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BRINGING BACK THE BATS

For 55 years, a historic bat tower loomed 40 feet above the banks of the Hillsborough River. - To adults, it was a unique landmark inspired by a pioneer of bat studies looking for ways to eradicate malaria-transmitting mosquitoes. - But to the children of Temple Terrace, there was something mysterious about it, something creepy.

To get to the bat tower, neighborhood kids would ride their bikes along Riverhills Drive, ditch their wheels and trudge down a winding path often used by snakes and alligators. Inside was a dark, damp and creaky space.

There, some smoked. Some drank. Some even experienced their first kiss.

In 1979, the bat tower burned down.

These kids are adults now, some of their parents gone. But they hope the memories that live on in the stumps will soon soar again.

An effort is under way to reconstruct the 1924 bat tower designed by bat expert and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Charles Campbell. Some of the biggest supporters are those kids of Temple Terrace, who now realize the significance of the bat tower not only to this city's history, but to the history of their own lives.

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Beth Bosserman was a tomboy who followed her four brothers and their friends around town looking for adventure. It was the 1960s, when kids rode their bikes past dusk, swung on dead palm fronds and created forts using their imaginations.

She was 11 when playmates Barry Blaylock and Sid Clements decided to go out to the bat tower.

For Bosserman, now 50, it was a big deal.

"It was kind of like a rite of passage, to prove that I could hang with the guys," said Bosserman, who is now Beth Bosserman Curts. "You were so proud of yourself to get down there because this was something that was really scary. The funniest noises made you shiver in your shoes, if you had on shoes."

Once they had successfully reached their destination, the boys excitedly kissed Bosserman on her cheek. Her first kiss was a double whammy.

She only made it to the bat tower two other times. Other friends, like J. Paul Pepin, used it as a regular hangout.

Pepin, 49, lives in Tampa Palms now, but he distinctly remembers climbing up into the bat tower, which was filled with chicken wire and wooden boards.

"We drank beer we weren't supposed to, smoked cigarettes we weren't supposed to have," he recalled. "It was just a nice place to hang out by the river and talk about life as kids."

When the tower burned down in 1979 at the hands of an arsonist, Pepin's mother, who still lives in the same home on the river, phoned him. He was away at Colorado State University.

"I called a couple of old friends, and we started talking, "Remember this? Remember that?'" Pepin said. "It was just sad."

About three years ago, Grant Rimbey, another "kid" who is now 41, began spearheading an effort to reconstruct the old tower and erect it at the new Riverfront Park.

Rimbey, an architect, is designing a replica of the tower. The original tower, called a hygiostatic bat roost, was among 14 Campbell-designed towers built worldwide. Today, three remain in the United States. The only existing one in the Southeast is located in Sugarloaf Key in Monroe County.

The only difference in the design will be the interior, Rimbey said. He is working with Cynthia and George Marks, founders of the Florida Bat Conservancy based in Bay Pines, to create a bat roost that can house about a half-million bats.

George Marks says the original design was too open and airy. Among the interior's features will be a taller roost space, smaller crevices and boards with rough sides for better traction.

The goal: to help the bats discover the roost within a year or two and provide the city with a natural way of controlling the mosquito population, which flourishes because of the Hillsborough River that cuts through it.

Marks says a single bat can consume up to 3,000 insects per night.

"That's a lot of insect control," he said.

But building the bat tower takes money.

Despite the donated materials and labor that has been committed to the project, it will still cost about $65,000, said Rimbey, president of the Citizens for the Revitalization of Temple Terrace. Supporters have raised $8,500 so far.

The Temple Terrace Preservation Society and Friends of the Temple Terrace Parks and Recreation have teamed up to declare October "Bat Month," featuring seed-money T-shirts. There also will be a push for various sponsors, including $35,000 naming rights.

"It was such a neighborhood treasure," Bosserman Curts said. "We loved it. The efforts to reconstruct it again are wonderful."

Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at nguyen@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4613.

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