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Memorial Day Weekend
Bad Luck on Day 3
By Bill E. Branscum   ©2004
(Click the pics to Enlarge)

It was Monday morning, and everyone was up early. The Memorial Day weekend was drawing to a close and my kids were anxious to have another day to play on Bad Luck Prairie, an area where adults act a lot like children and grandparents use four-wheelers to show grandchildren where they camped and played as kids.

Bryan, Carl, and the rest of the "Usual Suspects," generally go to Bad Luck in the late afternoon and stay until the early morning hours. That being the case, we decided to start our day with an early morning drive.

I took the kids south of Naples on US Hwy 41 that morning because everything we now know as Collier County got its start there. I wanted to tell them a little bit about John Weeks, Ed Watson, William Scott Allen, how the Allen River became the Barron River, and how Everglades City was born.

I was looking forward to playing in the mud with my kids, but first, I wanted to tell them what I knew about Barron G. Collier, motor cars, canals, unkept Presidential promises, mercury, the price of sugar, and environmental mayhem.

Unfortunately, I am neither an historian, nor an environmentalist. I'm sure that the childrens' intellectual best interests would be better served if I were a little more of both, but I know something about the history of this area, and I felt that we could enjoy our morning sight-seeing, and talking about what humanity has done with the gifts we were entrusted with.

As we approached the end of our Memorial Day weekend, I felt like I should share with them some things about the development of SW Florida that I believe to be worthy of remembering. It's a story about hard work, development, greed, ignorance, generosity, corruption, good intentions, and people at their best and worst. I wanted to impress upon my children that if Mother Nature was a sentient being, if the Earth manifested conscious awareness, and if they had the collective capacity to act, they would be likely to eradicate humanity as the consumptive plague that we are.

As we drove south from Naples down US 41 towards Everglades City; we stopped on the side of the road where the highway overlooks Bad Luck Prairie, which was deserted and desolate looking at that time of the day.

Standing on the highway constructed to connect Tampa with Miami, and looking out over the prairie, I wondered how much things had changed over the last eighty years. What happened to Florida Bay, what killed 100,000 acres sea grass, why is the coral that makes up our barrier reef system dying, what can be done to correct it, and what's going to happen if we don't?

The Everglades Forever Act was not the answer, and it was obvious from its inception that it wouldn't be, as evidenced by the fact that environmental activist Marjory Stoneman Douglas declined to have it named after her.

How many Floridians remember what historians may one day call the "Barley-Buker War," where the US Sugar Corp. managed to defeat the penny-a-pound tax on sugar, intended to fund an effort to clean up the damage done consequent to its production?

How about the "Hole in the Donut" fiasco of thirty years ago, where land management experts demonstrated to the satisfaction of all concerned that they truly had no clue. Claiming that their pesticides and fertilizers polluted the swamp, lawyers and legalese successfully shut down the tomato farm that had been in existence there for generations, thereby allowing it to become infested with Brazilian Peppers.

As we continued south towards Everglades City, we approached the sign for the Port of the Islands Resort, a landmark known for various things, by various people. Out in the middle of nowhere, it once offered a remote, secluded landing strip that some found useful.

Others used the lights atop the facility as a navigation aid when flying in over the Gulf of Mexico, allowing them to land drug laden aircraft on Desoto Blvd., in the area we call, "the Blocks."

I recalled working one such case, where the pilot had evidently misjudged and inadvertently flown his plane into the ground, scattering himself, and hundreds of carefully wrapped packages of cocaine, all over the place. I remember that the largest piece of him was wearing an inflatable life vest - that struck me as being a bizarre irony at the time.

"Imagine," I told them, "that guy had a family that loved him and friends that liked and trusted him, but he wound up scattered all over an acre or so of swamp, with people cracking jokes about his life vest." That sounds harsh and hard, and I suppose it is, but we have all seen too many people's lives destroyed by lines of white powder, and too many kids who will never have a life, prostituting themselves for a puff of smoke. The likes of me have no sympathy whatsoever for the likes of him; I think it is important that my kids understand how I feel about that.

Anyway, it certainly is a beautiful hotel.

A little further down the road, we stopped at Ochopee to visit the smallest official post office in the United States. The sign makes for an interesting read.

Once we got to the flashing light that marks the turn to Everglades City, we turned right and drove down thru the town that once served as the County seat. In photographing the court house, I found myself wondering what stories they would tell if those walls could speak.

We stopped briefly at the airport in Everglades City, a far cry from the hustle and bustle madness that we have all come to associate with the airports of today. It's a quiet, quaint little place with no gun toting guards or security barriers.

From the airport, we drove on down to Chokoloskee. The kids were fascinated by the story of "Bloody Watson," the man alleged to have been so evil that he was murdered by the town.

Although I would have liked to have taken the children on down the coast to Flamingo, they were anxious to meet up with our friends and go Jeeping.

I had a lot more that I would have liked to have talked about, times past, marine law enforcement and drug interdiction efforts at Pavilion Key, Lostman's River, Shark River . . . so many things to show them and tell them, but it's a trip that I'd prefer to take them on by boat.

One day, we will have another boat of our own, and I will show them what the Gulf of Mexico and SW Florida's Ten Thousand Islands have to offer, but our morning was about used up, and we had to hurry to meet our friends.

Carl and Colleen arrived at our house in their blue Jeep shortly after we did, followed by Bryan and Molly in their black Jeep a few minutes later. In looking at this picture, I realize that my front yard looks much like the prairie, except for the asphalt and curb stones.

It's always advisable to do a last minute inspection in the parking lot.
Once we got to the trail head, we found that the previously dry passage way back to the prairie had become a creek. Jeremy followed me thru it in his yellow Jeep, followed by Carl and Colleen in their blue Jeep.
Bryan brought up the rear in his black Jeep. This was his first time out with his new snorkel, and I got the impression that he would have liked to find the water even deeper - since Carl hadn't mounted his yet, it was probably deep enough.
Once we got to the entrance of the prairie, there were four-wheelers everywhere. I would have wondered how they had gotten thru the deep water, were it not for the fact that they were playing in a swamp buggy trench.
The folks on the four-wheelers were anxious to see the Jeeps try this trench, so Carl (you remember, he's the guy who didn't want to get his tires wet a few days ago) jumped right in.
Not to be outdone, Brian took my son Dook for a wild ride down the trench at a precarious feeling angle - since I had seen Bryan do this before when the trench was dry, I knew it wouldn't roll over. It felt pretty spooky to Dook.

I climbed back into our Rubicon and made my way thru the first real hole. Once I was on the other side, I climbed out to get some pictures. Bryan didn't disappoint me - he hit that hole with enthusiasm.

Oh yes indeed, a spectacular water crossing. He chose his line, geared down, hit the water, and powered right thru it . . . but a flash of yellow in my view finder caught my eye as it cruised by. That Jeep was driven by my nine year-old Dook!


It's nothing uncommon for my kids to drive our Jeeps, but Bryan's has a stick shift that, unbeknownst to me, Dook has been learning to drive. Bryan discovered what I have known for years - when you do things with children, you see thru their eyes, and it's like doing them again for the very first time.


The young man driving our Jeep thru this water crossing is Jimmy Schaeffer, a boy a few years older than Dook who lives on our street. It cost few minutes and a quarter's worth of gas - he has one of these photos blown up as an 8x10.

Personally, I think it's a very small investment to make in a young man.

A lot of guys do this sort of thing with their Jeeps, but there are many who insist on doing all the driving, never letting anyone including their wives or girlfriends take a turn. They are the guys you hear saying, "Did you see me climb that rock," "I can't believe I crawled thru that mud hole" or, "I can pull you out."

It makes you want to say, "Yo Dude, you pushed down on a little plastic pedal for Heaven's sake - you having a little testosterone induced confusion?" Maybe some guys need that delusion, and it could be that letting their wife, or their children do it, would reveal some little guy behind the curtain that they don't want to see.

"Tell you what Dude, how about you guys just sort of split the difference -- suppose Momma lets you go right on clingin to that other delusion you're so fond of, if you let her and the kids have a turn with the Jeep."

Yepper, natural born mediator -- that would be me.

If you encourage your children to do things when they are young, they grow up to be more capable and self confidant. Most folks might find this a little anxiety provoking.

The way Jeremy manages to follow us wherever we go, it's hard to imagine that his Jeep is a base model 6 cylinder automatic Wrangler Sport, without a posi-traction rear end. Without a suspension lift, or a body lift, he manages to keep up with us running on a set of wheels and tires that came standard on the Rubicon.

I am not sure what to attribute his success to, but I suspect that it might be related to weight. He weighs significantly less than most adults, he usually has no more than one child as passenger, and his Jeep isn't loaded down with accessories.

Carl's blue Sport has a 4 inch Fabtec suspension lift, a 3 inch body lift and significantly larger tires, but he sometimes hangs up in places Jeremy drives through. Carl made it thru this hole on his second try after Dook pulled him out -- can you imagine how exciting that is for nine year-old?

As thrilling as it had to be for him to "rescue" Carl, it had to take some nerve (and a lot of passenger seat encouragement) for Dook to launch Brian's Jeep into the same muddy crossing where Carl had been stuck.
We thought for a minute that he'd pushed it to far, but after a good bit of tire spinning, slipping and sliding, the little guy pulled it off.
Our next crossing was fairly deep with a reasonably hard bottom. It was slick enough that there was some tire spin involved for Jeeps without posi-traction rear ends, but other than the water, and the potential to plunge into an unexpectedly deep hole, it wasn't bad for those of us with snorkels.
Bryan's black Jeep spent a lot of time doing water crossings - since Bryan can be seen standing in the grass shooting pics, I'd call that a pretty good clue that he wasn't driving (I'm a detective ya know).

Naturally, Dook couldn't leave him standing there so he had to go back and get him.

Clever how Dook pulled around in a circle so Bryan could get back in the Jeep on the passenger side.

Having made the trip once, and then returned to get Bryan, the second time thru was predictably uneventful - but I hardly think Dook was bored!

We weren't the only ones that came to Bad Luck to play in the mud. People were getting stuck, and unstuck, almost everywhere we looked. This poor dejected soul got her four-wheeler stuck in goo she could hardly walk in.
Like a band of marauding Hells Angels, a group of off road bad boys showed up. We could scarcely believe our eyes as they stole her four-wheeler and left her lying in the mud.
Worse yet, when someone tried to intervene, a terrible fight broke out. Like a scene from "Deliverance," filthy examples of humanity at its nastiest appeared from nowhere . . .

Okay, I apologize - that isn't what happened. I just felt like I had to add something for those who are demanding that access to this prairie be shut down. I suppose that there will always be those who disapprove of activities that do no make sense to them, and cannot abide that which they cannot control.

If you look closely at the band of "bad boys" in the photo above, you could identify this young lady's parents and her grandfather. This was a family affair and the young lady involved was very young.

Grandparents spending quality time with children, and grandchildren, while teenagers wrestled in the mud. I wish I had taken a better picture of this young lady - Sandy Sue is as pretty as a model, as tough as the most of the guys and makes straight A's at Gulf Coast. She's single too!

Imagine, a child encouraged to play in the mud!

In thirty years as a detective, meddling about in other people's business, I have seen a lot of life and I've tried to pay attention. Gangs, drugs, senseless violence, sexually transmitted fatal diseases . . . as parents, we have much to fear and contend with.

I'm getting old, a little awkward, and I suppose it's odd for a man my age to have so many friends half his age, but as long as there's one young person on the planet who wants to go play in the mud, I'll try to be, "down for that."

So much for segue - where was I?

Jeremy kept up in his yellow Jeep but lacking the ride height enjoyed by the rest of us, deep water was a challenge even with a snorkel.

At one point, we realized that we had left him behind, so we went back to our last water crossing to wait for him.

When Jeremy caught up, he attempted the crossing, but before he had gone more than a few feet, the water threatened to break over his hood. Although the snorkel would protect him from hydro locking his motor, alternators and electronics do not do well under water.

That's his Jeep, he makes the payments and he is responsible for repairs. Since he hadn't seen us negotiate the crossing, he was unable to tell how deep the water might be; as we talked about it via CB Radios, I honestly couldn't remember exactly where I'd gone thru.

I was glad to see that he had the sense to back out and rethink his plan.

Remember when you were a child and your memory was so perfect you could quote every thing anyone ever said to you verbatim? Dook piped up on the radio and said he remembered exactly where we crossed; before I knew it, Dook was on his way back to get him.
Under the watchful eyes of his nine year-old brother, Jeremy tried the crossing again, following the path Dook had showed him.

I found the whole thing wonderfully remarkable. My nine year-old saw a problem, recognized that he could help and just did it, without soliciting opinions or permission from anyone.

I know these guys, I love them, and as I sat there watching him supervise his brother's crossing, I realized how Dook had to feel.

I also knew how Jeremy must have felt, and as has always been the case with that young man, he didn't disappoint me. When he got thru the crossing, he keyed the mic and just said, "Thank you Dook," in precisely the same way as he would address any other adult.

If you don't know people, especially young people, you may not see the potential here for a braggart's bravado, or sarcastic praise born of childish resentment. This whole event may seem to you to be a very small thing.

I'm in the parenting business and I'll share with you a truth that you can take to the bank - Parental victories lie in the day-to-day minutia; diligently attend to the little things, and the big things will take care of themselves.

For his return trip, Dook chose a slightly different path that took them into water that was just a little deeper.

Once they made it thru to the other side, it was finally Bryan's turn to drive - although not without objection. Dook didn't complain, or try to wheedle a little more time, but since nobody could remember ever seeing Bryan go so long without getting stuck, we all questioned the wisdom of the change.

Bryan launched right into the nearest mud hole.
It was like, "See, I can drive it without getting stuck," and he did - for about three minutes.
Bryan set off to conquer what has always been a nasty hole. The water isn't all that deep, but the earth beneath is a slimy, slippery goo that clogs tire cleats and rapidly turns even the most aggressive off road tires into "slicks."

Anxious to help, Jeremy waded in to spool some line out of the winch - "Hey Dad, will this thing work under water?"

They tried a couple of options before using my high/dry winch to pull him out. We learned an important lesson here - although we usually take turns pulling each other out, in the future, we will not waste time when dealing with submerged vehicles. Whomever can get to it first should get it out as fast as they can.

It wasn't as if getting him out did a lot of good; as soon as Bryan was unstuck, he found another treacherous crossing to jump into.

He's doing pretty good in this picture - the wave of water shows that he is making forward progress.

Conversely, the absence of a wave of water in the second picture shows that he is not making forward progress . . . our man Bryan is thoroughly stuck. Jeremy was the first person to get to him, so they used Jeremy's Jeep and Bryan's winch cable to get him out.
There's no denying it - click the last picture to see it full size . . . there is no sign of Dook's yellow T-Shirt in that driver's window! Naturally, none if us ragged on Bryan for getting stuck again, or suggested that he should leave the driving to Dook . . . that would have been cold and unkind. [smile]

Brian and Julie used their four-wheeler to check out the trail and search for shallow water crossings.

Julie had rescued Dook when he drowned out Cara's four-wheeler the night before - Frankly, I think he just wanted to be rescued by Julie!

Dook has always been that way; when he was three, his mom and I could not believe that he invited the young ladies from day care home to swim in the pool - and they came.

Whereas Dook's a charming little flirt, Ryan is serious, quiet and shy. Watching them grow up will be fun.

I need to add a photo of Cara, the young lady who has been sharing her four-wheeler Dook, but she never seems to show up until after dark. She's a sweetheart - they say she has the temper to go with all that red hair, but you couldn't prove that by me.

It was much later before Bryan got stuck again - mostly because he avoided the obvious holes. This time, it was the greasy goo that got him - he paused just long enough to lose forward momentum and couldn't get going again.
Since Bryan did not appear to be badly stuck, Eddie got into position to use his portable winch. Although I had my doubts, the little winch pulled hard enough to drag Eddie back to Bryan.

Jeremy solved that problem by tying off to Eddie's bumper. Once a vehicle breaks thru and settles down into the goo, it "sticks." A suction seems to form between the under carriage and the mud that is very hard to break. Unfortunately, the portable winch didn't appear to have the pulling power necessary to break Bryan free - it might have been able to do it, but Eddie and Jeremy continued to slide toward Bryan.

We ultimately extricated him by parking my Jeep significantly further away where the ground was much less slippery. Eddie tied off as an anchor point for my Jeep, and we doubled the power of my winch by running it thru an industrial strength snatch block to pull him free.

By the time we freed him, it was getting dark.

We continued Jeepin' on thru the night, getting people stuck, and getting people unstuck, until the kids finally had all they could stand. My Megs was in charge of the winch controls to the very end.

I don't think Jeremy ever gets tired.

We live in a time when terrorism is at the forefront of everyone's mind, but I think we miss the forest for the trees. It's true that those miserable mutts mean to destroy us; given the means, they have the will. Lord knows I recognize and appreciate the danger. Still, I don't fear them.

I fear losing my connection with my children, I fear losing a child to the "dark side" world of drugs, gangs and violence, I fear . . . failure. I suppose we all feel that way.

We don't need Jeeps, or boats, or money to connect with our children - I use what's at hand, but I don't need the toys, and you don't either. What our children really want is that precious commodity that we jealously tend to withhold from them -- the thing we must share with them is our time.

It was a long three days, and a short three days. We burned a lot of gas, and we used up a couple of coolers full of ice, food and drinks. We had a wonderful time, and we appreciate the opportunity to share it with you.

Good Luck and God Bless

For My Mother
Juanita "Nita" Branscum
!!!Happy Birthday!!!


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