Gunfight at the Florida Mall

There are times when taking a photo could get you killed and had I found my camera that day, it’s likely you wouldn’t be reading this because I wouldn’t be here to write it.

It has been said in a previous blog that as a family, when on holiday, we’d managed to obtain the nickname ‘the Griswolds’ because we had Griswold vacation type things happen to us and this is one such happening. We’d spent a week in Florida. It was our eighth visit to the US and the fourth visit to this state yet it had been 8 years since the last time. The first visit was in 1989 when Emma was a toddler and in subsequent trips we’d taken tents, our next child, James, and having two kids meant budgeting so we camped in the wilderness parks, canoe’d lonely and alligator infested creeks and out run rednecks (see –  https://kevollier.com/2012/08/15/india-the-next-adventure-is-on/ ).

Emma left home, due to her age, not to our griswoldian near death experiences, and James was all grown up, and it just worked out that we could have one last trip as a family before the additions of spouses and grand-children and so we thought let’s go back to Florida and do adult things rather than queue at theme parks for a week, so we hired a house on an average Orlando estate.

The house was a smidge smaller than Longleat and had its own indoor-ish pool and a walk in fridge with a full-sized billiards table in the soda section. The en-suite bathroom in the fourth bedroom was slightly larger than our entire England home and garden. The garage, or should I say hanger, could have held concerts. You had to get a cab to the mailbox. I assumed that every house has a huge ‘H” painted on its roof – and this is where the working classes live.

Kev Ollier's 66 Ford Mustang

The Mustang of my youth!

At Orlando airport arrivals I accepted that ‘when in Rome do what the Romans do’ and so quickly became a climate change denier and upgraded our hire car from the average Mondeo sized model to a brand new Dodge Charger, and for only an extra $20 a day. It would have been a crime not to. I once owned a 66 Mustang and once you’ve felt the throb of a V8 under your buttocks, it’s difficult to resist another. A washing machine on full spin just doesn’t cut it.  So we throbbed around Florida. We went over to Tampa and then down to Miami and Miami beach for a few days, taking in the Everglades and one of those air boat rides where the noise travelled through my ears and made my inner nostrils vibrate for a week afterwards. I’m just thankful I wore ear plugs. We did Planet Hollywood and movies and bars and beaches and shops and restaurants and lots of Denny’s and basically had a wonderful time with nothing even close to a griswold moment.

My beautiful picture

The Dodge Charger

And then the final day arrived and I succumbed to pressure and said , ‘ok, we’ll go to the Florida Mall’. The thing with a mall in the US is that if you’ve been to Cribbs Causeway or to the Arndale or Meadowbank etc, then you’ve been to a mall. You could be anywhere with the possible exception that everyone in America seems to wear white training shoes. We even played a game of only staring at passing feet to see if we could spot anything different and we did come across two people wearing scuffed but none white trainers and another two wearing flip-flops who all happened to be English, another guy wearing sandals with socks (??) who was German and one bare footed guy selling a Bhagavad Gita but everyone else had the Stepford standard issue.

On the way into the mall, I spotted a bookshop and promised myself to drop in on our way out – which was about two hours later.

The four of us all smoked at that time and the three others needed their fix and so they wandered off to the outside and to the car to roll a cigarette whilst I promised to join them after a browse amongst the books. It being a mall meant the bookshop was of the WH Smith type and after about ten minutes I was done – and putting my hands in my pocket discovered the car keys and decided I ought to get a move on. My son met me asking me to hurry up as I hadn’t given them the keys and they ‘were stood about like lemons’.  As we exited, we heard various sirens and I commented that although inside the mall you could have been anywhere, outside it was the sound of America. I opened the car, jumped in, rolled my own ciggie and put it in my mouth about to light it when a siren wailed right behind the car and a voice in a megaphone shouted, ‘put your hands up’.

The first thing I did was dive into the foot well to search for my camera as I wanted a real life hold up on film but I couldn’t find it and the police guy was insisting that the people he was shouting at put their hands up. When I turned to see where the action was, I quickly noticed that my wife, who was sat in the passenger seat, had her hands up to the car roof and behind her a cop stood, resting on the roof of the adjacent car, aiming a gun straight at her head. I looked into the back and couldn’t help notice that both the kids had their hands up too and they also had their very own policeman with a gun pointing at them through the back window. I was then startled when a loud voice to my left told me, in no uncertain terms, to ‘GET YOUR HANDS UP’ and as I looked  through my open window and was met, only eighteen inches from my face and pointing at my forehead, by a barrel of a gun with a copper firmly attached. My instinctual response was ‘are you serious?’ A fourth cop was talking into a radio, my cop reached in and took the roll up from my mouth and asked me what was in it, another asked if we were English and then suddenly it was all loudly called off and guns were raised skywards in synchronicity and apologies reined down upon us. I was just starting to get what had  happened. Emma shouted, ‘I don’t appreciate having a gun in my face thank you very much’ and I told her to shut up. But we wanted an explanation all the same.

My cop smiled and said, ‘you were smoking in a rental’ and followed that with, ‘I’m just kidding’.  Oh, how I laughed.  Another explained that the mall CCTV spotted ‘suspicious behaviour’ around the car, and it was assumed that we were either terrorists or trying to steal the best car in the car park. Further symbiotic investigation  revealed that when the other three had gone back to the car and then realised that they hadn’t got the keys, they tried each door and the boot (trunk) for entry but to no avail, then when they’d rolled their ciggies, the kids had a sibling quarrel and the lighter was dropped and skidded under the car where they both tried to retrieve it.  James then ran to he mall to meet me and we both alighted from the building heading back to the car. None of this surprised me. It all seemed very inevitable and all I could say to the withdrawing, ‘you have a nice day now’ police officers was, ‘well, you certainly don’t get this at Tesco’

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Yeehaws and Alligators

14359312-alligator-closeup-in-wild-in-gator-park-in-miami-florida
We’ve never really been the package tour types, though we have done a few and they’ve mostly been good delivering exactly what one would expect. But even when the kids were small we did some wonderful travelling and when you do things independently, things occur that glossy brochures never prepare you for and I have to admit we’ve been lucky or blessed to have got through quite a few close calls.
The list that springs to mind –
We once drove from New York to the Florida Keys and whilst on the back roads of South Carolina we managed to gain the attention of some drunken, toothless, brace wearing and no doubt armed yeehaas in a pick up truck who followed us for over 20 miles on a desolate road and they had made it quite clear by their drawling gestures that they’d like to have their way with the wife and daughter and possibly me too. All the time I was driving, with, I might add, the petrol gauge pointing at E, I was designing a plan of action that my mind kept insisting would involve banjos and shoving. And the rest of the family were not too comfortable and giving me constant advice on how I should drive. I was already doing 90 and the boys were keeping right up just 6 feet shy of the back seat.
They did pull off. I think it was me giving them by best Burt Reynolds scowl in the rear view.  Either that or they were reaching the boundary of their electronic tag.

Then there was the alligator incident.
We’d hired a canoe in a wilderness in Florida ( a different year) where one paddles along a spring fed river until you come to the first spot where you can be picked up (a road bridge over the river) which was four hours downstream. The river was crystal clear, only approx 20 feet wide at its widest and only 4 feet deep, very winding and strewn with overhanging trees that have to be navigated around. I used the word ‘navigate’ as if we were respected in the canoeist community for our daring do. We are not. A better and more honest sentence would be, overhanging trees that will be smashed into, get jammed stuck on that tear your skin as you continue to wing it. This was the first time we’d ever canoed by the way but we weren’t worried about being humiliated because we were the only ones doing it.  We were totally on our own.  Alone.


However, after a good hour, none of us were talking to each other and we’d got into a nice rhythm with only the occasional straight on into the bank when the river took a bend, which luckily for us novices was only about every 10 yards. Ali was in the front, me at the back all Apache like and the kids in the middle, one behind the other, but we were trundling along nicely and hadn’t crashed for a good 15 minutes.  It was then that I spotted, about 30 yards ahead, a rather large alligator, about the same length as the canoe, slip off the bank into the water. I thought ‘Oh My God’ – (had it been recently I would have probably just thought OMG) – but quickly decided that I wouldn’t say anything to the others, I’ll just keep paddling whilst keeping an eye on it, at which point Ali did a full 180 degree turn in her seat showing a face that would scare a ghost and said, ‘did you see that massive crocodile just go into the river?’. This was the moment that the kids made loud noises and the boat rocked and we careered into a sand bank – approximately exactly where the Gator had gone in. And we were stuck rigid. No amount of paddles pushing into the bank would release us. By this time the kids were hysterical and I don’t mean they were doing their best comedy routines. So a decision was taken that somebody would have to jump out of the canoe and pull it off. Yes of course it was me. I gave my daughter Emma my paddle and said, ‘if the alligator comes you have to hit it on the head as hard as you can or daddy will die’.

At this moment I became totally alive. I even recalled the Zen story of the man being chased by a vicious tiger (are there other sorts?)  – He ran but soon came to the edge of a high cliff. Desperate to save himself, he climbed down a vine and dangled over the fatal precipice. As he hung there, two mice appeared from a hole in the cliff and began gnawing on the vine. Suddenly, he noticed on the vine a plump wild strawberry. He plucked it and popped it in his mouth. It was incredibly delicious. I jumped out of that canoe as if in a dream, wrenched it clear and jumped back in like a gymnast all the time assuming that I was about to go the way of Captain Hook.  Suffice to say, he must have eaten and thought the English underfed as that one glimpse was all we had.

Then there’s the family being held up by four cops at gun point and at point blank range in the US incident –  and there’s the hashish incident in Morocco and the Wild Boar encounter and the Amsterdam incident – but they’re other future blogs.