I began this column at a Holiday Inn in Lake City. For the first time ever, I drove alone to Columbus, Georgia. It was for a memorial service for my older sister, and I hope it will be the last of four such recent family events. I've made this trip to Columbus, which is on the Alabama border, upwards of fifty times. My sister and her family lived there when Hubby and I moved to Tampa in 1972, and we always spent at least one annual holiday there – Easter, Thanksgiving, and especially New Years, as her birthday was December 31.
There were summer vacations, too, usually as we passed through on the way northwest. Their swimming pool was a welcome respite from heat, and the indoor hot tub offered comfort in winter. Some people told me that I'm too old to make this 400-mile drive alone, but I rejected the idea of flying at the beginning. I'd had enough of airports after going to Little Rock via St. Louis for a nephew's memorial last month. Everyone in Florida knows you can't get to heaven without going through Atlanta, and everyone also knows that the Atlanta airport is hell.
From there, I would have had to take a shuttle back south to Columbus, so with airport time, the difference between driving and flying was about the same. My younger sister did fly from Little Rock to Atlanta – and the flight was delayed for three hours; she was late getting to the church. Let me propose that one of the things we should do in re-visioning with "Build Back Better" is to encourage more direct flights to mid-size cities. Except for Charlotte, that is. Everyone who flies in the South knows that being stuck in this distribution point is a real possibility. Some of my friends used go through there aiming to give up their seats in exchange for frequent flier points, but to me, the airport's lovely rocking chairs do not atone.
FLORIDA ROAD RUMINATIONS
It is true that the Atlanta airport and especially its highways have improved during the last decade. I went up there at the end of the visit, dropping my daughter at the airport, and we really enjoyed I-185 from Columbus to Atlanta. It's the only interstate I know that has signs calling it a "scenic byway," and with flaming autumn leaves and absolutely no billboards, it was a joy.
Our DOT shows evidence of trying, but the first stretch of I-75 north of Tampa still is a mess. Probably a half-mile of cars were lined up waiting to get onto State Road 54 at Land o' Lakes -- and this was about noon on a weekday. Yet I was delighted to see visual improvement. We are only beginning to catch up with Georgia and the Carolinas in presenting a pretty face to visitors, but DOT in this area is demonstrating a new concern for landscaped medians and exit ramps. There's even a bit of sculpture near the junction of I-75 and I-275.
There's also a number of very bright new electronic signs that make it clear when major exits are coming up, especially around Gainesville. I hope we get more of these things in Tampa when the Biden money comes down, whether or not DeSantis approves. As I understand it, cities and counties will be able to control their share of the funds without asking the governor for permission.
Oh, how much better our lives would be if Rick Scott had not refused Obama's offer to improve the Tampa/Orlando route! One of my friends was amazed that I was driving to Georgia: she said that driving only as far as Orlando wore her out. I replied that going to Orlando wears me out, too, but going north to Georgia is much more relaxing than going anywhere east in our over-populated state.
North of Tampa, rural Florida remains. Cows and horses graze under the billboards that still disgrace the interstate – but I was glad to see that there are somewhat fewer right-wing signs than in the past. The evidence of strip clubs that used to abound near Ocala also seem to be gone. I suppose that GPS tracking of employees has made it harder for truck drivers to spend time there. A few signs still promote anti-abortion views, and one told me that I was in danger of hell, complete with flames. On the whole, though, there are fewer billboards, and most now are helpfully related to tourism.
OK, there was one farmer who festooned his road-front pasture with five flags, including the Confederate. I went by too fast to determine the others, but they did not represent colonial Florida: I would have recognized those of Spain and Great Britain. Another pasture featured a faded sign telling Republicans to vote for Adam Putnam in that party's 2018 primary. I wish they had nominated him; he would have had better sense than Ron-Be-Gone.
A HISTORY LESSON UNLEARNED
Without intending it, I found tears rolling down my cheeks as I passed Gainesville. It – and other places along the road – gave me bittersweet thoughts about Hubby. The University of Florida holds memories of our time together, too, but also of other people. One of my chief memories of that place is the 50th anniversary of the admission of women to UF. You may recall that I alluded to coeducation in last week's column. A couple of readers asked me to expand on that, and this is a good opportunity.
When World War II ended in 1945, a grateful nation offered free tuition at any college or university where a veteran could meet the admission standards. Millions of veterans, most of them male, took up this portion of the GI Bill of Rights, and they soon overcrowded campuses. The result was coeducation. Like most Southern states, Florida had kept (white) men and women segregated, with the guys in Gainesville and the girls in Tallahassee. In 1947, just two years after the war, Florida College for Women became Florida State University – and men displaced women from student government and other opportunities that they had enjoyed in a single-sex school.
The compromise, however, included admission of women to the hallowed halls of Gainesville, and in 1997, UF celebrated this anniversary by inviting a number of its distinguished female graduates for a weekend of festivities. My late friend Dr. Gay Culverhouse invited me to go with her – and never before or since did we experience a similar "celebration." Gay had access to an air-conditioned space at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, but she kindly chose to sit out in the hot sun on the hard benches that we women were offered. These seats were not in the nose-bleed section, but they hardly were on the fifty-yard line either.
Of course it was assumed that football would be the great attraction for these distinguished women – among them NOW president Ellie Smeal. Carol Browner, another friend, also made the trip to Gainesville; she headed the Environmental Protection Agency under President Bill Clinton. After the game, we were treated to a reception at UF's President's House, where we were served – I kid you not – chicken wings and cookies. No celery, no carrots. Two items of food, separated by dozens of liquor bottles.
The after-dinner speaker at The Swamp was Republican US Senator Connie Mack, whose rambling oratory made us suspect that he had imbibed a bit from one of those bottles. Neither he nor anyone else gave any serious recognition of women's history during a weekend supposedly dedicated to that complex topic. Indeed, we wondered if perhaps the event planners thought that Connie Mack was a woman, instead of a shortening of Cornelius McGillicuddy III.
Midwestern universities – Minnesota, Michigan, etc. – were coed from their beginnings prior to the Civil War. Washingtonians noticed this during World War II: instead of recruiting essential office personnel from nearby Virginia and Maryland, where elitists refused to pay taxes for decent public education, bureaucrats went out to the Midwest to find the stenographers and typists they needed. This continued into the 1950s, and my sister was recruited by the Department of the Navy before she even graduated from high school. She had to wait for her 18th birthday at the year's end to fly to DC; she was the first in our big Minnesota family to venture out into the wider world.
The Pentagon still was under construction, and her office was in temporary quarters on Constitution Avenue near the Washington Monument. My family spent an evening last weekend going through her photo albums, and it is clear that she had both a good job and a good social life. The job, unfortunately, came to an end when she married a soldier from nearby Fort Belvoir. The problem was not that he was Army and she was Navy, but rather that no government offices of that era employed married women.
He eventually became a pilot, flying both fixed-wing planes and helicopters during three tours in Vietnam. She bore their six children and often cared for them alone when he was on duty elsewhere. I especially remember when she joined him in Germany – six months pregnant and with a toddler and an infant in tow. I've never quite decided if she was fearless or senseless, but the kids grew up fine. At her death, she had nine grandchildren and eleven great-grandchildren who filled her home with laughter and love. A trip to Georgia never will be the same for me, but I shall keep keeping on.