All Together Now
In 31 years, I've seen every old school Florida attraction and landmark I could. One of four kids and blessed with two sets of parents who love the funny little quirks of history as much as I do, I'm rooted as deeply in the soil of this state as the live oaks in my mom's yard.
With grandparents in Winter Haven, my family prefered the Belles and daredevil skiers of Cypress Gardens to the rat with the big price tag. I've been told that the hoop-skirted women began roaming the gardens there to distract from plants killed in one of those freezes that sometimes grips the state. True Florida ingenuity.
If you want a postcard image of how people have been inspired by our state's natural beauty to make their own visions a reality, Bok Tower, the bells singing in thick Florida air, would be first pick. (Confession time: when my sister and I were sprats and Granny took us to the Tower, there was a sibling scuffle and I kicked? pushed her down on? her knee, leaving her with a limp for the rest of the afternoon - I remember none of the details, but I'll bet my sister does!)
I could probably run the Wakulla Springs boats and do the speech, for as many times as I've been up and down that little chunk of river. ("We call those turtles 'soup-sized'...") The forts at St. Marks and St. Augustine gave details to my daydreams as a pirate-obsessed kid. Ever been up the Citrus Tower? I have, and I've still got a flattened penny embossed with their logo somewhere in a box of trinkets. I never got to go to Circus World, but I sure remember watching out the car window as we passed that massive tent-shaped buildings.
In November, when even the McDonalds would close down, you used to be able to get a cottage on Panama City Beach for mighty little cash. That was back when the pirate still sat on his treasure chest. When the Goofy Golf still scared the bejesus out of me with its concrete monster heads and Sphinx statue. (Seriously, I wouldn't go anywhere near the place - I was kind of a jumpy tot. Too much imagination.) I won't say there weren't already massive, trashy dance clubs and overpriced, overbearing condos crowding the strip - I'm just saying that I remember when it was still the Redneck Riviera, and pretty damn proud of it.
This past weekend, my mama packed up all 4 of us kids, plus my soon-to-be brother-in-law (a truly good guy) and our dad and we all rode down to Weeki Wachee Springs, crown jewel of old Florida. Not our first trip there and, goodness willing, not our last.
I'm not a graceful guy, generally speaking, but in the water I'm not bad. I don't remember learning to swim any more than I remember learning to walk (though I do remember wearing water wingies - don't put them on your ankles, it doesn't work). Watching those mermaids slip through water so clear it tricks the eye is like watching my own dreams. Unanchored to land, no mask, no tricks, just a little air hose and a whole lot of lung capacity. That's so much of what Florida really means to me. A little costuming, a little applied glamour (in the original, spell cast sense of the word), but under it all - people using their own strength and nature's inspiration to create miracles and wonders.
By taking us around the state, telling us the stories and showing us the sights, my family taught my sisters and I many things. To appreciate authenticity and not be fooled by plastic and flash. That our waters and trees make the best backdrop to any performance. That there is magic lingering, kept alive by those who believe, and plywood condos and animatronic cartoon characters aren't worth plowing under a swamp for.
Damn, I love this state.