first self-portrait is a newer, unfinished one, in plain black and white. He watches his face in a mirror while he sketches.

The man in the portrait has aged.

When you get older, he says, you begin to look back. You count your regrets. While he had so many as a young man, he can now only count one.

He still gets choked up when he thinks about his daughter. He built so many relationships with young people, but wishes he had more of one with her.

Now, he visits her in Denver and wears his cowboy hat for her children, his grandchildren.

He's relearning the accordion, which he abandoned as a kid. And he bought himself a new Eden in the mountains of North Carolina, a patch of grass and boulders untouched by condos and trailer parks. He may build a house there one day.

Sixty-two is not too late for beginnings, Henninger says. Both of his parents died at age 98.

There's still time.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

Tom 'the Flowerman' Henninger



Age: 62

Gig: Retired owner of the Eastside Westside Flower Co. in St. Petersburg

Digs: A rustic house he built himself in Sulphur Springs

Feathered friends: He supplemented his income by raising tropical birds, and his flock still includes a pair of colorful jenday conures, a parakeet, canaries and an African Gray named Casey, who's a real talker.

CouchSurfing: Henninger belongs to CouchSurfing.com, a social networking site that enables strangers to crash on one another's couches to learn about their cultures. When a young French couple stayed at his place, he impressed them by playing their national anthem on the harmonica.

Philosophy: "When I look in the mirror, I don't see a 60-year-old. I guess in my mind, I'm still in my late 20s or 30s. I approach life in the same perspective — seat-of-the-pants stuff."

Rustic house is home to seasoned flower child 03/05/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 5, 2009 3:30am]

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