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The best Jeff Klinkenberg stories ever according to Craig Pittman

Michael Kruse, Times Staff Writer

Thursday, October 9, 2014 10:38am

This week is the last week of Klink's 37-year career here at the Times. I asked Craig to give me off the top of his head some of his favorites.

1. Couple marry in swamp where love bloomed like rare orchid.

COPELAND - The bride wore a long white dress and muddy boots. She yelled "HOOTEEHOO!"

Waiting for her in the distance, the groom hollered "HOOTEEHOO!'' back. She homed in on his shout and sloshed toward him through the cathedral of cypress trees and cypress knees, ferns and royal palms that grew in the black water.

Michael Scott Owen and Donna Ann Glann-Smyth were going to exchange vows in the holiest place they know, a primeval Florida swamp where alligators and cottonmouths go with the territory.

In their wedding chapel, a ghost orchid, one of the rarest of all plants, clung to the trunk of a pond ash. Poison ivy hung from the curved bough of what served as their altar, a red maple.

Renee Rau, an ordained minister who also manages Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve in southwest Florida, asked guests to settle down. The green tree frogs, performing their unique version of Mendelssohn's Wedding March, ignored her.

"Ladies and gentlemen,'' the minister said in a loud voice, "we will begin."

2. Gnomeman'sland.

Solomon's Castle, sometimes called Florida's real Magic Kingdom, rises from a swamp in the middle of Hardee County nowhere. In the castle are many gnomes. They are pointy-headed gnomes carved out of wood. A man's gnome is in his castle.

You ought to hear Howard Solomon talk about his gnomes. He goes on about them like a Borscht Belt comedian.

"I have made so many gnomes that I've learned their language. It's called gnomenclature. If you give them a feather it's a gnome de plume. If you put them on the stove it's a gnome on the range. If you put them on a piano it's a metrognome."

What do you call a gnome on a chair?

"A suppository."

Solomon is a little gnomish himself. He is about 5 feet 5 and weighs 120 pounds when he is wet from a soaking in the moat. He wears a sailor's cap upside down, and when it is dark as a dungeon in the bell tower his head appears a little pointy. He is somewhat wrinkled at 71. His chin hair, bristling like a shaving brush, prompts the question: Anyone seen Dr. Seuss lately?

3. 'The Lion's Paw' by Robb White holds its grip on old Florida.

Rube Allyn's Dictionary of Fishes was the first book with which I fell head over heels in love.

I discovered it at the same time I discovered a passion for fishing in 1956. As a curious first-grader, I was determined to learn the names of all the pan-sized fish I caught a few blocks away from home in Miami's Biscayne Bay. Allyn's humble paperback, despite the crude drawings and fanciful text, became at least one barefoot Florida boy's Bible.

In 2004, I wrote a column about my favorite Florida books. Dictionary of Fishes was the guilty pleasure on a list with a dozen serious offerings that included Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

Eventually I took my book list on the road and lectured in Florida cities south and north. At virtually every stop someone with graying hair would stand, stare me balefully in the eye and ask, "So where's The Lion's Paw?"

"Never heard of it.''

My interrogators were always too polite to declare: "And you call yourself an expert on Florida books?"

Someone finally lent me a worn-out edition. A novel for older children, The Lion's Paw, set in Florida, hooked me like a hungry kingfish. A day or so after turning the last enchanting page, I received an e-mail from the kindly person in North Florida who had lent me her copy. She wanted it back, tomorrow if not today.

The Lion's Paw no longer was in print. Readers lucky enough to have a copy hated to let it leave their sight for even a few days.

Bookfinder.com, I discovered, ranked it as the most requested out-of-print children's book in the United States. When I looked, the going price for a nice copy with dust jacket on another popular used book site was $700.

I'm no millionaire. So I dreamed about a bedroom nightstand that held not only Dictionary of Fishes but a mint copy of The Lion's Paw. In the dream I have a flashlight handy for reading under the covers.

4. Red-faced with the Coppertone Girl.

OCALA - When I was a boy, growing up in Miami, we often drove across MacArthur Causeway on our way to the beach. Near Biscayne Boulevard, on the side of a downtown building, was the biggest billboard I had ever seen. On the billboard, a dog was pulling down the bathing trunks of a little girl in pigtails.

Eisenhower was still president, and everybody was repressed except maybe those finger-snapping, reefer-smoking, free-sex beatniks in Greenwich Village, so it was shocking to be able to look out the window of our Nash Rambler and see an innocent little girl's butt cheeks being exposed by a rude dog for all the world to see.

"Don't be a pale face," said the letters on the sign. "Use Coppertone."

That ad for suntan lotion was among the most memorable come-ons in perhaps the golden age of advertising. You could see the ad on street corners in San Francisco and in Manhattan, on the blue highways of the Great Plains and here and there throughout the Wheat Belt.

The Coppertone Girl, it turned out, was as American as a Moon Pie. But if you lived here back then, if you lived anywhere near a beach, you considered the ad as quintessential Florida. It was a postcard of sorts that celebrated the sand and the sun and our state as a place where anything could happen.

5. The Orange Shop is a sweet spot amid sprawl in North Florida.

CITRA - They arrive in the rain to buy oranges, bags of them, and maybe a quart of juice, fresh-squeezed. At North Florida's last honest-to-God citrus stand, they drive up in cars bearing license plates from Delaware, Ohio, Pennsylvania and other Yankee states where orange-laden trees are only a winter's dream.

At the Orange Shop, established 75 years ago in Marion County, time has tried to stand still. Once there were dozens of similar mom-and-pop citrus shops and packinghouses standing like dominoes up and down the county's major road, U.S. 301. There were citrus trees by the thousands and grizzled men on wooden ladders plucking oranges. There were freezes, too, but when the ice thawed the farmers always replanted.

It's different now. Citrus is mostly a South Florida industry. In North Florida, shopping plazas and golf courses and gated communities have replaced the groves where old-time orangemen sweated, bled and raised families.

The Orange Shop is a relic. Behind the little family-run business, 10 acres of trees try to stay warm. Out back is a modest warehouse with a tin roof and an owner who refuses to quit.

Pete Spyke, 60, is the stubborn fellow. A third-generation orangeman, he sometimes hears a back-of-the-mind voice that says, "It's too cold for citrus in North Florida. Move south.'' He ignores it.

Yes, lots of his trees froze in 2010. But yes, he is poised to replant. That's what an orangeman does.

"You live with the cold up here," Spyke says. "It comes with the territory. You go on."

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