Down backcountry roads, far from the Mouse House and the surgery-sculpted bodies of South Beach, there’s another Florida, a place that rarely makes the news and doesn’t make the travel brochures at all.
Tampa Bay Times columnist Jeff Klinkenberg wanders those roads in search of the only-in-Florida stories. This collection of some of his most entertaining columns includes stories about people who make their living doing strange things, like playing the Sopchoppy Symphony for worms.
“It was a way of ordinary life where science met folklore, where the 21st century intersected with the old Florida of horseback and Model A Fords,” he writes.
He explains how a few men in northwest Florida use a wooden stake and a steel file to make a vibrating noise that prompts thousands of earthworms to rise from the ground so they can be grabbed and sold as fish bait. Men learned the trick 100 years ago when they noticed the earthworms responded to the rumble of a car motor. Klinkenberg watches the opening bars of this unusual symphony, which he described as “an awesome, hair-raising, teeth-rattling sustained kind of a grunt.” Earthworms really don’t like it.
“First the earth begins to tingle. Then it quakes for dozens of feet in all directions. Then things get really weird,” he writes.
Turns out, the worms think the noise is being made by a big mole burrowing into the ground to eat them. In response, thousands of them creepy crawl their way to the surface.
Also weird? Alligators looking for love will answer a tuba playing a sustained B flat note. Spanish moss tea is a good garden fertilizer. The fact that famed pin-up girl and talented photographer of other pin-up girls Bunny Yaeger declined to talk to Klinkenberg, although he had fantasized about her when he was a pimply teenager. Or maybe it’s just weird that he chose to write about that.
Klinkenberg’s Florida is charming, his writing melancholy and nostalgic. He’s at his best recording the lives of people whose way of life is disappearing. The man who sells mayhaw jelly and gives away salvation for free by the side of a highway. The Gladesmen who don’t go to hospitals and keep sutures in their kits, just in case they have to sew themselves up. The old farmer who still uses a mule to plow his field, because she’s just better than his tractor. Klinkenberg also finds the unusual in lives that are not traditional, like the painter who loves cleanliness and paints moody masterpieces of the BP oil spill. Then there’s the man who loves thunder, one of Klinkenberg’s columns that has been passed around for several years by journalists who admire sensitive writing.
South Florida readers may find some of Klinkenberg’s descriptions quaint, like when he notes that Pinellas County is the most urban of all Florida counties. Just because you paved it doesn’t make it a big city.
And anyone who has talked with an employee of The Tampa Bay Times or its predecessor The St. Petersburg Times knows that The Times is the largest paper in the state. They always slip that into conversations, and Klinkenberg is careful to note it in one column. Times reporters and editors seem a little hurt that people inside and outside of Florida continue to think of The Miami Herald as the state’s dominant newspaper.
Klinkenberg will probably laugh at that observation. He has a soft, sometimes self-deprecating and always sympathetic sense of humor, lovingly deployed when he tells stories like the one about George Cera, who has one of those only-in-Florida jobs — killing iguanas. “ ‘Save Florida, eat an iguana’ happened to be his credo. It also was the name of his new cookbook, on sale in at least a few places.”
Klinkenberg’s commentary on where the state is going, cut into the narrative like butter into biscuit mix, is often fun.
“In the 21st century Sarasota and Manatee counties in Southwest Florida might have had more iguanas than Democrats,” he writes.
Klinkenberg’s deep love for Florida — natural Florida and everyone who knew it before there were so many people — is obvious. He sometimes gets obsessed with macho men who all seem to have extraordinarily large feet and simple country girls who all seem to wear cotton dresses.
Some of the columns are disappointing because they lack the intimacy he’s able to conjure in most of them. The column about a black man in Palm Beach County working to make sure the black men, women and children who died in the hurricane of 1928 are remembered just doesn’t quite hit the right notes. But there is a lot about Florida that isn’t being told. Klinkenberg has carved out a place to tell part of it in a sweet and sensitive way that doesn’t resort to the type of caricature that would be so easy and has been the stock and trade of lessor writers. Alligators in B Flat doesn’t tell the story of Florida, just a few stories of Florida. But they’re weird — and they’re fun.
Susannah Nesmith is a writer in Miami.