Why is it that so many jokes end with the punch line “FloriDUH?” In an attempt to answer this question I read the recently published book Oh, Florida! by Craig Pittman, a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and native Floridian. It won’t take but a few chapters of this humorous and fascinating book to convince you that Florida is the weirdest state in the union. Pittman documents Florida weirdness throughout its history, but the event that focused national attention on our state was the 2000 election, which ushered in a wave of Florida weirdness stories (and discouraged parents from naming their sons Chad).
Pittman’s argument largely consists of overwhelming the reader with stories of “Florida weird.” A modest sampling of those stories will capture the flavor of the author’s work:
- In 1930 a Key West X-ray technician fell in love with a tuberculosis patient named Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos. After she died “Count Carl von Cosel” (as he became known) dug her up and slept with the corpse for nine years.
- One of the first crimes committed in 2014 involved a Port Richey man who attacked his girlfriend with a banana. Assault with a banana with intent to …..?!
- A Miami woman and Delray Beach man bought pistols, then went to Publix and bought 10 frozen turkeys. They thawed the turkeys, stuffed them with the guns, refroze them and tried to smuggle them into Haiti. Needless to say, they were caught.
- In 1948 Clearwater residents reported the tracks of a strange three-toed bird that emerged from the water, walked around the beach for a while, and then returned to the water. An expert zoologist from New York was brought in to determine what it was. He declared that it could not be a hoax and that, in fact, he saw the large bird in flight. Forty years later an auto body repairman confessed to being the Clearwater Monster. He rowed out to the Gulf in a boat, strapped on leg irons in the shape of a three-toed bird, waded to shore, did his walk-about, and returned to the boat. It did increase tourism in Clearwater.
- In 1996 a man sued a Clearwater strip joint claiming that he suffered a neck injury when the performer Tawny Peaks thrust her 69HH breasts in his face. (He lost the case).
- A couple stole moon rocks from NASA and put them under their bed in an Orlando motel so they could have “sex on the moon.”
- What other state has headlines like these: “Spring Hill Man Charged With Striking Wife With Turkey Neck,” “Florida Man, 36, Assaulted Teen Relative with Taco Bell Burrito,” “Gator Bites Off Hand of Everglades Airboat Captain,” “Clearwater Police Arrest Man Wielding Samurai Swords.”
But Pittman doesn’t only deal with the kind of stories that make you chuckle and scratch your head. About a third of the way into the book he develops a more serious tone and provides the reader with considerable background on aspects of Florida’s history that won’t appear in the books they use in Florida’s schools. He describes the corrupt nature of the political system (often emanating from the Tallahassee “Tower of Power”), the shady dealings of police departments throughout the state, Florida’s fascination with strip clubs, the control of bolita games by the mafia, the influx of slide ruler wielding nerds to develop the space program, and, of course, the thriving practice of plastic surgery. These chapters are must reads for anyone who wants to get to know Florida. It is a seldom discussed and somewhat snarky history of the underbelly of the Sunshine State.
The subtitle of the book is an attempt to move the book beyond simply a book about Florida weirdnesss: “How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country.” While the theme doesn’t appear throughout all aspects of the book, he occasionally tries to make his point. For instance, the newspaper everyone gets slid under their motel door every morning, USA Today, actually was started as Florida Today. Additional linkages of people in Florida who became national figures are also included, but the point that Florida has a significant influence on the nation is not compelling. My own view (hey, I’m writing this!) is that Florida is more a harbinger of changes that will take place in the rest of the nation than it is an “influencer” of those changes.
However, after reading the book there is little doubt left in one’s mind that Florida is weird. There are simply too many stories that Pittman provides us with that can’t be ignored. Although he doesn’t provide us with a clear and consistent definition of what he means by “weird” the best approach may be along the line of the description of pornography provided by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart. In response to the question of how does one know when something is pornography Stewart simply said: ”I know it when I see it.” The same approach applies to Florida weird: you know it when you see it!
The only disappointment in the book relates to the most difficult objective: trying to explain why Florida is weird. Pittman tries to address this in his final chapter “The Unified Theory of Florida.” But he hasn’t really developed a theory here, what he has done is identify several “variables” which might (or might not) be included in such a theory. How those variables tie together and whether they are the critical ones is not clear.
In sum, this is a fascinating and at times irreverent documentation of Florida weirdness. For anyone interesting in understanding Florida, and especially for those of us who live here, it is a must read. Pittman’s love of this peculiar state is clearly present and his snarky approach is greatly appreciated.