Keeping Score: Climate change
Grandchildren make Christmas fun so I didn’t leave for Florida until after the presents were opened and my daughter April had given me the good-to-go sign. It was nearly midnight when I pulled into a Country Inn outside Fredericksburg, Va., 475 miles from home.
I’ve driven to the south enough times to have seen my share of “Even Jesus Had a Fish Story” bumper stickers and taken note of enough historical markers of the ilk that on this North Carolina site in 1906, “The Apostle of the South, G.B. Cashwell led a great Pentecostal revival.”
Now I just wanted to get in and out of the Carolinas, but the bumper-to-bumper traffic was turning it into a refugee march. Florida is the only state east of the Mississippi with any semblance of warm weather. It has theme parks, golf courses and beaches. It is the New Jersey of the Caribbean, affordable and accessible, and anybody who dreads winter and has decent tread on their tires was tripping back to summer.
South of Savannah I left the interstate and was driving west on the Liberty Trail looking at a freight train rolling eastward past a sprawling fiber mill when a late model SUV swerved into my lane and sped past, followed by two police cars. The driver pulled into a Huddle House parking lot but probably didn’t get any consideration for using her turn signal.
That was it for excitement until I reached Waycross — home of the Bubba Burger and Billy Beer — and stopped at Captain Joe’s Seafood Restaurant for dinner and pecan pie.
“Y’all from around here or just travelin’?” asked the waitress.
“Travelin’,” I answered.
“Bad place to travel to,” she drawled.
When I asked why, she answered, “There’s nothin’ around here.”
Well, there were mobile homes and houses converted into makeshift churches next to firearms stores with catchy names like “Girls with Guns,” and Earl’s Trailer Park was south of Homersville on the Okefenokee Trail, named after the largest swamp in North America. It was there that I turned onto U.S. Rte. 441, newly paved and open highway, straight, dark and desolate until a sign appeared in the distance. “Welcome to Florida,” it said. “Open for Business.”
The first Florida town where weary vacationers can get off I-75 and hole up for a night is Lake City, the hometown of Florida State nose tackle Timmy Jernigan and NFL notables like Pat Summerall, Gerard Warren and Jerome Carter. Downtown was deserted the night I arrived and the local haunts like Shirley’s Restaurant were being overlooked for the franchises like Applebee’s and LongHorn Steakhouse. I stayed at a Country Inn and ate at a Red Lobster, where the staff was patronizing and the scallops tasted like tofu.
The weather was rough during my stay, cold and cloudy, and I decided not to drive to High Springs to see the clear streams renowned for freshwater swimming and kayaking. East of Lake City In the Osceola National Forest is the Olustee Battlefield where Union and Confederate troops fought it out 150 years ago.
Florida, I learned, was the third state to secede from the Union but wasn’t a major player in war effort until the fall of Vicksburg when the Confederate Army needed a new source and supply route for beef, cotton and timber.
Union troops were in nearby Jacksonville because Lincoln wanted Florida back for political reasons, and General Seymour Truman took it upon himself to march 5,500 troops west to seize the railroad bridge at Lake City, unaware that his Confederate counterpart General Joseph Finegan was heavily reinforced with troops sent from Savannah.
The two armies converged at Olustee Station, and the Union soldiers took a whipping. Almost 2,000 were killed, wounded or went missing compared to under 1,000 Confederates killed or wounded.
The battlefield’s entrance is located off Route 90 in a cleared out section of pine forest. A white cross marks where the Union dead are buried and two cannons face the highway under the shadow of a 35-foot granite monument that was erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1904.
I walked along a circular one-mile path and paused at the message boards that provided an overview of the daylong battle. “Sharpshooters were observed perched but a few volleys brought them down,” Luis F. Emilio wrote in his book “The History of the 54th Massachusetts” that detailed the exploits of the Union’s first African American regiment.
Thinking he was up against only a few rebels, Seymour sent his troops in piecemeal until, like a desperate poker player, he went all in. A Confederate soldier said that what began as “a stubborn fight at close range,” became a rout after a trainload of reinforcements arrived with a cannon mounted on a flat car. “We shot a large shell every five minutes, devastating the Union troops.”
The battle hardened 115th New York Infantry was the last to retreat. Author James H. Clarke wrote in his book “The Iron Hearted Regiment” that they turned and confronted the enemy and “After giving three ringing cheers of defiance to the rebels they slowly and sadly dragged themselves away. More than half were killed or wounded and the remainder were black with the powder and smoke of battle and could hardly move.”
The following morning a soldier of the 2nd Florida Cavalry walked amidst the carnage. “I saw men with their brains blown out and mangled and then our men commenced stripping them of their clothing and left their bodies naked. I never want to go on the field again after it’s over.”
The next day I walked along a birding trail in the national forest and crossed the railroad tracks onto an old logging road. On the walk back I spotted a white cross, five feet high and four feet across, with a crumpled Confederate flag lying next to it. The cross was surrounded by Christmas lights. It bore no markings, name or date. Later a Lake City cop told me it had been a suicide. “There’s been a couple out there,” he said.
In the morning, I left to visit friends in Sarasota and took the old road past shuttered motels and restaurants that couldn’t compete with the franchises. I drove over the Santa Fe River and through ranch country where a cowboy was herding cattle. A few miles further a farmer was selling watermelons from the back of his pickup truck. Soon enough I’d be back in the Florida that’s pockmarked by strip malls and stoplights, but for now I was enjoying the ride.
Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.