Monday, December 27, 2010

More Florida (revised)

I love stories of children overcoming inherited hardship. Those stories that pit the vulnerable purity of a child against the harsh corrupt adult establishment effect me deeply. Charles Dickens exploited this genre to great effect in “David Copperfield” and “Oliver Twist”. Their have been many since. Recently, I have read a few, “The Glass Castle”, “The Golden Mountain”, “The Color of Love” and the work of Tobias Wolf and Frank McCourt come to mind as good examples. If we understand “karma” to mean the circumstantial environment into which we are born, these are essentially tales of great spiritual triumph. Politicians know the value of this narrative and tell it ad nauseum . It is not my story.
In 1958, to a kid from the New York City area, Florida was another universe. Actually anywhere south of Pennsylvania seemed a different country. The Mason Dixon Line still existed as a cultural boundary and you knew it when you crossed it. But Florida was special, not so much a "Southern" state as a land of myth and wonder where air was thick with sulfur, trees shrouded in Spanish Moss and spiky grass filled with poisonous insects. Instead of Santa Claus, there was Ponce de Leon who promised his own brand of magic - something of tremendous value though of little interest to us at that time. And the alligators - no where in New Jersey could you find an animal that promised such death and destruction in one encounter; a living nightmare and a dream come true for a 8 year old boy.
Before his back went bad, my dad liked to drive, so he concocted a family vacation that involved a lot of driving. The preparations were as elaborate as an amphibious invasion. They involved the transport of wife, nanny, three kids and luggage enough for a two week stay. Some years, I think, there may have been a nanny for the nanny as well. My dad was not one to travel light. For this trip all had to fit into and on top of a station wagon - the very model Judy Garland was driving at the time. The starting point was our home in northern New Jersey and the destination was half way down the Florida coast.
The country was flush with optimism. The depression and the war were behind us and especially in the north the economy was booming. Cars were then, as now, emblems of identity, evidence of worthiness and testaments to vanity. Form scoffed at function for our Chrysler wagon. Great fins, faux luggage racks and an enormous motor was all you needed to cruise Eisenhower's Autobahn. It had three rows of seats. My parents sat up front, the nannies plus sister in the middle and my brother and I were in the back. For what seemed like such a great place to experience the wonder of a long road trip, the back seat had its drawbacks. With its rear facing view, whip-lash ride and a hot sun filled window, that when opened, sucked in leaded exhaust fumes, the back seat was custom made to cook and nauseate its occupants.
As we traveled, the pure discomfort of the ride was overcome only by the anticipation of the next stop in this increasingly exotic country. The burgeoning art of the roadside attraction was in its infancy and characterised by experimentation and opportunism. As well as the more well funded pits such as “South of the Boarder”, one most memorable to me was a house that had slipped off its foundation and was being marketed grandly as “The Mystery House” where marbles rolled, on there own, all the way across the room. The further south we got the stronger the feeling - “We’re not in (New Jersey ) anymore”. I would not have been surprised to see flying monkeys perched in the trees along the highway. Nothing was more thrilling than the marginal motels and their questionable bed sheets that induced such horror in my mother and the nannies. People talked so gently and slowly it seemed there was a bowl of free candy on every table. However, even from my perch, I could see sharply drawn contrasts. There were mansions and shacks - lots of shacks. Blacks were blacker, Whites whiter and dust rose from gangs of men chained at work along the side of the road. The food was uniformly light brown and there were pecan rolls that came out looking just like they went in.
It took three or four days to complete the journey. At last we arrived at a dubiously maintained wooden bridge that crossed the Indian River. There is nothing like a near dear death experience to unify the inhabitants of a car. The Lord’s Prayer was uttered in German by the nannies continuously as the tires from our heavily loaded wagon made loose planks of the bridge click and groan as we passed impossibly high above the inland waterway and into Melbourne. There we stayed at the edge of the ocean in Neptune Hall - a motel right on the beach complete with its own cast of mythical characters. There was the King, the owner, a morbidly obese man my dad called Slim, the kindly Doctor Sweet and his Little Mermaid daughter Kitty. Dickens would have approved - Kitty Sweet lived up to her name bestowing on my brother a first glimpse at the awesome power of romantic love. .
When we did finally arrive, it was all sand and sun and more marginal bedding. This time the shacks were ours and they were right on the beach. We were warned to check our shoes for scorpions in the morning as the screen doors were so flimsy there was no way to keep the outside from in. It was such fun, we couldn’t get enough and as a result got too much. Too much sun for our little northern bodies - by the second week my siblings and I were busy peeling off burned layers of skin. The first year found me badly burned, paralyzed with pain. Ministered to by the good doctor and the nannies, I was confined to the shade for days.
Florida is difficult to find now. It is hidden beneath vast carpets of well irrigated spongy crab grass and strategically placed palm trees. Even sidewalks and enormous air conditioned interiors give us just what we want and push aside what we were seeking. But sometimes, early in the morning, “off season” and before there is enough light to dispel the dream, a silhouette of huge low hanging spider or the sudden splash at the edge of the path can bring back that Florida I once knew.