If you know about Florida, you will be aware that it rains a lot there. June is usually the wettest month, with ten to twelve inches accumulation being about average. That is also the month that signals the beginning of freedom from school, and the opportunity to escape from the routines of everyday life.
I have written about going to visit my Seminole friends in the Everglades in the story, “The Only White Boy There” where I was privileged to attend the Green Corn Dance/Celebration. I learned valuable lessons about life and myself in those three days and became even more a part of the family of the host tribal clan.
During a visit to Big Cypress (Indian reservation) I had occasion to spend time with a very elderly woman who spoke little English and was thoroughly unimpressed with my command of the Miccosukee language. We did communicate as she felt necessary, but that was not frequent.
I was at the old woman’s “house” waiting for her niece, her granddaughter Scarlett, and our friend Larry to join me. We were going to celebrate Scarlett’s birthday and my own, neither of which fell on the dates we were there, but was the best we could do.
I use quotations on the word “house” because in the white world it would not be consider as such. The structure was called a chic-kee in the Seminole language. The chic-kee was quite functional as a domicile for traditional Seminole people but it did not have walls, doors, electricity, or plumbing. It had a raised platform for a floor and a thatched roof to keep the sun and rain off of you. It had everything that people needed to live their lives in comfort.
Can you imagine white people of today living in an open structure with no electricity or plumbing, no separate rooms for the inhabitants, no television or computer? You would actually have to look at and, talk to, each other.
While we waited for our fellow party guests, the elderly woman known to me only as “grandmother,” was busy cooking on an open fire with multiple pots going at the same time. She seemed to be in a hurry to get things done and sent me to the nearby communal garden plot to pick things like bananas, tomatoes, and some green herbs that I can’t remember the name she used, but just looked like weeds to me. They still do when I see them in grocery stores or on my plate.
When I returned from that errand I was inclined to take a nap in the shade of the chic-kee and sleep away the wait, but grandmother had other plans. She told me to go back to the garden plot; but this time go to the back and cut several large banana leaves from the older trees with no fruit and bring them back to her undamaged. I chuckled to myself all the way there about her admonition to not “damage” the leaves. What was so important about banana leaves and why did she assume that I would mess them up? She sounded like my dad.
I was to get only complete, non-split leaves, and as large of ones as was possible. It wasn’t a terrible job and it did allow me to use a big knife on something. I did love swinging a blade at stuff, so I was not unhappy.
While standing in front of the small grove of banana trees trying to decide which leaves to cut I noticed how hot and muggy it was. I removed my shirt and looking down to get it in the right spot, I dropped it on the ground with my coil of string. As I looked back up at the tree in front of me I caught movement and launched forward like the experienced snake chaser that I was.
Thanks to my experience with animal importing, I was familiar with the spider commonly known as a “Banana Spider.”It was more accurately called the “Brazilian Wandering Spider.” This creature has a very potent poison and had been known to kill humans with its bite. The dock workers at Port Everglades were terrified of them.
Back to the job at hand, I hacked off the biggest leaves I could find (while still watching for spiders) and laid them carefully on the sandy soil. The very first one that I cut, I stepped on and ruined when I went to put the second one on top of it. I cut a dozen more and then bundled them together with my string and picked up the load to carry it back to grandmother.
The Seminole are a wonderfully kind people. They never hit or even openly ridicule, humiliate, or even embarrass their youth. Their elders can convey more with a glance, grunt, or chuckle than most of the lectures I had received in the white world. Grandmother types were the most powerful of all and I have seen them make grown up tough guys wince and cower with a single look.
This was all in my mind as I twisted, turned, lifted and sweated my way through the bushes. I finally put the load on the top of my head like I had seen in so many films of other countries and it worked!
It never occurred to me to question why I was doing this task (such was the power of this grandmother’s will) or what she was going to do with them. I just did what I was told. When I returned with the banana leaves she told me to put them in the chic-kee, not on the ground by the fire where everything else was assembled. I thought that was odd but kept my mouth shut; I was learning.
As I watched I noted that she was moving very quickly for an old woman and I couldn’t figure out what the rush was. Seminoles are a very laid back, easy going society and not prone to hurrying. Grandmother started directing me to pick up things and move items into the chic-kee, which again was odd.
When I could stand it no more, I broke down and asked her, “Grandmother, why are you in such a hurry, what is going on?” She chuckled, pointed up and kept working like it should be completely obvious to me. I looked up and only saw blue skies with white puffy clouds. There were no spaceships, no pterodactyls and no answer to the puzzle.
The look of confusion on my face was so amusing to her that she chuckled and pointed to my ear and said “fah blee chee,” which I did understand; it means wind. Was she saying that I was an airhead? She then pointed at her own ear and made motions of going by her ear with her hand. Wind going by; she wanted me to listen to the wind. Grandmother then pointed to her own nose and said “okee,” which means water. Since her nose was not running, I guessed that she meant that she smelled water.
I finally got it; listen to the wind and smell the water in the air. I looked up again, but with a more educated eye that time; I knew what I was trying to see. Sure enough there were clouds on the horizon and the wind was picking up and you could smell the rain if you tried hard enough.
But how did this old woman, who had probably never seen a weather forecast in her life, know so far in advance that rain was coming? It was Florida and it did rain a lot, especially in June, but it had been sunny and beautiful all morning.
Grandmother had finished the cooking and was moving pots of great smelling food onto the chic-kee platform. From there she had me move them to the center of the floor and put them on a pile of green palmetto leaves which acted as a mat to keep the hot pots from scorching or marking the cypress wood.
The wind picked up and the clouds rolled in and I wondered what we were going to do for shelter. I had always lived in the city in a concrete block house and while I had been rained on before, it was not a “planned” thing. I couldn’t imagine grandmother wanting to get wet, although I had witnessed Seminole women washing their hair in the rain, I just didn’t see her doing that right then.
There was only one modern, or “white man,” item in this totally traditional woman’s life. That item being a treadle powered Singer sewing machine, which sat in a corner of the platform. That baby had its own rain cover, which had covered something else in a past life but now provided a waterproof barrier for the machine and its cabinet. Grandmother reached under the cover and pulled out a cushion, which she placed on the platform, and then made sure the cover was closed up tight.
Finally, I found out what the banana leaves were for! Grandmother had me tuck the stem ends of the leaves into the underside of the thatched roof where a vine as been woven in and out around the support pole. I secured the end and then overlapped each leaf by half.
Rain hit me in the face while I secured the last banana leaf into place and made me look outside of the chic-kee. It was raining hard and moving towards us in sheets of water. I hoped that the banana flavored raincoat would work.
Grandmother had me sit down against the pole in the corner protected by the six leaves and handed me a banana leaf. Then she picked up the other one and plopped down on her cushion, where she sang a little song to herself and fussed with some threads on her skirt.
When the rain blew hard the old woman gestured to me to put the leaf over me. She did the same thing, but she stretched out on the floor with the leaf over her face and started snoring. That sight made me laugh to myself, but quietly.
I first put the leaf over my head like I had hung them from the pole, with the stem side up. That wasn’t comfortable, so I reversed it and put the soft leaf end over my head and tucked the end between my skull and the post. That worked much better and it actually cushioned my head.
That was where I was when the others arrived in their truck. I was found asleep and still hiding from the rain, under a banana leaf like a monkey in the jungle. Of course with it being Florida, the sun was already out again. Grandmother was out bustling around doing her thing like nothing had ever happened. So naturally I got teased by Scarlett for being afraid of a little water.
Things are never dull in a world where wondrous experiences just wait for you to live them. I am happy to have had so many of my own.
The Truth about the KKK
Let me begin this tale by posing two true or false questions for consideration:
Is every Southerner a member of the Ku Klux Klan?
Does every Southerner believe that the KKK is really out to do good, and is simply misunderstood?
When I was 13 years old in 1966 I needed to know what the real story was in regards to the “Invisible Empire.” The two questions stated above were two of many that were going through my mind far too frequently for a young boy.
In light of the events of the 1960s with riots, abductions, and murders happening all over the country (not just in the South like some people seem to remember it) it really wasn’t strange for a young person to be trying to figure out what was true, and what was false.
South Florida was not the hotbed of racial tension that other areas were at that time. Not like Montgomery, Birmingham, Cleveland, or just about any large city with sufficient media coverage to make national news.
I still think that political advantage and profiteering had more to do with the riots than we knew. It wasn’t just about anyone’s civil or human rights. Injustices were happening, and change was coming slowly, but there was too much violence. Violence wasn’t the way that the church going, God fearing people that I grew up with would even think of behaving. It certainly wasn’t what Martin Luther King, Jr. was preaching.
I grew up with kids of every color, nationality, religion, and income level that you could imagine. If you know South Florida, you know that is not an exaggeration of the society found there. Black, white, brown, red, yellow… only meant colors from a Crayola Crayon box to us.
I knew three boys named Larry, and we had to call them something slightly different to tell who we were yelling at to throw us the ball, etc. One was called “Lawrence”, one was called “Larry”, and one was called “LT”. OK, you got that?
Now add to the mix; one was Catholic, one was Jewish, and one was Baptist. To further confuse the issue; one was black, one was white, and one was Seminole. Can you tell by the names, which was which? Does it matter anyway? It didn’t to us; they were just three guys named Larry.
If curiosity is killing you; Lawrence was black and Catholic, Larry was white and Jewish, which made LT a Seminole of the Baptist persuasion… and none of this mattered, and it shouldn’t.
Why did these people (the KKK) gather together and hold rallies; and what’s with the burning cross?
These questions are what prompted four of us to go out into an orange grove in Davie, Florida, one Friday night when we were supposed to be at a school dance at the Junior High School.
It was a foolish thing to do and a much greater risk for my three Seminole Indian “brothers” than it was for me. Seminole Indians have “mixed” with slaves at times in their history and the KKK has a special hatred for those of mixed ancestry.
At least that was what we had heard and that was a big part of the problem. We didn’t have any first-hand knowledge and the opposing sides were extremely opinionated in their own behalf. So who should we believe? What was the Gospel in this matter?
“Friday night in “X’s” orange grove, ceremonies to start at 8:00 PM, sharp. Come early and bring your own supplies. The Exalted Grand Dragon will Honor us with a speech and sermon.”
There was more to the flier, but you get the tone of the message. That was how we found out where and when the rally was being held. We were determined to find out the “why.”
Larry, Ralph, Sam and I really did start out at the dance. We didn’t lie (to our parents) about going to it, we just didn’t stay long. One of their cousins had agreed to give us a ride out to the orange grove for a half-pint bottle of Vodka.
They had already taken care of the payment, and obtained his promise not to drink it until we were safely back at the dance and he had driven home. The “no drinking” restriction was necessary because we had to be back at the school before 11:00 PM when the dance got over and we didn’t want this cousin getting into a wreck or getting arrested (or leaving us out there with the Klan.)
The rally location was a big shock to me. It was in a grove owned by a prominent family of church going folks with a very good reputation. I recall saying that “Maybe they didn’t know that it was being held there.” “And maybe pigs fly,” was the response and general consensus of opinion about that idea. I knew that the guys were right…I just didn’t want them to be.
We knew that the main road into the grove would be watched and they weren’t likely to let us in to satisfy our curiosity. They might have let me in by myself, if one of their number would speak up for me. But, I wasn’t interested in being alone with the Knights of the KKK, betting on them being understanding “Good Ole Boys.” So that approach was out. There was another road which connected this grove to the next, but it was a long way to the other end where you “might” have been able to enter, and it could have been padlocked too.
The only logical choice for us was to cross the big canal next to the paved county road that bordered the grove. Then hike in through the trees in the dark without flashlights, and hope that we didn’t encounter snakes, etc. There were also the man made obstructions like barbed wire and irrigation hardware. Yep. It was the best way, they would have to figure that nobody would be crazy enough to do that and not worry about posting guards or lookouts on that side.
We found a place for the cousin to park the car and go to sleep. He promised to wait and not drink the Vodka until the agreed upon time and if we weren’t out by 11:00 PM he was to go get the entire tribe to rescue us. We didn’t think that the cops would be of much use for some reason… a hunch that proved to have merit later.
The water was deep and cold, and there were alligators and Water Moccasins in those ditches, especially big canals like that one. Those minor details made it even more comical that we had to get naked and wade across with our clothes held over our heads to keep them dry. The running joke was about where you might get snake bit; and that nobody was going to suck the poison out, etc. We were very loony, that much is obvious now, but at the time it was just another thing that we did. We could see an alligator farther up the canal, but we were too large for it to bother with.
We found a good spot to get out and quickly got dressed again. There was a minor planning problem; we had to use our underwear to dry off with. Not wanting to put wet underwear back on, we left them hanging on the bushes to dry. I wondered for a long time if they were still there. We didn’t go back for them, that’s for sure!
We actually made good time through the trees and were being very careful where we put our feet, both to avoid hazards and to prevent making unnecessary noise that might alert the Klansmen. We wanted this to be a “private” viewing of their rally and not for us to be “part” of it. The thought of what would happen to my Seminole brothers if we were caught made me very careful. The idea that I would be the reason for harm coming to them suddenly terrified me.
It was 7:45 p.m. when we got to the edge of the clearing where there was a bonfire and a lot of “White Robes” moving around. That meant it took us 30 minutes to cross the canal and hike in to that spot. We moved along the trees, keeping them between the crowd and us until we found a likely site to watch from.
The four of us then climbed a tree almost all the way to the top. Orange trees were not my choice for climbing with their thorns sticking out everywhere. I was scratched and bleeding from several places by the time I reached my perch.
If we had hesitated at all, we would have been history. We had no more stopped moving than two guards in white robes and hoods, carrying shotguns, walked right up to where we were and stopped. I was afraid to even breathe!
The rally was called to order and the ceremonies began at 8:00 p.m. on the dot. Those boys were punctual, I’ll give them that much.
The head guy of all of them, the “Exalted Grand Dragon,” was sitting in a lawn chair behind the stage, out of sight. He didn’t get up or even appear to pay any attention when the “Wizard” was on stage working the crowd into a frenzy. I supposed that it was much like what the opening act did for the headliner at a concert or a Las Vegas show.
This hooded bozo (the Wizard) had already answered a lot of our questions concerning the attitudes and intentions of the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. If you weren’t just like them you were wrong for their future and a danger to their children; and you had to be eliminated. Peacefully if possible, but however was necessary, if that was what it took.
The speaker professed to be a God fearing man on a mission to save his race from contamination and extinction. He said that he was doing it all for his children and their children. Using children and God were his main hooks to work the crowd, and work them he did! These robed figures were agitated, animated, and aggressive (just to use the “A’s”.) However you wanted to describe it, they were pumped up and ready to receive the message from their “main man!”
As good as the Wizard was at stirring the crowd up, he was nothing compared to the Exalted Grand Dragon! That man had people crying, shouting, and dumping money into a barrel. The donations were to keep up the fight against the government and all the others who would deny them their God given right. Of course, maybe a little of it would have to be used to pay for the stretch limousine that the big guy had arrived in; and would go on to the next rally in, riding in comfort.
I got the feeling that I was witnessing Adolph Hitler working on the plan for the Aryan race. There was no longer any doubt in my mind that genocide was too singular for what these crazies had in store for the rest of us.
When I was able to take my eyes off of the stage and look around us, I just about spoke out loud. Damn! The rally with all those fanatics was in front of us and their cars were parked behind us, with armed guards patrolling all around them. There was no “sideways,” the bonfire was so large that it illuminated everything around us. We were in an ugly fix, but still safe in the tree top for now.
The ceremony of lighting the cross would usually have begun the rally I was told later on in life. On that night it had special significance and had been delayed until that critical point. I had never seen so large of a cross before; it was made from telephone poles and was at least 40 feet high.
The Grand Dragon said a prayer that got a lot of “amens” all through it and had everyone focused on him. At a wave of the hand signal from him, one of the attendants lit the cross with a forty foot burst of liquid fire (like napalm) from a flame thrower. The screams, squeals and applause of the masses gathered there were thunderous!
The KKK will tell you that the lighting of the cross is a sacred religious tradition honoring the Light of God and Jesus for dying for our sins. All completely Christian and only meant as a good example of their faith.
So why then did their leader say, “All of the unclean, and the mixed curs had better take warning from this cross burning brightly in the night. We will take what is our right by any means necessary and they can perish in its flames if they get in the way.”
The crowd again responded with riotous and righteous clamor, not unlike a hound pack hitting a strong scent trail. I feared that the Dragon was going to send them out to harm people right then. In their present state of mind I believed that they would do anything that he ordered.
The man with the flame thrower was so moved that he unleashed another burst of fire on the already burning cross, causing more screams yet.
That “re-lighting” of the cross served a better purpose for us. It brought the guards in from the parking area to witness the burning and increasing level of excitement. Their movement drew them in far enough that we felt that it was our best chance to get out of the tree and slip out through the cars. Again we went with the logic of doing the least expected. No one would expect us to come out through the cars and down the main road of the grove.
Those trees ate us alive with scratches and cuts, but not a sound was made, at least not out loud. I was truly screaming inside my head from all of the pain. I almost fell out of the tree, but a hand reached out and grabbed me. Larry was looking out for his “brother,” as always.
We made it to the ground and staying low, moved as quickly as possible to get to the cover of the vehicles and darkness. Fear was a great motivator and we had plenty to be afraid of from those nuts, especially in the frenzy that they were riding on right at that moment.
As shocking as the words had been, and as disheartening as the supposed “moral conviction” of these robed figures was; the real pain and hurt lie ahead.
When these Knights of the Klan were just anonymous figures in robes, it was bad enough. But, when we got among the cars and recognized the vehicle of our Sheriff, the personalized plates of the Mayor’s car, the car of a banker who was the father of one of our friends, the truck belonging to the owner of the local hardware store (complete with the sign on the side), and other vehicles of people that we knew by the car or license plate… it went past bad, it was gut wrenchingly painful. How could they act this way here at this rally, and then smile to our faces when they met us on the street?
And then came the real crusher. The unmistakable car of the preacher whose church we had been attending! It serves no purpose to identify what religion he represented; none of them would condone what he had done here tonight.
The sinking realization that we now knew why the Wizard who “opened” for the main speaker sounded so familiar, and why he could talk for an hour and a half without letting up. We never set foot in his church again after that night.
We moved quietly through the cars and down the road towards freedom and fresh air. It smelled like sulfur and brimstone where we just were.
There was a checkpoint to pass and even though it was dark, we could smell their cigarettes and hear what they probably considered a whisper, a long way from them. We just slipped off to the side and went through the trees until we were clear of them and then got back on the sand two-track road and in no time we had reached pavement.
Upon gaining that asphalt pavement, we allowed ourselves (for the first time) to run, and run we did, all the way to the car about a mile down that county two-lane. We ran like the Devil himself was behind us, and I’m not so sure that he wasn’t.
When we woke the cousin up from a sound sleep in the back seat of his car, scaring him with our emotional insistence to hurry up, he no doubt thought that the Klan was after us. It was worse, it was demons in our minds, screaming about what we had seen and heard!
The clock showed 10:30 p.m. when we walked back into the dance; we had been gone a lifetime. It was a sad, hard lesson to learn that things are seldom what they seem and people are capable of unbelievable extremes and such hatred that I couldn’t yet comprehend.
It would take many years and experiencing war to make me know the depths of the human soul.
Right then, at thirteen years old, I was in shock. If this was what it meant to be white, then I was glad to be a “brother” to the Seminole People, maybe they would claim me and I wouldn’t have to be white anymore.
I was sure embarrassed by what we had experienced on this night and apologized to my brothers for the color of my skin. They were wiser than I was, and told me not to worry, that I had a good heart and would always know the right path to take. I don’t know if I lived up to that, but I was glad that they were still my brothers.
Whatever color, nationality, or religion that you may be… whatever differences that you may have… whatever problems may arise in your life… we learned that night that: HATE IS NOT THE ANSWER.
I probably would not have been seen as a model child by any stretch of the imagination in my youth, and I was OK with that. I didn’t care what other kids were doing, or what the “proper” behavior for someone my age was, I did what I felt was right.
It was the summer of 1961 and I had been ordered to get a haircut, which was a weekly thing during the school year, but I hardly felt that it mattered in the summer. Of course I did NOT have a vote in the matter, no kid did in those days. Dad said get a haircut, and off to the barbershop I went. There were consequences for not doing as I was told and I knew them well.
The barber we used was the same guy that had been cutting my hair since before I started first grade, which granted wasn’t all that long, but we had a “history.” The guy was two-faced and hated kids, but kept his smiley face on when adults were there.
When I was five years old I had to sit on a board that the barber put across the arms of his chair, so that I would be above the back of the chair and he could get to my neck, etc. One side of the board had a red padded leather cushion on it, the other, bare board. He made a show of placing the cushion side up for the adults to see, but flipped the board over once the child blocked their view.
Jack did subtle things like that, things that he could get away with and the adults would not see. He would do things like; wipe cut hair inside the cloth he tied around your neck (it itched like crazy), or put the hot clippers against your neck to make you flinch. Anything that he could do to make you squirm on that seat which he could then call attention to and he felt supported his point of view that kids were brats and needed more “razor strap discipline”.
When I was six he nicked my ear with his razor while doing my “white walls” around the ear, you guys will know what I mean. That was bad and made me angry, I had already had over a year of his tormenting. His comment (directed towards my father), was “that’s what you get when you squirm around!” I promise you that I never move a muscle when someone has a razor next to my skin. My dad gave me the “look” and told me to keep still or else.
Jack grinned at his success and then put alcohol on the cut. It must have upset him when I didn’t move or make sound from the burning pain of the alcohol, because he made a funny grunt sound and switched sides. The creep cut me again on the other side! I knew that he had shaved lots of people without cutting them, I had watched him, so I figured that it had to be on purpose and I lost my six year old cool.
When I yelled in pain he forgot himself, or at least his phony act, and got in front of me and taunted me with, “What’s a matter, is the baby gonna cry?”
That was another mistake, because he put himself within reach. Without thinking about what I was doing, I nailed him on his big nose with a right fist full of rage. Jack went backwards into the lap of a lady waiting for her husband to get his turn, bleeding between his fingers and cussing like a sailor. My dad jumped just as fast and had me off of the chair and his belt in his hand before I could even focus my eyes I was so mad. He hit me a couple of times on the legs before the big man sitting next to him (the lady’s husband) blocked his arm and said, “I think the barber cut him on purpose.”
In a testimony to the way things were back then, no law suits were filed. It was declared a “misunderstanding” (on my part) and an “accident” (on Jack’s part) and we apologized to each other and life went on. Dad tipped him something ridiculous and he was happy. I would rather have drunk poison than apologize but I had two cut ears and my legs were on fire from my dad’s belt and didn’t want any more, so I did as I was told.
Jack did stop tormenting me with his subtle tricks. I am not sure if it was the punch in the nose, or the whispered comments from the big man in his ear that changed him. He was not a nice man.
In 1961 it cost $1.50 for an adult and $.75 for a kid to get a haircut and I was sent with a dollar to cover it. I always hated giving Jack that extra quarter for his tip. If I had tried to “forget” and skip his tip he would tell my father for sure, because he was in there every week.
This barbershop was in a row of businesses which include the convenience store (like a 7-11), the drugstore where I got my comic books, and the barbershop on the end. Cars pulled up to the front shared sidewalk and behind the building was a dirt alley and residential property facing a street on the other side, so it was their backyard property line.
So here I was, sitting in the shop waiting for my turn, which without my dad along, was always after every adult man who came in. It didn’t matter if I was first, I ended up last. If I went outside I lost my turn.
It was a typical hot and muggy south Florida day and the shop had no air conditioning, just a poor excuse for a fan running, so the back door of the shop was open. I was restless and had read both of the magazines already. Jack didn’t waste money on such things, preferring to talk relentlessly about whatever he had on his mind. Children however, were not allowed to have opinions, or even speak unless spoken to in his shop. So unable to leave, read, or speak, I walked around.
Looking out the back door I spotted the first cool thing that I ever associated with that barbershop. A cage with a spider monkey peering back at me sat just across the dirt alley. Since the plywood top said “ack’s B”, I figured that it was his old sign, and with his two metal trash cans sitting next to it with “JB” painted on them, it was a pretty sure bet that it was his.
Briefly, very briefly, I thought “how cool of Jack to have a spider monkey.”
But the more I looked and watched the monkey, the worse his conditions appeared to be. He was full grown and was in a wire cage that was about 4 feet wide and 4 feet high and maybe 3 feet deep. When he stood up he had his hands and feet at all four corners at the same time. The ground around him was picked clean of everything that he could reach through the wire and he had a bucket in the bottom corner of his cage for water that I couldn’t see any water in. There was a wooden box next to the cage with a hasp and padlock on it, and the cage door also had a padlock on it.
I was yelled at by Jack that it was my turn, and I had to get in the chair or miss my turn, just that quick. I thought that was funny, as there were grown men in the seats waiting. Why didn’t I get bumped?
I debated whether or not to ask Jack about the monkey as he was always so grouchy when I asked him anything. My curiosity won out and I asked him if that was his Geoffroy’s spider monkey in the cage out behind the shop. You could have heard a pin drop in that barber shop. I was not sure if it was because I spoke, or what I said. Jack said, “That’s none of your business boy” and started running his clippers up my neck. The discussion was obviously closed on the matter.
The men were discussing Kennedy, Castro and Cuba and the opinions were heated and loud and I didn’t dare try to speak again.
After I begrudgingly gave up my dollar bill I tried to leave through the back door and was stopped as soon as I started moving in that direction. Jack said, “customers must use the front door”, so I did an about-face and walked out the front door. Instead of turning right towards home, I turned left and went around the end of the building to the back alley.
The monkey started to hoot and bark when he saw me coming and moved his face muscles all up and down showing his nervousness. I had read a lot of information about monkeys and was again sure in my categorization of this cute fellow as a Geoffroy’s Spider monkey. They had been in the news about a relocation effort in Panama and I saw photos of them.
The cage smelled bad due to the pile of poop and rotted fruit under the floor and it was obvious to me that the creature had been there a while. I found a hose behind the cage and filled the water bucket until it overflowed, which made the monkey squeal. (I was just beginning to hear a long list of noises this boy could make.) I attempted to blast the debris under the cage away but it was very difficult with the small diameter garden hose with no metal end or nozzle on it. I got some of it out of there, but it agitated the monkey until he screamed every time that I squirted the hose towards the cage. He was bouncing off the sides like he was losing his mind, so I stopped and shut the water off.
Spider monkeys have very long arms and legs and an even longer tail. They are arboreal and cover a large amount of territory as they feed during the day. This poor monkey could barely even stretch his body to full range. I was upset and sickened by the poor conditions this creature was in. I don’t think that I was so much in “environmentalist” mode as I was distressed by his living conditions. I didn’t feel that it was wrong for anyone to have a pet monkey, I just hated to see it badly treated.
I marched myself back around the building and inside the barbershop to confront Jack. I should have expected the reception I got. “Mind your own business boy!” Jack snarled at me, and the men in the shop all nodded in agreement with him. I was a troublemaker he explained to the men who again nodded their heads. So I left. I was not going to get anywhere with him.
I made it my business to watch that monkey and check on him every single day, including in the evening when Jack would close up his shop. You can learn all kinds of things by observing and listening.
Jack had won the monkey in a bet with a guy who went back and forth to Central America with an import business and brought the little guy back to Florida with him. I also learned why we never saw a car parked there for the barber. He lived the house directly behind his shop and his wife had the car to go to church every day. She was as religious, as he was mean. And he was afraid of her. She barked at him and he said, “Yes Dear” and he never barked back.
The monkey was afraid of the water because Jack regularly blasted him with the hose and made the poor frightened creature scream. The food that the creature got was what fruit the store at the other end of the building threw out, mostly bananas that had already turned brown or black. I thought that Jack kept food in that locked box next to the cage but he never got any out of it, even though he opened the box every time he went out there and stood there for a long time looking inside.
I tried reporting the neglect and abuse to a police officer who stopped at the drugstore for a coffee or a coke sometimes, but he said that it wasn’t illegal for the barber to own the monkey and as long as it was in a cage he couldn’t do anything about it. I tried to get permission to call the Crandon Park Zoo and ask them to help but it was long distance and neither my mother or father would allow it. They told me that it was not my business, and to stay out of it. My brother said, “Shoot the monkey, it will be better off.” Well, I didn’t think so, I thought that it was too drastic, but it did give me an idea.
If no one would help me force Jack to take better care of the spider monkey, and it wasn’t illegal for him to have it, then I had no other choice but to take drastic action.
Sunday morning, while Jack and his wife were gone to church, I took some tools from home and went to the cage. I had tried cutting the hasp with wire cutting pliers previously and that wasn’t ever going to work. So I took a hammer and pounded a big screwdriver under the latch and ripped the hasp and all off of the wooden framework.
I did something that I have since learned better than to do, but I was desperate. I set that Geoffroy’s Spider monkey loose into the Florida environment. I also ripped the hasp off of the box next to the cage thinking that I could provide some food for it to survive on while it got used to where to forage.
But there was no monkey food in that locked box. Some monkey “shines” as an old saying goes, but no food. It had a whole stack of porno magazines hidden inside. Naked women of all shapes and sizes in living color and not Playboys, these were raunchy. Even at that young age I knew that I had Jack by his tender boy parts.
I recruited an older friend to see what was in the box, (so I wouldn’t be on my own in this) and he told Jack that if he made a fuss about the monkey we would tell his wife what he was up to in the backyard. We also told Jack that he had to keep getting fruit from the store and putting it on top of the cage for the monkey to get if he needed it. That was a wasted effort, understandably the creature never got near that cage again.
That spider monkey lived in the neighborhood trees and ate fruit from the trees (hey, it’s Florida) and raided the trash behind the convenience store when he wanted more. He was also seen sneaking dog and cat food out of dishes and occasionally raiding bird feeders. The neighbors all knew where it came from and never complained to the police, so it was not chased or shot at. Even when it would sit on a window sill and stare at people in their houses. They were all older in that area and they didn’t mind, they had compassion for it. In the winter he would be seen on the roof of a house next to vent pipes or sunning himself on the tiles.
When I left Florida nine years later it was still living in the neighborhood as far as I knew. And the barber was still a jerk and still cutting hair. Him, I would like to put in a cage.
I do not recommend, nor do I condone turning animals loose. It was the wrong thing to do then, and even more so today. But it was all I had left in my arsenal and I had to do something.
There are other, better ways to deal with such problems and what I lacked then was a concerned adult who would help me make this right. Remember this story and when your time comes, BE that concerned adult, help some kid make a difference, and prevent them from having to do the wrong thing to solve an injustice.