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Brain drain sighting in Cocoa Beach

I pulled into the gas station as on any other day. In the searing heat of Cocoa Beach, Fla., my van's fuel gauge pointed to "E," warning me that I needed more juice to fuel my air-conditioning. Halkias-Telly

My mother, well into her 80s and roasting in the passenger seat, squirmed a bit when she realized she would have to spend the next several minutes disengaged from the AC. I laughed and told her to gut it out, handing her a week-old newspaper from back home with which to fan herself. I exited the van and headed to the pump.

Vacations make me look for the familiar. The locals told me that most snowbirds have all headed back north, so the area is relatively quiet. Nevertheless, I still seek out the distinctive license plates, a habit I picked up years ago while traveling.

But on this day, home found me.

"Hey, you from back home?"

I looked around. Two gas pumps away, a young man donning a Red Sox cap topped off his Jeep. Its faded bumper sticker, having lost a battle with constant sunlight, celebrated the New England Patriots' last Super Bowl victory.

His question seemed funny given my license plates, not the same as his, but still from one of the six New England states. I glanced back at Mom, and she rolled her eyes at me. So I got the pump going, and turned toward my newfound friend, hollering: "Yea; where you from?"

In the time it took to fill up two vehicles, a life story emerged, one that shouldn't surprise anyone.

John was originally from Massachusetts, born near Boston. His parents, having done well in their respective professions, sought to simplify their lives as they began growing a family. So when John was an infant and his mother became pregnant with her second child, the family moved to central Vermont.

John played several sports in high school and had top grades, earning a scholarship to college, where he stayed in New England. He graduated years ago with a very marketable degree, and then headed south.

"I had come to Florida on spring break several times while at school, and loved the weather, so I thought it might be cool to live here," John said. "I also couldn't get a job back home using my degree. That was the clincher."

I asked John how things were going for him now and for his impressions of Florida overall.

"Dude, it's way too hot here; can't stand it," he said. "But I married a local girl and she's now pregnant with our first child. With her parents nearby, no way I'm getting outta here. Maybe someday when I've made more money. But my job is great, and even in the future I can't see convincing my wife to come north and freeze every winter."

Was this the vaunted brain-drain in action, where our best and brightest head for points south? Can we blame them, given the climate and increased job opportunities?

John waved good-bye and hopped into his Jeep, heading back to that high-tech career. Having not been in his shoes for a few decades, I passed on judging him. He was finding his own way.

Since that encounter, I've often wondered how John might like the hipster magnet of Portland today, with its improving job market, appreciating property values, yet funky, youthful feel.

Eventually, I knew I'd head back back north, nothing in my brother-in-law's balmy home to hold me back, and having let go of suntans long ago. I hung the pump back in place, waiting for my credit card receipt to print.

As I fired up the van, my mother applauded our departure, sarcasm dripping from each clap of her hands. "That kid was from back home, Mom, and came here after college," I explained. "He's about to become a father."

Still fanning that newspaper — despite the revived AC — she mused in reply: "What's he doing down here in this oven? Must be earning some big bucks."

(Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist from Portland's West End. You may contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or follow him on Twitter at @TellyHalkias. He blogs at fromthestacks.bangordailynews.com.)

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