A novel about an Appalachian family moving to and living in South Florida from 1955-1965
1 The Departure
The child was nine and had always lived in the same place so far as she knew. She went to the same church every Sunday unless they went somewhere else for homecoming. She was finishing up second grade because she had to sit out an extra year due to her birthday being three days after the cut-off. She was surrounded by tons of relatives and went to see one set of grandparents one Sunday afternoon then the other set the following week. There was always a big dinner, and all the extended family came.
Rebecca knew that she had a beautiful life. She always had the freedom to roam and play in her bare feet, causing soft red powdered dust to rise as she ran down the dirt road toward her cousin's house. She could always look up at the mountains in the distance of her North Carolina home. She didn't know it, but she felt sheltered by those mountains.
Then one day, it all stopped. It stopped because of a letter her mother received from an aunt who lived in a faraway place called Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Her aunt had enclosed an orange blossom in the message. Pressed tight and dried, but it still carried its sweet scent. Who knew that a pressed orange blossom could up-end a life?
After that letter arrived, Rebecca's mother could do nothing but talk about moving to Florida. Rebecca's father nearly always did what her mother wanted. When they told Rebecca of their plan to move to Florida, she pleaded with them to no avail.
They began by putting the house up for sale and holding a sale of nearly all of their possessions. Rebecca sat in the newly covered grey wing-backed chair and watched as the human vultures picked over the flesh of all the beautiful things they owned then over the carcass of what remained until the place was nearly bare.
During that horrible day, Rebecca wondered how her mother could so easily part with all those things that she had just had to have. Rebecca felt hopeless and helpless, and she was. After the house sold, they moved in with her father's parents. All were sharing one room. They weren't leaving until school was out.
They quit going to their church. They stopped other things, but those things were just a blur to the child. Her home was gone. Her swing set that her father had built especially for her was gone as was her unique playhouse. Everything was gone except for some clothes and their new table-model television.
One June morning in 1954, their large black 1949 Ford packed to the gills, the family headed south. Rebecca shared the backseat with her brother and with the television sitting like a third child between them. Tears were running down her face as they pulled out of her grandparents' yard.
Her father picked up speed as he hit the main road. The telephone poles went rushing by as Rebecca looked out the window. She wondered just how many telephone poles were between North Carolina and Florida.
2 The Trip & Arrival
Rebecca stayed angry as long as she could, but as soon as they left Rutherfordton, North Carolina, the scenery started changing, so she just had to look. There were no more mountains, and soon they entered South Carolina a whole other state. Not that Rebecca found much to recommend South Carolina. There were still woods, but they started giving away to pine woods. Miles and miles of just pine woods with what her daddy said were palmettos growing underneath the trees.
At about noon, they stopped at some roadside tables to have the picnic lunch that Rebecca's grandmother had packed. Her grandmother was an excellent cook, and they had fried chicken, potato salad, and fried apple pies. Grandma had also sent a mayonnaise jar of lemonade for Rebecca and Robert. Her mama and daddy drank black coffee from a thermos bottle.
The roadside picnic area was, and no one else was there, so they were able to walk a distance into the woods to go to the bathroom. Mica carried a washrag in a jug of water for hand washing.
After they passed what seemed like every pine tree in the world, they came to Georgia and at least there they got to go through many little towns. They stopped for ice cream in one of them. Long about suppertime they came to Jacksonville, Florida and found a motel for the night right after passing the giant peanut man who was the same one who advertised on T.V. Now, that was impressive.
The next day, they went through miles of flat nothingness in Florida. Rebecca's father told them that they were traveling on U.S. Highway Number One and that it went along the entire length of the United States from Maine to Key West, Florida. Mica was impressed by that, so Robert was too. Rebecca only knew that it must be a really long road.
Late that June afternoon, Rebecca's daddy pulled the car over when they were close to Fort Lauderdale. They all went to the passenger side of the vehicle and opened both doors to provide some privacy. Rebecca's mother got out the washrag jar and washed both Rebecca and Robert and got fresh clothes out of the suitcase in the trunk and made both of them change their clothes. She threatened them to be still and not wrinkle up for they were going to be at Aunt Lou and Uncle John's house soon.
After piling back into the car, it wasn't long until there started being stores on both sides of the road. On every block, there was a sign that said "bar." Rebecca couldn't believe her ears when her daddy told her that was where people went to drink spirits. These places weren't hidden at all! They had flashing neon lights inviting people to come right on in!
Back home, all the roadhouses and honky-tonks were hidden out as much as they could be because everybody knew they were sinful places. The men always snuck out to some uncle's car to take a snort during family gatherings. Drinking any form of alcohol was something to be hidden.
In a few short miles, Mica turned the car to the right off of what was now called "Federal Highway," then he made another right in front of a pink building. The building was named a duplex meaning that there were two houses hooked together. Rebecca's Aunt Lou and Uncle John lived in the rear portion of the building, and that was where they were also going to live until they could get their own place.
They knocked on the door, and Aunt Lou flung it open and just started hugging and kissing on all of them. Aunt Lou seemed so happy to see them, and they were pleased to see her too. She showed them their bedroom. The parents had a double bed, and Robert and Rebecca had what was called a three-quarter bed. The newly arrived family had their own bathroom, and Aunt Lou and Uncle John had a bedroom and a bathroom. There was also a living room, and what was called a combination kitchen dining room.
Aunt Lou had a big meal prepared; although, up until that time, Rebecca had never had what was served. It was a salad with oil and vinegar dressing, Italian spaghetti and meatballs and Italian bread. They all had water to drink. Rebecca realized that people sure ate crazy in Fort Lauderdale, or maybe it was because of Uncle John. He was from New York City. All the family said it was a vast place. He and Aunt Lou hadn't been married that long, so maybe she was still trying to impress him.
Anyway, except for eating a salad and being supposed to think it was good and drinking water for a meal, the spaghetti and meatballs and bread was good. It was just all so different, and that stupid Robert embarrassed all of them when he asked what all that silverware was for, anyway. He also wanted to know what that handkerchief was doing on the table beside of everybody's plates. Aunt Lou said that was a napkin and people were supposed to wipe their mouths on them. Then she took the napkin and laid it on her lap. Rebecca did the same. She tried not to get hers dirty, but that spaghetti was just so messy.
3 Fort Lauderdale Beach, 1955
Rebecca and Robert slept well, sharing the three-quarter bed; although, Robert kicked like a mule during the night. As soon as the children woke up, they were of one mind with one thought, and it was going to the BEACH! After all, why else would anyone even want to be here so far away from home?
Fortunately, daddy agreed and all loaded up to go. The small group traveled down the 17th Street Causeway heading east. Daddy explained that the large area where lots of ships were parked was called Port Everglades and he said that ships and boats "docked" not parked. There were so many of them docked at the port.
They crossed the Intracoastal Waterway. Uncle John told them that it was like a highway for ships and boats. He said that it had been dug so that they could go north and south safer during war times or when the ocean was too rough.
The group passed long low sprawling mansions unlike the large two and three story mansions found in North Carolina. Soon they rounded a curve and saw the Jungle Queen a huge paddlewheel boat on the left as well as a fleet of commercial fishing boats. Behind them was the Bahia Mar Marina where lots of beautiful boats--daddy corrected-- "yachts" were docked.
Uncle John pulled into a parking space and there before them stretched, as far as the eye could see, the Atlantic Ocean. To get to the water, the group ran across a wide beach covered with sand. The children ran into the water, and they were surprised how warm it was. Even though Uncle John called the ocean "calm," there were small waves that were tremendously fun to jump and play in.
Aunt Lou and Uncle John sat on a bench partially shaded by palm trees. They both confessed to the children that they didn't like sand. Robert remarked to Rebecca that it was hard to understand how anyone could not like sand. Aunt Lou had bought both of the children buckets and spades, and they built what were called "sand castles" before running back into the water.
Mama went into the water to about her waist. She didn't want to get her hair wet. Daddy ran and jumped and played in the water with the children just like the children. Rebecca was so glad to see him being so happy and so relaxed. He was a veteran, and he had a bad nervous condition, but you couldn't tell it on this hot sunny morning.
Much too soon for Rebecca and Robert, they were told that it was time to go home. Rebecca had decided she loved the Atlantic Ocean, and she loved Fort Lauderdale Beach. Where else could one look just south of where they were and see a hotel shaped like a ship? Where else could one stand in the water looking north seeing beach seeming to go on forever? Aunt Lou said that Fort Lauderdale had seven miles of public beach!
But more importantly, where could one stand on a shore of a beach looking east and see nothing but ocean? Daddy said that it was like that all the way to Africa. Imagine that. The very waters that were lapping at Rebecca's feet may have one day been lapping at the feet of a little girl in Africa looking westward towards America. The very same water.
4 Swimming Lessons in the Venice of America
Every morning Aunt Lou dressed for her job at Broward General Hospital. She put on her starched white uniform, her white stockings, and white shoes and pinned on her white starched nurse's cap and walked to work. Uncle John left for work at his store and sometimes daddy, and the children would go with him, but most days the children were left home alone while daddy took mama to look for work. She soon found a job working as a cashier at a grocery store.
Then daddy started taking her to work every morning, and he decided that Rebecca and Robert needed swimming lessons. He decided this after the family began taking drives looking around Fort Lauderdale nearly every evening house hunting. He saw that there was water everywhere, and that made him fear for the children's safety.
Uncle John said that Fort Lauderdale was the "Venice of America" named after a place called Venice in Europe. There, he said, the streets were water. Here, the roads weren't, but there was water nearly everywhere else.
He said that nearly the whole place had been water and swamps, so some people got the idea to build sea walls and start dredging the mangrove swamps. They put the dirt from the swamp beds behind the seawalls. That meant that there was a dry place to build houses on. Then, the houses were right on the canals that were left between the sea walls.
So, daddy insisted that Rebecca and Robert learn to swim. Daddy took them to a place that looked just like a castle called the Las Olas Casino Pool. Looks can be very deceiving. The place was monstrous. First, the children had to go into the locker rooms and leave their street stuff there. The place was as cold as ice.
Then, they had to shower in cold water before getting into the pool. Rebecca couldn't understand why someone had to wash-up before going swimming. As if that wasn't bad enough, Rebecca had to wear a bathing cap. Robert didn't have to wear one. They said that it was to keep hair from clogging up the pool's filters. Rebecca felt that Robert's hair was just as likely to clog up the filters as hers was, but her argument did not work.
After showering the children were made to climb down a ladder into the pool's icy water. It was miserable, but both children learned to swim many different strokes, and they each learned to dive off the small diving board into the 12' deep water and to jump off the high diving board into the deep end. They had to master different things to advance to more senior classes, which they both did over time.
The best thing about swimming lessons was when they were over daddy would take them across the street to the ocean and let them play in the sea to have fun and to warm up. Daddy quit worrying so much because Rebecca and Robert advanced through many classes and could both swim like a fish.
Rebecca and Robert never liked swimming lessons even when while trying to persuade them how great the pool was as they were told that Johnny Weissmuller, better known as Tarzan from the movies, swam there. The children saw pictures of him at the pool in the newspaper and on postcards, but Rebecca and Robert remained unimpressed. Especially since, no matter how many times they were at that pool freezing and taking lessons always keeping an eye out for him, they never once saw him there. Not one single time.
5 Our New House
After having endured a horrible summer after arriving in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, Rebecca, and Robert's mama and daddy started looking for a new house. They lived with Aunt Lou and Uncle John, but as kind, as they were, it was time to establish their own home once again.
The children were excited about getting a new house. They also loved shopping for furniture and just could not wait until they had their own home and rooms once more. That was until mama and daddy showed them the house they bought.
After going through it, Rebecca innocently asked, "Where is the rest of it?" The house was so small and all the rooms so small that she actually thought that the house was her new playhouse and she excitedly ran out the door looking for the main house. Instead, she saw another little house feet from both the front door and the back door with a smelly garbage dump at the back of the small lot.
"This is the house," mama said when Rebecca came back in with a questioning look on her young face.
"But where is Robert supposed to sleep?" Rebecca innocently asked. "There are only two small bedrooms."
"Well," daddy said, "You will share this room," he said, pointing to the larger of the two small bedrooms. "You will each have a brand new twin foam rubber bed."
"Oh," Rebecca responded as she sadly lowered her head. She realized that this was the best that mama and daddy could do, but she once again wondered why they had sold their big house on the big lot in North Carolina to come here to live like this.
She innocently asked, "But, where are the orange trees. I thought that there were supposed to be orange trees everywhere. There are no trees whatsoever or even grass in the yard."
Daddy replied, "See those little sprigs of grass? They will grow together to form a solid mat of grass." Rebecca and Robert shot looks to each other saying that they neither one believed him, but as time went on those shoots of wiry grass did intertwine to for a green lawn, but the grass was sharp and not soft like North Carolina grass, and it became just one more thing about South Florida that the children did not like.
At least the children had greater freedom once moving to the new housing development. There were at least a few other children there, and they could play on the mounds of powdery white sand where the pine trees and palmettos had been bull-dozed before the land was once again leveled to build more of the tiny houses.
They even went with daddy foraging into the dump that started at their backyard, and they were amazed at the good stuff they found that rich people had thrown away. At least that was something.
6 Summer Tragedy 1955
We settled in the new house, and after the new furniture was in place, we had just enough room to walk around. Daddy set up the T.V. in the living room and put up an outside antenna that he could go out and turn depending on which station we were going to watch. We were so excited because there were three stations that we could get out of Miami. Three stations!
One day in August, we got terrible news. One of Daddy's older brothers used to live next door to us in North Carolina. We were really close. His wife had died of brain cancer when Rebecca was petite. Now, there was just him and his son, Lin. Lin loved airplanes and made models and hung them by fishing line from the ceiling of an outbuilding that his daddy had given him to use as his own workshop.
Lin was really quiet, but he would always let the children in to see his planes, and he joined the service about a year before the family moved to Florida. He was stationed in Germany.
Rebecca and Robert were not called to supper. That had never happened. They always pushed coming in from play to the last minute, but when they weren't called, they got curious and went home.
They found daddy sitting on the couch. Just sitting there. He hadn't cooked supper, and mama was still at work. He looked up, but he didn't say anything. Both of the children realized that he looked funny. "What's wrong, Daddy?" both of the children asked in unison.
"Lin is dead," he replied.
"Dead?" both children said at once.
"How, Daddy?" Rebecca asked as she slumped at his feet.
Robert sat down beside daddy and buried his head against daddy's arm, already crying.
Mica told the children what he knew. "He was flying on a plane they call a boxcar and his plane and another one collided in mid-air."
Rebecca jumped up, saying, "But, Daddy, that is not possible. Look up at the sky. There is just so much room up there that it would be impossible for two planes to hit each other. That can't be right."
"Rebecca, it would seem that you should be right, but they did hit head-on and all aboard both planes were killed."
"Well, when are we leaving for North Carolina for the funeral?" Robert asked.
"We aren't going," Daddy replied.
"Not going to the funeral …." Rebecca couldn't believe what she was hearing. "But, Daddy, everybody always comes to the funerals from no matter where they are. Always. You know we all have to bring food in and sit with each other and pet, Uncle Ice. We have to go. We always talk and are all so sad together then we begin telling stories about the person and start laughing at those stories. We always help each other. Then we go to the funeral and to the graveyard and cry all over again. Then we go back to Aunt Pet's house and eat, and the out of town folks start leaving. Daddy, we just have to go."
Mica replied, "I know, Rebecca," he began stroking her short brown hair. "I know, sweet girl, but we just can't swing it right now."
Aunt Lou and Uncle John decided to go to the funeral, so daddy rode up with them. He took the children aside and told them to behave while he was gone. Mama stayed to work, and while she was at work, Rebecca and Robert had to stay home by themselves. They were not allowed to go outside until mama came home. The children felt abandoned, and they also thought that they had abandoned all their kin. They didn't even misbehave or fight with each other while they were home alone.
They laid on the bed, looking at the clock. Robert would ask Rebecca, "What are they doing now?" Rebecca told him, from her memories of previous wakes and funerals, what she thought the various family members were doing. "Do you think Aunt Betty made a banana cake?" he asked.
"Of course she did, Robert. You can't have a proper sittin' without a banana cake and lots of other cakes and pies. There'd also be green beans and potato salad, ham and chicken, sandwiches, every kind of sandwich that you can think of, there'd be pickles and beets and deviled eggs and many other things. About everything there is to eat would be there for all the family. Friends and family and church people see to those things. The church ladies see to the dishes being washed up and everything else that needs to be done."
"Do you think the men go out for a snort?" Robert continued.
"You know they do," Rebecca answered. "I guess they are putting what's left of him in the ground 'bout now," Rebecca said. Then they just laid quietly on their respective beds saying nothing.
When daddy got back, he told them that it had been very sad.
7 The school Year 1955-1956
Daddy loved to read the newspaper, and he said that there were great ones in south Florida, unlike what he called the "news-less near-nothing" that he got in North Carolina. One got delivered to the house every day, and he read every word of it. Every single word, meaning every article, every ad, every obituary … everything.
At the supper table, he would tell the family about what he read in the newspaper; including local news and news from all over the world. He said that South Florida was in what was called a "boom." That meant that lots of folks like them had moved there.
He told the family that the schools were overcrowded. Rebecca and Robert did not know what that meant, but they were anxious for school to start because they wanted to meet more kids.
Daddy was afraid that the children would get lost because the school was a long way from their house. He made both Rebecca and Robert memorize their address, because they had no telephone, and he made them memorize the phone number at Uncle John's store.
They were going to ride the school bus. All they had to do was walk down their road to the bigger road to catch the bus. "No," mama corrected. "You walk down our avenue to the street." Rebecca had forgotten that in Fort Lauderdale that the roads were called avenues, streets, drives, places, and boulevards, but not roads. So far as Rebecca could tell there was only one road in all of Fort Lauderdale and that was State Road Seven.
It was confusing to her because all those differently named things sure looked like roads. Anyway, they met the school bus and off they went. The farther east they went from where they lived, the bigger the houses got.
Rebecca helped Robert find his second-grade classroom, and she told him that she would pick him up there after school and take him to the bus. Then, she found her third-grade classroom.
By way of introduction, Rebecca's teacher said that they would go around the room and tell their names, where they were from, and what they had for dinner last night. Rebecca knew that dinner didn't mean dinner, but supper, because Aunt Lou had taught her that.
She was sitting in the front row of the classroom because she was small. A few kids spoke before she did. One was from Ohio, one was from Michigan, and one was from New Jersey. They all talked real funny, and when they said what they had for dinner, Rebecca had no idea what they had eaten because she had never even heard of that stuff.
Rebecca told her name, and where she was from then, she said, "We call our dinner supper. We eat our dinner at noon. Last night we had pinto beans, cornbread and arsh taters." The other children laughed. Rebecca did not say anything. She did not know what was so funny.
Her teacher said, "Rebecca, you had pinto beans, cornbread, and Irish potatoes."
"Yes, ma'am, that's what I said."
Her teacher just smiled at her and went on to the next student. There were thirty-four students in the classroom which was in a little building called a "portable" off from the main building. There was not one kid in Rebecca's class from Florida or North Carolina. They were from places Rebecca had mostly not heard of and to a person they talked funny.
At recess, a little girl named Linda from New York asked Rebecca what pinto beans were. Rebecca had never heard of a person who did not know what pinto beans were, but none of the kids knew. So, she told them it was a dried bean that turned brown when you cooked it.
Most of them knew where North Carolina was because they had passed through it on their way to Florida, and some of the kids started teasing Rebecca because she came from there.
Rebecca just puffed up and told them all: "I am sorry that all of you all couldn't a come from North Carolina. It is such a beautiful place, and everybody knows that when God decides to come back, that is where he is going to settle … out of every place he created on earth."
"How do you know that?" asked a boy named John from Pennsylvania.
"Because," Rebecca replied, "where I am from everybody knows that North Carolina is 'God's Country.'"
"Oh," replied the other children impressed. Rebecca just crossed her little arms across her puffed out chest and smiled.
"North Carolina didn't seem so special when we passed through it, and how do you know that God is going to settle there?" The argumentative John wanted to know.
"Did you come through the mountains of western North Carolina?" Rebecca asked him.
"No," the boy replied.
"Then, that's your answer," said Rebecca. "It's the mountains, the streams, the rocks, and the woods that are so special. Why one mountain not far from Turkey Tail is shaped like a huge table. That's where God is going to sit down and eat."
"How do you know that and how do you know that God is going to settle there when he comes back and not where any of us are from?" Linda asked.
Rebecca paused a minute, thinking, then she replied. "Well, I don't rightly know how the secret got out that God was going to settle in our parts, but it is easy to understand why when you see it, and his table is there."
John asked, "Then why didn't anyone I know say why he wasn't going to settle in Pittsburg?"
Rebecca pondered her answer then replied, "After all he is God. I guess that he just didn't want to hurt y' all's feelings."
The teacher, Mrs. Johnson, had stood by listening to the conversation. She just smiled and realized that the little southern girl was going to be all right.
After school, Rebecca picked-up Robert from his classroom in the main building. Robert was so proud. He had only gotten into trouble three times that day for talking. "Don't tell Daddy," he begged. Rebecca didn't, and the rest of the school year went along about the same.
© Patty F. Cooper, October 18, 2018, Stoney Creek, TN
All Rights Reserved