In 1942, over 100,000 acres of scrubby Florida swampland called Avon Park was an Army Air Corps bombing range, housing, among other things, B-17s. At the height of its wartime use, the Park was home to a fake railroad, a mock town, and a number of other fabricated targets, to acclimate the bombers to the realities of war.
At the close of WWII, Avon Park went inactive, and was handed over to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. It now houses a museum and park, but in the 1950’s, you could apply to a lottery, in the hopes of winning a two or three day pass to hunt in Avon Park. Around 1956, my granddad did, and won a permit for a hunting party of six. I can’t imagine the animals of Avon Park were easily hunted, having spent years zig-zagging actual bombs, but nevertheless, the hunting party assembled with great excitement.
My grandad was a car dealer, and the first guy to bring Jeeps into Florida; his marketing strategy was to trespass with a Jeep into an citrus grove and wait to be confronted by the indignant grove owner, to whom he would then point out the ease of access made possible by the rugged Jeep. (He would later, famously, also break out of a rehabilitation hospital in a motorized Rascal scooter; see The Bolters.)
For this hunt, he borrowed a Willy wagon from his car lot, and behind it, towed a decommissioned WWII Jeep, which the hunting party would use as an overland vehicle once inside the park. Loaded down with six men, guns, gear, ammo, provisions, and towing another vehicle, the station wagon wouldn’t go over 40 mph, which made the fifty mile trek on the four-lane road to Avon Park very slow.
As the party neared the hunting area, their progress was further delayed by the car in front of them, which hit a pig.
Despite the fact that the hunting party was packed into the wagon like animals themselves, they voted unanimously to stop and pick up the hit pig. This was a practical decision: they would arrive late to the hunting site, and needed to eat; here was dinner, lying in the median. Hallelujah and pass the barbecue sauce! But since there was no room for poor smashed Porky in the wagon, they lashed him onto the tow bar connecting the wagon to the Jeep, and thusly – like a caravan bearing a sacrifice – journeyed down the road.
At the entrance to Avon Park, there was a security checkpoint run by the Air Force. Knowing this, and not wanting to be accused of hunting on their way in, which would have violated the terms of the lottery, my granddad stopped the wagon a few miles short of the gate. The six men tumbled out of the wagon to disconnect the tow bar, release the Jeep, and stash the pig out of sight of the guards.
But to everyone’s dismay, the pig was no longer recognizable as such: the exhaust from the station wagon had cooked poor Porky, who was now blown up like a Macy’s Day balloon, ready to burst!
The clock was ticking as the men gathered round and weighed their options. They had to check in to the hunting preserve before a certain hour of the evening, and they had to get rid of the pig, which was inedible now, too.
An executive decision was made: three of the men (including my teenaged father) would take the now-disconnected Jeep and backtrack to the bridge they’d recently crossed, the aptly named “Fisheating Creek.” After disposing of the bloated pig there, they’d rejoin the group, who would have made it past the guards, set up camp inside Avon Park, and – hopefully -scrounged up something less carcinogenic for dinner.
Porky (He of Blessed Memory) was laid on a tarp in the back of the WWII Jeep, and the parties split up. When the three men arrived at Fisheating Creek, the driver cut off the Jeep’s headlights, and coasted onto the bridge. With a great deal of muted cussing and struggle, my dad and his cousin wrestled the bloody pig carcass out of the Jeep and onto the pavement while the driver sat with his hand on the key, ready to fire up the Jeep and cut out of there as soon as the job was done. On the count of three, the two men strained and grunted, lifting poor Porky up and swinging him through the air, where he sailed up and over the railing of the bridge.
In the creek below, a couple of locals, unbeknownst to the guys on the bridge, were happily fishing. Porky, aloft and in-flight, must have been a glorious sight; his porcine bulk sailing through the twilight like a miniature Flying Fortress. However, as he caught the edge of the fishing boat, Porky exploded, showering the fishermen with blood and entrails before sinking to the bottom of the creek.
Up above, the Jeep roared to life, the headlights flickered on, and the men, oblivious to the carnage below, made their way to the hunting camp, where they enjoyed a dinner of fire-warmed beans before turning in for the night.
The next day, after a morning and afternoon of hunting, the men returned to camp, where a Sheriff’s Deputy was waiting with an odd question: was anyone missing from the hunting party? No, they replied, and the deputy moved on.
Sunday afternoon, the hunting party packed up, re-loaded the wagon, put the tow bar on and hitched up the Jeep, and headed out of Avon Park. As they crossed Fisheating Creek, their progress was slowed: the Sheriff’s department was dragging the creek bottom.
As speculation within the station wagon about the poor hunter who’d gone missing intensified, my granddad got increasingly quiet. When the hunting party arrived home, he left the other guys to unload the Jeeps, and went inside to phone his neighbor and good friend, Sheriff Parrish. He told the sheriff that he strongly suspected he knew whose body had been dumped in Fisheatin’ Creek.
The Sheriff laughed heartily for ten minutes straight, then decided to kick things up another notch. Early the next morning, he put my granddad and another member of the hunting party in the back of his cruiser, and drove downtown to the pawn shop owned by Lynn, the man who’d been driving the Jeep when my dad and his cousin heaved Porky off the bridge. Lights flashing on the cruiser, granddad and his buddy stood out front of the store with their hands behind their backs, as if they were cuffed. When the owner of the pawn shop came out to see what was happening, granddad yelled, “Run, Lynn! They got us for murder!”
And run, Lynn did — in the front door of his pawn shop and straight down the middle aisle to the back exit, where, in his panic, he forgot to disengage the steel bar on his emergency exit, and knocked himself out cold.
It’s hard to say who got the worst of the Avon Park Murder, Lynn or Porky. Either way, mystery solved!