Keeping Score: Cruising along in the Sunshine State

Friday, October 27, 2017

Good morning!

JetBlue Flight 1454 out of Hartford left at 2:23 p.m. and arrived on schedule in Fort Lauderdale. The heavy, humid air hit me at the curb, and during the shuttle ride to Hertz I asked the driver, “How bad was the hurricane?”

He smiled, shook his head, and said in a casual Cuban accent, “A few trees… then they raise the insurance rates.”

Damage from Hurricane Irma was more apparent on the Gulf Coast, but during my travels on the Southeast coast, I saw only one blue-tarped roof, a few crooked sign posts, and nary a collapsed Pizza Hut.

At the rental kiosk, I spoke with a virtual agent standing in front of the Rocky Mountains, or a photo of the Rocky Mountains and declined the extra insurance for $32 a day. It’s always a tossup whether to take the risk, but if I’ve called my insurance agent once in 10 years what are the odds?

The rental companies are highly competitive, and it had paid to compare rates. Enterprise wanted $710 including Sirius-XM for a full-sized vehicle, but Hertz offered the same deal for $435.

Out on the Hertz parking level, I chose a white Impala V-6 — white — because scratch marks don’t show up as easily as they do on darker vehicles. Behind the wheel I fidgeted with the radio, adjusted the rearview mirrors and punched the trip button on the odometer.  It showed seven miles on the odometer; I was getting the new car experience.

The interstates were clogged with rush-hour traffic, so I motored leisurely northbound up Route 1 past Turners Falls icon George F. Bush’s winter bungalo and signs for psychic palm readings, vape shops, mattress stores and the Egg N’ You Diner.

I wheeled left onto Glades Boulevard in Boca Raton, parked at a Shake Shack across from Florida Atlantic University, and ordered a cheeseburger to go. 

This was a mini-vacation to celebrate the end of 44 radiation treatments for prostate cancer. After two months and five-days-a-week of 180-mile round trips to the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., it was time to get off schedule and relax.

In July, I joined Marriott’s rewards program and got three nights for the price of two in Stuart, where my room was quiet and the pillows were comfortable. My first stop the next morning was to Raw Juice on PGA Boulevard in North Palm Beach. 

The high-priced nature hut sells coconut water that costs $12, but it’s addictive. I knocked back a swallow of the freshly cracked coconut water and watched chunks of white meat swirl in the bottle. I bought three more, put them on ice and left for the beach to watch the fishing boats and cargo ships move on the horizon.

In Stuart, I stopped at an over-50 trailer park named Natalie Estates and visited my former winter neighbors Bobby Carr and John Joyner, who picked up a half-smoked stogie, took a few puffs and ripped into his neighbor. “I drove him to the gas station yesterday and he said he forgot his wallet. He asked me for money… I gave him two dollars!”

“You got those ghost ants in your place?” asked Carr, who’s from Everett and yearns for housing back home so he can get out of the broken down trailer where he’s living. “Those ants are everywhere! I picked my glasses off the table and they’d walked up the frames! I’m brushing ’em out of my hair!”

The living’s easier over the line in Martin County. The gas prices are lower and residents aren’t out to impress people like they do in Palm Beach County. My friend Jayne Johnson moved to Palm City from Singer Island two years after her husband died to be closer to her daughter Jayme and son-in-law Jeff Golden.

This summer, the Golden’s took their teenagers Jordyn and Jayce on a whirlwind tour of New England. They went to the Basketball Hall of Fame and made stops in Newport and Boston. They stopped for a visit on their way to Williamstown where Jordyn was leaving on a two-week bicycle trip through Vermont (albeit reluctantly).

I promised Jayce I’d be down to see one of his high school football games. The first schoolboy football game in Florida was reportedly played in Pensacola in 1905. Martin County High School’s not far behind, starting in 1926. The school has 2,039 students in Grades 9-12, putting them in the second-highest competitive bracket, Class 7-A.

The football field is behind the school and seats about 1,000 fans on the home side and 500 on the visitors’. It cost $5 to park, $5 to get in and $5 for a loose-leafed binder called an Ad Book. You can’t tell the players without an Ad Book — nor the coaches, players, cheerleaders, dance team members, majorettes and musicians.

A perennnial .500 team, the Tigers changed coaches after last season and hired 63-year-old Bill Cubit. A heretofore college football lifer, Cubit owns a home in the school district and said he was ready to give back to the community. Whatever his motives, it wasn’t for the money. The Jacksonville Times-Union reported two years ago that the average salary for a Florida high school football coach was $4,383.

And if Cubit’s nine assistants make anything, it’s probably under $600, so they won’t have to pay the income tax.

Everyone was telling me, “You shouldda been here last week.”

The opponent, Viera High School, had a speedy tailback, a strong-armed quarterback, and a kicker named Trey Schaneville who booted every extra point and field goal high over the cross bar.

Cubit could handle X’s and O’s, but couldn’t catch the passes or carry the pigskin. After Viera went three-and-out and punted on its first series, the Tigers fumbled and Viera scored. It was that kind of night.

Thankfully, Jayce’s tackles garnered enough mention on the PA system to soften the blow of the 49-0 blowout.

The next morning I drove west past “Proud to be American” lawn signs to Port Mayacca and up SR-98 past rustic homes, battered trailers and creaky outboards. Lake Okeechobee loomed on the other side of the Hoover Dike. The 110-mile loop was built after flood surges from hurricanes killed thousands in 1926 and 1928.

Beyond the lake, the highway bisected sod farms, cattle pastures and farm communities. A sign in one yard said, “Baby pigs for sale.”

Two days later, I was with my college roommate Pete Dailey, driving along the Braden River when he said, “Ah, crap.”

Linger Lodge was closed for renovations and wouldn’t re-open until after Thanksgiving. The story will have to wait, but Dailey said it’s a restaurant where “alligators come right to the door” and the walls are festooned with alligators and snakes that were hung by the previous owner, a taxidermist.

I’ve never been to the Arcadia Rodeo or Watermelon Festival, but each time I drive through town, I like it a little more. Its decadent architecture gives it character, and the jet fighter aircraft next to the pond was worth stopping to photograph.

On the other side of town, the tiny Country Cafe was nearly hidden under the shadow of a McDonald’s billboard. Outside, a few scraggly bougainvillea scraped against the beige wall, and the inside had space for only four chairs at the counter.

I took a seat next to a window and saw a painting of a cow looking at me, its big nose, brown eyes and wide ears nearly poking through the unframed canvas. Horse shoes and cutting shears were tacked to the walls and a porcelain pig sat on a shelf inside a tall kitchen cabinet.

I ordered coffee and lunch and opened the USA Today I’d grabbed from the hotel lobby. My hamburger steak, mashed potatoes, string beans, onions and gravy cost $8.55, plus tip.

Two days later, my son Mat was preparing to drive Sandy Williams’ truck from Deerfield to Florida. When I mentioned lunch in Arcadia he exclaimed, “Arcadia? That’s where I’m going.”

After pineapple upside down cake and coffee at Gladys’ on the Park in Okeechobee, I gassed up a half-mile from the airport and dropped off the Impala.

After 700 miles through the heart of Florida, there wasn’t a scratch to be seen.

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley. He can be reached by email at sports@recorder.com.