Two war stories, both of D-Day
The following article that I wrote appeared in the St. Petersburg Times on June 5, 1994, in honor of the 50th anniversary of D-Day:
Villagers cried out “Liberate! Liberate!” when the smelly, unshaven U.S. paratrooper limped into town alone.
Private Joe Clancy, a member of the 82nd Airborne’s 307th Engineers, warned them that their celebration would be premature.
He had only a vague idea where he was, and his reinforcements consisted of a radio man and a sergeant hiding in a nearby hedgerow.
“I told them it’s only the three of us, but they thought we had the whole Army behind us,” Clancy recalled.
At about that same time, a week after the Allied invasion of Normandy, Sgt. Larry James strung communications wiring in a town once occupied by the Germans.
As he kneeled to tie off a wire, someone tapped James on the right shoulder. He glanced back. He saw boots. A long overcoat. German.
“I pulled a John Wayne,” James said. “I had a submachine gun at my side. I grabbed it, spun around and pulled the trigger, but it didn’t fire. It was jammed.”
Turns out, it was an older man, sputtering something in German. More than a dozen German soldiers approached James, hands raised. He was stunned.
“They were surrendering to me,” he said.
Fifty years later, on Memorial Day, both Clancy and James were among about 200 D-Day veterans honored at the White House, where they had breakfast with President Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In Normandy, Clancy and James were strangers to each other, small cogs in the invasion that marked the beginning of the end of World War II.
Now they are friends, living a few miles from each other in Port Richey.
Just before midnight, June 5, 1944, Allied bombers shellacked the Normandy coast.
A Douglas C-47 dropped low while the German forces were distracted by the aerial bombardment. Other planes, filled with paratroopers, followed.
James and 200 other Pathfinders dropped into the French wilderness, setting up electronic beacons to identify drop zones for paratroopers who would arrive later.
The 22-year-old New York native joined the Army after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941.
“Somebody waved a flag or something,” James said.
He had wanted to become a Marine, but a doctor told him he lacked “shock teeth,” needed to absorb close bomb blasts.
When he asked to become a paratrooper, James said, the reception was sunnier: “My God, he’s warm yet! Take him!”
Before Normandy, James had jumped over North Africa and Sicily.
“I was scared to death (before the jumps),” he said. “I had my rosaries out all the time.”
Wrong side of the river
When word came that Operation Overlord finally would begin, Clancy was relieved.
“We were glad when it came, in a way, so we could get in and get it over with,” he said.
Soldiers had been waiting several days. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower wanted a full moon, clear skies and a smooth sea for the beach assault.
On June 6, Eisenhower had the moon and skies, but the sea remained choppy. His choice: Strike anyway or wait at least another month – time enough for Field Marshal Erwin Rommel to further fortify the Atlantic Wall.
Two hours after James jumped from his plane, and 4 1/2 hours before the amphibious landing began, planes carried paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions. Their task: capture and hold bridges and roads that might allow German reinforcements to reach the beaches.
A red light near the C-47s open hatch indicated Clancy and his fellow paratroopers were above the drop zone. They lined up to jump. Clancy thought they were too high – usually, drops were made from 500 to 800 feet. This seemed much higher, he said.
Flak buffeted the plane. Tracers flashed through the darkness. The hatch light glowed green. One after another, they jumped. Camouflage chutes billowed upward.
Clancy dropped toward the Merderet River. He thought he might have to drop his pack and rifle, because the weight would drown him. However, a wind carried him south beyond the river.
He landed on a tin roof in a courtyard in German-occupied St. Sauveur Le Vicomte.
“The sound, you should have heard that clang,” Clancy said. “I thought everyone in France must have heard it.”
Nursing an injured leg, the 22-year-old New Yorker checked his surroundings. Three walls and an iron gate. He could hear German soldiers on the other side of one wall.
“If they found me, it would have been over,” Clancy said.
After removing his chute and assembling his rifle, Clancy heard someone scrambling up the back wall. It was the radio man from Clancy’s plane.
The only sensible way out, he decided, was over the back wall and into the woods. Clancy guessed the Germans would be more likely to search for Allied soldiers on roads, not in the forest.
The next day, Clancy found an estate where a French couple offered the paratroopers shelter.
“If the Germans caught one American in a French house, they would kill two French, so I didn’t want to go into their house,” he said.
The woman spoke no English. Clancy managed sloppy French at best, using a English-French dictionary.
“She looked at me like a little boy, which I was compared to her,” Clancy said.
He managed to ask for help. He and his comrade had become lost some miles from their intended target, Sainte-Mere-Eglise, due either to misplaced beacons or the hastiness of a pilot anxious to escape blasts of flak and anti-aircraft fire.
The elderly woman knew a French Underground member who worked at the post office. She sent for him.
When he arrived, he was with Sgt. Al Cappa, another man from Clancy’s unit. Cappa’s face had been battered by his own submachine gun during a rough landing.
The Underground member told them of Laport, a town about 15 miles away, where a man could take them across the Merderet River to rejoin the Allies.
`I can still feel it . . .’
They traveled only at night, by the light of a waning moon. Along the way, the men cut German telephone lines, doing their part to disrupt communications.
During the day, Americans bombed the countryside. At night, it was the British. The bombs destroyed an abandoned building where Clancy and the radio man had left their supplies and rifles.
Later, a bomb nearly killed Clancy.
“I can still feel it, the air moving away from that big shell,” Clancy said. “The other two thought I was dead. Everywhere we’re moving, they’re dropping bombs. I realized it was pattern bombing – one here, one there, like a checkerboard. So I figured if we sat still a while, they’d move ahead of us, and they did.”
Before the end of D-Day, the Americans had broken through the stubborn German defenses at Omaha Beach. Sainte-Mere-Eglise and other towns north of the Merderet had been liberated.
James, the Pathfinder, had now turned his attention to either finding and disarming German mines or planting new ones.
It was no secret that the early morning paratroop raid had been disastrous. It seemed few dropped where they were supposed to.
Later, James would learn that his was the only Pathfinder group to get its drop zone right.
One day, while Clancy and his comrades dodged Allied bombs and German troops, another Pathfinder accidentally triggered a “Bouncing Betty,” an anti-personnel grenade. Thirteen pieces of shrapnel cut through James’ legs. The injuries proved relatively minor, but earned him a Purple Heart.
He also earned a medic’s scolding after he used his knife to remove shrapnel while he showered.
Across the Merderet
Clancy slipped from the hedgerow to reconnoiter a town on their way to the Merderet River.
He was hungry.
He needed a shave.
He hadn’t bathed since before boarding the C-47 more than a week earlier.
When he reached the town, they treated him like a conquering hero, with cries in English of “Liberate! Liberate!” The region south of the Merderet remained in German hands.
He explained his situation. They let him shave and wash up. They fed him and gave him food to take back to Cappa and the radio man.
Soon, the Americans moved on to the riverside town of Laport, where an Underground member agreed to take them across the Merderet. He would do it at night.
But Clancy knew both the Allies and the Germans would be on alert at night. Either side might fire on a boat in the dark. It was common, however, for French boats to cross the river during the day. Clancy talked the Frenchman into a daylight crossing.
The three soldiers ducked low in the boat. After a brief, uneventful river cruise, they were reunited with Allied forces.
“They hardly said hello before they gave us a job to do,” Clancy said.
`What have you got here, Yank?’
Soon after the German soldiers surrendered to James and lined themselves against a wall, a group of British soldiers arrived.
“What have you got here, Yank?” asked a Brit.
James told them. The British searched the pockets of the Germans and found precious chocolate wrapped in white paper.
“They got really excited about that,” James said. “Apparently, there wasn’t much chocolate in England in wartime.”
`You’ll always be a hero’
James and his wife, Margaret, became friends with Joe and Ellen Clancy after World War II, when both couples lived in New York City.
The two couples retired to Florida about a decade ago.
They rode together to Washington, D.C., for the Memorial Day breakfast.
Clancy said he was honored by the treatment D-Day veterans received at the White House and felt privileged to meet the Clintons. He felt no animosity toward Clinton, who has been criticized for draft-dodging and protesting the Vietnam War.
“The people who bring up those issues are wrong, because he’s doing a good job now,” Clancy said.
When the federal Veterans Affairs office called to invite James to the White House, he nearly refused.
This man, who fought from the North African desert to Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge to the fall of Berlin, did not think himself a hero.
“Heroes are the guys that died or got crippled,” he said.
Mrs. James disagreed: “You made it through all those battles. That’s quite an extensive record. If that’s not heroic, I don’t know what is. Anyway, you’ll always be a hero to me.”
The Naked Truth
This article appeared in The St. Petersburg Times in July 1996:
In the late 1930s, Tampa tax lawyer Ara Brubaker, son of a Pennsylvania Mennonite minister, invited friends to go skinny-dipping in a sparkling lake in central Pasco County.
So began Lake Como Club, the first nudist retreat in Land O’Lakes.
More than half a century later, an area once known for its citrus groves, lumber mills and cattle ranches has become a nudist mecca.
Land O’Lakes has two major clubs (with a third on the way) and two smaller hideaways.
The west Pasco community of Hudson is home to the Florida Naturist Park. Pasco has more clothing-optional facilities than any other Florida county, and is second only to Palm Springs, Calif., in the United States.
Tens of thousands of nudists swarm into town, contributing tourist tax dollars, eating in local restaurants and shopping in local stores.
And hundreds of permanent residents pay property taxes, enroll children in local schools and involve themselves in the community.
On Monday, the American Association of Nude Recreation kicks off National Nude Recreation Week. It’s the one time of year that nudists invite outsiders, or “cottontails,” to look behind the walls and determine if the lifestyle is right for them.
“It’s a matter of freedom,” said nudist Christie Musick, who lives in Paradise Lakes in Land O’Lakes. “You shed the constraints of clothing, take off the trappings of the outside world and no one cares whether you’re perfect or not. You’re not going to find many Cindy Crawfords out here.
“Most people look like your mother, your kids, your best friend, your next door neighbor, people you see at church.
“Just ordinary people.”
Recipe for tolerance
What made central Pasco so attractive to the laid-back, no-tan-lines set?
The base ingredient is the same as any tourist spot in Florida: Florida itself. Tropical weather and sunshine.
Mix in a generous helping of proximity to major tourist destinations. Within easy reach of Pasco are Busch Gardens, Walt Disney World and the Ocala National Forest.
But these resorts aren’t like your average roadside Gator Jumparoo show.
It takes a special sort of social and political chemistry, a certain tolerance and open-mindedness, for a community to welcome a nudist resort.
By and large, it seems, Pasco has offered the perfect mix.
“Communities have been receptive. The county government has been receptive,” said Jack DePree, who has managed Lake Como and Paradise Lakes and now is working on the new Caliente resort in Land O’Lakes. “Once some sort of initial shock wears off, everyone realizes these are pretty nice people you’d want living in your community.”
Nudists and politicians have clashed in the past.
In 1961, Lake Como manager Arthur Cotterill defied a state law that required nudists to apply for county permits, submit to fingerprinting, list any prior criminal convictions, provide character references from a pastor and give the names of the applicant’s immediate family.
The Florida Supreme Court quickly overturned the law.
In 1977, Pasco Sheriff John Short staged a drug raid at Lake Como, inviting newspaper reporters and television crews along while nude spectators watched his deputies round up suspects on marijuana possession charges.
But these days, the government and resorts enjoy a symbiotic, if arm’s-length relationship: Come to Pasco. Bring lots of money and as few clothes as you want. But keep it behind walls.
Nudists seem happy to comply. They don’t want gawkers.
Just who are these people?
In 1994, the Nude Recreation group surveyed its 46,000 members to answer that question.
What it found:
The typical nudist is at least 35. Probably earns more than $50,000 a year. Has at least some college education. Works full time or is self-employed. Married. Enjoys sunbathing, swimming and walking.
They put their pants on one leg at a time – when they wear pants.
“They’re just normal people like anyone else, except that they happen to like not wearing clothes,” DePree said. “You can stand in line in a supermarket in Land O’Lakes and chances are pretty good that the person next to you is a member of a nudist club.
“But there’s no `N’ stamped on their forehead.”
Life behind the walls
Mike and Marge Saxton, both naked, talk about life behind the walls as they relax on their couch, which is draped in towels.
The towels are about the only uniform nudists have; they carry them along wherever they go in the resorts to cover surfaces before they sit down.
A plump calico cat named Melissa dozes on the living room floor.
The Saxtons lived for eight years in Paradise Lakes, and for the past two in a teal mobile home in 86-acre Lake Como Club.
Mike Saxton, 57, is a photographer who recently ran for president of the Land O’Lakes Chamber of Commerce. He has helped run the Miss Land O’Lakes pageant and has produced summer theater performances. His wife, 61, is a home health care nurse.
“Most of the people I know don’t even know I live here,” Mrs. Saxton said. “I figure if people judge me by my lifestyle and not for my work or my personality or whatever, then I don’t think they would be a very good friend.”
Saxton worked 27 years for IBM, the epitome of staid corporate culture with its suits and ties.
“It was a real transition to go from that to a nudist camp,” he said. “It’s a good safety valve and a good release from corporate and business pressure.”
The Saxtons became nudists in the 1960s when they lived in California.
“I was more or less brought up in a nude environment before it was even known as such,” he said. “We weren’t brought up with many taboos. We had a lot of body acceptance and household nudity.”
He has made no secret of his lifestyle to those who know him. What do they think about it?
“I think if they’re not outright friendly, they’re at least tolerant,” he said.
Kathy Griggs, 51, works for accountant Bruce Szabo and is a member of the Lutz-Land O’Lakes Rotary Club. She lives in Lake Como with her handyman husband, David, 54.
“What nudism does is strip away all the pretenses of society,” Kathy Griggs said. “You’re dealing with people, not the trappings of people. As a result, everyone is treated equally.”
She enjoys the freedom she feels as a nudist within the club’s walls.
“I can go over on Sunday and buy my St. Petersburg Times in whatever I want to wear, depending on the season,” she said.
`I feel very safe here’
The cream-colored walls around Paradise Lakes are there to avoid offending unsuspecting neighbors.
But the walls also invite speculation.
Just what are they doing in there?
Myths abound, most of them sexual: Wife-swapping. Orgies. Rape. Child abuse.
Those who embrace the nudist lifestyle acknowledge occasional problems. Sometimes, people behave in an overtly sexual manner in public and are asked to leave. But, generally, they say the myths are unfounded.
“Everybody thinks there are orgies going on all over the place,” said Christie Musick, 47, who lives in a condominium in Paradise Lakes. “Good Lord have mercy, that would not be tolerated. If you want to do something risque, go to your room. Don’t do it in public. It’s an embarrassment.”
Life tends to be tranquil, said Musick, who runs Travel Au Naturel and arranges nude cruises to the Caribbean.
No pants means no pockets, and less of an urge to walk away with someone else’s property.
“I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” Musick said. “I feel very safe here. I’ve never been robbed. Never been mugged. It just doesn’t happen here.
“In the nine years I’ve been here, I’ve never heard of child abuse or rape.”
Bad things do happen behind the walls, but not as frequently as in the outside world.
Eight years ago, an ex-Marine shot his wife to death during a weekend visit to Paradise Lakes for their 19th wedding anniversary. People still talk about it, Musick said.
In 1987, a Tampa man was charged with raping a Paradise Lakes woman and then crashing through the gate as he left. He was acquitted of assaulting her, but convicted for criminal mischief for damage to the gate.
Their own little village
Central Pasco’s spot in the Olympus of the undressed should be bolstered when Tom Landers’ dream becomes a reality.
On Saturday, he breaks ground on Caliente, a nudist resort in the woods off U.S. 41 that promises to be even bigger than 73-acre Paradise Lakes.
The backhoes aren’t even on site yet, but already Landers reports $12-million in sales of single-family homes, villas and condominiums.
When finished, the 100-acre resort should be worth $45-million, he said. It will include hotel rooms, tennis courts, swimming pools and a tiki bar. The resort brings about 100 jobs to the community.
“One resort helps feed off the other,” Landers said. “It’s similar to Dale Mabry (Highway) in that respect. You get 30 to 40 restaurants in there and another comes right in between them. There’s comfort in numbers and the market is there.”
Paradise Lakes draws about 70,000 visitors a year. Build Caliente, Landers reasons, and even more will come.
Pasco County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand welcomes the idea of central Pasco as a nudist hot spot.
“It is sort of like the domino effect: One is established, another comes on board and people come from all over to go to the new resort,” Hildebrand said.
The county collects $465,000 in tourist taxes each year. Two-thirds of that, Hildebrand said, comes from the Saddlebrook golf and tennis resort in Wesley Chapel. The second biggest contributors, collectively, she said, are nudist resorts.
Lake Como contributes about $41,000 in property taxes and garbage collection assessments.
Paradise Lakes pays $300,000 in sales tax annually.
The relationship is sweetened because nudist resorts tend to be less of a drain on county funds than clothed subdivisions.
They pave their own roads.
Crime is minimal.
Although some are families with children, most are older couples.
“They really don’t demand anything of our services,” Hildebrand said. “They’re self-contained, like their own little village. They aren’t impacting existing services, but they contribute to our economic growth.”
Durham school leaders grapple with troubling statistics
This article appeared in The Herald-Sun in March 2013:
DURHAM — While the state’s rate of reportable crimes in schools dropped slightly last year, the rate in Durham Public Schools took an unpleasant climb – especially when it comes to alcohol, drugs and weapons.
Overall, reported crimes in grades K-12 for DPS jumped from 277 in 2010-11 to 333 in 2011-12. Local high schools, grades 9-12, accounted for 183 of those acts, up from 153 the year before.
“Most of the increase is in controlled substances,” said Tina Ingram, DPS security director, in a presentation to Board of Education members during Tuesday’s support services committee meeting. “We know Durham followed a statewide trend.”
In Durham schools, drug possession reports rose from 94 to 136 in 2011-12, compared to weapon and alcohol possession. Those increases were comparatively negligible.
“It’s not starting in our schools,” said Heidi Carter, chair of the DPS board. “They start in the community and our neighborhoods and then come into our schools.”
Ingram noted that the increased statistics don’t necessarily mean more crime in schools than happened in the past. Instead, they may just be hearing about it more often. In the past year, DPS has enacted new detection and deterrent efforts, such as Text-A-Tip for anonymous reports.
“Part of the increase was reflected by that,” Ingram said.
The district received more than 50 tips that led to investigations, she said. More parents seemed to use it than students, she added.
The good news from a district perspective: No persistently dangerous schools. Those are schools that report five or more acts of violence or sexual assault per 1,000 students in consecutive years and appear likely to continue the trend.
The bad news: An upward spike in weapon reports among elementary school students.
Children aren’t packing handguns with their juiceboxes, but Ingram acknowledged that they’ve discovered more of them bringing pocket knives, scissors and other similar weapons into schools.
Board members also heard a report on suspensions, expulsions and dropout rates from Debbie Pitman, assistant superintendent for student, family and community services.
Fewer students are dropping out, down to 362 in 2011-12 from 444 in 2009-10. But the decline in dropout numbers wasn’t as pronounced compared to 2010-11, with 371.
No one’s been expelled from a DPS campus in four years.
“We have not needed to go there,” Pitman said.
But a statistic that drew much attention on Tuesday was for short-term suspensions by ethnicity. Black students, who made up 51.34 percent of enrolled students in 2012, were suspended 78.43 percent of the time. Hispanic students, representing 22.33 percent of the student population, accounted for 13.28 percent of the suspensions. White students, 20.65 percent of enrolled students, were suspended only 5.26 percent of the time.
“This blue line must upset you as much as it upsets me,” said Minnie Forte-Brown, the board’s vice chair, referring to the dominant pillar on the graph representing black student suspensions. “Black children are going to feel like they are made to be unwelcome. Perhaps we aren’t using the right strategies …. We have got to stop suspending children of color.”
She worried that DPS is contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline.
“What, other than spending thousands on capturing hearts, are we going to do?” Forte-Brown asked.
Theresa McGowan, preventative services coordinator for DPS, explained that the district plans to launch a pilot program, called Second Chance, to try to provide alternatives for students at the schools that have experienced the worst problems with short-term suspensions: Neal, Lowe’s Grove and Githens middle schools. Those children will have the opportunity to attend a program at the Emily K Center in downtown Durham, she said.
Parents are expected to provide transportation, although the district can supply bus passes.
But board member Frederick Davis felt that DPS would be better served by offering such programs on school property.
“This can happen with funding,” he said. “It’s our duty to see that we can take the lead in finding funding to provide wraparound services like this on Durham Public Schools property.”
Trojan horse flops at market
Published in The St. Petersburg Times on March 28, 1992:
The stranger wheeled the large plywood box into the indoor flea market about 10 minutes before closing time Thursday.
Tom Wellman, co-owner of Indoor Fleas in New Port Richey, was sitting near the entrance when the man told him he was delivering the box to a booth in the back of the building.
It wasn’t unusual for vendors to bring their goods in to set up for Friday, when the market opens for the weekend, but Wellman sent an escort with the stranger just in case.
“There was something about him that just wasn’t kosher,” Wellman said.
Handyman Alex Wieczorek followed the man and came back moments later.
He told Wellman: “That guy’s a ventriloquist! He’s got two different voices. He’s either a ventriloquist or a wacko. One or the other. Man, he’s giving me the spookies.”
“We started kidding about (there being) a guy in the box, but we said, `Nah,”‘ Wellman said.
But sure enough, Wellman soon found out that Robert Raymond Gehm, 37, had been smuggled into the flea market inside the box. Gehm was arrested about an hour later by Pasco County deputies on a burglary charge, according to an arrest affidavit.
He told authorities he had planned to crawl out of the box after everyone left and rob the flea market, the affidavit said.
The effort was reminiscent of the legend of the Trojan horse. Greek warriors hid inside a huge wooden horse that the Trojans took into their city. When the Trojans fell asleep, the Greeks crept out of the horse and conquered the city of Troy.
Here’s how Gehm’s alleged ploy was foiled, according to police and an interview with Wellman:
When the delivery man walked out, Wellman asked him questions about the box. The man seemed evasive.
“I don’t know nothing. I was just told to deliver the box,” the man reportedly said. “The guy asked me to bring the stuff in.”
After the delivery man left, Wellman and Wieczorek became increasingly suspicious and walked back to the booth – which Gehm had rented that morning.
Wellman entered the booth. The padlocked homemade crate, four by two by two feet, was held together with sheet metal screws but was loosely constructed. Wellman pulled the lid open enough to look inside and saw a thin, blond man wearing amber sunglasses and gloves crouching there.
Gehm said nothing at first. Wellman called 911 and then trained a .38-Special on the box, telling Gehm, “I sure hope you’re not armed. I’ve got a pistol aimed at the box.”
“I’m not moving,” Gehm reportedly said. “Everything’s cool. Everything’s cool.”
While they waited for deputies to arrive, Wellman and Wieczorek joked with Gehm.
“We told him we’d been talking in the hallway, thinking maybe we should pick the box off the floor about five feet, drop it and then see what comes out,” Wellman said.
“Thank God you didn’t do that,” Gehm replied.
“He’s laughing and we’re laughing,” Wellman recalled. “He’s a pretty good-natured dude.”
Other vendors Friday told Wellman that Gehm had been in the flea market during the past few weeks, buying hats. He seemed friendly, they said.
About 7 p.m. Thursday, deputies arrived. One deputy asked Wellman if he had a key to the crate. Nope. Wieczorek? No.
“I’ve got it. I’ve got the key,” Gehm said from inside the box.
After he was released from the crate, Gehm told deputies he had built the box and rented the booth intending to smuggle himself in to the flea market so he could steal merchandise from the vendors.
Gehm, a self-employed maintenance worker, is 5 feet 8 and weighs 117 pounds. He had expected to crouch in the crate for about an hour before carrying out the planned thefts.
He was booked into the Land O’Lakes jail, where he was being held Friday in lieu of $1,000 bail. Late Friday, Gehm still had not told authorities who the delivery man was, said sheriff’s spokesman Jon Powers.
Wellman said Gehm’s scheme was doomed to failure anyway, thanks to motion detectors set up in the flea market. One step out of the box would have set off the alarms, Wellman said.
Nothing like this had ever been tried at Indoor Fleas in its five-year history, he said.
“It’s sad to say it was more funny than anything,” Wellman said.
In an Instant
This article appeared in The St. Petersburg Times on Nov. 20, 1995:
The night Nathan Phillips came home from college, about two dozen of his buddies from Land O’Lakes High School flocked to his family’s house in Foxwood.
His mother, Barbara, pulled him aside.
“Am I going to see you at all this weekend?” she asked.
It had been a month since the 18-year-old had left to become a freshman at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. He had pledged Kappa Kappa Psi, joined the college marching band and found a new crop of friends.
His mother missed him. She didn’t mind washing the laundry he brought with him, but she wanted to spend time with him, too.
Nathan had plans for Saturday. The high school marching band had practice, and the former drum major planned to help out. Anything for his alma mater, which last year elected him homecoming king.
“I’ll go to practice tomorrow, but I’ll come home early,” Nathan promised. “I’ve got a test on Monday, and I really need to study for it.”
Nathan never made it home. He died in a wreck Sept. 30 while riding with a friend, Mike Knapp, 19, to a convenience store about a mile from the high school.
Mike spent nine days in St. Joseph’s Hospital recovering from a collapsed lung and broken ribs. In the two months since the accident, Mike’s injuries have nearly healed. But serious emotional scars remain.
Mike had made a choice, the sort people make every day: Can I make it? He took a chance and made a left turn into the path of an oncoming car on U.S. 41. He didn’t make it.
In an instant, one life ended and others changed irrevocably.
Mike takes support and comfort from his mother and adopted father, Alice and Richard. But he also takes solace from Richard and Barbara Phillips and their surviving sons, Sean and Keith, who might just as easily have turned their backs on him.
“You can’t help but wish both Nathan and Mike were well, but it’s not Mike’s fault,” Barbara Phillips told the Times. “We’ve got to get him well. What good is it going to do if he doesn’t come out of this? He’s like one of our own.”
They rode together
That autumn afternoon turned out to be a scorcher. The marching band practiced outside near the Swamp, the high school football field. They had drinks, but no ice.
Mike, like Nathan a June 1995 graduate of Land O’Lakes High, had come to help the drummers. He was recruited to make the short trip to the Land O’Lakes Food Mart.
Sam Portalatin, the new drum major, offered to ride with him.
“No,” Nathan said. “You’ve been out in the sun all day. Stay here. I’ll go.”
Nathan and Mike had known each other since their days at Sanders Memorial Elementary School and became friends at Pine View Middle School.
An average student, Mike had overcome a learning disability that affected his motor skills and eventually excelled at playing the drums.
“We were just kind of surprised when Mike told us he wanted to play drums,” his mother said. “At first, he was always a beat behind, but he worked hard and did well.”
He and Nathan often rode together to Tampa Bay Storm games and band events. Sometimes, Mike drove his Chevrolet Camaro. Other times, Nathan drove his Dodge Dynasty.
This time, they took the Camaro.
The Florida Highway Patrol report says this is what happened:
Mike drove north on U.S. 41, following a large, slow-moving rock truck. At the Food Mart entrance, just north of Causeway Boulevard, he turned left.
A 1980 Jeep driven by John Duval of Istachatta plowed into the passenger side of the Camaro at about 50 mph.
Nathan probably never knew what hit him.
Duval’s 16-year-old son, Jaime, got a broken nose.
Knapp blacked out. His ribs were broken and his lung collapsed.
He doesn’t remember much about the accident. Just flashes. Starting the turn. The Jeep in the corner of his right eye.
The Knapps said their insurance company told them Duval described the accident differently.
The other version is that the rock truck had been behind a tractor driven by Ron Hagman of Port Richey. Hagman’s tractor slowed the truck to about 15-20 mph, so Hagman pulled right to encourage the truck to pass.
The truck swerved left to avoid the tractor just as the Jeep appeared in the southbound lane.
Mike made the turn then, presumably thinking he had a clear shot to the parking lot.
Duval, said FHP Corp. Dale Weeks, apparently never hit the brakes – no skid marks were on the road.
Mike said that when he saw the Jeep in the corner of his right eye, it was too late.
“If I’d waited, or maybe if I’d hit the gas a little harder, I might have made it,” he said.
Weeks said Mike probably followed the rock truck too closely and turned without seeing the Jeep.
Alcohol was not a factor, Weeks said. Mike has not been charged with a crime, but he was cited for making an improper left turn.
Duval declined comment for this story except to say, “I’m very sorry that it happened.”
No matter how it happened, Mike is not the only motorist to take the same risk with tragic consequences.
The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles keeps statistics on left-turn crashes in all 67 counties.
In 1993-94, 950 such accidents were reported in Pasco. Thirty-two people died. Injured: 1,576. Young drivers, ages 15 to 19, caused about 11 percent of the wrecks.
A knock at the door
Richard and Barbara Phillips were about to leave for the Sun Dome in Tampa, where they would sell drinks and snacks at a Bob Dylan concert, when a group of band parents knocked on the door with news of the accident.
Mike had been flown to St. Joseph’s Hospital, but the highway patrol wouldn’t immediately tell the Phillipses anything about Nathan.
About an hour after the accident, they talked to a relative who works for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. She told them Nathan probably had died. A state trooper later confirmed it.
It took two hours to identify Nathan because, for some reason, he had no wallet. It’s still missing.
Nathan carried with him only a black pledge notebook with names and addresses, pages adorned with lipstick kisses from various students, and a plastic pocket holding a pledge congratulations card, a red Crayola crayon and a packet of Sweet & Low.
The toddler the Phillipses had adored in his Tampa Bay Rowdies regalia was gone.
The serious and oh-so-organized teenager, ripped away from them.
The man Nathan might eventually have been, lost.
“We were just devastated,” Richard Phillips said.
Richard Knapp was dozing in a chair in his Pilot Country home when a state trooper knocked on his door. His wife, Alice, was in Ohio at the bedside of a terminally ill friend. He decided not to panic her with the news until he got to St. Joseph’s and found out how Mike was doing.
About 6 p.m., he called: Mike was in critical but stable condition in intensive care.
In a sedated stupor, Mike told his father he remembered someone had been with him in the car.
“He was drawing a blank, like he didn’t want to think about it, didn’t want to accept it,” Richard Knapp said.
After a while, his father asked, “Do you know what happened?”
Mike opened his eyes. “Nathan was with me.”
During the first two days afterward, friends from Land O’Lakes High came to visit Mike – as many as 15 at a time.
Linebacker Darnell Stephens from Mike’s beloved Tampa Bay Buccaneers stopped in to chat and deliver a T-shirt, backpack and coach Sam Wyche’s autograph.
But the attention seemed to wear on Mike after a while.
“I realized he wasn’t eating. He was so fatigued,” said Alice Knapp, a nurse at Carrollwood Community Hospital. “How can you eat with everybody staring at you?”
She told the visitors to give Mike space and time to recover. They stepped outside to the waiting room.
“You want me to send them home?” she asked him, gently.
Somber and weak, he nodded.
On Sunday, he asked: “What happened to Nathan?”
They told him, and he cried, “Oh, no.”
Monday evening, the Phillipses held a viewing at Loyless Funeral Home in Land O’Lakes. They expected maybe 200 people.
Before it was over, though, 1,400 people spent as long as 45 minutes waiting to spend a few last minutes with Nathan.
“I couldn’t believe an 18-year-old could touch so many people,” Richard Phillips said. “It’s just amazing.”
The next day, they buried Nathan at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell.
“We know they’re hurting,” Alice Knapp said. “They’ve lost a child. You expect to see your parents die eventually, but not your kid. It’s heart-wrenching, especially when it’s such a good kid.”
Said Richard Phillips: “Of course, we felt the loss for ourselves, but we’re very thankful that Mike is okay.”
Mike could just as easily have been buried that day, the Phillipses say. Sure, Nathan was focused and serious, but his parents and brothers say he sometimes drove as fast as 85 mph on the interstate.
“It could have happened at any time,” said Barbara Phillips, a teacher at Denham Oaks Elementary School in Land O’Lakes, “and it could have been Mike in the passenger seat.”
The day after the funeral, Richard and Barbara Phillips visited Mike in the hospital.
He tried not to look at them, they said. They could see him starting to cry.
“Look, Mike,” Barbara told him, “you’ve got to get better. We know you’re upset. We’re all upset. But you’ve got to get better.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“There’s nothing you could do,” she said.
Mike looked at her, held her hand and then looked away.
An exceptional family
In a way, it seems, the Mike people knew had died with Nathan.
“He walks different,” Alice Knapp said. “He’s not as happy-go-lucky as he used to be. He’s not as quick to smile. He’s matured a lot.”
He quit his job at McDonald’s in Lutz to work for his father’s house-moving business.
He withdrew from classes at Pasco-Hernando Community College until next semester.
Mike still helps at band practices, but not with the same energy that inspired one instructor to create the Mike Knapp Award for Enthusiasm while he was in the drum line.
Two weeks ago, Mike went to the cemetery to see Nathan’s grave.
“That was a hard time for Michael,” his mother said. “The hardest part is trying to get back to a normal life. He’s doing better, but sometimes he seems real drifty. He’s got a lot to deal with.”
His parents are helping him accept and cope with his mistake.
The Phillipses are too.
Their sons, Sean, 14, and Keith, 16, spend time with Mike. At the recent high school homecoming game, Richard and Barbara Phillips sat with him.
That the family could so easily and warmly embrace Mike surprised the Knapps.
“You just don’t find families like that anymore,” Richard Knapp said. “I can’t say enough about how exceptional they’ve been.”
Said Alice Knapp: “They’re special people who’ve done a great job with their kids. I don’t know what would have happened if it had worked out the other way around, if Mike had been the one. I don’t believe I’m that emotionally strong.”
Mike is trying to rebound. He is helping friends James Gray and the new homecoming king, Charlie George, qualify for competitive winter drum line.
He and his parents had hoped to take a large step toward putting the accident behind them Friday, when Mike appeared before County Judge Robert Cole in a Dade City courtroom to answer for his traffic infraction.
His mother stood with him at the lectern.
Mike pleaded no contest to making an improper left turn. The judge checked his driving record, which he described as “very good.” The young man’s prior record consists of a 1992 careless driving citation and a 1989 helmet law violation.
But because someone died in the September accident, Cole said, he wants to know more about the case before sentencing. The potential penalties range from a fine to revocation of Mike’s license.
Cole set another hearing for Dec. 19 at 9 a.m.
“Why do we have to come back again?” Alice Knapp asked the judge. “Why can’t we take care of this today?”
“I can’t sentence knowledgeably without the facts,” Cole said.
Minutes later, outside the courtroom, Alice Knapp wiped away tears. “It was just an unfortunate accident and a misjudgment. Yes, someone died, but all we want is to put this behind us and get on with our lives. Why drag this on for another month?”
The last, best year
Nathan Phillips’ life, and his personality, echo in his bedroom.
In a wooden hutch, one finds a shrine to baseball legends Nolan Ryan and Reggie Jackson and NASCAR racer Dale Earnhardt. Eleven miniature batting helmets – representing the Florida Marlins, San Francisco Giants and New York Yankees, among others – are arranged like votive candles on an altar.
In a drawer is a “Far Side” cartoon clipped from a 1994 newspaper. The caption: “Throughout their songwriting careers, the Gershwins rarely discussed their younger brother, Nathan, who played gutbucket.” In another drawer: Nathan’s junior deputy badge from the fifth grade, signed by former Pasco County Sheriff Jim Gillum.
On the wall, football and baseball team pennants are arranged in perfect symmetry. In a bookcase, Encyclopaedia Brittanica volumes stand in precise numerical and alphabetical order.
In cabinets stand a stack of Mad magazines from as long ago as 1957, reams of sheet music, Police Quest and Gretzky Hockey computer games, and notebooks full of football trading cards.
On a bulletin board, bumper stickers promote Power Pig and Say No To Drugs. There is a ticket stub from the Sept. 10 Bon Jovi concert at the Sun Dome.
He kept news clips about the high school band. His apron and uniform from his days as a bagboy at the U-Save are neatly folded.
His parents found an essay in his Packard Bell computer, written four days before he died.
Titled “From Peasant to King,” it tells of his surprise at rising in stature from “geek” to homecoming king in 1994.
“Everyone knows that people in the band are geeks, and the drum major is simply the leader of the geeks. I even had times when I believed this stereotype,” Nathan wrote.
He figured a quarterback or some other jock would win the title, and he was stunned.
“The night of the homecoming game brought out a personality that no one had ever seen of me. I was confident and excited,” he wrote.
After his name was announced, a “burst of self-pride . . . ran through me, and I realized I was no longer Mr. Loser. Instead, I was Nathan Phillips, respected by my peers, drum major of the band and homecoming king.”
Said his mother, “He couldn’t have had a better year.”