My assignment from Campaign Life Coalition President Jim Hughes was simple. Go to Port Charlotte, he said, and close down every abortion “clinic” down there.
And he gave me two weeks to do it.
The good news is that Port Charlotte is in Florida! I told Jim that I wouldn’t be very effective going alone.
So I brought along my wife, Ileen, daughter Tara, 21, and son, Rory, 19. In order to economize, we drove.
We left Toronto on December 21. We were determined that there wouldn’t be an abortuary in Port Charlotte by the time we returned.
Jim, I am not going to hide the fact that the mission wasn’t as successful as anticipated. In fact – truthfully – it was like crawling from one disaster area to another and then falling down an open manhole.
The whole expedition reminded me of a Chevy Chase vacation movie. Whatever could go wrong went wrong. Whatever went wrong went wrong in spades.
Our first stop on the way down was at Dayton, Ohio, in a hotel in a less desirable area of town where we counted ourselves lucky that the car was still there in the morning.
It was there that Ileen fell on a curb hollowed out for wheelchairs and sprained her left writs, hit the corner of her mouth and bent her eyeglasses out of shape. She refused to go to the hospital, but that reduced the number of drivers to two, Rory and myself. Tara doesn’t drive.
Rory and I divided up the driving chores and we carried on bravely, driving so late the next night that by the time we decided to retire to a motel or a hotel off the highway – there weren’t any. Eventually we were able to locate a run-down motel in Georgia that was slightly off the beaten track, and evidently the only time that it had any patronage to speak of was when every other accommodation in Georgia was full.
We found a little wooden church, St. Ann’s, in the rural area of Georgia to go to Mass on Sunday. The collection, according to the bulletin, was $138 for the previous Sunday. The four of us filled up one pew. The total congregation at the one Mass they held weekly was about 45 and they were very friendly. They all had rich southern accents and made a joke of saying: “Y’all come back – y’hear.”
The pastor, who had another large parish nearby, was a Franciscan friar from England and spoke without a southern accent. He also laughed politely when they talked about a snowfall that they had ten years ago. He said that it barely covered the ground.
We spoke to an elderly lady whose great great grandfather worked there putting the railway in and decided that it was the place he wanted to stay.
When we arrived in Port Charlotte, which is on the Gulf side of Florida, south of Orlando and north of Forty Myers, we learned hurriedly that this was a retirement town with a population of around 4,500. Their nightclubs close at 9:00 p.m., and everybody goes home, has a glass of buttermilk and then goes to bed. There was so much white hair around there (including my own) that I almost got snow blind.
The kids noticed that the place was a bit dead. When I told Rory the good points of Port Charlotte – that there “are a lot of fish around here” – he replied, “Yeah, and I know four of them.”
The only day that the sun came out completely during our trip was the day we spent inside the largest mall I have ever seen. This appears to be the town’s principal source of recreation. (Mind you, we don’t golf or fish and that does cut down on what fun is available.)
Our home was lovely – a low-slung white brick building with a two-car garage. It was nicely furnished and air-conditioned, with a screened-in pool and a jungle of palm trees and vines at the back.
But with any more than four people in the pool at the same time you needed a traffic light. And how often can you swim the length of a pool without getting brain fatigue?
The weather was warm, but the sun could only stay out for a half an hour or so before the clouds came and carried it off for the day.
Tara, who studied all the way down in the car and while she was there and all the way back, was very sick to her stomach for the first few days we were there.
Rory, who is also going to university, hardly looked at a book while he was there.
Rory took in two shows one afternoon. While he was there, Ileen tripped on the telephone cord and pulled the phone off the cupboard and broke it. Tara had to go next door and beg their telephone so that Rory could call when he wanted to be picked up. It was a long way to walk home and cabs were rare in Port Charlotte.
For Christmas, we had a bare-bones Christmas dinner: turkey without the stuffing, a few veggies and that was it. Tara made a passing flurry at eating. When Tara recovered sufficiently, I went out and rented two videos of Anne of Green Gables and we all sat around and watched it. PEI never looked so good. I was almost homesick.
Down we drove to Fort Myers – looking for the sun – and watched silly people doing bungee-jumping. (They tie this rope around your ankles and you jump off this high crane – would you believe it?)
We had a glorious lunch there looking down on the beach. Tara, blaming the Florida tap water for her previous sick stomach, asked the waitress for bottled water. Back she came with the bottle opened. Tara asked her if she had just opened it. The waitress looked at her and said, “Yes, and I just filled it up with tap water.” We all laughed.
The sun played hide-and-seek all afternoon and disappeared abruptly about 6:00 p.m. I had just lain down on the beautiful white sandy beach when it disappeared for good. An amused American gentleman came along, looked at me and asked, “What are you trying to get, a moon-tan?”
The good news, Jim, is that I couldn’t find any abortion “clinics” in Port Charlotte.
Just hearing-aid clinics. Everywhere we went there were hearing-aid clinics. They appeared to be more numerous than milk stores. And hospitals.
If you’re going to have a heart attack, Jim, Port Charlotte is the place to be. Before you hit the floor, there’s an ambulance waiting there for you. And for people with heart palpitations they even advertise outside the hospitals: “Come in. Come in.”
I accidentally gave myself a long, wide wicked scratch on my upper right cheek. Together Ileen and I looked as though we had been in a fight. I noticed people would sidle away from me when I struck up a conversation.
Off we went to Disney World’s Epcott Center and the MGM studio in Orlando.
At MGM, Rory saw the sets for the Indiana Jones films and a re-enactment of an exciting film clip. It was the high point of the trip. Tara and Rory went out on their own and enjoyed it. As soon as the sun heard we were coming – it left. And the temperature dropped like a stone. We both ended up wearing Indiana Jones tee shirts (courtesy of Rory), but to no avail.
We both got colds.
We were very late trying to get motel rooms and traipsed from one full motel to another until, finally, Tara persuaded a female hotel desk clerk, who was about her age, to phone around for accommodation. Impatiently, I came in to see what was delaying Tara, and finding there was no room and not knowing what the good-natured desk clerk was doing for us, urged Tara to “Let’s get going!” The desk clerk looked at Tara and said, “Shall I hit him with the phone?”
In the afternoon, when we got back to Port Charlotte, Ileen and I took one inland cruise. The sun came out off and on and we spotted a live alligator.
There had been a flotilla of dolphins escorting the boat the day before, we were told, but nary a one turned up for us.
On the way back to Toronto, Ileen’s left wrist felt good enough for her to drive and I became the Navigator. Trying to bypass Nashville, Tennessee, I mistook “Ashville” for “Nashville,” and we ended up 30 miles out of the way. “Now you know there’s a Nashville and an Ashville in Tennessee,” someone told me afterwards.
On the way back – going north on highway 75, outside Cincinnati – there was a beautiful, well-lit billboard, high in the sky, that no driver could miss. It had pictures of two babies and the faded outline of a third. It was captioned: “One Out Of Three Babies Dies from Choice.”
I said to myself, “Great! We’ve got to get one of those billboards!”
So you see, Jim, the trip wasn’t a waste of time.
I did learn something.