I knew President Kennedy maintained a bomb shelter near the family compound in Palm Beach where he often vacationed. I always assumed it was intended as a refuge against missiles coming from Cuba. But now I wonder if he was more worried about the effect of ululating waves of Florida weirdness on his own air force.
We are, after all, home to the only city in the United States to be bombed twice during World War II — not by the Germans or Japanese, but by the U.S. Army Air Corps, which on successive nights in 1944 mistook the only traffic light in the Central Florida town of Frostproof for a marker on a nearby weapons range and put the hammer down. Frostproof wisely surrendered before the A-bomb was ready to go.
I learned of the U.S. military’s aerial conquest of Frostproof from watching the new WLRN-PBS 17 documentary Weird Florida: On the Road Again, the latest chapter in executive producer Mia Laurenzo’s ongoing chronicle of our state’s proudly aberrant, trashy and grotesque traditions. It includes visits to both the JFK bomb shelter and Frostproof — the latter, coincidentally, also the site of regular attacks by a giant Mayan anaconda that patrols a nearby lake. (Man, what is it with those Mayas? Botched apocalypses, vengeful sea serpents...probably next we’ll discover they invented the hanging chad.)
Hosted by folk historian Charlie Carlson, this episode of Weird Florida takes a look at everything from the clown school in Lake Placid (1,500 alumni, mostly serving on city councils) to a haunted Rockledge restaurant where visitors to the ladies’ room often return “claiming to be touched by unseen hands” (that is, north Florida’s version of a South Beach club).
It’s impossible to watch this documentary without being hugely impressed by our state’s impressive capacity for elevating the stupid and pointless into the really stupid and pointless. Thus Carlson, after wandering through a two-acre lot in Barberville, in north Florida, populated by kitschy statuary, misshapen fountains and a profoundly disturbing number of giant metal chickens, poses the question: “Is it art, or is it junk?” This is a lot easier to answer than he apparently thinks.
And then there’s New Smyrna, where local historians have so agitated themselves arguing about whether some anonymous ruins are the foundation of an old hotel or the wreckage of a colonial Spanish fort that they’ve actually inspired a murder mystery. In novelist Mary Clay’s Murder in the Stacks, the fierce debate ends in a homicide investigation by a claque of middle-aged divorcees who call themselves the DAFFODILS, short for Divorced and Finally Free of Deceitful, Insensitive, Licentious Scum. Hey, no issues there.