City dogs and country cousins

I call them the country cousins, even though they live in the city and should be more sophisticated. My mother ran them through her own version of charm school, but it didn’t take.

They’re my brother’s dogs, a couple of American mutts who know how to make a wild time wherever they go. They’re much different than my dog, Chase, a city dog with refined stylings and cosmopolitan tastes.

The country cousins have bad habits. They drool, smoke and spit. They chew tobacco. When they ride in the car with the windows rolled down, their heads stick out so far that they nip the ears of people passing by.

They make crank phone calls, and don’t use deodorant. They scratch a lot, in the most uncouth areas — it’s not pretty to see. They drip dirt, never know the right thing to say, and generally turn mayhem into an artform.

Did I mention they shed like a stormy sky rains, and barbs on their fur stick tight to everything, like Velcro?

When the country cousins get dropped off for some reason or other, we have to get ready. We put a big sheet down in the middle of the floor, sprinkle a nice layer of sand to make them feel at home, and buy extra paper towels. We notify the authorities, pre-apologize to the neighbors and do some stretching exercises that were specially designed for such occasions.

And then we close all the windows when we go out. We learned our lesson recently. One of them, Sandy, likes to bust out the screen and leap for freedom, her gawky limbs flailing in every direction as she hurtles toward the ground. I can only assume this is what she looks like because I’ve never seen it. I picture her jumping as if from an airplane — butt first, legs extended, tail tucked under, ears back, and attempting a triple backward isosceles triangle.

The first time she did this, my wife and I returned to find her milling around in the front yard, quite content with herself and eating grass.

“Sandy! How’d you get out here,” I yelled, and she didn’t answer. She looked proud and pleased, and also a little rabid.

My screen window was blown out like a rhino had hollered “Geronimo!” and jumped through. And it wasn’t the window on the porch, mind you. She went straight out the window on the side of the house, and straight down. A country cousin leaps before she looks.

I could picture both her sister and my dog standing there watching the whole episode in stunned disbelief.

“Did she just jump out the window?”

I know my dog and I know her reactions. It would have been total shock, and I can see her there, that face that screams, “Holy crap! Now you’ve done it. Now you’re gonna’ be in trouble. How you gonna’ get back in?”

The other one, with that goofy grin that makes you wonder if anyone’s home in the hen house, probably just stood there panting, not sure what to make of it all.

Oreo, a part-time manatee, has a face that can only say the variation of one word: Doh? or Doh!

More likely than not, she would have gone out the window, too, if not for the fact that she’s so tubby and would have ended up stuck on the sill, her little fat feet flailing in the wind.

Lucky for me, Sandy had no plan for hopping the fence, and she took to grazing. Now when the country cousins come over we seal up the house and put a parachute on her.

But you know, despite their country pedigree and their penchant for filth, cursing and watching NASCAR, they’re good dogs. They’re family, knots and all. Civilized city dogs and country cousins — they’re all just dogs. Although, the country kind sure do go out a lot of windows.

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Gas Prices Ain’t Getting Me

So gas prices are approaching the cost of college tuition. It’s now cheaper to fly first class to France than it is to drive that SUV down to the convenience mart and pick up a quart of milk. And soon, mark my word, you’ll be caught in a dark alley and hear from the shadows a low voice mutter, “OK, buddy, give me all your gas.”

That’s the fuel-dependant world we live in.

But I feel pretty unique because I don’t live more than a half mile from work. In other words, I haven’t needed to take out a loan yet to cover my gas card bill.

Sometimes my wife and I drive to work, and other times we walk. To mix it up, sometimes I drive, forget the car is there, and then walk home. This makes it interesting when my wife looks out the window and screams, “Where’s the car?”

It prompts me to scream, “Oh no, those blammin’ jimmy-ammies stole it again!”

A moment or two later sanity taps me on the shoulder and I turn to my wife to admit that this isn’t nearly as bad as the time I put my underwear on over my pants.

But think of all that gas I’m saving.

We’re extremely lucky. We’re not adding rubbing alcohol to the tank to make it last longer, or having to lose weight to make road trips more economical.

People tell me how they’re spending ungodly sums of money each week, and I just nod my head in agreement and say, “Man, no kidding. When I filled up in December, I couldn’t believe what a quarter of a tank cost.”

I was thinking about all of this the other day when an issue of U.S. News and World Report arrived with a cover story titled, “There’s a hybrid in your future.”

My first reaction was, “Jeez, I hope they have a cure for that.”

But then I realized it was just talking about these fuel efficient cars of tomorrow, partly run on regular combustion engines and partly run on electrical. I’m just repeating what I’m reading — for all I know you stick two feet out the holes in the floor and power it Flintstone-style.

Personally, I think the idea of the hybrid is great, and I certainly support anything that makes better use of our natural resources … and keeps me from having to wear a gas mask or an aluminum foil suit to protect me from the sun.

Maybe the hybrid is the answer to this fuel crisis. But I tell you I’m a little concerned, and think the biggest hurdle for the hybrid industry is simply selling anything called a “hybrid.” It’s like buying a car that’s called “the mutant.” Is it a monster or a fuel-efficient car? “See Godzilla vs. the Hybrid. One will devour Tokyo on 65 miles to the gallon and the other will run off with a she-lizard called Gladys the Big Tail.”

Not “hybrid.” How about “Hippies Love It” or “Can Still Afford Groceries.” Something catchy, maybe the “Green Gas Mobile.”

At least hybrids are becoming more appealing in their looks. The early ones seemed to be styled after chewed gum or a bunion. Nobody wants to buy a car that looks like a bunion. Who wants that?

Fuel efficiency be damned, Americans want style. They want to look good. And if it were me designing these cars, I would address America’s undying love for really large automobiles. Not that these hybrids have to be large — just sell add-on kits. Sure. It wouldn’t need to be anything more than cardboard cutouts of SUVs or dump trucks that you tape to the frame. Look gets old, get yourself a new one shaped like an MX missile. Why doesn’t anyone consult me on these things?

We’ve got a problem in this country and it’s time we started solving it. I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve got a few. So I’m willing to help, if I could just find my car.

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Florida: The Bug Capital of the World

It occurred to me this morning as I awoke, desperate for a column idea and the deadline-clock ticking away, that all these thousands of people moving to Florida everyday have no idea what wonderful bugs we have. That Florida could easily be the bug capital of the world.

We breed ‘em big, we grow ‘em ugly, and we make sure there are plenty to go around. “Twenty bugs for every man, woman and child,” goes the state motto, “and double on Sunday.”

This “occurred” to me as I walked into the kitchen to put the kettle on the stove. I was greeted by a silverfish the size of an engorged tuna. He emerged from the shadows and asked if I could spare any cottage cheese.

I hate silverfish — I don’t think they’re fish at all — and I put a lickin’ on him. For a third generation Floridian, it’s a typical morning: Throw a bagel in the toaster, start the coffee and do battle with the arthropods. It’s a way of life, and many a song have chronicled these great crusades.

I’ve never lived in any other states, but I don’t think there’s anywhere else where bugs are as par for the course. So accepted, not fashionably, but just as something we have to put up with. There’s your Uncle Eddy, and the cockroach. You invite both to Christmas, and you endure the bad jokes and how they creep up on you in the middle of the night when you’re using the bathroom.

Fact is, Florida has bugs like no other state. And I don’t think most people moving down here know that.

Most aren’t pretty bugs — palmetto bugs, cicadas, predatory stink bugs, fruit flys, cabbage loopers, fungus gnats, chinch bugs, leaf miners, no-see-ums, Southern pine beetles, brown recluse spiders, spittlebugs. Spittlebugs?

Some of these insects you might find in other states, but I bet they don’t have the same spunk as our Florida variety. Everything here has more character. They’re redneck bugs. They speak with a twang. They’re Jimmy Buffet bugs, in surfer shorts and drinking margaritas. Bugs in pickup trucks. Bugs with attitude. Bugs that would scare a lady’s hair straight and send a dog up a tree.

Ever seen a banana spider? It’s the kind of creature that will make you give up eyesight. Long legs like skeletal fingers. More hair than I have, and I’m Cuban/Sicilian! And always in locations that keep them hidden until you’re pressing through the bushes, turning your head and then, “Hell-o!”

Close encounter of the arachnid kind. Nothing like a little nose nuzzle on the fuzzy belly of a banana spider.

This is a state where cockroaches are the size of minivans and where they leave breakfast orders in the kitchen. The cockroach is so plentiful, they have their own representative in Tallahassee.

There are of course termites, an insect uncommon up north where wood lasts for centuries, not just 20 minutes. Once, I had a termite eat a hole straight through one of my books. It was a good book, so I flipped through the pages until I found him. He’s no longer among us.

I consider myself a Grade A mosquito killer, which means if I get bitten, I get so consumed with hunting the offending insect, I will track it for days and then torture it for hours.

Let’s be fare: There are also a lot of good bugs out there. My wife came home from the nursery the other day with a package that held more than 1,500 lady bugs. We watered the yard — they come out of their slumber mighty thirsty — and spent the early evening carefully releasing them into the world. It was actually a pretty enjoyable, and even wonderful time. “Go in peace,” I told them.

It could have gone on all night. Then the clicking and swarming and buzzing returned, and we retreated to the bedroom. I needed my rest so I could do battle again in the morning.

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The Great Ernie’s Car Removal

It was just sitting there in my brother’s backyard, rotting, decaying — no longer so much a vehicle as a potting bench. It was like some rusted and forgotten object of war, discarded in a jungle somewhere. Once a clunker, now an overgrown heap.

If I’m not mistaken, it was a 1964 Volvo, with its rounded pug-nose and long hatchback.

I say “was” because it had long left this earth. Leaves covered up the sides and hood, rust had threatened to detach the body from the frame and a tire was not only flat, but off the rim.

When Ernie, our buddy, and a former roommate of my brother’s, packed up to leave for New Zealand, he parked the Volvo in my brother’s backyard. None of us, including Ernie, thought he would stay so long. But he’s since been named prime minister, and looks to be there until the New Zealanders come to their senses and ask him to go explore another country.

That said, my brother Scott decided to take action. Part of that was due to his girlfriend, Holly, who told him that few gardens she admired ever had Volvos in the middle of them.

Scott can be a lot of things, but dumb is not one of them. Besides, he was starting to feel the same way. Too long he had tried to tell people the partially buried car was an Indian burial mound.

But it’s no easy task moving a petrified Volvo that had sunk roots deep into the ground.

I had proposed a number of ways to get rid of it, for instance, borrowing the jaws of life from the fire department.

I could just picture us down there talking it over with the chief. “But we’ll bring it back in five minutes!”

Our buddy George got in on it, too, and didn’t like my idea. Even less did he care for my suggestion of taking a blowtorch to the car, cutting it into pieces and leaving out for the garbage pickup.

George stared at me, almost angry. “The whole backyard is covered in sawdust, woodchips, leaves and who-knows-what-else-your-brother-poured-out-there. Gasoline isn’t as flammable as that backyard. It’s a Hindenburg!”

He had a point.

But how to get it out? First we had to move our two ‘65 Mustangs, neither running so well. And then came the main attraction. George went to start it with the magical device — a screwdriver inserted into the ignition, which dangled like a dashboard ornament.

When he didn’t see even the faintest light on the dash, he poked his head under the hood, his eyes darting around.

“A-ha,” he said, and emerged with a dangling battery cable swinging free. “Could be that’s the problem.” With little fanfare and a quick poke, he jammed the wire into a hole, and Eureka! There was light. That’s how it went with Ernie.

With the screwdriver back in the hanging ignition, and despite the fact that after sitting for almost two years (George was convinced the gasoline had long since turned to varnish), it puttered once and then purred to life.

“Well, I’ll be,” I said.

Not that it was easygoing now. The clutch had departed the earth, and it sounded like an asthmatic wood chipper trying to get it into gear. Luckily George had once driven a car for months without a clutch, and knew how to start it already in gear. It’s the see-where-it-takes-you method, and it took him straight into a wood pile.

Suddenly, with the car alive, all talk has turned from having it hauled off to the scrap heap to now to getting it road worthy again.

My brother wants to turn it into a rally car. George thinks it’s the perfect weekend mobile. I myself think it made a better planter, but who am I to say? Ernie, if you’re reading this, send the title soon. The boys want to take your baby out to play. And Holly, I don’t think you’re rid of a Volvo yet.

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Losing a Good Batch of Knuckleheads

And so the end is near. I can see it, just over there on the horizon — the end of the semester.

When you work at a college, years are no longer years. They’re semesters. And semesters fly by like someone’s yanking them away with string.

They start out slow, gain speed and roar out of sight before you can say, “What the heck’s a semester?”

And when they end, they take a whole new crop of kids with them, headed for the real world to claim jobs, make families and wonder for the rest of their lives how they could have run up $20,000 in pizza debt.

This semester I’m losing a bunch of them. My kids. I’ve been with Flagler College almost two years now, and my office runs the student newspaper. So I’ve got a chance to get to know a bunch of them, and it’s getting me a little misty thinking about them going away.

What will I do with my time? Work?

All day they pop into my office, dropping their bodies in a chair like you dump clean laundry on the bed. Sometimes they sigh or stare. Rarely do they have anything important to say, and usually I’m in the middle of some panic attack or crisis involving mass quantities of money I shouldn’t have spent. I speak fast like my calf is brushing up against an exposed electrical wire.

“What’sup?how’sitgoing?Youdoingalright.Goodgoodgood.Nowwhattheheckdoyouwantanditbetterbeimportantbecauseifitisn’tI’mcallingsecurity … again.”

They don’t have anything important to say because they’re college kids and the world is a giant pool of inexpensive time that can be spent at their leisure.

They touch things on my desk and ask about various items.

“What’s this?” they say.

“That’s a paperclip.”

“What’s this?”

“That’s the court order requiring you to leave my desk alone.”

I get important sounding phone calls, cover the speaker and say things like, “I really need to take this.”

“No problem,” is the answer. “Got all the time in the world.”

Of course they do. That’s how I was when I was in school. There was something truly wonderful about hanging out in someone’s office, knowing that they couldn’t get any work done, and making them answer ridiculous question after ridiculous question, like: “So what’s it like being that old?” or “Is it true that as you age and hair grows in your ears you can hear it rustle?”

Now they ask things like that of me.

I like to think I have wisdom to impart. The other night during the student newspaper layout, I helped a girl burn a music CD.

“Aren’t you embarrassed?” I asked her. “You’re the youth of America with all your technological savvy. Yet you need help from Dinosaur Sam.”

Sometimes I have really wonderful things to tell them, and say it, and they appear to listen, and I think to myself, this is fantastic, we really made a connection, and I might have just changed a young person’s life, to which they respond, “Did you know you actually have two parts in your hair today” or “that sideburn is longer than the other.”

I’m going to miss this bunch. How I’ve come up with the perfect nicknames for them: Heffery instead of Jeffery, The Hippie Twins, Moody Lou, Buzzhead, Mrs. Drama Queen, Ugh!, Guy whose name I don’t know and Eddie. There are others.

I’ll miss how they don’t ever do anything I say, and laugh when I get mad. The more mad I get, the more they laugh, and eventually I go home and have a good cry.

How they think I must be really important because I have a water cooler in my office.

“So you buy that with your expense account?” they ask.

“No, it fell off a truck I was riding behind.”

They’re a good bunch, and I’m gonna’ miss them all. Soon I’ll begin training new ones, and answering new questions about paperclips and why my hair parts like it does. But will it ever be the same again? I hope so.

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Selling Everything But the Kitchen Sink on eBay

Is nothing sacred anymore? Apparently not. Now, I’m not naïve. I understand the world is run by money, marketing and the consumption of Cheese Doodles. But I want it to be about something more meaningful.

Not people selling the rights to their names on eBay. eBay, that part circus, part flea market where people sell everything from Aunt Nelly’s gnome collection to body parts.

Now the new fad seems to be people auctioning off names, as Matthew Jean Rouse is doing.

Matthew Jean, a 31-year-old father of two, doesn’t like his middle name. According to The Associated Press, he wants to let someone in the general public give him a new one, and he’s asking big bucks for it. As of press time, someone who doesn’t understand the value of money has bid $2,175.

“If he wants to walk around with ‘Fool’ as his middle name, that’s his problem,” Rouse’s wife told AP. “If someone changes his name to ‘Poophead,’ he may decide it’s a little more important than he thought.”

I hope someone does name him “Poophead.” I hope someone names him “chicken legs” or “stinky behind.” I hope someone names him “slap me.”

There comes a point where you go too far, and Matthew Lugnut Rouse has reached it.

Terry Iligan, a 33-year-old mother of five from Knoxville (a place that I would now recommend not drinking the water), sold her entire name on eBay for $15,199. You can officially call her “GoldenPalace.com,” after the online casino. GoldenPalace.com, you may recall — if you have the amount of spare time that I obviously have — is the same company that bought a temporary tattoo on a pregnant woman’s belly for $8,800, a grilled cheese sandwich with the image of the Virgin Mary on it for $28,000, and a guy running for governor of Ohio for $900.

If a grilled cheese sandwich sells for 28 grand, and a potential governor can’t even sell for a thousand, what does that say about Ohio?

I digress and mix-up my point, which is: How can you change your name to Goldenpalace.com! What will your kids say? How will it sound when they call you in at the doctor’s office? Does that make “.com” your last name?

As the good former journalist that I am, I did some research and found quite a few people on eBay trying to sell their names, many with varying degrees of success.

Poor Joshua Graves, who has never had a middle name, just wanted someone to pick one for him … at a starting bid of $750. Alas, no one had put in a single bid. Joshua, you’re middle name is “Goofledanger.”

Another guy was offering the rights to rename his dog’s middle name. The dog’s current name is “Buddy Lee Sutherland.” Two bids so far, and the high bid is $1.25. The shipping costs, and I don’t understand this, are $1. Good luck Buddy Lee. I hope they don’t pick “Duddy” or “Got Snipped.”

I never found Mr. Rouse’s auction, so maybe he’s already sold to the highest bidder. Maybe his wife got it and he’s now “Matthew Clean the Dang Garage or You’re Living Out There Rouse.”

But what is this world coming to? Is nothing sacred anymore? Shoot, once upon a time, people went out and got tattoos of skulls and crossbones, sleazy women and sayings like, “I just beat up your kid brother.”

Now they sell those rights to companies who want to tattoo their brand on them.

People are taking on names like Taco Palace and Honey’s House of Chicken. It’s a strange world out there and it seems like everything that can be sold is up for sale. It’s a sad, sad time in America, and I’m ashamed.

This column brought to you by Eddie’s Shrimp Shack and Tackle Store.

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Pesticide Mania in My Yard

If I am the cause, I apologize. If it is me who has ruined the environment, poisoned the drinking supply, caused a tear in the ozone layer like a run in stockings, and dried up the schools of tuna who used to swim the oceans free, then to future generations I say I’m sorry.

I’m a bad man who doesn’t follow directions.

It’s spring, so I’m out fighting bugs, fungus, grubs, clover, root rot, jumping circus beetles, a clan of armed, horse-riding Turks and strange crop circles in my grass that read: “Land the mother ship here!”

Actually, it’s mainly just clover, and I’ve waged war on it with some clover killer I wrangled up down at the hardware store.

Not that I know what I’m doing, and certainly the packaging is no help. Look, there’s only so much of these directions and warnings you can read on a bottle of pesticide or weed killer before you throw up your hands and shout, “Mama mia, that’s a lot of meatballs!”

I look for big warnings — warnings I can relate to: “Has been known to cause cancer in laboratory rats AS WELL AS extra limbs growing from their rumps, talking like Michael Jackson and giving money to the IRS.”

Oh, man. Better wear gloves!

Not that I pay attention much. I mix these things into such strange concoctions using highly questionable containers and sprayers that just the week before held other high-threat toxins. And I wonder why blue puffs of smoke like laughing dragons race off into the atmosphere.

I never get the mix right. You need physics and algebra, and I failed third grade math. It tells you, “For 500 square feet of yard at a 10 percent grade with a train arriving from Hyannis at 3:22 p.m., take the square root of 14 and multiply it by 3 oz. Then add 1 gallon of water and shake well.”

Well, I don’t have a gallon sprayer. I have some sprayer that only holds 32 ounces. So figure that mix out, Mr. Smartypants.

I consult the New York Public Library Desk Reference for measurement conversions and find that I must first turn ounces into pints, then into kegs. Then it tells me to multiply by 6, add a teaspoon of sugar, convert it into Chinese ounces and voila! The answer is 3.

The answer is 3? Three what? I don’t know what the heck I’ve figured out. Miffed, I just start pouring into the container. No idea how much, no concern for what my actions may bring. I pour until the fumes start to tickle my nose and I get woozy.

I add water, shake vigorously and attack my yard.

By this point, the substance has eaten through the plastic and is running down my legs. Ooops! The hair is instantly evaporated, and that can’t be a good thing.

Recently, I’ve started using a sprayer that attaches to my garden hose. I’ve met with considerable difficulties from the Yard Gods who laugh at me. For starters, I always seem to spring a leak that sprays highly toxic poison over my, how should I say?, private region. And then I spray the yard only to realize I’ve painted myself into a corner. Coming to this realization is quite demoralizing, and with the yard sizzling from the toxins I’ve sprayed on it, I plop down and wait for it to dry.

“Don’t worry, honey,” I call out to my wife. “It says in three weeks the grass will be walkable again. Until then, I’ll just gnaw on this piece of tree bark.”

She is wearing a gas mask and has poison control on the line.

I will say this: My clover is dying and my grass does appear to be alive. The yard’s looking up. I’ll take some comfort in that, as well as my measurement skills. But if you’ll excuse me, I need to go trim the fingernails on that extra limb that appears to be growing from my backside.

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Caught Up In the Digital Revolution

It struck me in the car, on the way to get a pizza, just how far technology has come, and how much a part of our lives these days it is.

I was listening to a CD, one I had just bought online. I had purchased it with the click of a finger, and downloaded it to my computer where I burned it to a disc and minutes later had it spinning on my automobile CD player.

Was it always like this? So quick? So convenient? So easy to spend money that you never held in your hand? So impersonal? So digital?

Am I a part of the technology revolution or what? (Forget that I still get lost on a fairly regular basis, or that I have a receipt sitting on my dresser that I can’t for the life of me figure out what it’s for.)

What a technologically amazing world we live in. I wake up early Saturday to watch English soccer on my digital cable. I have high speed access that allows me to spend even more time in front of the computer at home than I already do at work. (Wait a minute, benefit where?) And I carry computer files home on a little portable memory device no larger than a peapod, but capable of storing more information than the computers of yesteryear which were large as houses.

But there are always downsides. Why is it the more advanced we become, the harder it is to tape something on television? Take my digital cable for example. Once upon a time all I had to do was program my VCR, pop a tape in and cross my fingers that I had punched in the correct date.

Now I must consult a checklist that begins with a warning — “Failure to follow these instructions could result in death by static electrocution, or worse, taping C-SPAN instead of ‘Survivor.’”

I feel like an airline pilot preparing for takeoff. “Rotary flaps set?” How would I know? I just want to see “The Amazing Race”!

I have to switch the switcher, make sure the digital cable is on the right channel, program the VCR in some precise order so it doesn’t get an attitude and eat my tape, sacrifice a chicken, read and re-read the instruction manual, check the atmospheric pressure and then cross my fingers that I punched in the correct date.

I go to replay the tape after all this and find that while the TV volume was up, the digital cable volume was all the way down. Now I’m watching my show trying to read lips.

Thank you technology.

I’ve got an Internet connection that sometimes gives an error message that is longer than Idaho, and mixes in with code I can’t understand two messages that I can — “up the creek” and “consult God.”

Thank you technology.

On the one hand, I love this plethora of modern technology that surrounds me. (I’m making use of it right now, and if it weren’t for E-mail, this column would get to my editor even later than it already is.)

But on the other hand, I’m plagued by it, constantly caught in a giant shoulder-spasm of a panic attack while trying to figure out error messages or blinking red lights that have no meaning. I’m suffering from digitization.

While I feed on it, I also sometimes wonder if we’re not better off without it. Maybe we should go back to reading books, drawing pictures, sending mail, listening to tunes on record players and ruling technology, instead of it ruling us.

Or, I could just order another CD online and drown my misery in some downloaded digitized tunes. Back to the computer.

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Who will win the worst road trip championship?

So it’s a competition, eh? My parents, divorced since the invention of rocks, can’t stand to let the other one win. Competitive parents. And not competitive in anything that matters.

What’s the game? Who can have the worst road trip to St. Augustine.

In the left corner, weighing in at two sacks of flour, my mother, who won the heavyweight champion of the world title a couple months back when she got speeding tickets both to and from Tampa. It cost her a whopping $380 to J.Q. Law, and landed her in Internet traffic school.

In the right corner, weighing slightly more, my father, who took a stab at dethroning her this past weekend, and landed a couple of good upper cuts that might just put him over the top.

Ding, ding, ding.

My father, whose favorite driving move is to back into those yellow pipe bumpers that gas stations use to keep people from running over fuel pumps, came from Tampa late Friday night. He decided to take the route through the Ocala National Forest because, like my mother, there is too little that can go wrong when you get on an interstate, set the cruise control and kick back for the ride.

It was this haunted forest that became his undoing. Not long into it he heard a sound coming from the passenger seat where one of his two dogs was sitting. It was a sound you could identify through jet engines and a heavy metal concert — someone was throwing up. Now, it’s not a big dog, quite small in fact, but those are the ones who do the most “damage.” And damage she did. My dad pulled over and screamed for clean-up on aisle 6.

To spare you, we’ll move the story along. At some point he was back in the truck, back on the road and pointed toward Palatka. But not long after he was hit with another of those unmistakable noises — flat tire.

Now, there are flat tires, and then there are flat tires at 10 p.m. in the middle of a desolate national forest, in the capitol of nowhere, on a stretch of highway where gangs of bears are known to take your credit cards and order peanut M&Ms.

Changing a tire anywhere is terrifying. I always fear I will kick over the jack by accident causing the car to tip over and pin me by my pinky toe. But on the side of a dark road in the middle of the night is the making of a bad slasher film.

Yet, tough as it must have been, at this point in the story I’m thinking he’s a lightweight.

“Wait!” he says. “There’s more. So I got to your brother’s house. We have a beer while I tell him about the expedition, and after awhile I decide to go out to the car to get my bag, only … IT’S NOT THERE! I left it on the side of the road in the middle of the forest.”

So in the middle of the night, with my brother in tow, he goes out looking for his bag, which had to be found because it had his favorite cargo pants. They raced an hour and a half back like a cruise missile, eyes all-the-while trained on the side of the road until somehow, they found it. The trip ended at 3:30 a.m.

Judges?

“No way,” said my brother Scott over lunch at Ann O’Malley’s. “His is more cost effective. All he wasted was gas, time and a few burned-out brain cells. Plus, he found the bag. Mom racked up hundreds of dollars in speeding tickets, points on her insurance and a dump truck full of brain cells. Only an alien abduction could top that.”

I couldn’t tell if my dad was relieved or disappointed when the scores came in. Will he hang up his gloves, or try to knock out the champ next time?

Only time will tell if a rematch awaits.

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