June 13, 2013

Florida Memories



Happy Birthday to my Dad—and a very Special Father's Day

 

Dad and Me-- 1950s b&w photo

I just posted last week, and though I would like to, and at some point might, I just do not have time to write a weekly post just now. So, this is a special edition, a rather public celebration of my Dad on his name day, and a chance to get a bit nostalgic about the state we both grew up in, separated only by a generation and a world where change, culturally and technologically, was kicking into high gear. When I think about growing up in Florida, those memories are inextricably linked to recollections of my mother and father as they were then. I fully realize that so quickly has the world transformed this last half-century (Post World War II) that the Florida I grew up in was already far different from the one my parents passed their childhoods in. And even for them, coming from different parts of the state and different backgrounds, it was a divergent experience. Both of them spent their childhoods in a world that was not really more innocent, but considerably more naive, and in some ways much harsher and less forgiving than later times would be. They entered into this world in a decade in which the Great Depression was ending only as the world was being plunged into a horrific war. Children were not the pampered, indulged and overprotected little beings that many would come to be a couple of decades later. Life was hard—parents were often strict and harsh disciplinarians who were more concerned with survival and putting food on the table than bonding with their offspring. Both of my parents childhoods were marked by a great deal of personal freedom of the sort that would probably be called neglect in these enlightened days. However, they also had to adhere to strict codes of behavior which brought grave and very corporal punishment if breached.

Tomoka Basin Post Card image- vintage
Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/160868
Despite all of this, I wish I had been privileged to see Florida in those wilder, emptier, less tamed days. The natural beauty of this state took my breath away even as a child, and I can only imagine what it was like in earlier times. After all, Ponce de Leon originally named it La Florida, literally a "place of flowers". My Mom has told stories of a childhood roaming with her brothers and friends in a wild area that is now a densely populated part of incorporated Jacksonville, and later living part of the year with an aunt and uncle on a boat around the Keys and Gulf of Mexico. My Dad spent much of his time in earlier years trekking through the marshes and wild places of the Tomoka Basin, Bulow Creek and the Old Dixie Highway. After he married and began having children, those became our early stomping grounds as well. But Florida was already in the midst of great change. During the post war economic boom, the beaches of this state began to lure tourists in droves, and many there were who decided to stay or relocate to this tropical paradise in those years. The great migration to the south had begun in earnest, and a burgeoning media (TV, magazines, etc.) only served to tempt more and more people to make the move. Widespread availability of air conditioning was what finally threw open the floodgates, and people crowded into Florida in droves.

My Dad's Aunt Hilda with myself and two of my younger sisters. National Gardens.
 As a small child, I was little aware of the great changes taking place around me. Though not in the least a remarkable childhood, and not without the normal share of pains, sorrows and distress, it was, in my memory at least, an idyllic time in many ways. When I was small, we lived in a small wood frame house on a dusty, dirt road across from my paternal grandparents. In my earliest years, our small family lived in a tiny trailer, but my memories begin in the house in National Gardens, a sparsely populated residential area north of Ormond Beach. There may have been little money and few of the technological marvels we take so much for granted now, but we did have a splendid time in those days. We were outdoors constantly, splashing in the little pool that sat squarely in the front yard, riding our trikes and later, training wheel propped bicycles, or running across to our grandmother's to be indulged with Coca-Colas (in the little green glass bottles) and chocolate Little Debbie rolls. It was very seldom that a car not belonging to one of the few residents ever wandered down our road. As we got older, we were free to roam farther and farther. Our parents weren't burdened by the paranoia for their children's safety that would become instinctive just a decade or two later. It is not that many of the same dangers we face today didn't exist, but they were not yet so commonplace or ubiquitous. It truly was a simpler world in many ways.

In those days, TV was still a marvel and getting to watch a treat. There was Romper Room and Captain Kangaroo in the mornings, and for me at least as the oldest, the special treat of being allowed to stay up and watch Wagon Train or Bonanza. For the most part, life was activity though. Much of it was about making do, about putting food on the table or supplementing income, but for us kids, it was mostly just having fun. My Dad is a big man, and a very intimidating one. He can still send chills through the heart of the most stalwart misbehaving child (or employee or most anybody else) with a single look. That was the effect he had on us most often. We found him utterly terrifying though he never lifted a hand to us, but we loved him dearly nevertheless. With the me-centric assuredness of children, we thought that most of the things we did as a family were purely for our entertainment. As strict and sometimes frightening as my Dad could be, he took us nearly everywhere he went. He expected good behavior from us, and mostly got it, and as long as we did behave, he was proud and happy to have us along. So, we got to do things that many children these days will never experience.

Surf Fishing- vintage
Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/67358

My Dad fished and shrimped because he liked doing those things and always had, I think, but more often it was to put food on the table and to sell for extra money in those lean days. He worked hard all day, and yet put many hours in doing other things as well. When my sisters and I were still very small, he had an old fishing car that I dearly loved to ride in. No seat belts in those days (I am not 100 percent sure of my memory sometimes, but at least some of the time, I don't think there was a back seat) so us kids and the dog would stand behind my Dad's seat singing "Puff the Magic Dragon" or some other silly song as we drove out Old Dixie Highway or across High Bridge to the beach. While Dad fished, we swam and sunned and played, and later learned to fish ourselves, though it was always play to us. He also had a part time job at the concession stand of the Drive-in Theatre during those early years. That was my first real exposure to movies, and the beginning of a life-long love affair with the Cinema. Dad would take us along, and while he worked, I got to view whatever was playing. Often, my Mom and younger sisters would be sleeping by the time he got off work, but young as I was (five or six), I would still be watching. I loved so many movies— drama, romance, horror, but most of all sci-fi, even as cheesy as it usually was in those days.

Many things changed as we grew up, but my abiding love for that simpler, sleepier Florida lasted a good many years more. We moved to suburban Ormond Beach until my Dad was ready to build his first house. There, it was bike rides to the main street drug store, complete with ceiling fans and a soda fountain, for root beer floats, or to while away a blazing afternoon at the new library, the first building in town with central air conditioning. When we built the house in Tomoka Estates, we were once more out-a-ways. During construction, we kids were on the site every weekend and many evenings after work or school. We helped or got in the way, or explored the new wonderland that would be our next home. We swam in the canal that ran behind the house, we played in the marsh and woods that were all around us, and later took our small boat through the winding waterway to the Tomoka River and lazed away afternoons while sea cows scratched their backs on the bottom of our small craft.

Aerial view of The House and surrounding area.
Aerial view of The House circa early1970s or so.
I moved away from Florida as a young adult, and subsequently, several times afterward. I have always come back, though, and now find myself returned once more. Perhaps there is something to the old Florida saying about "Sand in your Shoes". Here at The House we are out-a-ways again. For a little while, I can forget the traffic, the congestion, the press of people out there. But I mourn the Florida of my childhood— I miss that less tame version of this state. Yes, if you go and look, there are still nooks and pockets of that wild beauty, but they are becoming so very precious and rare. I could blame this nostalgia on the aging process, but the huge changes taking place here were much of my reason for leaving Florida the first time all those years ago. Still, my roots are here, and most of my family still within an easy drive. I guess that what it comes down to, is that so much of my Heart resides here, that I need to also.

Donald G. Meyer
Donald G. Meyer
 As for my Dad, Florida has been good to him and he has been good to Florida. On this birthday, he has every right to be proud of the life he has made here, of the successful business he began and still mostly runs, of the many friends, business and personal, he has, and the large extended family that he is Patriarch of. I am proud of him, too, and I want to thank him for everything he has done for me all these years, but most of all for the childhood memories that still warm my heart, for taking us along rather than being like so many fathers who are just too busy for their kids. Thank you for teaching us to fish, to shrimp, to swim, to dream, and later, though it was not nearly as much fun, to work hard and take responsibility. Thank you so much for not regretting or resenting that all of your children were daughters. And thank you for not treating us like "Girls".

Dad has always said that he got cheated, having a birthday that falls within days of Father's Day every year, but I don't think so. My Dad gets celebrated for being a Dad every birthday.

Happy Father's/Birthday

June 2013

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