Candy from strangers

Candy from strangers
1969 was a very passionate and confused year in America. It was the time of “do-your-own-thing” individualism and the Viet Nam war draft. There other mind-boggling events like the moon landing and riots taking place to keep your world stirred up. I was living in south Florida and that place was beyond crazy on a good day. For teenagers, life seemed uncertain at best.
A small group of enthusiastic teens formed an organization that we called the “Davie Rodeo Club” which was not affiliated with any school (like they are now.) I belonged to a close knit group of bull riders, consisting of myself, Stan, Dubby, and Pollard (he had a first name, but we never used it.)
The four of us were close and always watched each other’s back. If one had trouble, the others were there… if you needed money, the others were digging in their pockets. In a time that stressed individuality, we had unity. And we were glad of it.
There were other bull riders in the club as well as bronc riders, bulldoggers, and ropers who hung around with us, but had their own cliques too. The kid whose dad owned the property that we built our arena on was a team roper, but he spent more time with us than the other ropers. It was obvious that we were a team and that was attractive to others who were used to being alone.
We did all the normal teenager stuff; if you can call anything a teenager does “normal.” There was the usual dating, dances and school and we did have our own interests outside of rodeo. Bull riding was the common bond between us and it was strong brotherhood. To outsiders it was probably considered an insane passion, but to us it was life.
Pollard was a year older than the rest of us, but in the same grade. A little trouble (probably not so little really) along the way had interrupted his school career and he repeated a year, thus ending up with us. He was never rude or disruptive in class but he was treated like a troublemaker by every teacher in classes that we had together.
We all thought that being underage and drinking beer was OK, with the typical misconception that drinking beer made us cool. The need to seem older and more sophisticated than our peers at school made us do stupid things like that. Some members of our group had more trouble than others with growing out of that bad choice.
Our teenage years are difficult at best, and can be devastating at the worst. Successfully navigating those years was often dictated by who you had around you. If you had someone to either look up to for an example, or listen to for guidance, it made a world of difference. Some of us figured out how we were being “extra stupid” on our own.
It wasn’t really apparent to us at first that Pollard had a drinking problem. We were after all still teenagers and a year younger than him. The guy always had a beer on him when he was away from school, but he never seemed to get drunk when we were around him. He started skipping school and going to work instead, more and more all the time. He said it was because he “needed” more money.
Pollard lived by himself in a small three room cottage apartment in Davie. His father had run off when he was young, his brother died in Viet Nam during the early years when we were just there as “advisors,” and his mother had problems with alcohol and other substances of her own. His mother being a substance abuser was the one reason why we didn’t think that Pollard would get “that way.” We were wrong.
If he couldn’t get beer or hard liquor, he would drink cough syrup or anything with alcohol in it. Stan caught him straining Sterno through a cloth to drink because he was out of booze and money and needed a fix just like a junkie. We decided right then and there that we were going to put a stop to this before it killed him and/or us (he often drove the car with us in it.)
Pollard wasn’t left alone after the Sterno incident, and we wouldn’t allow him to take a drink of anything with alcohol in it. It was pretty tense for a long time. There were several fights and we didn’t fight fair, we’d gang up on him. We were determined to save our amigo and beat the booze.
After a few weeks it appeared that Pollard was over his craving for alcohol. We were elated, sure that we had won the battle. He told us that he was OK and didn’t feel the need for alcohol any more. It seemed like everything had worked according to our plans.
He had switched addictions and was chewing Redman and dipping Copenhagen or Skoal a lot more, but we figured that was a good trade off. No one thought about cancer much back then… well, the rest didn’t. I had lost my grandfather and an aunt to cancer in the previous ten years and the idea of getting cancer bothered me. We thought we had it all fixed, but we were wrong.
Somehow Pollard had hidden a bottle of vodka where we couldn’t find it and was “spiking” his tobacco products with it to get his fix. He repeatedly said that he really wanted to quit and knew that we loved him like a brother and only wanted to help him. He felt the same about us and wouldn’t intentionally do anything to hurt us. But alcohol was still ruling his life, in spite of what he wanted… until we found out about the vodka in his tobacco.
That discovery caused a blowout of huge proportions. As always we were “plotting against him,” (as he saw it) so he told us all “where to go and how to get there.” We had finally had enough of spending all of our time on him and angrily stormed out of his place and went to Stan’s house to discuss what to do next. It was decided to do nothing; the next move was Pollard’s.
A week went by and we hadn’t seen or heard from Pollard and we were getting worried; the “what if” scenarios kept playing out in our minds. Then on Saturday morning about 11:00 a.m. Stan got a call from Broward General Hospital. He in turn called Dubby and I and we sped to town.
Pollard had gone fishing on the sea wall by the jetties near Dania Beach. When he went to stand up he reached back over his head to grab the handrail that went all along the wall, missed, and fell over backwards. The drop was about ten feet.
He landed on his head on some great big rocks that were jumbled up all along the dry side of the sea wall. The one-point landing split his head open and knocked him completely out. The witnesses said that he didn’t move after he hit.
Fortunately for him there were several other people out there that day and one of them ran to a phone to call for an ambulance. The response was very quick as there was a beach substation less than two miles away. The crew had to climb down into the rocks to get to him and check him over.
Keep in mind that this was 1969 and procedures were not anything like what you see today when a Paramedic or EMT arrives. They picked Pollard up, sat him upright, and put a bandage against his head wound to stop the bleeding. While checking his vital signs they noticed that he had a kind of green pallor about his face.
He just didn’t look right to them so they hauled him up the seawall bodily and manually carried him to the parking lot. There they strapped him onto a gurney, loaded him into the ambulance and hit the lights and siren. They didn’t have a clue why he would be green, but they were sure that it wasn’t right and that they had to get him to the ER, ASAP!
What they didn’t know (and Pollard was a little too unconscious to tell them) was that he had about half a pack of Redman Chewing tobacco (non-alcoholic version) in his mouth when he fell. He swallowed it all, and I promise you, that will give you a green color!
The call Stan got was from Pollard himself, wanting more chew (or at least some snuff to dip) and he sounded clear and alert. We met at Stan’s and then got into Dubby’s Oldsmobile and went to the hospital. They indeed did have him registered there, but no, we couldn’t see him until after 5:00 p.m. They were running tests on him and would be all day.
So, we went over to Leroy’s Coffee shop and drank coffee until we thought the tide had come in and we were about to drown. Then we took a road trip to Boca Raton to see the new Horse Track and finally, we thought we had burned up enough time and drove back to Broward General.
It was only 4:30 p.m. and that grumpy Charge Nurse would rip our heads off if we bugged her again asking to get in early. So, we sat in the car and listened to Dubby’s tapes. He was called “Dubby” because he had a speech impediment and could not say the letter “W” correctly. It always came out sounding like “Dubby” and that was a bummer since his first, middle, and last names all started with “W.”
We waited out our time and it seemed like forever because Dubby only had country music tapes in his car. He always claimed that it was because nobody would steal them like they did rock music. I would have gladly given them away to anyone who wanted them, especially when Dubby decided to sing along. The guy was tone deaf and didn’t care what he sounded like.
While we waited we had been watching two little boys, around six and eight years old, playing in their car while the adults went inside. They were obviously brothers and had been fighting most of the time. All of the windows were rolled all the way down in a failed attempt to keep them cool.
The boys had been repeatedly jumping from the front to the back seat and back again. They played with everything in the car; especially anything that they weren’t supposed to touch. The cigarette lighter, the ashtrays, the horn, everything was fair game to them.
Before too long they were even bored of fighting with each other. The young boys were just kind of lying across the backs of the seats with that,” been there, done that, too bored to bother” look on their kissers. The only thing that they didn’t even consider was getting out of the car; that would have brought the wrath of mom down on them.
Dubby said that it was time to go in and Stan and I gave a cheer. It was less because we now got to go see Pollard, and mostly because it meant that Dubby would quit that infernal noise. He said, “What? Don’t you like my singing?” I told him the sounds he made would give a Barn Owl hot flashes and he chased me around some cars. That boy just couldn’t take a little friendly critique.
While we were running around cars, Stan had been talking with the two little boys that we had been watching. They wanted to know if we were real cowboys, and Stan said, “Yep,” which was cowboy talk for, “Uh huh.” Then they asked him what that was that he was putting in his mouth.
I failed to mention that Stan had a broad mischievous streak. He said, “Candy, do you want some?” The little brother of course said, “Yeah” (which was little kid talk for “Yep.”) Stan gave him a big wad of Redman chewing tobacco, which he quickly jammed into his mouth so his brother couldn’t have any of it. I had been the target of his practical jokes in the past myself, so I felt sorry for the kid.
We were almost to the front door when we heard the sound of the involuntary expulsion of foreign matter. The little guy was being dangled out the window held by the ankles by his big brother. He lost his wad of chew and probably his lunch too. I could hear the older one saying, “Don’t you get any of that on Momma’s car, I ain’t getting a beating for you.”
We slapped Stan in the back of the head and called him bad names for doing that to that little guy. He said that he just wanted to teach them the lesson not to take things from strangers. I told him that he just convinced those two that all that bad things being said about cowboys were true.
Pollard was wearing one of those silly open-down-the-back hospital gowns and every time he got out of bed his entire butt would hang out. The nurse thought it was cute, which really worried him. She looked like a Marine drill sergeant, and she told him that she was going to give him a sponge bath later. He wanted out of there!
We had smuggled in his chew (which he wasn’t supposed to have) and he promptly loaded up his jaw and eventually had to spit. He looked around for anything convenient to spit in, (that the nurse wouldn’t see right away anyway) and settled on the bedpan. It was stainless steel and held quite a bit.
Even though he was able to get up and go to the bathroom just fine, they still put the bedpan next to his bed. It freaked him out that the nurse asked him if he needed help using it every time that she came in to check on him. We of course, picked up on his aversion to her attention and teased him every way that we could think of about their “romance.”
We asked our amigo how he was feeling, really. What we wanted to know more than anything was if alcohol was involved in his accident, but none of us would ask. Pollard said that he was fine, just a cut on his head and they had sewed that up and he was as good as new. He stressed over and over that he couldn’t wait to get released… before “Nursey” came calling again.
In a moment of rising bravado I finally asked about his drinking and was he having any trouble needing a drink in there? He told us that after we left him on the day of the big argument, he sat down and took stock of his situation. That day he had come to the conclusion that he had to either quit drinking or die. Pollard said that he thought long and hard about which one he wanted.
He reached the decision that life was worth living and it was up to him to make it work. No one else should have to be responsible for his actions, and he hadn’t touched a drop since. He was afraid that he would backslide and was embarrassed about how he had acted. So he wanted to wait until he had a week of sobriety under his belt and knew for himself that he could do it.
According to him he had gone out to the jetties to fish and think about what to say to us, and then fell off the wall. There was a long silence where we thought about what he said and stared at this guy that we cared about, wanting to believe him. It was fair to say that there was a lot of doubt in that room.
Dubby said, “Pretty speech, but if you don’t mean it, we’re all through with you.” Stan and I stared him in the eyes and nodded our agreement…. he got the message.
It was past visiting hours by then, so we were about to leave when Dubby said that he had to go dump the bedpan somewhere, so Pollard wouldn’t get caught. The little monster took it to the Godzilla nurse and told her that Pollard had a bowel movement and it didn’t look right to him.
When the nurse looked in that bedpan and saw the chew spit and chunks of tobacco leaf all chewed and mashed (it did look awful) she nearly screamed. Dubby had said, “Get out of here quick” but didn’t say why. From the panicked look on his face we knew better than to delay.
She was heading for his room when we took off down the hall, at a very fast, I-wish-I-could-run-now speed. Pollard got to stay an additional night while they analyzed his “sample.” He not only got the sponge bath, Nursey gave him an enema as well to “clean him out.”
The next day, Sunday, he got “out” all right… when the sample turned out to be chewing tobacco spit they practically threw him out the front door. We were there waiting to pick him up, and give him more chewing tobacco. We knew it was a filthy habit, but still indulged in it anyway.
The good news was that Pollard got off the alcohol completely and the rest of us didn’t want much to do with it either. We had seen enough with his struggle to convince us to not let anything get grip on our lives like that. There was a funny (to us) side effect from Pollard’s hospital experience; he said that whenever he took a chew after that it gave him the weirdest feeling, like he had to go to the bathroom.
My family and I moved to Georgia the next year and I lost track of my friends. It is true that all of us have to go our separate ways in life. I like to think that we learned enough from those hard lessons to make better decisions.
I am sure that those other guys are still out there somewhere having fun; and probably at each other’s expense if I know them.
Epilogue:
Pollard and Stan are gone now, but Dubby is a wealthy business owner with a stack of kids and grandkids. I would bet that he is still playing that crappy music and singing along with it while he plays tricks on his friends.
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Hiding from the Rain

Hiding from the Rain
As a young teenager I had many adventures not commonly available to most kids. Many of these were because of where I lived, south Florida, but I have to say some of them were just different because of how I looked at life.

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.

 
 It wasn’t the fact that I was a white kid in a decidedly Indian place, as I was very much accepted as a member of the tribe. Rather it was my age by itself. The old girl only liked babies and people with gray hair, everyone else irritated her. She said we all talked too much and got in her way.

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.

 
I grabbed the tree and pulled myself around one side of it as I reached the opposite way with my hand. That technique had worked many times in the capture of fast moving reptiles. On that occasion I found myself up close and personal with a very large and hairy spider. Quick recognition caused me to reverse direction in an instant and not out of any irrational fear of spiders; I knew what I was faced with.

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.

 
Being young and slightly cursed with the “invincibility” of youth, I still pursued the spider, much as I would have done with a rattlesnake or alligator. Luck was on my side and the spider disappeared before I could get my hands on it. I have no idea what I thought I would do with it, it was simply a thrill of the chase kind of thing.

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.

 
It wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. Those leaves were as long as I was tall and while not heavy, they were awkward. The bushes and trees between the garden and the compound where the chic-kees stood, was the natural equivalent of an obstacle course. I knew that if the old woman could see me she would be chuckling and shaking her head, which is the Seminole version of “I told you so.”

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.

 
Meals were eaten either in the open or sitting in a communal dining shelter where logs were burned in a star pattern with the big pot cooking in the middle. That wasn’t happening this time, at least that I knew about. As usual and in proper custom, I just did as she said. But, I was a lot more curious than any Indian boy would have been.

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.

 
That was repeated with six leaves which made a large curtain of green and didn’t seem to be affected by the wind at all. She had me save the two largest for something else, and directed me to hang the remaining four at a spot which blocked the wind and rain from hitting the pots. That was actually kind of cool, in a “Tarzan” sort of way, and I liked the experience.

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.

 
With that natural barrier in place I saw the world through a translucent green veil, with occasional drops of water running down the leaf. It was quite beautiful and the air smelled amazingly fresh and clean. I was dry and warm under my leaf, and fairly comfortable, although my bony butt could have used a cushion between it and the cypress pole platform.

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.

Fourteen and crazy

Fourteen and crazy
 
When you think of Florida a couple of the things that come to mind are oranges and tourists. In 1967 I seemed to get the two of them tangled up in just about everything that I did.
 
I was fourteen and constantly on the go, in a place where there were hordes of people who didn’t know you or didn’t care who you were. You could get in and out of trouble so fast that you hardly ever knew your present status. Was I in trouble or not? Who did you say were you again?
 
Working the Tourists
 
Being teenagers we were always in need of spending money. Having very little in the way of marketable skills, it was only natural that a few of us ended up doing manual labor.
 
An easy job to get was working for one of the orange groves moving bags and crates of oranges, grapefruit and lemons. Sometimes we got to work in the sorting area, and sometimes they sent us out to pick oranges.
 
Having teenagers as pickers wasn’t really a good idea on their part as we were too slow. The migrant workers who usually picked the oranges were very fast and they resented our being “in the way.” Honestly, they could get more done without us.
 
There were a couple of the guys who were very bold and preferred to hustle tourists. They would go to a rival grove (you didn’t burn your job “bridges”) and sit out front, waiting for one of the pushy tourists to order them to “Fetch me a bag of them oranges boy, and don’t get no rotten ones in it either!”
 
They would “Yes sir” them and go around to the sorting area and snag (steal) a bag of oranges off of one of the tables and take it out to the car for the tourist. When they collected the cash for it, they just put it in their pocket and waited for the next tourist.
 
Scoundrels for sure, but they would make on average fifty to one hundred dollars before any of the employees got wise. When that happened, and it always did, they would just go on to the next grove and pull the same gag over again. I couldn’t do it, the stealing and lying was too much for me to stomach. I preferred to work for what I got.
 
Another favorite money maker of our scam artists was to set up a table and cash box (that made them look legitimate) at one of the side gates to the groves. It had to be one that was near to a fairly well traveled road frequented by tourists going from attraction to attraction.
 
There were two variations to this scam; the least popular was the five dollar walking tour of the “World Famous Orange Groves.” It worked, just not for too long. When you’ve seen one orange tree, you’ve seen it all.
 
The better version was the “All of the oranges you can pick for twenty-five dollars.” We knew (and you probably do too) that you could buy a lot of oranges, already picked and bagged for that amount of money. We also knew that if those tourists thought that they were getting a better deal than somebody else, they would pay double the rate… they were nuts!
 
Sometimes we would ride through the groves after hours on horseback and pick gunny sacks full of oranges or my favorites, the Ponderosa lemons. Those beauties were as big as grapefruit and were less tart than regular lemons. They were also a lot more closely guarded.
 
One grove had night watchmen with dogs and those guys carried shotguns. I didn’t know why, but that was always my choice of places to go on an after dark raid. Maybe it was the thrill of possibly getting caught or even shot at. That we could actually get shot didn’t even enter our ignorant teenaged minds. We were incredibly lucky to have escaped unharmed from those forays.
 
The Party
 
Once there was a big outing planned to a very secluded pond, deep in the middle of a large grove of oranges. It was impossible to drive to without getting caught by the grove foreman because he kept padlocks and chains on the gates and checked them regularly.
 
Being local kids we knew a back way in from a spot where we could park the cars belonging to the two guys old enough to drive. It was about a half mile walk from there and you had to go through two fences, but it wasn’t bad.
 
We went on a Sunday afternoon around 5:00 p.m. because that would have been when the grove tourist shops would be closed (or in the process of closing) and all the employees would have gone home. Theoretically there wouldn’t be anybody around to catch us. There was a lot of luck and expectations in most of what we did.
 
The group that went on that trip consisted of four boys and four girls, aged from fourteen (me) to sixteen years old. Our intent, which was stated right up front, was to go skinny dipping in the pond there. Being the youngest one in the group I could hardly keep the grin off of my face as the others talked about it.
 
All eight of us agreed to take it all off and swim the length of the pond naked. Then if anyone wanted to put their bathing suit back on they wouldn’t be called chicken or said to have backed out of a dare. We talked a good story and the hormones were doing most of the talking. The girls definitely did their share of stirring it up, saying that the guys would chicken out.
 
There was a case of beer in a cooler in the trunk of one of the cars, for afterwards when we thought that we might really get to “party” with these bold babes. We definitely had hopes and plans for this evening; the other car’s trunk had sleeping bags in it. The girls knew all about the beer and the sleeping bags and were talking about it all too.
 
With high spirits and lots of laughter and giggling, we drove to the parking spot and stripped down to our bathing suits and sneakers. The oldest boy secured our clothes inside the trunk of his car, which was the one with the cooler in it. His plan was to have some cold beer ready to offer the girls when we got back and were getting dressed… planning, along with timing, being everything in his mind.
 
It didn’t take long for us to follow the path through the groves and slip through the fences. We were being the most courteous gentlemen and holding the wire apart for the girls to go through, on our best behavior and all that. The girls were doing their best southern belle accents as they thanked us for each polite gesture.
 
I think that the guys were ten times more nervous as we got closer to the pond, than the girls were. I’m not sure if that was excitement about seeing the girls naked, or insecurity about them seeing us in that condition… probably some of both.
 
I was a multi-sport athlete in excellent condition, but I only weighed one hundred pounds. I felt like I was a skinny runt compared to the older guys. They were all taller and heavier than I was, but mentally I ran circles around them, so it all evened up.
 
We stopped at the edge of the trees and took a good and careful look around the pond, making sure that NO ONE was around. Someone had left a tractor and flatbed wagon used for hauling orange crates right next to the end of the pond closest to where we came out of the trees.
 
It was decided that the wagon would be a perfect spot to put our clothes. The trailer was only a couple of feet from the water and chest high with a lip around it, making a safe, clean, and “no bugs” place to put our bathing suits. You had to be especially careful of fire ants.
 
Once we had all gathered by the trailer and were standing there staring at each other trying to figure out how to proceed, it was suggested that we should all strip at once.
One of the guys said, “But the guys all have their shirts off already and the girls have two articles of clothing on. The guys would be naked first and the girls could trick us.
 
The oldest girl and the one who had the most developed body said, “OK girls, let’s show these chickensh–s who has guts and who doesn’t! Off with the tops!” As she said it, she did it. The other three followed her lead and while they were not as developed they were every bit as beautiful.
 
All of the guys stood there with our eyes bulging out of our heads and the leader of the girls said, “Are we going to do this, or is this all you wanted the whole time?” We all stammered and stuttered, “We’re going to do everything we said” and puffed up like so many bandy roosters. The lead girl said, “On a count of three, everybody drop ’em, One, Two, Three!”
 
What do you think happened? We dropped those bathing suits and stood there staring at each other. The boys stared at the girls and tried not to look at the other boys. The girls weren’t as inhibited and looked at each other and the boys.
 
I’m afraid that the guys weren’t much to look at in that scared and nervous state, if you know what I mean. The girls looked awesome… the guys looked cold.
 
We put our suits up on the trailer to keep the bugs out of them (and have them where we could grab them if we had to run for it) and all headed for the pond. There was a lot of nervous looking around, searching in every direction for the sight of trouble as we got into the water.
 
Damn it was freezing at first, but as the girl I was paired up with came up behind me and wrapped her arms around my neck and hung onto me it got a lot warmer. In fact as she got friendlier, I thought that the water was going to start boiling any minute.
 
One of the other girls who didn’t really like the guy she ended up with, said, “Aren’t we supposed to swim the length of the pond? Come on girls, let’s show these ‘little weenies’ who can swim!” Ouch, that smarted.
 
I was enjoying what was transpiring with my girl just fine, without all the swimming. But if one girl said something, it was an all-for-one and one-for-all situation with them. So, we all took off swimming for the other end. I hadn’t realized how long that pond was; it was easily three times as long as an Olympic Pool.
 
We were pretty exhausted by the time we got to the other end and the girls had indeed left us in their wake. But I must admit, the view was excellent from a following position!
 
When we all reached the far end and stopped where we could reach the bottom and not have to tread water, we gathered together in a close circle. That way we could see each other in the fading light and talk about what to do when we left the pond. The girls were very much in agreement with having a party, but there was discussion about where.
 
Some wanted to go to the beach to get away from the mosquito’s that would be out soon. Others wanted to go to another remote spot where we knew that the cops (or anybody else for that matter) couldn’t come up on us without our knowing about it. I voted for wherever there would be the least mosquitoes. But, since I wasn’t driving, my vote didn’t carry much weight.
 
While we were tossing the ideas around we heard an engine start up and looked around us quickly. Once the source of the sound was located our hearts sank lower than the bottom of that pond.
 
There was a migrant worker on the tractor and he was driving it (and the trailer hooked to it) out a gate towards the equipment barn. All of our clothes were on that trailer, along with the car keys!
 
The girls sank down in the water up to their noses and started to get teary-eyed and say, “What are we going to do now?” The guys were “of course” much more in control… offering various wise things to the group like, “Aw Sh-t”, and “We are going to die!”
 
At that point one of the girls started to cry (there’s always one) which started the chain reaction of tears among the girls; except for the girl who had latched on to me. She had a wild look in her eyes and I believed that she really liked this situation. It got her more excited to be in such “danger” and she clung to me even harder.
 
We thought about heading for the cars naked, we could possibly get into the car and hot wire it. But, we still couldn’t get into the trunk to get our clothes. Plus, we would have to drive into town naked; the whole group of us completely bare butt naked! That idea started a new round of tears from the other girls as they envisioned the trouble they would get into with their parents.
 
That just left sending a clothes rescue mission after the tractor and trailer. I volunteered to go saying that I knew the grounds of that grove the best of any of us, all the while thinking to myself, “I want my clothes!”
 
The girl who was attached to me (literally at that point) immediately volunteered to go with me. I was sure that was because of the increased chance of getting caught; it was really turning this girl on.
 
Truthfully, I was conflicted between being excited about the girl with me being aroused and hanging all over me, and fearful that she would do something to get us caught for the extra “rush” of being busted.
 
We agreed that the rest of the group would wait either in the pond, or at the edge of the woods on the path to the cars, for us to get back. The other girls didn’t share the enthusiasm of mine for possibly getting caught, they were whining about what their parents would do if this got out, etc. The guys were pretty much speechless with fear, thinking about what the girls’ fathers would do when they found out.
 
Lady Godiva and I took off along the wagon road and while I was trying to be cautious and not be seen, she was walking right down the middle of the path. It was almost dark by now and chances of being seen were not great, but she was fearless.
 
In a short amount of time we came to a closed gate and past that we could see the wagon and trailer parked next to the equipment shed. I couldn’t see the man who drove it there anywhere around the building.
 
I convinced my wild date to stay low and wait for me to come back while I went for the clothes. As quietly as I could I slipped inside the compound and went along the building in the dark shadow next to it.
 
Stumbling over unseen things I was almost to the trailer where I could see all of our stuff, right where we left it. And then I heard it… a low growl coming from somewhere in the shadows.
 
“Oh great” I thought, “A dog, and I’m naked.” Three guesses as to where my hands went instantly. Sure enough a big dog popped out of the shadows, but ran right past me…. straight to the crazy chick. She had silently followed me and was now petting the happy mutt like they were old buddies.
 
I quickly grabbed all of our stuff and made sure that I had both sets of keys. As fast as I could I put my bathing suit and shoes on. There was no way of knowing if the dog had alerted anyone else and they might appear at any moment.
 
The girl didn’t want to put her clothes on until the others did, which was fine with me. I liked the way she looked just like she was. The dog followed us back down the trail and we made no effort to hide going back and so made much better time.
 
When we rejoined the others, the party atmosphere had disappeared. After everyone had gotten dressed and hiked back to the cars, the girls wanted to go home. The other guys were of the same opinion, but didn’t want to admit it. Too much stress with their orange juice I guess.
 
I was still pretty excited about the “prospects” at that point and it kind of let the air out of my sails for the rest of them to want to quit. My girl was still hanging on me and kissed my ear or neck frequently, which drove me crazy.
 
When the decision was made final and everyone started getting into cars, the girl that I was with said that she didn’t need a ride… she would just walk back up to the house.
 
I thought to myself, “This girl IS crazy!” Then she followed up with, “It’s my uncle’s house… he owns this grove.” The world spun for a few seconds as my life flashed by and I thought that I was going to drop.
 
Right then and there I knew that it wasn’t her; I was the craziest one. If I had been caught naked with THIS girl, on THIS property… they would have to strain alligator sh-t to get enough of me to bury. Her family was the craziest bunch of violent red-necks in the county and all of her brothers and cousins had police records.
 
I changed my mind, I wanted to go home right away too; while I still had unbroken legs.
 
Epilogue:
 
I did go out with the girl on one date to Pirate’s World after that ill fated swimming adventure, but her three brothers (one younger, two older) went along too. It was a lot less fun than you could imagine. I didn’t do that again.
 
About a year after the skinny dipping party I had occasion to visit that same grove and pond with my uncle. We went there to deliver a couple of special locking sixty gallon barrels that he had traded to the grove foreman for something.
 
While we were standing on the path (exactly where the wagon had been parked during our swim) an eight foot alligator climbed out of the pond and onto the bank. My uncle remarked that he must have walked a long way to get into the pond. The foreman said that he (the alligator) had lived in that pond for at least ten years and everyone there knew to stay away from him because he was, “cranky.” OK, the girl WAS crazier.

Things not spoken of

Things not spoken of
 
Life is not always full of unicorns and rainbows, there are also the things not spoken of, that are part of what has to be.
 
When I was young boy I made friends with elderly neighbors of my grandparents, aunts & uncles, and cousins. I say it that way because they all lived on the same street in Hollywood, Florida.
 
The couple was older than my grandparents (who were born in 1900 & 1915) and had a grown son who was about thirty-five. The son, David, was a giant of a man (it seemed so to a small boy) with the mind of a child. I never knew the reason for his mental deficiency as such things were not talked about in those days.
 
David and I got along very well, in fact much better than he did with my younger cousins who were his close neighbors (I lived a mile away) and teased him sometimes. They didn’t see his problems as being beyond his control. Nor did they comprehend the danger of angering a man who was 6’3” and over 200 lbs and didn’t have the capacity to control himself. They were just children too.
 
I would guess that David had a mental age of between four or six, but also had to wear a “diaper” (such things were very unusual in the early 1960s) under his pants because he sometimes had accidents. He was incredibly strong and often picked his average size parents up in his arms when he got excited.
 
All three of the members of this family were born in Germany, David in 1925 and his parents before 1890. The couple had waited until after Henrik (David’s father) had completed University and Graduate School to marry and then until his position was secure with the company he worked for until they had a child (in their middle thirties.)
 
They left their native country in 1938 as Hitler’s influence began to cause them to fear for the safety of their special needs child. There was also fear of involuntary military conscription (even at his age) due to Mr. Klaus having an advanced degree in mechanical engineering. So, they sold everything they had and sailed for America.
 
Arriving in New York City with a promise of employment (from a friend of a friend) they ran into strong anti-German sentiment at the firm he was supposed to join, and they were made to feel very unwelcome. Grace (David’s mother) spoke very little English and the other wives shunned her and their son.
 
A neighbor (also a German immigrant) in the apartment building they were living in told them of a company in Hollywood, Florida that was hiring machinists. Henrik said that it was better to be welcome and employed as a machinist than spit on as an engineer. Within a week the two families took the train to Florida.
 
Mr. Klaus worked as a machinist and then manager for the same firm for thirty years, retiring right before Christmas in 1968. During World War II they manufactured precision metal parts for military hardware from aircraft to tanks. After the war they switched to mainly heavy equipment parts but also made something for space rockets (like the Saturn V.)
 
By the time that I met the family, Grace and David had learned to speak English and had almost no perceptible accent remaining. Henrik had spoken English since he was a school boy and came from an educated multi-lingual family. He did have an accent that was interesting, but not confusing. You could easily understand everything that he said.
 
When they spoke to each other they spoke in German so that David would retain his native language, but switched to English whenever anyone else was present. I told them that I didn’t mind if they spoke German to each other as long as they let me know if I was supposed to know something. They smiled a lot and laughed at what I had said to them. I didn’t really know why.
 
Grace always spoke to and of Henrik as “Herr Klaus” (or Mr. Klaus if others were present) and waited on him as women did in that time and generation. He always treated her with respect and love and opened doors and held chairs for her, even at their own dining room table.
 
Henrik always wore a vest and tie from the time he got up, until he went to bed at night. If he left his property he had on a suit coat and hat and carried an umbrella that doubled as a walking stick (cane.) He was a slender man, about 5’ 8” tall, had silvery white hair and what was called a “Van Dyke” beard in those days. There was an air of class and dignity about the man that others could only hope to emulate.
 
In 1964 (it was after the Kennedy assassination) David had gotten a bit more belligerent when he wanted to do something and his mother had said no. He would protest loudly and throw a temper tantrum like children do; only this child was a big and very strong man.
 
I went to their house one day to pick kumquats from their tree and found Grace sitting on the back patio crying. Henrik was at work and David was supposed to be taking a nap (yes even at 39 years old) but he had gone out of the front door in defiance of his mother’s orders and was walking up and down the street.
 
The old woman was very distraught and even though I was only a boy, she confided that she was worried about not being able to take care of her son for much longer. I wasn’t sure just what “putting him in an institution” meant, but it didn’t sound good to me. She pulled herself together and smiled and told me that the kumquats were ripe and tasty and that I could pick as many as I wanted. I think she really just wanted to change the subject.
 
During a birthday celebration for me in the end of June, my youngest cousin ran around to the back of my uncle’s house where we were all gathered in lawn chairs yelling that David had thrown his mother down the steps. The entire family, except for my great grandmother who walked with crutches, jumped up and ran to help.
 
David was beside himself with frustration at what had happened. Everyone seemed to be afraid of him because he was yelling and waving his arms but I knew that he was just upset and unsure of what to do. I had seen him like that before. My father told me to stay away from him, but I took his hand anyway and he calmed down and then started to cry. It was a bizarre sight.
 
Grace was conscious and told us from her still prone position on the ground that David had “bumped” her and she fell down the steps. We were pretty sure that her leg was broken and I was sent inside to get the telephone number for Mr. Klaus at work.
 
I remember asking if they wanted me to just call him while I was inside and got slapped on the back of my head for asking. My dad was already angry at me for disobeying the order to stay away from David and said, “Just do what you are told for once!”
 
David and I went inside to get the number and I wrote it down on a piece of paper while sitting at the telephone desk between the dining room and kitchen. On the desk was a piece of paper from the South Florida State Mental Hospital. I wasn’t sure but I thought that might be an “institution.” We know it was now of course, but then you didn’t speak of such places, especially around children.
 
David was calm again by then so I asked him what had happened. The big man said in a little voice that “Mama said that I couldn’t go outside, but I wanted to go outside.” “So what did you do?” I asked him quietly, looking over my shoulder at the front door to make sure that no one else was in the house.
 
The huge man made a shoving gesture with both arms while saying “Yes Mama!” and then hung his head saying, “Mama fell down and cried.” I made the decision in my newly eleven year old mind right then that I was not going to volunteer that information to those outside. I was sure that they would tie David up and drag him off immediately to that “institution.”
 
Henrik arrived home in a few minutes and away they went to Hollywood Memorial Hospital. David rode along and actually carried his mother into the Emergency Room and then back to the car once all of the medical care was completed. Grace now had a new cast and some pain medication, along with a broken heart.
 
Women from their church were already bringing food over by the time they got home. Once Henrik got Grace situated in her bed, with David assigned to sit by her bed in case she needed him to get her something, he came looking for me.
 
Henrik took me aside and asked me what David had done really, because he knew that I had been with him the whole time since the accident and now the “boy” wouldn’t talk. I had told David not say anything about what he had done, that was true.
 
As we walked back to their house I explained to the very kind old man what his son had done. He broke down and cried for just a few minutes, which rattled me to the bones. I had no idea what this meant for their lives but I cried too, because Henrik was so sad.
 
A few days later my grandmother sat with Grace while Henrik and David took a ride to visit “the nice place.” That nice place was the South Florida State Mental Hospital and Henrik was checking it out in person. He took David with him to be sure that he didn’t hurt anyone while he was gone.
 
My grandmother said that when they came home again David told her that the nice place smelled like “the medicine hanging on the back of the bathroom door.” Many of you may be familiar with that rubber bag and hose arrangement.
 
His was just a statement of fact and not a social comment, but the story was told forever more between the women of that neighborhood and spread by those who overheard their whispers. The hospital smelled like either an enema or a douche, depending upon who told the story. It was known as the “_____ (fill in your choice) bag hotel” from then on.
 
When I went there in 1969 (See “Getting Inside the Bin”) and experienced the place for myself I decided that I would cast my vote for “enema.” It certainly was no “Summer’s Eve!”
 
On the Saturday after that visit, David hit his father in the face with a dinner plate during a tantrum at the table and knocked him out. He had broken his cheekbone and Henrik’s left eye was swollen closed and turned purple. That sealed his fate and arrangements were made.
 
After church on Sunday, a panel truck (like a van) from the hospital came and they led a heavily sedated, but still mobile David out to the truck and strapped him into the seat. I have never seen a more defeated looking couple than those two wonderful old people on that day.
 
They waited the requested week before they went to visit their son and when they arrived David went wild, throwing an orderly across a table and against a wall. A doctor had to give Grace a sedative and they helped Henrik get her back into the car.
 
Henrik tried to visit David several times after that, but Grace never went back. I don’t believe that she ever smiled again after that day. The doctors had to increase the dosage of medication that David was on just to control him. He had badly hurt the orderly on the first visit and had hurt another patient since that visit. At the doctor’s request Henrik quit going to the hospital.
 
They had no choice in what had to be done, David would have seriously hurt, or even killed one of them (or someone else) if he had continued to live at home. Henrik continued to dress, act, and work exactly as he had always done, but the smile was gone from him too.
 
Grace’s broken leg healed but still bothered her a lot, causing her to need to use a cane to walk for the rest of her days. She was soon showing some form of dementia (probably Alzheimer’s) and didn’t remember what happened to David. I suppose if it were ever a good thing to have dementia, this would have been it.
 
Henrik retired and spent his time taking care of Grace and puttering around in his super organized and spotless shop. The last time I saw him he sharpened a German World War I bayonet with a saw back (he did the saw part too) for me. I still have that bayonet.
 
Their personal dilemma taught me that even when you do the right thing, it can still feel wrong.
 
 
Epilogue
 
Grace lived to be 89 and five years later Henrik went at age 94, both passing in their sleep at home in their own beds.
 
David died in the hospital from a brain aneurysm fifteen years after being admitted. I did not try to see him when I went there on a psychology class trip. I was afraid of what would happen if he recognized me. I did not want to cause him more suffering and pain.

Hate is not the answer

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.

 

Background

 

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.

 

Enter Curiosity

 

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?

 

The Rally

 

“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.

 

The Escape

 

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.

 

Finally

 

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.

 

Emancipation

Emancipation

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.