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    Entries in Gainesville (4)

    Sunday
    Mar042012

    My Trip to Gainesville, Part 2

    This is a rather long article. I think the best way to handle it would be to continue publishing it in sections, so today will be Part 2, and it will cover my thoughts on the Old South and Old Florida, and the land where Nika1 lives. The next part, already written, will cover Cross Creek, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and The Yearling Restaurant, where we ate dinner. The final part will be about another piece of Florida history, and the community, named for a Seminole Indian chief, that is believed to be the oldest inland town in the state.

    OLD SOUTH/OLD FLORIDA

    When I moved to Florida from New Jersey in 1981, I must admit that I brought some of my Yankee prejudices with me. To be honest, I never looked at southerners with disdain, nor did I see them as intellectually inferior because of their funny sounding dialects — funny to me, anyway — but let’s just say I was a little apprehensive because I was quite aware of their convoluted hatred for people of a different color, not to mention their resentment toward northerners. Of course, I didn’t expect everyone south of the Mason-Dixon Line to feel that way, and they don’t, but it wasn’t all that many years before I moved here that “coloreds” used different drinking fountains and bathrooms in many of those one-time Confederate states; Florida included. Even when I made my migration south, there were lingering reminders of inequality in places such as abandoned gas stations. Cobwebbed signs remained attached to bathroom doors as testaments to what they once proclaimed: WHITES ONLY. Like the old saying goes, we’ve come a long way, Baby, and so have I.

    During my 31 years of living in Florida, I have embraced the South, but it has absolutely nothing to do with its racist past. It’s because of its rich history, steeped in genteel southern mannerisms; of virtuous young men politely courting delightfully flirtatious belles of innocence — patiently waiting for their coming of age — as they are introduced into the upper echelons of society. It was a romantic time, and in this respect, the South continues to maintain a unique essence of bygone days, deeply etched into it’s very heart and soul. But it’s fading fast in many areas, like Orlando, where fragrant foliage is ever replaced by the harsh realities of freshly poured asphalt and concrete, and fauna is pushed to the outer edges of what was once theirs with each passing breath. (I strongly encourage you to read: Beth Kassab: The Senator victim of Florida’s long history of neglectOrlando Sentinel, Feb. 29, 2012)

    Fortunately, pockets of the Old South continue to thrive, and throughout, you’ll find many notable plantations with antebellum homes, some still privately maintained, and others turned into historical landmarks or bed & breakfast inns. There are many towns and cities that thrive on their heritage, like Savannah, Charleston and Natchez. You’ll also find vast tracts of land that are, to this day, owned by the same families the properties were deeded to many years ago. In Florida, a lot of that land still thrives with citrus groves as far as the eye can see, and beef cattle grazing on the open range. Yes, much of it has been sold off, sometimes because of hard freezes, and other times over greed; but Florida is a good-sized state and there’s still plenty of private, pristine land around whose owners are proud of their history. They are proud to carry and pass the torches to future generations, just like it’s always been.

    When I made my trek to the Gainesville area last month, I knew I was in for a special treat — one that epitomizes what I consider to be Old Florida. Of utmost importance, though, was that I would be spending time with Nika1, a lovely friend and host. Secondly, I would be visiting the town she lives in; truly a place I have a great appreciation for. I had been there once before. Also, she promised to take me to Cross Creek, and if you’re not familiar with it, it’s the little community where Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings lived for 25-years and wrote her Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Yearling. Her cracker-style home looks just like it did when she lived there in the 1930s. We were also going to have dinner at the adjacent restaurant, aptly named The Yearling Restaurant.

    THE HOMESTEAD

    I arrived at her homestead at 11:02 am, two minutes late. I hate that. We had a Gator basketball game to attend first, and that was most pressing, so off to O’Connell Center we went. I did a write-up on that leg of my trip in Part 1. When the game ended, we had plenty of time to spend before heading over to Cross Creek, so she took me to her old haunts, including the family farm. It goes without saying that she grew up in the house she still lives in, and it was built by her family in 1892. Trust me when I say there’s a lot of history in that home, and the interior is a testament to that.

    With a moo moo here and a moo moo there, Nika1 raises beef cattle. EIEIO. If you look at the banner atop this website, those are her cows, and there are lots more where they came from, plus plenty of acreage, which you cannot fully comprehend by the images below.

    I spent many years of my youth living on farms, and while some of you may find this somewhat odd, I truly enjoyed the smell of fresh grass and cow manure that wafted through the air that day. It brought back fond memories that dated back to my preteen and early teen years. It also reminded me not to step in it.

    As we were leaving, an SUV pulled alongside us and Nika1 exchanged a few friendly words with the occupants about Indian digs on her property, most likely Timucua. Two mounds, to be precise. One is a burial mound and the other is ceremonial, meaning it’s a trove of pottery and other treasures offered to their gods. Both are ancient. Anthropologists from the University of Florida are carefully collecting the relics. Nika1 has discovered many arrowheads on her property over the years; some in the field across the street from her front yard. The area is rich in native American history, and that is of special interest to me. In the near future, I will publish another article on an Indian mound much closer to home, in Sanford, FL. I still have to “dig” for more information. But first, I’ve got two more parts of this story to go.

    Next up: Cross Creek and how it impacted the area. Here is an excerpt from Part 3:

    Cross Creek is one of those places you could pretty much conjure up in your head. You’d expect there to be a creek and bridge, of course, and not much else, and you’d be pretty much right. It’s a very small community, somewhat secluded, and above all else, a place that epitomizes Old Florida. Of her town, Rawlings wrote about the harmony of the wind and rain, the sun and seasons, the seeds and, above all else, time. Once you enter Cross Creek, you become a part of the mystery, the passion, and the oneness; and for a brief moment of eternity, time stands still. If there were ever a place on earth that beckons a creative mind, this is it.

    Saturday
    Feb252012

    My Trip to Gainesville, Part 1

    This is a story about my trip to Gainesville on February 4. It’s going to have to be split into 2-parts because it is not just about the Gator basketball game I attended, it also encompasses the tragic crash 0n I-75 at the end of January. That’s in this part. The next one will be about Old Florida - Cross Creek and Micanopy. While this will touch briefly on Cross Creek, it won’t say anything about Micanopy, which is the oldest inland settlement in the state. This post will be heavy with photos. Most can be enlarged.

    HISTORY AND THE OLD SOUTH

    Ever since I was a young boy, I’ve had a keen interest in history. Growing up in New Jersey, it was impossible to miss because the area is rich with stories of days gone by. Much of the Revolutionary War was fought in my own back yard, for instance, and before that was the French & Indian War of the 1750s.

    While libraries are teeming with books on history, my affection for it lays somewhere else, deep within my mind. I seek the presence of history. I like to sense it all around me. Although not an obsession, I often wonder, as I walk about, who took the same steps one hundred years before me; a thousand and more years earlier, and I yearn to learn, because I can only guess as far back as our history books tell us. I know there’s more than that.

    Growing up, it was easy to explore our heritage. Where I lived was just northwest of Princeton, and that made it somewhat simple to visit historical sites and museums from Philadelphia to New York City and everywhere in between. Every so often, I’d hear news about the skeletal remains of a Redcoat and his musket being discovered in the rafters of an old house while it was being renovated. I lived in several homes that dated back to a generation or two before the Revolutionary War. The church where my late grandfather preached was established in 1733.

    Some of you may find me morbid for this, but I’ve always liked to walk through old cemeteries. I’d look at the names and dates on the tombstones and wonder who they were in life. What did they do? Were they friendly? Who did they leave behind? In my own hometown of Flemington, there is a small tract of land up the street from where I lived known as the Case Family Burial Ground. Several members of the Case family are resting there, along with a Delaware Indian chief named Tuccamirgan, who died in 1750. The grave was dug deep enough for him to be placed in a sitting position, facing east.

    While I am quite intrigued by my humble beginnings, I am just as fascinated with the American Civil War. Of course, being a Yankee and all, I never could get a firm grasp on the Confederacy until I moved to Florida. We were never taught to hate southerners, but we were aware that many southerners were raised to hate northerners — so we thought. It wasn’t all that many years ago when the ‘colored folk’ used separate water fountains and bathrooms in the south. When I moved to the Orlando area in ‘81, I didn’t know what to expect. To me, the Civil War ended over a century ago, so there was nothing more to it than history. Every so often, I’ll hear about how the war has never ended and that the south will one day rise again, but for what reason? To what end? Instead, I like to focus on the rich culture of the south, and that’s something I was never taught in school. It’s not anything that could be taught in school. You must live it in order to feel it.

    I’ve been in central Florida for 31 years now, longer than I lived up north and I’ve got to say, I like it here. No, that doesn’t mean I’d ever give up on my home town or state, and Orlando’s not known as a bastion of Old Florida, but there’s definitely something romantic about pockets of the south. I guess you could say the bug caught me during a screening of Gone With The Wind during my freshman year of high school in, of all places, New Jersey.

    There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the “Old South.” Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind…

    - From the opening of the film Gone with the Wind (1939)

    While I don’t sense anything genuinely historical about Orlando, I have found the ‘Deep South’ — through north Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi — to be both mythical and mystical. There’s no way to explain it in a sentence or two. It’s something that has to grow on you. The bug next caught me when I flew to New Orleans on a private jet back in the early 90s. I felt something tragic about the city but I could never pin it on anything. As festive as the place was, an innate sense of sadness always seemed to be right around the corner, on the other side of the wrought iron gate.

    I’ve since been back to New Orleans, but I’ve also traveled to and visited other towns from here to Houston. One of my favorite stops was Natchez, Mississippi, rife with tales of the Civil War. This story, however, is not about the war between the states, this is about one state, and it’s called Old Florida, home of majestic magnolias, stately live oaks and cypress trees jutting up from the water. However, there are two issues to cover first. 

    Many of you are familiar with Nika1. She is a frequent contributor on my blog and a good friend. About a month ago, she asked me if I’d be interested in going to a live Gator (University of Florida) basketball game with her. Yes! Of course I would! I’ve been to several football games, but never basketball, something I’ve always wanted to do. I first went to see Nika1 in late September of 2010, when she invited me up for a football game. While there, she took me around the neighborhood. That included the rural area where she lives, and where her family has lived for many generations. Once again, I sensed the old south, but in this case, it was Old Florida, and its roots were deep in history.

    Three weeks ago, on February 4, I drove up to the house she shares with Ali Rose, her beautiful Australian Shepherd. She had plans for me, too. After the basketball game, we were going to go to Cross Creek, made famous by The Yearling, the 1938 novel written by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. She won the Pulitzer Prize for it in 1939. Fascinating, I thought. Very much so.

    ANATOMY OF A TRAGEDY

    Almost a week before my drive, a terrible accident happened on I-75, in the middle of Paynes Prairie. 11 people died. To help you understand Paynes Prairie, it is generally a swampy area, but the weather has been exceedingly dry in Florida, and in this state, droughts breed brush fires, and lots of them. Many burn out of control.

    Burned Brush in Background

    On the way up to the game on US-441, Nika1 told me what happened. 441 is east of 75 and they run parallel to each other. The fire started east of 441. The first series of accidents began just before midnight, on January 28. Smoke and fog wafted west across the highways and the first 911 call came in at 11:53:14 from I-75 to report the heavy smoke and fog. Moments later, another 911 caller reported hearing accidents. Then, another one came in saying they saw the accidents. Moments later, all traffic was stopped.

    Those accidents were not fatal, but it prompted the Florida Highway Patrol to shut down the interstate by 12:45 am. At 3:21 am, the decision was made to reopen it, and the rest is history. By 4:00 am, you couldn’t see past your nose. Heading southbound, a semi had stopped in the right lane and a Dodge pickup truck plowed into it, followed by a Ford Expedition. The two Ford occupants were able to escape through the back just before it burst into flames.  The occupants in the pickup truck were on their way to a funeral, but sadly, all three family members perished.

    By now, frantic calls were coming into the Alachua County Communications Center. Of course, when troopers, sheriff’s deputies and emergency vehicles arrived, they couldn’t see, either.

    In the northbound lanes, two church vans were heading to Georgia. One van crashed into the rear corner of a semi stopped in the middle lane and it sliced through the van, killing five family members. One 15-year-old girl survived. The occupants of the other van survived. In front of the semi was a Toyota Matrix sandwiched between that one and one in front of it. The young couple in the Matrix died.

    Meanwhile, another semi had stopped in the middle southbound lane. It was hit by a Dodge pickup and the driver was able to escape with minor injuries. Then, a Pontiac Grand Prix smashed into the back of that pickup and the driver died.

    Had the drivers of those semis pulled off of the road instead of stopping in the lanes, would lives have been saved? You bet, but it will be a long time before the investigation into this tragedy is sorted out. That includes why FHP decided to reopen the interstate after it was closed.

    What surprised me was that the fire burned east of 441. Nika1 told me another person died on that highway, but it didn’t make headlines like the big one.

    The above photo represents what Paynes Prairie would look like during normal weather conditions.

    GO GATORS!

    As much of a horror as the accident was, there was a basketball game to attend, and the Gators intended to win it. This was, after all, why I took the trip to begin with, not including my visit with Nika1. The team was playing Vanderbilt. We had gotten there in plenty of time to nestle into our seats, where brand new t-shirts were nicely folded for spectators. Yes, FREE! Blue in color, the back had the Texaco logo and some type, and the front said “ROWDY yet refined REPTILE” with the Gator green and orange logo. It was a great game to watch and it was made better by the Gator’s victory. The final score was 73-65. The pictures can do the talking…

    The first photo is the University of Florida Century Tower in Gainesville. Begun in 1953, it is 157 feet (48 m) tall.

    Part 2 will come next week and it will take you through Old Florida and a Michael J. Fox movie. Mostly, it will be a selection of photographs I took.

    Monday
    Oct182010

    As The World Burns

    Brad Benson is the owner of a Hyundai car dealership in South Brunswick, NJ. In 2003, he offered Saddam Hussein a brand spanking new car if he would flee Iraq. That advertising campaign wasn’t successful and he pulled the ad after it ran only two days, replacing it with an apology for any offense that may have been taken by anyone, Muslim or otherwise.

    To give you a little background, in the 1980’s, Benson established himself as an offensive lineman for the NY Giants, having played there for 12 seasons. Today, he is better known around the state for running his “Idiot Award” ads, where he’s singled out celebrities like Roger Clemens, Mel Gibson and Lindsay Lohan.

    “We don’t have your typical car commercial,” he said, and to be frank, they have been quite effective. Three years ago, he was selling about 60 cars each month. Today, in spite of the present economy, that number has grown to over 500 cars per month.

    The following story caught my attention for several reasons. I’m originally from NJ, having spent the first half of my life there, so I have a special connection with the state. Since 1981, I’ve lived in Florida, and this year, I had the opportunity to attend two University of Florida Gator football games thanks to the generosity and hospitality of a wonderful lady. She was born and raised in Gainesville, where the spectacle of pastor Terry Jones was met with great consternation. Jones, if you recall, had threatened to burn thousands of Qurans, the Muslim holy book, on September 11, in protest over plans to build a mosque and Islamic center two blocks away from Ground Zero, in lower Manhattan. Jones was never a fixture in Gainesville, and his self-titled “International Burn a Koran Day” became a conflagration of horrible proportion. He’s a total embarrassment to the sensible inhabitants of the respectable university town, where common sense prevails over opportunistic sensationalism and overzealous preachers of literal biblical translations.

    Enter Brad Benson. In the midst of the international debacle,  he offered Terry Jones a new car if he promised to not burn one single Quran. Of course, September 11 came and went and no books were burned, but that was more than likely due to President Barack Obama’s very public urging, along with a phone call from Defense Secretary Robert Gates and a statement by Gen. David Petraeus, head of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, who said that carrying out the plan would endanger American troops.

    “I just didn’t think that was a good thing for our country right now,” Benson said about the Quran burning. Levelheadedness won out and the residents of Gainesville were able to breathe sighs of relief. Jones has since indicated that he will move away from the area, along with his flock from the Dove World Outreach Center. Hallelujah!

    Meanwhile, a representative for Jones called Brad Benson’s car dealership to collect the 2011 Hyundai Accent, which retails for $14,200. At first, the dealer thought it was a hoax. “They said unless I was doing false advertising, they would like to arrange to pick up the car,” so he asked for a copy of Jones’s driver’s license. The reverend complied.

    Of course, Jones told the Associated Press last Thursday that the offer of a car was not the reason why he chose not to burn the Muslim holy books. He said he hadn’t learned about the deal until after September 11.

    Prior to making the determination, Benson asked his radio audience to help him decide whether to honor his promise. Over 2,600 people responded and the vast majority said he needed to keep his word. Views ran the gamut. One person suggested painting the car with verses from the Quran, the Talmud and the King James version of the Bible.

    After the feedback, he said he decided to give Jones the car outright because he didn’t want to be connected to anything the pastor decides to do with it. “I don’t want to be involved in the politics of that.”

    In the end, Terry Jones said he was not going to profit from the car. “We’re not keeping the car for ourselves.” Instead, he said he plans to donate it to an organization that helps abused Muslim women. Good luck finding one. Although the effort looks good on paper and in the media, it shows how out of touch the preacher is with the world and sharia, where many interpretations of Islamic law “are used to justify cruel punishments such as amputation and stoning as well as unequal treatment of women in inheritance, dress, and independence.”¹

    If Jones can’t find an organization, perhaps he can establish one for abused Muslim women. If he does, let’s just pray that no one comes along and burns it to the ground with women, children and Qurans inside. By Muslims. How sad and ironic that would be.

    Story collected from AP wire service

    Saturday
    Oct022010

    Well worth losing sleep over

    FRIDAY

    Last Friday evening, it rained. Of course, living in Florida, it can storm at a moment’s notice, bringing with it the wrath of rumbling thunder and lightning. Anyone who reads my blog understands that I take an Internet time out from 7:00 pm to 7:30 pm Monday through Friday to watch Jeopardy. Last Friday was no different until, suddenly, in the middle of the Double Jeopardy round and without warning, an intensely brilliant white light burst through the living room window, accompanied by an immediate explosion of sound, louder than anything I’d heard before. CRACK! In that split second, it was gone, and so was our electricity. Within minutes, power returned, but no cable. After the box rebooted, the living room TV cranked back up, but my show was over. Darn, I missed Final Jeopardy.

    As sudden as the surge was, I quickly jumped to my feet to peer out the front window because I smelled electricity in the air. Sure enough, a wire was down in the front yard and it was hissing and spitting and reeling like a lithe snake in the dead of night, emitting an eerie orange glow that pierced the night air and glistened on the drops of rain that continued to fall. I walked to the phone to call 911, but there was no dial tone. We had switched to all cable only months earlier, so the phone and Internet were out-of-order. How funny, I thought, because the living room TV was working fine. I took out my cell phone and called to report the incident. Then, I called the cable company and the tech said the modem box that controls the phone and Internet was sending him no signal. Modem fried. The soonest anyone could come would be next Tuesday. To someone with a blog, that’s like… forever! Oh well, back to the matter at hand. I knew I would have the Internet the next day - for a few hours, at least.

    Within minutes, the fire company arrived. There was no way I was going to set foot out there and risk a deathly jolt from the wet ground that lay ahead. As the fire/emergency crew assessed the situation, the power went off and off it stayed. The hissing line was dead in the water. Situation under control.

    One of the things we know from living in the lightning capital of the world is to be ready, so a battery operated camping light alloted enough brightness for us to move around inside the house. Without power, the air conditioning wasn’t working, either, and it didn’t take long to warm up. After about 45 minutes, I decided to take a walk outside and scope the place out. I walked over to the power company truck and asked the driver when he expected it to come back on. Of course, he could only guess. He was awaiting another truck bringing someone to do the work. His job was to take a look and report. That’s after 27 years with the utility, he said. No more fixing lines. The younger ones do that now. One neighborhood child came by and asked the same question, but by that time we had already moved on to other topics. There was nothing any of us could do but wait. The driver and I talked for about an hour, until it was time for me to take my nightly insulin shot. He told me about some of his experiences with the company and how cutbacks have really streamlined things, but hadn’t made things better. It was more work, in other words, but with that came more hours and more pay. Not so bad, then. Not bad at all for a man in his fifties. I told him I write about the Anthony case. Interestingly, he was quite fascinated by it and he began asking questions like if she did it. He said his best friend’s son went to high school with her.

    Someone drove by and stopped to ask what happened. He said he was heading up to the bar on the corner, G’s Lounge. The utility guy said, good luck, the power’s out there, too. He said that under normal conditions, it takes three surges to the substation to shut power off. In this particular case, after the third time, power remained on and he had to manually turn it off. I guess it fused something together. This took out a good part of the neighborhood. I asked him how many volts were in that downed wire.

    “7200,” he responded.

    Wow, that’s a lot of juice. We turned back to the Anthony case. I said that had I been many years younger and met her in a bar, I’d find her quite attractive, which is what your friend’s son must have thought. Of course, this would mean PRIOR to any murder. He agreed, but then he told me he asked the son if he had ever hit on her. Did he ever do anything with her? No, the son said. “She was passed around too much in high school. Everyone had her.”

    That was an interesting observation and one that I wouldn’t ordinarily expect, but there are many surprises when it comes to this case. Of course, in a court of law, that would be hearsay and therefore, inadmissible, so take it the way you want, but it was a statement just the same.  Had it not been for the strike that burned a hole in the ground, I wouldn’t have known.

    After a good conversation about other things, it was time to go inside. I wished him well and said good night. I went into the house and tried to sleep, but only lightly dozed until, just after midnight, the power returned and the cool, dry blast of the air conditioner fanned across my hot skin. Relief! Good, because I had a football game to go to and I wanted to be as refreshed as possible. Despite the lack of sleep, I woke up feeling fine. There was a big day ahead!

    SATURDAY

    Weeks earlier, I had published a 2-part series that began with Gainesville serial killer Danny Rolling, When karma strikes twice, and finished with John Huggins, Slowly, the wiles of justice churn. In the Huggins case, Jeff Ashton was one of the prosecutors and Chief Judge Belvin Perry presided. Of course, people like to comment and that’s where a lot of thought goes on. It brings my blog to life! During those ensuing comments, a dear reader and contributor, Nika1, offered to take me to a football game, the one against Kentucky, to be precise, and I took her up on that offer. She lives in Gainesville and told me about the wall in memory of those slain by Rolling in 1990.

    In back-and-forth e-mails to-and-from my now defunct account, we set the trip up and finished it with a phone call. I didn’t want to drive my car that distance. She suggested taking the Red Coach. The Red Coach? I had never heard of it, but I took a good look. How could I not? It’s first-class all the way, with wide leather seats that fold down almost into a bed. There’s a movie, and wi-fi, to boot. The best part? It’s only $15 each way. Heck, it would probably cost me $20 in gas anyway. All I had to do was drive down to the airport and park. For free.

    While waiting to board, riders were dropped off from Miami. I spoke to one gentleman from Ocala who knows the Brantley family, football players all. John Brantley IV is the Gator quarterback. It was nice to learn a little more background before the game.

    Off we went! I brought my computer along to catch up on e-mails and comments, but alas, the wi-fi was not working. I tried to sleep a little, but Nancy Drew was blaring from the speaker above me. Our movie du jour.

    When the bus arrived in Gainesville, Nika1 was waiting. I knew, as soon as I saw her, that she was my blogging friend and not there for anyone else. I got out and we lightly embraced. Aaaah, such a warm and friendly greeting! We walked over to her vehicle and stowed my belongings. I must tell you that sitting on the front passenger seat were a Gator t-shirt and hat, both brand new. Without hesitation, I took my shirt off in the parking lot to the delight of no one, but I was in Gator country, by golly, and I’m a Gator.

    Off we went!

    People were everywhere, all dressed in orange and blue, the university’s colors. Young, old, and everything in between, wore nothing else. We parked and took a walk to one of the book stores. The aromas of tailgating barbecues wafted in the air. The book store was a sort of mall with two food courts. We were hungry and it was time to eat. The bus left at 12:30 and arrived just before 3:00. The game wasn’t set to begin until 7:00, so there was plenty of time to kill. I’ll tell you, by the time the day was over, we must have walked 10 miles, but it did me a lot of good. As we milled around the campus, which is vast, she pointed out things of importance.

    Tim Tebow is one classy act. That’s all I need to say about him. He’s above the rest, but he’d never admit it. Inside this building sits the NCAA Championship trophy. I saw it through a window. Game day, it’s locked up tight. Too many people.

    There were plenty of sites to see and Nika1 was thrilled to show me everything. I had been to a number of games in the past, but not for years, and it was only to go up, see the game, and return home. This was a much more personal look, and I was eager to see as much as I could.

    Soon, it would be time for the Gator Walk, where the football players, coaches and trainers walk down the street and into the massive stadium. It’s almost like a parade.

    Cheerleaders chanted, to the excitement of the awaiting crowd…

    One more…

    Oh, heck… just one more…

    It was at this time I turned to Nika1 and told her I will now admit I’m getting old. You see, each one of those girls looked, to me, to be no more than high school age. I couldn’t look at them as anything more than children. Time to move on…

    The Gator Walk was about to begin!

    We stood alongside a Gainesville police officer. He was one of the friendliest guys you’d ever want to meet. He said the motorcycle cop seen here, front and left, was hit by a car last year at a game and broke his left arm. I remember reading about it in the Sentinel or online. Nika1 had told me about how security was so beefed up for the game two weeks earlier against USF. The crazy preacher was going to burn Qurans and the stadium was an easy terrorist target. Fortunately, the threat abated and nothing happened, but 400 extra FBI and other federal/state officers were on hand. Good thing, too, because she said it was so brutally hot, people were dropping like flies. The extra security came to the rescue. She asked our friendly officer how he survived the heat. He said he prepares himself the night before by drinking lots of pickle juice. Pickle juice?!Yes, he learned it years ago as a boy growing up on a Gainesville area farm. Fascinating!

    Along came the entourage…

    Here they come! Nika1 told me head coach Urban Meyer makes his players wear a clean shirt and tie to the game. It instills discipline and shows respect.

    If you look to your right in the above picture, you’ll spot Urban, also sporting a tie.

    We still had over an hour to go before the doors opened, but we made the best of our time. There was plenty to do, believe me. A lot of vendors are set up all around the stadium. One is the insurance company, Nationwide, handing out small towels to dip in a trough filled with ice and water. You dab your hot face and neck to help stay cool. Fortunately, this was a night game and it wasn’t as hot as a day game.

    Finally, we were let in. When I arrived at the bus station and we drove away, I noticed her drawl, but wasn’t completely sure where she was from. Why, right here in Gainesville, born and raised. Aha! At the game, she said she has been a season ticket holder for 36 years. That’s a dedicated Gator! She knew the people who sat around us, obviously, and before the game began, her niece and nephew arrived with their young daughter. They were just as welcoming.

    Here’s the view from where we sat. Trust me, there’s no such thing as a bad seat and these were just perfect.

    The game was going to begin soon and I came to watch. There’s a lot of history in The Swamp.

    I took no pictures of the game. I wanted to see everything with my eyes, not through a camera lens.

    It was a thrilling game. The Gators scored first and went on to win 48-14. The announced crowd was over 90,000 people. I had a wonderful and memorable trip, but there was one sad note. When the third quarter ends, it’s tradition to stand and sing together, We are the Boys from Old Florida. It’s sort of like the seventh-inning stretch, only college football. Then, the final quarter began. Within a minute after the song ended and play began, someone collapsed about 4 or 5 rows above and to the left of us. All I could see was someone frantically performing CPR on a person laid out on the bench. I never did see the gentleman. Police officers situated in close proximity jumped into action. Within minutes, a uniformed paramedic arrived and he was taken out. Everyone kept turning to look at the game and what was going on with him. When one officer passed by me, I asked how things had gone. Not so well, he answered. I asked him how old the guy was. He said very old. The officer was probably in his late 30s. When it was quite obvious the Gators had a lock on the game, Nika1 said we should probably leave before the crowd. I agreed, but on the way out, I stopped and asked another officer. I was concerned about the poor man. This officer was about my age. How old was the guy, I asked him. Oh, in his late 50s, early 60s. I guess age is relative depending on who you ask. He said it didn’t look good. The man was not breathing and his heart had stopped.

    I want to take a moment to remember Jerry Lee McGriff, of Starke. A true-blue Gator fan, he died watching his beloved team. My sympathies go out to his family and friends. You can read more here.

    SOUTHERN HOSPITALITY

    When Nika1 and I were enjoying our pre-game lunch together - a lunch, I might add, she refused to let me buy - I mentioned that she must be a very trusting soul. Here I was, a virtual stranger, and she was ready and ever so willing to open her arms in friendship. She even offered me a place to sleep for a few hours until the bus returned at 3:30 am to take me home. She admitted that she is a very trusting person and always has been, but she also said she pretty much knew what sort of character I was from my writing. That’s a nice thing to know, that people trust me. I am harmless, after all, but it goes deeper than that. While Gainesville is a University city with a college, small-town feel, Nika1 exuded friendship and I was welcomed from the moment I stepped off that bus until I left to return to Orlando.

    She lives in a very rural town south of Gainesville, and not far from Cross Creek, home of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. No? The name doesn’t ring a bell? Yes, it does. She was an author who won a Pulitzer for writing a book, The Yearling. Perhaps, you’ve heard of it.

    There’s something inherently romantic about the deep south. That’s why my best friend Stewart and I like to take road trips. Over the many years of living in Florida, I’ve grown to love and admire the pockets of land still left that are truly remnants of Old Florida. Where Nika1 lives is just such a place. It’s something you can’t really explain. Although her house was built in the late 1800s, it’s more of a feeling and you know it when you’re there. It is a step back into a time when post cards and billboards didn’t exist. No roadside attractions. Citrus groves and cattle ranches abounded and you kicked your feet up on the front porch of your homestead at the end of a long day. Along with that is the southern hospitality we’ve all heard about. Nika1 is the embodiment of that, pure and simple. Not only did I have a bed to put my weary feet and head on, she had two books for me to take home, BEYOND THE BODY FARM and DEATH’S ACRE, both written by Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson. Tucked into one of those books were two tickets to the Gator’s homecoming game against Mississippi State, a game she can’t attend.

    When I awoke after a couple of hours sleep, freshly brewed coffee awaited me, along with two breakfast sausage crescents, a banana, an orange juice and a bottle of water for the ride back.

    While sitting at the bus stop in the dead of morning, we talked once more about the Rolling murders. She has a real sense of history. She said that the poor girl whose head was separated and posed on a bookshelf was an intern with the Gainesville police department. It was so sickening, seven officers left their jobs after they saw her. You may find it to be an odd thing to discuss, but at just after 3:00 am sitting in a parking lot, you keep your doors locked. So does the whole town because of people like him.

    Yup, life is a lot simpler in the land where Nika1 lives. It’s too bad, but even there, she’s got to lock her doors at night.

    I rolled into town about a quarter to six. I had practically missed a whole night of sleep, but it was well, well worth it. What better way to lose sleep than over a Gator game spent with a lovely person, surrounded by a cast of thousands? Nika1? I may have just met you, but I feel like we’ve known each other for years.

    Tonight, the Gators face #1 ranked Alabama. Good thing it’s a home game, but still, this one scares me. Thank you, Nika1, for everything. Something tells me I know exactly where you are right now, and your TV is already warmed up and ready to go.