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Does It Really Matter?

Avon Park, FL - (Dec 18, 2012)

During this last week before Christmas I have been spending a few days in my usual wandering mode, up early and on the road well before dawn. I really enjoy the solitary miles as they roll beneath my foot pegs, feeling a slight chill and gentle warm up as the sun breaks across the horizon, rising into a clear Florida sky. Very few other travelers  are on the road at this time of day, and I wonder if they too are looking eastward to the pink glow and wondering what the new day will bring?

Faint shapes visible at the edges of the road, orange trees and memories of a Florida that was once an exotic land to most Americans. The pace of life here meshed perfectly with a two lane road that led from the gentle sand hills to the canals and swamps of south, and eventually to the Atlantic Ocean. It's a good thing there is little traffic, because my mind has slipped into those shadows, exploring old memories from decades past, when I was a younger man with much more ahead of me than what now remains.

USCG Cutter SEBAGO (WHEC-42) on Ocean Station Echo - 1966

I first came to Florida in 1970, sailing into Key West aboard a Coast Guard cutter that was six years older than myself. The ship showed every day of its age in every way imaginable. It was cramped, cold and uncomfortable - and the bright sandy Florida shoreline offered everything the old cutter couldn't.  The light green waters of the Dry Tortugas spraying up from the bow gave way to glimpses of porpoises and flying fish as the heavy salt air caked white upon my hat and dungarees. I felt I was coming home and my grin was as broad as any aboard.


For the next twenty years my life was woven with materials from this peninsula.  It gave me a wife and family, hundreds of hours of flight time in my pilot's logbook. I flew to nearly every airport in the state as part of my job. The experience shaped my future and still impacts me today.  Many of the best days of my life were experienced here in Florida, and a few of my saddest originated here.  Like my native Michigan, there is a palpable bond with this state and being absent for years at a time brings the differences between my memories of the past and the realities of today into sharp focus.

In 1970 the population of Florida was well under seven million people, but it was obvious that Florida was growing far too quickly. From 1960 to 1970 the Florida census figures reflected a 37 percent growth in population - almost 74 percent of that was due to folks migrating in from the northern states.  Our 'Greatest Generation' that had found Florida a great place from which to fight a war was returning here to live in retirement villages all across the state.

The state literally blossomed around me in those 20 years between '70 and '90, doubling the population to over thirteen million and then continuing on to the current estimate of nearly 20 million.  All of the roads I remember as peaceful escapes from the hustle and bustle of Jacksonville, or around the pelican populated shorelines of Ft Myers and the southwest Florida region have given way to four and six lane divided highways. Yuppies in Bentleys abound as they move from their elegant city homes to their opulent beachside enclaves.  Jaguars, Lamborghinis, and  even the Escalades of the tacky rich are overshadowed only by the number of 15 and 20 year old Ford sedans, small Chevy coupes, and ratty old compact imports driven by the working poor in every city around the state. 

Sadly, Florida appears to have become the poster child for the one percent. It is a stark example of what happens when a vibrant economy slows even slightly. I could write endlessly about the clues I saw which point to why I formed this opinion, but Ride Around America isn't about finding and explaining the problems of our nation. It's about our military veterans; who they were, where they came from, where they went and what they did.  It's about how we remember those men and women, and their families that sacrificed nearly as much as the veterans themselves.

My early morning ride down US-27 took me to Moore Haven on the first stop of a 350 mile day.  I came through this county seat four years ago and at that time found neither a monument nor any citizen that knew where one might be.  I've spent those last four years wondering if Glades County might be the only county in the eastern US without a veterans memorial of any kind.  As I slowly rode around the small town, stopping frequently to ask pedestrians if they knew of a monument somewhere. I found that most were surprised that there wasn't some remembrance - everybody pointed me to the local VFW hall, which was closed and not very prosperous looking.

Veterans Memorial - Ortona, Florida cemeteryI spotted a small group of people outside of the local Eagles club (Aerie 4523) ... Jack, originally of Ortonville, Michigan, invited me in to talk with others that might have an answer for me. A few phone calls were placed to knowledgeable locals and we finally determined there was only one memorial area in Glades County, at the cemetery in Ortona.  I found it, a small but prominently placed monument at the entrance of the cemetery.

The monument at LaBelle is easily located as it sits directly across the street from the courthouse, adjacent to the parking lot of an abandoned grocery store. The sense of economic decline seems to grow with every mile.

The run westbound toward Ft Myers was made easily on a four lane road that was once the deadliest two lane road in the entire state, "Bloody 80."  For years the debate over upgrading the road was a political football. The new road is much safer than the old, but I wonder just how much of the improvement was fostered by the desire of developers to make inroads to this area more than concern over the number of fatal accidents?

To save time I elected to make the run to Naples via I-75,  now six and eight lanes wide with more expansion underway.  Traffic is flowing along at well above the post 70 MPH limit. My early morning reverie is itself a ghost at the edge of the road now as I cope with task of riding defensively in a dangerous environment.  I contemplate moving off the Interstate in favor of the Tamiami Trail.  I recall that 20 years ago that road usually crawled along during the daytime hours.  It may not be entirely safe, but I-75 will keep me on some semblance of a schedule.

Naples was about what I expected.  It's the Florida west coast equivalent of Palm Beach, where money and status are visible and the working stiffs are just part of the background.  At least the veterans memorial area in the downtown park is nice, and very well kept. Nobody I asked knew where the memorial was, but they could give me spot on instructions on how to get back to I-75 for the northbound run back to Ft Myers. Priorities here are obviously skewed.

The historic downtown area of Ft Myers has turned into a nightmare of one way streets and limited parking around the courthouse.  My mother worked in the downtown area for many years, so I knew where the memorials were located. I'm happy to say they seem to be better kept now.

Crossing the Caloosahatchee River into the North Ft Myers area brings me back to those good and bad memories of my earlier life here in Florida.  My mother's home here was the destination for many trips across the state from Jacksonville. Back in those days just the trip itself made for a fun weekend. The ability to wade in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and to put my feet under Mom's table again was always a highlight.

I contemplated taking a quick detour from US-41 to ride by Mom's old house, but the memory of one of the worst days of my life prevented that.  I pulled into the left turn lane for a moment, but turned back to the northbound lane just as quickly.  It's been over twenty years; but I've learned that suicide isn't painless as the song from M*A*S*H says, it leaves deep scars.

Two miles up the road I glance over for a look at a small airport that a dear friend of my built in 1978. I piloted the second aircraft ever to land upon its runway. Again, I slowed to turn and then decided against the stop - my old friend is long dead, and his demise came at the end of that runway.

US-41 up to Punta Gorda is still the pleasant ride it was 20 years ago. It's been upgraded to four lane divided, but no overbuilding is evident from the road. That's probably because the road is still quite a distance from the gulf shoreline.  I expect in another 20 years it will be impossible to know when North Ft Myers ends and Punta Gorda begins. 

Indifference Is NO Excuse

I made several stops around downtown Punta Gorda and at first failed to find anybody that knew anything about a veterans memorial.  A group of four women in the old historic county courthouse tried to direct me to a small museum at Fisherman's Landing. When I explained that I wasn't looking for museum artifacts, but a real monument presentation one of them haughtily asked, "Well, does it really matter?"

Moments later, I was fleeing down the steps of the old building realizing just how close I came to being arrested for assault and battery. "Yes, Madam, it DOES matter. But you've obviously got your head stuck so far up your precious butt that you can't see how important the loss of one and a half million men and women were to this nation!" 

I remounted my motorcycle in a pretty nasty mood. Luckily my next encounter was with a young US Navy veteran that was not even a resident of Punta Gorda.  "Of course," says my new friend, "you can almost see the memorial from here! Just go four blocks to that light, turn left and go another three blocks..."  As much as I was pleased to know how to get to my objective, I was even more peeved at the four ladies in the old courthouse. They didn't even care there is a really nice veterans memorial area right next to the new county courthouse, just FIVE blocks from where they were standing. It can be seen from the old courthouse. Had I known that at the time she asked if it really mattered I probably would have completed the assault.  This project is hardening me in some ways, and it's not enjoyable.

The next and nearly the final stop of the day was at Arcadia. I knew of something special  there and had been looking forward to it for a long time.

During World War II the government of Britain sent thousands of their young men to the United States to have them trained as pilots.  At first the USA was a neutral country and couldn't directly accept the students pilots without violating several international agreements. President Roosevelt and Congress were not especially keen on stepping over those lines.  The procedure was for the cadets to sail to Canada and cross the US border in civilian clothing enroute to one of seven civilian flight schools. These schools, all under contract to the British Flying Training School (BFTS) program and were located coast to coast, from Clewiston, Florida, to Mesa, Arizona.

The irony of this plan was that while we were training British flight students at USA locations, about 8,000 American citizens were crossing the northern border to enlist in the RCAF and train at Canadian locations.  These men also had to skirt the edges of legality, and the absurdity of it all has never really been explained. 

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In every flight training program there will be fatal accidents, especially when 18 to 24 months of routine syllabus is shoved into just seven months of classroom and flight time.  Twenty three men from the school at Clewiston died from 1941 through 1945.  All of them were taken to Oak Ridge Cemetery at Arcadia for interment in a plot paid for by the British War Graves Commission. Click on the video player to see the plot.

Much like our own US war graves that are scattered all over Europe and the rest of the world, these British graves have been 'adopted' by a local group. In this case, the Arcadia Kiwanis Club helps to honor these men with a remembrance ceremony each year.  Many of the locals know where the plot is and are willing attendees on Veterans Day.

Read the inscriptions found on the tombstones of these 23 British flyers.  Even after 70 years it's obvious that theirs was a devastating loss for English and Scottish families that mourn them.  The inscription on one stone is likely the best I've even seen when describing the loss of a man in uniform;  "To the world he was only one, to us he was the world. Sadly missed."

So, does it really matter?  Yes, it does. 

These veterans organizations support Ride Around America

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