Ocala’s Top 10 Stories: The Year of Better, We Promise — 2021 — was a mixture of not-so-much and sweet surprises

[Artwork by David Vallejo]
I was in the school car line on that January day when the U.S. Capitol was breached — smashed and shattered and violated — by patriots practicing patriotism by beating bloodied American police officers with flag poles attached to American flags obscenely desecrated by a surge to upend democracy and hang history’s most conservative vice president.

A mouthful, yes.

To be sure, this is an odd way to start a light-hearted year-end review of 2021 (as assigned to me by my patient editors). It was hard to find a smile in 2020 and, six days into a year that promised at least some promise, our collective sack of smiles was already raided.

Two months later, my sweet wife Amy was diagnosed with cancer. Again. Four months into this Year of Better, We Promise, Amy had the first of two surgeries in 2021 and the third of four surgeries in three years.

Soon thereafter, though, the tide turned for the Schlenkers. Our youngest daughter earned her driver’s license, which means — sing it with me, parents — NO MORE STEAMING-HOT CAR LINE! This was a small chunk of happy with big implications.

So, I did smile in 2021. Amy is clear of cancer and doing great. We thank her doctors, our family and the cast of “Schitt’s Creek” for her progress.

But health scares put things into perspective and this made us focus more on the positive. That said, I offer my Top 10 stories of 2021.

  1. World Equestrian Center

I spent more than 25 years covering Marion County news. And the biggest news story was, by far, Six Flags Over Florida breaking ground in Ocala. A game-changer. Jobs and traffic and fun – oh my! Problem was: It was not true. Bigfoot had more credibility.

I note this because 2021 proved Ocala does not need no stinkin’ Six Flags. We now have the World Equestrian Center (WEC) and it is, indeed, a game-changer. Clocking in at nearly 400 acres, WEC hosts world-class equestrian competitions. There is live entertainment, a lavish hotel, restaurants, shops, ice cream, a Christmas Winter Wonderland and, of course, horses everywhere. WEC truly feels like a big-ole honking, stay-for-the-day park. Simply: It is a destination. And: It is real.

  1. Growth

In the time it took to write this clause, another development with impressive adjectives likely found its way onto a government agenda. Could be townhomes. Could be mansions. Could be quadraplexes. Could be an apartment complex the size of Zuber.

This has been a year of substantial growth in Marion County, with local politicians approving and pondering dozens of housing developments. Along State Road 200 alone, new projects introduced in 2021 encompass 25,000 homes and 2,000 multi-family units.

There’s Copper Leaf, Oak Hammock Preserve, Long Leaf Park, Rollings Hills, Cottages of Ocala and, according to well-founded rumors, Six Flags Over Quail Run.

  1. City election

Ocala City Council and mayoral elections got down and dirty in 2021. Embarrassingly so, at times. But I vowed to stay positive, so I am happy to report print is not dead! And by print, I mean the printed campaign fliers that choked my mailbox every day.

I tried to keep all the direct mailers to track what cloaks worked discreetly for what daggers, but the pile became a fire hazard. Before those mailers were tossed, I read the words “corruption,” a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and — RUN FOR THE HILLS! — “liberal.”

Ending on a positive note: The election is over. Red Scare defeated. The commies are no longer under your bed, Timmy.

  1. TikTok bathroom vandals

Remember the good ole days when school bathrooms were used as student smoking lounges and occasional swirlies? Well, the cools kids of 2021 upped the ante with the TikTok # DeviousLicks Challenge.

Here’s how it worked: Leave class for the bathroom. Attack said bathroom. Smash that sink. Rip out that urinal. Obliterate that soap dispenser.

Most important: Be sure to film yourself performing these crimes. Don’t forget to post the video, too, so authorities can find you and access evidence easily. This was a national trend; locally, at least nine students were arrested.

Why? Good question. It’s 2021.

  1. Supply-chain issues

The pandemic mucked up the global supply chain, affecting everything from liquor and Christmas trees to toilet paper and fruity Cheerio’s.

Then, on Dec. 5, 2021, my wife and I emerged from isolation to celebrate our 29th anniversary. At 6:30 p.m. in downtown Ocala, a restaurant hostess looked at us and said, “I’m sorry. We are out of food. But the bar is still open.”

It’s 2021.

  1. City Council gets tough on masks

After months of passionate debate over face coverings, the Ocala City Council manned up in March and unanimously churned out a no-nonsense recommendation encouraging people to wear face coverings indoors.

Violators will be prosecuted to the full extent of the non-enforceable recommendation.

  1. Fun returns

Concerts, plays, art festivals, parades and coach firings returned in 2021. I attended Light Up Ocala and smiled uncontrollably. I did not attend the Ocala Christmas Parade because I did not put out my lawn chairs in 2020. Snooze you lose. Just like old times.

  1. Fire fee thing

In October, a judge ordered the City of Ocala to refund about $80 million in a class-action suit that challenged fees added to Ocala Electric Utility bills for fire services. I am told this is a big deal.

Essentially, the judge ruled Ocala’s fire service fee was an unconstitutional tax

Amid days of ridiculous mask debates — “mask mandates hide your smiles” —I sincerely paid little attention to this chunk of news. I think there is a letter in our “I’ll-get-to-it-later” mail basket that mentions it. But I do know any time the words “fee,” “refund” and “million” surface in our mailbox, it is important civic news that merits placement in a Longaberger mail-stash basket and not random-counter-space placement.

No matter. I am anxious for my $80 million refund.

  1. Publix makes large-scale announcement

Few things in life are as reliable and constant as the big, clunky Toledo brand scales at Publix. Currently, they have me at 151 pounds rather than the stupid 160 at my doctor’s office. More importantly, those scales take me back to the early 1980s when my mother would step on them every week to gasp — publicly — at a result influenced more by my stealthy foot than the actual weight of my mother.

Tradition.

Publix announced in December that the iconic scales at each store’s front entrance will go away. “The manufacturer ceased production in 2015, meaning that one day — although our wonderful repair shop keeps our remaining machines in great shape — the last Publix scale will retire,” a recent Publix post stated.

The scales have been a fixture at Publix for 81 years. But in 2021, as vaccines turn into boosters that turn into politics, the imminent removal of such a simple staple is huge. Agitating my mother 40 years ago with a simple toe on a supermarket scale feels like a value worth a fight.

Yet we are too exhausted to fight. In an age of supply-chain issues and ballsy mask “recommendations,” the sadness over simple things is poetic and significant. Give us our old-school scales, you disruptor, you liar, you Year of Better, We Promise.

  1. We have a puppy

His name is Rigby Floyd, and he is a Golden Doodle named for the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and the bass player for the Muppet’s Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem band. He arrived at our home months after the death of Abbey Tubesox, the corgi who was a constant in a life of pandemics and insurrections and illness.

Rigby Floyd is the ultimate kiss-off to the Year of Better, We Promise. Screw you, cancer. Screw you, insurrectionists. Screw you, gas prices and politics and masks and big lies and teens who smash urinals on social media. The Schlenkers got a puppy in 2021 and that is profound.

Now we stare down the barrel of 2022. Perhaps the world will settle. Perhaps Ocala will share an awkward group hug in between dressage at the WEC, the end of random urinal destruction and the return to common sense.

I simply know this: It is nearly 2022. We have a puppy. Life has returned to our beloved Ocala. And, apparently, the city owes us $80 million.

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