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At 62, a flower child feels that life is just starting

Tom Henninger's house in the Sulphur Springs area of Tampa 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 tree house 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 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 houses, condos and mobile home 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 graduated from Seminole High School and enrolled at the University of South Florida. Despite his love of art, he majored in industrial management.

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. He caught mononucleosis. As his fellow soldiers headed to Vietnam, Henninger could only lie in bed and think about the war and the killing. He became a conscientious objector, 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. in Tampa. 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 gas station at 3701 Fifth Ave. N in St. Petersburg 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.

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. The home is a sort of reflection of himself and everything he loves, from the ceramics he sculpted to the claw foot bathtub he salvaged from a junkyard.

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 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 98.

There's still time.

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

At 62, a flower child feels that life is just starting 03/21/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 21, 2009 4:31am]
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