“Everyone who hears that you’ve got your dick stuck in anything thinks you were trying to have sex with it. I have no idea how that’d be possible in this case. I have been in the depths of the compound bow, and it was not pleasurable. All right, so anyway, my dick. It’s been a while since I told this story. But basically, there are moments in life that kind of define you, they point you in a direction, they — you’re forged in the fires.”
What do we even mean when we say “Florida Man”? It’s an American phrase that identifies one of those indescribable French feelings, the kind there’s no word for in any other language. But it has evolved into something that transcends language. Give a state invasive fish and imported exotic birds and hordes of freed pet pythons, and in return it gifts us with the most specific sense of place imaginable, one with layers of humanity, history, and ecology fusing into something that can’t be defined except maybe by a laugh — rueful, but warm — and a certain tilt of the head, and a look of You Just Had To Be There, And Aren’t You Sorry You Weren’t.
If you’re an enthusiast of the antics of the region, you’re already well aware of the @_FloridaMan Twitter account, that essential tool for navigating real stories from the land where the sawgrass meets the sky. The @_FloridaMan stories star everyday folks in odd situations, malevolent individuals acting terrible in highly precise ways, and every possible inhabitant on the spectrum in between. The feed is at its best, though, when chronicling citizens’ encounters with the state’s vast and varied wildlife, such as “Florida Man Traps 12-Foot Python in Barbecue Grill,” or “Florida Man Forced to Apologize on Facebook for Cannonballing on Manatee,” a first-ballot Hall of Fame pick not so much for Good Ideas Gone Bad as for Bad Ideas Gone Worse, sprung from a state replete with them. In the early weeks of 2015 alone, we’ve already been treated to “Florida Man Who Organized Deadly Roach-Eating Contest Arrested For Slapping Employee With Lizard” and “Florida Man Terrifies Vacationing Family With Gunfire Meant For Iguana.”
And in the fall of 1998, in the midsize metropolis of Lakeland, just east of Tampa, there lived Oliver, whose headline in the Twitter age would read something like “Florida Man Tangles Genitals In Compound Bow While Hunting Fish.”
“We do a lot of damage to ourselves, as a family. I’ve been knocked out six times. I’ve had a concussion. I was playing football, I got tackled by my cousin, both of my feet went toes-down and backward, couldn’t walk for a month. If you take every single one of those incidents and create a single ball, a pinnacle of pain, it pales in comparison to what I experienced with the compound bow. Like, you don’t come back from that, you know? I will always fear the compound bow. Especially that one.”
Oliver, a Florida Man before Florida Man was a thing, is fine, first of all — this story is not an exercise in sun-dappled torture porn. He survived his ordeal and grew up into a boyish thirtysomething in a plaid shirt and jeans, an outwardly average adult American with a normal career in transportation logistics, and could be any other animated storyteller in the bar but for the words pouring out. And in his immediate defense, he wants you to know right away that his aims were purely sporting — and that, for this neck of the woods, the afternoon in question began like any other.
I met up with Oliver in Atlanta last spring for a retelling of the ordeal, followed by a trip to his Central Florida homeland to visit the scene of his torments. It’s a slice of the country that has never been short on storytelling fodder. Polk County, which occupies a roughly Missouri-shaped chunk of land between Tampa and Orlando, claims such benign luminaries of history as “Walkin’” Lawton Chiles, who before becoming governor successfully campaigned for a seat in the U.S. Senate by walking the state, a journey of more than 1,000 miles. It has played home to grimmer episodes, like that of the Cocaine Cowboys, who built airplane hangars disguised as barns in the area, used to traffic narcotics when the Coast Guard presence in South Florida became too prohibitive to import coke in bulk by sea.1
If you look at a satellite map of this part of Central Florida, its geography appears as though acid has been spritzed haphazardly on the page. Many of those holes are natural lakes, there by virtue of the Sunshine State’s unique geography, formed over time by ebbing and receding seas. In Polk County, though, more than a handful are former phosphate mine pits. (The trade inhabits a touchy slice of state history, but if you’re into heartwarming stories of mining companies diversifying into new lines of work, today’s your day.) The process by which the phosphate mining business enters our tale is a simple one: Earth is dug out, something unnatural takes its place for a little while, and then it gets filled with more nature. (Then, this being Florida, it becomes a homemade water park. But we’ll get to that.)
Near the western border of Polk County lies Lakeland, host city of Detroit Tigers spring training and hometown of Ray Lewis and the Pouncey twins. It is regionally famous for a bunch of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, for its swans descended from the royal flock of Queen Elizabeth (long story), and for the time one of its titular lakes drained away into a sinkhole (and came back!). It’s also home to Oliver and his expansive family tree, sprawling as live oak limbs.
“Here’s the sales pitch that we had as kids that we bought into: There’s a type of fish here, they’re not native, they were brought in by somebody who had the brilliant idea that they’d eat algae. What they ended up doing was thriving and eating the natural fish eggs and damaging the habitat. Kinda took over when they made it to Florida. It’s sort of like the situation with the snakes down in Florida. I don’t know if you’ve heard about them taking over. If you set them loose in Pennsylvania, they’re only gonna thrive about two months, and then it gets cold and they’re just gonna die. In Florida, they live long and happy lives, and they agree with everything down there, and then you have a whole world of problems. So our deal was we just thought that we were gonna go out and shoot the fish that weren’t supposed to be there anyway.”
Oliver’s family isn’t native to Florida, either, if you want to get into a here-first argument between species. His grandfather, Vincent, a hardware store owner turned home developer, moved here from Illinois in the late ’50s and started putting up houses. He and his wife eventually produced seven children and 34 grandchildren, many of whom still cluster in the vicinity of the same middle-class neighborhood and inhabit the homes he built. There are now 47 great-grandchildren in the mix. Oliver himself lived there until the spring of 2013, leaving to take a job in Tennessee.2
Pull up to Oliver’s childhood home, go down the hill around one side, and you’ll find one of those old phosphate mining pits, full of water, now unrecognizable as anything but an oddly shaped lake covering up an unseen scar in the earth. The lake isn’t spring-fed but rather a result of rainwater runoff from higher areas trickling into the dirt, hitting clay, and pooling up. The pits mostly drain into one another and out one rusty pipe; the water that exits forms creeks that feed the Alafia River, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico. (It’s prettier than I’m making it sound.) When Oliver’s grandparents moved to the neighborhood in 1960, the land wasn’t even scabbed over yet, mined so recently that grass hadn’t had a chance to grow back.
The neighborhood that rose up there has housed, at one time or another, more than three dozen of Oliver’s family members. From the street, nothing appears out of the ordinary, all ranch houses and bikes and boats and rustling leaves. It’s the land itself that makes life interesting, those former mining grounds filled in and topped with homes. When you fill in an asymmetrical mining pit to make habitable property, there’s no guarantee that you’re going to get dirt in everything. And a few decades of trial-and-error building on this unreliable territory have produced certain weird features that you wouldn’t notice unless you knew where to look.
There’s a house that sits on a crooked foundation, for example, built on a parcel of land that straddles both pit and mound. The part of the lot that was previously mined was more unstable than the part that had never been pit, and an old mining pipe allowed some fill dirt to wash away. Once the home began to settle, it did so entirely to one side and gradually sort of cracked right down the middle. It’s still livable, somehow, and now houses Oliver’s sister Marijane and her husband, Nathan. (This wasn’t a home built by Vincent; it originally belonged to an unrelated next-door neighbor, although Vincent did add a garage to his house that encroached on the former pit, and that sank too.) There’s an empty lot owned by the family that can’t be developed because it’s largely composed of another pit that was filled in with the contents of a burned-down grocery store. And at the very bottom of one pit, there’s even a homemade reef made from at least one washing-machine duo — maybe more; nobody really remembers anymore — dumped there by a forward-thinking, wildlife-loving neighbor who knew that fish wouldn’t be able to form habitats on smooth-bottomed mine pits. The gambit worked. The new ecosystem flourished. And the pit became a favorite family fishing spot.
“I was in high school. We had a long weekend. And the high school sweetheart, the one whose husband tried to murder me years later,3 her and I were gonna meet up, and I had some time to kill. I was like, ‘I don’t know what I’m gonna do — aaah, there’s a bow!’ I was wearing Umbros, that’s it. The Florida life. And this was, I believe, an 80-pound bow. You can fish with, like, a 30-pounder. It was a terrible idea.”
Stretching across the haphazardly shaped bodies of water that lace the compound is the family water park, built largely by Nathan over the years, with all attractions terminating in pit lakes teeming with wildlife seen and unseen. That does include native alligators, able to sidle in easy as smiling. Clutch those pearls, helicopter parents, but I could find no member of Oliver’s family who can remember any of them ever suffering a gator bite at play in the pits. Ill-timed falls from the zip line account for most of the injuries, along with the “loose screw on the waterslide” incident that sliced up one of Oliver’s brothers, and the time Oliver jumped off a too-high tree branch and hit the water so hard that he passed out beneath the surface and had to be rescued.
Stand on the spot where Oliver hoisted the bow that ill-fated day and you’ll face a massive human-launching ramp made out of plastic siding, the central attraction in this watery wonderland. It’s surrounded by a zip line, multiple levels of diving platforms, various swings (playground-style, rope, Russian), a smaller slide situated on a floating dock, and another floating dock that often plays host to a Ping-Pong table (loser swims for balls). There’s also a driving range platform on one shoreline; golfers aim for floating kiddie pools in the water, each tied to an anchoring brick. (Errant shots are retrieved by rowboat with a golf ball scooper affixed to the front, as one does.) And, of course, there’s plenty of fishing; former family friends now related to Oliver’s tribe by marriage host frequent tilapia fries.
“The fish here usually hang out on the edge of the water. But for me, I could have been from me [gestures across the bar table] to you in terms of distance to the fish, and I would’ve probably hit that wall, because I was terrible. I had five of my brother’s arrows, and 45 minutes later I had one arrow. I mean, the other four still exist, but they could be in outer space. I know that no fish currently have the arrows in them. But I came around to the back of the house, I saw this fish right on the edge, and it was big. It was probably the size of, from my point of view at that moment, like a 60-inch TV.”
In defense of the art of shooting fish with a bow and arrow in the first place, for those of you not sufficiently blessed to have been raised by ardent outdoorsmen and women, bowfishing: a real thing! An actual hunting method, with a long history, practiced by hunters who never cause themselves grievous injury. There are national and state organizations. There are historical appreciation groups. There is specialized gear. It is entirely possible and even enjoyable to fish successfully with a compound bow and not maim any part of one’s person. Bowfishing levels up the mental degree of difficulty on a fishing trip, as the shooter must compensate for refracted images of underwater targets when aiming. Fishing arrows are also heavier than you might imagine you’d need for shooting something that’s going to end up fileted on a sandwich, owing to a need to first travel through water and then pierce scales; using a compound bow allows for more power when shooting.
I asked record-holding bowfisherman Blake Shelby just how much firepower Oliver was working with here, and to what degree he may have been overcompensating: “Bowfishermen want to use much, much lighter weights. You’ll typically want a 60-, 70-pound bow to hunt deer. If you use that to fish, then it creates a lot of problems. The arrows penetrate too much, they go too fast, and you either shoot it in the roots of a tree or you bury it in the mud. To penetrate a fish, you use lighter poundage. We see more 29-pound bowfishing bows than anything else. Fifty pounds would be extremely high.”
For those of you scoring at home, that 80-pound bow borrowed from Oliver’s brother, Vince III, was heavy weaponry even for killing deer, and almost three times more powerful than needed for the task at hand. Complicating matters that fateful afternoon was the DIY land-to-sea strategy employed by Oliver’s brother when making his own bowfishing rig, which involved grabbing that oversize compound bow intended for taking down land-based quadrupeds and duct-taping to it a child’s Snoopy fishing reel. (Why? You’d just as soon ask George Mallory what’s so great about a big pile of rocks.)
In a correctly executed shot with this contraption, the process would go something like this: The shooter would press the button on the reel (attached to the bow several inches above where his hand would grasp it to draw back), releasing the fishing line. Draw, aim, and fire, and the arrow and string would head in the general direction of the fish (or, in Oliver’s case, not anywhere near any fish).
Working against that ideal process was Oliver’s inexperience — and fatigue. That’s another thing about bowhunting: It’s genuinely hard work, and it’s difficult to get a good pull on a bow that heavy in the first place. Oliver worked out a lot, was pretty well built for a kid his age, and was the only one of his friends who could draw the bow without having to set it on the ground and brace it against his feet. Nearly an hour into his impromptu shooting expedition, his arms were shaking when he saw the fish and drew.
“I set the bottom of the bow, where the pulley is, on my thigh, kind of pushing it into my leg. Then the whole thing slipped. It drew the bowstring into the pulley, and when it drew the string in, the pulley wheel caught on my shorts, and pulled my shorts and then my dick in between the pulley and the string. And it’s got me good. It’s not letting go. I’d gotten my shirt stuck in the bow before, so I knew that if I could find the strength to pull the bow back, it would release me. But the pulley was tangled on my shorts somehow, and when I drew the bow back out, it went farther in. I don’t know what to do, and I realize that if I let go, it was going to complete what it began. At first it had just pinched the shaft; now it had consumed the majority of the shaft. It was cutting things off.”
If you’re still with me here, there’s a chance you think this all sounds like pure lunacy. Not even the “LOL LOOKIT REDNEX” kind of incredulity, more of a wondering at this kind of throwback family still existing, evoking the era in which glowing streetlights called kids home for supper, everybody’s neighbor watched everybody else’s kids, and snakes were routinely fished out of sewers and brought home as pets without anybody Googling “snake diseases transmissible to children” because there was no Google. Consider instead that with that many kids barreling around, there’s simply a higher floor here for what constitutes an Actual Emergency. Becky, Oliver’s mom, a petite woman with a nursing degree from Duke who greeted the purpose of my visit with a straightforward well-of-course-ness, had 10 of her own kids to look after, to say nothing of Oliver’s father, who was paralyzed in a skiing accident earlier that year. The kids could walk and swim and look after themselves and each other, and if there was one who might have needed especially watchful eyes, suspicion wouldn’t have fallen on the eldest son. At 17, Oliver knew better in every possible way — then again, he was a teenage boy, and that cancels out here as readily as anywhere else. Combine those factors with “it’s Florida” and the attendant elevated baseline chaos multiplier, and presto: Oliver’s story, remarkable when viewed from afar, becomes a kind of reasonable inevitability up close.
“So I’m holding this bow, I am freaking out, I am shaking, about 40 yards from my parents’ house. I could yell all I wanted at this point; no one would’ve heard me. I have nine siblings, so yelling was constant. (I’m sure the fish is just enjoying every minute of this.) I’m holding the bow tight and dragging the arrow between my legs, because it’s still on the string; I get to the back door, I start kicking it. My mom comes running out, and — oh, I forgot about this, my dad’s inside with elders from the church. It didn’t matter if Jesus was sitting in the living room, my dick was on its deathbed. When my mom went inside to find the scissors, I’m gonna say that was somewhere between 15 minutes to six days. She looks at me and she’s like, “What do you want me to do?” I said, “You can either stick those scissors in my neck, or you can cut this fucking string, I don’t care!” And she’s like, ‘OK, OK!’ and she cuts the string, and — as terrible as that moment was, just devastating, the moment she cut the string was the antithesis of that. It was beautiful. It was wonderful. I didn’t know if I was gonna be OK, but I knew that my dick was still attached.”
Florida stories seem to generate their own kinetic energy to plumb unseen spaces, like droplets of water hitting the earth and seeking out the depths of the nearest underground limestone cavern. There’s always further to go, more directions in which to follow this specific gravitational pull at work.
“I know a guy who got his junk caught in a … ”
“ … while he was trying to shoot fish with it.”
“ … no, but it wasn’t actually a fishing bow.”
“ … with Snoopy on it.”
There’s always somewhere else to go, with whatever it is. And there’s a quality to the stories here where nothing you can spin up out of thin air can possibly hope to compare to true events. The most casual toss-off of a question lands with successively bigger ripples, each more uproarious than the last.
I watched this happen for myself by tracing backward from the generation that built the water park: Were Oliver’s grandparents ever concerned about letting the kids in the mining pools when they were first filled in? Well, no, but Oliver’s dad used to find six-legged frogs down there when he was a kid. It made the papers. On the drive to the compound, Oliver’s cousin Janie points out the corner in town where the local Albertsons supermarket used to stand. What, I ask, without really thinking first, did it burn down? Why, yes, it did, and the blaze that did the job had been preceded by three other fires in the four months since the store’s construction, all of unsolved origins, and here’s where the family comes in: Albertsons had to put the remains of the store somewhere. According to family lore, Vincent cut a deal to bury all the burned-up detritus next to one of his houses, in an undeveloped lot that he owned, for free. Albertsons got its debris carted off and Vincent got another of his phosphate pits filled in. (The arrangement, as one of Oliver’s uncles explained, “predated environmental regulation, when no one cared how much mayonnaise was in the water table.”)
Vincent’s descendants have made the best of the uninhabitable land. There are trees planted all along the fence line, growing apples, peaches, pears, plums, nectarines, lemons, mulberries, key limes, olives, bananas, and pineapples. The family has yet to build anything there, even more unable than usual to determine just where to sink pilings that wouldn’t land on a charred checkout counter, or how fast such a house might sink into a hidden lake of Freon from the detritus of the frozen-foods section. The plot stands mostly bare today, a negative-image monument to Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time. (Nathan has since constructed a dirt bike racetrack on the land there, complete with jumps he shaped with a front-end loader.)
Get interested in Vincent, and start asking more questions, like “Who’s the guy in the picture of the pallbearers from his funeral, the one in the purple suit?” and that introduces you to Rico Reed, a local bail bondsman who considers Vincent a father figure for the work he did for the African American community. “He had a passion,” says Reed, “for getting black families into their own homes. I stopped counting at 26 or 27 houses. He was helping people who had no idea they could own a house. It was earth-moving, really.” Get interested in Reed and discover he once brought in a murder suspect who’d eluded the U.S. Marshals. The stories don’t ever stop. The tributaries never end.
“I went into my room, just to make sure everything was intact. I took somewhere around 10 to 12 Tylenols. I had a bag of ice. The first thing I thought was, Am I gonna have to go to the hospital? But my dick was done. It felt like a scene in the movies. ‘We’ve done everything we can; we’ve just gotta hope he pulls through.’ It’s in the hands of God. My dick is in the hands of God now. I mean, this was a wounded baby bird. It didn’t need to have people trying to look at it or fix it. It just needed time. How stupid was it not to go to the doctor? I could try to blame my parents, but that one’s on me. I didn’t come out of the bedroom for three days. I didn’t take a piss for two days. I took a shower at some point, I think. I was just rollin’ the dice.”
Head back past Vincent and into the family’s extensive genealogy records and you can even find a kind of proto–Florida Man, one who lived that life to the fullest without ever actually residing in the Sunshine State. Oliver’s great-grandfather’s great-grandmother, Margaret Marriah Kinman, was aunt to Seth Kinman, a hunter and craftsman noted in his day for fashioning ferocious-looking chairs out of pointy bits of animals and gifting them to U.S. presidents. The following interaction with Abraham Lincoln did not, geographically speaking, take place in Florida, but you will surely agree that Kinman was there in spirit, presenting the president with a buckhorn chair and an unexpected concert that involved another kind of bow altogether:
Kinman told “the President that he had another little keepsake with him in the form of a fiddle made from the skull of his favorite mule, which, when alive, appeared to have music in his soul, for he would always look around the camps on the plains when he heard music. After the mule had been dead for some time, he passed his bleached bones one day and the idea struck him that there might be music in the bones, so he made the fiddle. Later he took a rib, and some hairs from the tail, and made the bow. Much to the amusement of Lincoln and other spectators, he played ‘Essence of Old Virginia’ and ‘John Brown’ on the bones of the mule. Lincoln said that if he could play the fiddle he would ask him for it, but since he could not, the fiddle would be better off in Mr. Kinman’s hands.”4
The camera is going to pan up and away here, but you get the picture. It could happen anywhere. All of it. But cosmically, it should happen here. Only In Florida isn’t so much a declaration, in this case, as a plea to whatever unseen forces govern it, swamps to starry heavens. Keep it all here, surrounded on three sides by water so none of it can easily escape, and handily accessible by major road-, water-, and airways, that we might all visit as often as we like. Keep its reserves of wildlife and stories bottomless, with maybe some discarded laundry equipment at the very bottom, for company.
“The moral of the story? My dick’s fine! I mean, relatively; it didn’t fall off. I don’t have permanent scars. It’s not clean living. So I don’t know if I really learned anything. I don’t know if I ever had a normal life. I mean, I attempted at normality, but life was never gonna give me that option.”