In 1980 my father, newly retired and with time on his hands, decided to become an urban farmer. After time researching at the library and going through seed catalogs, he decided to go the exotic route. Over the next few years, with varying results, he planted jicama, carambola, chayote, and sapodilla. He also planted a carrotwood and a silver oak tree.
Thirty years later I inherited the old homestead and a large yard in dire need of tender and not so tender loving care. The carrotwood and silver oak trees, in particular, needed my immediate attention. They had grown into green monsters that threatened to devour the back yard.
My inquiries about them at the county horticultural office brought instant reprimand. “Those are opportunistic invasive trees from Australia. You should cut them down.”
Their candid remarks were surprising and a bit irritating. After all my father’s and later my work, cutting down trees was not an option. I would revisit that decision many times in the following months.
The carrotwood tree has proved to be a royal pain where I sit. A tropical evergreen, the tree was introduced to Florida in the 1950s as a decorative ornamental variety. Bad move indeed. The fast growing exotic produces tons of flowers and then tons of seeds. The seeds and seed casings end up on the lawn and are soon followed by a two week shower of dead leaves, a dry land deluge of epic proportions.
Turns out the seasons down under are the opposite of Florida’s. Australia’s fall is our early summer, which means I must rake up all that @%^&%$*!! leaf litter in 90 degree heat and humidity.
My father left me a lot for which I am grateful. An endless summer of windblown rained-on dun colored leaves is not one of them. Aussie go home!
My 2018 Captain Marvel 16 month calendar just informed me that today, June 21, is the first official day of summer. Yeah right! Those of us who live in the Sunbaked State know better. What we call summer first arrives in these parts with the buzz of Cicadas and the low hum of countless air-conditioning units. And that would be sometime in May, depending on how close you live to the Coast.
Sitting in the cool comfort of this climate controlled home, it’s hard to remember a time without the miracle of air-conditioning. But such a time indeed existed in the sweltering Florida summers of my youth.
We lived in an old rental house with few amenities and although public buildings and people of means enjoyed air-conditioning, we did not. Window-fans, wet towels and sweating were the methods we employed to make living a bit more tolerable. But sleeping in such hot and humid conditions became nigh impossible. Waking from nights of fitful sleep, I often discovered sheets and pillowcases as wet from sweat as I was. Something obviously had to be done.
That’s when my resourceful father decided to put his inventive abilities to good use. He was, after all, a drop-out from Rutgers University’s Correspondence School of Engineering. Looking around with keen eye and mind, he hit on an idea to use three things we already possessed; window-fans, water and an abundance of Spanish moss hanging from backyard trees.
As my sister and I watched in silent amusement, Dad affixed sturdy metal racks to the backs of each window-fan. Onto the racks he draped several layers of fresh Spanish moss after first removing any little bug critters lurking therein. Finally with everything in place, he let hoses trickle water down over the moss and turned on the fans.
To our amazement and perhaps also to Dad’s, the contraptions worked. Air that the fans sucked into the house was cooler by several degrees, just enough to make living more pleasant and sleeping more peaceful.
Dad’s cool invention never caught on but for a short time in 1956 his ‘air-conditioners’ were more important to us than the ones built by that other Florida inventor, John Gorrie.
In 1950 my grandfather passed away and for the first time in her long life, my grandmother found herself alone and needed our help in getting over the awful emptiness. So, my dad, looking for an excuse to escape summer’s heat, fired up the old Chevy and drove my mom, sister and I up to Virginia to stay with Grandmother Alice for what we thought would be a couple of months. My sister and I were sure we had been dropped down in a magical land of mist shrouded mountains, hollers and for five months of the year, SNOW. For us Florida flatlanders it proved to be a vacation wonderland.
‘A couple of months’ turned into a year, way too long for two young kids to lay about. Some adults decided we ought to continue our formal education and the schooling would take place at Finney School, the local seat of learning, just down the road from Grandmother’s place. Our vacation was officially over.
The faded old school was fascinating to us in its stark simplicity. Grades 1-6 were in one room and 7-12 in another one. The cavernous class rooms were heated by small fuel-oil stoves but the warmth never seemed to make it back to where I sat. With no running water or plumbing, trips to the water pump or outhouse were, especially in winter, acts of shivering courage.
With time on her hands and tired of staring at chickens, my mom signed up to be a substitute teacher in some of Russell County’s underserved areas. No teaching experience needed, just show up and manage to stay until 2 o’clock. Then one day someone didn’t show up and they asked Mom to sub at one of the most remote schools in the County, Possum Hollow School. She kept me out of school that day to go with her and I believe it was to teach me another kind of lesson.
Up a winding gravel road and wedged into a cleft sliced out of the mountain, Possum Hollow School made Finney School seem like a palace. Small, dark and cold, the school had seen much better days and I marveled that it somehow managed to stay upright. Mom and I sat alone for the longest time and she wondered out loud if students would show up at all.
But slowly children began to wander in one after the other until finally all eight desks were occupied and drawn close to the wood-burning stove. I saw no school bus or heard any cars delivering students and it dawned on me that these kids had walked all the way.
I don’t remember any of the schooling that took place but the lunchtime has stayed with me all these years later. I eagerly opened my brown paper bagged lunch and surveyed what my mother had prepared- a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, an apple and a carton of milk. Just before laying into the sandwich, I glanced around to see what other students were eating.
Gathered around me were three of the saddest looking children I had ever seen. Two boys and a girl, perhaps brothers and sister, they were dressed in torn and faded clothes and in obvious need of basic hygiene. They stood staring at me, saying nothing and occasionally wiping their runny noses on tattered sleeves.
What in the world was wrong with those kids? Then I realized they were not staring at me but at my lunch. They did not have their own lunch boxes or brown paper bags and it hit me that the reason was because those three children had no lunches. Not one apple or piece of cornbread, nothing. At my young age, I had no clue why, but knew for certain I could not eat lunch while they ate nothing. I motioned for the three to come over and then divided the sandwich and apple into equal parts and gave it to them. With big smiles they wolfed down the offered food and finishing, turned and returned to their desks. I drank a carton of milk for lunch that day.
My visit to Possum Hollow School was the first time I ever witnessed poverty or even knew about poor folks. I never once thought about my grandmother or people in the valley being poor. I believed it was simply the way they lived. The gut-wrenching poverty of families like those in the hollers taught me a lesson I never forgot. Whenever possible, help a neighbor out.
It’s hard to believe now but in my youth I moved many times; Virginia, West Virginia, Georgia and here in Florida, Tampa, Pasco County, Gainesville, Dunedin and Clearwater. And after every move, when everything had been put away nice and neat, there always remained an old cardboard box marked ‘miscellaneous.’
That box contained various knick-knacks and mementos, everything that would not fit neatly on a shelf or in a drawer; a glow-in-the-dark yo-yo, a Sal Maglie baseball autograph, a polished Chattahoochee River rock, a Jimi Hendrix concert ticket stub. Each one too important to toss, just not important enough for a special place in my new residence.
The ‘misc.’ box remained stuck in a closet awaiting my next move, maybe in a couple years but sometimes sooner. That all changed ten years ago when I moved to this little Clearwater casa. Once and for all, I would find a place for those miscellaneous memories and if I couldn’t, then out they go.
It took all day but I was finally able to throw away the box that had followed me for a large part of my life. There must be a metaphor here about moving from one part of life and into another.
Yet, recently, I discovered that my ‘miscellaneous’ box is still with me but had only changed forms. Stuck at home for two months and in some kind of mental fit, I decided to clean out my computer hard drive. First I found one folder marked ‘misc.’ and then another and another. In the end there were five folders marked ‘misc.’; letters, recipes, ancient resumes, receipts, a photograph of a gorilla. I have no idea.
It will take more than one day to find places for all these digital memories.