Raised in the sun

Tom Petty, Zora Neale Hurston and others share childhood stories of the Sunshine State.

click to enlarge FLORIDA BOY: Tom Petty playing bass guitar with his first band the Sundowners at the Moose Club’s battle of the bands. - KEITH HARBEN
FLORIDA BOY: Tom Petty playing bass guitar with his first band the Sundowners at the Moose Club’s battle of the bands.

Growing up in Florida can feel like preparation for a Jeopardy appearance; a seemingly random cache of trivia is built right in. The circus community in Gibsonton. Jack Kerouac dying in St. Petersburg. Jim Morrison going to college. Beaches, wetlands, python nests, citrus rat groves, wild hogs. Outlaws have found their way to the Sunshine State, and snowbirds, too. That’s the strangeness of Florida.

Then there’s Florida, land of flowers: childhood memories of walking into the backyard, climbing up a citrus tree, and plucking a fresh piece of fruit.

Homegrown in Florida, a collection edited by writer, journalism professor and CL books columnist William McKeen, is all about growing up in the many shades of Florida’s ever-morphing personality.

“Though it doesn’t have the bedrock identity of Boston or New York, or the several-generations-back deeds to Iowa family farms, or the rugged vistas of Colorado, Florida has forged its own perverse chracter,” McKeen writes.

And it’s true. When I tell people I was born and raised in Florida, I always get a reaction, whether of horror or awe.

The stories in McKeen’s book (which include two of his own about growing up here) are written by Floridians, but not exclusively for Floridians. If you love the state, chances are you will love the book. If you don’t love it, pick up a copy and open your mind a little. There’s the gut-wrenching childhood tale from the Tampa Bay Times’ Jeff Klinkenberg. Former Creative Loafing political reporter and current USF professor Wayne Garcia writes about his Little League “career.” A selection from Florida novelist and former Tribune writer Tim Dorsey’s Florida Roadkill chronicles Dorsey’s serial-killer character Serge Storm. There are tales from Michael Connelly, Craig Pittman, Carl Hiaasen, Bill Maxwell and Zora Neale Hurston.

But Tom Petty’s story, from an interview with music journalist Paul Zollo for his book Conversations with Tom Petty, is my favorite.

Florida boys and girls (especially girls) have a very special place in Tom Petty’s music. With just three strums of “American Girl,” windows are rolled down, palms beat against the steering wheel and your car momentarily lifts off the asphalt. We take pride in his music and the place it came from.

Petty was born and raised in Gainesville, but before he became one of America’s most iconic rock musicians he met Elvis Presley at the courthouse in Inverness.

“I didn’t know a lot about Elvis Presley. He was known to me as a fellow who wiggled,” Petty remembers. Petty’s uncle Earl Jernigan worked on film crews in Florida and invited Petty to see the King on the set of Presley’s ninth film Follow That Dream.

“I’ve always thought that was a cosmic title,” Petty says.

The film was being shot on location at the courthouse building, and the crowd awaiting his arrival for shooting that day was teeming with teenage girls.

Petty watched as a line of white Cadillacs pulled up and men got out in mohair suits and pompadours. He kept asking his uncle which one of the men was Elvis.

“And then suddenly I go, ‘That’s Elvis.’

His description of the singer captures everything.

“At fifty yards, we were stunned by what this guy looked like. And he came walking right towards us. And his hair was so black, I remember that it shined blue when the sunlight hit it.”

Presley greeted Petty’s uncle and his nieces and nephews, including Petty. Witnessing Elvis firsthand, Petty decided the rock star had a good thing going on.

“I traded my Wham-O slingshot to this kid for a box of 45s, and in this box were so many Elvis records, and they were all the greatest ones.”

He was hooked on Elvis, hooked on rock and roll.

“And that’s what kicked off my love of music. That was the dream I followed, strangely enough.”

Homegrown in Florida, University Press of Florida, 2012, $24.95.

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