Editor’s Pick
DECEMBER 14, 2008 10:43PM

Not that Florida – I’m talking about My Florida

Rate: 23 Flag

Palm Christmas Tree

Well, this year for the holidays the family and I are going to Florida.  No, no, not that Florida.  That one is the Disney World, Spring Break, and South Beach Florida.  I’m talking about My Florida.  The one that you have to look harder to find.  Drive past Orlando, hit the turnpike at Wildwood, and keep on going down to Miami and beyond.  Don’t stop at the normal places – that’s not the Florida that I know. 

You see, I grew up in Florida.  From age 3 until I graduated from college, Florida was my home.  There were five of us kids, my Mom and Dad, and a couple of outside cats.  We lived in a very tidy and modest house in a sleepy bedroom community near the Miami International Airport.  Miami Springs, to be exact.  We knew a number of people who lived there who worked for the airlines in one capacity or another.  Airlines like Eastern and Pan Am were big back then, before mergers and bankruptcies changed the commercial aviation landscape. 

We didn’t have much, but we kids lived a reasonably carefree existence.  I delivered newspapers, mowed lawns, along with other jobs over the years starting from when I was around 10 or 11 years old.  Every day, though, there was time to spend outside playing together and with the other kids in the neighborhood.  There was pretty much always someone to play with, and the South Florida climate was pretty cooperative most of the time.  I’d even get up early to go fishing with my brother on the weekend sometimes.  Though we did get to take school field trips to Disney World, I was much more interested when we’d get the chance to head into the Everglades or down to the Keys to places like John Pennekamp State Park.  Now these were cool places, full of real life and energy – and away from the concrete jungle that seemed to be growing by leaps and bounds.

After I graduated from college and got married, we would visit my parents in Florida once or twice a year.  I took my midwestern bride to the places that I’d come to know and love.  Then My Florida got turned upside down.  A year and a half after we were married, my father died suddenly and my mother and my 13-year-old brother moved to North Carolina to be closer to her family.  No longer was there a good reason to travel 1,200 miles back home each year. 

The years rolled along, and before long our two sons were 15 and 11.  My Florida had been dormant for way too long.  It was a part of me they hadn’t really seen, and they embraced the opportunity.  Mary and I eagerly made plans with the boys (there was some minor grumbling about not visiting the coaster parks around Orlando), packed up the family truckster, and began our Christmas break 2004 journey back to my home.

Home in Miami Springs

After two very long but uneventful days on the road, we arrived in Miami.  The palm trees mesmerized the boys.  Was this really December?  Maybe they could see the light in my eyes as I showed them around my old haunts.  Even the younger one was asking questions and wanting to know more about my life here.  We pulled up in front of my old house and it hadn’t changed much.  Everything seemed smaller than I remembered, though.  There was the front yard that we used to play our countless Super Bowl games.  The alley way where we “trash-picked” our supplies to build the elaborate fort in the back yard holly tree.  The berry and fruit trees that provided the ammo for our skirmishes.  (The battles started small with berries, and then progressed in ascending order from loquats to avacados to mangoes up eventually to full blown coconuts -- hey you've got to defend that tree fort with what you have available!)  A smile came over my face as the stories began to flow out of me.  Tales that now as a parent I cringe to recall.  Did I really just tell them how we used to tape firecrackers to berries, light them right next to our face as we pulled back the slingshot, and launch them into the sky? 

Key Lime Pie

We drove past the high school (sadly it’s surrounded now by tall security fencing), and down along the river.  Stopping by the 7-11, we buy a Slurpee and find out from the manager that this is the same machine that was used 30 years ago to quench my thirst during those miserably sticky August afternoons.  Then there is the Key Lime pie store around the corner.  Oh.  My.  God.  The boys agree that this is to die for.  A few hundred yards away is the dream house my parents designed and built.  It still looks great, but I feel the sadness that comes with knowing that they were only able to live there for a few years.  The boys find coconuts near the house and tuck them away in the car.  When I tell them that we’ll open them with our hands later, they look at me with amazement and delight.

The Tree

In the early afternoon, we take the drive over the river and through Hialeah to see The Tree.  At 2 pm in the middle of the week, traffic is crawling along.  When we finally make it to Biscayne West (the retirement home where my father worked, and where he fell on that fateful day in October 1982), the place has changed considerably.  There is now a guard and a gate that we have to navigate before we can enter.  We explain that we’re not here to see anyone, just to check on The Tree that we planted over 20 years ago in honor of my father.  The guard shrugs and in broken English consents, raising the gate for us.  The built-up neighborhood around the retirement home is clearly a bit rougher than I remember back in the day.  We eventually find the mahogany tree, though, and it is a glorious towering specimen.  Try as I may to hold them back, the tears stream down my face as I read the small plaque nestled at the base of the tree.  It’s been more than 22 years now, and I still miss him every day.  With hugs all around, we move on.

Plaque

We head back to Miami Springs, and before long we pull in to 51 Park Street – Miami Springs Elementary School.  This was the school that my family knew and loved the most.  Hell, when we get together, my sister and all my brothers can still sing the school song!  Very weird . . .  Do other elementary schools have songs that people remember 30-40 years later?  We roam around the open-air halls a bit and then head out to the playground. 

Elementary School field

When you come down with a serious disease in 7th grade, it’s funny how your perspective changes.  It seems so odd to think about it now, but it was here on this field where I made my mark.  This was my Field of Dreams.  I would beg my brothers and friends to come over here after school.  We’d cut through the neighbor's yard, dash across the little bridge that spanned the canal, and the world would be ours.  This was where we would take our mighty swings, and when the ball finally arced over the fence, it was like a walk-off homer in the World Series clearing the Green Monster.  It was here on Thanksgiving Day decades ago where that perfect spiral pass I threw to my brother banged off his finger, sending him (and my not-too-happy mom) to the emergency room for repairs.  There was also a hole-in-one on our make-shift golf hole than went the length of the field.  During the school year too, I ruled on this pitch.  The annual field day was a highlight, and on more than one occasion I came home with the blue ribbon as the fastest in my grade.  It was here that I successfully executed an unassisted triple play in kickball.  It was here that I received top honors and three patches in the Presidential Physical Fitness program.  Small victories, perhaps, but my boys seemed to enjoy hearing their gimply old dad wax poetic about his glory days.

Alligator

American Alligator lying on the bank in the Everglades

 Then it was time to leave the city and head down to the magical lands to the south.  First, stop was Everglades National Park.  Driving all the way back to Flamingo, you enter into a different world.  A River of Grass meets the sea, and we are transported.  There is nothing quite like the Everglades.  From the iconic alligators to the seemingly endless assortment of birds, this place is magic.  (Ever been canoeing through the swamp with alligators nearby?  Quite a rush, I can tell you!)

Osprey 1

Osprey returning to the nest carrying a freshly caught fish (in Flamingo)

Osprey 2

  Another shot of the Osprey, perched high to survey his territory

Great Blue Heron

 Great Blue Heron fishing in Everglades National Park

 

Manatee with Santa

 Santa with his Eight-Manatee team 

Bridge in Keys

 The Seven-Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys

Florida sunset

DogWoman enjoys a soothing sunset in the Keys 

Iguana

 Iguana in the mangroves – an invasive species that is rapidly expanding 

Man o war

A beautiful but treacherous Portuguese Man O War on the beach

Canoes on the beach

Canoes beckon you to take to the water and paddle your own adventure among the mangroves.  The wildlife is stunning and everyone kicks back to take it all in. 

Red-shouldered hawk

  Red-Shouldered Hawk high in the tree top

Canoe in mangroves

Meandering among the Mangroves
 
  Great White Heron
 
Great White Heron near Grassy Key

After brother David arrives solo from North Carolina, there’s even time for some fishing.  The mackerel keep us hopping and by the end of the day we are beat.  We make it home in one piece, and show off our bounty from the sea and matching shirts to commemorate the expedition. 

Mackerel

Matching shorts

The night before we leave, the coconuts come out and David and I show the boys how to open one with your bare hands.  Real men do it this way, and getting coconuts at the grocery store just doesn’t cut it.

Coconut opening

  Brother David shows Andrew and James the proper technique

Raven

  An ominous Crow

When daylight comes, it’s time to get back in the family truckster and start the long journey home.  After chowing down on Sweet Sixteen donuts with a Tang chaser (a tradition that the boys heartily support), we’re off.  The boys can sense my sadness, but now they know a bit more about their old Dadzo.

Andrew with Tang and Sweet Sixteen

We’re heading back there again in a little more than a week.  It’s only the second time in 19 years.  But this time it will be different.  This time My Florida is their Florida too.   

Pelicans

  Brown Pelicans prepare to dive 
 
Preserve sign

 

All photos © The Bionic Man and DogWoman.  May not be used without permission.

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Comments

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Great trip log and love the photos. I like Florida, but mostly very early in the morning, before all the Floridians wake up.
MTN - missed you this trip when we went out on our dawn patrol. Maybe next time . . . Saw a bobcat one time, though. What I really want to see is a Florida Panther!
I hear you, Bionic. I love the wildlife in Florida. Once, I had a close encounter with a cougar.
Great story, Bionic!
I love Florida. The Everglades are magical.
Have you ever read The White Heron? A short story which captures wild Florida very well. Of course, Carl Hiaasen is essential Old Florida. Got to hear him speak up in Portland.
This is an excellent collection of photos. I think my favorite is the one of the boats pulled up on the beach with the weathered names.
What a wonderful present you've given your children. They will always remember it. I've never been to Florida for all the usual reasons, but after having read this, I would like to go. I wish I was in Dog Woman's hammock right now. *sighs*
Love this story! I grew up in Jacksonville in the 60's and our family fishing trips to Homosassa, Okechobee and the Keys were amazing. I remember going to Miami for stone crabs every time we went to the Keys, the highlight of the trip. We frequently went down Highway 1 and A1A, with all the quaint little tourist motels and cheesy attractions (that we kids loved) along the way. That Florida is nearly gone, but you brought it back for me. Thanks so much.
Your Florida (and the one I live in) is getting harder to find. Greenpeace is actually borrowing from the Obama playbook and has stationed people permanently here to make sure it doesn't disappear completely. Rated for beauty and truth.
Story and pictures are great. I live in Florida and, like you, feel that the good stuff has been buried beneath the surface.
o'steph - thanks, will have to check out that short story.
Koakuma - expected that you might enjoy the photos.
emma peel - hopefully you can get to Florida sometime and spend some time on a comfortable hammock . . .
Ardee, cartouche, BC6761 - great to hear from some fellow Floridians. Glad you enjoyed the post.
This is beautiful. Thanks for this post.

I have lived in Florida for 20 years and first lived in the panhandle before the real estate boom. Incredibly lovely place -- never understood the concept of a rural beach town until I lived there and it was fascinating.
Dorinda - thanks for stopping by. Don't really have any real experience with the panhandle. May have to check it out more sometime.
Boy, nice guy. Thanks a lot. After a day spent looking at 6 ft. stalactites (or is it stalagmites -- can never remember -- think "c" is from ceiling, "g" is from ground) hanging from the eaves like so many Damocles' swords and the evening hearing them falling like cracks of doom, I gotta read about Florida :-).

Beautiful story and pictures. Loved all of them, especially the bird pictures. Including that beautiful bird DW snoozing.The shot of the three pelicans in perfect synch is a classic. You're a great photog, man.

Happy holidays to you, DW and the family.

XWOOF XWOOF XWOOF (my famous Christmas woofs, the Chipmunks got nuttin' on me)
Living in North Central Florida, as I do now, I really miss Miami, the Everglades and the Keys. Thanx for the memories. The photos were great.

I did see two Florida panthers once in a pasture less than ten miles from where I now live. That was years ago, however.

Dawg said "After a day spent looking at 6 ft. stalactites (or is it stalagmites -- can never remember -- think "c" is from ceiling, "g" is from ground)"

A mnemonic aid - think of ants in your pants: "When the mites go up, the tites go down."
Man Talk Now - on further reflection, not sure what the exact nature of your close encounter with a cougar really was. A chance encounter in the wild, or have you been hanging around with Deven's famous growling mom? ;)
CCC - sorry to cause any pain to our Northeastern buds . . . glad you enjoyed the photos. Yes, that DW bird is quite a catch, isn't she! Thanks for the holiday WOOFS. You should record them someday and hit the big time!
WG - I really envy you about the Florida panthers. Maybe some day. Love the mnemonic device for the 'mites and the 'tites!
Lovely photos-- the whole post was very evocative.

I could almost feel "my" Florida in there, too. Not as far south, though-- Sarasota area. My grandparents lived there for many years, and it was the only place that felt like home, since my father was in the Air Force, and the rest of us were camp followers.

We did finally all end up there when I was finishing junior high, and I graduated high school, but then a year later (about the time that Disney World was launched), I moved north and have only been back to visit sporadically. It just isn't the same.

Paved and painted roads that were once covered with crushed shells, parking meters, excessive traffic the whole long year, etc., etc. It's too high-energy now.
Love the photo of you four guys laughing (that's James in his long hair phase). Also love Andrew's sticky-up hair in his Tang & Donuts breakfast stupor.

Great stories and evocative writing! Paws way up from your favorite accomplice.
ktm - glad this brought back some good memories for you. Things have changed, indeed. It's definitely tougher to find places like you remember from days gone by.
BioBro-

Florida and California have such bad raps to overcome, hanging as they do on the precipice of the abyss. Thanks for taking us virtual trippers along on your journey. I feel that it is now Our Florida. Of course, I am now over 50 so my changed point of view could be attributed to aging, but I prefer to think that it is your simply unmatched photography. And the babe in the hammock. Well-deserved ratings.

My best,
Another middle of the sandwich child
Howdy from Davie - where we are experiencing perfect S Fla December weather!

That was a great story with pics. This environment and its inhabitants are truly special - even the human ones :-)
Bionic, this is a beautiful story. I was a continent away on the other coast growing up, but you called up some similar memories for me, the adventure we made for ourselves while out "playing." Ah, this is great.

I love your bird pictures, indeed all of them. The one of DW in the hammock is emblematic of simply loving life and enjoying the good things.

In spite of what you have to deal with, I can see that you value what is important in your family...the love comes through. It's another connection we share.

Thank you so much for this.
Good to read your post man. I'm heading to Florida from Australia in Janurary to study.

What do you know about Gainesville?

From Lachy