In 1948 my family loaded up our old Chevrolet and headed south to Florida. My mother had grown weary of West Virginia’s gray and dreary winters. So, without hesitation, we followed my aunt and uncle to Tampa, where my father landed a job with the Tampa Times newspaper.
Restless again a few years later, we moved a few miles north to Port Richey on the Gulf Coast. Progress had just begun its march up U.S. Highway 19 from neighboring Pinellas County. Brightly colored billboards shouted- “New Jim Walter Homes From $8,900!” and “Own A Choice Florida Home Site, Only $149 Down!”
Semi-rural Port Richey featured just enough modern amenities; a movie theatre, a five & dime and an ice-cream shop- an altogether awesome place to be a kid. And for boys with time on their hands, the piney woods east of town promised excellent adventures.
Early one summer morning, the Semago brothers, Bim and Mike, came tapping on my window. They were going fishing at a newly discovered lake. Did I want to come along? They did not have to ask twice. I dressed quickly, grabbed a banana and took out after them.
We rode our bikes for a couple of miles, then hid them behind a stack of bulldozed trees. From there we hiked another quarter mile on “POSTED: KEEP OUT” land. The sinkhole lake lay wedged between an abandoned orange grove and shirt-shredding saw palmetto thickets. I had no desire to fish but the opportunity to explore suited me fine. So, while the brothers cast their lines on one side, I set out for parts unknown.
Following the lake’s edge, I came to an area overgrown with bushes, vines and scrub oaks. The mass of vegetation merged with all kinds of weird looking water plants. The bushes were so thick in places they hid the water from view- wild Florida at its most pristine. I stopped for a moment, taking in the tropical beauty. Then turning to leave, I caught a rippling movement in the reeds at water’s edge.
“Must be a turtle or fish.”
I edged closer for a better look. Suddenly, something huge splashed toward the undergrowth. But not before I caught a glimpse of a great gnarly monster. It was Alligator mississippiensis, a real live Florida gator and the biggest one I’d ever seen. Truthfully, it was the only one I’d ever seen.
I raced back to share the exciting news with Bim and Mike. We quickly hatched a plan to flush the giant reptile from its hidey-hole. Maybe even capture it. As one might expect when young boys get together, our naiveté far exceeded common sense.
Mike and I headed back to the other side, making a wide detour so as not to spook the beast. Sneaking in from behind, we tip-toed as close to the water as we dared. Then on signal, we started yelling and throwing stuff into the bushes.
In a flash, the prehistoric saurian burst from its lair and made a swimming dash across the lake. And there waited intrepid Bim and his trusty Shakespeare rod and reel. Mike and I continued whooping and throwing stuff as we circled back around the lake.
We got there just as Bim cast his line in the general direction of the spooked gator. One, two times he cast and came up empty. But on the third toss, Bim hooked the gator in a soft body part. There followed much thrashing, tugging and yelling. I’m not exactly sure how but we managed to haul the infuriated creature onto dry land.
Crazy Mike quickly pounced on the gator and wrapped his t-shirt around its lethal snout. Only then were we able to relax and take stock of our captured quarry. Right away we realized that my guesstimate of the critter’s length completely lacked merit. Not ten feet long or eight feet or even six, the gator looked closer to three feet. We had captured an irate baby alligator.
And now that we had captured little Bone Crusher, what in the world were we supposed to do with it? We all agreed that it wouldn’t be right to simply let it go. Mike, still holding the beast down and under the influence of some kind of juvenile machismo, shouted, “Let’s take it home!”
Bim and I agreed because to do otherwise would have exposed us as big weenies. We then secured the angry gator with another shirt and stuffed it into Bim’s bicycle basket. With Mike riding side-saddle to control the thrashing tail, Bim set out on a tense and wobbly ride back to my house. I had raced ahead to prepare a holding area for our reptilian guest, a water filled galvanized tub. The brothers wrestled the gator to the ground and dumped it into the tub. Once unconstrained and back in its watery domain, the gator relaxed and sank to the bottom with its serrated tail hanging over the side. The creature continued to fix us with an unblinking glare of primeval nastiness.
My mother, hearing the commotion, came outside to investigate. One look at the submerged reptile and Mom lost it.
“Get rid of that thing this minute! Get rid of it! Get rid of it!”
We tried our best to convince her of the coolness of having an alligator for a pet. And in so doing we momentarily took our eyes off our “docile” prize. It was an altogether unwise mistake. Seizing the opportunity, Mr. Nasty, lunged from his watery impoundment and chomped down on Bim’s soggy pants leg. And, just like in those Tarzan movies, the crazed thing began turning and turning in the gator death roll.
Mom screamed bloody murder, while Bim, bug-eyed in terror, raced wildly around the yard with an alligator latched onto his pants. The spectacle’s sheer lunacy played out like a Saturday morning cartoon. Mike and I stood transfixed, our mouths hanging open.
It finally fell to us two brave hearts to save the day. After much chasing and hysterical laughter, we were able to corral the creature and secure it in the bicycle basket. Why, I’ll never know, but instead of returning to the lake, we not so bright hunters carried the gator three miles into New Port Richey. There, under the cover of darkness, we released it into Orange Lake.
That bone-headed decision soon upset the Lake’s precarious balance. Muscovy and Mallard ducks, frogs, fish and at least one small dog inexplicably went missing. Of course, me and the Semago brothers never breathed a word. We had made a spit-in-the-hand oath to never ever tell anyone what happened. I don’t know what happened to the Semago brothers or that gator but for sixty-five years I lived up to my part of the oath…..until now.
In 1950 my grandfather passed away and for the first time in her long life my grandmother found herself alone and in need of help. My dad, looking for an excuse to escape Florida’s heat, drove my mom, sister and I up to Virginia to stay with Grandmother Alice. The plan was to stay a couple of months and return to Florida in time for school.
My sister and I were sure we had been dropped down in a magical land of mist shrouded mountains, ‘hollers’ and for four months of the year, SNOW. For us flatlanders it proved to be a vacation wonderland.
‘A couple of months’ turned into a year, way too long for two 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. Our vacation was officially over.
The faded old school was fascinating 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 made 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, my mom signed up to be a substitute teacher in Russell County’s underserved areas. No teaching experience needed, just show up and manage to stay until two o’clock. Then one day someone didn’t show up and they asked Mom to sub at the most remote school in the county, Possum Hollow School. She kept me out of school that day to go with her. 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. 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.
Children began to wander in until finally all eight desks were occupied and drawn close to the wood-burning stove. I saw no school bus or cars delivering students and it dawned on me that those kids had walked all the way.
I don’t remember any of the schooling but the lunchtime has stayed with me all these years. I eagerly opened my lunch bag 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 need of basic hygiene. The three stood staring at me, saying nothing and occasionally wiping their 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 had no lunch boxes or paper bags and it hit me that those children had no lunches. Not one apple or piece of cornbread, nothing. 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 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. 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.
Last Friday for a large part of the day I got to hang out in the Imaging Center of Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. I had come with a friend who was scheduled for two MRIs. Anticipating a long wait, I made sure to bring along plenty of snacks, some illustrator pens and a well-worn sketchbook.
The waiting area filled up quickly with mostly older couples who busied themselves reading, texting, watching tv and in one case, knitting. Then a young Spanish family sitting in the corner caught my eye. A thirty something husband and wife with two children, I figured they were waiting on an older relative, perhaps their abuela.
I was surprised later when an assistant called the husband in for an MRI. And shortly after that my friend got called in for her own tests.
Faced with several hours of wait time, I settled in as best I could, took out my sketchbook and began to draw. It didn’t take long before the two children took notice. They stopped chattering, put down their I-pad and began staring at me. The longer I drew the more curious they became until presently, the brother, the bolder of the two, moved to a closer chair with his sister soon following.
As I continued drawing, their curiosity could not be contained. In order to get closer, they soon took seats directly across from me. I kept drawing for a while longer until growing hungry; I closed the sketchbook and thought about checking out the Center café.
The children’s smiles changed my mind and on a whim I held out the sketchbook to them.
“Would you like to see my drawings?”
“Oh yes!” answered the brother and he and his surprised sister thus began a delightful journey of discovery through a year’s worth of my sketches. When one or the other came upon a drawing they especially liked, the sketchbook was held up for their mother to see.
And with that unusual introduction, all of our imposed reservations soon evaporated. The boy asked if I was an artist. Did I go to university? He told me that his mother’s brother painted pictures and he and his sister once took an art course back home in Puerto Rico.
And now encouraged, I began asking my own questions. What were their names? Were they visiting Florida on holiday? Had they gone to Disney World? The sister, Malaria, spoke little English so younger brother Gariel became translator for both of us.
They were refugees from Hurricane Maria and had come to Moffitt from the little town of Trenton west of Gainesville. Before that they stayed for a while in Ocala and before that Orlando. They liked Florida but were eager to go back home.
At that point, Malaria retrieved her I-pad and with new found courage began using the pad to ask questions.
“Do you draw the colors? Do also you paint the pictures?”
Through the genius of technology I showed this inquisitive girl my web site and videos. As image after image scrolled across the screen, Malaria and Gariel became more excited, pointing at their favorites and holding up the I-pad again for their mother to see. Now she too seemed more relaxed and after a while joined in the conversation.
Finally I felt comfortable enough to ask a question that had been on my mind.
“Is your husband ok?”
She spoke at length to Gariel, who then turned to me and repeated one word, “Tumor.” His mother pointed at her head and nodded when I asked, “Brain tumor?” In the most convincing voice I could muster, I told her that her husband was in the very best medical facility and not to worry, he would be fine.
The conversation trailed off after that and all of us sat in silence. When their father finished his MRI and returned, Malaria and Gariel were quick to show him my sketchbook, occasionally stopping to point at me.
As they turned the pages together, I marveled at how, for a short time, art had been able to bring strangers together. That refugee family had been through so much sadness, yet I could see what a strong bond of love they had for each other. Would Malaria and Gariel still have their father’s guidance as they faced the difficult task of growing up? Would his wife have the privilege of growing old with her loved one by her side?
Their long ordeal over, the family gathered their belongings and prepared to leave. A sadness swept over me and I searched for comforting words to say before they drove back home. No words came.
As they filed past, Gariel handed me a candy cane and smiling, wished me a Merry Christmas. Malaria and their mother and father smiled and also wished me a Merry Christmas. And then they were gone.