Thank you, David Ivester, for your knowledge and skill in promoting my work!
This is the third book in the Compass Crimes. This one is set in Florida. The research was exceptionally fun. You can read about it in my blog “Call Me Trawler Trash.” I know far more about airplanes than boats, so I sought out people who know boats. A special thanks goes out to Paul and Caryn Frink for sharing their trawler with me for their shake-down cruise. Paul, a career Navy man and engineer, understands more about boats than I’ll ever need to know. He was kind and patient while answering thousands of questions. He didn’t bat an eye when I asked where one could stash a 120-lb. person on his boat. He just started lifting hatches and asked, “Living or dead?” Note to self: Never mess with an engineer.
Trawler Hosts Caryn and Paul Frink
Caryn has been my best friend since grade school. It was a joy to spend time with her and to understand why she loves boating. They completed their first loop while West of Famous was being completed. Their accomplishment was far more daunting than mine by far.
Thanks also to Kimberly Russo, Director of the AGLCA (America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association) for answering all my questions about the AGLCA, otherwise known as Loopers. These intrepid souls live on boats and motor up the east coast, through rivers and the Great Lakes and turn south to travel through waterways down to the Gulf of Mexico. The LOOP the eastern states in boats. What an unusual and close-knit group!
The Loopers play a role in this story.
I pray the story is as exciting to read as it was to create.
When my daughter Jessica joined the Junior Varsity Cheerleading squad in high school, I never suspected how much it would demand of both of us. Sure, the girls cheered at football games and basketball games, but these activities merely fronted for the real action—competitive cheerleading. Not for the poor or faint of heart, competitive cheerleading demanded $800 for uniforms, pom-pons, ribbons, shoes, team socks, and the requisite gallon-size bucket of glitter, on top of two-hour practices six days a week.
The girls took cheerleading seriously, but the cheerleader moms treated the whole thing like a holy mission. Many had been cheerleaders at this same high school not so long ago and longed to cheer again. When I say that the mothers wanted to cheer again, I mean they had their own team.
The premise of the mom team was that we would surprise the girls by performing a cheer for them the night before their first big competition—the State Cheer & Dance Championships in Jacksonville. I was easily ten years older than the other mothers, so the idea of joining a cheerleading team made me laugh. Come on, the mothers begged. You’re not dead yet, they teased. Besides, it’ll be such fun. How hard could it be?
At the first meeting, the coaches assessed our skills. Sure, our tumbling runs included front rolls, one-handed cartwheels, and jumps, but those were as challenging to us as full-twisting back somersaults were for the girls. As a whopping size eight, I was recruited to be a base, that is, to hoist another mom in the air with the help of a partner. The coach announced she would videotape our practices. I seconded the motion for insurance purposes. We held our clandestine practices at the home of one of the coaches. A few of the moms had–let’s call it–new equipment they wanted to display, so they suggested we buy uniforms. The majority voted instead for navy shorts and matching T-shirts. Thank you, thank you. My original equipment did not need to be showcased in tight clothing. Aside from the promise of fun, cheerleading offered a chance to counteract the effects of gravity, so I threw myself into learning to cheer.
The cheer routine seemed as complicated as a music video. I kept colliding with my neighbors because I’d step left when others stepped right. I felt like one of the hippos in Disney’s cartoon classic The Fantasia, if they had been clumsy. Risking injury and loss of dignity, I still wasn’t having the promised fun.
One mom, a size zero who yearned to be mistaken for her daughter’s sister, served as a ‘flyer,’ meaning one of the women hefted overhead. One afternoon, she came to a practice fresh from a massage and since none of us could properly grip her perfectly toned, oiled calves, we kept dropping her. To make the situation worse, the flyer pleaded to the coach for different bases.
Two of us assigned to lifting Mrs. Size Zero had never cheered before and apparently had to be reminded of this dreadful gap in our education. To her we were posers and she felt obligated to call us out. Oh, the shame.
The coach yelled at us, so I asked her to show me how to do it the right way. Hey, I can play stupid. I really enjoyed watching Mrs. Size Zero slide down through the coach’s expert hands. The coach switched to practicing dance steps without another comment. At last, the promise of fun had come through.
We used the same so-called music the girls used for their cheer. Imagine a blaring radio that switches channels every twenty seconds. Add the sounds of glass breaking, horns blaring, highway traffic and rap chants then amplify that noise to the decibel level of a jet engine at takeoff. More than dance, more than gymnastics, cheerleading demanded much from us individually and in teamwork.
Months of preparations culminated in the one and only live performance of the mom team. Never mind the broken elbow suffered by one of the moms—a trooper who continued through the routine—we had survived. We proudly inhaled handfuls of Advil while our hysterically-amused daughters and spouses congratulated us.
The next day Jessica’s High School Junior Varsity girls’ team took second place in the State Cheer & Dance Championships in Jacksonville, Florida. They won first place at the Florida State Fair and second place at the American Open. The Varsity team was equally impressive.
Jessica retired from cheerleading her sophomore year to devote time to a social life and studies. So, at age forty something, having followed my daughter into cheerleading, I followed her out and gleefully retired my pom-pons.
This essay first appeared in Tampa Bay Sounding is a publication of Mensa. I changed the names of the other moms because some of them scared me and might hunt me down.
Since moving to Florida as a Yankee, I’ve learned most things about the native pests the hard way.
While unpacking that first week I learned the two-part horror of what the gentry euphemistically calls a Palmetto bug. The first horror is that it looks like a mutant-size roach, so when one skittered along the floorboard I mistook it for a mouse. Then it ran up the wall. After I crept up to it, with my arm drawn back, shoe in hand, the second horror manifested itself. The mutants fly! It flew at my face and landed in my hair. For a few minutes I flailed on the carpet, smacking my head with the shoe and screaming with my mouth shut. (My brothers witnessed it, so yeah, they will gleefully describe it to others at any opportunity.) Welcome to Florida.
Within the month I learned the Fire Ant Dance. All the craze in this giant sand lot state, the dance begins by standing in one place on a green lawn. You will feel nothing as a legion of the tiny red ants sneaks up your legs. The ants attack with the kind of silent uniform precision that Navy Seals employ. The dance grows frantic in a combination of primal scream therapy and hopping, gyrating, and jerking movements that were popular in the sixties. But the dance doesn’t end when you’ve smashed the last hateful ankle-biter, no, then the itching pustules form to haunt you for days, lingering as tiny souvenirs of this nature encounter. I long considered bug repellent my signature scent.
The most expensive lessons on native insects came after we bought our first home. A Mediterranean style beauty, our first home consumed a decade of savings in the down payment. We were so proud to live in it. So, apparently were the termites. The subterraneans introduced themselves by burrowing up through a microscopic crack in the foundation, up the furring, to poke their tiny pinchers through a pin-point hole in the drywall. A small pile of sawdust was the first clue of their presence. Evicting them meant boring holes in the foundation inside and outside, into the porch, and into the pool deck.
But then their cousins, the drywoods, awoke from their mystic slumber in the lumber and chewed their way down through a door jamb. We had to temporarily move out while the exterminators filled our home with noxious fumes. Our cherished dwelling looked like a circus tent for days. The neighborhood kids gathered to ask if there would be elephants and cotton candy. Again, let me remind the gentle reader that Florida is a giant sand lot, the perfect breeding ground for armies of vicious, well-organized pests.
Without porch screens Florida would be entirely uninhabitable. The mosquito, the state bird, comes in three distinct varieties—the blind, the biting and the oh-dear-Lord size. The blind mosquitoes swarm like gnats, rising in clouds off the lawn in their peculiar three-day life cycle then they die off leaving what looks like black snowdrifts at doorways. The biters, well, the males buzz and don’t bite. The silent females are so aggressive that they will suck blood through leather shoes. The third kind of mosquito might not be a mosquito at all, but it looks like one, only much, much larger. I’ve heard rumors that the State of Florida breeds these giants because they eat the larvae of the biters. The state-sponsored giants look like they can cart off half a pint of blood each, but they are the good guys. Nonetheless, it has taken years to overcome the instinct to swat them.
Spiders bother me the most. Florida is home to the Brown Recluse, the Black Widow, the Banana and many other alarming varieties of toxic web spinners. Sure, they help reduce the mosquito population, but when my shrubs get covered in webs every fall gardening is over until January. I’ve learned to watch for the distinctive zigzag pattern of the Banana Spider’s web. Once I sprayed hornet spray directly on a Banana Spider, saturating him and knocking him off his web. He was back the next day. Chemical warfare was not enough. It took a shovel to prevent him from breeding.
Forget the cute fuzzy caterpillars of children’s books. Florida has poisonous caterpillars wearing Halloween colors. I suppose they become that way because they exfoliate Oleanders, you know, the tourist-killing plants whose straight toxic branches look perfect for roasting marshmallows. These caterpillars transform into red-bellied black moths, not butterflies. It figures.
After twenty winters in Wisconsin and Indiana, I’m in Florida to stay despite the insects, the hurricanes, the alligators and the snakes. I had considered drafting a brochure to warn newcomers about the pests here, but then my neighbor explained that the difference between a Yankee and a Damn Yankee is whether they visit or move here, so that brochure idea quietly vanished. So, welcome to Florida, the state where it is considered sacrilege to point out that the center of tourism is a rodent theme park. Pests? What pests? This is America’s playground and I’m thrilled to live here.
Tampa Bay Sounding, a publication within the high-IQ organization Mensa.