Sunday, June 17, 2018
News Roundup

Gulf Hammock retains the simplicity of old Florida

Gulf Hammock is so small that I don't even consciously note it on my way north on U.S. 19 every year, en route to spending New Year's Eve at the Island Hotel, where I have gone for many of the last 31 years since photographer Bob Moreland and I stayed up all night with a couple of pitchers of margaritas, waiting for a ghost to show up.

The ghost never did show — at least as far as Bob and I could remember — but it was a dandy way to get the Times to pop for margaritas, which I think were disguised as steaks and salads on expense accounts.

It was about that time that I discovered Florida folk music and the songs of Will McLean. One of those songs was Wild Hog, about a specially fierce brute of the breed that, according to the song, lived there.

For me, it became a historical departure point, going from the new or mostly new Florida — places like New Port Richey and Spring Hill — to the old Florida places that Will and others wrote about, places like Tate's Hell. The sign for Gulf Hammock, sitting alone on U.S. 19 between a defunct convenience store and a tiny post office serving a couple of hundred residents, is at the last flashing light before the one where you turn off to Cedar Key.

To look at the highway today, you wouldn't know it, but when I moved to the area in the early 1970s, there was only one traffic signal between New Port Richey and Tallahassee: the flashing yellow light at Grover Cleveland Boulevard in Homosassa.

Be that as it may, the sign for Gulf Hammock, at some level in my soul, sounds the initial guitar notes and I can hear Will's sonorous voice beginning to sing:

There's a wild hog, in Gulf Hammock

I wouldn't wish on any man.

The timelessness of the place takes hold. Cedar Key changes, but at a more stately pace. The buildings stay the same. The old L&M Bar closed a few years ago but looks inviting for anyone who wants to come in and take another shot at operating it.

Still admiring the way the sun has burned some but not all of the sea fog off of the surrounding water, I settle in at Tony's Seafood Restaurant, where I know a bowl of his three-time national award-winning clam chowder will put me right with the world.

It does for almost 15 minutes and then the phone rings.

I know.

I should have left it off.

But my wife was following me in her own car because her job may have required her to return.

"Do you know where Gulf Hammock is?" said my wife, who was stranded there with car troubles.

I did and recalled the closed convenience store and the tiny post office where residents have their own keys to come in and pick up their mail. It could be a weird place to be alone, with darkness on its way.

But she had plenty of company. Three men and a woman, all postal patrons, had made her car a community project.

"There's one guy under the hood and he says it looks like the alternator," my wife said.

It took me almost 40 minutes to drive there and the post office crowd stayed until I pulled up and then, with a wave, they all went to their vehicles and disappeared. Without us having a chance to thank them.

Leaving her car there, we made it back just in time for our dinner reservations and a great meal prepared by Island Hotel chef Jahn McCumbers and her assistant, Kim Cash, that put us back to rights for a while, until two members of our party got sick with a 36-hour virus. I got so busy with everybody else's devils I forgot to wrestle with my own.

Going back to arrange for the tow, we discovered one plus. If my wife had made it to Cedar Key, we would have been 106 miles away, with a cutoff tow distance to 100 miles on our AAA, but Gulf Hammock was only about 70 miles away.

So that was good, but as we waited for the tow truck, I saw three carloads of people pull into the parking lot of the closed convenience store, and then saw their occupants go back to a concrete slab back in the woods.

"I knew it!" I said.

"Knew what?" she asked.

"I knew those people were up to no good. I'm going to investigate."

(It's not like we didn't have time. The tow truck driver made it in pretty good time, but come on. Gulf Hammock?)

I stepped back quietly.

"What was it?" she asked.

"Umm ... cat feeders. They were putting food out for feral cats."

And in the midst of it all, I heard Will McLean laughing over my efforts to put life, death, good, evil and the universe into the crucible that I had made of Gulf Hammock.

Will, the ultimate literary constructionist, was speaking to a college class when a student brought up Wild Hog and asked an extremely convoluted question about whether the hog was a symbol for evil and whether the use of brown and yellow sand meant there was opportunity for redemption ... and. ...

"Son," Will interrupted him, "it's just a song about a pig."

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