Somebody has to do it, and R.F. Tolli is that somebody: Tolli tests hammocks. He lies in them, sleeps in them, fills the woods around his house with earthquake snores. R.F. Tolli said: "I wouldn't want a bad hammock to get out. I'm sort of quality control."
R.F. Tolli does more than test hammocks. In the deep pine forests of the Florida Panhandle, he designs them, builds them and promotes them, too. He is probably the best hammock promoter in the history of hammocks.
"He falls asleep in them at craft shows," his wife, Maggie Hobbie, was saying at the Florida Folk Festival in White Springs. Her husband looked like he was about to nod off. He is into his work.
"One time, he said he was going to rest his eyes, and he went out like a light," she said. "The snoring was so loud you could hear it everywhere. People at the show started walking over to see what the commotion was about. Next thing you know, I was selling hammocks like crazy. I had to wake him to sell the hammock he was sleeping on."
R.F. Tolli, proprietor of the Apalachee Bay Hammock Works of Crawfordville, is one relaxed man. Even his eyelids droop. He doesn't waste a lot of words talking. Hey, he doesn't even use his first name, Richard. It takes less effort to say "R.F."
He covers his gray hair with a hat made of palm fronds. Surely, you didn't expect a brown derby? Or, for that matter, a suit and tie? T-shirt and jeans pretty much complete his outfit. Except for sandals. Sandals save him the effort of bending and tying shoes.
"I'm 47," he said about his age. "Wait a minute. Am I 47? I was born in December '43. What does that make me?" There is something charming about a grown man who won't make the effort to be precise about his age.
In the name of bio-diversity, Florida needs more people like Tolli the Hammocker. Floridians need relaxed and somewhat slothful folks to help show them the way to a slower pace. For the most part, we have forgotten how to take it easy. We're always in a hurry, eager to get from Point A to Point B, anxious to get in the last word. We're so uptight even our hair is clenched. Cardiologists and psychotherapists love us. We obviously need hammocks.
At the Florida Folk Festival, R.F. Tolli was there as a good example. For most of the day he lay in a hammock. Once in a while, he got up and let somebody try one out. His hammocks cost from $80 to $120, which meant from time to time he was forced into the work of making change. Tired by his efforts, he was compelled to rest his eyes for a spell. Invigorated by fresh eyes, he would stand, walk across a clearing, sit and make balloon animals for passing children. Tolli is a renaissance man.
"Well," he explained, "hammocks don't take that much energy. So I do this." Tolli, of course, didn't blow up balloons with his own lungs. He used a machine. But he did the rest with his hands. Elephants, especially, took a lot of work.
People who watch Tolli in in action might be surprised to know that at one time he was a ball of fire. He grew up in West Miami when West Miami was actually part of the Everglades. For spending money, he entertained tourists by wrestling alligators.
"Fifteen-year-old boys think they'll live forever," he said.
Anyway, he did. After high school, he ran away from home and joined the merchant marine. He sailed around the world three times before he was old enough to vote. His other passion, apart from the sea, was riding motorcycles. But a terrible accident almost crippled him. For 20 years, he has concentrated on hammocks.
The hammocks started as an accident. A friend asked if he could fix one. An old sea-going man like Tolli knew his knots. He fixed his friend's hammock and built himself one. From a hobby it grew into a small business.
Man, of course, cannot live by hammocks alone. Not in this dog-eat-dog age. That's why he does balloon animals at parties and events such as the Florida Folk Festival. And he also operates 25 bee hives. The beauty of bee hives, needless to say, is that the bees do most of the work. Tolli just has to collect their honey. And he is so relaxed about stealing honey that the bees seldom sting him.
Finished with his bees, he can sleep in his hammock and dream about the IRS agent who opens his return and looks at the "occupation" slot. He is the only person he knows who lists hammocks, bees and balloon animals as his line of work.
He builds his hammocks whenever orders start piling up. He buys himself a bunch of rope and starts tying a complicated series of knots. A hammock four feet wide requires 600 feet of Dacron rope. A six-foot wide hammock needs a quarter of a mile. Fingers do get tired.
Rope hammocks, in his opinion, are better than the more common canvas hammocks. Wind has to work hard to penetrate a canvas hammock, which means little air circulation. Rope hammocks, by comparison, allow air to pass through and are more appropriate for hammock season, which, in Florida, is summer.
The trickiest part of hammock using is climbing aboard. "It's shocking how few people know how to lie in a hammock," Tolli said. He spends a lot of time at shows giving hammock lessons.
"Lean back," he told a woman who looked at the hammock as if it were a Brahman bull. She rested her posterior against the hammock and leaned. Timidly.
"Now bring one leg up." She did and almost flipped the hammock.
"Not that far up."
Eventually, she lay on her back and stared helplessly at the oak trees above.
"It doesn't come naturally for a lot of people," Tolli gently explained later. "It comes naturally to me. I can even get in a hammock without spilling a drink."
He demonstrated. He was something to watch. He placed his backside against the hammock. He leaned back. He swung his right leg aboard. He swung the other leg. He stuffed a pillow under his head. He looked up. Through the oak branches he could see white fluffy clouds. They looked like cotton candy. Or maybe they looked like Mister Sandman's eyebrows.
"I can do anything in a hammock but read," he said. "As soon as I lay down my eyes snap shut."