There’s More to Florida Than Rats, Rockets and Retirees

As many of you know (the three faithful non-family readers and the rest of you) I’ve lived in Florida for most of my life. I grew up in a small town on the Central Ridge back in the ’50’s and ’60’s, after spending my first 11 years on a farm at the edge of the Everglades. (OK, so it wasn’t part of the ’Glades geologically, but ecologically and most other ways there warn’t no Yankees gonna know th’ dif’ernce.)

It was a good place to grow up.  

We were poor, but I didn’t know it, and there was plenty to do if you were into the outdoors–hunting, fishing, swimming, exploring, etc. If you weren’t outdoorsy, it was a bit limited. Entertainment was pretty-much comprised of the indoor movie, the drive-in movie, (passion pit, we called it,) the two TV channels from Tampa, cruising the four or five drive-in restaurants in the county, and whatever sports events were happening at the high school. If you were too young to drive you played around the neighborhood until “time to come in,” then ate dinner and went to bed. No one locked their doors.

I didn’t taste pizza until I was about 15, when the new bowling alley opened. There was one local radio station for a long time (that played old folks’ music), then a second 800-watter(!) opened up. My buddy Ed was the first DJ — a 16-year-old DJ. We’re talking sophistication here, folks. The experience served him well when he joined the Air Force, where he eventually commanded the Delta Force communications squadron. Don’t sell a Cracker boy short. (Don’t sell the military short, either: he had a degree in microbiology.)

You couldn’t get away with much. There were probably less than 20,000 people in the county and nearly all of them, it seemed, knew your parents. The ones who didn’t knew who they were. It was the habit of Chief Curl, who was 1/2 of the police department, to give you a licking and send you home for another one if he caught you at some nefarious activity. I actually got a “talking to” for burglary once–a lark, I hasten to add–and the Chief didn’t even tell my folks.

I was the priest’s housekeeper’s son, so I dated all the minister’s daughters and the other “good girls” (of many of whom it was actually true). Everyone trusted us, so we probably got away with more, carnally speaking, than the “wild” kids did. Certainly we appreciated it more. Nothing like a little eternal damnation to spice up the evening.

It was a good place to be young. Segregation was still in effect, but mostly it didn’t affect our relationships with the folks from “the quarters.” Their high school came to our football games (sitting in “special” bleachers behind the end zone), and we went to theirs. In my pubescent years I played sandlot baseball with the Southern Baptist minister’s son, the Episcopalian kid from down the street, and the two Jewish kids who lived next door to the Baptists. As a friend of mine put it some years later, “Hell, I didn’t even know I was supposed to hate Jews until I got to college and someone told me!”

Of course, discrimination seen from the vantage point of a self-absorbed kid is pretty one-sided, but we didn’t have lynchings or hate crimes that I knew about. The KKK was pretty much the local drinking society. No well-brought-up Southerner would use the “n-word,” so that obvious indicator was missing. I don’t know how it looked from the other side of the tracks or the phylacteries — probably a lot different, but there it is.

Florida itself was different. The influx of retirees from the Northeast had yet to occur. The folks who had been stationed in Florida during WW II, who had found it good and determined to retire here, were still raising their families. Many of them trekked back and forth for vacations, traveling the two-lane highways down both coasts and through the interior, stopping at the Stuckey’s, Horne’s, shell emporiums, ’gator farms and ma and pa “motor courts,” and eventually making their way to the beaches of the Gold Coast. (Now most of them live here, and the Gold Coast property values truly reflect the name.)

A trip to Florida was a major affair back then. Few could afford to fly; an airline ticket for two could cost a month’s wages. Driving took 3 to 4 days, in cars without air conditioning. Of course not much else was air conditioned, either, so you didn’t miss it much. High test gas was 30 cents a gallon. Gold was $35.00 an ounce, kept there by Federal law.

The attractions were different. Disneyland, CA, was the big news. People went to Orlando because they had “specialists,” not just family doctors. The biggest industry in central Florida was oranges, not rodents. The tallest building in Orlando was about eight stories. Lake Buena Vista was a marsh, and the Magic Kingdom was rolling scrub hills, essentially unchanged for about 2 million years.

People went to Cypress Gardens, the Singing Tower in Lake Wales, Ybor City — to have some of that exotic Cuban food and see cigars being hand-rolled. Nowadays, McDonald’s sells Cuban sandwiches, and yuppies run around with hand-rolled cigars sticking out of their mouths like big phallic statements — but I digress. We had Parrot Jungle, Monkey Jungle, and lots of springs: Silver Springs, Weeki-Wachee Springs, Homosassa Springs and hundreds of others.

Florida was, and is, defined by its association with the tropics, and all sorts of establishments played on that, from Miami Beach hotels to roadside tourist traps. Rubber monkeys, exotic fragrances, disgusting plastic palm trees, the famous pink flamingos and anything that could possibly be made from shells traveled northward by the ton.

Many of those attractions still exist, somewhat off the beaten track, but yet available to those tired of the crowds of the Orlando free-for-all. There are others, less-known but just as interesting in their way: Cassadega, a little town populated and supported by psychics; Deseret Ranch, the second-largest single cattle ranch in the country, run entirely by Mormons; Warm Sulphur Springs, once a spa, now a mecca for archaeologists studying Florida’s prehistoric cultures.

There is more to Florida, my friends, than is dreamt of in your philosophy. You have only to drive off the Interstate and look.


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