A Florida childhood

sibs
Circa 1955.

I WAS RAISED in north Florida, Jacksonville, where I lived throughout the 1950s and on into the 1960s. I graduated from high school in 1962, and left the state forever.

That’s me and my sister, Diane, sitting on the bentwood bench in the back yard of our home in the Jacksonville suburb of Arlington, across the St. John’s River.

I don’t know why we were dolled up like that. It likely was Easter Sunday, and my paternal grandparents must have come to town. Otherwise, we would have ignored Easter because my parents were socialist agnostics, usually.

But when my father’s parents were around, we were upstanding citizens, good churchgoers, teetotalers. My father hid his booze bottles. Paternal grandfather was a Baptist deacon, and grandma was a Methodist.

Around them, we were another family altogether.

mother

Here’s my mother, Virginia. She died in 2009 at age 90, but she would have been about 38 here. I wonder if her Miltowns were in the purse or on the kitchen window ledge, which is where she usually kept them for easy access.

Our green 1950 Dodge is parked in the driveway. I have no idea who those rug-rats are who are opening the screen door. Probably kids of the Dawsons who lived next door.

My sister towered six-feet-tall in high school and had just one date the entire time. I wonder if that was when she began her spiral down the road where she ended up decades later as a militant, explosive, feminist, lesbian fanatic?

But she was very nice when she was young. She was smart and kind and reasonable. I miss that sister.

An American family of the 1950s. You never know what hides behind the Easter Sunday smiles and lies.

Ancient history

BEING A SHARING sort of fellow, I thought it would be nice to show these photos from ancient history. You may have seen one or more before because, frankly, my memory ain’t so good, and never has been.

kiss

This first shot shows me kissing my parakeet. One must kiss parakeets to keep them content. I look to be about 8 years old.

I remember that chair, and I know where the photo was shot. It had only been about a year since my mother, father, sister and I had left Granny’s farm in Georgia and moved to Jacksonville, Florida, where my father got back into the newspaper business after his six-year failed attempt to make it as a pulp-magazine writer.

We moved first into an old second-floor walk-up on Osceola Street, but we didn’t stay there but a few months. Then we moved into a much nicer, two-story rental nearby on Herschel Street. It had a huge yard to play in. That photo above was taken in the living room on Herschel.

plane

I’m licensed to fly small planes if they don’t have more than one propeller. I guess two propellers would confuse me. No matter. I do not fly anymore even though the license is still good.

But it clearly was in my genes as evidenced by the second photo, which was taken, well, I do not remember. Nary a clue. I don’t appear to be much older than I was when I kissed that parakeet.

Prom

Flash forward a few years. We had moved from Herschel Street across the St. Johns River to the bedroom community of Arlington where my parents bought a humble, one-story, three-bedroom ranch house painted aquamarine at 2030 Cesery Boulevard.

This photo was from the Senior Prom at Terry Parker High School in 1961, but I was not a senior. My date was, and I was stepping into the lurch. She lived just around the corner from us and her scheduled date had backed out at the last minute after she’d bought her prom dress.

Her mother spoke to my mother who spoke to me, and the next thing I knew I was in a white coat and black pants and posing for a photo before a paddle boat on some distant Southern river reeking of magnolias.

Her name is Johna and she is now retired from a career with the Duval County Sheriff’s Department in Florida.

The following year I was a senior, but I skipped the prom.

I thought I was a Beatnik by then.

AF

I was 16 in the prom photo, and I am 19 here, standing with my roommate in our barracks at Castle Air Force Base outside Merced, California. The other guy was Adrian Landres who was not wrapped too tightly and later was discharged for psychiatric reasons.

He was a year older than me, and about five years ago I saw his obituary online. There was no mention of the cause of death.

Adrian and I were two of a group of three guys who were quite tight during my Air Force time in California. I lost track of Adrian in the late 1970s because he was not a communicator.

The third of the trio was Gilbert Gorodiscas who had been born in Sant Amant, France, and migrated to America at the age of 14.

Both of these guys were Jewish.

bike

Here are the three of us sitting atop an Indian trike motorcycle in the yard of Adrian’s parents in Redondo Beach, California, in 1964. The trike belonged to Adrian. That’s me on the right and Gilbert behind striking his best French fop pose, which he did often, especially for the ladies.

Never did him much good.

Gilbert married a woman he met during a stopover in New Orleans on his way to a base in the Caribbean where they lived for a spell. She was a sultry, New Orleans, Latina “Yat,” who are the people who live in the city’s Ninth Ward. They’re famous for asking: “Where y’at?”

I was living in New Orleans by that time, going to the university, and I introduced the two of them. Her name was Joanie Ruiz.

Joanie’s daddy was a Dixie Beer truck driver, and I loved visiting her parents’ Ninth Ward shotgun because daddy kept a second fridge jam-packed with Dixie Beer which he got free, so you could drink all you wanted on sweltering summer days, or any day, for that matter.

They divorced about a decade later, proving yet again that multiculturalism usually ends badly. He was a blond European Jew, and she was a Catholic Yat, but he still lives in New Orleans, running his own chemical-supply company, something he’s done for decades.

Jews are good at business.

Joanie remarried, but he never did.

* * * *

In the late 1960s, my first wife, my daughter and I were living in New Orleans, and Adrian came to visit, riding a Triumph Bonneville motorcycle all the way from Redondo Beach.

He stayed with us for a time, but his habit of lounging around the apartment in his underwear did not sit well with my wife, understandably, so we had to ask him to leave, and he got his own place where he lived a few months, driving a Yellow Cab for cash, before returning to the West Coast.

In the mid-1970s, I was passing through Southern California, and I visited Adrian. He had married a woman whose two front teeth were missing, and they were living with his parents in Moorpark. Adrian was working as a projectionist in a movie theater, the only occupation I ever knew him to have outside the Air Force.

After that visit, we totally lost touch.

dad

Lastly and many years later, the late 1980s, I’m standing with my father inside a Farmer’s Market in Atlanta, Georgia. This was about three years before he died in 1991 at age 75 of a heart attack. Though he failed to realize his youthful dream of being a pulp-magazine writer, he did become an excellent — famous even — haiku poet in his last years.

And with that, we’ll close the photo album for now.

Granny’s farm

AS MENTIONED a time or three, I spent much of my youth at Granny’s house, actually living there full-time my first six years.

It was my grandfather’s house too, but he died when I was 12, so I associate the house primarily with my grandmother, my mother’s mother.

The whole lot of us — me, my older sister, my mother and father — lived on the farm right after World War II. I wonder what my grandparents thought of that, having daughter come home with a family in tow.

Fortunately, there were three bedrooms in the big, clapboard house, which was built around 1890 by Granny’s father, a fabulously wealthy farmer who was named Dard Moree.

After moving to Jacksonville, Florida, just before I started the Second Grade, we returned often to visit. My mother was an only child, you see, and you know how that goes. Powerful parental connections.

I often think of this place and those days that were so different.

One of my favorite pastimes was to take walks. This was a 500-acre farm, mind you, and the house was set more or less in the northeast quadrant. Usually, I would take these walks alone, and there were two ways to go. Forward from the house was one, and behind the house was the other.

* * * *

SETTING OUT

pumpLet’s go forward first. The house faced a dirt road that went from the Five Points General Store a few miles to the right to the bustling metropolis of Sylvester, Georgia, to the left, passing first through a few inconsequential settlements and one gas station.

Walking off the front porch, crossing that road (which today is a paved highway) you were facing a field that sloped downward to a narrow creek about a quarter mile away. I don’t remember much ever being in that field, sometimes a horse, but we didn’t do horses. We did cows.

The creek ran, more or less, parallel to the dirt road above and, as is often the case, the creek had trees lining its edges. It was a very small creek that you could leap across or step over using stones or confused tree roots.

Greenery of all sorts loves a good creek.

So I would walk down to the creek just because it was cool in the summer, which is the season I spent most time there after moving to Florida, and there were minnows to watch. Turtles too at times.

And the sound of the water, which was incredibly clear, passing over and around those confused tree roots and stones.

It was simply a fine place to be.

That was the forward walk, a pretty simple proposition, but it sits well in my memory, and I wish I could do it again, but I cannot.

Then there’s the backward walk.

* * * *

GOING THE OTHER WAY

At a right angle to the dirt road, there was a set of two parallel ruts formed by tires of pickups and tractors (We had Ford tractors.) that formed an even simpler road that ran along the house’s left side, going behind, and continued to the pond and beyond to plenty of corn.

cowAs you walked along these tire ruts, there was a large grove of pecan trees to the right, plus the really humongous chicken house (abandoned when we left), plus a storage/tractor shed.

On the left was a field that usually contained Hereford cows. They grazed there, but they also hung out under the pecans because there was no fence. I say cows, but there always was one bull because, well, you know.

Like Route 1, this consisted of about a quarter mile too. Then, if you continued ahead, you’d come to a broad expanse of corn rows that went on and on. You can get lost in a corn field, you know, but not forever.

But just before the corn started and the pecan grove ended, you could angle down to the left, heading northwest on your walk, down what was usually a broad gully that ended at the pond, which was named Wavering.

* * * *

BABY IN A TREE

This pond, it seems, has been there for centuries. Local lore has it — and maybe it’s true — that a last battle between nasty “old” white men and noble “Native Americans” took place on the shores of Waving Pond.

babyNot so much a battle as a rout, it is said — the “Native Americans” fared badly — and that those Indians hightailed it out of there so fast that a baby was left behind hanging from a tree limb.

According to the story, the baby was adopted and raised by a loving, white family to be a good Christian who ate at a pine table with forks and knives and napkins and good manners.

And that is the story.

* * * *

WATER AND CYPRESS

The pond is about two acres, which is to say very large, a lake, actually. You cannot see from one end to the other, but that’s due more to the proliferation of towering cypress trees than it is to sheer distance.

There was always a rowboat waiting there, pulled out of the water and tied with a rope, and two oars. I traveled many a day in that boat, looking over the rail into the murky water where lurked snakes, turtles and fish.

My mother swam there in the 1920s and 1930s, diving from a board nailed high on a cypress tree. But I never jumped into those dark waters.

You never knew what you could encounter.

I’m not sure anyone knew the pond’s source, the overgrowth and trees made it difficult to pinpoint one, but I did my best to find it. There were arms of water that would veer off at certain points, but you could only go so far in that rowboat before you were blocked by fallen limbs.

There were other places to walk on Granny’s farm, of course. Just going out into the pecan grove to scoop fallen nuts was good eating, and there was a third walk, also across the dirt road — but farther to the right — that would take you to huge fields of peanuts and cotton that had truck ruts through the middle that made for fine walking in summer’s sun.

* * * *

CAP BAITING A HOOK

But before leaving Wavering Pond, here’s the only photo I can find of it. I tossed so much when I left Houston, too much. This is Cap, who was Granny’s handyman for decades and all through my childhood.

He and his wife, Willie, our maid, lived in a mighty humble house provided by my grandparents just across the road and down a bit. He’s baiting a fishhook on the edge of Wavering Pond.

Cap loved whisky and never uttered a word more than necessary. He died when I was in my mid-20s. My father found him on the floor. I have no clue how old Cap was. Regrettably, we took him for granted.

Cap was the in-between generation, between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement, between President Grant and President Johnson.

And he liked to fish in Wavering Pond.

cap