A Night on an Aircraft Carrier

It was the chance of a lifetime. If there is such a thing as reincarnation, my next lives as a goat, a chicken feather and a booksalesman in Idaho named “Stan” will never see its equal. For the next 1,300 years, I’m officially out of luck.

But you can’t take this away from me.

Flagler College faculty member Barry Sand and I got the chance to fly out to the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the Theodore Roosevelt, where we spent the night, watched them launch and recover aircraft, and generally tried to take souvenirs of anything that wasn’t tied, welded or bolted down.

A common refrain: “Can you fit this landing gear in your bag?”

They call it the “Big Stick,” as in Teddy’s famous saying about speaking quietly and carry one. The ship fits the motto, bristling with firepower, military technology and pilots who must essentially takeoff and land on a floating shoebox.

We got to see it all: takeoffs from the flight deck, night landings, the giant catapults, the 2,000-pound laser guided bombs. And the bunks.

Sleeping arrangements are not unlike a night in a Maytag refrigerator box, although I think there would be more headroom. I slept on the top of three stacked bunks, so high that I needed a pick ax, oxygen tank and a Sherpa to get up there.

We wandered the guts of this mighty warship, spoke with every sailor whose ear we could turn and ate their food. (It was good.)

Then the next day we were launched off by one of the massive steam-operated catapults, propelling our plane from 0-150 mph in 2 seconds. I don’t know how many Gs we pulled, strapped backwards into that supply plane, but it was enough.

The crew lets you know you’re about to launch by waving their arms in the air and screaming, “Here we go!” Moments later your body lurches forward like you’re being dragged back to earth, concrete weighing down every inch of your body.

I expect that’s what it feels like to be electrocuted — your body locked up and you straining with all your might to move from this debilitating paralysis, until a friend smacks you free with a 2X4.

My face strained as I was pressed harder against my harness, and I worried I might squish out like squeezable cheese.

Then, just like it began, it was over. Barry and I looked at each other, exchanging those glances that scream, “We just shared something amazing together and I think I wet my pants.”

As a little kid, my dad brother and I traveled the country hitting every mothballed carrier, battleship and military bathtub-turned-museum we could find. I always marveled at their sizes, their efficient use of space and how the U.S. Navy had perfected doorways that could snap a shin bone in half.

But those were all retired ships, with quiet hallways that you had to imagine sailors racing through. So to finally see one of these hulking beasts alive, its veins coursing with men and women as the ship steamed to some far off mission, was a dream come true.

I told an admiral who asked me how I was enjoying the trip that: 1) if they converted part of the ship to condos, they could really cash in; and 2) that no matter what part of the political divide you come from, you can’t help but appreciate the incredible, and very difficult, job they’re doing for our country.

And they’re kids, most the age of college freshman, all working on million-dollar jet engines, parking planes, steering ships, dishing out food and missing their families for months at a time.

I don’t go in for mushy, but he said something I can agree with: “If you’re worried about the future of today’s youth, this trip will reassure you.”

It did. I came away feeling very proud, very appreciative. And there was another feeling — that I don’t want my two feet leaving the comfort of dry, sturdy land for a long time.

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Send Me a Cure for Clutter Fast

One day, thanks to millions of dollars in funding and many dedicated scientists with no real cause to champion, the world will finally discover a cure for clutter.

That day can come none to soon for me.

Clutter has a way of swarming me, attracted to some scent that I can neither wash away nor mask. So, hard as I try, it always comes back — and worse than before.

My desk at home? I haven’t seen wood in more than a year. Instead, it’s a collection of newspapers, pay stubs, house plans, bills, service cancellations, and most importantly, the note I wrote to myself about a great column idea I had for this week.

Oh, well. Teacher, it was eaten by my pet Clutter.

What is it about us that we have to, like some kind of modern security blanket, surround ourselves with this scourge? Has there been clutter as far back as man can remember. Or is the difference that once upon a time it was called by its scientific name — “crap” — and quickly discarded.

The typical American, I will bet money, has on average 2,200 cheap plastic pens stuffed into a pen caddie on his or her desk. I will wager again that out of that 2,200, exactly two work. Why do we keep them? What is our fascination? Do we expect one day to extract oil from them? Why can’t we go anywhere without spotting a free pen and thinking, “Oooh, I better take one. I’m running low.”

Running low! You could build a house out of all those pens.

If pen companies had a teaspoon of sense, they would stop filling them with ink and pocket millions in savings from trade shows and conferences alone. If only I had gone into corporate marketing and sales.

At home I have pencils that have sat so long that the erasers are petrified. One pencil says it is made of $7.33 in recycled money. Since I was always told you never throw away money, and you SURE don’t grind it up in a pencil sharpener, it is now doomed to sit in the pen holder until it is one day bequeathed to a grandchild.

My desk at work is no better, and a good deal worse because it’s bigger. People always tell me a messy desk is a sign of a man who is too busy to clean it. I appreciate them saying this, and also that they are lying clean through their teeth. Really they’re thinking, “Jeez, this guy’s a slob. How did he get an office with windows?”

I think of this because I grew so embarrassed of my office recently that I — GASP! — cleaned it. Turns out that it’s not a landfill after all, and actually quite nice. I even discovered I have a computer!

Too long I had apologized for the state of affairs in there. People would come to meetings and I would sound like a stewardess running through a pre-flight emergency checklist before we commenced.

“In the event of total desk collapse,” I would say, “oxygen masks will drop down from the ceiling. Should we be caught up in an avalanche, use a swimming-like motion to keep yourself above the papers and aim for the nearest emergency exit. Now please put on your crash helmet and flotation device so we can begin, and remember to always please speak softly.”

I want to end my dependence on clutter, but sometimes I think it’s as much a part of me as an arm or a leg. It can be comforting like being surrounded by a giant fort. Should someone walk in and ask if I have something filed, I can point anywhere and say, “Yep, it’s under “L” for lost.”

They will turn, walk away and never ask for anything else. In life, you have to take the good with the bad. And as long as there are free pens and credit card bills, there will always be clutter.

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So, My Dog is ‘Actively Mature’

Well, if that ain’t a humdinger. To find out — on a bag of dog food of all places — that your pooch is a senior citizen. That’s what Purina says about my dog, Chase. She is at least 8 years old, and that must make her an old fart.

Dog food manufacturers, and maybe others, seem to think that 7 years or older starts the beginning of the “age.” To me that’s when dogs are in their prime.

For that matter, if you apply the 7-dog-years-to-1-human-year ratio, any of our breed 49 or older is also a senior, and needs to be put on this specially formulated diet with added fiber, crude fat and chicken by-product. Hate to be the bearer of bad news.

I found this all recently while researching dog food. I wanted to make sure I was feeding Chase the best there is. I wanted food that was good for her joints, would keep her sturdy and strong, would make her coat shine like a newly polished car, wouldn’t let her eyesight sag and, most importantly, wouldn’t make her throw up all over our rug like the last time we switched food. Personally, I found her food a little grainy, and it didn’t go well with milk.

So I researched, and WHAM!

Chase?!? Old?!?

Naw. that dog has more energy than shaken plutonium and can still drool with the best of them.

Yet, Purina calls her a “senior dog.” Iams calls her “actively mature.” Actively mature? Is that opposed to “Lazy lard-butt immature” or “self-important, upwardly mobile senior”? Maybe “Upper crust unwieldy snorts-too-much elderly”?

Let’s not sugar coat it. Why not call the food “Grandpa nuggets.”

Fine, she’s getting up there in years, but I don’t want my dog getting old, or some dog food company telling me it’s happening without my permission. I can’t picture her one day with a walker and fake teeth talking about the “olden” days when squirrels used to slip her money so she wouldn’t chase them.

“I tell you, sonny, it was a much safer world back then. You could use the bathroom wherever you wanted and nobody made you pick it up in a plastic bag.”

She’s still so energetic and spry that most people often mistake her for a puppy. Well, until they get close enough to catch a whiff of her breath, or she curses like a sailor.

I always pictured her one day taking care of me. That she would help me down the steps at my house when I’m older and hold my arm for support. Then she would catch sight of lizard, leap over the railing, and leave me to fold up like a wrinkled shirt.

By no means is she ready to be put out to pasture. She can still leap higher than I can, run faster than wild horses and in defense of her math skills, she has never once been audited by the IRS.

But there is a bit more gray in her face and she spends more of her time doing crosswords these days. She does like to take her dinner earlier in the evening.

Oh, it’s not easy watching anyone grow older, and no easier when it’s a pet. She’s my kid! She can’t be older than me, and maturity? I’ve seem dead leaves that are more mature than she is.

We asked our vet, Dr. Nicholas, whether we should start doing anything different with her as she ages ungracefully. Maybe not let her jump so much, or stop her from climbing trees.

“It’s better to wear out than to rust out,” I think he said, and it’s good advice for all of us, dog included.

So we’ll switch her to the “seniors” diet and wait for her AARP card to arrive in the mail. Aging is something we all have to come to terms, and we’ll do it with her, too. But watch out lizards, that dog still has a lot left in her yet.

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Taking the War to the Mosquitoes

It’s time to take the war, the great battle, to the next level.

Oh, I’ve been fighting it most of my life — this struggle, this great occupation. I have turned plowshares into swords (whatever that means) and raised the flag of war.

It’s my familiar battle cry used when I tackle weeds, my shed or whenever my mother wants me to try something new.

Now it’s for mosquitoes, and I’m waiting on the ultimate weapon. Come on, postman, bring it to my door.

Mosquitoes in Florida come like driving rain. They’re especially bad this time of year because the dollar is weak and bugs from other countries are finding terrific airfare on online travel sites.

They’re swarming in my yard and making life miserable outside.

I’m tired of breathing citronella fumes, which I’m convinced only makes mosquitoes punch drunk. They become a bit more wobbly, ask for a lot of spare change and drool on you as they’re biting. And I’m tired of wearing two layers of clothing and chain mail when I go outside.

So I’ve taken the advice of my neighbor, John, who told me to get a Mosquito Magnet. I was skeptical at first. There have been any number of gimmicks and mosquito-killer products over the years — the mosquito laser, mosquito napalm, mosquito casinos to get them hooked on gambling, bug zappers and moving to the North Pole.

But this new device, which he bought months ago, seems to be working. It’s clearing out his whole yard.

The idea is simple. It’s connected to a propane tank — why, I’m not quite sure, but they are either attracted by the gas, or come thinking there’s going to be a barbecue. (I am under the impression that only small quantities of propane are released, and that my back yard will not become a giant pool of gas waiting for an errant cigarette to level us with a blast.)
Some say mosquitoes come racing toward the machine because it has the same attracting effect as a large, pale man taking a backyard nap in the nude. It’s the equivalent of a human fast food chain.

The scent leads them close to a nozzle that when they get close enough sucks them up and traps them inside.

“Does it use some kind of pesticide to kill them?” I asked my neighbor.

“Oh, no,” he told me. “They just get trapped in there and dehydrate to death.”

“Dehydrate to death?” I said. “How cruel. What an awful, excruciating way to die. So uncivilized. How do I get one?”

The thought of hundreds of mosquitoes stuck in there sweating and gasping for water has me in a tizzy. I can see one now, loosening his tie and asking, “Harry, when they serving drinks around here?”

I’m absolutely giddy.

Oh, I’m not a cruel man. I’ll go out of my way to help a lizard, an earthworm, a spider or even a lowly moth.

But mosquitoes do not elevate the humanity in me.

So I bought a Mosquito Magnet 4000 Defender online and I’m now anxiously waiting to hear the dull rumble of the Postal Service truck pulling up to my house.

When I get it, I’m going to paint big shark jaws on the sides, call it the “House of Death,” and hang a flag above it that says, “Die, suckers, die!” or “For a good time, come on in.”

I’m hoping my troubles with the pests will be over. No more bites on the eyelids, or worse, my tongue. No more waking up the wife with a quick swat to the head when I see a mosquito land there. I did that to the dog once, and she just about ripped my nose clean off.

After the war will come peace in the land, and we shall rejoice and drink iced tea on the front porch.

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Trip Planning Goes Awry in the Florida Keys

Boy, I’ve never goofed one like this before. Riding down to Key West, expecting to check-in to a cottage in Old Town, and boom, we find we’re arriving a night early.

A night early! Oh mealy worms. Sometimes I have the common sense of an overcooked macaroni noodle.

The wife found out when she called to request late check-in.

“Um,” they told her, “you’re not scheduled to check-in until tomorrow.”

The heat of embarrassment took a tour through my body, ending in my toes. I thought my toenails might pop off. I looked for someone to blame, and maybe the dog, but I had to take this one squarely on the shoulders. I misread the paperwork — dates were never my strong point — and we were up the creak.

What a way to start a week-long vacation in the Keys.

But you know, a start like that means it can only get better. And it did. It all worked out. Thompsons may have chronic bad luck, and petroleum jelly for brains, but we’re survivors. It all worked out because in the Florida Keys there’s no living but good living.

I love it down there. And it’s not for any of the reasons most people have. Frankly, I don’t do anything that makes the Keys the Keys. Don’t boat, don’t fish, don’t drink until I’m inside out, don’t lobster hunt, don’t collect shells, don’t buy cheap crap, don’t visit tourist attractions, don’t snorkel, don’t scuba and don’t go anywhere that might bring me into close contact with marine life that views my hind quarters as a pork chop.

Instead, my wife and I do simple things. We take long strolls until the heat of summer has wilted us to puddles and melted our knees. We take in galleries and eat well. We admire architecture and plot changes to our house — “What about a windmill?”

We walk around with a list of every ice cream shop in town so we’re always prepared, and we admire yachts with mansions growing out of them, prompting us to wonder what we did wrong to be so poor.

And this trip I learned that life can be best enjoyed from atop a beat-up beach cruiser bicycle. We rented bikes and scooted around Key West without a care in the world, except for the fear of running over rabid chickens that might chase us.

I don’t usually like to rent bikes because most are brand new, bright colors and come affixed with big signs that read, “Dork tourist coming, be mindful and don’t kill.”

But the bike I found to rent had character. It was covered in rust and looked like it had just been dredged out of the bay. The tires were underflated, and the back wheel was so bent it flopped around like a spinning pancake.

It was the perfect Key West bike. I rode around town in proud style, swerving uncontrollably when I got going too fast because the front wheel wasn’t actually attached.

I love a vacation that when people ask, “What did you do?” you have to answer, “One word: tetanus.”

I kept the freezer stocked with Dove bars. I picked up coconuts and carried them home. I drank more bottled water than there is in Virginia. I invented cocktails. I didn’t answer the phone. I ate roasted almonds. I bought expensive chocolate.

What a time. What a wonderful, wonderful time.

Now we’re back, and real life is returning with a thud. The beach cruiser is gone, and so are the mid-day ice creams.

But a boy can still dream, can’t he? Dream of a day with a yacht that has an ice cream store and a big crane that lowers a rusting bike ashore every morning.

The back wheel will still flap like a pancake, and I will always arrive one day too early because who doesn’t need to get a jump on vacation?

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Off you go, college boy

An open letter to my brother-in-law Richie Demato, who just graduated from St. Augustine High School and is now headed for the University of Central Florida.

So you’re a college boy now, huh? Think you’re pretty special, I bet. Like you’re on top of the world. Well … you are! How I wish I was going back to college. People send you money there. That spigot shutdown for me a long time ago.

But I thought I would pass along some of my hard-earned wisdom that I think can help make your college experience much better (or at least more interesting). Here are a few things to keep in mind:

• Personal hygiene and laundry are not for wussies. It’s for people who don’t want to end developing five kinds of fungus, including a portabello mushroom farm on their back.

My roommate in college, a good friend named Don, did not wash his bed sheets for an entire year. Not once. They began the year navy blue and ended a color that had never been discovered before. Investigating scientists named it College Crud 186.

Young Don was also not known for doing laundry on a timely basis. As the No. 1 cross country runner at Flagler, this often meant some creative running outfits. One day I remember him rushing in to get ready and realizing he had nothing but a paper towel to wear for a shirt. Having already worn the paper towel the day before, and too fashion conscious to wear it two days in a row, he began digging through a hamper of clothes that smelled like a cheese shop in a week-long blackout.

He picked a tank top that was the least gag-inducing, gave it a spritz of Polo cologne and declared it good-to-go. A green haze rose up from the shirt, and the doorway swelled as he passed through. The coach thought the team was on drugs because everyone running with Don had bloodshot eyes.

• Remember that beer is not one of the major food groups. And while it might look cool in movies, pouring it over cereal only makes it taste like an ash tray.

• Understand that a balanced diet must consist of more than bread, mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce. Listen, you go four years living on only pizza and you’ll end up like a guy I knew who still looks and smells like a stick of pepperoni.

• Be afraid, be very afraid, of the day when your college sends that list of “things” they say you need for school. If you can, don’t let your mother see it … EVER! That list is filled with a kingdom of items you will never want, and as a guy, most likely will never use. College supplies are like your appendix — they’re worthless.

But someone will buy them all for you, and because you’re a nice guy, you won’t throw them away … ever. I still have a miniature tool kit with a hammer the size of a bottle opener. Never been used.

This list might include: a shaving kit (you will shave only once in your college career), a laundry hamper (sometimes re-usable as a beer can recycler), a staple remover (1963 was the last recorded year in which a staple remover was used), yaffa blocks (don’t ask), a spoon, a knife and a fork that can be clipped together (but never unclipped), and an iron and miniature ironing board. (The miniature ironing board is so you can iron all the clothes you shrink in the dryer because you didn’t listen to your mother.)

• Get yourself a hot plate. Even though we’re living in a world where proper food is much more plentiful for the average college student, no one should ever graduate and enter the real world without heating up a can of Beanie Weenies in their dorm room. It’s a time-honored tradition. Like beer in your cereal.

Now good luck and enjoy.

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It Can’t Be Hurricane Season Again

You have got to be kidding me.

Did the front page of the paper really say it? Hurricane season starts in less than two weeks. Did my eyes deceive me?

We just went through hurricane season, the worst we’ve ever known, and it nearly separated our great state from the mainland. We just barely survived, and now there’s another one coming? Don’t we get a rest? A get out of jail free pass?

We get nothing, accept the chance to buy more bottled water, potted meat and assorted knickknacks we don’t need. You ever stock up on D batteries, only to sit around in the dark with your head in your hands because you don’t have anything to use them in?

A year later, they’re still in the pantry, leaking battery acid all over your wife’s favorite embroidered napkins — the ones passed down from a great aunt in Denmark.
So we’ll do it all over again. Do not pass go, do not collect $200 and put the big bullseye back on your roof that reads, “Hurricane parking, $5.”

While the heart of the season is still months off, the predictions don’t look good. The story I read said 12 to 15 tropical storms with maybe seven to nine becoming hurricanes. At least two are expected to team up and charge through the Atlantic like twin buzzsaws, one will learn how to rain fire and another is expected to be rabid with a case of measles.

My prediction is that seven storms, and a squaw, will hit Florida, and by the time it’s over, the state will be shaped like a squashed toad and we will be demoted from state to landfill.

Not to be a pessimist, but I know it’s going to be a bad season. There’s one simple reason: my yard looks great. I don’t need the National Hurricane Center or computer models to predict storm activity or how many tropical waves will come off Africa. My bougainvillea is blooming, and it never has since I’ve planted it. That can’t be good.

Peruse your own yard if you don’t believe me. Are plants that have never flowered suddenly looking like they’re juiced on steroids? Are neighbors complimenting your yard, and no longer saying things like, “Wow, that’s handsome dirt” or “Have you considered asphalt?”

Is the grass growing? Are the trees nice and trimmed? Is everything as it should be, like a fairy tale, brimming with flowers and butterflies and singing frogs?

Then we’re doomed!

Yards know — they’re vegetative predictors. A good looking yard means either hurricanes, drought or freezes are on the way, and sometimes all three.

It’s a final gasp of glory, an explosion of color and extravagant vegetation in a big raucous party, all before the winds come and scatter it to Alabama. Enjoy it now.

That said, I’m getting ready this year. No goofing off. No partial planning and perennial procrastinating.

In an old house where the roof is attached by tape and the critters who live in the attic have the good sense to get out and flee as a storm approaches, it’s nerve-racking and I want to be prepared.

I learned some valuable lessons last year. Like how handy a gas grill and a freezer full of frozen, catalog-bought steaks can be. My neighbors taught me that, and they’re Yankees.

Hurricane supplies should not be a six-pack of mini-Cokes, a peanut M&M found between the cushions of the sofa and a slightly-dry moist towelette. That’s for a week-long road trip, not a natural disaster.

So I’m preparing — getting ready to gas the car and board up the windows. I suggest you do, too. And if you don’t believe me, come on over and have a talk with my bougainvillea. He’ll set you straight.

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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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