Remember, interesting times keep rolling on

It is one of the few things I miss about working: the look of terror I could inspire in a young reporter's eyes, simply by saying, "You know, I remember back when …" Watching them scramble after that was the fun part.

For sport, I could position myself where all possible avenues of escape were cut off, and then go on, "It was back in '73, maybe '74 when …" and then watch as their eyes darted nervously toward the exits.

Of course, cellphones have eliminated a lot of the fun. Now all they have to do is hold up one finger (usually the index) while pretending to feel something vibrate. Then they say, apologetically, "I really have to take this," and deftly sidestep, sometimes stiff-arming if necessary, while making their escape.

Of course every once in a while one of them will call me, asking, "Do you remember when …" but their out after a brief discussion is, "Whoops! Call waiting. I really have to take this."

Still, you can't work as a reporter and columnist for nearly 40 years in one place without having seen some interesting stuff go down, although the definition of what is "interesting" seems to be really subjective.

I mention that because an organization invited me to speak on "Pasco, Then and Now," at a breakfast meeting, and even though I suggested that they hold off on serving the food until I am done (works toward audience retention) I still get to hold forth until people start openly yawning and rattling their car keys.

For a few minutes I was stumped. Would I have enough material to fill 30 minutes of after-breakfast speaking? I began thinking of what it was like then and what it is like now. It was an eye-opening experience both as to how things have changed … and how old I am.

I can remember when our lunch choices in the Times office (a converted vacuum cleaner repair shop) were limited to McDonald's, steak hoagies from Casa Bilu or, my favorite, hot dogs from Lippy's, a place on a gravel road in the middle of what is now a heavily populated area of Hudson. The only traffic signal on U.S. 19 between New Port Richey and Tallahassee was in Homosassa at Grover Cleveland Boulevard … and it was only a blinking yellow light.

Ralph's Bar in San Antonio was still called Ralph's. It has been officially named San Antonio Liquors and has moved twice in the last 30 years, but the locals still call it Ralph's.

The business anchor of downtown Dade City was the Army-Navy surplus store, the best restaurant in town was advertised with a massive sign reading "EAT" over an arrow pointed at the door. The now-famous Lunch On Limoges restaurant was a clothing boutique and the concept of antique stores, gourmet coffee shops and cupcake stores was unheard of, although the town drug store sold coffee for a nickel well into the 1980s.

A building that is now an insurance office housed a bar that was good for a fairly frequent run of murders and stabbings, important fare for a young police reporter.

Pasco County as a whole was run like what my fellow columnist Dan Ruth might describe as Tammany Hall meets Banana Republic.

To wit: I saw a county commission chairman, who had been a friend, go to prison for bribery. The director of the agency that distributed surplus food was charged with stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of food.

A high-ranking officer in the Sheriff's Office was indicted for taking bribes from what he though was a Mafioso running a gambling operation in west Pasco — who turned out actually to be an FBI agent running a sting.

The county sheriff was removed from office after being indicted on corruption charges. A jury found him innocent, but he was not re-elected.

A west Pasco builder would observe the holidays by having a refrigerated truck back up to the building department so that county employees (who inspected and permitted his work) could go into the truck and help themselves to frozen turkeys and bottles of Cold Duck (I didn't say he was a classy builder).

The county was in the midst of buying a multi-million dollar utilities system from a builder when one of our reporters was visiting the sewage plant and noticed it was running near capacity.

"What do you do when it reaches capacity?" the reporter asked.

"We open the valve," said the plant manager.

"What valve?"

"The one to the pipeline."

"What pipeline?"

It was the pipeline that dumped raw sewage into the Gulf of Mexico until the plant was back to capacity. Even in the 1980s, that was considered an environmental faux pas — actually a crime. Somehow the illegal pipeline had been left off of the plans, schematics and other paperwork handed over to the county before the purchase.

Let's see, the chief of the Dade City Police Department became a fugitive on multiple charges of stealing guns owned by the city. A police captain in Dade City went to prison for having sex with an underage girl … but not before trying to hire another police officer to kill a third police officer who was going to be a witness in the case.

Serial killers back then, including Gerald Stano, Bobby Joe Long, Oscar Ray Bolin, Buddy Earl Justice, Dale Goins and Eileen Wournos littered the county with bodies, as did numerous other murderers before State Road 581, the "Road to Nowhere," became so developed that there wasn't a decent place to dump a body in Pasco County. Who said development was all bad.

My favorite story (which will have to be modified because it comes after a meal) is about a perennial candidate (for city council and Congress, both on anti-communist platforms) who had the unfortunate habit of digging up his dead mother so he could put panties on her body (He found out she had been buried without them.) He also wanted to put Johnson's No-Pest strips in the coffin, don't ask.

We had ignored his actions before he ran for office, assuming them to be those of a depressed, mentally ill man (who was also an editorial writer for another publication).

We did have to write about it when he actually filed for a Zephyrhills City Council post. The rationale was that it would be bad if somebody that out of touch with reality actually got elected. You wouldn't want people like that in charge of state or local government, would you? Okay, maybe that ship has already sailed.

Two quick points. I am scheduling this column to run after the speech. No reason the audience should have to sit through it twice. And, due to some key elections and appointments, things have gotten a lot better here over the years (not counting Port Richey), so ugly history is more fun to talk about in a mundane present.

A lawyer friend and I were talking in a bar one night recently and were trying to remember the name of a former Pasco-Pinellas prosecutor.

"That's okay," I said, "We'll just wait for one of the old guys to come in."

He looked at me and said, "Ummm …"

Yeah, maybe I am the right guy to give this speech.

Remember, interesting times keep rolling on 12/17/11 [Last modified: Saturday, December 17, 2011 10:26am]

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