Two years of smoke and fire

Burn Down This World

By Tina Egnoski

A book review

Celeste Leahy circa 1972 crashed a Florida Blue Key banquet with Betty Friedan, performed guerrilla theater on University Avenue with the Vietnam Veterans Against The War…and made Molotov cocktails with her friends.

Celeste circa 1998 lives in a house on the St. John’s River with her teenage son, works at dead end jobs…and positions goddess figurines at her window to ward off the wildfires that are sweeping through Florida in that meanest season.

These two iterations of the same woman, separated by 26 years, might never have reconciled one to another had not big brother Reid – nomadic poet and an almost mythical figure in family lore – suddenly reappeared in Celeste’s life to rake up long suppressed regrets and recriminations.

“Burn Down This World,” by Tina Egnoski, is an intimate examination of one woman’s unfulfilled life set against an backdrop of heat, smoke, riots and smoldering resentments.

Some of the heat still radiates from three days of rage at the University of Florida, when Celeste and other anti-war protestors clashed with police and national guardsmen. (“I had a rock in each hand when the first tear gas canister lobbed over our heads…The gas entered my throat and I couldn’t breathe.”)

Author Egnoski was not on campus during the riot years, having attended and graduated UF in the 1980s. Much of the history and background for her novel was accumulated while she worked as a UF librarian.

Longtime residents may appreciate the book for its glimpses of campus and Gainesville life circa 1972, when students combed Micanopy cow pastures for mushrooms and got high at the Halloween ball. This when they weren’t cursing Richard Nixon or occupying then-President Stephen C. O’Connell’s office. (“When O’Connell finally opened his office door, he looked haggard.”)

In her campus days, Celeste recalls “the place to drink was Rathskeller. The beer there was cheap and cold.” Then there was the time “We went to see Mudcrutch” and “instantly developed crushes on Mike Campbell and Tom Petty.”

But “Burn Down This World,” is less an anti-war morality tale than a human-scale drama about how an impetuous act of sibling betrayal derailed a young life seemingly full of possibilities – consigning an adoring younger sister to a pale imitation of the existence she had envisioned for herself.

Instead of leaving UF with a degree and opportunities, Celeste would return home beaten and bruised, having been arrested and expelled. Meanwhile her brother hit to road, eventually to gain celebrity as the “voice of his generation.”

“I didn’t want to know how my mother felt” Celeste muses upon returning in disgrace. “I couldn’t take one teaspoon of her pain onto the gallons of pain I carried.”

When her absent brother finally does reappear, it is during that long hot, terrible summer when conflagrations forced the evacuation of entire counties. Celeste’s mother is in the early stages of dementia, her son is withdrawn and resentful…and suddenly Reid is once again the center of everyone’s universe.

“I said a silent and stupid prayer to the goddesses. Were they powerful enough to bring an end to both the fires and my anger at Reid?”

Egnoski tells this story of campus riots, raging fires and one woman’s inner turmoil in sparse prose and straightforward fashion. It is a quick read and all the more satisfying for it.

(“Burn Down This World” is published by Adelaide Books and sells for $22.30 paperback and $7.99 e-book edition.)

Jane Fonda speaks at the University of Florida, 1971

About the author

In “Burn Down This World” protagonist Celeste arrives at the University of Florida in the fall of 1971, having “missed the candlelight march to President Stephen O’Connell’s house after the Kent State shootings” as well as “Jane Fonda at Graham Pond.”

As it happens, Tina Egnoski, author of “Burn This World Down,” missed all of that as well. She graduated from UF more than a decade later, in 1983. But while working at the UF library, Egnoski came across a photograph of “Hanoi” Jane Fonda holding her anti-war rally at UF. And she began to conceive a story line that would ultimately connect the campus riots of 1972 to the Florida wildfires of 1989.

“I didn’t live here at the time of the fires,” she recalls. “My mother did, and she ended up having to evacuate. I wanted to have these two kind of threatening stories (campus unrest and fires) happening parallel to each other…this sense of danger building.”

Like her troubled protagonist, Egnoski grew up in the Melbourne area. Like Celeste she was also a military brat, the daughter of an Air Force careerist. But there the similarities pretty much end. Egnoski grew up with sisters and had no great sibling rivalry in her life.

“When I was working in the archives I helped history professor Sam Proctor go through a lot of old photos. That was when I was first introduced to the history of the university.

“I was attracted to the ‘70s because that’s when I came of age. And when I saw the picture of Jane Fonda, I thought ‘that’s so cool,’ and the idea (for the book) began to surface in my mind.”

Egnoski lives in Rhode Island, but she briefly returned to Gainesville in 2014 to finish researching her novel. In “Burn This World Down,” she said “I was trying to tell two coming of age stories” a quarter of a century apart.

“At 18 Celeste gets thrown out of UF and sent back into a life she was trying to get away from,” Egnoski said. “She doesn’t really grow emotionally the way she would if she had stayed away. The second coming of age is years later, when she finally has to let go of her past.

“I remembered the Jane Fonda” appearance and the events that followed. “That whole conflict was so rife with history that I wanted to relate it to a personal history. I wanted to have this sibling relationship and I wanted this event that pulled them apart for 25 years.

“It was too good to pass up. Just three days changed everything” in Celeste’s life.

Sweetwater forgotten

Gainesville landscape architecture professional Richard Berry shows off his never-implemented master plan for Sweetwater Branch Park.

Remember that time the downtown library took a slice of paradise and put up a parking lot?

Richard Berry does.

Berry is a longtime Gainesville landscape architect who did the exterior designs for the new library headquarters in the early 1990s. He sketched out a park environment connecting the east side of the library and the Matheson Museum.

“This is not what we envisioned,” he now says, ruefully, of the dirt parking patch between the county library and the city-owned Sweetwater Branch Park.

County vehicles parked on the dirt patch between the downtown library headquarters and the city’s Sweetwater Branch Park.

For that matter, it’s hard to believe the lot is even up to code. Would the city permit a private business to store cars on eroded land along the very banks of Gainesville’s most abused creek?

On the other hand, the city isn’t exactly known for its stewardship of Sweetwater Branch either.

That park itself ought to be an environmental showcase and a people-magnet for a downtown that has otherwise been given over to asphalt and concrete. Instead, it’s been allowed to degenerate into a litter-strewn hangout for street people…a park in name only that most folks prefer to avoid.

Certainly Sweetwater Branch today is a far cry from the “botanical wonderland” that earned it front page billing in the Gainesville Sun in December, 2005:

“Gainesville’s newest downtown destination is a garden of botanical delights,” the report began. “A dozen years in the planning and four months in the planting, the garden…is a community effort to preserve and beautify a piece of ground that almost miraculously escaped development as the city sprang up around it over the last century and a half.”

As it happened, Berry was also commissioned to design the master plan for Sweetwater Branch. He envisioned the park as a “walk through time,” where significant moments in Gainesville history would be commemorated – the civil war battle waged on the creek, perhaps a likeness of namesake Edmund Gaines, a memorial to yellow fever victims, or a remembrance of civil rights victories hard won.

Heck, maybe even a nod to the Gainesville Eight defendants who beat the Nixon Administration’s conspiracy charges. In his research, Berry came across photos of the alleged co-conspirators playing frisbee near the creek during court recess. “Why not give them a plaque?”

His master plan also showcased the creek itself by cleaning up Sweetwater Branch, restoring native plants, grasses and water flow and adding boardwalks and bridges.

Unfortunately, “less than 10 percent of (the master plan) was ever built” by the city, Berry said. “It could be a city jewel.”

Berry’s plan was titled “Sweetwater Botanical Garden and Greenway.” And with the city’s announced intention to dismantle the huge GRU maintenance facility, just south of the park, and redevelop it into the “Power District,” that greenway might have eventually run all the way to Depot Park and the Gainesville-Hawthorne trail.

Unfortunately if you walk through the park today it’s hard to imagine what all the fuss was about in 2005 when the Sun hailed Gainesville’s “garden of botanical delights.” The hundreds of plants donated and the physical improvements made haven’t been taken care of. And the creek itself is so choked with invasives and debris as to be nearly invisible.

What would it take to get Gainesville to dust off Berry’s master plan and finally do right by downtown’s park? For starters, citizen champions who are willing to advocate for Sweetwater Branch and insist that the city’s long reign of neglect end.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at www.floridavelocipede.com. Contact him at rondarts2008@gmail.com.

That time in Iceland

Looking back to the time before Covid, it’s amazing to think about how casually we made decisions and plans and then flew off to the far corners of the Earth.

One day in 2013 a few friends were having a few beers at Swamphead Brewery, and somehow the talk turned to places we haven’t been and always wanted to go.

And the next thing you know about a dozen of us were in Iceland for New Year’s Eve.

Quite amazing, really.

They take their snow very seriously in Iceland.

But that’s about the only thing they take seriously.

Oh, they take their statues quite seriously as well.

Grim and foreboding images indeed.

As though possessed by the very soul of unremitting winters in a land where the sun never shines for very long.

Which is not to say that there are not exceptions.

Reykjavik is a lovely provincial seaport.

A quirky mixture of Gothic and frivolity.

With some surprisingly contemporary architecture thrown in.

In Iceland the Blue Lagoon is not a movie about lost teenagers on a tropical island. Rather it is a hedonistic dip in a volcano-heated reservoir where one goes to sip wine and slather mud on one’s face.

Indeed, one can hardly walk around this land of ice and fire without having to sidestep vents of steam escaping from the ground.

Or raging torrents of water.

Or frozen blue glaciers.

It is an unstable land of grinding plates and erupting earth.

And remote, desolate landscapes.

That require monster trucks to get the tourists from here to there and back again.

They will take you to see tiny horses. Who were brought here by the Vikings….after they stole them from the Mongols.

Or tiny fishing villages where they will teach you to repair nets.

They are very proud of their Viking heritage.

They also take their fireworks seriously.

Very seriously indeed.

As seriously as their New Year’s Eve bonfires.

Quite an amazing land in the middle of nowhere North Atlantic Ocean.

This land of hospitality.

This land of ice.

And fire.

Oh the places we’ve been

Now that we’re all more or less armchair travelers it’s fun to reflect upon the places we’ve been before things went to hell. Who knows, maybe we’ll get there again one day.

Oh what a great cycling city. And a surprisingly vital metropolis for a town whose motto is “It’s not cold all the time.”

Speaking of cold. Reykjavik in December is both cold and dark. But it’s an amazingly artsy town to wander around in. ‘Course you’ve got to mind your footing because the sidewalks can be quite slippery.

True story. I once sat across the table from my son in a Castro District restaurant and casually remarked “This is a great city, I believe I could live here.” He went pale. Maybe the first time I ever shocked the kid. He’d come all the way across the country to get away from home.

The Andy Warhol museum, the Steelers and fire hose art that looks like a skyscraper. What’s not to like?

One day a week a stretch of Thames riverfront becomes a massive used book buyers paradise. Plus 007.

It’s not just the giant spider, although that’s pretty cool. A world class arts museum and a canal system that turns into a giant ice skating highway in the winter.

Flights are regularly canceled due to low lying fog. But once you get here and the sun comes out it’s quite lovely. And quirky; hence the drooping light poles.

As Bob Dylan said “I’m going back to New York City I do believe I’ve had enough.” This after being lost in Juarez in the rain and it’s Easter time too.

The Dalmatians are haunting. The architecture ranges from Ancient Greek to Napoleonic French (depending on which empire was occupying which island at the time). And the blue haired lady standing sentry over a medieval village alleyway was just the icing on the cake.

The mask’s the thing

In Greek theater, the mask was the thing. The actors wore them to convey tragedy and comedy alike.

Ironically, when The Hippodrome (from the Greek “horse” and “race”) finally reopens, it is likely to be the folks in the audience who are masked.

But nobody knows when the show will be able to go on again at The Hipp. Meanwhile, Gainesville’s only professional theater is struggling to keep, um, body and staff reasonably intact.

“It’s a tough time,” says Hipp creative director Stephanie Lynge. “Our summer show (traditionally a big money maker) is gone, it just wasn’t safe. We can’t do live theater, but we are rehearsing, remotely, for a play that we will record and put on line for sale” later this month.

In the meantime, here’s something fans can do to help keep at least a few Hipp employees drawing a paycheck.

Buy a Hipp Mask.

And more specifically a Depot Park mask, a Mudcrutch mask or a Night Sky Over Paynes Prairie mask.

Or go really go crazy and score a Potato At Turlington mask (don’t ask), or a Dr. Cade’s Studebakers mask.

All of the above, and more, thanks to a creative collaboration between The Hippodrome and former Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan.

Who, since the onset of COVID-19, has become sort of the Tzarina of Hogtown Maskdom.

Since early March, Hanrahan’s nonprofit group, GNVcovidmasks.org, has assembled hundreds of volunteers to sew and distribute thousands of masks throughout the community.

While that work continues, she has a new site, HippMasks.org, to market and sell a line of Gainesville-centric masks.

Proceeds from the sale of those masks go to support three theater wardrobe department workers who, having no costumes to sew at present, have instead been turning out hundreds of Hipp Masks.

“They produce between 150 and 175 masks a week,” Hanrahan says of the Hipp sewists. “I just choose the fabrics and the patterns.”

Not to mention the quirky that’s-so-Gainesville names.

“Our entire wardrobe team has been sewing for over three months,” says Lynge. “They help design the masks and Pegeen pays them. They are good quality masks with filters. It’s kind of a win-win for everybody.”

In recent weeks Hanrahan has been on Facebook soliciting name suggestions for this new line of Hipp Masks. There’s a Gainesville High School mask and a Harn museum mask, a Kanapaha Gardens mask and a Santa Fe Zoo mask.

And here’s the thing. If we’ve learned anything from the events of the past few months, it should be that masks are not going to go out of style any time soon. We will almost certainly be donning nose-to-mouth covers in public places for the foreseeable future, if not longer.

Hipp Masks have been for sale at Satchel’s Pizza. Now they can be bought on line.

“If someone told me a year ago that I’d be marketing face masks using Gainesville themed fabrics I’d have said they’ve lost their minds,” says Hanrahan. “But it’s actually been a lot of fun. And as long as they are willing to keep making them I’m going to keep selling them.”

Listen, in the classic Greek theater tradition, there will almost certainly be lots of masks on display when the Hipp finally does get to open its doors.

One way to help turn a pandemic tragedy into a farcical comedy is to show up for curtain call sporting a Chert House Gainesville mask. Or maybe a Spanish Moss At San Felasco mask.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at floridavelocipede.com

Remembering Florence

When you’ve been spending a lot of time home-bound in these COVID-19 times, you begin to think about the places you’ve been and wondering if you’ll ever go there again. In 2014 my wife and I visited Florence, and I’d hate to think that I’ll never go back. So here are some Firenze impressions for the armchair traveler.

It is popular to admire the Arno. It is a great historical creek with four feet in the channel and some scows floating around. It would be a very plausible river if they would pump some water into it. They all call it a river, and they honestly think it is a river, do these dark and bloody Florentines. They even help out the delusion by building bridges over it. I do not see why they are too good to wade. Mark Twain

And when I thought of Florence, it was like a miracle city embalmed and like a corolla, because it was called the city of lilies and its cathedral, St. Mary of the Flowers.” – Marcel Proust

Through these old streets I wander dreamily. Around me Florence sweeps her busy tide of life. William Leighton

Everything about Florence seems to be colored with a mild violet, like diluted wine. Henry James

In Paris, you learn wit, in London you learn to crush your social rivals, and in Florence you learn poise. Virgil Thomas

In America, Walt Disney opened an amusement park.
And in Florence, someone was savaging the remnants of a Tuscan nobleman’s family. Chris Bohjalian

Tonight I watched the sun set at Ponte Vecchio. I think its safe to say I have finally found the place that feels right to me. I just can’t believe I had to come halfway across the world to find it. Jenna Evans Welch

Whether it was a street artist showing off his work or an old Italian man playing the accordion, something new caught my eye each day as I explored the city. Emily Kearns

Rejoice, Florence, seeing you are so great that over sea and land you flap your wings, and your name is widely known in Hell! Dante

The stones are infused with history and culture and knowledge: I feel it. I feel the presence of generations, I feel the weight of giants. Emily Kyle

Firenze is magnetic, romantic and busy. Its urban fabric has hardly changed since the Renaissance, its narrow streets evoke a thousand tales, and its food and wine are so wonderful the tag ‘Fiorentina’ has become an international label of quality assurance. Lonely Planet

Sure, Florence is touristy. But where else can you stroll the same pedestrian streets walked by Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Botticelli while savoring the world’s best gelato? Rick Steve

We are fortunate: Florence isn’t just the cradle of art—it is a city that celebrates the art of living well. National Geographic

Declaration of Independence

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary…

I am an American patriot.

I have been to war in the service of my country.

I vote each and every time.

I pay my taxes.

I do not pledge my allegiance to colored cloth.

That is the flimsy cloak of sunshine patriots.

I do not believe “My country right or wrong.”

If I see something wrong with my country it is my duty to try to put it right.

I do not believe that God’s law is America’s law.

We make our own laws, thank you very much.

I have been alive for 72 Independence Days.

This one is decidedly different from any 4th of July in my lifetime.

And not just because of canceled fireworks and parades and closed beaches.

Or because masks threaten my freedom to infect my fellow Americans.

Covid-19 isn’t the only threat to America’s health and well being.

Nor even the greatest threat.

No, I fear in my heart that this may be America’s final Independence Day.

Not to put a fine point on it, but we have put a hate-mongering, bigoted man-child in the White House.

And we have stacked the Senate with his enablers.

And as much as we might like to think otherwise, his election was no fluke.

We knew what he was.

He told us.

And we still elected him.

Out of hate-spite-fear-defiance-anger.

Choose your preferred poison.

Moreover, we created the conditions that allowed this spewing goblin to ascend to the highest office in the land.

In my lifetime I have seen Americans divide themselves against Americans.

By race.

By income.

By party.

By city/state/suburb/rural zip codes.

We have for a generation elected politicians who campaigned on the premise that government is incompetent.

And then, having been elected, they proceeded to make government ever more incompetent.

Delivering on their self-fulfilling prophecy.

Too many or us didn’t bother to vote when we should have.

And while we weren’t voting, the government-is-bad elite quietly passed suppression laws to keep as many of us as possible from ever voting again.

We helped ourselves to government entitlements.

While we cut our taxes and paid for our entitlements by saddling our kids with the IOUs .

We segregated ourselves, one against another; in our schools, our churches, our neighborhoods.

We militarized our police, created a money-sucking prison-industrial complex, and threw ever larger sums at a bloated military to keep us from harm abroad.

Even as we cut funds for schools, colleges, social services and health care.

And now we wonder why we lead the world in coronavirus cases.

We became the most heavily armed society in the history of human civilization.

Ostensibly to protect ourselves from the police/incarceration/military state we paid so much money to create.

And then we wonder why it is that self-proclaimed militias wielding military-grade hardware – and often waving confederate and Nazi banners – have suddenly appeared outside our state houses demanding the surrender of the very people we elected.

And we ask:

What went wrong?

How did this happen?

But the fault, my fellow Americans, lies not in the stars, but in ourselves.

But I am an American patriot.

And I do not yet despair.

I believe that we have it in our collective power to right this foundering ship of state that we call the United States of America.

We have one more chance.

This is my declaration.

On Nov. 4th we Americans will turn out the bloviating autocrat and his enablers.

And we will do it decisively.

And then we will begin again.

Or we will not.

In which case the American idea, the great American experiment, will be well and truly dead and buried.

This will be the most important election in my lifetime.

In my 72 years.

But even if we do the right thing on Nov. 3, we cannot expect things to magically turn around.

America will not suddenly become great again.

We have so much work to do.

The healing of deeply ingrained racial, religious and economic schisms.

The reclaiming of government that has for too long been for the wealthy, by the wealthy and of the wealthy.

I do not expect all of this this to happen overnight.

I don’t even expect this renewal to be completed in my lifetime.

America remains, as it has ever been, a work in progress.

But I do expect it to happen.

Because I am an American patriot and I believe.

I believe in the vitality of the American dream.

And I sense, at long last, a sea change occurring in the American spirit.

This is our moment.

This is our destiny.

This is our new Declaration of Independence.

Our best days lie ahead.

But only if we have the courage and the wisdom and the fortitude to take our country back from the exploiters and the opportunists and the haters.

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary…

Optic delusions

The Average Bureaucrat, by Salvador Dali.

On Thursday I repeatedly called a telephone number for one of the city pools hoping to talk to a live human being. But I kept getting a recorded message that said – and I am not making this up: Do not leave a voice mail. Voice mail is not checked.

Listen, even if I were Dali’s Average Bureaucrat I’d have to think long and hard to come up with a better “Shut up and leave us alone” message than that.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my city and I often rise to the defense of our local government. But these are trying times, and in a crisis message matters more than ever if you want to maintain public confidence. Perhaps city officials have been too busy dealing with the coronavirus to worry overly much about message. But the longest running, and truest, complaint I’ve ever heard about city hall is that the people in charge there don’t know how to tell Gainesville’s story. And of late Gainesville’s optics have been terrible.

The new social distancing boxes at Bo Diddley Plaza.

Case in point: The other day I saw a grinning photo of Commissioner Harvey Ward on Facebook. He was standing in front of Bo Diddley Plaza showing off its new social distancing markings. “Did not know it was possible to love this community plaza more,” he said.

So I rode my bike downtown and, sure enough, those new community distancing boxes, made out to resemble Bo’s celebrated square guitars, are very cool.

You can see them clearly, even standing behind the yellow-caution tape that is supposed to keep the public away from their cool new social distancing boxes.

You can even admire them from the other side of the blue Park/Facility Closure” signs.

So what is the message: Gainesville practices social distancing, but just not here? Then why bother to create the boxes?

Sweetwater Branch Park

Case in point: If there’s anything that people need after weeks of lockdown is open green space in which to walk, run, sun and stroll – all while observing safe social distancing protocol of course. One block away from the taped off BD Plaza is Sweetwater Branch Park. It is downtown’s park. It is the city’s B&B District park. It is three blocks of creek and cool green space in the middle of a concrete and asphalt city center.

It is also neglected, litter-strewn, weed-choked hobo jungle that few people care to set foot on. City Manger Lee Feldman once told me that workers were using the lockdown to take care of a lot of overdue maintenance downtown. Apparently Sweetwater Branch Park wasn’t on the list. Last week a group of civic minded volunteers went out and cleaned up the park because, apparently, the city can’t be bothered.

What is the message there?

Possum Creek skate park

Case in point: Attempts to keep skateboarders out of the Possum Creek skate park were not working, so the city dumped loads of mulch on the ramps to stop skaters in their, um, tracks. Instead they created instant media celebrities out of the skaters, parents and others who went to work shoveling the mulch out of the way. This while bemused police looked on.

Message? Anyone?

Case in point: The city announced it would block off three sections of downtown streets so restaurants could feature open air dining and thus avoid the limits placed on indoor seating. After several restaurants objected the city ended up closing just a narrow slice of SW 2nd Avenue. And then proceeded to block it off with concrete monstrosities that look like nothing so much as an urban tank trap.

Good intentions, bad optics.

The former Union Street Farmer’s Market.

I could go on. Certainly the loss of the long-running Union Street Farmer’s Market to Celebration Point won city government no accolades. That market used to take place on Bo Diddley Plaza. What if city officials had, instead of closing the plaza, established and enforced thoughtful social distancing protocols that might have allowed the open-air market to continue in place? Imagine people actually being able to use those social distancing boxes in the plaza.

Feldman is still new to Gainesville, having arrived just before things went to hell. He likes to call city residents neighbors and city employees community builders. But I would argue that the employees who recorded that “drop dead” parks and rec message, put social distancing boxes behind no trespassing tape, let downtown’s public park go to seed, thought mulch was the answer to enforcing a public health measure, turned a downtown street into Checkpoint Charlie and said so long to the farmer’s market were not engaging in community building in any sense of the phrase.

Message matters, Gainesville. If I were Feldman I’d borrow Mark Sexton from the county and let him give Messaging 101 lessons to Gainesville’s community builders. If you can’t tell the city’s story convincingly, people are going to draw their own conclusions.