What’s a guy from Fort Ripley doing in Florida?

Tom West - West Words
West Words by Tom West

I should have known better.

A week ago Monday morning, I walked out on the fishing pier in Venice, Fla., on the Gulf Coast. I looked like a true snowbird — sunglasses, straw hat, a Minnesota Gophers T-shirt, shorts and a suntan as pale as the living dead.

No sooner do I get to the end of the pier than a fisherman sitting off to one side takes one look at my shirt and asks in a voice loud enough to raise Neptune, “Now what would somebody from Minnesota be doing in Florida this time of year?”

I turned and smiled and asked him if he was from Minnesota. He was. We got to talking, and a minute later I mentioned I was from Little Falls, and he said, “Well, I’m from Fort Ripley, just up the road.”

That’s how I met Steven D. Clark, age 82, but hardly retired. Clark spent most of his working life as an electrician, and ended his career as the assistant business manager for the Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union.

Then, the Brainerd native moved back to Crow Wing County and got busy. He had taken a writing class while in the Navy more than 50 years ago, and wanted to write a novel. He began, and today has seven of them to his name, the latest entitled “The Penetrator.”

He was sitting at the end of the pier baiting his hook when he wasn’t hawking his books, which he claims to have sent off to movie producers in hopes that someone will buy the film rights from him.

Steve spends six months in Florida and six in Fort Ripley. He reported that they had big excitement at the pier just the week before when a 10-foot blue mako shark came meandering by. He said it seemed to almost know it was the star of the show because it paraded back and forth under the pier until all the tourists had gotten its photo.

I should not have been surprised to have met someone from Central Minnesota. This is the second time that I have met someone from this area in a far off place. I ran into Little Falls native Roger Wippler in a Japanese tea garden in Portland, Ore., a few years ago.

The secretary of transportation at our house and I have been going down to the Gulf Coast every few years for the last 20, the last time being 2006. The first time we went was because I wanted to go to a Minnesota Twins spring training game.

Spring training didn’t disappoint.  We were having lunch before the game in the bleachers by some practice fields when two mini-vans pulled up, and out jumped the Texas Rangers. That was cool.

But the odd thing is, we’ve been back there a half dozen times, and we haven’t been to a spring training game since.

That first visit, we stayed in a condo with some friends on Sanibel Island, just off Fort Myers. I came to love the beach there. It is one of the premier beaches for seashells in the world.

What I most enjoy, however, is that it has a relatively flat beach. Some ocean beaches are narrow and crash up against rocks, and others are angled up to 30 degrees, putting a strain on hips, knees and ankles. I like a flat beach where I can walk a couple of miles every morning without developing a limp.

We like Sanibel also for the wildlife, with the pelicans, osprey and all kinds of sandpipers putting on a show.

Alas, Sanibel is getting expensive. This is the busy time of year, and we couldn’t find a condo that rented for less than $300 per night.

Then a travel agent suggested that we try Venice. an hour to the north. It took a couple of days to find a good walking beach, but we had a great, affordable time.

The result was that one evening we went to the beach to watch the sunset, and when we arrived in the parking lot, we could hear a pulsating beat, not unlike the sound emitting from some teenager’s car wired with oversized bass woofers.

As we climbed over the sand dune, we discovered about 200 people around a circle of a dozen drummers, pounding on mostly bongos. A few women were demonstrating the art of hula hooping, and a few others, in an effort worthy of the mayor’s wife in “The Music Man” were prancing around, having fun while waiting for the sun to go down.

But I could hardly believe it — we didn’t see a single other person from Record country.

Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. He can be reached at (320) 632-2345 or tom.west@mcrecord.com.