This must be what it feels like to be an embedded reporter.
Okay, so Brandon isn't exactly Baghdad, and the six MacDill Air Force Base employees with whom the Lane Ranger is sharing a van pool aren't exactly the 101st Airborne.
Then again, we are driving into Tampa on the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway, which does, at the moment, resemble beautiful downtown Kandahar. That alone should provide enough war stories to get us through a six-pack at the VFW.
Commuter Choices Week in Florida is Oct. 6-11 (only three shopping days left!), and Bay Area Commuter Services is stumping for more residents to use pools.
The organization says the average Tampa Bay worker spends about 200 hours and $2,500 on daily commutes each year, and regional congestion costs residents about $450-million in lost time and wasted fuel.
The six pool sharks in Brandon's MacDill-bound van are doing their part. Each morning, up to eight officers and civilians meet before dawn for their daily drive to MacDill.
"It's an easy way to back and forth to work," said Master Sgt. Thomas Faircloth. "It saves money, it saves gas, it saves on the environment, and it gives me time to relax on the way into work."
There are about 16 van pools in operation in Hillsborough County, said BACS executive director Sandra Moody. Moody said it's not clear how many people car pool and van pool, but about 20 percent of Tampa Bay's work force commutes in ways other than driving alone.
The 16 vans are owned either by the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority or VPSI, a Michigan-based van pool-leasing company.
The MacDill van - a 1999 Dodge from VPSI - has put on about 28,000 miles since the pool began in 2001.
Financially, van pooling makes a lot of sense. You're not paying for gas or wear and tear on your own car, and you're eligible for up to a $100 federal tax credit each month to cover transportation expenses. If your monthly fee is under $100 - as is the case with the MacDill contingent - you essentially ride for free.
If you're not a morning person, the 5:45 a.m. pickup time is a toll in and of itself. But Faircloth says most of the folks in the MacDill group are punctual.
"Every once in a while, we'll be a little late getting going," said driver Michael Werp, a program manager on base. "But usually, it's no more than a couple of minutes."
"When we first started, the first month, I overslept," Werp said. "Everybody found that out quickly."
Werp once worked at an Air Force Base in Illinois where he said a number of people van pooled. It would be nice, he said, to see that at MacDill.
"I wish more people on the base would set up van pools," he said. "Getting on the base - with the extra security nowadays - the lines get pretty long."
You heard the man. It's time to van up. For more information on van pool options, contact Bay Area Commuter Services at 1-800-998-RIDE or www.tampabayrideshare.org
PLANT CITY may be a place where you can find some lovely natural phenomena - strawberries, hay bales, hoof-intensive mammals - but it's not exactly out in the middle of nowhere.
The word "City" in the name pretty much indicates there are at least a few comforts of modern life. After all, it's not "Plant Gulch" or "Plant Shanty Town."
But apparently, Plant City is home to a swamp. Police responded last month to a 1993 Chevy discovered off Interstate 4.
According to the crash report, the car "went down the embankment to a final rest over the ledge and in the swamp."
Plant City residents take note: It's not just a swamp, it's the swamp.
Peculiarly, the driver of the overturned swampmobile locked the doors, rolled up the windows and left the keys in the ignition. Police have no witnesses, and no idea when the crash occurred.
Actually, "Plant Swamp" doesn't sound so bad. Imagine the Everglades with strawberries.