The interesting thing about being a columnist is the assumption that you can become somewhat of an expert on just about any topic. You are supposed to know a little bit about a lot of things but not necessarily much about anything.
So I was more than a little surprised to become an “expert.” I didn’t have to take a test and it was a lot easier than I thought it would be.
In the beginning (of time, some might say) I had been with the sports department of the old Tampa Times evening newspaper for about three weeks when the managing editor told me there was going to be a tennis boom. He wanted me to cover it.
At the time I wasn’t sure how to keep score; but a month later I found myself up in the stands at the U.S. Open in New York City, writing columns as if I knew what was going on. I was now an expert. That’s how it works.
I’m not sure how I became an expert on monsters and things that go bump in the night, but it likely had something to do with the great skunk ape expedition.
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As you know, most states have their own monsters — usually some variation of the abominable snowman, also called the yeti. In this country, it is better known as Bigfoot. Every region has its own Bigfoot.
In Florida a creature known as the skunk ape began appearing in the ’70s. It was like Bigfoot except that it gave off a foul smell. You could understand the odor, seeing how it mostly was known to be down in the Everglades.
At any rate, this was our kind of story, and an expedition was formed that included our humor columnist, Charlie Robins; our artist, Lee Cable (we couldn’t spare a photographer); and the sportswriter, me.
After several days in the Everglades, we retreated to our base camp at the Holiday Inn in Fort Lauderdale, where we did indeed see some creatures in the motel’s lounge, but none worth writing home about.
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The expedition was enough to establish my credentials as a creature expert, and when Lizard Man began lurking in the South Carolina swamps, I was the man for the job.
That expertise took me to Area 51 — or at least as close as you could get by hiring a guy to drive you up to the sign that warned you would get shot if you went beyond that point — and to covering more than a few UFO and alien sightings.
When the paper needed a food expert, someone mentioned I’d won a chili dog-eating contest, and pretty soon I was writing restaurant reviews, looking for the best Cuban sandwich and even hosting my own chili contest. Shoot, they even sent me down to the ghost town of Terlingua, Texas, on the Mexican border to judge the world’s best chili.
Through the years, I became an expert on everything from movies to politics to education (I had to marry a teacher, of course, to become an education guru).
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My point, as I’m getting ready to write this column less frequently, is that you should be wary of “experts,” especially in these days of talking heads and social media outlets where you have no idea of the credibility of information you are getting.
Don’t take our word for it.
Check your sources; ask questions; challenge authorities.
I do, however, make the best chili anywhere.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Steve Otto’s column on Sunday will be his final offering as a full-time columnist following a remarkable 45-year run at what he calls “Mother Trib.” In the near future, Steve will transition into a freelance role in which he will write once or twice weekly.