Missing the pirate ship

Katie barely missed the pirate ship. Our first child was born on this day in 1965 in Tampa General Hospital just two days after the pirate ship Jose Gasparilla cruised up Hillsborough Bay, its guns blazing. The hospital sits on Davis Island, separated from downtown Tampa by a narrow stretch of Hillsborough Bay. A single drawbridge guarded the busy inlet in 1965, opening for the occasional tall-masted pleasure craft and, of course, the annual Gasparilla invasion re-enactment, which was scheduled on the second Monday in February. In 1965 that was Feb. 8. Katie arrived on Feb. 10.

The popular Gasparilla Day event, which resembles Mardi Gras, is based on the legendary pirate Jose Gaspar, who terrorized the coastal waters of West Florida during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. When Gaspar died, he supposedly left a fortune in buried treasure somewhere along the Florida coast. That treasure has never been discovered, but the story of Gaspar was unearthed and his memory revived in 1904 when a group of Tampa’s civic and business leaders adopted the pirate as their patron rogue and cooked up a city-wide celebration in his honor. Secret meetings gave birth to the first “Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla,” who planned to surprise the populace with a mock pirate attack on Tampa. Wearing rented costumes, the first Mystic Krewe arrived on horseback and “captured the city” during the Festival Parade. Tampa has upheld this tradition by celebrating Gasparilla Day virtually every year since that first invasion. Every year, the ship Jose Gasparilla II cruises up the bay, loaded to the gunwales with costumed “pirates.” All this hoopla necessitates the raising of the drawbridge and paralyzes traffic, of course. As Katie’s expected arrival grew close, we feared that we wouldn’t be able to get to the hospital.

But by Feb. 10, the ship had sailed, the bridge was open to traffic, and we made it to the hospital. Katie arrived at the same  time as mid-term exams in my final trimester at the University of South Florida, and I was feeling overwhelmed. I was editor of the campus newspaper, carrying a full load of courses and working 25 hours a week at the Tampa Times, the city’s afternoon daily. Steve Yates, freshly retired from The Birmingham News, had joined the USF faculty and spent much of his time looking over my shoulder, questioning and second-guessing many of my decisions as student editor.

As Betsy’s pregnancy advanced, I hoped that Katie would arrive on a Wednesday, the hellish weekly deadline day when the newspaper had to be put to bed at the Tampa Tribune-Times composing room downtown. Yates agreed, too eagerly, I thought, that whenever Katie arrived, I would take the day off, and he would take over my duties for the day. Bless her, Katie showed up on a Wednesday, and that was the one of the sweetest phone calls I ever made when I told Steve the news. The paper came out all right, but it was fun to critique the flaws in Steve’s handiwork the next day.

Today, Katie, an accomplished businesswoman, musician, wife and mother, lives with her husband Chris and their two daughters Claire and Allison in a quiet historic section of Charlotte near downtown. All of us who love her celebrate her birthday today. Betsy and I smile and recall that hectic February in Tampa 52 years ago when we missed the pirate ship by just two days.


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