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Times of the Islands Magazine

Real Florida: Explaining the Inexplicable

There is a growing genre of books dedicated to the impossible task of explaining Florida. Any number of erstwhile authors have tried to understand this bizarre state and why it is unmatched in weirdness by any other state in the union. 

The latest entrant is The Thing About Florida by fifth-generation Floridian Tyler Gillespie, published last April by University Press of Florida. Gillespie, who admits to once being embarrassed to tell people where he is from, undertakes a journey to go behind the “Florida Man” and “Because Florida” memes and insert a little humanity into the mix.  

He does this by traveling the state in search of the eclectic group of people who qualify as crazy Floridians. He begins by tracking down “a Florida man” (or in this case a woman) behind the headline “Florida Woman Repeatedly Slapped Her Grandmother for Rejecting Her Friend Request on Facebook.” He finds her living in a halfway house in Ft. Lauderdale. 

The truth, of course, is more complicated than the headline. The real story was basically a family squabble, fueled by alcohol, that escalated. Grandma pushed, granddaughter pushed back, Grandma called the cops. Media outlets amplified the story. The elder-abuse felony charge was dropped and the case never went before a judge. Grandmother and granddaughter mended fences. But the “Florida Woman” headline lives on and looms large in their lives. 

Gillespie travels to cattle country in the middle of the state where he meets Florida cowboys and dispels the notion of the Florida cracker as “a good-for-nothing.” Here he finds rancher Cary Lightsey, whose family have been Florida ranchers since the mid-1800s. If anyone could be called a cracker, it’s Lightsey, but he hardly meets the description. As a conservation-minded rancher, he is a good steward of his land and has helped pave the way for sustainable cattle ranching in the state.  

Another few stops—from Gatorland in Orlando to Everglades Holiday Park in South Florida—are meant to help Floridians make peace with alligators and other reptiles that live in the state and tend to make people squeamish. A side trip to Fort Myers introduces the reader to pizzeria owner Evan Daniell, whose $45 python pizza has been featured in national publications, including National Geographic.  

Griffith attends Repticon Tampa to meet the group of characters known as “Reptile People.” This leads him to Tom Crutchfield, who over the years has made impressive amounts of money in the reptile mail-order business. He has also been convicted of smuggling endangered animals. “Tom was a true Florida Man,” writes Gillespie. “His story encapsulated the things people feared about Florida. That we were just down here breeding snakes, drinking beer, and wielding machetes.” But today Crutchfield is in good standing with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, helps raise money for conservation efforts, and gives lectures on reptile education.  

Yes, Florida can be a wacko, inexplicable state, but as Gillespie relates with wit and the knowledge of a native, there is much more to the story.