Saturday, August 31, 2013

Joe's Eats and Sweets

When in Bradenton Beach on Anna Maria Island, my favorite place for the good ice cream is Joe's Eats and Sweets, 219 Gulf Drive South, with enticing and exotic flavors like Orange Pineapple, Sweet Cream, Cotton Candy & Nerds (yes, the Nerds candy!), Almond Turtle Fudge, Key Lime Cheesecake, Brownie Batter, Dulce de Leche, and White Chocolate Peppermint Bark.

Joe's is one of the very few businesses up on stilts, which is odd because things get flooded around here rather often. Climbing their steps can be a bit of a drag, but their vantage point does provide a lovely view once you get up there.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Leffis Key

Yet another installment in my neverending assay of Flo-zone's 4,500 islands (a statistic you can probably quintuple if you include islands less than 10 acres in size)... the amazing Leffis Key.

Leffis Key is completely unpopulated and, aside from a few wooden walkways built to enable you to walk over the thick mangrove swamp that makes up most of its surface, shows no signs of civilization whatsoever. It's located just off the bottom southeast coast of Anna Maria Island, just before the bridge that carries you over to Longboat Key.

The attentive reader may also have noted already that the cover image for my book The Seventeenth Island was taken from the edge of Leffis Key, with that other I-have-no-idea-what-it-is-because-no-map-seems-to-say island in the distance.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Sunshine Skyway Bridge

I've always been a great enthusiast of bridges - not only are they beautiful feats of engineering, but more importantly, they get you where you wanna go. But when I encountered the Sunshine Skyway Bridge I must admit I actually had a twinge of anxiety about crossing it. When you see it in the distance, it almost seems to make the automobiles defy gravity as they cross it, making what seems an insanely steep climb in the center.

But once you get out there, the perspective changes and it's no big deal. Special relativity in action. The Travel Channel rated the Sunshine Skyway #3 in its "Top 10 Bridges in the World" special, and it's easy to see why - it is majestic, if frighteningly so.

And if you're in Bradenton and you want to get to Tampa or St. Pete, you pretty much have to take it if you don't want to take the looooong way going around and up I-75. The Sunshine Skyway Bridge connects Palmetto (a town just north of Bradenton) with St. Petersburg, by way of crossing Terra Ceia Island.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Ernest Hemingway

Next time you think you're doing enough in life, consider the case of Ernest Hemingway. In 1917 he quit a good job as a reporter for the Kansas City Star to volunteer in World War I to be an ambulance driver in Italy. He was seriously wounded and returned home a medal-winning war hero, having carried an Italian soldier to safety despite his own life-threatening wounds.

Some people's life's work would have essentially ended right there and they might have gone on to work a quiet job in an insurance agency, but by the 1920s Ernest was in Paris with the first of his four wives, working as a foreign correspondent.

He then discovered Florida's Key West, which became one of his numerous outposts of sanity in a world increasingly gone mad. He bought a house on 907 Whitehead Street, whose proximity to a lighthouse made it easy for him to find his way home after a long night of drinking - and boy, did Ern drink. He was well known at every spot on the islands, but Sloppy Joe's was his watering hole of choice.

A lifelong boxing enthusiast, Ernest set up a boxing ring in his yard and held guerilla unlicensed boxing matches wherein he went up against local fighters. He was also a referee at boxing matches at Blue Heaven, at 769 Thomas Street.

Hemingway converted a urinal obtained after a renovation at Sloppy Joe's into a water fountain in his yard, where it remains on display at the house to this day. It served as a water source for his collection of rare six-toed cats, and today the descendents of those polydactyl cats are still thriving in Key West.

In the midst of all this tropical lush life, he didn't stop working, though. In the 1930s he traveled to cover the Spanish Civil War right on the front lines of action, and in the 1940s he was present at the Normandy Landings and the liberation of Paris.

Hemingway was also a master fisherman and hunter, and loved to go on safari in Africa. In 1954, he and his wife chartered a flight over the Belgian Congo but the plane crash-landed in the wilderness. Hemingway's head was severely wounded. The next day, attempting to reach medical care in Entebbe, they boarded a second plane - and it exploded at take-off. Miraculously they survived, though Ernest now suffered burns and a concussion serious enough to cause leaking of cerebral fluid. When they finally made it to Entebbe, they discovered that newspaper headlines around the world were covering the story of Hemingway's death. The world was surprised when he emerged to inform them that, like Mark Twain, the reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated.

Hemingway set himself up another outpost, this time in Cuba - where he became quite chummy with Fidel Castro and fit right in with its nightlife culture of cigars and rum. But after the Bay of Pigs invasion, he became gradually aware that he was being monitored by the FBI (who actually had been spying on him since World War II). Ern wasn't just being paranoid - J. Edgar Hoover had, in fact, been following him around via agents in Havana and the IRS was taking an interest as well.

The stress of these governmental concerns, coupled with his lifelong powerhouse drinking habit, were taking its toll on the man's nerves. Though Ern once said "A Corona is the only psychiatrist I would ever submit to" (and he meant his typewriter, not a cigar) he sadly agreed to check into the Mayo Clinic for barbaric electroconvulsive therapy - as many as fifteen times in December 1960. In January 1961 he was "released in ruins". And in precisely the same way that unscrupulous medicos do today, Hemingway was given a combination of medications that induced depression, and then subsequently the shrinks gave him more medication and treatment to deal with the depression that they themselves gave him in the first place.

In the early morning hours of July 2, 1961, Hemingway committed suicide with his favorite shotgun. He unlocked the basement storeroom where he stored his hunting rifles, went upstairs to the foyer of their home, and pushed two shells into the twelve-gauge Boss shotgun. He put the end of the shotgun barrel in his mouth, pulled the trigger and blew his brains out.

Today a statue of Ernest stands in a bar called El Floridita in Havana, and The Compleat Angler Hotel in Bimini (another of Ern's secret outposts) housed a museum dedicated to the man's life. It unfortunately was destroyed in a fire in 2006. The minor planet 3656 Hemingway, discovered in 1978 by Soviet astronomer Nikolai Stepanovich Chernykh, was named after him.

(Oh yeah, I nearly forgot to mention: Mr. Hemingway was also, some say, a Nobel Prize-winning author.)

Monday, August 26, 2013

Shoes of St. Armand's

Let's take a breather from such disquieting subjects as giant grasshoppers and giant snails, and appreciate these two examples of giant shoes, both spotted outside shops on St. Armand's Key.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Baby Sharks in Jars

I'm just asking - do you, by any chance, have a need to possess a baby shark in a jar of blue fluid? (Which reminds me of those communal public combs in the jars of blue fluid at upscale golf course resort restrooms - a puzzling practice from another era that still seems to persist against all odds today.)

Anyway, if your answer was affirmative, let me just direct you to any of the numerous "Florida Citrus Centers" that dot every exit on I-75 in South Georgia and North Florida. They have more baby sharks in jars of blue fluid than you probably need for your purposes (depending on your purposes) but I suspect if you wanted to buy in bulk, they'd be happy to cut you a deal because they seem to have cornered the market on this niche need.

Most Florida Citrus Centers have their baby jars arranged around what is purported to be a large specimen of taxidermied shark, but actually looks suspiciously like a fake fiberglass one with real shark teeth applied to it. (And if you'll permit me another off-topic aside, I just googled and discovered that sure enough, there's indeed no shortage of companies eager to sell fake taxidermy trophies for the armchair fisherman.)

So where do they get all these baby sharks in the first place, anyway? According to this site, these baby sharks are found inside a larger mama shark, caught for food by commercial fishermen. It also notes, incidentally, to be very careful with your prize, because the blue fluid is highly flammable (70 percent isopropyl alcohol.)

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Florida's Giant Grasshoppers

If the softball-sized snails didn't freak you out, try this on for size: I walked out my front door today to find this giant orange-yellow-and-red monstrosity perched in a tree. We've got some mighty big grasshoppers back home in Kentucky but not like this.

Turns out it's called a Lubber, and it's actually quite common throughout the state of Florida and Georgia as well. According to Wild Florida:

This giant, slow moving grasshopper’s bright orange, yellow and red colors are a warning that it contains toxins and will make any potential predator sick. If for any reason, you fail to heed the color warning and pick it up, the grasshopper makes a loud hissing noise and secretes an irritating foul-smelling foamy spray.

These 4-inch grasshoppers are too large and toxic for most natural predators, so they don’t need to move fast. Lubbers cannot fly far, and travel in short clumsy hops, or walk and crawl slowly through the vegetation. They feed on broadleaf plants and can become a nuisance when swarms invade residential areas and feast on garden plants. Lubbers seem to be unaffected by most insecticides.

They say 4-inch, but this one was definitely a five-incher; I used a CD jewel case to measure it. And though people in residential areas are often urged to destroy the critters whenever possible because of their very active plant-munching habits, I just gave him some spare change and he went on his way.

(By the way, in Africa some species of grasshopper get as big as cats.)

Puzzle in Palatka

There I was, surfing around Google Maps and scoping out the area around Palatka and seeing what there was to be seen. And then I saw something.

I zoomed in gradually on this angular structure on the surface, curious about what I was looking at.

And then I started getting bewildered. What the heck am I seeing?


Okay, now this is just getting scary.

At first I thought it was some sort of chemical dumpsite or water treatment plant - there are clearly service roads going all around the perimeters of these immense rectangular pools of something - but what is going on inside there?

I had to do some on-the-ground (well, via Google Maps Street View) snooping to suss out that this is on property belonging to the Georgia-Pacific paper company. That being the case, I assumed these are giant tanks of some sort of paper-mill waste, but what in the world is making it arrange itself in these patterns that look like I'm observing some exotic strain of mutant molecules in a microscope?

I found the answer - sort of - in an article from the Florida Independent titled "Researcher Fears the Unknown in Georgia-Pacific Effluent": it is, in fact, some bad, bad dioxin-filled crap.

Because Georgia-Pacific could not meet color and conductivity standards in Rice Creek, where it has discharged its waste for the last 65 years, the company was ordered to construct a pipeline from its Palatka mill into the St. Johns River, the idea being that the pollution would be somewhat diluted.

Sonnenberg has spent a lot of time examining the effluent coming out of Georgia-Pacific’s Palatka mill, and was contracted by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to review the company’s efforts to improve its effluent so that it could continue to be discharged into Rice Creek.

“Rice Creek comes up over and over as one of the most contaminated sites in the river,” she says, adding that “PCBs, mercury, polyaromatic hydrocarbons and chloryphenols” are all chemicals of concern.

A new diatom species was discovered in the St. Johns just last year by an FSU biologist studying a 7-year-old sample collected in Putnam County. According to an article about the discovery, published at Science Daily, the tiny plants known as diatoms “reflect declining water quality” in the area in which they are present.

Well now. Isn't that just ducky. Dioxin, PCBs, mercury, all flowing into this river for 65 years and the best anyone can do is to try to take measures to make it only somewhat diluted? And a new, never-before-seen species of diatom suddenly shows up here? Son of a bitch.

Drink up, gentlemen, last call.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Giant Apple Snail

A key part of the Floridial Floridianity of Florida is that sooner or later, everyone and everything makes its way down here, and once here, it thrives. It's a place where everything that can happen does, and must. Take for example the Giant Apple Snail, Pomacea maculata, which grows at least twice the size of a traditional apple snail - sometimes larger than a softball.

In the Florida Everglades, there's an endangered bird called the Snail Kite which feeds exclusively on snails and is suddenly experiencing a swift resurgence in their population. "That's good," you might say, and "No, that's bad," I might reply, and "Well, how come?" you might rejoin. Because this giant invasive species of mollusk is rapidly spreading like wildfire (a metaphor not usually applied to snails) in the Sunshine State, and though it gives the Kites a virtual all-you-can-eat buffet, it's throwing the ecosystem way out of whack. As noted on Al Jazeera America today:

Several species of the South American snails were first observed in the late 1980s, but in the last two decades the mega-mollusk maculata outproduced all the others and spread rapidly. It’s suspected that these baseball-sized creatures were unwanted aquarium pets released near the Miami and West Palm Beach canals. Now these meatier snails, which are about twice the size of the native apple snail, are ensconced in lakes and canals from northern Florida to as far south as Everglades National Park. At the same time as this new species is spreading, the native apple snail population is shrinking. The nomadic snail kites have recognized the heftier replacement and followed the food source.

There are scary clues about what these big mollusks can do in small marsh areas. The exotic snails decimated plant life near lakes and ponds near Tallahassee.

According to Snailbusters, the giant apple snail is edible and can be used in Gumbo, but they must be very thoroughly cooked because, being freshwater creatures, they can harbor parasites and bacteria harmful to humans - like another thriving new icky thing, that brain-eating amoeba, perhaps?

Some are recommending that if you see clusters of their giant bubblegum pink eggs, you should destroy them, but that ain't my style. Who am I to impinge on their survival and success? I leave it to fate and nature how it's all gonna come out in the wash.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Castaway Island

One of the larger among many islands off the San Pablo River in Jacksonville, Castaway Island has a small boardwalk and a series of nature trails that take you just a little of the way into the isle's swampy recesses, but for the most part you're on your own. I happened by there yesterday and lingered awhile to soak up some tranquility.

There's a bike trail running from its entrance (which also connect to a greater network of them) to the nature center complex. At the end of the boardwalk, there's a tiny dock from which to launch your kayak or canoe. I chatted with another pilgrim who was hanging out there and asked him if there was much fishing here; he replied emphatically yes, it's a prime fishing spot.

There's a nice park which is directly adjacent to the island but not actually on it, which confused me a bit at first. Sometimes it's hard to tell that you've actually crossed over onto an island without consulting a map. And apparently, when the swampwater is low, the island technically becomes a peninsula until the creek rises.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Smoke City Dinosaur

Today while making my ramblin' rounds up and down Beach Boulevard, I stopped into Smoke City, one of the area's cigar sources I hadn't checked out yet. (And in case you care, the place was great - although their cigar selection was small compared to their layout of glass pipes, hookah materials, and god-awful bric-a-brac like E-cigarettes, I was quite pleased with their offerings. Not to mention the smiling barefoot hippie girl who waited on me.)

There was a big orange dinosaur with electric glowing eyes standing out front, so I chatted him up and made small talk, as I am wont to do with big orange dinosaurs. He's the last man standing from when the patch of land under this strip-mall was Goofy Golf, a miniature golf course where this erzatz T-Rex ruled the roost in his grand productive days.

The Biltmore Hotel

The Biltmore Hotel is a Jazz-age luxury hotel in Coral Gables, built in 1925 with a gala opening in January 1926. In its glory days, it hosted such luminaries as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, and Al Capone (when he wasn't staying at the Don CeSar). President Franklin D. Roosevelt even had a temporary White House office set up there for his vacation trips. Johnny Weissmuller, the actor best known for portraying Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan, gave swimming lessons to tourists in the hotel's jaw-droppingly huge swimming pool.

Unfortunately, during World War II, the War Department turned the hotel into the Army Air Forces Regional Hospital, and in so doing sealed most of the windows with concrete, and covered the lavish marble floors with crappy government-issue linoleum. After the war, the military kept its clammy grip on the place, and it remained a veteran's hospital until 1968. From there it languished as an abandoned building, but saw much use as a spooky shooting location for movies and television.

In 1987, the Biltmore was restored to its original splendor as a 5-star hotel, and remains so to the present day. But in the intervening years, numerous legends have accrued about the place being haunted. This is probably in part due to the creepy look the place took on during its stint as an abandoned hospital (much in the vein of the probably-not-really-all-that-haunted Waverly Hills in Louisville). It may also be that less-than-attentive wannabe-ghostbusters are confusing it with that other Biltmore Hotel in Providence, Rhode Island - the one that was designed by Satanist Johan Leisse Weisskopf and partially inspired Stephen King's Overlook Hotel in The Shining. And then there's the allegedly haunted Biltmore Estate in North Carolina. Be that as it may, there's a story now often told about a "Woman in White" ghost - supposedly of a woman who committed suicide jumping from a tower window - and the ghost of mobster Thomas "Fatty" Walsh, who was murdered on the hotel’s 13th floor in 1929.

Malarkey or not, the local "ghost tour" types are having a field day running with the legend, and to them and their legends I say, enjoy.

Monday, August 19, 2013

St. Augustine Sea Monster

On November 30, 1896, two young boys bicycling on Anastasia Island, off the coast of St. Augustine, made a frightening discovery: an enormous dead sea creature's decomposing carcass washed up along the shore.

They notified a local physician, Dr. DeWitt Webb, the founder of the St. Augustine Historical Society and Institute of Science, who visited Anastasia Island the following day to inspect the creature. It was very pale pink, almost white, and glistened with a silver reflection in the sunlight. It was of a hard rubbery consistency, and could only be cut into with great effort. Despite this fact, the body was severely mutilated - presumably by sharks - and from all outward appearances seemed to be explained away best by being the remains of a giant octopus, having the stumps of four arms, with a severed arm buried nearby.

The carcass was half buried in the sand under its immense weight, but the part of the carcass that was visible above the sand measured 18 feet in length and 7 feet in width. Dr. Webb estimated its weight to be at least 5 tons. Numerous photographs were taken and drawings were made before the carcass washed in a storm that dragged it back out to sea. But shortly thereafter it came back, washing up on Crescent Beach, two miles south of its first location. Dr. Webb arranged for the creature to be hauled away, so that it would not be lost again to the ocean. It was moved to a spot next to a South Beach hotel, where it became a tourist attraction gawked at by large numbers of visitors.

What happened after that is murky. No one seems to know what became of the mystery carcass. Did they eventually get sick of its rotting smell when the following summer came? And if so, how did they dispose of it, since it was only dragged to the hotel with great herculean effort and, literally, a team of horses? Much written anecdotes exist from newspapers and magazines telling of the lump's discovery and subsequent analysis, but nothing tells of where it ended up.

The monster's legend didn't stop there, however. In 1957, a curator at Marineland who read of the old stories about the blob that washed ashore on Anastasia, and after making some inquiries found that tissue samples still existed at the Smithsonian Institution. He arranged for a biologist, Dr. Joseph F. Gennaro Jr., to analyze the sample, and Dr. Gennaro declared in the March 1971 issue of Natural History:

After 75 years, the moment of truth was at hand. Viewing section after section of the St. Augustine samples, we decided at once, and beyond any doubt, that the sample was not whale blubber. Further, the connective tissue pattern was that of broad bands in the plane of the section with equally broad bands arranged perpendicularly, a structure similar to, if not identical with, that in my octopus sample.

The evidence appears unmistakable that the St. Augustine sea monster was in fact an octopus, but the implications are fantastic. Even though the sea presents us from time to time with strange and astonishing phenomena, the idea of a gigantic octopus, with arms 75 to 100 feet in length and about 18 inches in diameter at the base—a total spread of some 200 feet—is difficult to comprehend.

In 1986, another scientist investigated all over again, and came to a similar conclusion:

I conclude that, to the extent the preserved O. giganteus tissue is representative of the carcass washed ashore at St. Augustine, Florida, in November 1896, it was essentially a huge mass of collagenous protein. Certainly, the tissue was not blubber. I interpret these results as consistent with, and supportive of, Webb and Verrill's identification of the carcass as that of a gigantic cephalopod, probably an octopus, not referable to any known species.

But in 1995, yet another scientist disputed these findings, stating, "the St. Augustine carcass was "the remains of a whale, likely the entire skin [blubber layer]... nothing more or less."

So now who knows what to think. The more recent the scientific inquiries, the more weight their verdict should carry, due to their advanced technology, right? But I've been up and down the block in this burg called Earth long enough to know that I'd believe an 1896 or 1957 scientist over these modern-mindset ones. I trust 'em about as far as I can throw 'em. I remain content having no clue whether this beach blob was a giant squid, an octopus, a whale, or something else entirely. Only the blob knows for sure and he isn't telling.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Anna Maria Oyster Bar

Another one of the little ironies of life in the Sunshine State: one of Anna Maria Island's best seafood-oyster joints on isn't actually on Anna Maria Island.

The Anna Maria Oyster Bar is many miles inland, in a strip mall on Cortez Road in Bradenton. (They also have another Bradenton location, plus one in Ellenton, plus a side-project called Halfway - as in, halfway between Bradenton and Sarasota - which looks pretty intriguing to me as its logo depicts a cigar-smoking dolphin, but I digress.)

The monicker comes from the fact that they used to be on Anna Maria Island's City Pier, then relocated to the mainland and decided to stick with the name. Though a strip mall in Bradenton just isn't the same ambience as tranquil island living, the food here is right-on and cures what ails you. Most curative of all is their cocktail selection - my hands-down favorite of which would be the Anna Maria Sunset, pictured here. I think this was my third. What's in it? I don't know, man, rum and stuff, you know.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Jacksonville Cruises

I have yet to ride on any of these good ships, but I'm quite curious about the river-cruise vessels I've noticed while making my morning rounds on the boardwalk. Most appealing to me is the Jacksonville Water Taxi service, which will take you up, down and across the puddle on its six boats from 11am to 9pm, for a six dollar bill. I don't actually need to go anywhere by way of the river, of course, I just like being on a boat.

The two other options are both evidently owned by the same people - the Annabelle Lee and the Lady St. James dinner boats are both run out of the same website and offer identical lunch and dinner menus. For $45 you get a cruise, dinner, and dancing. And of course, a cash bar.

When I see the Annabelle Lee, though, I can't help but think of the creepy Edgar Allan Poe poem about a man whose one true love was murdered by seraphim (who dispatched a killer cloud to take her life) and sent to a "tomb by the sea" where the protagonist goes each night and lays by her side. (Did Count Carl Von Cosel read it?)