The Florida Narrative: 2012 Conference Highlights, Part 2

By Laurie Sheldon

Jeff Klinkenberg, delivering the first Keynote Address
at the 2012 FNPS Conference in Plant City.
Jeff Klinkenberg, The first keynote speaker of the 2012 FNPS Conference in Plant City, delivered without a PowerPoint or as much as a notecard, yet his message was no less vivid than those accompanied by fabulous macro images - a testament to his skill as a storyteller. The following is what I took away from his presentation, entitled “Skeeters, Poison Ivy and Other Things I Love About Real Florida.”

Today there are about 19 million Floridians. Perhaps the fact that we have the unique opportunity to die from an alligator attack makes us brethren, in a sense, while it differentiates us from New Yorkers. Beyond our potential-death-by-reptile commonality, however, our own narratives about Florida are as distinct as our fingerprints (some of which, incidentally, may be found in the bellies of alligators).

Early influences
As Floridians, our sense of place is derived from both the places we are exposed to and what we become attuned to while we are there. In Klinkenberg’s case, it all began in the Keys, where his father introduced him to fishing and fish identification. Road trips were spent alongside his younger brother Marty with “The Dictionary of Fishes” (a reference written by member Jan Allyn’s grandfather) in hand, from which the boys would spend hours quizzing each other. His parents, originally from Chicago, moved to Miami for the opportunities it presented to musicians looking for work. His dad, a piano player, held fast to the message of “Moon Over Miami” and quickly embraced all that Florida had to offer. Although Jeff claims that his mother was not a “nature girl,” her keen insight into human nature was fodder for a great number of stories. She could walk down the block and come home with something to say about all of their neighbors. As such, Jeff entered adolescence outfitted with a sensitivity and appreciation for both the “real wild Florida” and the characters that inhabit it, himself among that merry lot.

The Monroe Station
Airboat ride! Ervin Rouse with fiddle (left); son of the
Gator Lodge owner, Jack Knight Jr., driving (right).

At 16, Klinkenberg and his friends had their priorities in order. They called themselves the “Boys without Dates Club,” insinuating that their budding interest in snakes and shared love of fishing was a byproduct of not having girlfriends. They were in bed by 9pm on Friday night and up at 4am Saturday morning to go bass fishing off of US41 (the Tamiami Trail). As the sun rose they passed by the Monroe station, a decrepit landmark for getting gas and miscellany, then hit the loop road in Collier to look for snakes. With one guy behind the wheel, the rest would hold pillowcases, poised on the hood of the car to catch snakes, identify them, and release them. Imagine the smell of snake musk and blood from an occasional bite, combined with the sketchy hygiene habits of teenage boys, then ask yourself if it wasn’t their collective stink that kept the girls away. After snaking they’d hit up another landmark - the Gator Hook Lodge - for an RC Cola and Redsmith pickled egg. This joint was ripe with the culture of Gladesmen, whose stoic lifestyle, even after Americans were walking on the moon, had yet to include air conditioning. The sign on the building read “no guns or knives inside” - what 16 yr old boy could drive past that without at least peeking in? Irving Rouse, the eccentric composer of the Orange Blossom Special, was frequently a patron.

Lucky Cole, shutterbug and historian
Full Circle on the Loop Road
Fast forward 35 years, more or less, to the first time Jeff went to meet with Lucky Cole. I think he said he was shot at, although maybe that’s me just having a bout of creative remembering. Regardless, Jeff’s description of Lucky as a ”giant of a man whose everglades home had a Dr. Seuss quality” allowed more of a whimsical impression than a bloodcurdling one. Lucky eventually invited Jeff onto his porch, which was furnished with a dentist’s chair, a barber’s chair, and an enormous photo of a scantily clad middle aged woman. Naturally, Jeff could not help looking at this image. Jeff probed a bit further and discovered that the woman in the photo was Lucky’s wife, whereafter he was challenged to keep the conversation - and his eyes - appropriately focused. As it turns out, Lucky is an amateur photographer. I’m tempted to call him a “boudoir” photographer, only his photos aren’t likely to be taken in a bedroom; an above-ground pool, a  disconnected outdoor tub and the lawn in front of a motorhome are some of his more popular milieus. His website is easy to find if you want to see for yourself. Why was Jeff there to begin with? To have his own Everglades "Glamour Shots" taken? No. Actually, he was doing research. Lucky is one of only a few remaining inhabitants of the Loop Road area, which once was home to over 200, and is the de facto area historian.

Written in response to Thomas Barbour's "That
Vanishing Eden," this text by Archie Carr put a
positive spin onFlorida and its existing resources.
Florida’s Voices
Some may claim that Florida’s uniqueness is long gone. Sure, we tried to dry the swamps by tossing Melaleuca seeds from a helicopter over the Everglades, dealt with excess rainfall and low elevation by digging canals, and bulldozed countless untouched acres to create gated communities. The sad truth is that we didn’t fully understand the impact of our actions back then. Published in 1944, “That vanishing Eden: A Naturalist's Florida,” Thomas Barbour‘s contribution to Florida-centric literature, explores the natural world of a remote, undeveloped state. In response, Archie Carr penned “A Naturalist in Florida: A Celebration of Eden”- one of Klinkenberg’s favorite tomes - which expresses our need to focus on the half full part of the glass, to relish in what is left, and not to give up on Florida. Then there’s the narrative of bizarre Florida/Floridians that Carl Hiaasen is so adept in describing, with characters like Skink whose honesty and efforts as governor to protect the state’s natural resources and prevent rampant land development are met with such hostility that he resigns to become a hermit. Although Jeff did not mention them, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ autobiographical novel, "Cross Creek," (1942) and Marjorie Stoneman Douglas’ “The Everglades: River of Grass” (1947) are two of the most influential bodies of literature to come out of this state (go ladies!).

Now, sixty years later, the voices of this state’s narrative may be different, but their songs are one and the same: Wild Florida still exists! We can’t denude our environment and plead ignorance anymore. The Statute of Limitations on that one went away with parachute pants and the advent of the internet.

Maybe the take-away message from all of this is, quite simply, books just aren’t enough to foster a deep-seated sense of stewardship and love for this state. Granted, they are fabulous for voicing that love, but who is on the listening end? Is it not the lot of us who, like Jeff, grew up in a Florida where adventure waited just OUTSIDE the front door? Am I deluded in thinking that affection for Florida narrative stems from an existing fondness for Florida, which itself is rooted in hands-on experience. Or that the call to write about Florida shares an identical connection to experience? If we are to hope for a future in which “Wild Florida” has a voice, then now, more than ever, we need to teach our youth to fish.


Jeff Klinkenberg is a Miami boy, UF Gator, and adjunct journalism professor who writes about Florida’s cultural phenotypic variances. He left South Florida to join the St. Pete Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) 35 years ago, and his work has allowed him to travel and “eat great food from Pensacola to the Keys”. In addition to his journalistic publications, Jeff is the author of two best-selling anthologies and a collection of essays, entitled “Seasons of Real Florida”, “Land of Flowers”, and “Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators” respectively. He is currently working on two writing projects: a profile of Patrick Smith, the award-winning author of “A Land Remembered”, and a history of Cedar Key’s “Taxi Judy,” a woman who knew to pick up passengers from the airport because of the incredibly low altitude and proximity to rooftops at which they arrived. When asked about his own style of narrative, Klinkenberg responded, “I do my best to keep it natural.”

Image Sources


Anonymous said…
I just cannot imagine a blog that covers this subject matter any better than the work product of Laurie Sheldon.

Three cheers

Many thanks to AJS, the president of my fan club.
Anonymous said…
Wonderful article. The governor and all his cabinet should read this.
Anonymous said…
Anonymous June 5, 2012 7:40 PM

As the Vice President of your fan club all I can say is WOW.
As a lay person you literally blew me away. The article was humorous,very interesting to read and extremely well written.

You go girl!

I appreciate you for appreciating me, CSS. :)
Anonymous said…
way to go laurie we here in another state need to be informed also it is beautiful and a wonderful story....
I am beyond pleased that you enjoyed it!

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