Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Florida Wrap

Downtown Tallahassee has a feature called the Park Avenue "chain of parks," which is essentially a series of long and narrow city blocks, end to end, given over to parkland but flanked by historic properties, such as the Greek Revival structure fittingly called "The Columns," now home to the area chamber of commerce. Tallahassee must also be a 9-to-5/Mon-to-Fri sort of downtown, so on a Saturday afternoon no one else was strolling the length of the chain of parks but me, even though it's a fine walk. A number of the Tallahassee homeless were present, especially toward one end of the chain. They weren't strolling, but instead on their backs. No doubt their day had had plenty enough walking.

Sportscaster Red Barber (1908-92) has a small monument in one of the parks. Apparently he lived a good bit of his life in Tallahassee. I'm not old enough to have heard him broadcast any games, but I remember his gravelly voice as Bob Edwards interviewed him on Morning Edition in the late '80s, when he was a link to old-time sports.

Only a mile or so from downtown Tallahassee is Lake Ella, which features a 0.6-mile walking path around a small lake, or a large pond. Unlike downtown, a lot of people were there on Saturday before sunset: walkers, dog-walkers, joggers, couples, families with little kids, even a wedding party having photos made at the gazebo next to the lake. One youngish guy, all in black and looking like an out-of-place Manhattan hipster, sat so still on a bench that I thought he was one of those hyperrealistic human-figure statues for a few seconds, until he scratched his nose. A lot of birds lived in the water. Mostly weird birds I'd never seen the likes of before, critters that looked like a cross between a large duck and a small buzzard.

Next to the walking path and squared in behind a fence was a Vietnam-era Huey (UH-1) helicopter, identified as 68-157848, with a red cross on its side. It was a memorial to the soldiers of Leon County who fought in that war. Their names were written on the side of the chopper. I've seen a lot of military monuments, but I think that was the first helicopter as part of a monument, rather than as war materiel display. Not far away was a smaller stone monument, something like a cylinder about as tall as my chest, weather-worn, stained and neglected. MERCI it said, in large letters. Also inscribed was: "aux soldats et au peuple Americains... 15 août 1944." Why Tallahassee got the thanks of France for its liberation, while it was still happening no less, I couldn't say.

Going into the trip, the restaurant chain Chick-Fil-A was something of a mystery to me. Maybe that brand was in Nashville in the mid-80s, but I don't remember it. I don't ever remember seeing it in Illinois, either. I imagined that Chick-Fil-A was confined to the Deep South. Maybe it was, once. But now there are more than 1,400 outlets in 37 states, including some in such bone fide Yankee states as Connecticut, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan and Minnesota. I wanted to try it in any case, and did, in Tallahassee. Wow. That was some good chicken sandwich. All fast food should be like that.

One thing I learned during the trip that I would never have guessed: the Air Force tests drones in the airspace off the coast of the Florida panhandle. Tyndall AFB, on the coast east of Panama City, is a hub for this kind of thing. In fact, this part of Florida is the place for U.S. drone-testing.

Fairly early Sunday morning, I drove through Youngstown, Fla., on US 231, and next to road I noticed a cluster of police cars – in a town that size, maybe most of the force. Cops were standing next to the road on either side of two figures close to ground. At some distance, I figured it was an arrest. I got closer and noticed that one figure, a man in a white shirt, seemed to be holding on to the other, which was not a man, but an alligator. Animal control, Florida-style.

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