Oh, Florida!: How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country

Oh, Florida!: How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country

by Craig Pittman


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Oh, Florida!: How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country by Craig Pittman

A New York Times Bestseller

To some people, Florida is a paradise; to others, a punch line. As Oh, Florida! shows, it’s both of these and, more important, it’s a Petri dish, producing trends that end up influencing the rest of the country. Without Florida there would be no NASCAR, no Bettie Page pinups, no Glenn Beck radio rants, no USA Today, no “Stand Your Ground,” ...You get the idea.

To outsiders, Florida seems baffling. It’s a state where the voters went for Barack Obama twice, yet elected a Tea Party candidate as governor. Florida is touted as a carefree paradise, yet it’s also known for its perils—alligators, sinkholes, pythons, hurricanes, and sharks, to name a few. It attracts 90 million visitors a year, some drawn by its impressive natural beauty, others bewitched by its manmade fantasies.

Oh, Florida! explores those contradictions and shows how they fit together to make this the most interesting state. It is the first book to explore the reasons why Florida is so wild and weird—and why that’s okay. But there is far more to Florida than its sideshow freakiness. Oh, Florida! explains how Florida secretly, subtly influences all the other states in the Union, both for good and for ill.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250071200
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 07/05/2016
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 790,440
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

CRAIG PITTMAN is an award-winning reporter and columnist for Florida’s largest newspaper, the Tampa Bay Times. He is a native Floridian who has written three previous books about Florida topics. In 2013, he wrote a popular blog for Slate called “Oh, Florida!” which became the genesis for this book, and which led to multiple appearances on TV and radio discussing why Florida is so odd and entertaining. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and two children.

Read an Excerpt

Oh, Florida!

How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country

By Craig Pittman

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 Craig Pittman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-8217-1


Growing Up Floridian

I have an unusual hobby: I collect pictures of people I don't know. It started when I was a kid growing up in South Florida, the land of junk stores, garage sales, and flea markets, as a kind of coping mechanism.

— Ransom Riggs, Author of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

My wife and I were talking to our kids one day about what it was like growing up in Florida way back in the long-time-ago. At one point I said rather casually, "I remember back when there was no Disney World."

I have now seen what it looks like when a child's mind is blown.

They couldn't picture it. A Florida without Disney? How could that be? Could Florida exist without Disney?

Well, sure. Florida muddled along for several centuries without Uncle Walt and his Happiest Place on Earth. We drew tourists with our healing springs, our beautiful beaches, our tropical breezes. We pulled them in with our cheesy roadside attractions, our gator rassling, and our fresh-squeezed orange juice samples.

Those of us who grew up in Florida remember what it was like. We remember the old tourist traps, like Six Gun Territory, the Cypress Knee Museum, and the Atomic Tunnel. We have an abiding affection for the ones still hanging on by their fingernails, like Everglades Wonder Gardens.

You might think Florida kids would all be beach bum slackers. It is true that we tend to love the beach. My friend Connie, who grew up in Fort Lauderdale, says that until she was twenty-five she virtually lived in a bikini.

But don't assume all Florida kids are underachievers. John Atanasoff became fascinated with the slide rule that his engineer father used at a Polk County phosphate mine. He graduated early from Mulberry High School, then earned a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Florida in 1926. While a professor in Iowa in 1941, he invented the first working computer.

Then there's Jeff Bezos, 1982 senior class valedictorian and class president at Miami Palmetto High School. That summer Bezos started his first business, a summer camp. That same entrepreneurial spirit would eventually lead him to launch Amazon.com, making a profitable use of Professor Atanasoff's invention.

So don't underestimate what Florida kids can do. Still, I wonder sometimes what today's Florida kids will remember about this place they call home. Memories may be the main thing they have left. To grow up in Florida is to see things nobody else sees but you, says veteran war correspondent Dexter Filkins, who hails from Cape Canaveral.

"You grow up watching everything you know being destroyed, and it leaves you with this kind of haunted feeling," he explained to me one day.

It's like being the kid in The Sixth Sense: You're always seeing things no one else sees, because you remember what existed before everything changed.

The truth is, there aren't that many of us Florida-born Floridians to begin with. Florida has the second-fewest natives of any state (number one: Nevada). The 2010 census says only about a third of Florida's nineteen million residents are natives. Some of those six million — nobody knows how many — are kids born in the last decade.

It's never been easy to be a kid, with all the learning and growing you have to deal with. I would argue that it's tougher than ever to be a kid in Florida because it's such a crazy place. Every time you turn around, grown-ups are leaving you to sit in a hot car while they party at a Lil Wayne concert, hit a bar for a few hours, or visit a strip club. In 2013, so many dads left their kids alone to hang out in strip joints that a newspaper suggested that such establishments should co-locate with day care centers. Even babies have it rough. In 2013, a woman caught shoplifting tried to avoid arrest by hurling her baby at a cop.

Still, growing up in Florida has its perks. You can expect at least one class field trip to see the rocks and rockets at Cape Canaveral. You can play outdoor sports year-round. If your family can afford it (a big if, given how prices have gone up), you can count on at least one vacation trip to a theme park — Disney World, SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, Legoland, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, you name it. They're all within driving distance of the state's major population centers and open nearly all the time, ready to take everyone's money. There's even a theme park called the Holy Land Experience that recreates Jesus's crucifixion six days a week.

We here in Florida are so used to having these giant fantasy generators just down the road from our daily reality that it can be hard to picture what Florida was like BW (Before Walt). When I was a kid, Walt was just some guy with a Sunday night TV show. The closest we got to Fantasyland was the Goofy Golf place on the beach.

I grew up on a red clay road on the edge of a town named Pensacola in the farthest western part of the Panhandle. The sky was filled with Navy training planes by day and blinking fireflies at night — except when the mosquito-control truck drove by spewing a billowing cloud of bug spray. Some kids pedaled their bikes along behind it, taking in big lungfuls of the stuff, trying to get high. I believe they all grew up to become members of our legislature.

Summer vacation meant trips to the beach, particularly Fort Pickens, a relic from before the Civil War, surrounded by glistening white sand dunes and sea oats that swayed in the breeze from the Gulf of Mexico. Or my family would go fishing, reeling in our catch from a lake full of bream. Or we'd stand on the beach casting our lines out into the surf, hoping to snag a pompano.

Or we'd go camping. I remember one vacation where my parents tried to drive a pop-up camper to every state park we could hit in a week. At one point we stopped by the famous Suwannee River, the one that's featured in Florida's state song (written by Stephen Foster, who never actually set foot in Florida, and how very Florida is that?). While my parents cooked on a Coleman stove, I tried to cross the shallow, burbling water on some slippery stones. Halfway there I slid off and fell in. Back then I was mortified because my pants got wet, but now I look back on my Suwannee baptism with pride.

In those days there was no Gawker, BuzzFeed, or Huffington Post to label our state as weird based on the news we produced. Yet my parents, devoted readers of the morning and afternoon papers, frequently pointed out to me the oddball stories they saw: the funny crimes, the stupid things politicians did. Back then we thought California was the weird state. That's the one the comedians made fun of.

To someone growing up in Florida back then, things that other people might consider weird didn't seem like anything out of the ordinary. Didn't everybody have elected officials who called themselves "the He-Coon" and "the Banty Rooster"? Didn't everyone occasionally wear a swimsuit and flip-flops to the mall, the grocery store, even church? Didn't every beach town have a house shaped like a flying saucer? I mean, didn't every state have an economy that relied on drunken sailors, horny college kids, and speculative home building?

In school we had to learn the names and locations of all of Florida's sixty-seven counties, but that was about it. Meanwhile, thanks to the Cuban missile crisis ninety miles off the Florida coast, we had to take a course in our senior year called "Americanism vs. Communism." Our legislators feared that in case of an invasion we'd bow down to Fidel Castro as our El Jefe unless we made a close study of J. Edgar Hoover's Masters of Deceit.

I wish instead they had required the schools to tutor us on the tenets of Florida-ism — the worship of sun, sand, and surf. I wish they had drilled us on our geography (flatter than Kansas!) and geology (the beach sand is made of quartz!). I wish they had talked a bit about our folkways and culture (Jimmy Buffett, driving barefoot, eating hush puppies). I wish they'd taught us some Florida basics, such as the best way to remove sand spurs (lick your fingers); how to avoid burning your thighs on a hot car seat; and why the best parking spot isn't the closest one to the store but the one in the shade.

I wish my teachers had spent some time on our checkered five-hundred-year history, the way the schools in Virginia and Indiana and other states do. Our teachers could have explained how Pensacola got its nickname of "The City of Five Flags." Our mayor — a Pontiac dealer and John Birch Society member known for wearing a plaid jacket and a million-watt smile — always said the phrase proudly, then went on to call us "the Western Gate to the Sunshine State, where thousands live like millions wish they could." In fact, although a bunch of countries thought our port was important, nobody — not the Spanish, not the British, not the French or the Confederates — could hold on to it for long. We were the municipal equivalent of a football fumblerooski.

The teachers did tell us about Juan Ponce de León discovering Florida during the spring of 1513. They mentioned that he named the place "La Florida," not because that's Spanish for "Whoa, look at the size of those cockroaches!" but because of the profusion of flowers and the fact that he first sighted land six days after Easter, Pascua Florida.

They also mentioned his search for the fabled Fountain of Youth, a story we now know was concocted by one of his enemies to belittle him. Back when I was a kid, though, it was considered just as factual as the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. Like every other tin-hatted Spaniard, he was actually after gold, something Florida could not provide. Any natives they saw sporting gold necklaces or rings had scavenged their bling from the beach, the detritus of shipwrecks bearing treasure from other Spanish conquests.

Our teachers didn't mention that on a subsequent visit to another part of Florida, our great discoverer was mortally wounded by a poison-tipped arrow fired by the Calusa. Nor did they mention that the native inhabitants might disagree with anyone claiming Ponce de León "discovered" their homeland. In fact, I don't recall hearing one word about our original aboriginals, builders of vast shell mounds and hewers of sleek dugout canoes. To listen to our teachers, it was as if the Spanish had found the land empty, an Eden awaiting all their armored Adams.

That wasn't all they left out. They could have told us about how in 1559, long before Jamestown or the Pilgrims, the Spanish landed in the Panhandle. Don Tristán de Luna y Arellano and fifteen hundred soldiers came ashore in the vicinity of what is now Pensacola, only to lose most of their supplies to a hurricane. De Luna, laid low by fever, defeated in every attempt to find food (while never trying to grow any), eventually slunk back to Havana.

They also never mentioned Fort Caroline, which the French built at the mouth of the St. Johns River in 1564. Imagine how different Florida would look — and sound — had that settlement lasted. Instead, Spanish soldiers marched through a hurricane to slaughter all the inhabitants for being the wrong religion. The killer in charge of that bloody foray, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, founded his own settlement in 1565 — the town of St. Augustine.

That's why St. Augustine can boast that it's the "oldest permanently occupied European settlement" in the United States. And that's why St. Augustine's current inhabitants turn quite a tidy profit from the school groups that come to gawk at the history on display. Their colony stuck. Pensacola's got blown away.

The teachers could have told us about how Pensacola had eventually been revived and became the capital of the Spanish West Florida colony, the yin to St. Augustine's East Florida yang. Then future president and $20 bill figurehead Andrew Jackson entered the picture. He invaded Pensacola in 1814 as part of the War of 1812, then again in 1818 at the start of the First Seminole War, hanging Indians and anyone else who crossed him. He also dispatched a crew that blew up an old British fort that served as a refuge for escaped slaves, killing 270 of them. Fortunately, genocide is a path to the White House that is seldom followed these days.

We did learn, in passing, that in 1821 Jackson returned to Pensacola one last time to oversee Florida's transition from Spanish colony to American territory. We didn't hear about how he wore the title of territorial governor as if it were the mantle of a god, or that he locked his Spanish predecessor in the hoosegow. Nor were we told that his wife, Rachel, found Pensacola to be "filthy and disgusting," describing it in a letter as "a vast howling wilderness." Can you imagine what she'd say now, with all the garish billboards and adults-only establishments?

At her urging, Jackson shut down all drinking and dancing on Sunday, which made him less than popular among his new subjects. Luckily for them, these Jacksons soon moonwalked back to the more comfortable confines of the Hermitage in Tennessee. Once they were gone, the Sunday drinking and dancing returned. You can still find a dignified bust of Jackson on display in downtown Pensacola as if he were the city's favorite homicidal son. When I was growing up there, it was just a short walk from the Jackson bust to the town's most famous hangout for Navy fliers, Trader Jon's, where the strippers would show you a different kind of bust. One would sometimes bounce hers on the patrons' heads as if she were playing the bongos.

Another thing our teachers could have told us is that the Civil War nearly started at Fort Pickens in 1861. Yankee forces controlled the fort. Confederates surrounded it. The Confederates planned an attack — but then, as often happens in Florida, the weather changed. They postponed their assault until the rain stopped. While they were waiting for the skies to clear, Confederate soldiers in South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter, and Pensacola was again a historical also-ran.

But no, we heard none of this. We didn't learn that the first free black colony in the continental United States was Fort Mose, near St. Augustine, or that the Underground Railroad ran south in Florida, down to Key Biscayne and over the water to the Bahamas.

We didn't learn about the rogues and rascals who ran the state for their own profit, like David Levy Yulee, our first U.S. senator. Born David Levy, he rejected his Jewish heritage, changed his name, married a Presbyterian hottie, and began claiming he was descended from Moroccan royalty (he wasn't). He also turned his back on his father's crusade to abolish slavery. In 1845, the senator was an ardent advocate of Florida joining the Union. Fifteen years later, he was an ardent advocate of Florida seceding from the Union. This is why his nickname was "the Florida Fire-Eater," and not "the Senator Who Takes Logically Consistent Positions." His one great accomplishment was building Florida's first cross-state railroad — and funneling federal mail contracts to it, thus lining his own pockets.

We didn't even learn about the tough-as-leather settlers who built thatched-roof huts for shelter, ate gopher tortoises and manatee stew, suffered through malaria and yellow fever, and cut down entire forests without ever thinking to plant a single acorn. We didn't hear about how their attitude toward the hot and unforgiving Florida landscape could be gauged by the names they gave its various features: Lake Hell n' Blazes, Tate's Hell Swamp, the Devil's Millhopper.

This devilish description of a place the marketers now call paradise is completely understandable. After all, not only were the gators, bears, panthers, snakes, mosquitoes, and the brutal heat all out to kill them, but it often seemed like the plants were too. In marshes, they faced the fearsome sawgrass, its fronds edged with sharp teeth that could cut your hands if you handled it wrong. In the forests, they contended with the plant known as Spanish bayonet, named because it had a sharp point like a knife. And in some places they even had to deal with manchineel (manzanilla de la muerte in Spanish, "little apple of death"), the most poisonous tree in America. One bite of its tangerine-size fruit could set your mouth on fire and lead to excruciating internal pain. The sap was so deadly that the Calusa dipped their arrow points in it (ask Ponce de León about that). Even a sip of the rainwater dripping off its leaves could put you six feet under.

Perhaps living so close to death explains why many of Florida's settlers had a somewhat cavalier attitude toward the law. Some made their money stealing timber off government forest preserves. Some poached gators for their hides and meat, or slaughtered whole rookeries of egrets and spoonbills for the feathers, used in fashionable ladies' hats up north. Some lured ships onto the rocks so they could strip the wreckage of supplies. Hey, it was a living.

We didn't learn about any of these things because one of the basic principles of life in Florida is: Don't pay attention to the past — unless you can get money from the tourists for it.

For instance, every year for the past century Tampa has thrown a huge party called Gasparilla, or more formally, Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla Invasion and Parade of the Pirates, which attracts five hundred thousand people to town to drink heavily, stagger around, urinate in public, and flash their private parts in exchange for beads. This is all done in the name of an eighteenth-century pirate named José Gaspar, the "last of the buccaneers." There's an elaborate story about Gaspar's life and death, and it's all bunk. Gaspar's story was invented to promote one of Florida's early resort hotels. Keeping the story going keeps the money flowing, though, so no one objects to celebrating such fakery.

Still, sometimes the reality is greater than legend. I grew up at a time when John Wayne and Clint Eastwood were twirling six-shooters on movie screens, so I wish even one of my teachers mentioned that Florida had cowboys too.


Excerpted from Oh, Florida! by Craig Pittman. Copyright © 2016 Craig Pittman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Prologue: The Punch Line State 1

1 Growing Up Floridian 9

2 Flirting with Disaster 21

3 Getting Stucco 35

4 Trading Gators for Beer 51

5 On the Beach 65

6 Road Warriors 79

7 The Tower of Power 97

8 The Gunshine State 119

9 Bad Boys 131

10 God's Waiting Room 149

11 Schoolhouse Rock 167

12 You Bet Your Life 179

13 Space Invaders 197

14 See You in the Funny Papers 213

15 The Sinshine State 229

16 Confederacy of Dunces 247

17 The Friends of Emma Jones 261

18 A Whole New You 275

Epilogue: The Unified Theory of Florida 293

Select Bibliography 305

Index 307

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Oh, Florida!: How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
jal333 More than 1 year ago
Fun book for all Americans to read, not just Floridians. You will learn so much about the USA and the impact of the Sunshine state in the USA, not just today, but yesterday and into the future. Required reading if you cross the state border into Florida to live or just visit.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wonderful! Hilarious! Educational! Should be required reading for every Florida resident or visitor. I'm a fifth generation Floridian and thought I knew a great deal about Florida but I really learned a lot from this book. Highly recommend.