Category Archives: Cast of Characters

Neighbors

Neighbors were few and far between at Ziba Khaya and that was perfectly OK by us. We relished the peace and quiet of living the rural life and, with often hectic days and weeks spent running Slideworks and the time spent commuting back and forth to Ocala, well, it was just nice to sit sometimes and read or hang out in the back yard, or perform the myriad of chores and projects it took to keep the homestead running.

We did enjoy getting to know our closest neighbors, which numbered exactly three households. Diane and Andy and their girls lived next door to Andy’s parents, both homesteads situated just to the north and across Yellow Bluff Road from the lake house. South of us, about a 10 minute walk down the road, was Captain Jack’s compact place, where Lucky the dog and Tu and Lu, his Tulouse Geese, made their home.JackGeese

There was also Carl, the ex-Vietnam chopper pilot-turned-lobbyist-cum-bass-guide, who kept a weekend retreat down the road a bit from Jack.

When we first moved into the lake house, K introduced us to the neighbors, kind and generous folks that we would, time and again, call upon for guidance and help. Our first few months were simply full of learning the ins and outs of living in the cabin: Jack knew a lot about the well, the pump, the quirks of the house, where in the barn one could find coal for the wood stove, and where the hole was in the fence that the dogs and deer used to access the property– the list went on and on!

Andy and Diane and their pre-teen girls were a lot of fun to hang out with- we spent more than a few freezing nights under a full moon, hanging out under the oak trees in front of their house until the wee hours,  warming ourselves in front of a blazing fire in the outdoor bar-b-que area Andy built.

Over the years what started as Andy’s outdoor patio grew into “the Cracker Shack”, a rambling outdoor entertainment complex that could rival many an “old style” Florida restaurant cobbled together with native pecky cypress and pine under a tin roof.

Central to the affair was Andy’s massive brick cooking fireplace, augmented by a commercial kitchen area for food prep. The place appeared to have organically grown from this hub; the tin roof supported by massive posts festooned with all manner of Florida bric-a-brac like deer antlers draped with old caps and straw hats, rusted car tags, and wooden duck decoys. Under the roof hung fishing poles, crab pots, nets and floats, mounted bass and salt water fish trophies, deer and ‘coon heads, boar tusks and a range of old wooden farming and fishing implements.  Wooden picnic tables, a few couches and an assortment of plastic and lawn chairs and I think even the bench seat torn out of a min-van provided ample sitting areas. The whole thing was electrified, with lights and ceiling fans, audio system speakers, TV sets and neon beer signs sprinkled throughout.

Then there was the retired and grumpy Georgia farmer Mr. Rush and his wife, who lived down the road a bit from Jack’s place, but on the lake side of the road. I never did spend much time with Mr. Rush, but Anni made friends with him after some event that I don’t recall. Pretty soon he somehow had inveigled her into stashing a bottle of whisky in the woods across from his house so that he could slip out and grab a nip or two under the nose of his apparently severely disapproving wife. This went on for maybe a couple of months, much to Jack’s high amusement, until Mrs. Rush got wind of the goings-on or maybe Mr. Rush passed on, whichever came first.

Of interest to our urban friends was the accepted way to quickly call on your neighbors in an emergency: three quick rounds from a firearm, was sure to get the attention of anyone within earshot, without having to scramble for a phone or look for a telephone number. Not that we ever had to pull that trigger, but it was good to know a reliable way to get somebody’s attention in an area where there was a significant distance between homesteads.

Jack was retired, Andy was a traveling construction manager gone for weeks at a time, Diane raised the girls and ran the homestead, Andy’s parents both worked at a hospital some 50 minutes drive down highway 19 through the forest and Carl infrequently visited his cabin during the year. Even with divergent interests and different schedules, it was amazing how often we’d get together with Jack, or Jack and Carl, or Diane and Andy and Jack, or some mix of all the above, with our friends or family sometimes mixed in. It wasn’t long before we were made to feel very much a part of this little back-woods community, and some of the more poignant and frightening events that happened in our lives at Ziba Khaya invariably involved our friends and neighbors.

Many of the tales in this blog were told and retold over a blazing fire pit in our back yard, or under a full moon while sitting on a bench at the end of the dock, or around a fire in Jack’s back yard while his hunting pals camped out, or around Andy and Diane’s precursor to their Cracker Shack. Writing about them is my way of sharing, and the memories evoked send me back to that time, those places, and among those people once again. It is true, you can never “go home”, but you can relive and revisit and in some small way, pay homage to the people and places that have woven sections of the tapestry of your life.

AnniCartoon

Doorstop Alligator & the Lawman

Our neighbor Jack was a retired DEA agent and Secret Service man. His stories, and the stories his buddies told, were legendary, from being detailed to watch over President JFK as he boated offshore in Florida, to interdicting drugs and bad guys on various Caribbean islands.

Jack was an Irishman from New York and a former policeman. Built like a fireplug, his appearance and character were straight out of Central Casting. He was our Go To guy when we needed a bit of extra firepower (he had an awesome shotgun), an extra pair of hands, or someone to spend an evening with, drinking beer out on the end of our dock under a full moon.

Anyway, perhaps you get the picture of this stocky, kinda gruff, buzz-cut, red-faced Irish guy as he laughed and told us his tale when he showed up at our cabin one weekend morning.

Seems the day before, he’d had a call from his neighbor Mrs. Rush, who lived in a little cinder block house down by the lake, across Yellow Bluff road from Jack’s  place.

Her call had come early in the morning, before Jack had brewed his tea. Without preamble, Mrs. Rush insisted that he come right over to her place and bring his shotgun. He asked why he needed the shotgun, and she explained, huffily, that a ‘gator was parked right outside her front door, sunning itself on the concrete pad, and blocking her access to the clothes line outside.

“I need to get my wash hung up before it rains later, so bring your shotgun over here and shoot this ‘gator, Jack!” she insisted.

Well, the thing is, ol’ Mr. and Mrs. Rush were retired farmers form south Georgia, known to be intolerant of anyone fooling around their property, and determined to get on with their daily lives, in spite of the locals or the local wildlife. Mr. Rush had passed on a couple of years earlier, and while Mrs. Rush was quite independent, thank you, she wouldn’t hesitate to call Jack if she felt that a firearm was needed to quell a situation. This, apparently, was such a situation.

Jack said he’d come along but wouldn’t bring his shotgun, there was no need to go shooting a ‘gator and besides, they were protected unless you had a hunting permit during ‘gator season. Which he didn’t, and it wasn’t.

Jack told us that he cautiously came around to the front of Mrs. Rush’s place, which faced the lake to the east, and of course the nice warm sun. Sure enough, there was an 8-foot  ‘gator lying peacefully in the sun on the concrete pad in front of Mrs. Rush’s front door. Jack backtracked to the rear door of the place and was met by Mrs. Rush, who asked him where was his shotgun?

Jack repeated his reasoning about not shooting the ‘gator, even as Mrs. Rush led him to her front screen door and pointed at the ‘gator snoozing just outside.

“Why can’t you just use the back door to take your laundry out?” Jack asked, patiently. Mrs. Rush explained that her clothesline was just too close to that ‘gator and she wanted it gone, and right now, so she could get her laundry hung out to dry.

Retelling the story, Jack shook his head while we both grinned. Yeah, Mrs. Rush sure was a stubborn old thing, and cranky to boot. We knew what he meant when he said she just wouldn’t listen to reason, insisting he go back home and fetch his shotgun.

Turned out Jack went back home, Mrs. Rush called him a few more times, the ‘gator moved right up against that screen door and stayed there until the sun came off the concrete pad, then it moved on down the lawn and into the lake. By that time, the afternoon showers were threatening and Mrs. Rush never did get her laundry out on the line that day.

Famous and Infamous

 

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In the spring of 1989, fallen televangelist Jim Bakker and his overly made-up  wife Tammy Faye found a brief haven from the press at “the Preacher’s compound” just up Yellow Bluff Road from Zibya Khaya.  We found out about it when we came home one day. As we turned off the highway and slowly bumped down the hill of the graded, dusty and canopied road, we turned the corner and had to brake hard to avoid hitting the corner of a TV station van. The vehicle was joined by at least three others like it, each sporting a logo of a different TV station from the metro Orlando area.

The vans were crammed tightly together, nose-to-tail, between the road and the high hurricane fence that surrounded the expansive and well-manicured lakeside property that the locals called “the Preacher’s compound”, a retreat run by the pastor of a local church.

A large satellite dish perched dangerously near the roadside ditch, with fat black cables snaking along the ground to the nearest van. A guard stood with arms folded on the inside of the gated entry to the compound, and a crowd of people scurried around on the other side, pulling cables and brandishing hand-held microphones. Some people had video cameras perched on their shoulders, some were gripping 35mm cameras. All turned to stare at us as we slowly edged past. We could clearly read the eagerness and a kind of pent-up excitement in their faces and in the tension of their bodies.

“What the hell is going on?” we both asked in the same breath. It certainly looked like a media circus but why here, in the middle of nowhere, at a place where we hardly ever saw anything or anyone moving except the grounds-keeper who spent a lot of time on the tractor mower?

We were about to find out. No sooner had we closed our own gates, parked the car under the shed and gone inside the cabin, than Hansel started honking furiously up at the gate. A young fellow in a suit was trying to enter the property but Hansel was holding him off.

“Oh great,” Anni muttered, and headed down the drive toward the gate, calling to Hansel as she went. I stood at the screen door and watched as she shooed Hansel away with one of the old broomsticks we kept leaning against a nearby massive pine tree.

After a brief conversation with the young man, Anni let him onto the property and escorted him down the drive, keeping a hissing Hansel at bay with her broomstick.

Turns out the fellow was a reporter for an Orlando newspaper and wanted to use our phone to call in his breaking story. We unabashedly listened as he dictated his brief but intriguing tale.

In a nutshell, the somewhat famous  televangelist Jim Bakker was awaiting trial on 24 Federal counts of fraud and conspiracy for stealing millions of dollars from PTL, the television ministry he founded. The Bakkers had been forced out of a rented house in North Carolina, where they had been taping “The Jim and Tammy Show”, and had somehow  chosen this out-of-the-way place as somewhere to literally retreat to, but the media was hot on their heels.

After a few days, the Bakkers came out to the gate, where they gave short interviews through the fence to this or that TV station reporter. The text was always the same: Jim was innocent and a sobbing Tammy Faye would blubber her undying faith in his virtue.

It didn’t take long before our phone was ringing off the hinges as our family and friends called us, asking what it was like, had we met “those people”, had we been invited to sit in the audience as the televangelists renewed their weekly broadcasts from the communal rooms of the compound’s large cabin.

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The Preacher’s Compound – Google Images

Like our neighbors up and down Yellow Bluff Road, we weren’t happy about this invasion into our quiet corner of the forest. As the days went by, dealing with people entering our property from the road and the lake, uninvited, became as annoying and cloying as the pall of dust thrown up by all the traffic up and down Yellow Bluff Road.

After letting in the young reporter, we refused all further requests. We tired of constantly walking down the drive to turn away yet another reporter or photographer or someone else who simply HAD to use our phone (remember this was before cellular phones) or, worse, one of our bathrooms! The topper was a couple of guys in a pickup truck pulling a bass boat, who had the gall to ask if they could drive down our lawn and launch their boat from the ramp in the back yard so that they could make some money from reporters who would pay for the opportunity to approach the Preacher’s compound from the water, on the off-chance of getting a few photos of the Bakkers.

We compared notes with the neighbors and they, too were aggravated at the invasion of their privacy and the need to constantly stand vigil over unwanted incursions onto their property. Of course, with all the media play, a couple of the neighbors admitted to being curious. Our pal Captain Jack knew the Preacher pretty well and so Jack strolled down to the compound one day and after chatting with one of the many faithful who had followed the Bakkers from N.C., Jack was invited to join in the next Saturday’s videotaping session, as a member of the “audience”.

We laughed when Jack asked us if we wanted to go with him to the session. We were certainly no fans of the Bakkers, or any other televangelist for that matter. We just wanted them and all those people who had followed them from N.C., and the reporters and TV vans to go away so that we could get a break from keeping a watchful eye out, and get back to our schedule of commuting daily from the forest and into our office in town.

After a couple of weeks, the TV vans and the satellite dish went away, the cars from NC. thinned out, and the dust finally settled onto the trees and brush lining Yellow Bluff Road.

One Saturday morning we were enjoying our coffees out on the porch when the peace and quiet was broken by Hansel’s frantic honking up at the gate. We both got up to look down the drive, where a scene of mayhem was unfolding.

Anni said “I got it”, and headed quickly down the drive. It was hard to see through the hurricane fenced gate but it looked to me like a group of 4 or 5 people were circling around, talking loudly, and doing their best to side-step and avoid Hansel’s relentless attack. Somehow he had gotten out of the gate and out on the road, where he was honking and hissing and flapping his wide wings as furiously as I’d ever seen him. That was one pissed-off gander!

In a couple of minutes, Anni had Hansel rounded up and back inside the fence. She had a short conversation with the group, and as they moved off down the road, she strolled down the drive, passing by a still-flustered Hansel, who was being cooed to by Gretel, a wise goose who had safely avoided the whole scene.

Anni laughed and shook her head while explaining that “That was the Bakkers, with their teenage kids”. No kidding! What the heck were they doing tangling with Hansel out in the road and how had Hansel slipped outside the fence in the first place?

It seems one of the Bakker’s kids had spotted the geese and wanted to pet them, so with the encouragement of their parents (!), they opened the gate and here came Hansel, head down and on the attack. After the dust had settled, the Bakkers sincerely apologized to Anni for causing the fracas. Anni made sure nobody had been bitten by Hansel, and in the course of the discussion she learned that the Bakkers apparently had a lot of waterfowl on some property somewhere, and the teens were used to handling the tame fowl. Unfortunately, Hansel was not as tame as anticipated!

Later, Jack came by and as he stepped into the cabin, he laughingly showed us his new t-shirt that sported a giant blob of dozens of different-colored splats and the text “I ran into Tammy Faye at the mall!” We all had a good laugh, then when we told him about the Hansel incident, he said it was a good thing Hansel hadn’t gone after Tammy Faye, or he would have ended up looking like the t-shirt!

The Bakkers’ eventual downfall and demise is a sad tale, but this wasn’t the only news story to come out of the Forest. The next year this little corner of the world once again made headlines as the scene where more than one victim of serial killer Eileen Wuornos had been found.

The Forest has a dark past and continues to attract what seems to be more than its fair share of weirdos, freak happenings, scary goings-on, and criminal activity. Here’s just a sample of its shady history:

http://kidnappingmurderandmayhem.blogspot.com/2021/