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Living with divorce

The tradeoff

Every Friday afternoon, Yeehaw Junction is the scene of a poignant ritual in which parents and children navigate the logistics of family life after a breakup.

By BILL DURYEA
Published September 12, 2004

photo
[Times photos: Bob Croslin]
Sherry Hickman chats with her ex-husband, Earl Poppell, as sons Christian Poppell, 18, left, and Marten Poppell, 14, wait to leave June 18 for a Father’s Day weekend visit with their dad in Plant City. Hickman, who lives with the boys in Vero Beach, meets Poppell at the BP station in Yeehaw Junction to exchange them for visits.

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Living With Divorce is an occasional series about the ways in which divorce echoes in people's lives long after the final decree.

Sherry L. Hickman and Earl J. Poppell divorced four years ago, one of the 6,000 or so couples who ended a marriage in Hillsborough County that year. Their two sons were 10 and 14 at the time. As with the majority of divorces, the boys remained with their mother.

For a brief time, Sherry and Earl continued to live in Plant City. Then Earl suggested that his ex-wife move back to the east coast of Florida where she had family. Relocating isn't that uncommon; an estimated two-fifths of women move within a year of the divorce.

The dissolution agreement that gave Sherry "primary residential care" (they don't call it custody anymore), also gave Earl the right to "reasonable and liberal visitation." There had been no dispute over this; Earl had been married before and he and Sherry had seen the problems that ensued from a decree with too many specifics.

But the agreement did make one thing very clear:

"The husband shall pick up the children at the wife's residence for visitation and shall deliver the children to the wife's residence at the conclusion of his visitation."

That wasn't a problem when Sherry and the boys were still living in the Walden Lake subdivision and Earl's bachelor digs were five minutes away. But once Sherry moved to Vero Beach, two hours across the state, all of a sudden "door-to-door seemed a bit much," Sherry says.

They agreed they would meet each other somewhere in the middle, at a scruffy crossroads named Yeehaw Junction.

At first, Earl and Sherry thought they were the only divorced couple who had to transfer their sons in a dreary, sun-smacked parking lot.

"It was a long time before I noticed how many other families were doing the same thing," Sherry says. Then, as if her eyes had refocused, she began to notice "kids kissing mom or dad goodbye. They're carrying pillows and blankets, Scooby-Doo suitcases.

"There's a whole culture. It's sad. It's the crossroads of America, the swapping point for these kids."

Turns out Sherry and Earl weren't so unusual in that respect either.

* * *

Yeehaw Junction is a town that exists to make the journey to somewhere else a little easier.

It was once a stop for cattle drives, complete with a bordello upstairs at the Desert Inn. Now citrus trucks barrel through on State Road 60, virtually your only choice of roads if you're heading east from Tampa. They diesel down before turning onto Florida's Turnpike, which runs across the midriff of the state like a bandolier of asphalt.

Nobody wants to stay overnight in Yeehaw anymore.

It's a momentary layover, a place to scrub lovebugs from the windshield, to smooth the creases from your lap. It's a couple of gas stations, a BP/Stuckey's and a Pilot, whose parking lots fill and empty, day and night, with an almost tidal predictability. Saturday mornings it's bass boats on trailers bound for tournaments on Lake Kissimmee. Evenings, farmhands pile out of spring-shot Cavaliers and file quietly to the beer cooler.

Come Friday afternoon, an hour or so after school lets out, you start to see a routine that Sherry Hickman calls the "divorcee dropoff." It plays out with only minor variations over the course of the weekend, reaching another crescendo late Sunday afternoon. It looks something like this:

A man in a brand-new SUV pulls into a spot off to the side of the lot. He doesn't pump any gas, doesn't come inside for a Coke. He sits, engine fan humming.

Ten minutes later a station wagon pulls alongside.

The man pops the rear hatch and climbs out of the SUV, exhaling audibly.

An adolescent boy emerges from the station wagon, dangling a skateboard in his hand. He stashes the board and a small suitcase in the back of the SUV, hops into the front passenger seat and waits.

As the man closes the hatch, he chats with the woman from the station wagon. Quick, cordial, no contact.

The man gets back into the driver's seat and the woman opens the passenger door to kiss the boy.

The SUV pulls out and turns left. The wagon heads right.

This sad ballet is one of the many rituals of life after divorce.

For parents, splitting up usually means a life of car rides to neutral ground: a Barnes & Noble, a McDonald's playground, a convenience store, a sheriff's substation.

It's a life of calling, arranging, driving, waiting, calling, apologizing, waiting, driving. It's a series of accommodations, more or less civil, made to perpetuate lives lived apart but bound inextricably by blood and obligation and love.

All the while, belted into the backseat is the 12-year-old with the portable GameBoy, the 5-year-old with her feet propped on a Little Mermaid suitcase. They are commuters before their time. Brittany, Alicia, Marten, Christian, Anthony, Lexi, Stephanie, Frankie, John, reading, guessing, singing, bobbing, staring, whining, mumbling, fighting, napping, beeping, slurping, fidgeting, sighing.

Getting older.

One car ride at a time.

* * *

On the Friday afternoon of Father's Day weekend, Marten and Christian Poppell walk out of their mom's house in Vero Beach cradling small stacks of surfing magazines and clothes.

The surf boards are in the garage. Their board shorts are in the wash. They are literally turning their backs to the beach, one and half blocks away, for a chance to spend some time with their father.

The boys are lean and handsome, with long wavy blond hair and the beginnings of beards. Marten, 14, is the family's "creative moneymaker," always figuring the cost of something and an angle to pay for it, says his father. Christian turned 18 right around the time he graduated high school. He can weld a motorcycle frame or silkscreen a T-shirt; how these talents might translate into a career, neither of his parents is sure.

On this afternoon, Sherry is the last out of the house, holding only her purse and a letter she received that morning from the White House.

The boys get their thick blond hair from her. She's direct and funny, a biologist and college professor who sees the world as it is, but also as she thinks it ought to be. In that spirit, she wrote a book for teenagers called Wow! I Don't Wanna Get That! - A Guide to Sexually Transmitted Diseases. She had sent a copy to first lady Laura Bush, hence the letter.

Smudgy black rain clouds rake the horizon like brushes in a carwash as the Volvo station wagon backs out of the driveway at 3:13 p.m. At that moment, Earl is about 15 minutes from arriving in Yeehaw Junction. Sherry and the boys are still 40 minutes away.

"Do we have time to go to Steak n Shake to get a milkshake?" Marten asks from the back seat.

"No, Dad's shorts are already in a knot because I'm late," Sherry says. "Read the letter, Christian."

Christian reads aloud:

". . . Mrs. Bush believes that through our combined efforts we can help shape America's future . . ."

"She doesn't want me to come to Washington?" Sherry asks, mock serious.

Moments later Marten asks: "What am I going to do for Dad's Father's Day?"

"What did you want to do?" Sherry asks.

"I wanted to get him a hat."

"At Inner Rhythm?" she says, referring to a surf shop in Vero.

"Yeah."

Sherry offers to pick it up for him over the weekend and deliver it to Yeehaw on Sunday when they meet again. "Mesh or solid?"

"Get him a solid one," Marten says.

"What about you, cricket?" she says, turning to Christian.

"I don't know."

How many times has she made this trip?

"Too. As in too many," Sherry says, beginning to calculate. "Let's see. Four years times 26. What's that? 104. Then you've got to double that. You don't just drop them off. You've got to pick them up, too."

She does not begrudge Earl this time with the boys, though in the beginning the thought of parting with them filled her with anxiety.

"At first I really resented it," she says. "I'd feel sad when I dropped kids off. But then I got to appreciate the solitude of the drive going back. To me it's still a little bit sad when they go over there."

* * *

They pull into the BP station at 4:05. The lot is full, both sides. It seems the whole divorced-with-children world is vying for a parking spot.

Earl has had to pull his Chevy Blazer over near the grassy verge closest to the highway. Sherry stops at the pumps.

While Marten fills the tank, Christian retrieves his books and clothes from the back of the Volvo. As Christian approaches the Blazer, Earl's Jack Russell terrier, Buster, pokes his nose out the back window.

"Want anything?" Sherry asks Earl, as Marten heads inside to buy a drink.

"No, I'm fine."

Sherry picks up Buster and chats with Earl about the letter from the White House. Marten returns with drinks, a bottled Starbucks vanilla coffee for his mom and water for himself.

4:15. The family, reassembled temporarily, is standing around, just chatting. From the outside they look like any family pausing on its way to visit relatives or Disney.

Sherry asks Earl if he wants to use the cabin she has at Blue Cypress Lake - take the boys, do some fishing. "You could go on Father's Day," she says.

"I want to, but I can't," he says.

As they're breaking apart, moving toward their separate cars, Earl points to a nearby pair of vehicles. "Look. Another changeout," he says.

At that moment a black Acura SUV is disgorging two teenage girls who climb immediately into a black Acura sedan parked just in front.

"Amazing," Earl says.

* * *

It happens again and again in the hours after Earl and his sons leave Yeehaw.

John Fioretti of Boca Raton gets his 14-year-old daughter, Stephanie, from his former wife, Yolanda Valenti of Valrico. Stephanie likes weekends with her father, but they do interrupt her active social life.

Lexi and Michael White, 13 and 12, will spend the weekend with their dad, Mike, who drove here from Tampa in his Ford F-150 pickup. Mike takes them to Busch Gardens a lot, and they say they are not the slightest bit tired of it. On Sunday, they'll meet mom Kristina Wood here for the drive back to Port St. Lucie.

David and Shana Watson of Tampa roll up in a small pickup full of kids, two of whom jump out to hug their dad, Luis Mendez of Boca Raton. This is a his, hers and theirs thing. Shana's former husband greets her new one with a big smile and a handshake.

Tracy Ambrose arrives from Gainesville to drop off her 11-year-old son, Anthony (backpack, bike, walkie-talkies), with her former brother-in-law Ronnie, who has come from Boca Raton. Anthony lives for these family visits.

"Even though this is a divorce, you still have family ties," Ronnie Ambrose says.

* * *

On the road to Plant City, Christian dives into a book on silk screening. His father looks over and asks the opener: "What's up with screen prints?"

When the answer does not invite a lengthy conversation, Earl's attention returns to the road. When they were younger and he was the primary source of their interests, Earl would use the drives to talk about what he had learned in a lifetime of observing the natural world.

He is the kind of person who notices, for example, that pine trees get shorter the closer you get to the Lake Wales ridge; the sandier soil stunts their growth, he says. He knows that a lack of potassium in the soil causes the brown tinge you see on almost every palm in Florida.

On occasion, Marten will still ask about the "weird Dr. Seuss things" he sees growing in the vast cattle pastures ("Thistles," Earl answers. "Member of the artichoke family.") or what the people are digging for in the roadside ditch ("Pontedera to sell to people for their ponds at home").

But as the boys have gotten older, Earl has found that, like all parents, he must work to stay abreast of their infatuations. He seems to accept this with quiet good humor, perhaps because he has older children from a previous marriage; he has seen this process play out before.

The subject of the weekend's activities comes up.

"Yard work," Earl says. The tomatoes need to come out; they're turning to soup.

"Why do you want to do yard work on Father's Day?" Marten asks.

"It's fun," Earl says.

"Fun?"

"It is for me."

Earl is playfully elbowing Christian in the arm.

"I thought it was your favorite," he says. "Did I mess that up?"

From the back seat, Marten asks if they're going to stop for some chicken wings at Jimmy's, another BP station 27 miles west of Yeehaw. They have all become connoisseurs of the fare available along this route, and the wings from Jimmy's are tops.

"I don't know," Earl says. Usually they make this pit stop coming the other way, when it arrives later in the 90-minute trip.

Near the Kissimmee lock: "Marten, what are you looking at?"

"West Marine catalog." Marten is into boats. Really into boats.

Phone book-sized, the catalog contains every imaginable accoutrement for a boat.

In Lake Wales: Earl points to a picture in Christian's book. "What's this right here? Is this an engraving?"

In Bartow: "Marten, what are you so engrossed in?"

"A whole bunch of stuff you can do to your boat."

"Are you spending real dollars or fake dollars?"

Just before 6 p.m., pulling into the driveway in Plant City:

Marten announces, "I flipped through 709 pages."

"Marty, why would you do such a thing?" Earl asks.

"It burns time."

* * *

When they were divorcing, Sherry and Earl sat down at the kitchen table and signed a piece of paper that bound them to "put the children first."

That idea was in Earl's mind when he proposed a move by Sherry that he knew would severely curtail his time with the boys. "It was very hard to have them move," he said. But a combination of factors - finding the best schools for the boys, Sherry's mother getting older - meant that Vero "would be better for the kids to finish growing up," Earl says.

And so began the twice-monthly meetings in Yeehaw Junction.

They didn't pick Yeehaw because it is precisely halfway (it's not), but because it seemed like a natural meeting place. They picked the BP/Stuckey's for its marginally more tolerable bathrooms. They've met at many different places along State Road 60, depending on who was more pressed for time. And some weekends, Sherry, who teaches at Hillsborough Community College on Saturdays, will ferry the boys the whole way, leaving Earl to bring them to Yeehaw on Sunday.

"It's really easy to do it poorly," Earl says, talking about the divorce and visitation. "Most of that comes from people who want to do things for spite or vindictiveness."

Cooperation is not the only reason divorced couples arrange to meet in places such as Yeehaw. More often it's because the couples don't get along.

Nancy Harris, a divorce lawyer in Tampa, estimates that 25 percent of divorces require some kind of neutral location dropoff. "Fifteen percent is because of bad behavior," she says. "The other 10 is because of distance."

When the parents are not well-behaved, sometimes a judge will order that the exchange be made at a sheriff's office. "There are substations all over (Hillsborough) county," says Judge Ralph Stoddard, who handles divorces filed at the Plant City courthouse. (He did not handle the Poppells' divorce.)

"They get into it quite often here at the desk," says Virginia Hathcox, a community service officer at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office District 2 headquarters on Falkenburg Road. "They want to drag us into their civil situation. They want us to say, "You're right and you're wrong.' "

Harris likes to work out all the details for visitation before the divorce is final.

"Any drive beyond 45 minutes gets to be old and should be shared," Harris says. "If it's young kids, we like them to pick out a McDonald's with a playground attached. If it's older kids, we suggest a Barnes & Noble where they can read if the other parent is delayed. We tell our parents, "Bring a book.' "

For Tom Ramus, waiting 20 minutes is nothing compared with the time he saves not having to drive all the way from Tampa to Jensen Beach to see his three daughters. After he and his wife separated this year, Ramus, 45, had driven back to Jensen Beach, near Stuart, every other weekend. He stayed at a friend's apartment.

"I was getting depressed," he says.

Then he proposed that his wife bring the girls to Yeehaw. "I was very pleased she wanted to do that," he says. Father's Day weekend was their first exchange (remember the pair of black Acuras?).

"It worked out really well," Ramus says. "My daughters and I talked and sang the whole way, whatever was on the radio. My 14-year-old worked on her scrapbook for junior high, and my 18-year-old watched a DVD."

It was new and still something of an adventure.

"If I'm going to do it, I'm going to make the best of it," Ramus says. "We have to build memories, right? It may not be the best circumstances, but it's something."

* * *

Usually, Earl and the boys do something car-related on the weekends: go to Desoto Speedway in Bradenton, for example. This time they had thought about going to a car show in Plant City, but a lightning strike had fried some of Earl's electrical systems and they had to patch things up. They did make some ribs, though, preparing them in a special drum cooker the three of them had designed and welded.

In some ways, the weekend was typical: no exotic plans, just time together doing the things a father does with his sons. And then at 2:30 p.m. sharp on Sunday afternoon, it's over and they are climbing back into Earl's Blazer for the ride back to Yeehaw.

Marten probably has another four years of these rides ahead of him. For Christian, they are nearly done. He is bound for college, or more likely a job. He missed a visit to his father in May because he flew on short notice to New Jersey to be with a girl he knows.

"He's going to come to see me less and less," Earl says. The boys may be growing weary of the commute ("I try not to pay attention too much so it goes by faster," Christian says), but Earl cherishes the time in their presence. He likes that he has a longer drive than Sherry. "The way I look at it, I get to spend a little more time with them on the ride home," he says, "and it's pretty darn worth it."

The drive, like the one on Friday, passes in relative quiet.

Christian naps, sleeping through the stop they usually make at Jimmy's for hot wings.

Marten is busy calculating the cost of filling up a tank on a 28-foot powerboat.

Earl calls attention to boats going by on trailers.

"Marty, look at this one. It's huge."

"That's another Hydrosport," Marten says.

Then, as if responding to an internal alarm clock, Marten looks up to see the Desert Inn on his left.

"Already here?" he says. It's 3:58, almost exactly 48 hours since they were last here.

Earl asks who is going to walk Buster as they pull into the BP parking lot.

"Christian," Marten says quickly.

"No," Christian replies.

"I already called it on you," Marten says.

While Earl is walking Buster, Marten presents him with his Father's Day gift, a silver Quiksilver ball cap. Earl puts it on immediately.

"I don't know what Quiksilver is," he says, as he hugs Marten around the shoulder.

He and Sherry confer briefly about the coming weekend.

"I won't be in until 8 or 9 Friday."

"Okay," Sherry says.

"Happy Father's Day," Sherry says as they separate again.

"Bye, Mr. Bones," Earl says to Marten.

"Bye, Pops."

Earl touches fingers with Christian through the glass of the passenger window.

* * *

From the car, Marten calls a friend in Vero.

"What's up?"

"Are the waves good?"

The call disconnects. Seconds later, the phone rings.

"I'm coming back from Plant City. I can almost see the McDonald's at the outlet mall. Once I get home I've just got to dump my stuff. I'll be there in about 30 minutes."

The call disconnects again. It rings.

"My phone's all messed up because I dropped it in the toilet."

"Are there any waves? Two to three or one to two?"

"Are there barrels, or all mushy?"

"We just got back from Tampa."

"It was all right."

"No. There's never waves over there. Like 6 inches."

They're in the driveway at 4:52 p.m.

"Mom, where did you say the baggies were?"

"In the garage," she says.

Marten is running down the street at 4:57.

"I'll be back before dark," he says.

Earl has not yet reached Bartow.

[Last modified September 9, 2004, 13:42:08]


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