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Nature's gift

(ran TP edition)

A 20-knot wind wrinkles Hillsborough Bay. Schools of mullet wriggle through the soft green seawater and leap into the air. In the distance, a tugboat guides a pink freighter past Ballast Point and into the Port of Tampa. The skyscrapers of downtown look like paper cutouts pasted against a blue sky.

Situated at the southern end of Bayshore Boulevard, Ballast Point Park is a world away from the grand mansions that line the boulevard. It takes money, lots of it, to enter that world of sloping lawns and breathtaking views. In Ballast Point Park, the beauty is democratically apportioned _ what is here is available to all. The park offers pleasures that don't cost much: a walk down a winding sidewalk, a rest under the shade of a tree, a candy bar and a soda consumed from the end of a 1,000-foot-long pier.

The park has been public since 1892. Emelia Chapin developed it into a public garden to give people a reason to take her electric trolley line from downtown. In Chapin's time, there was dancing and seafood dinners in an Oriental pavilion. Today, natural beauty is the main draw. The food served runs more to the hotdog and burger variety at the Frank N' Sundae restaurant.

With a deft flick of a wrist developed over a lifetime of practice, Marilyn Sass slings a hook baited with shrimp out into the water. She has been coming to the park, at 5314 Interbay Blvd., since she was a 6-year-old. Satisfied with the cast, Sass, 45, settles into a lawn chair she has positioned at the end of the pier and relaxes. Today, catching fish isn't the point.

On the shoreline, at a picnic bench overlooking downtown, John Dobler is casting for answers. The boy throws a net over the world and drags questions through it. The questions today are aimed at his father, John Sr., an ex-Marine with a tattoo on each forearm and a cap decorated with the stars and stripes of the American flag.

Why do mullet jump, John asks. Why does part of the bay ripple in the wind while other parts stay smooth? What do mullet eat? Are they cold or warm?

The questions sail out of the wiry 9-year-old as he shares an ice cream treat on a picnic bench with his father and brother Jordan, 8.

The three come to the park often. John Sr. picks up his boys from nearby Gorrie Elementary School and takes them on an outing before the homework gets done. On days they don't go to the library, they usually head for Ballast Point Park.

It is a point of pride for the 35-year-old single dad that he talks things through with his sons.

"My dad never spent any time with me," he says.

That doesn't mean he always knows the answers. As to why mullet jump, for example. Dobler imagines they are leaping for joy. He tells his son the mullet are playing.

The boy's simple questions reveal how much remains mysterious about the world. (There is no definitive answer to the question, says mullet researcher Bhzad Mahmodi of the Department of Environmental Protection. The best hypothesis is that mullet leap in the air to bathe their gills in oxygen, he says.)

A marker at the entrance to the park discloses that it used to be called Jules Verne Park.

"I think that's a guy who used to come here and really liked it," one woman in the park says.

"I think that's one of the people who built the park," says someone else.

Several people, including Bruce Engler, special services manager for the city's park system, say the park was the site of the launch to the moon described in Verne's novel "From the Earth to the Moon."

Although the launch took place from Tampa Town, "Stones Hill" is described in the book as a rocky plain, 1,800 feet above sea level and 15 miles inland from town.

Even the story of how the park got its name has several versions. Engler says it was never actually called Jules Verne Park. The plaque says Emelia Chapin named it. In Karl Gris' Tampa, he says, the Tampa Electric Co., which took over the trolley line from Chapin, named it.

To 9-year-old Chelsea Smith, roller-skating in the park with her tiny dog Lopie B. Lopez on her shoulder, nailing down the why matters little.

"I think it's just cool that it is named after somebody," she says.

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