A fight to the finish
Never one to give up, Citrus County crusader Ansel Briggs takes on his most personal cause: cancer.
By ELENA LESLEY
Published September 25, 2006
HOMOSASSA - In a county of crew-cut veterans, wild-haired, moccasin-clad Ansel Briggs stands out like an atheist at a prayer meeting.
A crusader, gadfly and jack-of-all-trades, he doesn't bow to any rules - except those of the ancient Toltec faith - and takes on missions that others wouldn't touch. Some see him as a hero, others as Citrus County's version of Don Quixote, forever tilting at windmills.
Briggs, 67, gives legal and medical advice despite his lack of specialized degrees. He battles government, stripping pretense from the most convoluted bureaucracies.
"There's a joke in town: (Call) 1-800-ANSEL," said his wife, Harriett Garrison. "Even for something like opening a can."
But Briggs has cut back on his advocacy work recently. In July doctors told him cancer had spread through his neck and lungs. They didn't know how much time he had left.
Briggs hasn't given up. He immediately dived into an aggressive treatment regimen: radiation five days a week and chemotherapy weekly.
"I have too many things that I need to do," he said.
Always on alert
Briggs has never lacked for causes.
He has sought reforms to the Baker Act, saved a historic school building from the wrecking ball, and campaigned three times - unsuccessfully - to become superintendent of schools.
But most of Briggs' good deeds were done in private, like building new front steps for a widow. "I'm just an ombudsman," he said. "Everyone needs an ombudsman, an advocate."
Briggs isn't sure how he ended up as an alderman-cum-rabble rouser.
"I don't have a clue sometimes as to why I was chosen to do certain things," he said. "Battles just showed up."
Looking for freedom
The wariness of authority surfaced early on, and for good reason. "There was a time when the system tried to eat me," he said.
Briggs was born in Detroit but grew up in Maine, where his mom led bear and moose hunts.
He wandered the mountains in bib overalls, a fold-up tin can in his pocket so he could drink from freshwater streams.
"I was a regular Huckleberry Finn," Briggs joked.
But when his family moved back to Detroit, Briggs fled what had become a turbulent home life, hatching a plan to make his way through Canada and back to the Maine mountains.
He set out but was caught. After several similar stunts, his mom sent the 12-year-old to a state-run reform school.
Doctors diagnosed Briggs as a sociopath.
"They tried to break my spirit," he said. "It didn't work."
Giving aid and comfort
A fractured youth behind him, Briggs set out for Milwaukee in his early 20s, looking for steady work. He found a calling.
Paying the bills with odd jobs, he counselled the homeless and talked kids down from bad acid trips.
By the time he came to Citrus County in the late 1970s, he suffered from activism fatigue. It was time to go fishing, he decided, and he did, catching mullet, smoking it, and hauling a cooler with the salty snack around to local bars.
But Briggs wasn't destined for retirement.
He started a blueberry farm in Homosassa and began sermonizing to whomever would listen.
Like all dynamic personalities, he developed a following.
"People would come to me and I couldn't turn them down," he said. "I'd either fight for them or show them how."
Advocating for children
Briggs became the county's consummate Good Samaritan.
When boys vandalized his property in 1995, he committed himself to helping troubled youth. He, too, had been pegged as an "incorrigible child."
Though the boys' school told him not to interfere, Briggs got parental permission to examine their records - and was shocked by what he found.
"One was in seventh grade, but reading at a third-grade level," he said. "I thought, God, these kids have been in trouble since they were little, and there's been no intervention."
He began advocating for new alternative schools and waged a campaign against using a technique called "time out" when he found a tiny cubicle in an old Citrus school designated for the purpose.
It eerily resembled one of the more traumatic elements of his time at reform school.
"It was a hold, just like the ones they have in adult prisons," he said. "I had to sleep on a wooden plank."
But still, the young Briggs refused to obey school policies.
"They punished me because I wouldn't become a number," he said. "But I was determined that I was a good kid."
Offers of encouragement
One morning earlier this month, the regulars gathered in front of Kim's Cafe in Homosassa. They've been meeting for nearly a decade now for breakfast, which Garrison translates as "cigarettes and coffee."
For the first time in weeks, Briggs was back.
The warrior settled into a folding chair, pretending to sip coffee he couldn't really swallow.
"You're gonna beat this," his friends told him.
Briggs nodded reluctantly, drawing breaths through an oxygen tube. He's wasn't going to give them false hope.
So he leveled with them, sharing his health struggles and teaching them how to advocate for themselves if they're ever in a similar position.
Maybe at a time when he's not there.
Since he got his diagnosis, Briggs has constantly battled insurance companies and doctors.
He's also urged his male friends to closely monitor their health; he thinks too many men ignore early warning signs of illness.
"I want men to talk about cancer the way women do," he said.
Time and substance
Keeping with his belief in openness, Briggs chose Dr. Carlene Wilson because of her straightforward manner.
"You've got to fight," Wilson announced last week as she entered Briggs' hospital room. After several nights of constant hacking, he had checked into Seven Rivers Regional Medical Center to stabilize his breathing.
"At this stage of the game," the doctor said, "it's all in the head."
How much time can the treatment buy? Briggs wanted to know. He needs five years, maybe 10, to finish all his crusades.
Wilson shook her head.
"You need to finish things now," she said. "How much time you have left is between you and the Lord."
She checked his lungs, throat and said she would be back tomorrow.
The room was quiet.
"So I guess the light at the end of the tunnel is a train," he murmured.
Garrison stroked his face.
"But we don't know how fast it's coming," she said.