Category Archives: Narrative

“Don’t Tread on Me” Florida License Plate and Florida history

The Gadsden flag, which is a yellow flag with a coiled snake on it. The text reads "Don't tread on me" — this is now part of the "Don't Tread on Me" Florida license plate.
The “Don’t Tread on Me” Florida license plate shows how little we know Florida history.
Public Domain

The other day I was driving and found myself behind a truck with a specialty tag. That in and of itself isn’t unusual; Florida has more than 100 specialty license plates. What caught my eye was the image on the plate: The Gadsden flag.

This made me cringe.  Not because I don’t find the beneficiary worthy (the Florida Veterans Foundation) or because the flag, to some, embodies the battle cries of those who believe the 2020 election was stolen (it was not.)

It’s because the “Don’t Tread on Me” Florida license plate shows how truly ignorant we are about Florida’s history.

A black license plate with a yellow flag next to the letters "S A M P L" — the flag is the Gadsden Flag and shows a coiled snake with the words "don't tread on me" on it. The plate also says "Florida" and "Don't Tread on Me" on it.
Early 19th-century Floridians are rolling in their graves. 
Image via the State of Florida

The Gadsden Flag

I first learned about the Gadsden flag in grade school. It represented the unity of the 13 so-called “original” colonies. The idea came from a 1754 political cartoon, called “Join, or Die” and symbolized the unity of all EuroAmericans against King George.

a black-and-white illustration of a segmented snake, with different British colony abbreviations at each segment. Below the image are the words "Join, or Die" — this is the start of the Gadsden Flag that would become the Don't Tread on Me Florida License Plate
“Join, or Die” — this is the start of the Gadsden Flag that would become the “Don’t Tread on Me” Florida license plate.
Image via the United States Library of Congress

Or did it?

Why the “Don’t Tread on Me” Florida License Plate is an Insult to History

The Gadsden flag was hoisted in 1775, as the colonies — some of the colonies — in North America prepared to declare their independence from England. Everyone knows there were 13 original colonies, and they all rallied behind this flag.

Most of that is true. The 13 colonies revolting against the Crown did, indeed, rally behind this flag. But they weren’t the original colonies. Or, more accurately, they weren’t the only colonies at this time. Other colonies apart from those so-called “original” 13 included Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, and Quebec. Caribbean colonies — the Bahamas, the BVI, Jamaica and Bermuda — also remained loyal.

And so did Florida. At the time, we were two colonies: East Florida and West Florida, and we wanted no part of a revolution. The way we saw it, it wasn’t so much “revolution” as it was “insurrection” (yes, I know) and it was, to our way of thinking, treason.

Other colonists who wanted to remain British fled either to present-day Canada or to Florida. There are a few reasons life in Florida was great for British colonists (check out that link; it’s a fascinating description of Florida during the American Revolution), but the takeaway here is that the signing of the Declaration of Independence so incensed Floridians that they  burned effigies of John Hancock and Sam Adams in the St. Augustine town square. During the war, Floridians fought for England.

So, in 1776, Florida was less concerned with being tread on than it was distancing itself from an insurrection. And make no mistake about it: What we now call the American Revolution was, indeed, an insurrection (per Merriam Webster, who defines insurrection as an “act or instance of revolting against civil authority or an established government.”)

The End of Revolution and the Gadsden Flag

The Gadsden flag, then, was not one Florida supported. It, in all likelihood, upset late-18th-century and early-19th-century Floridians. When the 13 other colonies won their independence, that flag likely chafed even more, because now the Floridas went to Spain. That’s one hell of a reward for loyalty, although this was part of the 1783 Treaty of Paris and not something England otherwise might have done. Nevertheless, every time a Floridian looked at the Gadsden flag or heard the phrase “don’t tread on me,” it’s safe to say it didn’t inspire patriotism.

Of course, today, Florida’s part of the United States. I get that. But we can’t claim that the Gadsden flag’s origin or initial purpose did anything other than stand in opposition to what Florida was at the time. It stood for things we hated.

But sure, let’s put it on a license plate. Even if, every time I see one of those plates, I won’t think about helping Florida’s veterans. Instead, I’ll remember a Florida that desperately wanted nothing to do with these United States.

Maybe not the message we want that Don’t Tread on me Florida license plate to send.

Read more Florida history you don’t know, this time about Henry Flagler and railroads.

2023 in Florida: The Year I Could Do Without

“Is it OK with you if we don’t trim the tree this year?”

I ask my husband this on Christmas Eve’s Eve, en route to the grocery store to stock up on Tropo Chico and steak. Without missing a beat, he tells me “of course.”

I’ve had merrier years, y’all. 2023 came at me rapid fire.  Oh, it started optimistically enough, with my dad coming back from “he’ll be dead soon” proclamation on Nov. 30 to “he’s coming home and his future looks healthy and incredible” on Dec. 31.

2023 gave me warning signs, though.

I, ever the optimist (despite my press), chose not to see them. Barry’s uncle died rather abruptly and with little warning toward the end of 2022; it was tragic and all too soon (no time is not “too soon” with someone as warm and friendly and funny and loving as Uncle Barry), but I chose to see it as the heartbreaking period at the end of the sentence that was 2022.

A better Italian than I would have taken that as a sign. Clearly, I’ve been Americanized. That’ll teach me. I did not take it as a sign. We commenced with 2023. We camped: Highlands Hammock State Park in Sebring in March.

In April, Barry received a call: His oldest friend had days to live. We hoofed it out to The Villages, where he said his goodbyes. There’s a lot around the perimeter of The Villages I would love to explore more; this was not the trip for that. This was the trip for farewells, and for clearing out a home. It’s easy, I should note, to laugh at The Villages, but when you’re staring down the face of losing a lifelong friend, mocking Spanish Springs doesn’t hit quite the same.

And yet we soldiered on. May brought us back to the Florida Keys, first to White Gate Court, then to Bahia Honda State Park. I spent some time thinking about what I could release, professionally. I made decisions to let some clients go; naively, I thought this would be the hardest things I said goodbye to in 2023.

In retrospect, the sargassum along the beach — and the flesh-eating bacteria that washed ashore with it — by our campsite could have been a sign. I chose to look past the seaweed and see the ocean.

My bad.

That was the good half of 2023.

A return trip to O’Leno State Park in July proved… unsatisfying. Mosquitoes were everywhere — and I am not one to complain about them, because they don’t usually care about me, but they were thick — meant we spent most of our time in the camper. The campground water pressure did little to wash the DEET off me, but hey, I’m used to the smell.

And yet, I persisted. We had one hell of an amazing trip to Fort Clinch State Park in August. We camped on the beach — or as close as we could get with a camper.  At twilight, we watched deer in the dunes. I met my podcast producer for dinner at a marina. I felt as though things were looking up.

I felt serene.

All in all, this camping trip was the highlight of 2023.

Things kinda went to shit after that.

My dad went for surgery the following week. The surgery was a success, but, in a freak chain of events, he vomited, went into cardiac arrest, and his pacemaker spent so much time fighting the defibrillator, his brain couldn’t survive. He lapsed in to a coma.

He never woke up from that coma. When he died, he was the healthiest he’d been in almost 30 years. That’s some Universe-screwing-with-you bullshit irony right there.

And if only that’s where it ended. 

Barry’s other uncle died a few weeks later.

We were at his funeral when his mother died.

Less than a month later, his dad died.

If I wrote this script and sent it to an agent, they’d send it back as “too unbelievable.” I get it. I’m still waiting to wake up from this bullshit.

When we went to the Keys again the next month — November 2023 — we were battle scarred.

And so here we are. December, 2023

You’ll note I haven’t mentioned anything political. I don’t have the energy to address that.

I would love to talk about the wins of 2023 — my book, Florida Spectacular, is done, and should be on bookshelves by September. The paper’s doing really well. My mom and I have never been closer. I love my husband more than I ever thought I could love another human. We have enough.

But still.

I miss my dad every day. On his birthday, I had a panic attack that lasted five days. If you’ve never had a panic attack, you don’t get the horror of that. If you have, well, you know. I’m sorry you know. I survived it by telling myself that heart attacks don’t last multiple days.

It’s Christmas Eve, and I’ve avoided dissolving into tears, so I’m gonna call it a win. There’s really no reason to publish this; it’s not exactly a Florida-forward post, and it’s also not what one would conventionally call “cheerful.”

But some days lately I feel like sucking breath in and pushing it out again is one hell of an achievement, and no, I haven’t written about Florida nearly enough, but statistically, there’s someone reading this who loves Florida who also had a crap year and fights tears and anxiety more days then they don’t. You are not alone in the racing pulse, the chest pains, the noisy brains, and the feeling that maybe, just maybe, you’re closer to the edge than you’d like to be.

Trust me, we can step back from the edge.

I’m so angry at 2023.

I’m so sad because of this year. I don’t have the energy to camp — we canceled a few great reservations this month — and I miss Florida. I miss campfires, pine trees, and the smell of the woods.

Right now, tonight, with a gorgeous white pine tree lit with white lights and no ornaments and no star fish at the top, I want to feel the spirit of Christmas. I want to feel like sipping hot chocolate and singing along with Mariah Carey. I want to celebrate the good things about my father’s life. And Barry’s parents. And his two uncles. And his oldest friend.

But instead the sense of loss is what I feel. I look around and all I see are ghosts.

I’m sorry. I don’t have a Florida way to end this or a way to wrap it up with a pretty little bow. I’ve hated 2023. 

Every now and then, the good breaks through. I have a wonderful husband. My mother is a fiercely strong woman who rebounds from everything. I can always walk to the water and lose myself in the salt. The Winter Solstice a few days ago, long-celebrated by the pagans, means that death has ended and we now begin the process of rebirth.

2023 hasn’t left me with much, but I’m gonna hold onto all that.

Merry Christmas, y’all.

Jimmy Buffett, My Dad, and Florida Road Trips

A man in glasses and a woman in glasses. They are father and daughter, down by the water, like in the Jimmy Buffett song

Jimmy Buffett died last night.

This isn’t a post about that, not really.

While I’ll miss hearing new music from him, I don’t mourn him. I didn’t know him; I have no illusions that I had a clue about the man behind the legend. Few similarities exist between the Gulf and Western icon father and my own dad, but I feel a heartbreaking kinship of mourning with his daughters.

A few weeks ago, my dad died unexpectedly.

I have a lot of wonderful memories of my father. His death was so unexpected, and still so raw, that those memories still assault me at odd times. Grief is like, my friend Tamara says, a ball banging around inside a box. Sometimes it slams into the side of the box, and other times, it doesn’t, and you never know what it’s going to be.

In Backroads of Paradise, I wrote about my earliest experience with Florida’s salt water, with my dad, as we made our way to what would be our forever home in Clearwater:

“Look at that, Cath,” my dad said, his voice reverent. “Look at how clear it is, not like Staten Island at all.” My father still made the sign of the cross on himself when we passed Catholic churches, but not until this moment had I heard such hushed worship in his voice.

I nodded and peered out the window, feeling something new and familiar inside my chest as I gazed at the sandy landscape offering itself to me. I recognized this, much later, as the sense of coming to where I needed to be.

I figure today y’all will see a lot of “Margaritaville” tributes to Jimmy Buffett on social media, but I never had much use for that song. I’ve always been a bigger fan of his B-sides (so much so I wrote this review about his concert a few years ago.)

One song in particular, “Delaney Talks to Statues” has a special place in my heart. Since the day I first heard it, made me think of every wonderful thing about my dad.

Father, daughter/Down by the water

We moved to Florida when I was 7. I loved going to the beach with my dad. Some weekend mornings, we’d get up early and go to Clearwater Beach. Early mornings at the beach — before the crowds — is when you might find shells. I still have some of those shells we collected down by the water so many years ago.

Shells sink, dreams float

There’s a lot more to say about my dad — a lot that doesn’t have anything at all to do with Jimmy Buffett — but one giant takeaway is that he instilled in me a love of road trips.

Shortly after we moved to Florida, my dad had surgery, and he couldn’t work for a few months. Once he recovered enough to drive, though, we’d go on long drives and talk.

This continued for years. As an angsty teen, I’d go for drives with him, and he’d let me talk. He always treated me like an adult in those conversations, those wonderful, rambling conversations that unfolded and went in different directions, much as the roadways we traveled. We never set out with a destination; we simply drove and talked, talked and drove. I saw a lot of Florida’s central west coast on those drives with my father. I remember a lot of trees on those drives, and a lot of love.

Life’s good on our boat

While I won’t paint everything as sunshine and roses in our home growing up — I hate how people deify the dead — I will say that yes, overall, life was good on our (metaphorical) boat. I had two parents who loved each other, loved me, and made sure I knew it. We didn’t have lots of money for big cross-country or international vacations, but we took road trips. My mom and dad both embraced Florida life, never once looking backwards to what they’d left behind in New York. I credit them both with a lot: Instilling in me a love for Florida, for facing life head-on, even when it hurts to do so, and for all the good parts of me.

The Captain and The Kid

My dad and I had a wonderful relationship. Oh, sure, we fought. More than once he left my home in a fit of anger, but he always came back, and there was always a hug and “I love you” after the fight. There’s not a day I’ve been alive when I ever doubted my father’s love.

And in my memories, my love for Florida is tangled up with my parents and their love for it. My passion for road trips is forever linked to those drives I’d take with my dad.

The last drive we took was in 2019, shortly after I’d left full-time work at a local alt weekly. We drove south over the Skyway, out to Anna Maria (another beach we’d visited as a family when I was younger). We drove as far south as we could along the barrier islands, then turned around and headed north along US 41.

That would be our last road trip together.

My dad and I talked about when we could go again, but then… the pandemic came. After that, my dad had some health issues that made longer road trips unpleasant for him. Finally, a few weeks ago, when he was the healthiest he’d been in decades and at the cusp of being able to take a longer drive with me once more, a freak set of circumstances meant we’d never take a road trip together again.

And so this morning when my husband read me the news of Jimmy Buffett’s death, my first thought was of my father — and then of Buffett’s daughters. Because I didn’t know the man, but I knew a man a lot like the man who sang about his daughters.

And so I close with this thought from another Jimmy Buffett song I love; one that also evokes images of my dad, and also my grandfathers: And though I cried, I was so proud/To love a man so rare.