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Tamara Lush

Dr. Beach names Florida’s Siesta Beach best beach in U.S.

The sand on Siesta Beach on Florida’s Gulf Coast is as fine as powdered sugar, a pure, sparkling white and soft as a kitten’s fur – all because it’s comprised of 99 percent pure crushed quartz.

For that reason, and many others, it was selected this year as the best beach in America by a professor who’s made a career ranking and studying beaches around the United States.

“The sand is outstanding,” said Stephen Leatherman, aka Dr. Beach, a professor at Miami’s Florida International University. “Every time I go there, I’ve got to take a bag home with me. It’s almost sacrilegious to walk on it with shoes on.”

Other beaches that made the list this year, in order of ranking, are: Kapalua Bay Beach in Maui, Hawaii; Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach on the Outer Banks of North Carolina; Grayton Beach State Park on the Florida Panhandle; Coopers Beach in Southampton, New York; Coast Guard Beach on Cape Cod in Massachusetts; Caladesi Island State Park in Dunedin/Clearwater, Florida; Hapuna Beach State Park, Big Island, Hawaii; Coronado Beach in San Diego, California; and Beachwalker Park on Kiawah Island, South Carolina.

On a recent workday, Siesta Beach was packed with people, even though it wasn’t particularly sunny. The turquoise water was still gorgeous, the sand still fine. The beach is about 200-300 feet (60-90 meters) wide in some places, which means people can stretch out and not feel crowded. The beach was last year’s runner-up and one of three in Florida on this year’s top 10 list.

“It’s nice and clean, that’s what I look for,” said Jamie Gaskin, a 59-year-old retiree from Lakeland, Florida, who was scoping out the beach for a family Memorial Day party. She especially liked the two-story pavilion, which boasts a snack bar and restrooms. It’s only two years old and even offers sweet crepes for breakfast and tapas dishes in the early evening.

“There’s plenty of tables to barbecue and to hang out. And the restrooms were nice and clean. I’d definitely recommend this,” she said.

Siesta Beach is on a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico, and is located just southwest of downtown Sarasota. The water is placid on most days – Leatherman says you can measure the waves “in inches” – and is shallow and safe for swimming, with no sharp drop-offs. Added bonuses include lots of parking, a trolley service to and from the island’s adorable downtown area and plenty of lifeguards. The beach also has natural dunes, which is a bit rare for Florida, and the fine sand is excellent for building sand castles.

“I look for kind of a balance between nature and a developed environment,” said Leatherman, who lives on the other side of the state, closer to Miami Beach. “Fourteen million people go to Miami Beach every year. There’s just too many people there. I think a lot of people are looking for more of a getaway.”

Leatherman, who is director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University, uses about 50 criteria to assess and rank beaches across the country. In recent years, he has given extra points to beaches that prohibit smoking, saying cigarette butts are not only environmentally damaging, but can ruin the experience for beach-goers. Safety and environmental management are other major factors, he said.

He’s rated beaches since 1991.

The Maui beach that came in at No. 2 on the list, Kapalua Bay Beach, is smaller than Siesta Beach. It’s crescent-shaped and flanked by palm trees. Unlike lots of Hawaii beaches, there aren’t many waves at Kapalua, he said, making it perfect for safe swimming.

“The coral reefs almost go right to the beach. There are tropical fish swimming all around.”

The third beach on the list, Ocracoke, is unique in both history and location. Leatherman points out that it was once the pirate Blackbeard’s old haunt. And it’s only accessible by a state ferry.

“The only negative I have, it seems like too many cars,” he said. “I wish they would turn car ferries to pedestrian ferries.”

Leatherman says he tries to select locations that are a bit off the beaten path, yet immensely rewarding once visitors arrive. Siesta Beach, he points out, is an outstanding place to watch the sun dip below the Gulf horizon – one more reason why it made the top of this year’s list.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Marvel Universe LIVE!: Superheroes save the day in new show

There’s a moment at the outset of the new Marvel Universe Live! Age of Heroes show when Spider-Man enters from backstage and zigzags around the theater.

It still takes the director’s breath away, conveying Spider-Man’s superpower strength.

“It’s an incredible entrance for Spider-Man, similar to the film. The guy who plays Spider-Man says it’s one of the scariest things he’s ever done and one of the most fun things he’s ever done,” said James Hadley, now preparing for the July 7 premiere at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

For the first time, fans of Marvel comic book characters can see their favorite superheroes in one place in this live show, which will tour the U.S. and Canada through 2019. This is Feld Entertainment’s first new show since announcing the end of its iconic Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The final Ringling circus show is May 21.

Feld Entertainment, the show’s producer, says audiences will be treated to characters from Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man and the Avengers, as they defend the universe from evil. Among the villains: Nebula, Loki, Yondu and Green Goblin. All of the fan favorites are showcased, too: Iron Man, Thor, Black Panther, Wasp, Hulk and Black Widow. Captain America rides a motorcycle.

Note to parents: there will be lots of explosions and grand battles to engage the 3-to-10 age set.

“It’s sort of our modern Aesop’s fables. They’re the heroes of our time. Even though they have these unlimited powers, they are always fighting for what’s right and for what’s good,” Hadley said. “That’s the message that’s important now. Even when it looks like they’re not going to succeed, they just keep pushing.”

Hadley, who previously worked with Cirque du Soleil, said performers were chosen for their acrobatic skills and strength. Special video effects and motorcycle stunts are also expected in the course of the two-hour performance.

The last Marvel live show was in 2014, and it became known as a mecca for young children — especially boys — who loved the themes of superheroes, fighting, motorcycles, explosions and powers. Kids often dressed up when attending the shows, which are basically like a comic book come to life.

The show’s soft launch is scheduled June 23-25 in New Orleans, followed by the July 7 Los Angeles premiere. The show will tour the West Coast during the summer, the Midwest in the fall, and then — after a stop in Quebec — will circle the nation in 2018 and early 2019 before going on international tour.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Body farm for researchers and detectives opens near Tampa

A “body farm” where researchers can study how corpses decompose will open next week in the Tampa Bay area with the burial of four donated bodies.

Officials broke ground Friday on the Adam Kennedy Forensics Field, a five-acre patch of land north of Tampa. It’s the seventh such facility in the nation and the first in Florida’s subtropical environment. The oldest and most famous body farm in the U.S. is at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

Officials in Florida hope their farm, to be used at first by detectives and forensic anthropologists at the nearby University of South Florida, will draw scientists from other countries and grow to be the largest in the world.

“Our forensic crime scene investigators will get premium training as a result of this,” said former Pasco County Sheriff Bob White. “This will enhance our training tenfold.”

Dr. Erin Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist at USF, predicts that by studying how bodies react in Florida’s sweltering humidity, more evidence will be preserved and breakthroughs made in real-life cases. The research also would benefit other countries with subtropical and tropical climates, she said.

Bodies are obtained by donation. The first four will be buried next week, and in January, Kimmerle and other researchers will hold a course for detectives on exhumation. Later, other bodies will be exposed to water and buried during different seasons to determine how different factors affect decomposition and evidence. After the bodies are studied, the skeletons will be cleaned and preserved and made available for future research.

“The legacy of the donations, it is forever,” said Kimmerle.

About 30 people have already filled out paperwork to donate their bodies to the farm when they die. Kimmerle said if someone who wants to donate dies within 200 miles of the facility, researchers will pick up the body at no cost. Anyone beyond that range would have to pay for their body to be transported to the facility.

While the center is currently a field and grove of trees near the Pasco County Jail, officials eventually hope to build an indoor-outdoor training center that would include classrooms, a morgue, a training facility and evidence storage.

The Florida Legislature tucked $4.3 million for the facility in this year’s state budget, but it’s unclear whether Gov. Rick Scott will approve the budget. Kimmerle and Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco said they’ll also raise outside money for the project.

For now, researchers are concentrating on the science. The field is named after one of the people who will be buried next week.

Adam Kennedy, a 46-year-old principal at a local elementary school, died in a car wreck in January. His widow Abigail Kennedy said her husband always wanted to donate his body to science. On Friday, she spoke to a crowd at the forensics field.

“There’s so much bittersweet in all of this. Adam wanted to continue teaching after his death,” she said. “It would be my last gift to education, he’d say. This couldn’t be more perfect.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Tom Rooney faces raucous crowd at town hall meeting

It took about three minutes for the majority of the crowd at Florida Congressman Tom Rooney‘s town hall meeting Monday to start booing about everything from the environment to health care.

“You are supporting an appropriations bill to help clean up the Everglades. You recently voted to repeal a rule that allows coal companies to dump toxic ash in waterways throughout the whole country. Would you care to explain?” one man asked.

“We don’t live in a perfect world,” said the Republican congressman, standing alone in front of a podium on stage at the Englewood Event Center.

And that’s when the shouting started.

“That was quick,” quipped Rooney, who’s in his fifth term in Congress and represents a swath of rural and suburban counties in the middle of Florida, roughly from Lake Okeechobee to the east and toward Venice on the Gulf Coast.

Little more than a month into President Donald Trump‘s administration, Republican members of Congress are returning home to encounter crowds of concerned and, at times, raucous voters, pressing for explanations of the president’s plans for health care, immigration policies and cabinet appointees, among other things.

Those subjects came up repeatedly at Monday’s two-hour event. At times, it devolved into a holler-fest between Rooney, anti-Trump voters and pro-Trump voters.

Said Rooney, throwing his hands in the air: “So you want Trump to fail?”

The crowd screamed and clapped. One person yelled, “Yes, he already is failing!”

A Trump supporter screamed a response from the back: “You people suck!”

It appeared that a majority of the 300-strong crowd were retired, white and opposed to Trump. People grilled Rooney on the Affordable Care Act, pleading with him not to vote for a plan that doesn’t cover pre-existing medical conditions. Rooney replied that any health care revision ought to cover pre-existing medical conditions.

Another person asked what, if anything, Congress or the voters could do to prevent further erosion of the public’s trust. Many who attended, Republicans and Democrats alike, said they’d like to see the country less polarized, but that didn’t stop them from shouting their frustrations about the opposite party and politicians in general.

“A lot of people think that being a member of Congress is somehow us riding around in limos,” Rooney said. “I’m not looking for sympathy. Our approval rating is below Fidel Castro’s, and he’s dead.”

Several asked about Trump and Russia, and whether anyone on Trump’s campaign team was influenced by Russian operatives.

Rooney, who’s on the House Intelligence Committee, said “we have zero evidence that the Russian government and the Trump campaign coordinated in any way.”

The 46-year-old congressman also offered some dire predictions about Social Security and said it must be fixed, otherwise younger generations will be out of luck.

“I don’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat, if you hate my guts or if you voted for me. I’m telling the truth. If we don’t fix our retirement programs now, I’m not getting Social Security,” he said. “Do you not want that for your kids and grandchildren?”

The room erupted in various shouts about “the cap.”

Asked whether he wants to see Trump release his tax returns, Rooney said he believes presidents should do so.

He added, however, “The people didn’t care. He’s president.”

“We care!” people chanted.

“We don’t care!” A man in a Make America Great hat yelled.

In the end, everyone agreed on one thing: Rooney showed guts, standing up in front of a room full of angry voters. He said he was going to Washington Tuesday to vote, and walked off stage to a smattering of applause.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Love it or hate it, people have opinions on the circus

Reaction to news that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was closing after 146 years – from saddened celebrities to elated animal rights advocates – flew as fast as a flying trapeze.

Feld Entertainment, owner of the iconic circus, broke the news to circus employees Saturday night that the show would close permanently in May. The reasons cited for the closure were falling ticket sales, high operating costs, changing public tastes in entertainment – and prolonged battles with animal rights groups.

Some well-known fans took to Twitter to mourn.

Basketball star Shaquille O’Neal wrote on Twitter: “”noooooo pls don’t close whyyyyyyyyyyyyyy nooooooooo noooooooooo.” Singer Donnie Wahlberg recalled when New Kids on the Block played with de la Soul at Madison Square Garden with Ringling. “dancing on elephant dung!” he tweeted.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee took to Twitter to bemoan the show’s end. “Greatest Show on Earth won’t be seen by future generations. Thanks for the memories, RB!”

However, fondness for the circus was not universal. Actress and animal rights advocate Pamela Anderson wrote, simply: “It’s over!” And Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, claimed victory.

“We’ve been protesting the circus vigorously for 36 years since our inception,” she said. “We see this as a wonderful evolution in human awareness.”

After the news broke, circus fans ran out to get tickets for “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

Laurice Marier, a 45-year-old entertainment production manager, said she rushed out to buy tickets for the Orlando show on Sunday.

“When I think of a circus, I think of childhood, and I think we all want to recapture who we were,” she said. “To just have that one last moment of recapturing your childhood, that’s what provoked me to buy the tickets today.”

Marvin Freeman of Orlando, who bought tickets for Sunday’s show, had adored the elephants before they were removed from the show in 2016 following costly years of litigation with animal rights groups.

“Because, you could be down in the first row and the ground would bounce up and down, you could smell it and say, here they come! Now, it’s just terrible,” he said. “What do you do? No clowns anymore, no trained dogs anymore, there’s just a whole part of Americana that’s gone.”

Kay Baker, a 57-year-old office coordinator in Lexington, Kentucky, recalled fondly how when she was a child, she’d purchased a chameleon at the circus one year that lived for about a year. Over the years she brought her child, then her grandchildren, to the circus. But she gradually noticed a change in quality.

“I thought the show had deteriorated. It didn’t have as much trapeze artists and those kinds of acts. There were people riding motorcycles around ramps. To me, it wasn’t even the circus anymore.”

She was also torn between her magical childhood memories and her feelings of unease about the performing animals.

“I’m such an animal lover, it breaks my heart to see them,” she said. “It saddens me. Now it doesn’t entertain me.”

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

Nowhere left to run away to: The final days of the circus

Goodbye to death-defying feats — daring young men (and women) on the flying trapeze, whip-wielding lion tamers, human cannonballs. Goodbye to the scent of peanuts and popcorn, the thrill of three rings, the jaunty bum-bum-dadadada of circus music.

Send out the clowns. The Big Top is coming down — for good.

On Saturday, officials of the company that owns the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that it will close in May, ending a 146-year run that dates back to a time before automobiles or airplanes or movies, when Ulysses S. Grant was president and minstrel shows were popular entertainment.

What killed the circus? There are many suspects: increased railroad costs. Costly court battles with animal rights activists that led to an end to elephant acts — and the fact that some people didn’t want to see a show without elephants.

But mostly, in an era of Pokemon Go, online role-playing games and YouTube celebrities, the “Greatest Show on Earth” doesn’t seem so great.

“It’s been through world wars, and it’s been through every kind of economic cycle and it’s been through a lot of change,” said Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, owner of the Ringling Bros. “In the past decade, there’s been more change in the world than in the 50 or 75 years prior to that. And I think it isn’t relevant to people in the same way.”

For a long time, the circus was more than relevant — it was the stuff that dreams were made of.

The first circuses were created in Europe; the American twist would be canvas tents that allowed mobile troupes to go to the far-flung audiences of the 19th century.

Phineas Taylor Barnum‘s traveling menagerie was wildly popular, while the five Ringling brothers performed juggling acts and skits in Wisconsin. Eventually, Barnum, the Ringlings and another performance-minded businessman named James Bailey pooled their resources and knowledge. Some of the early performances were merely zoos on wheels and a few human oddities, but over time, the acts became truly spectacular — attractions like Jumbo, touted as the world’s largest elephant.

Sprawling companies traveled around America by train, wowing audiences with the sheer scale of entertainment and exotic animals. Deborah Walk, assistant director of legacy and circus at The Ringling — circus impresario John Ringling‘s mansion, art and circus collection in Sarasota — said that the circus’ impact on small town America is often overlooked.

“That wonderful show that you can see in Madison Square Garden crisscrossed the country and ended up in San Francisco. And every place in between saw the same thing,” she said.

“In the 1880s, especially, here you had this huge colossal canvas city that tracked across the country. It brought the wonders of the world to your door. You didn’t have to go to Africa or Asia to see the animals.”

The circus also heralded societal changes, she said. Women became performers around the turn of the 20th century (although there would be no African-American ringmaster until 1999 or a female ringmaster until 2016).

When the circus came to town, kids dreamed of running away to join it and its ever-changing roster of stars: the sad-faced clown, Emmitt Kelly; the daredevil trapeze act, the Flying Wallendas; Gunther Gabel-Williams, blond-maned and fearless in the ring with the big cats.

The circus was so important to homefront morale that President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave Ringling Bros. special permission to use the rails during World War II.

“The circus is the only ageless delight that you can buy for money,” Ernest Hemingway wrote in a three-page essay for the Ringling Bros. program in 1953. “It is the only spectacle I know, that, while you watch it, gives the quality of a truly happy dream.”

But as the 20th century went on, kids became less enthralled. Movies, television, video games and the internet captured young minds. The circus didn’t have savvy product merchandising tie-ins or Saturday morning cartoons to shore up its image. After 1956, the circus no longer performed under tents, moving to arenas.

The public grew conflicted about animal acts. Circuses without animals — such as Cirque du Soleil — were smaller and growing in popularity.

Animal rights activists put pressure on cities where the circus toured. Los Angeles and Oakland prohibited the use of bull-hooks by elephant trainers. Asheville, North Carolina, banned wild or exotic animals from performing in the city-owned stadium.

In 2014, Feld Entertainment won $25.2 million in settlements from groups including the Humane Society of the United States, ending a 14-year legal battle over allegations that circus employees mistreated elephants.

The initial lawsuit was filed by a former Ringling barn helper who accepted at least $190,000 from animal-rights groups. The judge called him “essentially a paid plaintiff” who lacked credibility and standing to sue, and rejected the abuse claims.

Kenneth Feld testified about the elephants’ importance to the show at that 2009 trial.

“The symbol of the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ is the elephant, and that’s what we’ve been known for throughout the world for more than a hundred years,” he said.

Asked whether the show would be the same without elephants, Feld replied, “No, it wouldn’t.”

And, it wasn’t. Feld Entertainment removed the elephants in 2016, sending all 40 of them to their Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida. Ticket sales plummeted. The circus, already an afterthought for many, receded further in the public mind.

Jeff and Carol Fouse of St. Louis, Missouri, toured the Ringling Circus Museum on a recent day. They saw the old-timey diorama of the circus encampments. They shuffled past the colorful, sequined ringmaster costumes and peered into the rail cars that were once filled with clowns and elephants and even a pygmy hippo.

Then they squinted into the bright Florida sunshine. “I don’t even know if there is a circus anymore,” said Jeff Fouse, a 63-year-old engineer, tilting his head.

The Feld family, which bought the circus in 1967, has branched out and bought and created other large-scale touring shows, such as Disney on Ice, Marvel Live and Monster Jam. Each was specialized with characters and stories, but Feld made sure that each had a bit of the circus in them, as well. It was, after all, about the show.

But the circus, itself, was dying.

The Felds said they looked at scenarios and costs. They ran numbers and tried new things — an interactive phone app, ice skaters in the show, adding motorcycle stunts — but nothing worked.

The show will go on at smaller and more specialized circuses. But come May, after almost a century and a half of spectacular revels, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will vanish, like a big, colorful, improbably long dream.

Sixty-three years ago, in his circus program essay, Hemingway marveled at the way performers made stunts and tricks in the ring look so simple.

“It is all wonderfully easy in your dreams,” he wrote.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

With the loss of its celebrities, Gen X ponders mortality

Princess Leia was our first girl movie heroine, and we made our moms braid brunette yarn so we’d have earmuff buns for Halloween. Carol Brady of “The Brady Bunch” was the ideal mother we probably didn’t have, because our moms had to work and left us latchkey kids home alone, with TV and processed food our only companions.

Carrie Fisher and Florence Henderson — and other icons of Generation X’s youth — are now gone, stolen by the cruel thief that is 2016. The year has left the generation born between the mid-1960s and the early 1980s wallowing in memories and contemplating its own mortality.

“It’s a very melancholy time,” sighed Shelly Ransom, a 47-year-old speech-language pathologist in Darien, Connecticut. “This is really bringing back a lot of teen angsty feelings. These people are supposed to still be the voices of my generation. It’s sad to see these artists not there to be our voice.”

Or, as weary, 51-year-old Lawrence Feeney, a filmmaker from New Port Richey, Florida, put it: “You lose George Michael and Carrie Fisher in a three-day span, you feel like you’ve gotten a couple of daggers thrown at you.”

Throughout the year, office conversations, dinner party discussions and social media have exploded with incredulity, sadness and fear, as one ’80s celebrity after another died, starting in January with David Bowie.

The feelings have been particularly acute for Gen X, whose members came of age when many of these cultural figures were popular.

We adored Bowie in the movie “Labyrinth” and danced to “Modern Love” at prom. We remember reading the words “Purple Rain” on the theater marquee and wondered why that little guy in high heels was so sexy. We made out fervently in cars in high school as George Michael crooned on the FM dial (Remember radio? It came decades before Spotify, and you couldn’t pick your music).

“We were the generation that was going to change the world. When I was a young man, I watched people my age stand in front of tanks in Tiananmen Square and tear down the Berlin Wall. Now I find myself complaining about arthritis in my hands and taking care of my aging parents,” lamented Rob Withrow, a 43-year-old landscape business owner in Palm Bay, Florida.

He added: “The musicians I admired growing up are now dying off. Hopefully, I still have quite a few more decades left in me, but the reality of dying is much clearer to see.”

Of course, this happens to every generation: Our idols die off, and we suddenly feel our youth slipping away.

But Lou Manza, a professor of psychology at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania, said baby boomers and older generations weren’t as invested in or connected to their celebrities. Gen X had MTV, which put pop stars like Prince and Bowie into our homes in heavy rotation.

That, combined with the immediacy and intimacy of 21st-century social media – we knew when platinum-haired punk rocker Billy Idol turned 61 because Facebook informed us, for instance – amplifies the sadness.

“Our parents in the ’70s would hear about a celebrity death on the nightly news, or the next day in the newspaper,” Manza said. “Now, there’s more and more of an immediacy with every successive generation.”

Sarah McBride Wagner, a 37-year-old writer in Weirton, West Virginia, said social media has created a place for collective mourning.

“We’ve never met these people. Yet we’re all so affected by it,” she said. “Being a shared grief both makes it bigger and easier.”

For some, the death of beloved childhood figures reminds us of the passing of people closer to us and of the march of time, which seems more like a fast jog.

“We’re at the age now when we really start to see ourselves in our parents. My son just turned 10, and it occurred to me as he hung out with my parents that it’s really not going to be too many more years before my husband and I are my parents, and he is us,” said Amanda Forman, a 38-year-old mother of three and a writer from Flourtown, Pennsylvania.

“The celebrity deaths of people we’ve admired exacerbate those feelings. I think in the case of those who passed who are slightly older, it makes us feel like we are that much closer, that our generation is next. And it makes us feel like our childhood is that much further behind us.”

Reprinted with the permission of the Associated Press

A rose for family of U.S. plantation owner executed by Fidel Castro

One of Miami’s oldest cemeteries is so close to the Fidel Castro death celebrations at Café Versailles in Little Havana that its marble angels echo with conga-line cheers from Calle Ocho.

Most of the people interred at Caballero Woodlawn Cemetery-North on Southwest Eighth Street — the many Cubans buried there, for sure — hoped to live long enough to hear the celebrations.

There’s Jorge Mas Canosa, a Bay of Pigs veteran and founder of the Cuban American National Foundation, resting in his tomb under Cuban and American flags. A few rows over is Carlos Prio Socarras, Cuba’s president from 1948 until 1952 and an outspoken Castro critic. His grave is adorned with a Cuban flag mosaic.

And then there’s the grave of the family of Robert Fuller, a burnished bronze marker set in the lush grass. It’s not as flashy as the others, and Fuller’s body isn’t even there. But he’s important to students of Cuban history as one of a small group of Cuban-Americans who tried to overthrow Castro six months before the Bay of Pigs invasion.

In this Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016 photo, Frances R. Fuller points to a photo in Life Magazine, dated Oct. 31, 1960, with the photo, of her brother Robert Fuller, center, flanked by parents William Fuller, left, Jennie Fuller, right, at her home in Miami. In 1960, Robert Fuller joined an ill-fated mission to lead a boatload of poorly trained Cubans from Miami in hopes of mustering up a counter-revolution on the island. Instead, the men were quickly captured, and Fuller confessed under torture to counterrevolutionary activities. Fuller was sentenced to death by firing squad. The family asked to bring his body back with them to America. Castro’s people said no. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

“Grandma, I wish you were here to see this,” Robert Fuller’s niece, Katherine, said Tuesday, bending with a delicate pink rose in her hand over the grave of Jennie Fuller — Robert’s mother — and other relatives.

After Castro’s forces seized power in Havana in 1959, the new regime “repeatedly harassed and threatened” members of the Fuller family and sought to seize the 10,000-acre agricultural business they had operated since 1903, according to the family’s lawsuit against Cuba.

Robert Fuller, who had dual Cuban and U.S. citizenship, was born on the Holguin plantation in 1934 and felt Cuban, Katherine said, even after serving as a U.S. marine in Korea. In 1960, at 25, he joined an ill-fated mission to lead a boatload of poorly trained Cubans from Miami in hopes of mustering up a counter-revolution on the island.

Instead, the men were quickly captured, and Fuller confessed under torture to counterrevolutionary activities. According to an Associated Press dispatch from Havana on his trial, he told the court that he joined the invaders because the Castro government had taken over his father’s ranch, “earned by the sweat of his brow and very honorably.”

His mother, Jennie sobbed in the courtroom where, in front of jeering crowds, Fuller was sentenced to death by firing squad. The family asked to bring his body back with them to America. Castro’s people said no. Jennie Fuller left Cuba, never to return, and her son remains buried somewhere on the island in an unmarked mass grave, court records say.

In 2006, a Miami-Dade judge awarded the family $400 million in damages after Cuba ignored their lawsuit. A decade later, they haven’t seen a dime.

Katherine Fuller was born in Miami two years after her uncle was executed, and raised in both the Cuban and American traditions of her family. Now 55, she still lives in the city where her uncle is remembered as a hero. There’s even a street in Little Havana named after him.

In this Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016 photo, Frances R. Fuller, left, and her niece Kathrine Fuller, right, sister and niece respectively, of Robert Fuller, show photos of Fuller at their home in Miami. In 1960, Robert Fuller joined an ill-fated mission to lead a boatload of poorly trained Cubans from Miami in hopes of mustering up a counter-revolution on the island. Instead, the men were quickly captured, and Fuller confessed under torture to counterrevolutionary activities. Fuller was sentenced to death by firing squad. The family asked to bring his body back with them to America. Castro’s people said no. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

Castro’s death was a joyful moment, she said, but also bittersweet. None of the exiled members of the family has ever returned to Cuba. Katherine always was too afraid when Castro was alive, given her surname’s notoriety on the island. More than anything, Fuller wonders why Castro ruined “such a rich treasure of an island.”

But she also knows that her own history and family’s legacy are intertwined with Castro’s. Her grandmother and other relatives have carried the pain of Robert Fuller’s execution all their lives.

Jennie Fuller grew her hair long and it flowed to her waist in a thick braid.

“We’d say to her, ‘Grandma, when are you going to cut your hair?’ ” Katherine Fuller recalled. “And she’d always say, ‘I’ll cut my hair when Castro falls.’ “

Jennie Fuller died in 2001, her long hair intact.

But the rose bushes she planted at the family’s Miami property in 1959 lived on.

On Tuesday, Fuller slipped the little pink rose from those bushes alongside a bouquet of lilies on the family’s Thanksgiving table, and expressed cautious optimism about Cuba’s future. She’s in favor of lifting the U.S. embargo on Cuba if the Cuban government is willing to give people on the island more freedom, something President Barack Obama called for. She thinks it’s possible with Castro’s passing.

“I think what Obama has done is the first step,” she said, referring to the president’s relaxing of travel regulations.

Katherine is even considering a trip to the island now that Castro’s gone. Somehow it seems safer. She’d like to meet her other relatives, and see the plantation her grandparents once owned.

But first, there’s some living to do in Miami.

“We’re going to go to Versailles now,” she said softly. “We’ll have a coffee, and a pastry.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Ex-Gov. Charlie Crist aims for political comeback in House

It’s a sunny fall day at Williams Park in downtown St. Petersburg, and Charlie Crist is in his element.

“What’s your name?,” he purrs to a woman in a wheelchair, taking her hand. He beams a white smile that matches his snow-white hair, contrasting with his tan face. “May I get a picture?” he asks, bending down on one knee. The woman giggles.

Crist, a Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat, is a former governor, former state attorney general and was on the short list to be Sen. John McCain‘s vice presidential running mate in 2008. This year, he’s setting his sights on a seat in the U.S. House.

Democrats are counting on Crist and other candidates to make significant inroads into the Republicans’ commanding House majority. Florida offers at least three potential Democratic gains as the party tries to cobble together a 30-seat pickup.

Crist, a 60-year-old lawyer, faces Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. David Jolly. The race may be one of the few nationally in which the Republican candidate is using Donald Trump against the Democrat, noting that Trump helped Crist raise money when he was with the GOP.

“It’s a crazy year,” Crist says.

He hopes it’s his year.

Crist has the hometown advantage — he was raised in St. Petersburg — and is running in a redrawn district that includes more African-Americans.

Jolly, who has represented the 13th Congressional District since 2014, is hoping Crist’s complicated political past will make him vulnerable.

“The fundamental issue is trust. Everybody knows Charlie, they know he’s been on every side of the issue,” Jolly says. “By most polls, this will be a neck-and-neck race.”

A recent poll by St. Pete Polls shows Crist with a narrow lead, while another tally by the Public Opinion Research Laboratory at the University of North Florida shows Crist leading Jolly 54 percent to 36.

Crist, who was governor from 2007 to 2011, ran for Senate as a Republican in 2010 but lost to Marco Rubio in the primary. Crist quit the Republican Party, ran in the general election as an independent and lost. He switched party affiliation again, becoming a Democrat, and ran unsuccessfully for governor against Rick Scott in 2014.

The 43-year-old Jolly has his own complications. He earlier had announced he would run for U.S. Senate, but when Rubio dropped out of the presidential race and said he would run for re-election, Jolly got out of that race.

Jolly says his biggest accomplishments are taking on campaign finance reform and backing a bill that would prohibit members of Congress from directly soliciting campaign contributions.

Jolly set himself apart from many Republicans by refusing to fundraise for the national party while working in Washington. And he refuses to endorse Trump.

“I’ve been fully abandoned by the Republican Party,” Jolly said. Still, he’s done pretty well with fundraising; as of Sept. 30, he’s raised $1.75 million to Crist’s $1.4 million. But Crist is getting help from the Democratic Party and other political action committees.

And Trump has become another flashpoint in the campaign.

In September, Jolly released a video that says Trump helped Crist raise money several times when Crist was a Republican.

And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee aired television ads using doctored photos to make it appear Jolly and Trump are pals. Only this week did Crist denounce the ad.

That negative ad turned some Crist voters off.

“I may end up voting for Jolly out of spite for the Democrats putting out negative information,” said Joe Jordan, a 36-year-old IT professional.

Crist touts his record on education, the economy and the environment, and says he supports a woman’s right to choose.

In the St. Petersburg park, he smiles at Velva Lee Heraty and her miniature Shih Tzu. Heraty shows him photos of when he walked little Miss Nena outside a cafe.

“That was two years ago,” Heraty says.

Crist gives her a serious look. That’s when Gov. Scott defeated him by a single percentage point.

“Two years ago. We’re hoping for a better result this time,” Crist says.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

Mosaic hopes to plug giant sinkhole by spring

A massive sinkhole at a fertilizer plant should be plugged by spring, months after contaminated water and waste began flowing into Florida’s main drinking water aquifer, the company said Friday.

In an email to The Associated Press, Mosaic spokeswoman Callie Neslund said the company recently finished a survey of the sinkhole cavity.

“Based on the survey results, the company now has a better understanding of the sinkhole dimensions – which is a critical step in remediating the sinkhole,” she wrote.

Neslund said the upper cavity is between 140 feet and 150 feet in diameter at its widest point, and about 220 feet deep.

Mosaic – one of the world’s largest producers of phosphate and potash for fertilizer – previously acknowledged that the contamination had spread to groundwater around the sinkhole.

The Minnesota-based company’s announcement about plugging the sinkhole comes after it reached a deal with the state Department of Environmental Protection earlier this week. Mosaic is required to put up $40 million, and if it fails to follow through on the cleanup, the company will face fines of up to $10,000 per day.

Meanwhile, state environmental officials said that contaminates found in private wells near the site are not believed to be related to the sinkhole.

Agency spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said in an email that private wells near the Mosaic site where high levels of contamination have been found may be associated with “natural geologic deposits and processes.

“In other cases, it may be related to the construction of the water well itself,” she wrote.

Neslund said that the company has not detected elevated levels of contamination in wells elsewhere on its property. It is working to pump out tainted water from a well near the sinkhole.

A Mosaic employee discovered the water loss caused by the sinkhole Aug. 27 and the state and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was notified the next day, as required by Florida law, according to David Jellerson, the company’s senior director for environmental and phosphate projects.

However, homeowners near Mosaic’s New Wales plant weren’t first notified by Mosaic or the state agency until Sept. 19, after news of the sinkhole broke the previous week. After that, Mosaic began providing them with bottled water.

By then, a huge wastewater pond had mostly disappeared through the hole in the massive pile of phosphogypsum, a fertilizer byproduct that contains minute traces of radiation.

Mosaic stacks the chemicals in hill-size piles that can be hundreds of feet tall and visible from space.

Neslund said as of Friday, the facility received about 5 inches of rainfall since the beginning of October.

“We have not determined how much of that rainfall entered the sinkhole,” she wrote. “The recovery well continues to pump about 5 million gallons of water each day. Onsite groundwater monitoring confirms that any impacted water is being recovered.”

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