“You’ve got drugs and guns and fraud and family strife and garbage – and in all the garbage, an entirely unexpected treasure that makes it all worthwhile. But you’ve got to hunt for it.”
“Oh, Florida! How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country” by Craig Pittman (2016)
Members of my family have been going to Florida for years. Their work in this country was seasonal so, more than just vacationing in Florida, they really lived there for half the year. Subsequently, I have been blessed with many opportunities over the years to spend time in the Sunshine State. This is a book review so I’ll try to keep this brief but I’ve always felt that Florida had some sort of a stink on it; people think it’s not really cool or all that tropical. It’s just rednecks and old people. Just let me say the time I have spent there has shown me otherwise. But then again…
Returning from a recent vacation on the Atlantic coast, I was back home where winter was in it’s death throes and I was looking for “Florida-type” diversion. This could take the form of a nautical-themed book, some Jimmy Buffett albums or a beach party movie. What I stumbled on was a very unique podcast. Florida Frontiers is a weekly podcast put out by the Florida Historical Society that presents three segments each episode that deal with a certain event, person or place in Florida’s history. I wondered if the show would ‘latch’ with me and was pleasantly surprised that it did. Virtually every episode leaves me fascinated by yet another tale of the history of this unique state. One segment presented Craig Pittman and his book Oh! Florida. I went to my go-to spot for book purchases – Abe Books – and bought it.
In a nutshell, Pittman’s book attempts to do what the title suggests; state the case that Florida’s unique characteristics make for unique people who do unique things. These things seem to catch on and spread throughout the country. Pittman is a journalist with the Tampa Bay Times and so he has for years been privy to many outlandish things that have occurred throughout the state. He has collected all of this madness and he makes an excellent case. Indeed, while I was reading I was making notes; I felt like I needed to check up on these ridiculous things he was telling me. But I learned that, in Florida, ridiculous things are legion.
I learned many things, including: in Florida there are 65,000 licensed drivers that are 91 years of age and older, 455 over 100. In 1999, ten thousand school children wanted to change the state bird from the mockingbird to the Florida scrub jay because, in part, the scrub jay is gentle and will eat out of your hand. Legislators shot that down by saying “Begging for food isn’t sweet. It’s lazy and it’s a welfare mentality”. I learned that a university student once asked John Kerry an inappropriate question and was tackled to the floor. When police got their tasers out, the student yelled “Don’t tase me, bro!”, creating a viral meme. That one I had missed and had to Google. Yep, it really happened.
I learned that the first American soldier to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor in World Ward 2 was from Florida and the pilot who flew over Hiroshima and dropped the A-Bomb grew up in Florida. During the war, DDT was first tested in Orlando. It proved effective in killing mosquitos and roaches – and a whole lot else.
I learned that NASA set up shop on the Atlantic coast in part because of the year-round favourable climate and Cape Canaveral’s proximity to the equator. I learned that Florida and/or Floridians are responsible for such things as the National Enquirer and USA Today, Gatorade, streaking, air conditioning and plastic surgery. I learned that in Miami in 1933 Giuseppe Zangara tried to kill FDR but failed. Zangara features in alternate history novels such as The Man in the High Castle which speculate on the turn world events would’ve taken had Zangara not stood on a rickety chair and had been successful.
I was floored by a couple things. NASCAR was started in Daytona Beach by one man, Bill France. To this day, his family owns it. Owns NASCAR. This multi-billion dollar enterprise is privately owned. Imagine MLB or the NHL or the NFL being owned by one family.
The other thing has to do with Florida’s Seminole Indian tribe. They once owned land not controlled by the state so the tribe built casinos on this land. When the money started to roll, the Seminoles cut the state in. Eventually, the Seminole tribe became so flush that they bought the Hard Rock Cafe chain. To this day, they own the multi-national hotel chain that brings in an estimated $625 million. Annually. Every year.
This book is very “Florida”. If you’re back from a holiday in the Sunshine State lamenting your return to the tundra this book is a good way to extend the vibe. My man Craig writes with humour and keeps you engaged. He gives proper respect, though, when describing Florida’s role in the Civil Rights Movement (Google “Rosewood” or “Monson Motor Lodge”) but, for my tastes, gets a tad too political when discussing Florida’s politicians. Pittman does well sharing Florida’s “excited delirium” and this is a good read.