I moved to St. Petersburg in 1994 from Bronson, a small town between Gainesville and Cedar Key. I lived in the woods with a lot of wild animals, including rattlesnakes too close to my house. I owned an Appaloosa that I rode most days after work. During the first couple of months in this urban landscape, I was miserable. I missed the woods and the solitude.
I had read the work of the Tampa Bay Times' Jeff Klinkenberg before I joined the newspaper, and I knew he could tell me about local natural places. He took me to Boyd Hill Nature Park, and he told me about Fort De Soto Park. I enjoyed Boyd Hill and still go there.
But when I visited Fort De Soto a few days later, I fell in love: I reconnected with some of the nature and solitude I'd lost.
Before retiring from the Times, I wrote many columns at the park, and I still go there to write and read. I promised myself that if I stayed in the area after retirement, I would try to become a volunteer.
Today, I'm in my second year at the park. My job is to help keep the grounds spruced up. When I'm in town, I work an average of 15 hours a week, pruning and trimming trees and shrubbery. I also pick up a lot of trash, mostly paper and plastic.
Another part of my work, which I hadn't expected, is answering visitors' questions. For that reason, I've familiarized myself with the park's physical layout, its structures, and many of its rules and regulations.
Many visitors forget that this beautiful place has natural dangers. After watching dozens of barefoot visitors limping in pain, for example, I've learned to warn all shoeless folks I see to "put something" on their feet in grassy areas because of sandspurs.
As the park celebrated its 50th anniversary Saturday, I realized again how fortunate I am for the privilege of being a volunteer in this seaside paradise. I work alongside other volunteers who perform almost every task in the park, who love being in the great outdoors and are protective of this unique place.
I really enjoy watching visitors discover the essence of the "crown jewel" of Pinellas County, as Fort De Soto is called. I always stop when I see members of families point to osprey swooping to the water's surface and taking to the air with their catch in their talons. Witnessing the delight of children at these moments is priceless.
I've asked several volunteers what they enjoy most about their work. All say that besides helping to maintain the health and beauty of the park, they love knowing that what they do gives visitors pleasure.
And many visitors show their appreciation. On a recent afternoon, three foreign tourists passed as I piled branches. I was sweating all over. One of the men stopped and offered me a couple of dollars to buy myself a drink. I told him I couldn't take his money.
He and his companions walked to the fort. Not thinking any more of the incident, I went back to work. An hour or so later, the men returned, and the one who had offered money handed me a large cup of lemonade he'd bought in the gift shop.
"Surely you can accept a cold drink in this hot sun," he said.
I accepted the lemonade and drank while he stood there. He was pleased.
On another occasion, a couple approached as I trimmed a hedge in front of the gift shop. "They told us inside you're a volunteer," the man said. "We thank you for what you do for us. You all do a great job."
He made my day, reinforcing my belief that volunteering at Fort De Soto, especially during this period of deep budget cuts, is an ideal way to serve the community.