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Memories and coconuts are among life's many recyclable treasures

It's not just that the things Rob Welch, his wife, Terri, and daughter Melissa do are neat _ it's that the reasons they do them are good ones.

I first met Welch about two years ago when he called to tell me he had built a waterfall in his back yard.


Trying hard not to ask him how many plastic flamingos went with it and whether he expected me to be equally impressed because he had a statue of Snow White and all seven height-challenged people in the front yard, I managed to ask quasi-politely why I should care.

He told me I should be interested because it was made out of foam.

Okay, I admit to having a fascination with the extremes of tackiness, and this guy was pushing all the right buttons.

Unfortunately, it didn't meet my test for tacky. In fact, I liked it.

What Welch, who owns a couple of floor covering businesses, had done was pick up some of the giant foam blocks used in floating docks that have a way of becoming some of the area's more unattractive flotsam _ and use them to build what looked like about a 10-foot-high cliff, complete with waterfall.

It used water drawn from the Weeki Wachee River, which flows behind the Welch home, provided a relaxing gurgle and made a nice addition to Welch's property. Additionally, he used natural rock to build a mini-waterfall where the return from the larger one runs back into the river and, since then, has built a third waterfall in his front yard.

"We've always had a waterfall wherever we've been, Houston, Hudson, here," Welch told me back then, "but this is the first foam one."

It looked, I remarked, like the perfect place for a Jacuzzi. Welch told me he was putting one in, and I asked for a return visit when it was installed.

It was, alas, one of those El Nino-inspired afternoons I like to call Indian Winter, when you know the afternoon temperature is going to be somewhere between 40 and 90 degrees. It was a little brisk for tubbing it, but I did get another look at the waterfall, which has grown an even more realistic patina of river moss since I last saw it.

And I got a look at the latest of Welch's environmentally-friendly business schemes _ coconut recycling.

I guess this is a good place to mention that about 90 percent of the carpeting that Welch's two businesses sell is made out of recycled plastic and that I've heard from one or two other folks interested in his recycled-dock/waterfall idea.

The concept of excess coconuts is one that brings a wistful look to the faces of us old Florida boys who remember them being as numerous as sandspurs. In fact, I once had serious plans of being a beach bum and living off of them.

Unfortunately, a blight came through in the early 1960s and killed most of the coconut palms in South Florida, followed by another blight named Richard Nixon who fenced off my favorite piece of beach.

That caused several upsetting things. First, I had to get a job. Second, there were no more of those ugly carved coconut monkey heads that graced virtually every curio shop in Miami. Finally, those of us who had once been able to impress women (or at least induce them to act impressed) by scampering up 45-degree-angle palm trees found ourselves sorely trying to do the same with the vertical pine trees that replaced them.

Key Largo, where Welch's mother lives, apparently escaped the worst of the blight, and he goes down regularly to pick up coconuts that she and her neighbors have saved for him.

Back in Weeki Wachee, he, his wife, daughter and mother-in-law, Pauline Gussee, rework the shells into an expressive array of sea creatures and birds with brightly colored appendages sold under the name of "Coo Coo Nuts."

"They really sell," said Welch, who has taken them to a couple of art shows so far. "At the Swamp Fest we sold nearly 100, but it's as much for the fun as it is the money."

In fact, he says, 2 percent of the proceeds from that project go to the Hernando Association of Retarded Citizens.

Neat, huh?