It was eight years ago this week that I returned from a three-month contractor stint (or TDY, for you military folks) in Tampa, FL. That's me looking over Old Tampa Bay from Bayshore Boulevard, and that's the longest unbroken sidewalk in the world at over 4 miles. It seemed to be the place to see and be seen! I often enjoyed a stroll there after work.
I was hired away from the government by a contractor to do Y2K work. Ah, those were the salad days in which all you needed to work in the IT industry was a pulse. Just before Y2K, I was sent to MacDill Air Force Base to help U.S. Special Operations Command with their Y2K remediation efforts. Turns out I was one of only two employees who hadn't served in the military, and the other one was a young lady whose father was a full-bird colonel.
My initial lodging wasn't so good; despite a nice view of the bay, the Sailport had a strange room layout with my bed right near the parking lot, and I could hear everything going on. So, after only a couple weeks, I moved across the street to a Residence Inn (it would later become a Chase Suites Inn) which met my needs much better. I opted to make many of my meals at the room and stretch out my per diem.
The tough part about this was being by myself for those three months; LC stayed at home in MD. Getting through the weeks wasn't so bad, but I so did not know what to do with myself on weekends. I know many an unaccompanied, married guy would treat himself to one or more of the Gentlemen's Clubs nearby (there were four down the street from my hotel alone), but I didn't do that. So, what to do?
Fortunately, I didn't have to pay for gas or my car rental, so I started going on day or weekend trips of my own. Twice, I visited people I knew on the east coast of Florida, once in Cocoa and once in Daytona Beach. I didn't go to Disney because I figure that would probably be about as appealing as playing miniature golf by myself; I could, but what's the point?
So I started doing volksmarches all over the place:
- A walk through downtown Tampa took me along the Hillsborough River, through the University of Tampa (above), and along some of Bayshore Boulevard.
- Just after New Year's, I went on a walk in St. Petersburg through the marshes near the Howard Frankland Bridge.
- Walking on the beach of Honeymoon Island SP (above), I called a friend of mine in Annapolis. While I was stripped to the waist, he was busy chipping ice out of his driveway. LC had to dig out from a foot and a half of snow, but fortunately, some of her neighbors helped out. Temps did get below freezing for a few nights, but once the transplants have gotten used to Florida temperatures, they even consider 65 degrees cold. And nobody swims in the open water outdoors during the winter except for northerners.
- At Oscar Scherer SP near Venice, I rescued a Michigan family that had gotten lost, encountered some aggressive scrub jays (above) that feared nothing or no one, and talked to a snowbird from my county in MD (the huge Maryland flag hanging off his camper was a dead giveaway). P.S.: Venice is a wonderful place to watch a sunset over the Gulf:
- Wekiva Springs SP north of Orlando is a great place to escape the summer heat. Nobody was swimming in the clear, 72-degree waters in February, but it was still a nice walk through different sorts of terrain.
- On one of my weekends in Daytona, I took a walk at a wildlife refuge to the north, then did a group walk through Lake Helen and the spiritualist village of Cassadaga (don't walk there at night!). I was surprised to see farmland that looked much like northern or western Maryland.
- During my last weekend in Florida, I drove down to Sanibel Island near Fort Myers and did a volksmarch there. What a gorgeous place; I could see myself retiring there.
I just wished I could have shared it with LC. So I brought back a few shells instead.
If I had been kept on my project for the duration, I would have been able to perform with the (Creedence) Clearwater Community Chorus. By far, I was the youngest male singer there. It was going to be a great show, with selections from Jekyll and Hyde, John Rutter's "When the Saints Go Marching In," Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll," and more. Also, I was to sing a duet of "Sixteen Going On Seventeen" with a 17-year-old cashier at Publix. Well, the show went on without me since I got sent home three weeks earlier than originally planned.
Oh, I should mention President's Day weekend when LC came to visit (I got to go home and see her on a couple weekends). I never saw any manatees at Safety Harbor, but when she was there, they all appeared! We attended a nice arts festival in Tampa, spent time on St. Pete Beach, and saw a concert with a Sweet Adelines group and a barbershop chorus.
But here's the funniest thing that occurred that weekend when she came down: We were driving around St. Petersburg looking for a place to go to church. Seeing folks file into a Catholic church, I asked if we could still make it. The usher said, "Sure, come in!"
I quickly noticed two things: 1) We were by far the youngest people there, and 2) the opening song was in French. So was the entire Mass! We were at a French-Canadian Mass. Many Quebecois and other Canadians call Florida home during the winter, especially the west coast; I recall how many Toronto Maple Leafs fans there were at a Tampa Bay Lightning game. I think I picked up on about 1/4 of the homily from my high school French (thank you, Mrs. Carter).
But hey, that Mass counted.
Oh, one more bit of Catholicism: I got to see the image of the Blessed Mother in the windows of a Clearwater office building, and a shrine built in the front of it.
Vandals have since destroyed the window. :-(
After getting back, we went away to Shepherdstown, WV for a few days to get reacquainted. Ten days later, I was laid off. :-( That laid to rest any thoughts I would have had of flying back down for the CCC concert.
All in all, my stint in Florida was the best of times and the worst of times. I hated being so alone, but I was forced to get the heck out of my hotel room and find life outside of it. And having 80-degree days in January and February didn't hurt much.
Kudos to Bob and Bob (my project managers) and Gina and Shannon for having me over for dinner; yet another Bob for sharing more than one meal with me; and Eric, Bubba, and Bert for their hospitality on the Atlantic coast. Also, John and his g/f invited me to their most excellent Millennium Concert at a Catholic church in Sarasota; I still have the CD.