Lessons from a Civil Rights Pioneer

I finished reading a book recently titled, “All the Way Home”, by Ann Tatlock. It tells the story of two women who experience the challenges of racism and the cruel behaviors that often accompany white nationalism. The first half of the book takes place in California near the beginning of World War Two and depicts the struggle of Japanese Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The second half takes place in rural Mississippi in 1965 and paints a stark picture of the treatment of African Americans in the Jim Crow south, especially their struggle to realize the right to vote. It was a good read.

As I was nearing the end of the book the other evening, I turned to my wife, Rachel, and told her that the author had just written about a civil rights icon from rural Mississippi named, Fannie Lou Hamer. Not only was she an actual civil rights leader from the 1960’s and 70’s, but I had spent a week in 1971 staying across the street from her modest home and sitting in her living room every evening, listening to Fannie Lou and her husband, Pap, tell stories about their difficult but amazing lives. There were still bullet holes in the walls facing the street. In 1971, violence directed at civil rights leaders in Mississippi was not something from the distant past. I’ll share more about Fannie Lou Hamer in a bit. But first, I’ll try to explain what brought me to be sitting on her living room floor along with a bunch of other idealistic young people that Spring.

In the Summer of 1970 I was getting ready for my junior year in high school. Richard Nixon was the president. The military draft/lottery was still in full-swing and impacted most families. My brother, Bill, just two years older than me, had enlisted in the Navy and was in basic training in Illinois. He would begin his first tour of duty in Viet Nam a few months later. My brother, Jerry, was working for the Wisconsin National Guard and had trained as an Army nurse. My oldest brother, John, had enlisted in the Air Force following college and was stationed in San Angelo, Texas, learning to use radio equipment. The Air Force had sent him to school to learn Chinese and would eventually send him to Taiwan. His job would be to listen for interesting radio messages being broadcast from mainland China. John reports that there weren’t any.

It was a turbulent time in Madison, Wisconsin, with protests in the streets and student strikes on campus. In August of that Summer, Sterling Hall, a building on the UW campus that housed the Army Math Research Center, was bombed, killing a graduate student. The bombing was carried out by four college-aged men living in Madison. More than any other time in my young life, it felt like the world was falling apart.

Some of my closest friends at school were from the debate team. About half were in my class and the others, the class next older. We thought of ourselves as worldly intellectuals. We read books and the daily papers. We kept up with happenings at the university and spent lots of our free-time on campus. We attended some meetings of student groups opposed to the war and even tried to organize a student union in the Madison area high schools. Through a summer debate camp (yes, they really did have summer camps for debaters) I got to know several students from Madison West High School. They shared many of my ideas, dreams, and anxieties about the future. And I thought they were very cool. Several of them were involved in an organization called, Young World Development. YWD was a non-profit organization, formed to fight global hunger. It seemed to be led by students, and they were in the beginning stages of organizing a huge fundraiser. Over the course of a few weeks, I attended some meetings, did a bunch of volunteer work, and put my debate and public speaking skills to good use.

The leadership of YWD was made up mostly of students from the west-side high schools. I think they wanted to diversify and expand into some of the east-side schools. They asked me to take on a leadership position for the event. So, at the age of 15, I joined with a young man named, Rick Kreutzer, as the Co-coordinators of the 1970 “Walk for Development”. I had never had a part-time job. I didn’t have a driver’s license. I didn’t have much of an idea of what I was getting myself into. But fighting hunger seemed like a good quest. And I think I mentioned, the people seemed really cool.

Looking back on the experience, I am amazed at what our group of enthusiastic, young volunteers was able to accomplish. There was no “adult” infrastructure or supervision. There were no paid employees. All leadership was provided by high school students, and we operated like a small company. Committees were established to conduct the complex work required to pull off a major fundraising event. These included fund raising, finance, media and public relations, walk mechanics, and community development. The fundraising efforts would put most non-profits to shame, especially in the area of obtaining in-kind donations. A commercial real estate company helped us find donated office space in downtown Madison. The telephone company donated a phone system and multiple lines. Madison Gas and Electric covered all other utilities. Local businesses donated furniture, copying equipment, and office supplies. I should mention that the Chair of the Community Development Committee was a senior from Madison Memorial High School named, Sue Dodge. Some of my friends and readers may know her!

The Walk for Development was a 30-mile fundraising walk. Participants would get monetary pledges for each mile they completed. A route was designed that wound through most Madison-area municipalities. Permits were required by each city, and close cooperation was required with the various police departments. This was essential since our goal was to get 10,000 people to walk. That would be the largest event of this type in Madison’s history.

Over the course of the summer, we interviewed non-profit organizations interested in being the beneficiaries of our hard work. Sometimes organizations would visit our office to make a presentation to our leadership team (all students). Sometimes we traveled to other cities or states to visit and evaluate programs. Our goal was to raise $100,000.00 and divide it between three projects. There would be one local project, one national project, and one international project. In the end, the local project was a Madison food co-op. The international project was helping build a school in Tanzania. The national project chosen was the Freedom Farm Cooperative in Sunflower County, Mississippi. Sunflower County was one of the poorest counties in the United States, and the person who started the Freedom Farm Cooperative was Fannie Lou Hamer.

Fannie Lou Hamer
Fannie Lou Hamer

The Walk for Development was held on a sunny Sunday in October. We reached our goal of 10,000 walkers. The walk started at Breese Stevens Field, a sports stadium on East Washington Avenue in Madison. I had the honor of welcoming the walkers and introducing U.S. Representative Robert Kastenmeier, who said a few words of encouragement and sent us on our way. I walked the 30 miles with a friend, David Clarenbach. Dave was the Chair of the PR Committee and was a natural salesman. He would later become the youngest person ever elected to the Wisconsin State Legislature, and a few years later would make an unsuccessful run for the U.S. House of Representatives. It took us all day to complete the route. We stopped for a quick bowl of chili at my house in Monona. For years afterward, Mom would talk about fixing lunch for David Clarenbach, before he became famous.

During Spring break in 1971, I traveled with a small group of people to Ruleville, in Sunflower County, Mississippi to visit the Freedom Farm Cooperative. We had the chance to see how our donation was being put to use in purchasing farm equipment. We also brought tools of our own and spent a few days helping repair some older homes in the community. We were put up by local residents. The older woman I stayed with lived across the street from Fannie Lou Hamer and her husband, Pap. In the evenings after dinner, we would gather at Fannie Lou’s home and spread out across the braided, living room rug. Fannie Lou would share stories about growing up as the youngest of 20 children, in a sharecropper family on a cotton plantation. She described having to drop out of school at the age of 12 to work in the cotton fields. Fannie talked about her experiences in the early civil rights movement, fighting to register to vote and being shot at, arrested, and beaten because of her activities. We were amazed that she had gone from being denied the basic right to vote in the early 1960’s, to running as a democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, a few years later. We learned about the forming of the Freedom Farm Cooperative and the work to change the economic model and improve the employment opportunities for agricultural workers in the region. For me as a sheltered high school student from a comfortable suburban community, this was an eye-opening experience.

Fannie Lou Hamer died in 1977, at the age of 59.

Rachel and I talk almost every day about the troubled times that we live in. We are bombarded by news stories about climate change, gun violence, racism, white nationalism, and corruption of our nation’s leaders. Sometimes it feels kind of hopeless. What can two people do that will impact on the myriad of problems that we face? But then I think about the accomplishments of a group of idealistic kids from Madison, Wisconsin. There are groups of kids organizing campaigns today to curb gun violence and to protect our planet. Maybe we can help the young people lead!

I also think about the courage, perseverance, and wisdom of a simple woman from rural Mississippi. There is a whole crop of new, progressive political leaders, ready to take up the mantle of civil rights pioneers like Fannie Lou Hamer.

Maybe there is still hope!

We are the champions!

Everyone has their favorite sports memories. They might be memories of being a player, coach, or spectator. I’ll never forget watching with my dad and brothers, as the Green Bay Packers won their first two Super Bowls. Another thrill was watching my son Dan play football in middle school. He was the team’s wide receiver, safety, and punter, and in his spare time, returned kickoffs and punts. They didn’t win many games, but it sure was fun cheering them on. As happens sometimes, Dan tore his ACL twice in eighth grade, ending my hopes for his professional career. I don’t think Dan had really worried much about that.

Rachel and I had a special sports experience recently that I would like to share. For almost a decade, we have been watching the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team when we could catch them on television. Their program has earned a reputation of being among the best in the history of college sports. As I write this, the UConn head coach, Geno Auriemma, has a record of 1055 wins and 138 losses in his 34 seasons at UConn. He holds the records for the most national championships (11) and most undefeated seasons (6) of any college coach.

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For the last four years, we have felt a special connection with the team. While working in St. Louis for SSM Health, Rachel hired and supervised a medical practice director named, Sarah Collier. Sarah’s daughter, Napheesa had been the Missouri girl’s basketball player-of-the-year for 2013, 2014, and 2015. She had been recruited by UConn and was about to start her freshman season. For the last four years, we have enjoyed watching Napheesa develop into one of the best players in the country and one of the team’s leaders. Here are a few of her accomplishments.

* 5th on UConn’s all-time scoring list with over 2200 points
* 5th on UConn’s all-time rebounding list with over 1000 rebounds
* To date, a career record at UConn of 138 wins and 4 losses, playing in all games
* Semifinalist for the 2019 Naismith national player-of-the-year award

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A few weeks ago, I read in the paper that UConn would be playing their last regular season game in Tampa at the beginning of March. It would be an American Athletic Conference game against the University of South Florida. UConn joined the conference six years ago, and their conference record is 102-0. We had watched UConn play USF earlier in the season, and USF was a competitive team. Many of their players had been recruited from foreign countries. The roster included players from Denmark, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and even three from Latvia.

Rachel contacted Sarah and asked if she and her husband would be attending the game. Sarah replied that they were going to wait and see if the girls made it to the NCAA Final Four that would also be played in Tampa in a few weeks. Sarah did offer that Napheesa could arrange for us to receive “player’s family and guest tickets”. We would be able to sit with other player’s families and guests, behind the UConn bench.

On the day of the game, we made the one-hour drive from Sarasota to Tampa, arriving a few hours before the 7:00 game. We checked into our hotel near the USF campus. We walked about a mile to the Yuengling Center, a spacious, dome structure in the center of campus. We were the first in line at the will-call window for player’s family and friends. We were joined by two older gentlemen wearing UConn sweatshirts. They asked which player we were with and we proudly told them that we were guests of Napheesa. One of the men told us that his daughter was Shea Ralph, one of UConn’s assistant coaches. Over the next twenty minutes we learned all about Shea’s basketball accomplishments. She had been the USA Today national player-of-the-year in high school. She played her college ball at UConn and was the captain of the 2000 national championship team. Shea had been an assistant coach under Geno for the last eleven years.

As promised, our seats were behind the UConn bench, six rows up from courtside. Everyone around us was dressed in UConn navy blue. We laughed that most looked to be grandparent-aged rather than parent-aged. This was Florida, after all. It was fun to watch the players warm up. We were disappointed to see that one of the two seniors, Katie Lou Samuelson, was not dressed for the game. She had experienced back spasms following a collision with another player in her last game. At least she was there with her teammates, providing encouragement.

The game started in an unusual way. I had asked Rachel to try to take a picture of Napheesa jumping for the opening tip-off. As we watched, Napheesa got in her stance to jump for the toss, but when the ball went up, only the USF player left the ground. Napheesa just watched. A USF player caught the ball and ran down for an easy lay-up. The UConn players seemed to be moving in slow motion. The fans around us seemed confused, and some were complaining about the lackadaisical defense. A moment later, Crystal Dangerfield, a UConn guard, dribbled the length of the court and made an uncontested lay-up. This time, the USF players seemed to be standing around watching.

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We learned later that Geno Auriemma and USF’s coach, Jose Fernandez had conspired to arrange a final basket for a sidelined USF senior. Laura Ferreira had been diagnosed with a heart rhythm disorder in January, a career ending event. She scored the final basket of her USF career on Senior Night, the final home game of the season. Since both teams scored uncontested baskets, the game would commence on an even basis.

The game was fun to watch, with many lead changes. UConn started slowly and was down by as many as eleven points in the first half. The USF fans were loud and enthusiastic, watching their Bulls take the lead from the number two team in the country. At the half UConn was behind by five points.

Sitting close to the team afforded an interesting view of the game. I was struck by the way the players and coaches communicated with each other. During time-outs, players huddled around Geno, who sat in the center of the circle on a folding chair. With a clipboard in his hand, he went over plays and strategies. He remained calm, but focused. During play, he sometimes showed frustration when a player missed an easy basket, or a referee called a foul that he didn’t see. Most of the time, frustration was directed at the other coaches, not the players. Once, after a questionable call, Geno walked down the bench, past all of the players and coaches. He stood alone, staring away from the game. He looked like he was trying to keep his emotions in check.

Coach

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Emotional support and motivation came more from the players than the coaches. Player huddles happened not just between quarters, but at most every break in play. Older, more experienced players coached the younger players. The younger players were attentive and appeared eager for the guidance. Katie Lou Samuelson took on the role of a player/coach. She was the clear leader in the player huddles, sometimes with the starting five and sometimes with the entire team. She frequently jumped out of her chair to yell instructions. The referees had to cue her a few times to sit back down.

Despite shooting only 37% from the floor and 76% from the free throw line, the UConn women pulled it out at the end. A surge of 10 points in the fourth quarter by a freshman, Christyn Williams, led to a 57 to 47 win. Napheesa ended the game with 16 points and four rebounds, a so-so performance for her. I joked with Rachel that if she had made most of her field goal attempts, she would have scored at least 50 points. With Katie Lou stuck on the bench, Napheesa had a lot of weight on her shoulders.

This was the final game of the regular season, and UConn ended with a 28 and 2 record. They were ranked number two in the country going into post-season play. With Katie Lou back in the line-up, they should be in a good position going into the AAC and NCAA tournaments. If they make the final four in April, maybe Rachel and I will make a return trip to Tampa to cheer them on in the women’s college championship!

Addendum, April 11, 2019

UConn went on to win the AAC Conference Championship. Katie Lou did not play in the series because of her back. Napheesa was named conference Player-of-the-Year and to the All-American First Team. In the NCAA Tournament, UConn made it to the national semi-final game, where they lost to Notre Dame, 81 to 76. On April 10, 2019 Napheesa was selected in the first round of the WNBA Draft by the Minnesota Lynx. Katie Lou Samuelson was selected in the first round by the Chicago Sky. The two UConn leaders will face each other on the court for the first time in May.

A Surprise at the Doctor’s Office

Following our move, I have been getting set up with a new set of doctors in Sarasota. Yesterday I had my “get to know you” appointment with my new primary care doctor. He went to medical school at the University of Nebraska. They are in the Big Ten now, so I figured we would hit it off. I guessed that he would be young. He joined the Sarasota Memorial practice in 2018, after completing his residency.

Doctor S. knocked at the exam room door and came in the room. He looked younger than my children, but at least he had facial hair. He settled himself in front of the computer screen and keyboard and began going through my new patient questionnaire. He had to enter the information into the template of the electronic medical record. He went through my medical history. A medical assistant had taken my blood pressure and weighed me. The doctor looked into my ears and mouth, and listened to my breathing.

After the brief exam, Doctor S. sat back and told me that everything looked pretty good. They would monitor my cholesterol. I wasn’t due for a colonoscopy until next year. My vaccines were up to date. The only thing he was going to put on the problem list was, “obesity”. I paused and looked over at him. “Obesity?”

Doctor S. proceeded to explain the Body Mass Index System (BMI) and how it did a calculation based on your height and weight. The results would classify you as underweight, healthy, overweight, or obese. He calmly reported that my results put me in the obese category. I was shocked. I was embarrassed. How could I not have noticed that I had become obese? I wanted to challenge him, but I felt overwhelmed. I meekly asked, “How much did I weigh?” He looked at the screen and replied, “163”. Wow, I didn’t remember ever weighing that much, so maybe he was right.

I left the office holding a sheet of paper I was to take to the lab for a blood draw. They test lots of different things in the blood to make sure the patient is healthy. On the paper, in black and white, it said, “Diagnosis: obesity, unspecified”. I imagined that now I would always carry that label.

Rachel listened to me that evening and did her best to console me. Then she powered up her computer and did a Google-search for BMI. Rachel entered my height and weight into a BMI calculator. Low and behold, it came up with a BMI of 23. That was right in the middle of the healthy category. I felt my anxiety reduce. Maybe there had been some kind of mistake.

The next morning I set up a “patient portal” on the hospital’s website. I could now review my records and communicate with my doctor via email. I took a look at the report from my visit with Doctor S. There it was. “Weight: 163. Height: 60 inches”. I did a quick calculation. I was taller than 60 inches. By gosh, I was at least 70 inches! That must be the cause of the confusion, a simple data entry error. I sent Doctor S. a message, alerting him to the error. The site says that I will get a response within three days. Until then, I guess I’ll just have to live with my new label.

So it goes.

I looked for an appropriate picture to go with this story. I didn’t find a good one of me, but I did find one that seemed to fit the topic of Body Mass Index. I took the photo at a naked bike ride in Seattle a few years ago. Thanks, brother John!

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“Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?”

So, I have a question. What scares you more than anything else? What makes your skin crawl, the hair on your arms and neck stand straight up, and your heart race? I’m with Indiana Jones, the lead character in Raiders of the Lost Arc, a great film released in 1981. “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?”

I had a close encounter of the slithering kind this week, and it hit too close to home. Rachel and I had encountered snakes around our property in St. Louis. Our house was surrounded by woods and open spaces on three sides, and we shared the environment with a variety of critters. We saw snakes from time to time sunning themselves on the lower patio or on the walkways. I had a terrifying adventure with a large black snake in our garage. When we decided to move to Sarasota, we knew that snakes were part of the ecosystem. I had commented to a neighbor recently that after six months I had yet to see a snake, even though I had spent considerable time outdoors working on our landscaping. The neighbor counseled me to not let my guard down and reminded me that encounters with dangerous snakes were commonplace and usually did not end well.

During our first month in Sarasota, a small alligator took up residence for a week or so, in the lake adjoining our back yard. We would see him floating in the lake and sometimes sunning himself on the bank in our yard. I watched the hunter from the Fish and Game Department capture him one Saturday morning. I remember feeling more curious than afraid as I watched him, and he was five or six feet long. Maybe it was the screen door that separated us that made me feel only a bit uneasy.

Gator 2-24-2018

Back to snakes! On Tuesday morning I spent about three hours working on the landscaping. I spread mulch, trimmed bushes, and pulled weeds. I spent time standing, sitting, squatting, and kneeling. I saw several small lizards, a few squirrels, and a variety of birds. By the time I was finished, my clothes were filthy and soaked with sweat. I kicked off my garden shoes in the garage, walked through the house to the master bedroom and undressed, leaving my wet clothes in my walk-in closet. I’d wash them later in the morning. I walked back to our lanai (pool enclosure) and took a refreshing dip in the pool. Nothing feels better after exertion in the hot Florida sun.

After the swim I returned to the master bedroom to take a shower. As I was entering the bathroom, I caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned and looked down at the brown laminate floor. The lighting was not very good at this spot. A small, dark brown snake was moving slowly out of my closet and into the entryway shared with the bathroom. He was about the same shade of brown as the floor. I likely would not have noticed him if he had not been moving. He was pencil-thin and about eight inches long. But even a small, slithering snake scares the crap out of me, especially when taken by surprise.

My response was sheer terror. I could sense changes in my heart-rate and breathing. I had worked with patients at Sarasota Memorial Hospital who had suffered heart attacks while trying to capture snakes in their homes. Now I understood how that could happen! I stood still, staring at him. He looked like he was doing the same to me. Time sort of froze. I was naked. I had minimal tools at my disposal. I had no plan. I could run to the garage to find something to help corral him or whack him. But what if he disappeared while I was gone? That could drag this nightmare out for hours. I imagined calling Rachel. “Oh hi, Sweetie. I thought I’d mention that there is a snake loose somewhere in the house. He’s either somewhere in the bedroom, or maybe in your closet. Have a nice day!” Not seeing anything else to grab, I picked up a medium-sized bath towel and threw it on top of him. I tried to pick it and him up, but he slithered out onto the floor. I needed a better plan.

The snake made his way to a corner, under a vanity and stayed still for a minute. I needed some kind of better tool, so I took a risk. I ran to the kitchen and pulled two large plastic glasses from the cupboard. I ran back to the bedroom and was relieved to see that he was still where I left him. Without hesitation, I knelt down in front of the beast and scooped him into one of the plastic cups. I felt quite brave. I used the second cup to cover the first. It was a challenge to keep the edges sealed. I ran to the front door which was the closest point of egress. With careful effort I disengaged the deadbolt and opened one of the front doors. I ran out on the front sidewalk and tossed him into the front lawn. As I look back on it, it did not even cross my mind that I was naked. I don’t think any of the neighbors were outside to witness my crazy antics.

Before I did anything else, I did a quick inspection of the bedroom, bathroom, and closets. I did not find any other intruders. Later, I settled down at the computer and did a search for, “What do you do if you find a snake in your home?” The first piece of advice from the experts was that it was critical to determine whether the intruder was a poisonous snake. If it was, you were advised to leave it alone, close the door to the room to contain it, and call a professional. If you were unsure, the advice was to treat it as if it was poisonous. Even bites by little poisonous snakes were possibly dangerous.

The articles listed a variety of household tools that could prove helpful if you were planning to go on a game hunt in your home. The first suggestion was to simply sweep it out the nearest door with a regular broom. Another idea was to sweep the snake into a plastic bin and place the top on during transport. An even simpler strategy was to just place the bin on top of the snake and weigh it down with a heavy object. That way the varmint is secured while you call for help.

I did a search through our closets and garage and identified several tools for future snake roundups. I pulled out a large plastic bin and a sturdy paper box, both with tight-fitting lids. I found brooms of different lengths, including a pool broom that extended to 20 feet or more, in case I wanted to keep my distance. To add to my arsenal I did a search on amazon.com for sturdy nets, designed to catch insects, birds, and fish. The one I selected said that it was good for garter snakes as well.

One of the internet articles discussed how snakes sneak into your house. The author shared his opinion that they rarely come in the house, hiding in packages, clothing, or grocery bags. He said that most of the time they are quite small and come in through holes and cracks in the foundation or around windows and doors. Even with that information, my best guess is still that I brought my unwanted guest in myself. I had spent several hours working outside in his habitat. I bet he fell from a branch or crawled in a pocket. From now on I’ll be more observant when coming in from working in the yard. Maybe I’ll strip naked and shake out my clothes before entering the house. That should make me popular with the Home Owner’s Association! As an extra precaution I carefully examined every window and door and put duct tape over any suspicious cracks and openings.

As I am writing this story, I find my pulse is still racing, just telling about the snake in our house. I really hate snakes! For a minute, I wished that I had taken his picture to share. I think I’m just as glad that my mind was somewhere else. Instead, here is a calming picture of this morning’s sunrise over our back yard and lake. Deep breaths… calming peaceful thoughts…

sunrise Sept 12

A hurricane might be just what the doctor ordered!

When Rachel and I were deciding about our move to Sarasota, Florida, one of our anxieties had to do with “hurricane season”. The season runs from June through November, covering half of the year. Climate change is reported to be causing increased water temperature in the Gulf of Mexico, a rise in sea level, and increased frequency of damaging storms. In 2017, Hurricane Irma just missed making landfall in Sarasota, and the area is still recovering. Ultimately, Rachel and I decided that the rewards were worth the risks. We would prepare the best we could for anything Mother Nature would send our way. We’d also get lots of insurance!

The house that we purchased was equipped with hurricane shutters. They were to be put up, covering every window and patio door, to protect the house from flying debris. Rachel and I laughed when we read a recommendation in the paper to put outdoor items like lawn furniture underwater in the swimming pool so that they would not fly around. We purchased a battery-powered lantern and phone charger that has a hand crank to generate its own power. We bought a portable camping stove, a variety of freeze dried meals guaranteed to not expire for 300 years, and lots of bottled water. We usually have a small stockpile of wine in the cupboard. We’d be ready for a few days without power. We designed an evacuation plan and placed important papers in a portable lock box, ready to be tossed in the car.

It turned out that during the first half of the 2018 hurricane season there was an environmental disaster of a different type that devastated parts of Sarasota and surrounding counties. As I write this story, there is no end in sight to the toxic “red tide” that is poisoning the waters and beaches up and down the southwest coast of Florida.

Red tide refers to a higher than normal concentration of microscopic algae called “Karenia brevis”. Large blooms of this toxic algae form and grow miles off shore in the Gulf of Mexico in the Fall and Winter months. Winds blow the algae towards shore and sometimes it reaches the coastal beaches. The Gulf water turns a color often referred to as “soft-drink brown”. The algae is toxic to marine life and kills fish in huge numbers. It also kills dolphins, sharks, manatees, and sea turtles. Particles of red tide become airborne and winds can carry them up to two-and-a-half miles inland. People exposed to red tide experience eye irritation and respiratory problems.

A week ago Rachel and I drove to Lido Beach, one of Sarasota’s natural treasures. We wanted to get a first-hand view of red tide and its impact. I covered my nose and mouth with a bandana. We arrived at 8:00 on a sunny Saturday morning. There was one car in the expansive parking lot. The beach was deserted. We were glad to see that the beach was not covered with dead fish. But we had to walk carefully to dodge the rotting fish scattered around the sandy beach. We observed a wide variety of fish of various sizes and several large horseshoe crabs. All were dead. Flies were buzzing around everywhere, and the smell was strong. We left after a few minutes.

red tide 2

Most years, red tide is gone by the end of March. The current exposure began in October, 2017, and there is no projected timeframe for an ending. In 2004 a red tide bloom lasted for 18 months, continuing through 2005 and part of 2006. The current bloom is over 150 miles long and between 10 and 20 miles deep. It extends from Collier County on the south through Manatee County on the north. Sarasota is located somewhere in the middle. The Sarasota papers update the fish kill every week. A recent report stated that over 200 tons of dead fish have been removed from beaches in Sarasota and Manatee Counties. That is a lot of fish!

Red tide has been recorded in Florida since the 1800’s. There has never been a successful intervention to eliminate it. Many scientists believe that worsening red tide in recent years is being caused by climate change, rising water temperature, and man-made pollution flowing into the Gulf. It happens that tomorrow is a state-wide, primary election in Florida. Political candidates for national and state offices have struggled to identify policies and strategies to address the red tide crisis. In a recent debate, a candidate for Governor expressed frustration, telling the audience if they would just tell him what to do to eliminate red tide, he would happily do it.

Scientists at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota have been studying red tide for decades. One of the lead scientists is Dr. Rich Pierce. Rich was our next-door neighbor when we lived in Sarasota in the 1980’s. Articles in the Sarasota paper have described two different strategies outlined by Mote scientists. The first idea is to bombard the toxic algae with ozone. The ozone kills the algae and its toxins and restores oxygen that is depleted by the red tide. The problem is that the technology can only treat small bodies of water, and is not practical to be used in the Gulf or in larger bays or estuaries. Ozone treatment is being tested in one small canal in Sarasota.

A second idea proposed by scientists at Mote was that we just wait for a major weather event like a hurricane to blow the toxic algae bloom out of the area. That sounds simple enough. It doesn’t require extensive technology. Both algae and hurricanes are part of the natural cycle of nature. Let them run their course. I bet some of the confused politicians will jump on that bandwagon. It sounds kind of like debates about climate change.

Wait a minute! A hurricane? Are you kidding me? That’s the best they can do?

Here’s hoping that our elected officials will find ways to curb the pollutants flowing into our waters and into the air to mitigate man-made contributors to Red Tide outbreaks. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that more and better technologies will be developed to combat red tide when it approaches our shores. Until then, Rachel and I have the emergency supplies handy and the evacuation bag packed.

A Very Merry Jerry Day

Rachel and I moved into our new home in Sarasota, Florida in February. We have been enjoying the experience of learning about our new community, as well as checking out restaurants, movie theatres, and the arts scene. On Sunday evening we joined an eclectic group of people to celebrate a special birthday.

Jerry Garcia was born on August 1st, 1942. He would have been 76 years old this year. For the tenth consecutive year, the Fogartyville Community, Media, and Arts Center celebrated Jerry’s life with an event they call the Very Merry Jerry Day. Fogartyville is affiliated with WSLR Radio in Sarasota, a community FM radio station. The center is located downtown on Kumquat Court. Rachel and I loved the name of the street. Parking was anywhere you could find it in the neighborhood, and we walked past a line of folks waiting to enter a homeless shelter, located in the building next door.

The large room was set up with a small stage at one end, a simple bar at the other end, and mismatched tables and chairs covering the floor. There were a few leather booths along a side wall, and Rachel and I snagged one of those. A table was set up next to our booth with a large display of vintage vinyl records. The wall across the room from us had two large doors that opened to a large outdoor patio. There were food vendors and tables around the outside of the patio where people were selling arts and crafts or handing out literature about community happenings. White plastic chairs were scattered around the patio, offering more seating for guests. The walls were decorated with 60’s-themed wall hangings and posters, giving the place a funky vibe. Small sparkling lights lit much of the outdoor space.

The line-up for the evening included three local bands. One was a Grateful Dead cover band called Ship of Fools. The other bands were Stumble Creek and Al Fuller and Friends. The latter two usually played a variety of music, but were limiting their set lists to songs by Jerry Garcia.

Rachel and I settled into our old leather booth with glasses of wine and watched the crowd filing in. Our booth could accommodate four or more people, and we had decided that we would be happy to share the space. A few minutes later a guy approached us, holding a huge plate of Mexican food from one of the food stands. He asked if he could join us while he ate his dinner. His name was Peter and it turned out that he was in charge of the table with all of the records. As he ate, he told us about his business, Rocket Star Records. The store was on Washington Avenue in Sarasota and was only a few months old. Over the last few years, all of the record stores in Sarasota had gone out of business. Peter had worked at the last one to close. For two years he had worked out of his car, driving around to customer’s homes with his car loaded with boxes of records. Peter said that his personal collection had been more than 6,000 records. Eventually he saved up enough money to rent a retail space, and he and one employee were doing their best to make a go of it. Peter had been surprised that many of his customers were teens and young adults, buying recordings that were made before they were even born. We laughed when he shared his observation that Sarasota was great for old people like us, but not enough was happening for younger folks like him. And he was 50! After Peter finished his meal he gave Rachel a Rocket Star pen, complete with flashing lights that could be turned on and off.

The room was beginning to fill and most tables were now occupied. The crowd was made up of a surprising variety of ages. There were several family groups that appeared to include grandparents, their kids, and their grandkids. I guess Grateful Dead music crosses generations. A couple approached our booth and gestured toward the open space. We told them that we had been saving the seats just for them, and they looked happy to join us. Roger and Julie were around our age, Roger a little older and Julie a little younger. When I asked about their history in Sarasota, Julie emphasized that they were not a couple, just friends. She was a massage therapist and yoga instructor and had moved to Sarasota a few years ago from Iowa. Rachel was born in Iowa and we had both attended the University of Iowa, so we had some things in common. Roger was from upstate New York and now lived in Nokomis, a beach-front community just south of Sarasota. He told us how he had been in business selling clothing to the rich and famous. Roger showed us several pictures on his phone of him posing with various celebrities. I didn’t recognize all of them, but liked the picture of him with a very young Mick Jagger.

Roger was quite gregarious and kept standing to call out to people he recognized and frequently left the booth to greet friends. On one of these trips he returned escorting a guy with another plate of Mexican food. Once seated, he introduced his friend as Al Fuller. His band would be the third act of the night. As he ate, Al told us about his band, which was different than usual that night. He also reviewed his regular gigs around Sarasota, which included a “blues jam” at a restaurant/bar called the Blue Rooster on Wednesday nights.

We stayed to watch all three bands. Each put their own spin on Jerry Garcia’s music. Stumble Creek had a distinctive country style, with mandolin and upright bass blending in with the guitars. Ship of Fools was a traditional cover band, playing familiar Dead songs just as I remembered them. Al Fuller and Friends played some less well-known Jerry Garcia songs with a real bluesy flavor. Al had a strong voice and his guitar playing reminded me of Eric Clapton’s blues songs. Lots of people got up to dance in front of the stage. Rachel and I enjoyed watching a pair of dancers who looked to be a grandpa dancing next to his adolescent grandson. That’s something you don’t see every day.

As the evening was winding down, a distinctive fellow walked up to our booth. He was small in stature and his bright green trousers, hiked up well above his waist, made a real impression. He was carrying a clipboard and introduced himself as Francis, the Ambassador for WSLR Radio. I asked him what an Ambassador did. He responded that his job was to welcome new guests, answer their questions about Fogartyville and the radio station, and give them his card. Francis produced a business card with a flourish and then wrote our information on his clipboard so that we could receive information about future events.

Rachel and I agreed that we had discovered a special gem in the Sarasota art’s community. We will look forward to getting notices about future happenings.

Happy birthday, Jerry!