Does the bear have a name?

This past Sunday, my friend, Jeanie, and I were sitting at a picnic table, enjoying beautiful weather and laughing a lot. We were in Young’s Park, a riverfront park in Vero Beach, Florida.

Sonya with Love Live bear

Sonya with the LOVE LIFE bear, at Steve Fugate’s starting point

She had the view of the water: “Ooh! Look! A dolphin!” I turned around to see.

I had the view of the parking lot: “Ooh! Look! A giant teddy bear!” She turned around to see.

A woman strode across the grass, carrying a 3-foot tall teddy bear. He wore glasses and a hat, a t-shirt with a slogan, and a Hawaiian shirt. Like most bears, he wasn’t wearing pants.

She set him down next to a tree and went back to her car. She and a second woman put a sign that said “LOVE LIFE” next to the bear. They started taking photographs of each other with the bear.

“That reminds me of the Happy Spot sign,” I told Jeanie. “What do you suppose it’s about?”

“I’m waiting for you to go over there and find out,” said Jeanie.

“Me? Why me?” She smirked, and that started me laughing again.

They’d moved the bear closer to the river, and now other people were stopping to ask curious questions.

I took my time, finishing my sandwich, and when I got up, Jeannie muttered, “Finally.” We walked over, and I asked, “Does the bear have a name?”

“He’s the Love Life bear,” they told us. Then they told us about Steve Fugate.

Two years ago, Steve left this very spot in Young’s Park in Vero Beach, Florida, walking a zig-zag route around the US with a sign on his head reading “LOVE LIFE.”

It was not the first time Steve walked across the country, raising awareness about suicide. It was the seventh.

Steve lost his son, Stevie, to suicide, and his daughter Shelly, a few years later. His website says that he is inspired to share the love he would otherwise be sharing with his children with the people he meets. To do this, he has walked 34,000 miles, giving love and encouragement to the people he meets along the way.

To say that Steve Fugate is an expert in talking to strangers would be an understatement. Steve Fugate has literally saved the lives of countless strangers.

Sonya and Carol

Sonya and Carol, sitting on Dad’s park bench

But this post isn’t really about Steve. It’s about Sonya and Carol, his extraordinary friends.

Ardent supporters of Steve’s mission, the two of them do all kinds of behind-the-scenes work. Fundraising, social media, encouragement, sending care packages — they are two of many people who make LOVE LIFE possible. The previous day, they helped put on the second annual Love Life Walk Celebration. Dozens of people gathered, wearing LOVE LIFE t-shirts and carrying signs. Pointing to the 65-foot Barber Bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway, Carol said, “We walked over the bridge together.”

When we met them, they were celebrating Steve’s second anniversary on the road with pictures of the LOVE LIFE bear, in his Hawaiian shirt, at Steve’s starting point. It’s a reminder of the point where he will eventually return, and the fact that his LOVE LIFE family is there.

Meps with the LOVE LIFE bear

Meps with the LOVE LIFE bear

By strange coincidence, that spot is significant to me. In 2011, after my brother, also named Stevie, died in a tragic incident, my husband and I stayed in Vero Beach as long as we could. Finally, we set sail northbound on Flutterby. The morning we left, my Dad stood at the precise spot in Young’s Park where the LOVE LIFE bear did. He waved until we were out of sight, unable to see the tears streaming down my face. My Dad always loves life and inspires me to do the same.

Steve Fugate’s valuable LOVE LIFE message is heard much farther afield than his two feet will carry him. Sonya and Carol — and you and I — are making sure of that.
You can read more about LOVE LIFE on Facebook and on the web. There’s a short documentary film on Vimeo.

A good guy, always happy

Linda and Robert, mother and son, were the first to arrive, just after 5 am. They set up their chairs outside the door of Mr. Smoke’s Contemporary Department Store on Saturday morning and waited patiently for Mike Williams to open the doors at 9.

Zoie with her teddy bear, father and grandmother

Zoie with her teddy bear, father and grandmother

They were accompanied by Robert’s daughter, Zoie, 6. Like many other children attending, Zoie was happy, outgoing, and had a balloon.

By 7:30, the diverse line stretched to the end of the block. People of all ages, colors, and ethnic groups were waiting together, chatting and greeting each other. The early arrivals had chairs; later groups stood.

It was a lot of effort for a free t-shirt.

Mike has been celebrating his store’s anniversary every year, because for the first several decades, he struggled to keep his doors open. It wasn’t for lack of customers. Vero Beach didn’t want a so-called “head shop” in town, especially across the street from the police station.

So while he fought the legal battles, he celebrated every year he managed to keep his unique store in business. Once a year, he designed a t-shirt to celebrate the milestone. He only printed 100 of each design, making them collectors’ items.

“We came to the first anniversary celebration,” said Linda, from her #2 place in line. She and Robert were both wearing shirts from previous years.

Not everyone wore their Mr. Smoke’s shirts. A man named Larry, who arrived in line at 7:30, said he had about 25 of them, but he never wore them. “I keep it in the bag. I collect t-shirts. I have over a thousand, concert shirts and stuff.”

Woody with t-shirt

Woody came out with two shirts

Woody, who drove to Vero Beach from Cape Coral, lives aboard a sailboat. He has been coming to the event for 15 years and has 15 shirts. If you’ve ever lived aboard a boat, you know that’s a big storage space commitment.

“I’ve got every one. I’ve got one drawer in my dresser that’s nothing but his shirts,” said one of Mike’s friends, who was helping in the store. “I tell Mike, it’s my retirement package. When I get to number 50, I’ll put them on eBay.”

The store’s future is secure, with customers like Dace, Kristen, and Tay in line. They’re 21 and have been coming to the anniversaries for four years. “This store has history, and we know how much Mike went through for us,” said Kristen.

The guys from 99.7 Jack FM

The guys from 99.7 Jack FM

Across from the waiting queue was a giant inflatable “bouncy house” for the kids. Girl Scouts were selling cookies, and a band called Station was doing sound-checks beside a tent where 99.7 Jack FM radio was broadcasting. Popcorn and balloons were everywhere.

At 9:00, Mike released a bunch of balloons, then unlocked the door. Everyone cheered.

“I’m taking the day off work for this,” said a woman named Kris. The man with her, Chris, said “I asked for the day off three weeks in advance. This is one day when you get to see people you don’t normally see.”

Thomas in line

Thomas, in the middle, stayed up all night

“I stayed up all night for this,” said Thomas, a daily customer of the store. “I couldn’t sleep!” It was his first year attending the anniversary celebration. Another enthusiast, Kenny, said. “It’s like Christmas!”

Zoie’s mother was about 15 places back from her ex-husband. She’d driven a couple of hours from Okeechobee for the event. “If I ever leave Florida, this will be the once-a-year event I’ll come back for.”

That level of enthusiasm is really about Mike. All morning long, people enthused about him. “A good guy, always happy.” “A good man.” “A sweetheart.” ‘An awesome person.” “He’s good to talk to about stuff.” “He gives back to the community.” “Why do I come? Pretty much, Mike.”

2015-03-21_0509-d90-2754Over and over, people used words like “welcoming” and “family” to describe Mike’s relationship with his customers. Linda said, “He treats everybody like family. We call him Uncle Mike.” Her son nodded, and a woman named Chasya chimed in, “You’re supporting a locally owned and operated store by someone who treats you like family. There’s nothing like this anywhere.”

2015-03-21_0633-d90-2813“It seems like I’ve known Mike all my life. When my friends come from out of town, I take them to see him. They just love him to death,” said Marsha. “I told him he ought to do this twice a year.”

Daniel, who lives a block from the store, said, “You never just go in and out. Sometimes, when I’m bored, I just come in and kick it with Mike. If they sold food, this would be my favorite store.”

At 9:14, a woman named Karen, who had never missed an anniversary, came out with her 34th t-shirt. “I don’t wear them, I hang them. I don’t want them to get dirty.”

Little boy with balloons inside the store

Inside Mr. Smoke’s

I finally went inside to see what was happening. Even though Mike had recently expanded, it’s not a big store. The customers were orderly and polite, the children well-behaved, as they browsed among the ultra-bright t-shirts.

Behind the counter, Mike handled sales, accompanied by his beaming sister, Vicky. The conscientious storekeeper wrapped fragile items and carefully made change as he talked and joked with his customers. The life of the party, he was doing 50 things at once without breaking a sweat.

“I want a hug,” he said to one woman. “That’s what it’s all about!” He shook hands with a tall man, then turned to his teenaged daughter, asking her, “How’s school, anyway? Getting good grades?” One customer asked him to autograph his t-shirt.

Mike Williams autographs a t-shirt in Mr. Smoke's

Mike Williams autographs a t-shirt in Mr. Smoke’s

Mike told me that he gets emotional when he sees how many people support him. “This morning, I just had to cry before we opened the doors,” he admitted.

Watching Mike, it’s obvious why he has as many followers as the Dalai Lama. He loves people, and he is not afraid to let them know that.

“You guys make me so proud!” he announced. “Everybody should be Mr. Smoke one day in their life.”

Don’t miss the rest of the photos!

Go to Meps’ blog at (and scroll to the bottom) for the rest of the happy, smiling photos from  Mr. Smoke’s 34th Anniversary Party. Thanks!

To touch the sky

Dad in the hospital, surrounded by flowers from well-wishers

Dad in the hospital, surrounded by flowers from well-wishers

I’ve just spent almost 3 weeks with my Dad in Florida. I’ve been wanting to write about him all this time, but what to say? Should I tell you about the books by Henry H. Schulte, Jr.? Or the newspapers he’s managed and edited? The thousands of students he’s taught and mentored? What about his children, or the adventures we had with him?

There’s so much to say, I never got around to writing anything.

So I was sitting on a Delta DC-9, ready to take off from Melbourne, Florida When looked out the window, there was a man standing on the ground wearing safety gear and holding a couple of orange flashlights. He waved. That was unusual.

Then I heard voices behind me. “Look, Sky, that man is waving at you.” I craned my head around to see a little boy, just a toddler, in the seat behind me. He was traveling with his parents, two people who looked surprisingly young to me.

From the conversation behind me, I figured out that it was Sky’s first ride in an airplane.

As the plane taxied and took off, Sky and his parents entertained me with their observations. When we took off, they told him to watch how fast we were going. Once we were airborne, he said, “Lookie! The sun is coming! The sun is coming!” A few minutes later, “Where’s our house? When will we land? Where’s Grandpa’s house? Are we landing yet? I don’t see Grandpa’s house.”

We ascended through a light cloud layer, and the view was one of the most beautiful skyscapes I’ve ever seen. The dark ground, lit by pinpoints of electric light, was softened by a transparent black veil. At the same time, the sunlight reflecting off the clouds made a bright ethereal landscape above.

I’ve really enjoyed having Sky behind me during the flight, despite the fact that he took me at my word when I told him he could kick my seat-back. He sang the alphabet song (but got confused at the end) and traced his letters on the window. “Big A, little A. Big B, little B…”

Sky’s joyful curiosity reminded me of my Dad, who I’d just left that morning at 5:20 am. Even though Dad is over 80 years older than Sky, and he just had open-heart surgery, he is just as vibrant as that little boy.

The first two days after Dad’s operation were scary to me. Dad was in the ICU, which I expected, but he was not himself, which I didn’t expect. The first day, he didn’t even wake up. The second day, he was awake but didn’t talk.

On the morning of the third day, I walked into the ICU with my brother, full of apprehension. Then I heard his voice. And I heard peals of laughter from his nurses.

Dad was back!

For the next two days in the ICU, he pestered the nurses with questions about how the ICU worked and what the nurses were doing. He entertained them with his stories and his observations while they did their work. We joked about the fact that on Day Two, he had been making mooing noises because of the cow valve now implanted in his heart. Then we’d joke about the fact that it must have come from a bull, not a cow. The two of us were giddy and talkative. When the nurses saw me, they told me how lucky I am.

I know that.

Dad with his teddy bear

Dad used the teddy bear to protect his sternum after surgery

My Dad’s a lot like the little boy, Sky. He is full of curiosity about the way the world works, cataloging his finds and comparing them to his prior experiences. Sometimes he seems to say whatever pops into his head, like a little kid who doesn’t worry what other people will think. He can be very observant and oblivious at the same time. We laugh a lot together. He makes silly noises and sings silly tunes. He likes teddy bears.

In the past decade, I have heard over and over, “Your Dad is amazing for his age.” It’s not his age that’s amazing. It’s his little-boy way of experiencing the world, his natural ebullience. He’s always been like this.

For Sky, the little boy on the plane, I wish that life would always be like his first flight, that he would always feel like he could touch the sky with his joyful enthusiasm for life.

In my Dad, Henry, we have proof that it is possible for all of us. He’s touched the sky many times, and will continue to do so into his 90’s. If Dad can do it, we all can.

There oughta be a rule

Vero Beach is a very clean, pristine little town. Careful zoning prevents high-rises as well as any other ugliness. There are large, beautifully-landscaped homes owned by wealthy retirees as well as tidy smaller ones, where the hard-working younger set lives.

In addition to these neighborhoods, there are gated communities, protected from unwelcome riff-raff by fences and walls. These condo communities have additional rules to prevent unsightliness and untoward behavior by their own residents: No rollerblading. No pickup trucks. No open garage doors. Speed limit 10 mph. No soliciting. No one under 55. Pool chairs must be completely covered by a towel. No pets.

So how did these two grubby sailors from Flutterby, who are used to living in a boatyard, fare in pristine Vero Beach for five months?

We stayed in compliance easily, because nobody had thought to write rules about the things Meps and Barry will do.

One day, the neighbors found the front yard of Dad’s house completely full of soggy camping and kayaking gear. It was spread across the bushes, and Barry had tied clotheslines between the palm trees and the garage for our dripping jackets and pants. These remnants of a messy and disastrous Everglades camping trip were just a harbinger of the chaos to come.

Meps and Barry with all their kayak gear in Dad's front yard

Looks like a garage sale!

Luckily, nobody had written a rule against our soggy gear display. There is probably a rule agasint drying laundry, but it was not enforced.

Next, we tested the waters with a small project, refinishing the oars for the dinghy. I took them over to Dad’s backyard one afternoon. He wandered out of the house to see what I was doing, and he pulled up a chair to watch as I set up my sanding station. There were no sawhorses, so I compromised by propping the oars across a couple of folding chairs. Then I got out my random orbital sander and my red earmuff-style hearing protection. The sander is LOUD, especially since its bearings are in bad shape after all the fiberglass we’ve used it on.

Before I put the earmuffs on, I said to Dad, “I’m going to make a lot of noise now. You might want to go back inside.” “That’s OK,” he responded, “I’m way over here.” He was all of six feet away.

I just shook my head and started up the sander. The noise and sawdust didn’t phase him at all, and he kept me company until I finished the first oar.

Evidently, the project didn’t phase the neighbors, either. I’d just proven that his gated complex could handle a little bit of sanding, Meps-style.

After the oars were sanded, we suspended them in the garage and painted them with multiple coats of epoxy and paint. I worried that the fumes might get into the house, but it was well-sealed. None of the neighbors complained about that, either.

Then we went shopping with our friend Ann, and on top of her big Mothball van, we piled enough plywood and dimensional lumber to build a freestanding wooden lofting floor in the garage. All the sawing, screwing, and hammering still didn’t raise the ire of any neighbors, although Dad started grumbling about the loss of his garage for the car.

Plywood lofting floor leaning against the wall of the garage

The lofting floor, ready to lay down

Over the next weeks, Barry set up first one, then two sewing machines in the garage. He made paper patterns and transferred them to fabric. Then he stitched them into sails, working late into the night. He closed the garage door at night to keep mosquitoes at bay, which helped keep us in compliance with the no-open-garage-door ruling. We were pushing that one.

We admired Mothball so much, Ann left the van in our care while she sailed her boat north to Maine. That was wonderful serendipity, allowing us to move vanloads of battens and yards across town without renting a truck. The longest battens are 18 feet, and they only stuck out of the van eight feet!

But surely, in the next phase, the neighbors would complain. They hadn’t written any rules against sanding aluminum or doing epoxy jobs in the driveway, but they probably should have. Any time you see your neighbor wearing a full-face respirator, he’s probably doing something he shouldn’t.

White van with 8 feet of aoluminum pipe sticking out the back

Mothball, ready to roll

By now, the neighbors were blase about the stuff happening at Dad’s normally quiet, tidy house. They didn’t peer curiously into the garage any more when they walked their completely controlled pets on leashes. I’m sure there’s a rule about that. I wonder if that’s why one woman walks her cat on a leash.

Finally, all the irritating, rule-breaking projects were done. I posted a couple of ads on Craigslist and Freecycle, and obliging people came and took away all the lumber. One man was building chicken coops, and the other was building rabbit hutches. I doubt Vero Beach allows such critters; they probably came from outside the city limits.

We returned the borrowed sewing machine to our friend Linda. We loaded the tools, paint, and epoxy into plastic bins that would fit aboard the boat, along with the carefully-folded sails. The sewing table we carried back inside.

Then we stood back and looked at the garage, ready for Dad’s car.

There was no sign of the mess or noise that had completely taken over for almost three months. In fact, the garage looked better than before we’d arrived! Barry had installed a couple of ladder hangers for working on the battens. Now Dad’s ladder was neatly stored on them, instead of leaning precariously against the wall.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

We had made a BIG mess, and we had cleaned up all of it. This was in keeping with the biggest rule of all. Not a Vero Beach rule, or a condo complex rule, but a family rule: Do not mess up Dad’s house.

Someday, Dad will see our picture on the front of a sailing magazine. He can show his friends, saying “Look! These sails were made in my garage.” I have my fingers crossed that he’ll conveniently forget the sawdust and noise and chaos, and just remember my favorite part: How much we enjoyed his company for five months, the messiest Snowbirds in Vero Beach.

Barry sitting on the floor surrounded by white fabric

Barry sewing the mizzen sail

Barry sitting in the garage, bike and car in background

The car is outside, bikes and sewing machines are in

Margaret attaching tape to batten pockets

Meps at work in the garage

Barry carrying a piece of plywood out of the garage

Taking the floor apart to give the lumber away

Barry holding a stack of folded sails

The end result of all that mess

Losing part of my name

When I was born, my brother Stevie was 12. He told the family that Margaret was too long a name for such a little baby, and he proposed the nickname Peggy. It stuck for 17 years (I changed the spelling to “Peigi” at age 11). Now you know where the “P” in Meps came from.

Stevie passed away suddenly on April 16th. He was a kind, gentle soul with a great sense of humor. Losing him is like losing part of my name, part of my identity.

In the photo below, he is the tall, handsome athlete. The miniature person, looking up at him adoringly, is me. I’d just learned to walk.

Stevie’s funeral and a celebration of his life will be here in Vero Beach in mid-May.

Stevie and me in 1966. He was later known as Dr. Stephen T. Schulte.

A punky reggae party

I’m goin’ to a party
And I hope you are hearty
So please don’t be naughty
For it’s a punky reggae party (Bob Marley)

Flutterby's neighbors in Vero Beach

There goes the neighborhood... Flutterby in front of Vero Beach's posh homes

From Flutterby’s mooring to shore is about 150 feet. It’s a lot farther, if you measure it in dollars.

Tonight, there’s a birthday party at one of the houses on shore. The lawn is full of dressed-up people, and they’ve got a live reggae band. What I can’t figure out are the two chickens in the yard. I’ve never noticed those before. Perhaps they were a birthday present. Perhaps they’re serving really, really fresh chicken for dinner. Or maybe that’s the backup singers.

OK, that’s enough about the chickens. I must be hungry. I wonder what kind of people can afford to hire such a professional-sounding band for a birthday party?

No boring ol’ farts, no boring ol’ farts
No boring ol’ farts will be there
Singin’ no boring ol’ farts, no boring ol’ farts
No boring ol’ farts will be there (another verse from the same song)

My curiosity sends me to, where I look for information about our shoreside neighbors. The house with the party is just over a million dollars, but it’s not for sale. The one that is, though, is even closer; it’s the one whose windows we look right into. It’s a 3-bedroom, 2-1/2 bath rambler with a swimming pool. You can buy it for just over a million dollars. Or rent it for $7500 a month.

Or sit out here on a mooring and look into the windows, for $400 a month.

Turn your lights down low
And pull your window curtains…
(from another Bob Marley song)

It’s a good thing I like reggae, and the birthday party band in particular. I’m sure everyone over there is shouting, unsuccessfully, to be heard over the music, like this:

John: “Blah-de-blah-de-blah chicken?”
Mary: “No, I don’t want to dance with your chicken.”
John: “I said, blah-de-blah-de-blah CHICKEN!”
Mary: “You want me to to remodel your kitchen?”

Out here, we can’t turn the music off, but we can easily talk over it. It’s like our own private dinner concert (no boring ol’ farts here!). Because this is Vero Beach — known as Zero Beach to the younger set — the music stops at precisely 9:30 pm. I’m disappointed.

I once had a business trip to Semiahmoo, a stunningly beautiful resort near the Canadian border in Washington, with two coworkers. When the desk clerk handed out room keys, two of them faced the water, and one faced the parking lot. The two other women looked at me in consternation. I had the most seniority, so they were certain I’d claim one of the waterfront rooms, leaving them to fight over the other one. Instead, I picked up the parking lot room key, saying, “Enjoy the view. I’m going sailing tomorrow, and if you count both sides and the transom, I’ll have over 75 feet of waterfront property all weekend.”

That comment comes back to me as I listen to the reggae-chicken birthday party. Tonight, they’re  enjoying their waterfront property and sharing it with their friends. But they are paying an awful lot just to be looking at us! And we are not paying very much to be looking in their windows, enjoying their music, and laughing about their chickens.

Let me tell you, it takes a joyful sound
To make the world go ’round
It takes a joyful sound
So come a come and rock your boat (one last verse from Bob Marley)

An easy gift

The weather’s been so beautiful in Vero Beach this week, Barry and I have just been riding, riding, riding our bicycles. With the exception of two 65-foot-tall bridges that span the Indian River, there are no hills. It’s all flat. Whee!

This morning, for the first time, Barry and I pedaled in separate directions. Barry went to a meditation group in town, and I headed for the farmers’ market on the beach. I filled my backpack with peppers and cucumbers and strawberries and brussels sprouts and giant crunchy red radishes. I sampled grapefruits and tangerine juice (yum) and carrot juice (not-so-yum).

Then I walked over to the beach and dipped my toes in the ocean. Life is sweet.

I was pedaling back to the marina, a few blocks later, when a big bus in a bank parking lot caught my eye: The Bloodmobile.

You may recall that earlier this week, on Valentine’s Day, we commemorated our friend Becky’s birthday by hugging people. One of the other things people did in her memory was to give blood, including people in the US, Australia, and New Zealand.

Barry last gave blood about 20 years ago, and got a huge painful purple bruise all over his arm. That scared me so much, I never tried it.

Seeing that big bus, I thought of the folks who gave blood in Becky’s memory this week. Some of them were first-time donors. I’ve given my share of blood at the doctor’s office for tests. Surely donating couldn’t be much harder than that?

I rode back to the marina to meet Barry. “There’s something I’d like to do after lunch, and I’d love it if you’d do it with me,” I said. When I told him I wanted to donate blood, he was a little surprised. “You know what happened the last time I gave blood, right?” he asked. Nonetheless, he was willing to try it again.

We ate some lunch — they recommended that we eat a meal first — and then biked back to the big bus. On board, we each filled out a health questionnaire and had temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate measured, along with the iron level in our blood. We passed all those tests, so we were ready to donate.

The bus had four couches, and Barry took one on the right (so his left arm was accessible) and I took one on the left. I’m sure there’s a carefully established protocol for taking the blood out, but I’m a little squeamish, so I didn’t watch very closely. Besides, we were busy chatting with the three employees on the bus, two technicians and one woman who served as a sort of usher-organizer-cheerleader. She was the one who gathered up a whole pile of t-shirts, calendars, coupons, magnets, and pens, and gave them to us for donating.

It didn’t seem like very many minutes before there was a very loud “BEEP!” and Barry was done. I was done about two minutes later. It was easy.

Afterwards, I mentioned that we were donating in memory of Becky, and I hugged my technician. We’d been warned about adverse effects, including the infamous bruising, lightheadedness, and nausea, but as we got onto our bikes with our now-stuffed backpack of goodies, I felt physically fine.

Mentally, though, I was feeling better than fine. I felt super! Magnanimous, healthy, and proud. Glad to do something to help the world in Becky’s memory. Over and over, this lesson, the one about generosity, comes home to me: I gave up a little blood, but I got back way more than I gave.

Everything we do ashore starts with a row in the dinghy. Here's Meps, wearing a Becky's Hugs button, tying the dinghy painter.

After the rowing comes the bicycling. Here's Meps and the Bike Fridays in front of the Bloodmobile.

Afterwards, Barry shows off his new t-shirt, which says "2011, the year of the blood donor."

In memory of Cory

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Having driven over 15,000 miles across the USA this year, we’ve seen hundreds of them. Crosses beside the road. Each one saying, “a life was lost here.”

Cory’s cross

It’s a sobering reminder of the risk we take every time we get behind the wheel.

In some states, instead of homemade crosses, there are signs posted by the Department of Transportation. Wyoming takes down homemade memorials and replaces them with a sign showing a dove on a broken heart. Driving by at 55 mph, the Squid Wagon’s top speed, they look a lot like the logos on portable defibrillators.

The signs in South Dakota are easier to understand. They feature a red “X” to mark the spot, and the thought-provoking words, “Why die?” In some places, there are two, three, or four of these signs together. Four lives lost here.

Doing research for this essay, I found that there’s actually a name for them: Descansos. It’s the Spanish word for a place of rest, a memorial erected at the place where someone died.

Seeing one makes me think, “Am I driving carefully enough?” But in all my life, I’ve never come face-to-face with a traffic fatality.

Until last week.

We’d just driven 750 miles from North Carolina to Florida, and after arriving at Dad’s house, we needed to take a walk and stretch our legs. We decided to look up an old friend we hadn’t seen in over 10 years.

“Are you sure you don’t want to take my car?” Dad asked. No, we assured him, we wanted to walk.

It was an OK walk, except for the lack of sidewalks. I was especially nervous about bad Florida drivers, so I waded through the mud and high grass and trash by the side of the road, to give them plenty of room.

On our way home, Barry and I were walking along holding hands. Nervously, I kept pulling him further away from US 1, over into the puddles.

And then my day was shattered by a terrible sound behind us.

I turned, and as I took in the scene, I started running back towards the intersection. All I cared about was the large man who lay in the center lane. I was pulling out our cell phone as I ran, saying to Barry “He’s not moving – he’s not moving – please, let him be OK!”

I was running, but everything was in slow motion. I took in the motorcycle pieces scattered across the road and the large white van pulling over to the shoulder, but I couldn’t figure out how it happened.

A small group converged in the middle of the road. A woman got on the ground with the prone man. “He’s breathing,” she said, her face on the pavement beside his helmeted head. Cars were passing only a few feet from the two of them, and I began waving them out to the right-most lane. A few minutes later, a police car arrived, and Barry and I left. We hadn’t actually witnessed the accident, and we didn’t want to be in the way.

I was shaking as I walked. The man hadn’t spoken or moved a limb, but his midsection was twitching in a frightening way. Was he going to be OK?

That night, I couldn’t sleep. I kept reviewing the scene, trying to figure out how he’d been hit, and how he could survive his injuries. There had been no blood, only the ominous dark stains of oil and coolant and fuel under the pieces of his motorcycle.

The next morning, my Dad pointed out a small newspaper article. A 26-year-old man was airlifted to a hospital, where he died. I turned away, tears in my eyes.

His name was Cory. He was engaged to be married in a few months, and he left behind a 7-year-old son. He was a chef at the Moorings Yacht Club.

Cory was killed by a large van that made a left turn out of a parking lot onto the busy highway. The driver must have been in a hurry, or on the phone, because Cory was hard to miss. It was broad daylight, and he had a bright orange motorcycle. He was not a small man. He wore a full-face helmet that matched his bike, despite the fact that helmets are not required in Florida.

A day later, a cross appeared at the intersection. It said “RIP Cory,” and it was decorated with red foil heart-shaped balloons. Every time I passed it, my eyes were drawn to it. Once, as I sat at the stoplight, I watched a jogger pause and look at the photos of the deceased. I felt a lurch in my chest, thinking that Cory was still alive when I saw him.

My happy vacation was subdued, impacted by the senseless death of a stranger. It was a first for me, walking by the scene of a fatal accident, and I won’t ever see motorcycles the same way.

Please, drivers, slow down and be more careful. Whether it’s a motorcycle, a bicycle, a jogger, or another car, it’s a person. None of us wants to be obliterated, replaced by a cross by the side of the road. I don’t ever want to hear that terrible sound again, and I still cry for Cory, even though I never knew him.

Preserving Funky Old Florida

About 15 years ago, when my mother was alive, Barry and I were helping move some furniture in a new condo my parents bought in Sebastian, Florida. My mother sat on the bed and looked out the window at the Indian River view.

“We need to move the bed over this way,” she said, frowning. “Then I won’t see those dreadful shacks when I wake up in the morning.”

Puzzled, Dad walked over to the window and peered out at the small houses next door. “What’s wrong with those?” he asked. “That’s Old Florida!”

In my family, Old Florida is a catch-all term for everything about Florida that is charming, funky, and more than 10 years old. It is the antithesis of condos, mega-houses, shopping malls, and new construction. A moldy pink house with jalousie windows — that’s Old Florida. A restaurant where the waitress calls you “Hon” — that’s Old Florida. Funny little towns like Pahokee, on Lake Okeechobee — that’s Old Florida.

My Dad is an expert on Old Florida. He was telling me about a restaurant the other day, a place where they serve frog legs and swamp palm soup. “It’s Old Florida,” he said. It was enough of a description for me.

Actually, my Dad, himself, is Old Florida. Despite his distinguished career and the journalism textbooks he’s published, he wears shoes with holes in them and sweatstained floppy hats. Sometimes, he calls waitresses “Sweetie.” He tells stories about growing up in Miami without any shoes or shirt, shinnying up trees to get coconuts, and climbing neighbor’s fences to steal avocadoes. He used to swim off the Million Dollar pier, wearing a homemade snorkel and a mask made from an inner tube and a piece of round window glass.

Dad had a list of errands to run the other day, normally something I’d try to avoid. But my ears pricked up when I heard he was going out to Peterson’s Groves to “buy some citrus.” I wasn’t the only one. When Dad headed out to run his errands, Barry and Joy and I all piled into the car.

Peterson’s is Old Florida.

Drive out to the edge of rapidly-growing Vero Beach, past the shopping mall and the stark new developments hidden behind long concrete fences. On 66th Avenue, look for the hand-painted sign in the old wagon. When you turn down the sandy drive, you’ll be transported to another place and time.

In the center of the property is a cluster of ramshackle barns and chicken houses, a packing house, and a ton of kitsch. Before he’d even parked, Dad fell in love with a lifelike plastic goose perched on a piece of rusty farm equipment. I hopped out of the car and immediately went to say hello to the goats and pigs. “Look who made it through Thanksgiving,” said Dad, pointing at a huge turkey. We wandered through the chicken house and took pictures of the peacocks. “Guinea fowl!” called Barry, upon hearing the rusty pump squeak of one of his favorite critters.

We walked along the edge of the orange grove, next to a little fenced pond full of waterfowl. An obnoxious goose scolded us at the top of his lungs, but the ducks who shared the pen ignored him. On our right hand were the orange trees, not too tall, their branches laden with green citrus fruit.

On the store’s long covered porch, we found our goal: Wooden bins of oranges and grapefruits and bushel bags to pack them in. Prices were marked on blackboards or cardboard signs. A nearby galvanized bucket offered sunflowers for sale. Two cats lounged at our feet, got into a brief catfight, and streaked off in different directions.

We went inside, where juicy samples sat on the counter next to coconut candies, pralines, and candied orange peel. A broad-shouldered older man behind the counter was eating fruitcake out of a cardboard box, and he offered us a piece. Despite my love of fruitcake, I declined. I had just picked up a sample piece of grapefruit, and I was busy getting grapefruit juice all over his merchandise. A long-time customer, Dad addressed the man as “Mr. Peterson.”

I drifted towards the back of the store, past shelves of marmalade and jam and orange air freshener. The further back I went, the dustier the merchandise became. There were alligator heads and glass frogs and cheap plastic magnets that said Vero Beach, Florida. Seashell windchimes dangled from the ceiling. My favorite items were the starfish wearing tiny sunglasses, painted with polka-dotted bikinis.

Whenever I go into Peterson’s, I think I should buy a lot of stuff, because that will help preserve this bastion of Old Florida. Then I look more closely at the tawdry merchandise and decide the best thing to buy is oranges and grapefruits, and maybe a jar or two of jam. Luckily, Mr. Peterson has been expanding into some vegetables, and on this trip, we picked up some cherry tomatoes and a lovely kohlrabi. When we commended him for his lovely eggplant, he said, gruffly, “I have to diversify.”

I’m sure Mr. Peterson has been invited to sell his property to developers for lots of money. I’m glad he’s holding out, and I tell myself it’s practical: Somebody in the United States has to grow oranges and tomatoes and kohlrabi; we can’t import all our food from Chile and New Zealand. But baby goats and peacocks and ramshackle buildings are not practical. They’re the last vestiges of Old Florida, and thank goodness someone, not just Dad, is preserving it.

Make mine a trailer park

Last Saturday, we drove to the beach to visit our friend Joy and swim in her pool. On the way, we stopped at my Dad’s former beachfront house to see how it looked. The mansion next door was for sale, so I jumped out to pick up a flyer.

The pricetag, $7.9 million dollars, was enough to make me gasp. But I was more disgusted by the thought of a 5-bedroom house with over 8300 square feet of space. “Give me a break,” commented Barry, “They call it a single-family dwelling!”

We were still grumbling about it when we reached Ocean Resorts, where Joy lives. As we turned into the park, for it’s considered a “mobile home park,” I found myself wondering who was happier: The residents of Ocean Resorts, who live in homes ranging from 240-square-foot trailers to modest 1100-square-foot houses, or the owner of that mansion?

Ocean Resorts wins that contest, hands down.

Started as a campground in the 1920’s, Ocean Resorts has a friendly family feeling to it. It’s not just for seniors, and people who live there know each other and look out for each other. Last year, 150 of the 400 homes were destroyed in Hurricanes Jeanne and Frances, but most of the residents are rebuilding and returning.

Joy is one of them, replacing the manufactured home that was destroyed in Frances with a charming 2-bedroom house made of concrete block and stucco, or CBS. Joy also introduced us to Marilyn, who had left for Hurricane Jeanne and then heard that her house was on fire from a fallen transformer.

“We called the fire department, but there was nothing they could do. The island had been evacuated. Why didn’t they turn the power off?” Five homes were totally lost in the fire.

Before the fire, Marilyn’s home had been full of her frog collection, with frog art everywhere. “She even had frogs on her towels,” commented Joy. Marilyn and her husband, who spend half the year in New Hampshire, bought a new manufactured home for their Ocean Resorts lot. “Every friend who comes through the door brings me a new frog!” she laughed.

We spent hours at the pool that day, and Joy seemed to know everyone there, jumping up to hug many of her friends.

I snoozed in a chaise lounge after my swim, listening to the surf and feeling the warm sun. I was almost asleep, not really listening to Joy and Dad’s quiet conversation, when I heard something of interest.

“Hmm,” I thought. “I heard her say treasure ship…but was it in Central America, or the Central America?” Just in case, I had to interrupt and ask.

Joy pointed out an older lady in a purple bathing suit. “Her son was the one who got all that gold from the ship, the Central America. That’s Phyllis Thompson.”

Now I was wide awake. “Ooh! Can you introduce me?”

It was only a month ago that I had galloped my way through the excellent book, Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea. It is the behind-the-scenes story of Tommy Thompson and the crew who raised the gold from the famous steamship, the Central America. One of the members of the crew, Alan Scott, belongs to our Seattle sailing club, and his presentation last year got me interested in the book. When I read it, I discovered that much of the preparation for the project was done in Columbus, Ohio, about a block from where I lived at the time. Now, in another amazing coincidence, Tommy Thompson’s mother was here at the pool.

We walked over to chat with Phyllis, who told us that her son had a place in nearby Vero Beach, “But he’s not there very much. He’s on his 29th lawsuit.” Sadly, the raising of the gold from the Central America also brought up a number of sharks — most of the money made from the gold was lost to lawsuits against insurance companies who claimed they had rights to it.

When I mentioned that we knew Alan Scott, she was delighted. “I haven’t seen him in years! When you see him, give him a hug and a kiss from me!”

Joy told us that Phyllis has her own share of gold — she won a number of medals while they were on the senior swim team.

We had a wonderful day, walking and swimming and meeting Joy’s friends. Even people she didn’t know (and there were few) smiled and waved. What kind of people live in such tiny homes, just a few feet away from each other? People who realize that happiness isn’t 8300 feet to yourself and a big gate to keep the rest of the world out. For the folks at Ocean Resorts, and many of the rest of us, happiness is about community.