Memories of the Indomitable Irma

The phone call came from my mother the night before St. Augustine evacuated for Hurricane Irma: “Brian! I don’t have any dry cat food to leave Missy Daisy and Little Joe! I only bought wet food in cans! What was I thinking?!? They don’t know how to use the can opener yet!”

I’m not sure where the mix-up occurred. The cats weren’t going with my mother when she left for the hotel. The stacks of cat food cans would be worthless. Even worse, when she finally realized this, there was no Friskies to be found anywhere. The kitty food shelves were bare.

These was desperate straits!

Now I was being dispatched on a secret commando mission to find cat food: “CVS HAS SOME! I JUST CALLED! REMEMBER … MISSY DAISY DOESN’T LIKE SEAFOOD … ONLY BEEF!!!” It sounded like something from a war movie. Some frantic soldier on the front line calling in artillery fire to keep the swarming enemy at bay.

I pointed at my daughter: “You’re coming with me. I want sanity on my side.”

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Hey Hurricane Irma, you left a tree on my house!

“There’s a tree on my house.”

If you ever say these words out loud, your ears will hear them, question what was just said, and spark an internal debate: “A tree on my house? Is that what I just said? No! There can’t be a tree on my house.”

Only, yes. It IS a tree. And it’s leaning on my house. Look!

There it was. A photo in a text from my neighbor. My neighbor, Forest, stays through all the storms. Even better, he sends me texts, photos and videos at all hours. This year during Hurricane Irma he even streamed live video from his upstairs porch.

The news is always good. That’s what I was expecting when the texts came in the morning after the storm. But they showed damage on the street. A transformer dangling from a pole. A massive tree that took out power lines clear over to Riberia Street, two blocks away. Then I saw it. It was agonizingly slow to load, taxing the struggling cel network in the powerless neighborhood where my family had evacuated to. It was of a pink house — boy, that’s similar to mine! — with a big cedar tree parked against an upstairs porch.

GASP! “There’s a TREE on my HOUSE!!!”

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A column … with Hurricane Irma on its mind

So, here’s the thing: I’m supposed to sit down, right now, and write this thing. This column. Which is usually fun, and hopefully funny. Usually, that’s the goal when I sit down to write.

But here’s the thing: It’s Tuesday night. And I’m sitting down, and I’m thinking to myself, “Who cares? This thing comes out Sunday! Hurricane Irma may be here by Sunday. St. Augustine may be up to its eyeballs in water … again. And I’m supposed to sit down and write a COLUMN?!?”

And the phone keeps ringing. Mostly it’s my mother. She’s worried about where she’s going to go in the storm if we have to evacuate.
Actually, she wasn’t worried. Not until I made her worried. Because she had a hotel room booked by the interstate. They would take her dog. Maybe even her two cats, if she snuck them in with a picnic basket. She had it all thought out, and she was pretty proud.

Then she called me. I had to — no pun intended — rain on her parade.

“Tuesday!?!” I said. “You booked your rooms for Tuesday? The storm will be here already!”

How did I know this? I don’t! I didn’t know anything. Because I’m not a meteorologist. I’m just a guy who is supposed to be sitting down to write a column. But instead I’ve been staring at hurricane forecast models on the Internet. Spaghetti models by fancy computers that may or may not have been hacked by Russian hackers. I don’t know.

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Now back to coverage of the Florida Summer Heat Games

“Now we return you to live coverage of the Florida Summer Heat Games where native Floridians prove their mettle in a series of insane outdoor events testing their courage, their stamina and their ability to overcome sweltering temperatures and oppressive humidity. For these competitors, household projects take on epic proportions in weather that could cook a rack of ribs quicker than you can say ‘BBQ.’”

“Today we have competitor Brian Thompson, who is tackling a small wood-working project that he SHOULD have done in the cool temperatures of April. But that’s the beauty of the Games, Bob. Dumb people doing dumb things in the kind of heat that will buckle a bridge.”

“You’re so right, Jay. And Brian has his work cut out for him, doesn’t he?”

“He sure does. He already passed the Sweat Stain Rorschach T-shirt Test when he went inside for a drink of water and his daughter pointed and laughed at what she said was the shape of a three-legged elephant in a party hat. I personally saw a lion-tailed macaque throwing up, but it’s hard to make everything out in this heat haze.”

“That’s right, Jay. Brian has been working on a project that should have taken him all of three minutes, but he’s managed to turn it into a day-long affair thanks to his incompetence and this insufferable heat. Now, he did survive the morning’s Mosquito Mowdown, when 15,000 blood-sucking skeeters descended on him, tapped his jugular and drew 12 pints. He turned white as a ghost and started hallucinating, but after nearly cutting off a finger in the power saw, he regained his composure and pushed on. It was a sight to see, and boy did we hear some salty language!”

“I tell you, Jay, I was really worried when he decided to dig around in that stack of paint cans. He has 42,000 rusting cans stacked 18 feet high in that shed, and he went rummaging in the middle of it to find a gallon of yellow for his wife. When that thing wobbled and came down on his head, I thought he was a goner for sure! But he has shaken it off and come back strong.”

“And good thing, too, Bob, because next up is the Weed-and-Wilt. This is a must-see event! Competitors notice weeds in their front yards and impulsively decide to pull them up right then and there, all under the hottest heat of the day! We put a pan of bacon out to check the temperature and the whole thing caught fire and melted. It’s going to take all of his strength to pull this one off.”

“Jay, he’s stumbling a bit and holding an insightful conversation with thin air, but he’s got a good anger face going and seems totally focused for someone whose body is likely to go into heat-induced cardiac arrest. So, I think his odds are about 50-50.”

“We’ll find out right after this commercial break …”

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A Floridian’s invitation to Old Man Winter

Hey, Old Man Winter! Is this the best you got? Can’t you do better? Can’t you send at least a little cold stuff down our way? That way I can wear this new sweater I got for Christmas.

Last time I tried, I didn’t make it a full day before it was heaped up in a ball while I panted and Googled: “how to cure winter heat exhaustion.”

The answer was: move north!

No, I don’t want to. And I sure don’t want it cold here all the time, for months on end. But a little moderation — a little nip to the air — would be nice.

Already it feels like spring has arrived. I’ve seen azaleas blooming, and after a rain, rings of yellow pollen collecting around the puddles in the street. I stood two feet from a hummingbird slurping away at porter’s weed in my front yard. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and had a suntan.

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The Florida scrub brush Christmas tree

My mother wants a 2-foot Christmas tree. A real one. Cut fresh from a Florida tree farm.

Only 2 feet tall!

“Two feet?!?” I gasped in horror when she told me this. “That’s not even a tree. That’s a weed!”

My mother likes scrub brush pines. The kind that grow in the sand or gravel. In my mother’s mind, it’s the classic Florida Christmas tree. They are so starved for water from the never-ending drought that they look like they have mange. We find them at a Christmas tree farm in Eustis where you cut them down yourself.
Actually, many of them look quite pretty. But to get the size my mother wants — before they grow to a normal height, fill out and look pleasant — you have to sift through a selection of odd-shaped sprouts and runts.

Since my mother doesn’t go — she just hands me a check and some strict orders — we have to make the call ourselves.

My mother doesn’t ever water her tree. By the time Christmas comes, the poor guy is little more than a shriveled stick with clumps of brown needles hanging on for dear life. The tree gets so dry that it risks spontaneously combusting, and for that reason, no one wants to sit by it as we pass around the presents.

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Surviving a hurricane … with mom

I don’t mean to sound over-dramatic, but I really feel lucky. I don’t mean to make light of the situation. It’s just that people have told me this in jest. Not because I made it through Hurricane Matthew, but because I made it through two nights in a stuffy hotel room with my mother. With her dog. Without electricity. With only a couple of cold chicken fingers and the few sandwiches I grabbed from work.

And maybe most of all, because my wife didn’t kill me for staying with my mother, and not with her and my daughter.

It certainly wasn’t the way I planned it. Looking back on it, I’m still not sure how it worked out that way. But I do remember a phone call one early morning, right before Matthew started huffing and puffing our way.

It was my mother: “Brian! The hotel just called to say they’re canceling my reservation! They’re evacuating the city!” (My mother talks with a Southern accent, but she is Cuban. And Cubans talk in exclamation points!)

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Memories of waterparks

I have four distinct memories of going to waterparks as a child: 1) Nearly being drowned by a crush of friends in the deep end of the wave pool; 2) burning to such a crisp that I looked like a strip of bacon (and smelled like it, too;) 3) drinking no water, aside from what I swallowed while being drowned in the wave pool; and 4) putting my towel down on a beach chair and never — ever! — finding it again.

I grew up in Tampa, and many weekends were spent at Adventure Island. My mother would drop my brother, me and a couple friends off with a towel, a glob of sunscreen to share and some wadded up money we were supposed to use for lunch. (We inevitably blew it at the arcade.)

In summer, we lived at waterparks. In Florida you are required to attend waterparks. It’s the official state bird.
But my daughter, now 10, had never been to one. (When you live close to the Atlantic Ocean, who needs fake waves?)

So when we traveled to Orlando this past weekend so my wife could attend a conference, the two of us visited Aquatica, a waterworld filled with slides, wave pools, lazy rivers and tourists wearing odd bathing suits that leave nothing to the imagination.

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A family river-rapid down memory lane

Panic set in as I walked up the aisle — straight to the front of the line. Where would I put my wallet? How would I protect my bag from the water? What would my hair look like after the deluge? Did I really want to walk around a theme park soaking wet, my pants drenched, people wondering why I would go out in public like that?

“Look, honey! That man wet himself … all over!”

It was the Congo River Rapids at Tampa’s Busch Gardens. I hadn’t been back to the park in over a decade. Now three generations of Thompson — my dad, my daughter, my wife and me — were boarding this wobbly raft. All the riders who just came off were drenched. DRENCHED! One woman was complaining she almost drowned. She wanted CPR from a snappy-looking employee.

What am I an idiot, I thought? This isn’t what grown people do.

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Ways to beat the Florida heat

Boy, nothing prepares you for July in Florida. Doesn’t matter how long you’ve lived here, or how many Florida summers you have under your belt. This month always rolls around and it’s just a shock to the system. Like we never saw it coming. So with the heat pouring on, it’s time to remember all the ways we Floridians know to beat the heat.

• Put your foot down. I had to do that on July 4th. My mother planned to have us eat at her house under the grape vine arbor, when the afternoon heat index was still hovering around the boiling point of lava. “There’s a nice breeze blowing,” she said. Only, it wasn’t a breeze. It was air that had caught fire and was racing by, searching for water.

“No, we’re not eating outside,” I finally said. “We’re not doing anything outside. It’s Florida, and smart people prefer to live.”

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