LATE IN SEPTEMBER in north central Florida, sheets of rain flayed the earth unremittingly and after a few days soaked the earth until the earth wouldn't take any more. A billion love bugs spawned from the pools of standing water and made paste on every windshield that ventured out in the country. The water was good for every growing thing, and one of the most fabulous crops was the fabulous blue ring psilocybin mushrooms that some longhairs were collecting in the woods.
That September I went out to see an old friend who had found a place for himself in the country 20 miles west of the coast on Tomoka Farms Road. The last time I'd been there was for the bachelor party of a friend who at one time was an associate of the Gainesville Marijuana Dealers Association.
Kenny's place was a trailer parked on the corner of some pasture stuck in between several larger lots of cattle range and pine tree forests. Around the trailer, which was resting on blocks, were a tractor, a car, a clothesline, some horses out in the field, some baby toys, a dog with mange, and a motor-cycle under a tarpaulin. The grass was long and wet, and once I stopped my car coupling black love bugs settled on it.
There was a big group of trailers on the dirt road that led to Kenny's, but Kenny's was the only one with any land around it. I asked Kenny how he had managed to get his land.
"I guess I was the first longhair to own land around here," Kenny said. "I got 13 acres here, call 'em Crazy Acres. I got this land about three years ago, and once people got to know me, I'm respected pretty much like any other land owner around here. The sheriff come snooping around my place one night, and Mr. Cowart says to him, 'Go away. That boy don't do anything wrong. Leave him alone.' I guess it seems like I come from nowhere. Sometime that first year I go to Mr. MacDonald, looking for someone to cut my grass here, it was so overgrown then. And he tells me, 'Hey, I think we can make us both some money here.' I didn't know it was hay, but now I got a tractor made in 1948, the year I was born, ready to go to work. Made a couple hundred dollars right there for a full day's work. When did I first get this land?
"Well, back about five years ago I started riding horses out on the outskirts of town. Then I weighed around 118-122, and I got to be a pretty good quarterhorse rider. I'd go around, and when you didn't have nothing you'd have to kiss a lotta ass and be nice and ask if you could ride their horses in races and things like that. After a while, it wasn't so difficult to ask. And now I've got my own colt, since I got a free stud service from a quarterhorse champion for my ridin services. The colt could be real fast. Anyway, about then I decided I wanted to live out in the country where there's more room to ride. I'd saved up 2700 dollars from workin and I went to a real estate agent who used to help coach the Lopez football team. I didn't think much of him then, walkin around with his clipboard all the time, but now, I see he was always lookin to help out Lopez boys. He told me he had some land going for 1100 an acre, and he asked me if I wanted a bargain. I said I could cover it if he went down to 850 an acre. He said I didn't want a bargain, I wanted a steal. I said that's right. But he agreed. Lucky for me.
"Just around that time I had been laid up in the hospital with hepatitis. I had been delirious for a few days, and when I woke up, I told my wife we had to find some land. I just got fed up with working as a lifeguard. You remember me down at the Safari Motel, I was a lifeguard there. Selling suntan lotion. I just got tired of the Safari Motel and phony people. When you're a lifeguard you've got to sell your products. Make 'em buy shit to put on their skins. Sell 'em a buncha lies. That stuff costs maybe 35 cents a bottle and they sell it for $3. They all come down here and pay for the lies. I could make 200 dollars a day lyin', but I didn't want it. I couldn' save it. It's dirt, that kind of money, y'know."
ONE AFTERNOON Kenny took me with him down to Sopotnick's, a Polish establishment on Rte. 415 a few miles past Kenny's house. Local boys like Kenny and Rick Stacy and Danny Newton pronounce it "spudnick's." While both young and old like the place now, it used to be a rough spot to crash if you were a longhair, that is, until Kenny and his friends started drinking and playing a little pool there after working on their land. Now the jukebox has a mixture of country and rock music, a lot of it with country roots. Danny takes credit for adding the rock music as well as some artists like Jerry Lee Lewis who played both sides of the street. Once the titles were all country, but now Rod Stewart, J. Geils, Dr. John, the Rolling Stones, and Creedence Clearwater Revival are in the same AMI Rowe three-plays-for-a-quarter machine with Johnny Paycheck, Porter Wagoner, Tennessee Pullybone, Charley Pride, and Tammy Wynette. You can hear Buck Owens sing "Jack Daniels (Old No. 7)" as you get a 30-cent draft from Oley (Olga) Sopotnick, then put your quarter on the eight ball table and hear "Arms Full of Empty" and "Borrowed Angel" before Cecil, the shark, polishes off another local, and then you can take your run at the green felt while "Honky Tonk Women" and "Fingertips Part Two" and another hardrock tune take their turns on the box. On the chalkboard is a sign: "Make love and war." But this afternoon, a man who looks like a young George Wallace walks up to Kenny waiting for his beer at the bar and introduces himself. I order another beer just so can get close enough to hear.
"Howdy," said the man. "I haven't seen you around here before. I don't believe we've met. My name's Eugene Smith. My father used to own a lot of land around here."
"Mine's Kenny Robertson. Glad t'meet ya."
I look closer and the resemblance holds up. Short man with slicked back black hair brushed back on the sides and a neat sweep in front. A very tan face. Lines in his forehead, which is prominent. Very powerful beard, with a short-sleeved shirt that shows a tattoo on his forearm. His eyes, though small and beady, have a powerful gaze. And he smiles like he's got a secret.
Eugene Smith moves to shake Kenny's hand, and Kenny offers him his hand, but it is not a match. Eugene sees Kenny is offering his hand thumbs up, the hip handshake, and he backs off.
"Now is that any way to offer a man your hand?" Eugene asks. "Now I'm not tryin to cause trouble, but I ain't afraid to speak what's on my mind. Just tell me where you learned that."
"I dunno," Kenny said. "That's just the way I grew up doin it. All my friends did it that way."
"Well, around here, a man's handshake is his bond. And you never see a full grown man offerin up his thumb like 'at to another. Nossir."
"It don't make a damn bit a difference to me," said Kenny, kind of sidling up straighter in his stool. "It's just personal preference. And that's the way I always did it."
"Well, I'm just tellin' ya, because you might not know better."
"It's just personal preference. Like I don't judge a man on the length of his hair. I got to see what the man's got to say first."
"But sometimes, the people that smile at you are lyin. A man's handshake's his bond. Like his word. I tell you, you know that no member of the Klan shakes with his thumb. Not a single one. You know why there's a Klan? It's so men will remember how to be men. Sometimes people forget how. I'm a member of the Klan. Let me show you something." He took a picture out of his wallet of his wife and daughters. He meant it as a proof that he hadn't been fooling about being much else but a man, because he had five daughters. He seemed to be in his early thirties.
"Those are fine children," said Kenny. "I got one lil' daughter myself."
Eugene talked on, insinuating that there was quite a lot to protect these girls against. Like people who have forgotten the basics. Like handshakes.
"Well," Kenny concluded, "if it'd make a man feel better, I'd shake hands with his foot. It's just custom. Glad to meet ya."
And Kenny offered his hand and stood up to play some eight ball. Later Kenny told me that he had heard the lowdown on that character." His daddy used to have a lot of land, then all the sons got it and he just lost all of it. He's mad at the world cause he lost all the land. He lost everything. You see him trying to give trouble there? I didn't care how he shook hands, but I did it his way so there wouldn't be any trouble. And it looks like he's just droppin in and got bitter. I been around here three years and I haven't seen him."
Kenny used to make more people nervous when he first started frequenting Sopotnivk's. Now, Danny says, "Oley loves me and the kids I brought. We brought her a lot of business. Hell, one night about a couple of weeks ago Oley threw out eight people who came in drunk and started making remarks about my hair. Oley told 'em, "If you can't get along with my customers, you can get out.' And she threw 'em out. But when I first came in there, before Rick Stacy and I cooled 'em off, I almost got killed."
"One night I was just having a few drinks and mindin my business when this guy gets real drunk and comes up to me with this knife and asks me if I wouldn't mind gettin a haircut. Well I sort of sidle away from him til some woman by the jukebox laughs at the man and tells him he ain't man enough to cut that boy's hair. Then he really went after me. He had me from the back and had that knife at my throat when Patty yells at him "You son of a bitch!" and punches him so he lets go of me. I think the only thing that got me out of there alive was that he was more ashamed of having to hit a woman to get at me than he was determined to prove to the lady at the jukebox that he was man enough to get me."
Now, a few years later, it looked like Eugene Smith was the outsider to the confident, longhaired blond boy.