Author charms audience

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By Lou Elliott Jones

“Did someone tell you there was free liquor and guns here?”
It’s not a bad question to be posed to an overflow crowd by a man who has spent his life living and chronicling the Florida way of life.
With that opening, Jeff Klinkenberg had the audience hooked. Klinkenburg, whose work appears most Sundays in the Tampa Bay Times (formerly St. Pete Times) newspaper, has published several books on Florida’s interesting, unique and weird characters , animals and places.
“I have a great gig in Florida,” he said. He compared his job to that of the late CBS newsman Charles Kuralt who traveled to and fro in the United States in a specially equipped RV, bringing people’s stories to the television screen. Klinkenberg said his beat runs from Pensacola to Key West and Cocoa to Cedar Key.
“Klink” as he is known by co-workers, said he gets to travel the state and write about it. Travel he loves, “The writing about it is the hard part.”
He’s visited the island a number of times and even inquired about the subject of one of his stories. But an audience member said she had left the Key for Costa Rica. “The people I write about are a lot like you. They say ‘Oh, I don’t know nothing’ and then I talk to them and their story starts to come out,” he said. “I feel honored they have shared their lives with me.”
He regaled the crowd with stories of his boyhood. Born in Chicago, Klinkenberg’s father moved the family to Miami, then Florida’s largest town in 1952. “So I’m a Floridian with an asterisk.”
 It was memorable because, “He moved my mom in June into this house with no air conditioning.” His father, a musician, was more outdoors oriented. His mother, who had fair Irish skin, gathered stories from people.”She could weave these tapestries of people,” he said. “And me, I am this nosey guy.”
Klinkenberg said his father had something in common with the audience. “He was like so many of you who moved here and became enamored with it and went to learn everything he could.”
It was something he passed o to his son who was a member of a club, “The Boys Without Dates.”
“I was hapless with girls,” he said. So, he and his friends went out into the Everglades on date nights.
“As boys we did things that should have gotten us killed,” he said. “One thing, I couldn’t get enough of snakes.”
The boys caught snakes, and later set them loose while other folks were capturing and selling them to pet shops and tourists. “The Boys Without Dates were not particularly smart.”
Klinkenberg took the audience on a virtual tour of the Gator Hook Lodge on the Loop Road in the Everglades. “It was the last of the scary bars in Florida ... It had a sign that said no guns or knives allowed inside.” The BWOD Club would stop in for RC colas and Red Smith’s pickled sausages. “Neil Armstrong walked on the moon before these people had electricity and water.” And one of the owners later burned it to the ground rather than have the National Park Service, which took the land had a chance to change it.
And he introduced them to a fiddle player named Ervin Rouse, the man who composed the “Orange Blossom Special.” The fiddler spent his money buying everybody drinks and occasionally firgetting to cash royalty checks from his much recorded  song.
“I hate it when people say Florida is gone. I’m sure the native people in 1513 saw the Spanish ships and said there goes the neighborhood.”