Monday, January 31, 2011

Welcome to My World...

Dragged kicking and screaming onto Facebook by my grandchildren, I feel responsible for making sure they read about my life's experiences firsthand and while I'm still young enough to remember them. 

I write about things I know, including but not necessarily limited to, Halloween, softball, parades, family life and life in Florida's capital city. 

If you see yourself in any of my posts and wish to see more (or less) than your first name, let me know.

I was born in Miami and lived in Cocoa Florida for a few years and then moved with my family north to Endicott New York for a cold winter, then moved south to Atlanta Georgia for a few years, then back north to East Brunswick New Jersey for more than 8 years, before finally settling in Tallahassee Florida in 1978. I have 3 brothers and 3 sisters.

I graduated from Amos P. Godby High School in 1981, but was never a freshman, as I attended grades 7 through 9 at Hammarskjold Junior High School in NJ. I am president of the Association of Godby Graduates, an academic booster club we founded in 2003 that fosters, recognizes and rewards excellent service and academic achievement. We raise money for scholarships for deserving Godby seniors.

I earned baccalaureate and graduate degrees at Florida State University and have worked at FSU since the early 1990s. I have coached and played on the office softball team since 1993. Some of our toddler fans have grown up to play on our team. I batted over .500 last year.

I am married with a daughter, son-in-law, four grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

I am a performing artist in October. I have built and worn elaborate Halloween costumes and competed in costume contests in North Florida and Georgia for more than thirty years.

I rode a bicycle in Alabama and Florida parades for more than 18 years with a cat on my shoulders, first with Elliott and then with Dave the Cat. We led 19 parades and participated in many more. Our exploits with photos have been published in two books, "Tallahassee: A Capitol City History" by Julianne Hare, and we're Chapter 2 in "Florida's Famous Animals" by Jan Annino. 

Thursday, January 13, 2011

My First Halloween

Watermelons were free in the summer of 1979. Everyone we knew seemed to have an oblong one in their refrigerator and wanted to give it to us. By July 3rd, we had eaten most of one watermelon and then got creative with a second.

What's more patriotic than spiking a watermelon to celebrate the nation's 203rd birthday?

The drinking age was 18 in 1979 and at least one in our group was old enough to purchase a fifth of vodka. We cut a hole in the dorsal side of the watermelon wide enough for the mouth of the vodka bottle and up-ended the bottle into the melon and put it into the fridge overnight.

A quick search tells me that there are 200 - 300 varieties of watermelons grown in the United States and Mexico. I do not know which have the highest vodka-absorption rate, but the one we selected for our venture would probably not have scored very high. I'm a half-full kind of guy but in this case the vodka bottle was half-empty and by early afternoon on July 4th, our watermelon had imbibed all that it was going to.

Tallahassee's Independence Day celebration had just moved from Lake Ella to the North Florida Fairgrounds, so we took our friends and the loaded watermelon to the Fairgrounds to watch the fireworks. As excited as we were to have successfully spiked a watermelon, none of us was particularly keen on partaking of the fruit of our labor. I recall a small piece I coaxed through the watermelon's blow hole tasting like red vodka.

How do you spell relief? V-O-D-K-A (with apologies to R-O-L-A-I-D-S and their fans).

Next add fireworks -- to the watermelon. We enlarged the hole in the watermelon and stuffed in as many bottle rockets (sticks removed) and M-80 variety fireworks we could fit and stood back while a brave soul ignited it.

It was dusk and it was spectacular. The image I carry in my memory to this day can only be best described as similar to what I saw when Commander Matt Decker on October 20, 1967 first piloted the USS Constellation into the Doomsday Machine on STOS (Star Trek Original Series). Like Gene Roddenberry's cosmic log, the watermelon briefly belched flame from its maw, increasing momentarily in intensity and volume until a final WHOOMP exhausted liquid and solid fuels. Tim, I know you would understand.

Our fiery watermelon attracted undesirable attention from the crowd that warns us every year not to do the kinds of things we had just done, so we abandoned it.

Days later with several friends, I brought the summer's third watermelon of note with me to a movie at the Miracle Theater on Thomasville Road, where I purchased my ticket and went to my seat with the large watermelon tucked under my arm, making no attempt to obscure it.

About half-way through the movie, I completely understood the phrase I'd heard on trailers for the Amityville Horror OV (Original Version), "For God's sake, GET OUT!" It was the worst movie that I had ever paid money to see. During a quiet point in the movie -- I believe the sludge had begun to flow -- I left my seat, still with the watermelon under my arm and proceeded to the rear of the theater and ROLLED the watermelon down the center aisle. My watermelon trundled noisily and clumsily down the aisle, glancing off a couple of seats before finally cracking up near the front. Heads turned and hoarse whispers of "My God, it's a watermelon!" reached my ears as I quietly exited the theater.

What does all this have to do with Halloween?

In the last languid days of summer before school began again in 1980, friends and I were reminiscing about our watermelon adventures during the previous summer when one of us said, "We could make a giant watermelon costume for Halloween."

And we did. I am forever grateful for Arlene letting me work in her garage after school, and Mike's paint job, and Brenda's photography. You all immeasurably enriched my life. Thank you.

Monday, January 10, 2011

It started with a three-legged cat....

In Fall 1985, I inherited a gray and white three-legged cat named Tigger and a black and white polydactyl cat named Elliott from people who found Tigger and adopted Elliott and later moved away, and were unable to take the cats with them. Elliott loved to sit on my shoulders.

Tigger was forever your friend if you would scratch that one part of his head where he couldn't reach. His stump and phantom limb would swing furiously for as long as you were willing to scratch him.

On the morning of October 16, 1985, the cats pushed open the back door that often failed to latch properly and left the building. Elliott returned, but Tigger climbed a tree in the backyard and stayed up there for several hours before I became concerned about him, and did what most people would probably do -- called the Fire Department.

The dispatcher at the fire department laughed and told me that they didn't get cats out of trees anymore, and suggested that I call the humane society. The humane society advised me to call a tree service and I called  the first one in the local Yellow Pages and they said they'd be happy to get my cat out of the tree -- for $45. I hung up on them and called the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper and told them my three-legged cat had been stuck up in a tree for most of the day and no one was helping me. The people at the newspaper said they would send out a reporter within an hour.

I called the next tree service in the phone book and told them about my discussion with the other tree service and that newspaper reporters would be at my house to cover the story. I asked if they would consider waiving any fee to remove my three-legged cat from a tree? They agreed to free Tigger for free, and the next day, it was the most important news in town, front page center of the newspaper across the fold.

"Tiggers are wonderful things...."

I unexpectedly learned that Elliott would ride a bicycle with me on a short ride to a friend's house with him tucked inside my jacket. After a block, Elliott squirmed out and onto my shoulders and a legend was born. I had participated for several years in the Springtime Tallahassee parade as a mime, first with Godby High School's Drama Club and later by myself, so I was inspired to begin riding with Elliott in the next two Springtime Tallahassee parades and in the 1987 Veterans' Day parade.

Veterans' Day was Elliott's last parade. Shortly after Christmas, a roommate accidentally let him out and Elliott was hit by a car and died.

I was heartbroken. It was only three months until Springtime Tallahassee and I had lost a friend. I asked around for a kitten and in January, Peter brought me a gray and white male with a brown Jupiter spot on his chest. I named him David, after my paternal grandfather who died 13 years before I was born, and my middle name, which later shortened to Dave, or as more publicly known, Dave the Cat.

The first thing I did was place Dave on my shoulders, with his head facing the way Elliott's did, and every time I touched him, I put him on my shoulders the same way. After about a week, Dave surprised me by jumping onto my shoulders -- right after I exited the shower. Amidst all the pain, I praised Dave, promising myself to gently discourage future such events unless I had a shirt on.

Within a month, I took my first ride with Dave and thereafter accompanied him on longer and longer bike rides. I optimistically submitted my application for the Springtime Tallahassee parade with a $25 non-refundable admission fee and for the first time was summarily denied. I had an idea as to why -- Elliott and I had become a very popular parade act. Unlike the rest of the parade participants, we did not just proceed through the parade in 20 minutes and exit, we rode back and forth throughout the parade route for more than an hour, because we enjoyed it so much and the crowds were always so appreciative. With all the work I had done in recent weeks, I considered this to be a minor setback.

I had friends who worked at Gumby's Pizza on West Tennessee Street and approached Mike the owner and asked him if I pulled a giant Gumby through the Springtime Tallahassee parade, would he pay me $25? I was loath to lose my $25. Mike said yes.

I happened to own a 6-foot inflatable Gumby at the time, and a red Radio Flyer wagon, just large enough to have sturdy rubber-coated metal wheels, and had a really good friend named Jamie (and still do), with whom I entrusted my bicycle and asked him to bring a camera. I carried in my pocket the $25 canceled check for my rejected parade entry, a letter from Mike authorizing me to represent Gumby's Pizza in the Springtime Tallahassee parade, and for luck, a Monopoly Chance card that read GET OUT OF JAIL FREE.

On Saturday morning of the Springtime Tallahassee parade on March 26, 1988, Jamie and I rode in his gray Volkswagon bug with my bicycle and little red wagon, Gumby, Dave the Cat, a roll of tape and an American flag, and went to the parade.

The Springtime Tallahassee parade always begins at 10:30 am at the intersection of East 1st Avenue and North Monroe Street and proceeds 1.01 miles south on Monroe Street to the Gaines Street intersection. Thomasville Road intersects Monroe Street at an angle a matter of yards north of East 1st Avenue on the east side of Monroe Street. Jamie and I parked as close to Thomasville Road and Monroe Street as we could.

I inflated Gumby and taped him into the red wagon and taped the American flag to Gumby's outstretched left hand. I gave Jamie my bike, with explicit instructions to walk along the parade route with it and keep stride with me, and if all went well, his only duty was to take photos. Otherwise, he was to rush out into the street with my bike and take charge of Gumby while Dave and I were to presumably ride to safety.

A few days before, I had notified my parents of my plans with full understanding that I was assuming some risk, and not only to my new friend Dave the Cat. Mom was very unhappy and Dad tried to calm her while stoically asking me, "Is there nothing I can say to talk you out of this?" No, there was not.

US Senator Bob Graham, D-FL, served as governor of Florida from 1979 until 1987, and often led Springtime Tallahassee parades, and was expected to do the same at this one. As Bob walked down 1st Avenue to lead the parade, Dave the Cat and I towed Patriotic Gumby by the wagon handle down Thomasville Road towards Monroe Street to meet him. As we both merged at the front of the parade, I waved and said, "Hi Bob!" 

"Hi Mitch!" was the Senator's cheerful reply. We had met a few times before and Bob Graham's ability to recall names and details about acquaintances and constituents is often lauded by people who know him well.

200,000 people regularly come to see the Springtime Tallahassee parade, and it was the most exhilarating walk of my life. Halfway through Dave's first parade, I stopped the parade and motioned for Jamie to come out into the street and said, "Hold on, Bob. It's picture time!" Bob and I shook hands and posed for the picture that resides in my wallet and in my hallway at home to this day. I enlarged our photo and autographed it and sent it to Senator Bob Graham and received a warm thank-you letter in return.  

It was one of the most memorable days of my life. I will always be grateful to Tigger and Elliott's original owners, and to Peter and Jamie, and to the countless thousands of people who appreciated Dave the Cat and me throughout Dave's long life.

"Be always sure you're right, then go ahead." -- Davy Crockett

June 2012 update is here.