My employer had booked me into the cheapest accommodation possible, despite the fact that he had already spent $7,000,000 on his house before I arrived, and was only half way through. The couple of thousand bucks I was charging him was like the bite of a flea to a dinosaur, but you know what they say - careful with the pennies, etc.
Anyway, I liked it. I liked it a lot. It was a Days Inn, right on Sand Lake Road. It had it's own pedalo lake which was used by alligators late at night (I saw them), and a great 'Tikki Bar' (with a barman called Bob - recently divorced and about 60 years old) where cockroaches fell from the thatch ceiling into your beer as you sat there. Wonderful. I was told racist jokes by Texan Fire-Fighters and everything.
When I arrived late at night, the brother-in-law of the main contractor - Ray - had laid out a couple of six packs in a bucket of ice to welcome me. It seemed as if everyone I met on this job was either called 'Ray' or 'John'. This Ray was a large, uncouth and bearded red-neck who I took an immediate dislike to, and I'm sure the feeling was mutual. Ray - in short - was a nasty bully, but I was not going to let him spoil my trip by letting him bully me, and I did my best to stop him from bullying anyone else. I did not give a fuck, and was relaxed by the blast of tropical heat in the middle of a British winter. Everyone would jump to attention when Ray appeared on site, and I was amazed at how in fear for their meagerly paid jobs they were. The foreman had served in Vietnam and had been shot twice, but he seemed to be more scared of Ray that a Viet Cong bullet.
Anyway, on the first night, Ray left me with the beer and gave instructions as to how to find his brother-in-law's office (John) the next morning, and said we would meet for a tour of the site at around 10.00 am. I went to sleep, then woke up at around 4.00 am, thinking it was about mid-day. My body was telling me that the east to west trip was a catch-up, so I was as fresh as a daisy.
I found John's office on Sand Lake, and went up to the bleach blonde receptionist. As I introduced myself, she looked at me with a sort of dreamy, far-away look in her eyes, a feint smile playing around her lips. She asked me to repeat myself.
"I said, I am Tom Stephenson, and I have an appointment with John this morning".
She carried on staring at me with the far-away look, then said,
"Oh, I just love you English. You could read off the back of a cornflake packet and make it sound intelligent! I'll call John now."
Soon I was being issued with a security pass for the golf course, and being warned that any speed over 15 miles per hour would be picked up by the radar system. To be caught traveling too fast twice would mean that I would never be allowed back into the 'community', so I had better watch out. On my way out, I stopped by the blonde's desk and told her that I was making some things for Princess Diana's father (which I actually was at the time), just to see if she would cream her knickers. Sadly, I couldn't stay in the office long enough to find out.
Ray came with me in my little, Japanese hire-car (the cheapest one from Hertz), and continuously asked me to pull over, so he could bully some poor contractor who he saw forlornly walking around one of their projects. The conversation would go something like this:
"Hey Tom - pull over a minute - right by that guy there, yes, that guy. HEY YOU! COME OVER HERE WHILE I TALK TO YOU!" the guy walks over... "I thought you said you were gonna have those tiles up by friday?" the guy starts to explain... "No, I don't want to hear this shit. There are plenty of hungry guys out there without work who would do your job for half your price, so if those tiles aren't up by tuesday, then you better start looking for another way to feed your family, buddy. OK, Tom, drive on." This happened about 3 times during the short drive.
We arrived at the half built house - a huge and tasteless wooden structure right next door to Arnold Palmer's last resting place, and I immediately knew the the enormous fireplace would look terrible in it, before I had even seen it.
We walked into the main room, and stood staring at a vast space with a thirty-foot high ceiling. John and Ray looked at me, waiting for some sort of response.
"Where is the fire-place going?' I asked, and they pointed to another vast space, then waited for my response.
"Am I right in thinking", I said, staring incredulously, "that there is no masonry wall as yet built in that area like I asked for, or are my jet-lagged eyes deceiving me?"
This fire-surround weighed about 5 tons, and was - like most French fire-places - very top-heavy. There were two legs which went from about 10 inches to about 5 feet at the top, so this thing would only stand up if built into a wall.
"No, we wanted to wait until you arrived before we built the wall, so you could give us some advice."
"But I'm only here for three weeks! It's going to take you two to build the fucking wall!"
"What do you think we should do then?"
I asked for a few minutes on my own, whilst I tried to find a solution to this ridiculous problem. After a while, I went back to Ray and John and told them that the only thing was to put two, 30 foot RSJs up in the places I told them. They asked what RSJs were, so I called them H-section steel beams, but said that I doubted if they could get that done within a week. They said it would be done that day, and to my amazement, it was. America really is a 'can-do' country. I said I also needed an oxy-acetylene kit to burn holes though the steel and a man down below to make sure I did not burn the house down by catching fire to all the wood shavings lying around. No problem, they said, and it wasn't. I also needed a 30 foot chain-hoist for the main part of the stonework, and they asked what a 'chain-hoist' was, so I tried to explain. "Oh, you mean a chain-fall".
Then I said I needed a full-time assistant to help me lift and carry. No problem either, but what sort did I want? What sort? What sort did they have? Well, I could have a Mexican, white or black. I said I did not care, and they sent a nice Afro-American man called 'Ray'. He was very small but extremely strong, and I got on well with him - more about that later.
Then they said I should relax for the afternoon whilst the beams went up, and that evening, they were going to take me out for the night. A meal in a restaurant, followed by a basket ball game with Magic Johnson (who I had not heard of), then a trip to a lap-dancing strip club called 'Pure Platinum' on Orange Avenue. Whoopee.....
Insult Number One: I walked out of the basket ball game, halfway through. Insult number Two: I ordered a chilli con carne in the most expensive restaurant in Orlando. Insult number Three: each time they stuck a ten dollar bill into the stocking of a lap dancer in the club and told her to dance for me, I became acutely embarrassed, and started to look gay in their eyes.
The last personal dancer said to me as she shook her huge breasts in my face, "What's the matter? Don't you like big-breasted, blonde women?"
They were beginning to get the picture, and said, "Leave him - he's English." I later had a drink with this dancer, and she said her biggest fear was to see her parents walk through the door one night, so there we go.
Back at the hotel, I became tired with the constant air-conditioning, so I would turn it off and open the communal balcony door slightly, whilst laying on the bed. Then there would be a tap on the door, and I would be forced to stand up in my boxer shorts to see who it was. A large and armed Sherriff's Deputy was standing there, looking nervous.
"Is everything alright, Sir?"
"Yes. Why shouldn't it be?"
"The hotel would like you to close the door if you would not mind, Sir."
"For your personal safety, Sir."
After the fourth visit by this privately paid, state employee, I started to do as he asked, because he was beginning to look pissed off. The next morning I found out why.
In those days, tourist's hire cars were easily identifiable from their number plates, and I turned on the T.V. to see pictures of a fellow Brit's car in the lot of the other Days Inn about half a mile down the road. It had taken about 400 rounds of automatic gunfire, and there wasn't 2 inches left between holes in the bodywork. All four tyres were flat, and the family had moved away from the area. Apparently, the crims had knocked on his open door and asked for all his money. As he fled the room, they made sure he would not use his car as an escape mode. He couldn't even jump into the lake - the alligators would have seen to him anyway.
Breakfast could be obtained at 7.00 in the morning - about 3 hours after everyone else back at the building site had started work to avoid the heat. The heat and humidity was great in the summer, but it amused me to see all those big men shivering in the freezing temperatures of about 65 degrees in a cloudy Florida winter. This meant that at my lunchtime, everyone else had gone home, leaving me alone with the stone surround.
I thought us Brits knew about rain, but when it rains in the sunshine state, it really rains. A couple of times - driving the few miles back to Orlando - the road would actually disappear, and no matter how hard you cranked up the wipers, nothing could be seen through the glass. Then, when the sun reappeared, it would just steam, and I mean steam.
One afternoon, I was talking to Her Indoors on the telephone and looking out of my hotel, picture window. The sky looked a funny colour, and I told her so - her half asleep in the middle of the night, back in Blighty. Then I noticed the clouds come down to form a blackish, grey snake which began whipping it's way toward the hotel, ripping up houses and cars on it's way.
"I may have to go in a minute, I think there is a tornado on it's way..."
to be continued