What A Long Strange Trip!
When The Island Sand Paper announced it would cease publication on July 10, a friend asked if I had any idea how many stories I wrote over the past 4-1/2 years. I did a quick tally and it is roughly 1,600 articles! Now that we are at our second-to-the-last issue, here are my Top Ten Favorites. Seven are individual features, while three cover long-term topics over many articles that span from months to years. These are not the Top Ten News Stories of my tenure with the Island Sand Paper, but the ones that I best like. Most are happy, a few sad and all affected me personally. Below they are in chronological order.
April 1, 2016
On April Fool’s Day 2016, The Island Sand Paper published a front page full of fictitious stories, in the original “Fake News!” Mine centered on future President Donald Trump purchasing the potential TPI-FMB Resort that many island residents during that time protested against as being too big, and supersizing it even more as only an egomaniac truly can! I don’t think I ever wrote anything as funny as this satirical farce!
Trump “proposed” a 60-story skyscraper and 200-foot-high seawall “that Mexico will pay for and like it!” When asked why he wanted to purchase TPI-FMB, Trump replied that “I love Florida; in fact, I love Florida so much that the beach is like a father to me. I guess you could call me a son of a beach!” The developer planned to name his resort project “TRUMP: fort myers beach,” explaining that “TRUMP in this case stands for ‘Totally Realistic Unbelievably Magnificent Plan.’ Those initials will all be in huge capital letters, with the words ‘fort myers beach’ very, very small, to keep everything in proper perspective.” In conclusion, Trump modestly said that “I cannot not wait to bring my sheer brilliance to Fort Myers Beach. By the time I am done with this seven-mile stretch of sand, every single Islander will understand first-hand why Trump rhymes with Chump!” In looking back, my only failing was I undersold his ego!
Town Council Meetings
October 2016 to July 1, 2020
My first nine months with the newspaper were part-time, but when I became the full-time Lead Writer in October 2016, I covered Town Council Meetings for nearly the next nearly 4 years, including four different Town Councils with four Mayors, five Vice Mayors and eleven various Council members.
My first two Town Councils were “Must See TV,” full of impolite discord, two members actually walking out of meetings, and more sparks flying than at a fireworks convention, as they sparred over such controversial topics as TPI-FMB, the stormwater utility, Short Term Rentals and more. My Town Council newspaper articles generally run 1,500 words, but my rough drafts after those sessions frequently exceeded 20,000! Having to delete many of those thrilling paragraphs to get to my publication limit was like sacrificing loved ones!
Conversely, my last two Councils could cure insomnia, with members almost always unfailingly polite, leading me to observe, “What is Great for Gary is Bad for The Town,” and “What is Bad for Gary is Great for The Town!” Despite it all, every single Council member become a good friend or better! Special Thanks to the four Mayors I had the honor to cover: Dennis Boback, Tracey Gore, Anita Cereceda, and Ray Murphy. It is no secret Dennis and Tracey were not fans of The Island Sand Paper, but they personally treated me very well, and for that I am grateful.
December 23, 2016
Some of my roughly 130 Town Council Meetings ran long, with the December 19, 2016 session taking the cake! It began at 2 p.m. and concluded at 11:03 p.m., totaling 9 hours and 3 minutes. With my article, I included a short sidebar listing nine things you could do in less time; one for each hour of that meeting: Win The Ironman Triathlon; watch four Star Wars movies; Drive from Fort Myers Beach to Macon, Georgia – or Lovers Lane to Crescent Street In-Season; send a signal to Pluto and back; Win the New York City Marathon – Four Times – and still have enough time left over to run a 10K; Fly from Fort Myers Beach to Anchorage, Alaska; Take your SAT Exam With Essay Twice, with time for lunch; Sail through the Panama Canal; and Walk from the north to the south tip of Fort Myers Beach-&-back – and back!
December 30, 2016
To end 2016, I wrote a Top Ten feature of the most historic events to ever impact Fort Myers Beach. From #10 to #1, they were the Fort Myers Beach Pier; Matanzas Pass Bridge; reFRESH Estero Boulevard Projects; the Calusa Indians; Lani Kai Island Resort; the Shrimping Industry; Times Square; Water Quality; the Town’s Incorporation; and Hurricane Charley. For a history geek like me, this was a true pleasure!
“Cam’s Three Miracles”
April 21, 2017
Without question, my most emotional story was with Sherry Stevens about her towheaded, blue-eyed, 16-year-old son, Cameron Mayhew, who died the previous June, the victim of a tragic automobile accident while waiting for his school bus during a pitch-black dark morning.
“Cam’s classes at Fort Myers High School began at 7 a.m. so on the morning of June 1, 2016, he was outside for his bus by 5:15 a.m.,” recalled Sherry. “The bus was waiting, with its Stop-sign arm fully out, with blinking safety lights. Cam was crossing the southbound lane of Pine Ridge Road, to get to the bus in the northbound lane, when a car drove right through the warnings at 45 miles-per-hour and struck him. By the time I arrived, Cam was in the emergency vehicle and they would not let me see him, but I knew by seeing how far his bookbag flew that it was not good. The driver who hit Cam wasn’t drunk or anything, but late for work.” The man who mortally struck Cam received a $1,000 fine, had to attend driving school, and had his license suspended for 6 months.
Even though Cam was just finishing his sophomore year, his Mom said with melancholy that he already had offers from Yale University and the University of California at Berkeley among others. “I know I am his mother and have no sense of perspective, but he had an amazing future. I am so proud for him, but sometimes you just want to say, ‘MAN!’ GOD, MY HEART!”
Cam got his learner’s permit driver’s license the day before he died: “When they asked if he wanted to be an organ donor, he said he did and I was a little surprised,” Sherry reflected. “Afterwards I asked him about it and he said if anything ever went wrong, he wanted someone else to benefit from his circumstance. Who could imagine what was about to happen?” Sherry eventually learned Cameron’s heart, kidneys, liver and pancreas went to three Floridians. “Cam’s tragedy means that three people received miracles,” Sherry related.” He could not give them a greater gift or one that speaks more about the kind of person he was. His life was just starting; we would talk about where he wanted to go to college and planning the next stage of his journey, and then suddenly it is over, but he is in a better place, with no worries or struggles, safely out of harm’s way.”
I cried that day with Sherry; I cried that night writing the story; and I cry now doing this.
September 13, 2017
Hurricane Irma, a 350-mile-wide tropical monster, wreaked havoc on Fort Myers Beach and the entire State of Florida, striking with historical vengeance on Sunday, September 10, ironically the peak date of the Atlantic season. Like millions of others, I struggled with “weather” to stay in my South Fort Myers home or flee for my life, but with gas and hotels almost impossible to find, combined with a constantly-wobbling storm track, flee to where? By Friday the 8th, the stormtrack firmed enough that Florida’s East Coast would not suffer a direct impact, so I accepted the invitation of my good friends Lori and Edwyn to come to their Boynton Beach home.
I packed up Gizmo the Wonder Cat, along with my Mom & Stepdad’s very good friend, 79-year-old Mary, who was all alone in her mobile home. On Saturday afternoon, September 9, we backed out of my driveway, for perhaps the last time. It seemed we had I-75 South mostly to ourselves and Alligator Alley was unreal; for its 75-mile stretch, we were perhaps one of 100 cars going east, while we entertained ourselves by counting the number of foolish autos driving west – our final tally was 19!
This paled in comparison, however, to I-95 from Fort Lauderdale north to Boynton Beach. In that five-lane, 33-mile stretch, on what would ordinarily be a very busy early Saturday evening, other than two police cars, we were the only vehicle on the entire highway! It was like being in a Zombie Apocalypse movie!
We pulled into our safe haven at 6:15 p.m., with a major rain band already overhead. By Sunday afternoon, Irma reached its East Coast wind peak of 80 miles-per-hour, causing us to lose power. Monday morning broke clear and bright and, against all odds, I found the only open gas station so we could head home. Mary’s and my parents’ mobile homes came through almost without scratches, but no power. My house was fine as well, including electricity, so Mary moved in with Gizmo and I until the restoration of her service a week later. That first night, despite the curfew, I drove to pitch-black Fort Myers Beach to gaze at all the magnificent stars of the totally dark night, and they were blazing, as I imagined they did for the Calusa hundreds of years earlier, grateful that we survived “The Irma-Nator!”
Do You Believe In Miracles!
April through September 2018
Like me, Bob & Missy Layfield are lifelong baseball fans, so they decided we would spend that summer profiling the Fort Myers Miracle, the Single A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins in the Florida State League (FSL). This would not simply be a game-by-game recap, however, but features detailing what makes Miracle games wholesome family fun and the Norman Rockwell of all American Sports, so for the first part of the season, we profiled “Fireworks Fridays,” ballpark foods, and special daily giveaways.
It’s a good thing we did! The FSL splits its 140-game schedule into two 70-game seasons, and while the Miracle played hard, with excellent pitching and stellar defense, they could not get their offense on-track, finishing tied for last place.
I however boldly predicted that the Miracle would not only win the 2nd Half Division title but the FSL Championship! Buoyed by call-ups of highly touted prospects Royce Lewis and Alex Kirilloff, the offense picked up just enough for the Miracle to win the 2nd Half. They then swept the Palm Beach Cardinals in the semi-final round before defeating the Daytona Tortugas 3 games to 1 to claim their second FSL Title.
April 23, 2018
Some stories are dream assignments; others are labors of love – this one was both! Roughly two-and-a-half months after Town Council implemented its cutting-edge Plastic Straw Ban Ordinance for all beach establishments, I made the brave pilgrimage to four Fort Myers Beach bars to see how paper straws held up under some of our favorite alcoholic beverages, as well as what bartenders were hearing from patrons.
“Most customers pretty much hate the paper straws, at least initially,” said the fabulous Michele, who barkeeps at the Lani Kai Island Resort’s legendary main beach bar. “The paper ones hold up alright under a normal drink, but one of our signature ones is a frozen Rum Runner with a shot of 151-rum poured down the straw, and those disintegrate quick! When we first switched, people really didn’t like them, but once we explained that it is not only better for the environment, but is safer for wildlife, most folks soon agreed that the sacrifice is worth it.”
My experience backed Michele’s conclusions. I enjoyed a frozen Mud Slide and my straw held firm that entire time. I followed this with a frozen Rum Runner with the 151-rum shot down the paper straw, and within 15 minutes, it was completely useless. This was true at the three other establishments I visited that evening, before my cab ride home. The next morning, with my head pounding, I recalled the famous line from “Blazing Saddles”: “Work, Work, Work – It’ll Kill Me Yet!”
June 2018 through today
In my first 2-1/2 years with the newspaper, I wrote 11 water quality stories; then came the infamous twin Blue-Green Algae / Red Tide disasters of late June 2018 that led to serious health concerns and a devastating summer economy! In the past two years, I wrote 65 water quality stories, by far the most on any topic over that period of time. While our focus is the coronavirus now, if the water goes bad, we lose everything.
“Death in The Family”
January 23, 2019
Dr. Leroy Hommerding, the long-time Director of the Fort Myers Beach Public Library, was the victim of a brutal murder on Sunday morning, January 20, right in the doorway of the building he worked so hard to make a reality and that he loved so much.
This was the only Editorial I ever wrote for the newspaper and, like the feature on Cameron Mayhew, a very emotional experience. Dr. Leroy along with former Council Member Joanne Shamp were the first two people of the Fort Myers Beach community to welcome me with open arms. I quickly discovered that Dr. Leroy was smart, funny, caring, eclectic and insightful and I often asked him good-naturedly how it felt to be the Director of the Best Small-Town Library in the Entire Nation, a compliment he accepted with the right mix of modesty and pride! Dr. Leroy was known by virtually everyone, from being an acquaintance to a great friend, making his loss truly “A Death In The Family.”
- The 2016 April Fool’s Day issue included a farcical story about then candidate Donald Trump taking over downtown redevelopment.2. A Town Council meeting.3. Post Hurricane Charley, the Beach Theater became a feeding station and Red Cross supply spot.4. Cameron Mayhew and his brother Brandon.5. Utility trucks gather in the Topps parking lot after Hurricane Irma in the effort to restore power to Fort Myers Beach.6. Fort Myers Miracle players rush the field after winning the FSL title in 2018. Photo courtesy of the Daytona Tortugas.7. Beach barkeep Michele helped Gary test paper straws vs rum.8. On July 27, 2018, the beach was covered in sea grasses, algae and dead sea life, a result of a severe outbreak of Red Tide in the Gulf of Mexico.
9. Leroy Hommerding with long-time library supporter, Jean Gottlieb.
Tied For 10th Place
In case you are wondering, there is a tie for my 10th Favorite Story – almost every one of the remaining 1,600 features! Whether on the Mound House, Turtle Time, nature programs, Artists of the Month, community fundraisers, the Beach Elementary School, and on and on, each was in their own right near-&-dear to my heart! Fort Myers Beach, THANK YOU SO MUCH for taking me into your confidence and trusting me with your stories; it has been an honor!