Tuesday, May 17, 2005

In Florida, With ''My Pet Dolphin''

Folks - Doctors orders for relaxation and recharging provided the spark for us to get some big time fresh air. Having been cooped up since I fell ill late last July, it wasn't a moment too soon for us to escape to a cheap hotel on a Florida Gulf Coast beach for a few days. My daily, local walks of 5 miles-plus turned into sunrise strolls on a wide, white sandy beach. While the president spent his famous ill-fated trip to the Sunshine State listening to an elementary schoool class read ''The Pet Goat'' (miscast often as ''My Pet Goat'') as our world was changing; my ever-changing world was enhanced by My Pet Dolphin who kept up with my heart-pumping stride for nearly a mile one morning. I named him Finnbar ("Finn" for short), because he showed an Irishman's willingness to change course for the chance of something interesting. As I headed south along the Gulf of Mexico one morning, I spotted Finnbar just less than 15 feet from shore in the shallow water. Nearby were others I called Jolly Man and Grace and Jones (the singer was once married to a Lurch-like failed actor whose first name was ''Dolph''). Finnbar ducked under in that way dolphins have of seeming to be toys on wheel and came up again now just five feet from me. On the empty beach, I literally spoke out loud to the dolphin, asking him to change direction and head south with me. He turned and swam to match my stride and followed me for at least 10 minutes down the beach, heeling as if on a leash. Soon Finn got his reward for changing course as breakfast arrived and after much trashing in the water, he and his mates were sated and off to deeper waters. Playing in my head was the staple song of Hootie and the Blowfish, in which he admits to being such a baby that a dolphin makes him cry.
I carried on to where the beach gives way to a nestle of mangrove and sea grape and few tourists tread a hidden path to another glorious stretch of sand, much of which is roped-off as a protection zone for plovers and other ground-nesting birds who lay their eggs on the beach.

Tasha collected shells of every size and shape - loving the jagged, broken pieces as much as the whole, perfect specimens. Alex told me he saw a swordfish just offshore, which I took to be a 7-year-old's imagination. Later, I spotted a curious fish just a few feet away. It looked like a cross between an alligator and a fish - brown spotted and ugly with a needle-nose and similar to the cheap cut-out puppets on the old kid's TV show ''Diver Dan.'' I don't know much about fish, but somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered that a friend had caught one of these ugly things years ago as we were sailing to the Dry Tortugas and chucked it back because it wasn't good eating. I thought it was called a gar. I drew a picture and asked a few folks at the hotel and surrounding area - but they hadn't even heard of a gar let alone seen the type of fish I was describing. Turns out most of them are from Ohio or Indiana and seemingly moved into Florida and got jobs just moments before we arrived. (Later, an internet search proved my power of recall is at least working when it comes to obscure topics - it was a gar that I saw and the drawing was startlingly accurate. The sighting was a rarity - they're not known for spending much time in salt water.)

A pleasant time overall - Nancy enjoyed swimming in the pool and Gulf and bronzed up nicely. We visited with her sister who lives down there and a neighbor took us out on a boating adventure where we saw a soaring bald eagle and ospreys and dolphins up close, although Tasha slept through much of the voyage. Alex kept a school journal of his trip and scored a hole in one - good for a free game - at a mini-golf place which had dozens of baby alligators on display. We spent one day hiking around a gorgeous 'real Florida' state park with isolated beach, where the palm-hatted food vendor is a Red Sox fan and the locals lament that some big-time media are calling the place one of the world's best kept secrets. (The secret location can only be pried out of me through a generous donation to my fund-raising effort on behalf of the American Liver Foundation.)


One day we set off to find manatees at a park where they usually hang out and instead found dozens of wild parrots. Life's like that. You're expecting manatees and you get green parrots instead. It's a beautiful thing.
The manatees - now nearly off the endangered species list due to successful protection efforts - apparently think the bath-water-like local waters are still too cold and prefer to stay near the warmer outflow of a nearby power plant.

I convinced Alex to join me on a sunrise walk and he, too, met Finnbar. We found a nasty shipwreck on that isolated beach, with debris everywhere, including a 12-foot pontoon and beer-can holder with a scraggly character drawn on it and the words ''Older Than Dirt.'' We later hit a pirates cove and bought replica ancient coins from ancient shipwrecks. Thankfully by late in the afternoon, the whole mess on our beach was cleared away. Alex, who collected feathers up and down the beach, scrawled a ''Dads are the best'' message in the sand with a quill tip.

The entire trip gave ua a curious and glorious checklist of wild and tame fauna -
2 papillon dogs, Luke and Zoe; ospreys; a bald eagle; several burrowing owls; various herons, pelicans, outrageously singing cardinals, skittering lizards, ugly lost gar, alligators, cattle and their accompanying bug-eating egrets, dolphins, a ''bobcat'' that was more likely a housecat named ''Bob,'' several tarantulas, frogs and snakes (one named Tasha) at a kids' science center; a long pet snake on the shoulders of a blonde teen-age girl at the beach; turtles, stingrays, whelks and conchs and an entire menagerie of tacky mailboxes and advertising signs - wood and plastic and metal representations of wildlife that you'd really see in abundance if all these folks hadn't moved in and turned 'paradise' into the name of the local taxi cab firm.

Filing past hordes of European vacationers, who seem to have a low tolerance for fresh air given their constant smoking on the beach, I set out for one last walk down the isolated sands before heading home. As the beach's far tip was lapped by the tide two hours before sunset, I mimiced an osprey who floated in the air on a thermal. My arms spread to catch the breeze, I gazed and thought about all the things I would never have been seeing had it not been for my donor's family and the grace of God.

I scrawled a simple message on the beach with my finger: Thank You.
And then, we got on with the business of getting back home, where Hippie Kitten waited and things never seemed so lush.

(Waiting messages brought the news that friends in England, Adrian and Sarah, have added a third girl to their family. Welcome to the world Imogen Scarlett!)


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