Northwestern Florida, 2010
There is a Florida that has nothing to do with Disney World. Nothing to do with palm trees or Holiday Inns. Tourists are neither courted nor coddled in this part of the Sunshine State and you can go a hundred miles and never see a golden arch. If you are a criminal, however, particularly a violent criminal, there’s a good chance you will run into Barrett Raines.
An hour and a half’s drive south from Tallahassee gets you to Perry, once a safe haven for Florida’s enthusiastic Ku Klux Klan. Nowadays and just south of the Taylor County line, you enter the presently constituted Tallahassee Regional Operations for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. For Special Agent Barrett Raines, the seven counties comprising that jurisdiction were home turf.
“The Bear” was born and raised on the Gulf Coast not far from Taylor County and knew every road from Perry to Old Town like the back of his pie-size hand. The people of the region were as familiar to Agent Raines as the roads traveled. There was not a sheriff in Florida’s Big Bend unfamiliar to Bear Raines, and no murder, theft, embezzlement, fraud, or malfeasance was outside his purview.
But not this morning. On this morning, Barrett took his restored muscle car up to the Walmart in Perry, picked up a couple of baseballs, a bat, and a glove and was heading out with his twin sons for their late-season Little League game. The boys would be playing in Mayo, a little over twenty miles distant. Was not a complicated route. You take Highway 27 out of Perry and the next town south is Mayo, which is the county seat of Lafayette County and the only town in the county. A tourist would not call the drive scenic. During the half hour or less that you’re on the road from Perry to Mayo, you’re maybe thirty miles from the Gulf of Mexico, but you’d never know it. The influence of the pulpwood industry—impossible to miss in Perry—is not much diminished in the twenty-something miles between the Highway 27 Bar and the Mayo First Baptist Church. Hundreds of thousands of acres of slash pine crowd narrow ditches that shoulder a blacktop slicker than snot on a doorknob. Driving past those trees can be hypnotic, unvarying rows of branchless trees fracturing the sun into flashes of light and shadow. Like seeing a stroboscope through a picket fence at seventy miles an hour.
You drive as if in a maze. No vista. No horizon. Only a Band-Aid of sky overhead. You roll down the windows and gag with a fresh contagion. It’s the mill. The spawn of Buckeye’s industrial chimneys follows the road like a fever, a thick, pungent odor, something like sulfur, the fruit of pulp breaking down in enormous chemical vats to become a package for Fritos or the papyrus for some earnest scholar’s dissertation.
Only the shells of double-wides and abandoned vehicles break the monotony of this pastoral, those artifacts displayed as tableau on pallets of palmetto. The vestiges of an older and original culture invisible to the accidental tourist are long familiar to Agent Raines. Nearing the county’s seat, Bear spots a familiar shotgun shack listing on stumps of loblolly, its cedar shingles torn at random, revealing eaves of pine or cedar. Was Preacher McCallister’s old place. There was the old Allis-Chalmer rusting nearby, a hand-turned tractor. A steel crank fit just beneath the radiator to engage a pin. Once the crank pin was engaged, you rotated the crank to turn the engine over. There were a half-dozen ways you could get hurt in that process.
“Always pull ’er up,” Preacher reminded Barrett every single time. “Don’t push that crank down. She kicks back while yer goin’ down, you done broke yer arm. And you want a loose grip—don’t trap that thumb.” There were other things to remember. Make sure the clutch was not engaged. Make sure the PTO was disengaged. Make sure the damn throttle was pulled back. Was frustrating in hundred-degree heat to crank and crank and crank, only to find out the carburetor was starved for fuel. Those memories sparked with the loose cough of a tractor every time Bear saw that old piece of machinery rusting along Highway 27.
Other memories trailed close behind. The unrelenting heat. The tar and filth. The aching back bent to harvest leaves trapped in white-hot sand. Stinging nettles. Rattlesnakes. No telling how many rows of sand lugs Bear had cropped behind McCallister’s recalcitrant tractor, a black boy bent to the ground with white teenagers, equal in the tobacco field, segregated everywhere else. Those days, thank God, had passed, if not all of their effects. Many of the boys with whom Bear shared labor had grown to be fathers. Some of them were friends.
Every artifact drew some sight, sound, or smell from the well of Barrett’s memory. It might be a tobacco barn moldering beneath a grove of hickory or water oak. It could be the rusted rollers of a sugarcane mill. But those brief glimpses of a segregated past were fading, rusting, or rotting to oblivion. A modern tourist driving along 27 would be opaque to the associations redolent in Special Agent Raines. Passers-through were more likely to see manufactured homes looking out over an aging Toyota or Ford. Maybe a trampoline on the side. That, and legions of migrant workers, Latinos camped along the blacktop, their children kicking cigarettes and soccer balls.
The changing face of labor reflected huge changes in an economy based in agriculture of one kind or another since the Civil War. Long before Barrett’s boyhood, there were cattle drives to rival those in Texas. Barrett used to coax his grandfather for stories of timber barons and turpentine wars, tung-oil groves and hogs herded in endless droves across an unfenced loess that stretched from Cedar Key to Valdosta.
There was, however, a price paid for that earlier prosperity. The tidewater cypress and loblolly pine that fed the saws and planers of massive mills were gone forever. Deep-well irrigation and unchecked tracts of pine combined to kill the table of water, and the link of tobacco with cancer made that crop less attractive. Was rare these days to see the Golden Leaf grown within sight of Highway 27. Farmers who proudly proclaimed themselves both faithful and conservative blamed the government for cutting price supports for tobacco.
The most recent recession only magnified a poverty that was systemic. Abandoned chicken houses sagged within sight on either side of the highway, a hundred yards or more of narrow and cheaply built shelter, fabric and lathe and wire, open at either end and begging to be razed. The fields were mostly gone to scrub, and migrants had replaced the indigenous labor of white kids and African-Americans. It was Latinos from Texas or across the border who now planted, suckered, harvested, and cured whatever small plots of tobacco remained. Or raked pine straw at the modern wage of twenty-five cents a bale. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement was established largely in recognition that sheriffs in rural jurisdictions simply did not have adequate funds, facilities, or personnel to police the growing variety of crimes and criminals in their counties. The FDLE was their intrastate bulwark and partner. Or sometimes competitor.
Dixie County offered a fair snapshot of the jurisdiction. A deputy in Dixie County routinely facing drug runners and domestic violence made less than thirty thousand dollars a year. Of course, living was cheap. You could get three bedrooms and two and a half baths and a garage to go with it for less than $150,000. The problem was that with an income per capita of less than fourteen thousand dollars annually, locals could not afford to take advantage of the deals readily available to retirees from DeLand or Sarasota. Natives joked that the start-up house for newlyweds in Dixie was a deer camp. Barrett was cousin to a newlywed, in fact, who renovated an abandoned tobacco barn for her first home, and Bear himself remained in the first home he ever bought, a modest Jim Walter ranch-style installed a spit from the Gulf.
Agent Raines was, moreover, the only black man in his county with a house of any kind on Deacon Beach.
Locals were used to doing without, but the Crackers and poor whites who had grown up with the Bear were now competing for jobs and groceries with newcomers to the Big Bend. These were the pensioners, professionals, or pirates from Tampa or Orlando or farther afield who came to Florida’s northwest with hedge funds, Jet Skis, and a second or third alimony. Lots of toys and condos sprouted up and down the coast from Steinhatchee when times were flush, but that prosperity did not trickle down. The transplants were not much interested in improving their adopted community. They were not concerned that pine trees and prisons provided the mainstay of employment for people in Lafayette and Taylor counties. They were not inclined to vote for bonds dedicated to improve education or health care for a population much more rural and isolated than those in the rest of the Sunshine State.
And yet these retirees and entrepreneurs were surprised to discover that the single mom working at the Piggly Wiggly or the old geezer at the gas station smiled with unabashed schaudenfreude at the spectacle of foreclosed condos and failing 401(k)s. An animosity between the haves and have-nots that only simmered when money was easy now erupted like pus from a festering wound. Especially along the coast. Barrett began to see security fences and cyber-keyed gates on the littorail up and down from Steinhatchee. Kids at school divided along lines of money and class. Churches splintered into self-selected congregations. About the only time you saw locals and transplants in proximity was at a Friday-night football game. That, or Little League.
Little League had become one of the few places where the real estate agent from Daytona and the native-born laborer from Mayo mixed company with relative ease. Barrett was glad to see his own sons side by side with kids from South Florida or South America or even farther. He barely had the car stopped before Ben and Tyndall spilled out, a pair of seventh graders eager to take the field. Had taken a drive of only twenty-five minutes to reach a ballpark that for thirty years was denied to black people. Barrett was glad his sons did not share that memory.
“Don’t forget your gear, boys,” he called out as he opened the trunk.
Ben and Tyndall dashed back to grab a bat and balls. Bear dropped off the extra bat at the visiting team’s dugout, then tapped the concession stand for an ice-cold Coca-Cola before hitting the bleachers. Anyone watching would have seen a black man about as tall as a refrigerator, with rounded shoulders and a head the size of a pail, lounging in jeans and Windbreaker across a pair of aluminum risers. The bleacher actually groaned with his weight. A cap pulled low advertised the boys’ team—DEACON BEACH SHARKS.
This was a father-son game and so most of the fathers were on the field. Not Barrett. A forearm shattered by gunfire the previous year was strong enough to pull a trigger or paddle a kayak, but the impact of a ball on a bat was not yet tolerable and might never be. Even so, Bear loved watching his boys mingling with the other kids. Many natives still had a hard time accepting the notion that their Cracker region was now home to folks hailing from Mexico to Morocco. The Sharks and Hornets offered proof of a changing demographic, middle-school black and white kids fielding grounders and catching fly balls side by side. Barrett spotted the one kid from India—his father was retired from Microsoft and a fanatic for cricket. One boy of Vietnamese parents showed promise. Only two Latinos, though. They needed to work on that, getting the migrants involved in Little League.
Damn near all of the fathers were familiar to Barrett from boyhood. Brady Hart was coaching Mayo’s team, a short, compact man with thick, thick eyebrows and a crop of hair gone from red to gray. Barrett used to ride a school bus with Brady. They used to get together every hunting season, Barrett with his Remington and Brady with a battered magazine-fed, bolt-action Marlin. Damn thing had a thirty-six-inch barrel and was fully choked. Brady used to joke that he bought the gun for geese or airliners. They’d had some good times in the woods over the years. And then lately on the water. Bear bought his kayak secondhand from Brady Hart’s son and got his first lessons from “Coach” on the Gulf of Mexico. It was great rehab for Barrett’s arm. Also part of an ongoing project to overcome his fear of open water.
“Jus’ keep a cell phone and a GPS,” Brady told him one morning as clouds built like anvils on the horizon. “Yer lost, I’ll come getchu.”
“What if I drown?”
“Well then, there won’ be no need.”
They had another bond as fathers of twins, though Brady’s boys were much older and struck with tragedy, the firstborn killed while still a teenager by some drunk driver on the Old Town bridge. The younger twin was deeply affected and endured some rocky years through high school before finding a niche in military service, coming home after two tours on a dangerous and contested field.
Mike Traiwick was the other coach, probably about the same age as Brady’s surviving son, much younger than Brady himself, certainly, and not yet a father. Traiwick was a tall drink of water, eyes set close as a grouper’s, pale and bald.
Mike came to Deacon Beach from parts unknown to take over the local and failing newspaper, and he’d jumped into his adopted community whole-hog—church and school and Little League. His latest cause célèbre was to establish a counseling center and job court for returning veterans. He’d already gotten space for the center at the Advent Christian Village in Dowling Park. Barrett’s wife would be hosting the premier fund-raiser. Neither Mike nor Brady was one of those frustrated athletes trying to relive an imagined glory on the backs of boys. Thank God. Both men were patient with the kids, but specific with direction and discipline.
Speaking of direction—the game began with an invocation given by a priest. Father Frank Swain was a widowed Episcopal minister reordained as a Catholic. Barrett knew it was possible for some married or formerly married ministers to be extended that dispensation, but Frank was the first he’d ever known personally. Swain was affable, but he maintained a priest’s reserve. He affected a kind of anachronistic appearance. Wore suspenders, even in summer. Had hair parted down the middle like Bob McNamara, and bifocal glasses. He had a cross stitched below the crown of his baseball cap and almost never spoke of personal experiences. It was a year before Bear learned from Mike Traiwick that Father Frank had been stationed barely five klicks from Barrett’s own artillery unit during Desert Storm. But where Barrett’s service overseas ended with that active duty, Chaplain Swain joined the reserves and returned for two more tours, administering once again the rites of Communion and Reconciliation in Iraq, and then in Afghanistan. When Mike Traiwick began casting about for a site to help returning veterans, it was natural for Father Swain to offer his church.
“Let us pray.…”
Handy thing about having a priest start your game is that his prayers are bound to be a lot, lot shorter than any evangelic’s or Pentecostal’s. The boys barely had time to take their caps off before they were back on the field.
Barrett settled back with his Coke. Was wonderful to nurse a soft drink as innocents coached by competent adults competed in an untarnished game. Could be exciting, too. Top of the seventh inning, the Sharks were one run back when Benjamin Raines advanced to third on a walk and his dad felt the tickle of the cell phone in his pocket.
“Bear, it’s Smoot.”
Smoot Rawlings. Sheriff of Dixie County.
“Bear, I hate to ask you, but I’m short and I got a situation out on Devil’s Slew.”
The Slew—Barrett was already calculating. A huge swamp just across the county line. Took ten minutes just to reach it.
“What’s the situation, Sheriff?”
“Got us a GI with a Kalashnikov and a hostage.”
“It’s Quentin Hart.”
Quentin Hart … Quentin? Brady Hart’s son!
Barrett now lumbering off the bleacher and toward the dugout. Mike sees him coming.
“Got a call. You see after my boys?”
Bear jogs past the Hornets’ dugout on his way to the Malibu. There was Brady coaching his team, sending a sign to his pitcher. A good man. A man Barrett had known since he was a boy.
What do you say to somebody in a situation like this? What do you do?
Barrett cradles his mobile phone.
“Smoot, I’m on my way.”
Copyright © 2011 by Darryl Wimberley