June 1, 2007: Redneck Riviera

Honest Gabe fled New York to get away from Jews and liberals.
That’s what he says.
Gabe Becchinelli is the kind of guy people like to refer to as a “straight shooter.”
“They said the rednecks would eat me alive,” he says. “I said, ‘I’ve put up with you Jews all my adult life.'”
That sentence should not imply that Honest Gabe, the 65-year-old lord of his Mossy Head, Fla., domain, is partial to Arabs.
He has, by his own admission, a big mouth.
I don’t recall, but I’m pretty sure Lauri and I had been lured into Gabe’s kingdom by the phalanx of Confederate flags guarding the brown-dirt parking lot like defiant sentinels.
He left Queens for Port Chester, N.Y., he says, when Port Chester was still conservative enough not to agitate his liberal ulcer. When that ulcer began to get inflamed, he decided the only thing he could do about it was leave.
“There’s nothing you can do to change a stupid person,” he says.
He now reigns over a shoebox emporium stuffed wall to wall with knick-knacks, the G&T Trading Post. When he spots a new face, his need to unleash his garrulous nature cannot be suppressed.

The outside of Gabe Becchinelli’s G & T Trading Post in Mossy Head, Fla.

“How are you?” I ask.
“Not bad. With gas prices like this, I’m not breaking any records.”
He settles into a plastic chair, his tanned, hirsute torso laid bare by an unbuttoned shirt. There’s a knife hanging around his neck, sharing space with a modest gold chain. A John Deere cap crowns his head.
He is a passionate man, heavy laden with self-styled burden of integrity and rectitude. Says he used to be the guitarist and singer of a New York trio of broad popularity.
“I don’t like to brag,” he says. “I only state the facts.”
One fact, as per the Gospel according to Gabe:
He’s a crusader for righteous causes.
Charming and scamp-like, Gabe is among the ranks of nomadic idealists who leave their homes in search of the life more appealing. We dream ceaselessly of throwing off the fetters of the here and now and settling down in a place and time more hospitable to our idiosyncrasies and more appreciative of our peculiar genius.
And so Gabe has bunkered down in this sun-griddled oasis on the pancake panhandle, keeping a wary eye on developers, insurance swindlers and liberals of all stripes.
He smiles readily. He freely shares his philosophy of life with strangers.
By the time we recognize our folly in allowing the protective ramparts of the Second Amendment to erode, he preaches, we will be just so many starving sheep passing away our days in the Socialist American Gulag.
(For what it’s worth, and it’s never much: In rereading this entry, I figured Honest Gabe as the kind of guy who nowadays would be a Tea Party zealot. The wonder of the Internet is that it took about 5 seconds to confirm the suspicion.)
We drove off, and I wondered how it is I left without asking him about the collection of Rebel flags flying outside his establishment.

Into Alabama
At Simply Good, the Florida Panhandle recedes a bit in the face of Old Alabama. Gerald’s the owner, and “What Gerald’s Eating” is the revolving daily special.
Bear Bryant’s portrait stares from the western wall across the modest dining area, eyeing the counter warily. The legendary Crimson Tide football coach, with his signature houndstooth hat, was a “man among men,” who” brought great fame and honor to Alabama.” At least that’s the way George Wallace, who also brought great notoriety to his state, eulogized the fallen legend.
There are quotations honoring Bryant from Ronald Reagan and Joe Paterno, among others.
I’m sure he was a fabulous coach, but in memory it was a lack of coaching acuity that doomed Penn State in the 1979 Sugar Bowl. Four tries from the 1-yard line and a 14-7 loss.
But that’s another story.

*******

Speaking of other stories …
I wrote this in 2007. I had, of course, no knowledge of the horrific child-rape scandal that still threatens to swallow Pedophilia Pennsylvania State University whole.
My dear alma mater. For the glory of Old State.
Everybody has an opinion on the dark goings-on surrounding Jerry Sandusky. To my mind no one has topped the verdict Charlie Pierce delivered in November.
The whole affair is unspeakable. Being so, I have nothing to offer.
Nonetheless …
I thought that, particularly for a Penn State graduate, I had an extraordinarily jaundiced view of Joe Paterno. And now as a football fan, I am complicit in the rape of children.
I supported the machine that shepherded monsters. I went to New Orleans for the Jan. 1, 1983, Sugar Bowl. Joe won that one. I was thrilled. I believed.
Yes, we thought, you could beat the big boys at their own game, all while maintaining your honor. It was Camelot on the Gridiron. We all imbibed of the blue-and-white Kool-Aid.
Then I was 20. By 2007, I had long suspected that Joe Paterno was a disingenuous megalomaniac, that his “Grand Experiment” was a colossal sham.
But I had no facts, only hunches. And I had no inkling it could all come crashing down in such a terrible Shakespearean spectacle.
Joe Paterno was King Lear in coke-bottle glasses and flood pants. He was blinded by his power, seduced by the mythology he created.
It’s another sickening tale of absolute power corrupting absolutely.
Sadly, it is not over.
Today many among the cult are performing incredible feats of mental dexterity and self-deceiving rationalization in the service of the shattered myth. With remarkable sophistry and simmering rage, they rework the available evidence, brutal and inconvenient as it is, into a defense of the disgraced empire.
If you doubt this, check out the comment section of this tepid plea to the Penn State family.
Not only do they believe “Success with Honor” existed, they believe it still does.
Amazing.

*****

Other artifacts on display at Simply Good: Alabama license plates from 1970, ’71, ’72. All with “HEART OF DIXIE” embossed over the numbers. Alabama’s longtime slogan, turns out, is the “Heart of Dixie.” I didn’t know this.
A photograph featuring a gallery of smiling, obedient white boys and girls from the mid-1950s, Nicetown Elementary School. All in their 70s now. Or dead.
I bit into a chicken leg slathered with irresistibly smoky sauce. The first animal meat I’d willfully ingested in more than a year – without the slightest trepidation. With relish, even.
The food is simple. Good, indeed. The prices more than reasonable. The ambiance cheerful.
A UPS driver sitting just behind me inquired if we were from Pennsylvania. The license plate gave us away.
Wayne Turner eats lunch here every day. He lives in Dothan, Ala., and works at the UPS hub across the state line in Florida.
His dad moved down here from West Chester, Pa. We chatted briefly about West Chester, where I lived in the early 1990s, then Wayne recalled a little about his father’s history.
American guards its Maginot Line of the mind in earthy, zesty redoubts such as these.
I couldn’t help but wonder what Wayne thought about the post-911 homily gracing the wall beneath the Bear’s stoic gaze.
An American patriot chides an immigrant looking for an easy ride to get a job and shut the hell up. Yes, the author concedes, all who come here, even the most wretched of God’s flesh-bound refuse, have the right to speak freely.
But when the newcomer has spoken his or her peace, he or she is entreated to “take advantage of one other great American freedom, the right to leave.”
Got it?
Didn’t ask Wayne about that bit of homespun xenophobia.
Just as well. I like Wayne.

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