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Monday, October 29, 2012

Literally living with hurricanes

When I moved from the safe haven of my hometown of Toms River, N.J. to the unfamiliar tropical climes of Key West, Fla., in August 1999, there were a number of changes I needed to make in my life.

I appreciated warm weather more. And I also appreciated the wearing of Hawaiian shirts ... a lot actually. Made for a very easy wardrobe in the Southernmost City. I also had to deal with the lifestyle that included the fact, according to Randy, one of our pressmen, there were "240 places to purchase alcohol" on the 3x5 island. What kept me from being a full-blown alcoholic still amazes me to this day.

It was all pretty laid back, too. Well, almost every part of living the Keys life was.

There was this thing called hurricane season that every now and then kept you on your toes. And when there was some disturbance in the Caribbean, you suddenly became a Weather Channel follower. The first thing you wanted to know was what direction the possible storm was heading in and was it going to be a tropical storm or a category 1 hurricane or something worse. These, I came to find out, were issues.

It was in Key West I truly got schooled on the fine art of hurricanes. I learned about the severity of these storms. I learned about how easy it was for the power to go off in this part of the country. And I learned that if the storm was severe, you had two options -- get in your car and make a bee-line on the Overseas Highway (US-1) to get to the mainland or stick it out and hope that you aren't blown from one end of the island over to the other, riding some wave down Simonton.

Living in New Jersey all my life, the hurricanes I grew up remembering were pretty darn tame -- there was Hurricane Belle in 1976 when I was 9 years old. There was Gloria in 1985 and Hugo in 1989. Oh, there was a bunch of Nor'easters as well in the '90s, but that was pretty much it. How to handle a hurricane coming at 100 mph? Yeah, I had no clue whatsoever.

So in the Keys, I had to learn the urgency of what a hurricane was like and the damage it could do. Over the first couple of months in my new residence on Stock Island, across the way from Key West, I did a bit of reading on hurricane season in the Keys. The "big one" in terms of hurricanes was in 1935 -- the Labor Day hurricane -- that killed hundreds of people and forever knocked out the Florida East Coast Railway. That, legend says, was a Category 5 hurricane, which pretty much doomed you if you had very little warning, which the residents had none of in 1935.

Hurricanes in the Keys are as much a business as, say, fishing, tourism and the Key West High baseball team.

Almost two months into my living in the Keys, I get a phone call from my mom. She's telling me she and my dad are coming down to Florida to visit relatives and they are going to be coming down to the Keys on October 14, a Thursday. Well, of course, I was going to be happy to see my folks.

So I knew they would be coming. Well, wouldn't you know it, there's a storm brewing out in the Caribbean. And this one is pretty darned serious. They were about to make this one into a hurricane by the beginning of the week. And on that Tuesday, October 12, 1999, Hurricane Irene became a reality.

Goody, goody gumdrops. This storm had formed somewhere south of Cuba and put the lower Keys into its path. The warm Caribbean water was a perfect breeding area for Irene and once she sliced through Cuba and got back into the water, she could have gone any way she wanted to. Either way, she was going to be doing some kind of damage.

Now what kept a lot of the lower and middle Keys folks on edge was that the year before, they were terrorized by Hurricane Georges, which had done an amazing amount of damage between Big Pine Key and Key West. That memory was still fresh in the natives' heads.

We knew what we all had to do at the Key West Citizen -- our goal was to get done as soon as we could before the storm started kicking up. Well an early deadline for a sports editor is trying enough. How about also worrying about your folks who are driving into a hurricane situation. At one point, this was a category 2 hurricane with average speeds of 110 mph.

What a nice way to introduce your parents to your new home!

So on Thursday, October 14, I reported in earlier than normal at work and set up my day so we would get done as soon as possible. We did, and just as we finished up with the paper and gave it off to the press room, the lights flickered on and off and those in charge of the building had already closed up the emergency shutters over the windows. There was no television, so I had to listen to Game 2 of the American League Championship Series between the Red Sox and Yankees on a crackling, fading AM radio station in my car, listening to the Yankees come back for a 3-2 win.

There were no lights and practically most of Key West was dark by now. During the day, I had communicated with my folks, who arrived in Key West early in the afternoon before the hurricane problems arrived. My dad, who worked for Days Inn at the time, had a voucher to stay there and all was cool except one thing -- if the hotel had flooded or something happened, they could not guarantee or compensate for anything that was lost. So my parents basically said, "Thanks, but no thanks." They found the Hampton Inn on Roosevelt Boulevard (US-1) and parked underneath a garage that was protected from the storm.

When I got done, I had driven over from Northside to the Hampton Inn, being aware that there were no lights on at this particular time, but I knew what room they were staying in. So I knocked on the door in this driving rainstorm and windy conditions and my mom answers the door.

Yes, my first meeting with my parents in nearly two months since the move was with flashlights on in a dark hotel room. I kid you not.

"Well, mom, dad ... how do you like Key West so far?" I jokingly asked as you can hear the wind and rain on the other side of the door in the background. So we caught up for a good half an hour, but I felt much safer being in the hotel room than at my cottage that I had been staying in at Stock Island. Still, I needed to pick up some stuff before I headed back to the hotel.

So back south on US-1 I went, over the bridge leading in and out of Key West into Stock Island with absolutely no traffic lights to guide me. Good thing there weren't many other people on the road at this particular hour.

I made it to my place on Maloney Avenue and somehow managed to find what it was I needed to get me through the night. By now, the rain had subsided a bit, but the wind was still prevalent. And with the flashlight, I beamed it down to the bedroom floor and saw a portion of the rug soaked from the rain that was seeping onto it underneath the door that was not fully protected with the rubberized bottom.

Honestly, I was more concerned about having a place to be at the next day than the silly rug. With the hopes I'd have a cottage to return to, I grabbed what I needed and trudged back into Key West and back to the Hampton Inn. My folks slept in a queen size bed together, while I slept in the other queen for the night.

Though I can hear the wind in the background, it surprisingly didn't keep me up. I was pretty tired anyway. When I woke up at about 8:30 the next morning, it was as if the calm had settled in. The power had been fixed and we were watching the Weather Channel in the room to see where the storm went off to. Overnight, the storm had taken a northeastern turn instead of coming northwest and threatening the lower Keys like Georges did. It spared us more damage than it could have pummeled us with. The hurricane went over the middle Keys quickly, then began to weaken across southeastern Florida until it dumped out back into the ocean in Vero Beach.

I went back to my cottage after 10 because I had some cleaning to do if there was damage. I got back and other than a soaked carpet on the bedroom floor, there was nothing else. The place survived. I told Kathy, who was a manager's helper for the cottage complex, about the carpet and she said she'd take good care of it, which she had a person with a vacuum come in to suck the water and moisture out of the rug when I'd come back later on in the evening.

The hurricane shutters were still on the Citizen building when I got there just before noon. The power was back on and I was back in business to prepare for our Sunday paper since we didn't print on Saturdays. Friday night football was taken care of at the time by a group of writers, including my assistant who loved to cover Key West High. So that was his basic job. All was set. Business as usual again.

My folks had gone out but didn't venture far. They went across US-1 to the Winn-Dixie supermarket to pick up some stuff. Other than my mom taking pictures of all there was, they didn't go far. So about 3:45 p.m., I get back to the hotel and they want to see Key West ... more importantly, they want to see the Old Town section.

I was pretty hesitant about it. We were going to go in my Ford Thunderbird LX and honestly, I didn't know what kind of damage was done to that side of the city. But we jumped into my car and drove off on Roosevelt until it turned into Truman. And when we got to Duval Street, there were people on the sidewalks, but no one was in the streets -- Duval practically flooded. I came to find out that when Key West has a bad storm, usually the open ends of Duval where the Gulf of Mexico is at one end and the Straits of Florida is at the other fill up and make driving kind of interesting. The three of us were just looking for a place to eat in the famous seafood restaurant section of town.

You'd think in a town as tough as Key West that business owners would fend this storm off and open up to the public.

Nope! Not at all. We drove around the flooded streets of the Old Town. Nothing. As a matter of fact, we found it hard to eat anywhere. And I know my folks were set on having seafood in a seafood-famous town like Key West. So back to the Newtown section. We came across one restaurant not far from the hotel for all of us to eat. It was a nice little place called Perry's. I had not been there yet, but my folks were willing to try it so we ate there.

Perry's was a nice little place it turned out. This was the restaurant that I tried mahi-mahi for the first time (dolphin, not Flipper dolphin). We had a good time and then that night, we hung out at the hotel. My mom went off to do laundry that was needed to get done, while my dad and I stayed in the hotel room and watched Game 3 of the National League Championship Series between the Mets and the Braves, a game won by the Braves, 1-0, to take a 3-0 lead in the best-of-7 series. When the game ended after 11, I said goodbye to them for that time (I was meeting them after work Saturday night in Key Largo to spend Sunday with them and my girlfriend, who was still living in Palm Beach Gardens, on a glass-bottom tour boat) and headed back to my cottage to sleep in my bed for the night.

The next morning, mom and dad stopped at my cottage to see where I lived and I gave them 10-second grand tour of the place (a living room, a kitchen, a bathroom and the bedroom). The place overlooked the water that led out to the Straits of Florida. It was very scenic. For my first "home," it was very nice. I ended up living there for 11 months until my girlfriend, who moved down to be with me a month later, and I moved to West Isle Apartments on Duck Avenue in July 2000.

Needless to say, there would be no more hurricane threats during the 1999 season.

But that didn't mean my association with hurricanes in the Keys was over by a longshot.

It's now November 4, 2001. It's a Sunday and I am excited about this day -- it is Game 7 of the World Series between the Yankees and the Diamondbacks. But it's a cautious day -- Hurricane Michelle had started as a wave off of Nicaragua and headed through the still-warm Gulf of Mexico and sliced through Cuba, just like Irene had done two years earlier. The day before, the World Powerboat Championships that were to be held in Key West were canceled to end the season. This storm meant business.

And so by the time I came into work around 2 p.m., it was fairly obvious our publisher, John Kent Cooke III, had one thing in mind -- get the paper out by 6 p.m. I knew on a pro football Sunday we wanted to make sure we got at least the 1 p.m. games in, which included the Dolphins, who were playing the Carolina Panthers in Miami's Joe Robbie Stadium. But the Buccaneers had a 4 p.m. start and were playing in Green Bay. I lobbied to try and push the deadline to 7 p.m. to get the 4 p.m. games in, figuring the grandson of the former owner of the Washington Redskins might have it in his heart to wait another hour.

All I got in return was a definitive "no" and a snide remark. I came to find out the grandson wasn't exactly the sports fan his grandfather was. So we went through with what we had. My assistant had taken the weekend off (the executive sports editor had given her the weekend off without ever telling me what was happening) so it was up to me to get my three-page section done, which I did just after 6 p.m.

And when the night was finished, I had gone over to Albertson's supermarket. It had opened up a few months earlier and I actually preferred going there instead of Publix and Winn-Dixie at the time. I wanted to pick up some odds and ends and the essentials like bread and water were practically gone! You'd thought Armageddon was about to take place. I gathered what I could get in bread and water and some cold cuts and I was off to my apartment which I lived in by myself, the relationship between my girlfriend and I splintered just seven months earlier.

I sat in my bedroom and watched Game 7 of the 2001 World Series with the wind kicking up, wondering what the heck was going to happen. At any moment, Michelle, which was a Cat-4 hurricane that blew into Cuba at 140 mph, could make a left turn and head toward Key West. I had prepared myself for "the blackout" to happen.

I had literally turned out all the lights in my apartment and the only light that was on by now was the TV. Miaculously, I still had cable television. So in this battle royale between Curt Schilling and Roger Clemens, I may never have seen the amazing end of the 2001 World Series. By the top of the eighth inning, I went outside to see what was happening.

It was eerily quiet. Whatever wind was left was very, very light. I knew we were out of the woods.

I got to see the Yankees take a 2-1 lead on the Diamondbacks in the eighth inning of the World Series on Rafael Soriano's solo home run. And just as I was resolved to swallow pride again and watch another Yankees World Championship take place with Mariano Rivera on the Bank One Ballpark mound to protect the lead, the Diamondbacks put together a rally for the ages.

And when Luis Gonzalez's flair into short left field with the infield in fell softly to the ground and Jay Bell scored the winning run, I was surprised they couldn't hear me all the way up and down Duck Avenue. The big, bad Yankees had been dethroned as World Series champions by a 3-2 count.

By Monday morning, November 5, the world that I became familiar with called Key West was back to normal. There was some damage caused by the wind, but minimal. And nothing happened to me or my belongings. Michelle decided to go away from the Keys and keep churning through the Straits of Florida toward the Atlantic Ocean and out of harm's way.

The next time I would go through another hurricane would be 2004. Though not direct-hit like hurricanes, my new girlfriend and I dealt indirectly with both Frances and Jeanne in a three-week period in September 2004. A ton of rain, quite a bit of wind ... you know the normal things you see during a hurricane. But everything stayed up and we made it through.

Now I know just about everything I need to in case a "disturbance" makes its presence felt.

My time in the Keys was more than an education to prepare me for when one took place, that's for sure.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

My marriage ... to my job

For the last couple of years of my life, there is one statement that I have heard constantly from people -- male and female -- that I swear to you if I wasn't such a pleasant human being, I'd have cold-cocked them.

"You're such a nice guy, I can't believe no one would want to be with you."

It's taken me this long to finally believe that maybe I am a nice person. I've never always believed that. But to not be with anyone? Hey, that's a choice I've made.

Besides, I'm already married -- I've just never said, "I do" to my spouse "directly."

Yes, I am married -- to the work I do five days a week. As a matter of fact, me and my spouse have had a love-hate relationship just like real people do.

* We fight about how and when things should be done.

* We fight about the other people in our lives trying to dictate us.

* We fight about when we have time for ourselves.

As a matter of fact, "work" left me for 16 months in the early 2000s. Boy I missed work badly. I was a zombie without it until work came back to me and we have been inseparable since.

Sure, I can joke all I want about it. But work is my lifeline. It's what keeps me focused and out of trouble and off the streets. It's what gets me a paycheck. And it's also what allows me to enjoy my "travels." I have a traveling job from time to time. My job has taken me to events in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Connecticut, New York and Delaware as well as my native New Jersey and current home state of Florida.

I enjoy "work's" company. Me and work are together ... for better or worse.

You see, only once has "work" let me down. And, quite ironically, it was two incompetent human beings in April 2002 who separated us for over a year. As I said, it took 16 months to "re-find" work, but work has forgiven me for not being there for those months I was away.

I can't say the same about me forgiving the idiots who let me go.

But while most people in life have found that balance between work and relationships, I've never mastered it and I've pretty much given up on the balancing act.

First off, it was my bloody luck that every woman I was with was not a full-fledged sports fan. Well, my ex-fiance loved the Florida Gators. She loved football. She went with me to spring training baseball games in Viera and Dunedin. And to this day, I still think she did that because she was "putting up with it."

My failure as a human being in 28 years in this business is the fact that no woman can stomach being around me for a sufficient amount of time. No one. I simply don't make it easy for them either by being my stubborn self. I'm too much into what I do and into my job to really appreciate the person I'm with.

I've tried. Believe me, I have. I'm just not very good at keeping a woman happy. Making her happy is one thing -- sustaining that happiness is another.

And frankly, I've given up. Came to the conclusion after my last breakup over two years ago that no woman should be with me. Not on a full-time relationship basis, that is. I won't shun them away entirely. But I won't exactly make the effort to say, "Hey, let's do this again tomorrow."

My job is, as I've found out, my mistress, my wife and my girlfriend all wrapped into one. And if she ever abandons me again, I'm not sure how I would feel or react. Let's say I'd be absolutely miserable ... though it'd leave me a lot of time to go date.

And that's another thing ... dating. Uggggh! I'd rather have a root canal than be starting all over again on another "meet-and-know" date. I've done that recently and actually enjoyed the time with the women I've seen. But time is a very tough thing to negotiate. Sure, if you are into someone, you make the time. But the women I've been on dates with are usually about a good 35 to 40 miles away from where I live. And unless you are 25 and under here in Podunk, I really have no interest in the single women.

Let's just say I'm not attracted to any of them and haven't been since practically day one nine years ago.

I told a close female friend of mine when I was up visiting in New Jersey last May -- one that I'd seriously think about dating if she wasn't so far away, but would rather cherish her friendship and never ruin -- that I was not going to just "settle." That was soooooo out of the question. I'd rather be alone and miserable than be with someone who has the potential to make me miserable. At least when you're alone and miserable you have no one to take it out on right there.

I knew when I was 13 years old I was never going to be a parent. You need patience, a good temperament and understanding to be a parent. I have none of the above. And I don't have it in me to be a parent 24/7 the rest of my life. So I like my "me" time. And people say I'm crazy when I tell them my favorite sound in the whole wide world is silence.

I'm used to silence. My world has been about silence for the last six years of living alone and two years of not having a significant other. And I admit, I'm very selfish about my "me" time. I have lots of it, so I cherish it. And yes, there's that absence of intimacy, but believe me, you learn to deal without having it.

The truth is, I've put up with enough crap in my life from the opposite sex that I've pretty much convinced myself that they're all bad in some way. Yes, it's an unfair accusation I admit. But six years ago after my ex-fiance walked out under circumstances that still make my blood boil to this day, I rejected every woman who came within earshot of me. There must have been over two dozen women who wanted to be with me and I pushed them all away.

Why? Because I was convinced that they may love me today, love me tomorrow, love me next week, love me next month even love me next year. But somewhere after that perhaps they'd fall out of love with me and walk away -- just like every other woman did.

My heart could not handle another rejection again. It closed up. But there was one woman who was persistent enough to try and break through that. I didn't give her a chance at first. We were very very close, yet I still felt she'd fall out of love with me even when she said she loved me. She gave me an ultimatum that she needed "to move on" with her life and that she was not going to be just "a piece of ass." I didn't want to lose her friendship and yes, I loved her, too. So we decided to give it a try. The problem was all the things we did before we became boyfriend/girlfriend we couldn't do anymore. And we began after a while to see less and less of each other. Being 125 miles from one another takes a toll.

And my job meant more.

There, I said it. I could've gotten a job at a newspaper where she lived, but there were only two that fit the bill -- one was at the Orlando Sentinel, which I've sent five f*cking resumes for various jobs over the last nine years and those idiots haven't even recognized me. So that was out of the question. And the other paper was Florida Today ... a Gannett paper. I've worked under Gannett rule. No thanks.

She saw the writing on the wall, the same wall I saw the writing. We should never have gone out together. I knew it could be possibly a bad decision. But we tried it and we enjoyed whatever time we had together. That I will always cherish. Ultimately, though, she fell out of love with me just like every other woman did that I ever was with. I just joked that I should come with a warning label saying, "Don't fall in love with him ... he'll disappoint you!"

I've been a disappointment. I just stopped. I just didn't really care anymore. And any woman I was interested in had no interest in me anyway.

So my relationship with women is pretty mutual -- we agree to disagree about almost anything and everything. Casual? Yes. I still treat women with the same respect I would want to be treated with in return. But a serious relationship with the opposite sex? I don't think so.

My work has always gotten in the way of me. I know work has the wedding band on its finger, though I refuse to seriously acknowledge it. Still, it's what keeps me from truly ever having a balance. I fight to work so I can actually do what? I don't even take time off from work for me anymore. My one true vacation I take every May doesn't involve a signficant other going with me and I'm thankful for it. It's to go see my family up in Jersey. Whatever joy I do have is bent around helping with a high school county softball tournament which I have for years. So in a sense, it's still a working vacation.

I'm happy for the time I spend with my friends, but really, that's about it. Even my friends have a life so I don't try to invade their time.

It's now to a point in my life where I wouldn't even know what to do with my time where I am now. And I accepted a long time ago that I may die alone. To me, it's OK. I spend about a good 120 hours a week in my car alone or in my apartment alone. And, sure, it's easy for someone to say, "Get out of the apartment and do something!" Quite a few things have money involved in it, though, and since I don't have a whole heck of a lot of money to begin with, I just don't go out. And as I've learned in my nine years here in Podunk, there ain't a whole hell of a lot to see.

So work masks a lot of the "me" time. It's what keeps me busy and actually around people that I like being around. I'd really go insane if I didn't have work.

I trust work far more than I would a female. Sad, I know. And I'm pretty sure there are plenty of females who have no trust in the male gender, too. I've always told a woman if they didn't want to have anything to do with me because of past transgressions with the male population, I'd actually empathize with them. They usually tell me no ... but the door is always open to walk away.

I love my job and what I do.

I'm pretty sure I can't say the same thing about the opposite sex.

Yes, very sad for a "nice guy," I know.

Monday, October 15, 2012

My first first-place honor ... and the crap I went through to get it

I've always said that awards are nice to gain, but not ever going to define me ... just my career. And as I've found out over the last few years, winning a lot of awards has meant diddly-squat when it comes to advancing further in my career.

I find myself apologizing for being talented and over 40 and sarcastically wishing I'd never do it again, but that's a totally different matter.

Those awards are collecting very nicely in my closet, thank you.

But when you're younger, you're looking for recognition for different reasons -- appreciation for a job well done and acceptance among peers. It shows them that you a) have a mastery of the English language and b) you can tell a story that will go beyond the first three paragraphs.

Problem was that it took over 20 years to find that recognition. It's a good thing I started professionally when I was 17 or else I'd really be a bitter, old man. I worked at two institutions where newspaper awards contests were either frowned upon or just not cared enough. As a matter of fact, as a correspondent at the Ocean County Observer I was actually told I should enter my work by one of our news editors who, I guess, took a liking to what I did. Well someone must have said something to my sports cohorts who were looking to enter their work and were told there were only so many spots to enter in the contest and I just happened to have taken up some of the spots.

I can still remember one cohort trying to be gentle as he could by telling me, "You've gotta get your stuff out of there." It was sad and it was almost hilarious the way he was trying to talk to me like I was some teenager who might have gone out and done something wrong. There was nothing I could do, though ... they were late in asking me to withdraw my contest entries.

Needless to say, I didn't win. And, frankly, I didn't really care about contests after that. That incident in 1988 was enough to tell anyone to go "f*ck off" when it came to contests. When I got let go by the Key West Citizen, though, in 2002, I knew one of the big hindrances in finding another job was what kind of job swagger I had. No awards, and it would make it harder for me to find a job, which for 16 months I couldn't. I don't wish my 16 months of exile from this business on my worst enemy. My business is very, very cruel -- they want younger so they can pay cheaper. I defy any newspaper boss to tell me otherwise, and I still won't promise to laugh in their faces.

In 2003, I joined the staff at the Palatka Daily News and they were very headstrong about entering in contests that were available to us. I had as much pessimism over entering any of my work the same way Randy Quaid had pessimism that the Cleveland Indians were going to the World Series in "Major League II." But I went through with it. In 2004, I put my best work forward ... nothing. Not even a mention.

I didn't want to bother anymore. I started believing that 20 years into this business, I may have picked the wrong profession. Problem is, I didn't have any other options as to where to go. I was a one-trick pony -- journalism or bust. But as I've known my entire life, I just trudged along.

Then the story of a lifetime fell into my lap accidentally ... and everything changed.

It was November 6, 2004 at Tampa's Ed Radice Park. This was the night Interlachen High School's Jeremy Criscione won the FHSAA 2A cross country championship in 15:02, a record time, and beat some of the strongest runners in the state in the process while running in the memory of his late coach Dwayne Cox, who had passed away that August. I let whatever I had to write flow freely on the day off from work since we didn't publish a newspaper until Tuesday, November 9.

It turned out to be a 30-inch story that had everything to make it sound like a story of the year. But all the negativity was still allowing me that avenue to believe no one likes my work. Parents and kids and friends are one thing. Your peers are another. So I made a vow to myself that if I didn't win anything in the 2005 contest cycle with this story, I was never entering another story again and truly believing that 21 years in this business have been nothing more than a waste of my time.

Well, lo and behold, wouldn't you know it -- in July 2005, I found out that the Florida Sports Writers Association judges selected that story as the silver-medal winner in my classification of small-to-medium sized newspapers for best sports event. So it was during that late July weekend of the Florida college football coaches convention in Orlando in which we got to interview all the coaches (including FSU coach Bobby Bowden and new kid on the block Urban Meyer of Florida) that the FSWA handed out its honors and I collected my award.

So now I couldn't believe anymore that none of my peers appreciated my work. That was gone. Turns out this was the appetizer for what was to happen next.

In September 2005, I found out that the same story took first-place honors in the "General Excellence in Sportswriting" category for newspapers 25,000 and less circulation at the prestigious Florida Press Club. Even I had to admit it was the highlight of everything I've done up until then. Covering a Super Bowl, a Major League Baseball All-Star Game and two Little League World Series were amazing, but being appreciated by your peers ... that was waaaaaaay cool.

And so I planned on going to the banquet, scheduled near downtown Orlando right off of I-4 with my girlfriend, to not only pick up my honor but any other honors our newspaper won. I had made plans with my great publisher and with the woman who handles all the money at the newspaper a week in advance. They cut me a check for $70, one for myself and one for the love of my life at the time to attend the festivities.

The banquet was to be held on Saturday, October 15, 2005, at the Ballroom at Church Street in Orlando. As was our routine on the days my significant other worked, whether it was weekends or during the week, I'd get home from work around 1:30 in the morning, maybe 2, stay up and watch television out in the living room, then when it was time for her alarm to go off, I'd go into the bedroom. I was never trying to avoid her -- I just hate alarm clocks.

Our lives together were so far better when she worked an overnight shift at the sheriff's office from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. As of early summer 2005, she was now working the morning-to-afternoon shift for which she famously replied to me, "It's not going to affect our relationship," for which I gently retorted, "Yeah, if you say so."

Was she ever naive.

So as I crawl into our bed as she got ready for what would be a half-day at work for her (she had gotten the OK from her bosses to leave early so she could go with me to the banquet), I turned on my favorite Friday night/Saturday morning HBO show "Real Time With Bill Maher," a show hosted by the liberal-minded comedian and common-sense advocate. He's not only funny, but he speaks to me in what I believe.

At one point in this particular show, he was talking to an important official in New Orleans about the atrocities that had been taking place involving the police officers and those left without a home recently because of Hurricane Katrina. I don't care who you are, but officers should never gang up to billy-club and mercifully beat the crap out of a helpless man, whether they utter words of defiance at officers or not. The incident was on video, so there wasn't a whole lot of sticking up that any fellow officer could do for these rogues acting out of line in the aftermath of a crisis.

Well guess who took offense to that? Yeah, my "die-in-the-wool-for-my-fellow-officer" girlfriend, who got further annoyed when I agreed out loud after Mr. Maher had said the logical thing about any cop inflicting harm to any person left out on the street to fend for themselves should have their badges taken away.

She went to work in a not-so-good mood. And apparently she came home at about 1 p.m. in a not-so-good mood either. We got dressed, me wearing my green suit and jackets combination that I only got to show off for big events like this which, of course, I had never partaken in before.

She was strangely quiet as we got into my car and took off down US-17 toward DeLand and onto SR-472 and onto I-4. We were listening to the radio for the better part of the time. I believe the Gators were on the radio that Saturday afternoon and she being a big Gators fan wanted to listen. We had gone through half a dozen towns by the time we hit DeLand and I asked her why she wasn't so talkative.

"You don't want to know why," she answered.

"Well, no, I do want to know why since we haven't said a word to one another," I shot back.

"You really don't want me to tell you," she answered back. "Because if I do, I won't stop."

I knew where she was heading with this. She was still pissed off at me about the morning, about my agreeing that cops should be bashed for beating up innocent people regardless of the situation. My liberal-minded views and her conservative ways were about to clash in a not-so-nice manner. Let's get it all out there, girl! Tell all your troubles!

"I don't care. If you need to vent, then do so."

For the next three minutes, she started going off about anything and everything that involved me, my profession, my way of life, my thinking, etc., etc..etc. She wasn't being very kind about it either. But I let her. I allowed her to say what she needed to say, hateful vitriol or not. Then she stepped over the line of what was allowed and what wasn't ... she started going off on my family 950 miles away.

"Your parents are just a--holes!"

I stopped her there. I said she crossed the line and I had no problem turning this car around and driving back to Palatka and "dropping her ass off and hoping it wasn't there when I got home" from the banquet. I can take a lot of crap from a lot of people, but if you start talking badly about my family, you're on the road to your ruination with me. She apologized, realizing she went too far with her poisonous diatribe.

That was it, though. I was turning onto I-4 from SR-472 with another 31 miles to go to get to the Ballroom and the night was ruined.

This should have been a night for celebration. She turned it into a reason why I should never be around another woman for something important again.

 I will admit the next 3 1/2 hours from the time we got into Orlando, parked the car, went inside, had dinner, watched various speakers talk about my business, then pick up the awards for my paper were like going through the motions. By the time the event ended at 9:30 p.m., there was no hanging out with any other media members there to talk and enjoy the company, which I would look forward to ... she had to be back home to our apartment and asleep to go in to work on that Sunday.

The only memories I have from that night other than picking up my award were her criticizing to me privately the way some of the other people dressed in simple dress collar shirts and khakis and me escaping the room for a few minutes to talk to my Uncle Lewis, whose birthday just happened to be that day and that he and his girlfriend were going to be in St. Augustine for that Sunday and I told him that I wasn't going to make it, but thanks for the invite.

We got home at midnight. She actually thanked me for taking her there and she went to sleep soon after.

I let what happened earlier in the day go. That is, I let it go until we started having similar fights about stupid stuff for the next year until our breakup in October 2006. I wondered how life may have been different if I had been a bigger bastard, turned the car around that afternoon, pulled over to the side of US-17 and demanded she take herself out the door and walk back to Palatka. I wouldn't have gone through the last year of our relationship and the wasted four months of an engagement.

It started me down the path of being jaded and cynical toward the opposite sex. I vowed that I would never take another woman with me to another awards ceremony ... that is, if I was lucky enough to be so honored to win another award.

Three years later, I was honored again with awards by the Press Club. This time around, the banquet was to be held at the Daytona Beach Hilton. And my new girlfriend at the time wanted to go. I was hesitant, but I figured, "Heck, it couldn't be any worse than the last one I took with me."

We actually had a good time and made it an awards celebration/birthday celebration for her since it was the weekend after she had her birthday. And she went with me to the 2009 awards at the Rosen Centre Hotel in Orlando as well. She and I had a good time those two years.

But she and I broke up and now it's just myself going to any awards ceremony that involves me getting something. I'm used to it. I don't ever want to force someone to go with me when they're half-hearted about it. Just not my style. I pretty much decided a long time ago that I was going to ride solo in a lot of things in life. And that's OK.

I've been fortunate enough to win a total of 17 awards either state-wide, nationally or within my company, 15 of which have come since 2008. I don't have to prove anything anymore to my peers -- they have told me I'm pretty darned good at what I do.

The awards and sheets of paper that show I won collect dust in my closet. I don't ever let that define me ... just my career.

And it's all good. I enjoy going to any awards ceremony by my lonesome.

After all, it's a definite improvement from the first time I actually took first place in something.