Mating Manatees

Ken is a retired attorney who lives near the Osteen Bridge that crosses over the St. Johns River.  His back yard opens up on a backwater slough, and he sees gators, migrating birds, hawks, eagles and osprey.  He knows where the fish hide along the banks, and he can tell you exactly how high the water rose over the retention wall at the edge of his property after Hurricane Irma.

I teach drawing lessons to Ken.  He’s 87 but still eager to learn new things and pick up refinements in his technique.  He mostly does pencil drawings of wildlife and flowers, and gives them away as gifts.  I enjoy working with him and listening to his stories about working as an attorney for the city of Casselberry.

This Friday I happened to glance in a mirror that reflected the river behind us.  I saw gray shapes rounding up out of the waves.  Dolphins?  Ken told me that they probably were, but his wife, Mary, interrupted us a few minutes later and said, “Ken!  There’s these gray and black things rolling around in the water.  What are they?”

Ken looked out the window and said, “Manatees!”

He and I went out and studied the river. Ken told me that submerged manatees floated beneath the flat spots on the water where the waves rippled less.  Suddenly we saw a nose and a couple of flippers, a back and a flat tail.  Ken said, “That’s two of them together.  They’re mating.  This is a once in a life time moment.”

The manatees, five or six of them, roiled the waters for about fifteen minutes.  During a lull we saw a gator swimming away from the bank twenty yards upriver from us.  Ken knew him by name (Bottlenose) and told me that you could tell the length of an alligator by measuring from the end of the nose to the eyes.  A ten inch gap meant that the gator was ten feet long.  Ken said, “And it’s always true, even to within a sixteenth of an inch.”

We went back inside and finished the lesson.  Ken gave me an eagle feather with a split near the quill.  He said, “The eagle uses this kind of feather to brake his air speed.  I got this one after I saw two birds fighting over a fish.  It just floated down.  It’s perfect, not torn up at all.  I thought your wife might like it.”  Ken knows that my wife loves nature, and gave me a flower drawing for her to keep the month before.

I drove home through rush hour traffic, and the farther I got from Ken’s refuge, the uglier the world became.  Cars, truck and buses snarled together in nasty clumps as we passed through construction zones.  Aggressive drivers weaved in and out of traffic racing all comers to the next red light.  Strip malls packed either side of the road.  By the time I got home, I longed to find a quiet spot where I could reclaim a feeling of peace and clarity.

A lady at church speculated today that living here on earth is hell.  We needn’t worry about finding something worse in the afterlife.  I can almost agree with her but for those moments when I get to see manatees mating, when I feel a cool breeze crossing a river, when I hear eagles crying out in the branches above me.

If this is hell, God does have some mercy.  He gives us glimpses of heaven.


Get Lost in the Woods (But Never Wade with Gators)

I was raised in the suburbs and didn’t have much opportunity to take a walk in the woods when I was a kid. One of the first things that Judy got me to do when we were dating was to go hiking. We went up to Glen Helen in Yellow Springs, Ohio and began to wander up and down the trails. On the way to a small pine forest, a rarity in southwest Ohio, we paused by some boulders at the edge of a small river. I looked up at the overhanging cliff and said to Judy, “This looks like a great place for an ambush.” I was half kidding—it would have been an ideal spot for a surprise attack—but saw that I had surprised her, that I had put the tranquility of our surroundings in a whole new light for Judy. She wasn’t amused. I was beginning to learn that my part in our nature travels was to point out butterflies and pretty flowers, not to speculate about how to turn a peaceful path into a killing field.

We camped at Acadia National Forest in Maine on our honeymoon, and hiked up a mountain on a foggy day. The fog got thicker as we climbed higher, and black tree branches glistening with moisture clawed at our backpacks and sweatshirts as we snaked our way upward. The wood looked like the gloomy, haunted forest in Snow White. I thought that we had reached the top on several occasions, but saw that one rocky outcropping led to another. When we finally reached the crest of the mountain we were surrounded on all sides by gray fog. It felt like we were in the middle of limbo with no distinguishable features around us except for the few square yards of rocks, gravel and lichens at our feet. A fog horn sounded mournfully in the vague distance.

On our way back down we took another path. Our map was unclear about its route, breaking off into broken dashes that didn’t inspire confidence. Once we got down to ground level the trail petered out completely, and soon we were bushwhacking between oaks and elms and through weeds up to our thighs. Judy had been a girl scout, and I followed her until I noticed that we had begun to meander in aimless directions. I took the lead when she confessed that she was lost, and heard some odd sounds coming from straight ahead. I remembered that a crew had been working on a stretch of road on our drive to the hiking trail and decided to home in on the beeps and rumbles of an engine.

We burst out of the forest and surprised the workers as they patched potholes. We followed the road back to the parking lot where we had left the car, and agreed that we should have taken the same route back that we had used to get up to the top. It was just common sense.

A year later in the Rocky Mountains we didn’t follow that agreement. We were up on the continental divide looking at glacier topped mountains that seemed to fade away into an infinite distance. The late afternoon sun turned lichens on the side of a mile deep canyon a bright,golden color. We were intoxicated by the beauty of the vista and perhaps by lower levels of oxygen at a high altitude, and decided to take another trail down off the mountain. Blue Lake shimmered in the distance, enticing us to visit its shores.

We discovered, of course, that the path was a lot harder than it looked from up on high. We had to cross icy patches of melting snow, gravel and boulder fields. The going was slow, and Rick, our guide and Judy’s brother, began to get edgy. The sun was sinking fast and we had a long way to go. Just as the light failed completely we stepped off the last glacier and sat down in a rocky clearing on the edge of a dark wood. We were exhausted.

We sipped some water and ate trail mix and tried to decide what to do. We could wait till daybreak and hike out, but Judy had to catch a plane at six in the morning for a conference in Asilomar, California. Or we could try to stumble along the path in the dark and hope for the best. We didn’t really want to spend a cold night sleeping on gravel and dirt, so Rick took the lead and we began to hike in the dark. I went second with Judy following close behind. She shamelessly used me as a guide dog. It was pitch dark and I couldn’t see my feet. When I tripped over a log or turned my ankle in a hole she knew what to avoid.

Rick went ahead in spurts and I was afraid that we would eventually be left behind. When we lagged 30 or 40 yards back he would hold up his cigarette lighter and shine it so that we knew that he was still there.

We exited the woods at 2 a.m. and staggered to the car. Judy caught a later flight, and I spent the rest of the day sitting on a sofa in an apartment in Denver watching cable TV. I had time to go out for a hike before I flew out of town the next day to join Judy, but I couldn’t seem to bestir myself to leave the comforts of a plush sofa and a refrigerator filled with beer.

Years later we moved to Florida and eventually discovered Wekiva Springs State Park. A spring gushes out of the ground, the water pushed up under pressure from the Florida Aquifer, and spills out of a pool to form the Wekiva River.

Judy and I rented a canoe on a sunny day in June and began to paddle down stream through the Wekiva forest. We saw baby gators and turtles sunbathing on wooden stumps along the banks. A blue heron waded in the shallows and looked at us suspiciously before flying to a distant spot on a sand bar. It was a lovely day.

We turned around when we reached a marina near Rock Springs, and had to fight the current on our way back. When we passed under a laurel oak tree we heard the sound of a snap and were surprised when a heavy branch landed in the middle of the canoe between the two of us. I was in the bow and looked over my shoulder after I heard and felt the thump. The branch surprised me a bit, but I was more concerned by Judy’s behavior. She was trying to back out of the canoe off the stern. I looked down at the bottom of the canoe and saw an angry rat snake heading straight for her. I told Judy to stop moving and began to yell and wave my arms. The snake reversed course and turned on me. I put my paddle in front of its nose and dared him to make the next move. Judy took the opportunity to grab the branch and use it to lift the snake up by its middle and dump him in the river.

While we paddled on our way Judy said that the snake had probably climbed out onto the branch looking for a bird’s nest, and its weight had caused the branch to snap. I thought that we had been extraordinarily lucky that one of us hadn’t been hit on the head by the branch or bitten by a seriously pissed off serpent.

We rounded a bend and heard a series of crashing noises off to the right. Judy called out, “Look, there’s a black bear cub climbing a tree!” When I spun around to look the cub was gone, and I told Judy to help me turn the canoe so that we could go back and take a closer look. Then I realized that the cub probably had a mama lurking nearby that wouldn’t take kindly to any intrusions into its privacy. I cancelled the order and told Judy that we should start paddling like mad. It was time to get the hell out of there before the river offered up any more surprises.

About five years ago Judy and I decided to take a hike on a hot summer day at the Little/Big Econ Nature Preserve outside of Oviedo, Florida. The path is on a high bluff that follows the Econlockhatchee River. The black water river is a deep, murky brown from the tannins it absorbs from the trees along its banks, and teems with fish and fairly large gators. If you walk along the banks for a long enough stretch of time you’re sure to see the unsettling sight of a fifteen foot alligator rise up slowly from the inky depths to crest on top of the river. What danger had once been completely invisible becomes lethally apparent.

Judy and I came to a break in the trees along the bluff and looked down to the white sands on the opposite shore of the river. We saw a twelve foot gator sunning itself on the beach. It was fat like the crocodile in “Peter Pan”, opened its giant jaws from time to time to reveal its white gullet and spiky rows of teeth, and it spun the stump of a missing hind leg in slow, counterclockwise rotations. He had probably lost his leg in a territorial fight with another alligator, which prompted the following question:  How big was the gator that defeated the fat monster sunning itself on the beach in front of us?

We went further up the path, got hot and tired, and decided to come back the way that we came—yes, we had learned our lesson over the years. The gator was gone by the time we returned to that spot, but he had left behind a long belly slide track in the sand leading into the water. We went further up the path and took a break in the shade. As we sipped some water we heard someone coming along the path toward us. He was a dripping wet, thirty year old man who wore nothing but sodden boxers. He carried shorts and shoes in his hands and came up to us as if there was nothing odd about his appearance. He told us that he taught environmental science up the road at UCF, and that he had been wading in the river back by a nice beach with white sands. I told him about the fat, three legged gator that we had seen there, and suggested that it was a bad idea to go wading in a black water river infested with gigantic, prehistoric reptiles. He just laughed and said, “I didn’t see any gators.”

I turned to Judy after he merrily trudged onward and said, “They never do.” We began to lay bets about whether or not the young professor’s tenure review committee would ever have to take up his case.

Welcome to Florida (Initial Impressions of the Sunshine State)

1. A Slice of Heaven

Christmas on Park AvenueJudy got a job interview at Rollins College in 1991for an assistant professorship. I flew down with her to help take care of Alan. He was five months old, hadn’t been weaned yet and stubbornly refused to take bottles from me or anyone else. When we landed in Orlando Judy took Alan to the ladies’ restroom to change him while I guarded our bags. I looked around idly and saw a portly, middle aged man with a thick head of graying hair talking on a pay phone. He had a rich, rolling tone that sounded like Foghorn Leghorn without all the hesitations, and I realized that I was staring at Jerry Falwell, the Moral Majority televangelist. When he glanced in my direction and noticed the stunned look on my face he swelled with pride and boomed a little more loudly into the phone. Our ride, a professor from Rollins, pulled up to the curb after Judy and Alan returned, and I said when we got into the car, “You’ll never believe who I just saw.” When I told the professor about encountering Falwell her face pinched tight in disapproval and she said, “Was that a good thing or a bad thing?” I responded, “It was like seeing the devil,” and Dr. Coleman relaxed. I lived in fear of saying something that would mess up Judy’s chances, and I knew that I had passed my first test. I resolved to keep my mouth shut after that.

We drove through the south end of town and I noticed that the sun baked ranch houses were mostly made of cinder block. Some of them needed paint jobs, and there were occasional trash strewn yards with high grass and weeds. Cluttered strip malls crowded against both sides of Semoran Blvd. with gaudy signs for nail boutiques and pawn shops clamoring for attention. We drove further north into Winter Park and the houses became larger with better groomed lots. Large oak trees shaded the road, and the yards of the two story mini-mansions near the college sloped gently down to Lake Virginia. Some homes had boat docks at water’s edge.

They put us up at the Fortnightly Bed and Breakfast, and as I hauled our bags into the lobby several professors arrived and greeted Judy. They planned to take her out for supper, but seemed confused by the presence of Alan and me even though Judy had forewarned them that we would be coming along. A professor in her thirties who spoke rapidly and non stop made it clear that Alan and I were not invited to come along. When I asked where I could find a restaurant nearby Professor Kleeman volunteered to take me to a place he recommended on Park Ave.

I pushed Alan in a stroller after stripping him down to a thin t-shirt and shorts. The temperature in Pennsylvania that morning had been in the thirties, and the cold rain kept flirting with the possibility of becoming snow and sleet. It was March, but central Florida was sunny and warm with temperatures in the mid eighties. Alan slept on my shoulder at first when we walked into the restaurant and sat down. The tables were crowded tightly together, and I had trouble handling the folded up stroller and diaper bag I hauled along with one arm.  But I managed to avoid whacking diners on the head as I struggled to a booth. Dr. Kleeman and I ordered, and when our food arrived Alan woke up. He blearily turned around and faced Kleeman across the table from us, and he began to cry. The professor had long hair in a pony tail and a beard trimmed into a Van Dyke point, and he terrified my baby. I got up and walked Alan up and down the aisle until he calmed down. I hoped that he would get accustomed to the foreign surroundings and be fine when we sat down again, but when he turned off my shoulder and gazed upon Kleeman his face squinched into a tight bunch of distressed muscles and he wailed. I didn’t know what to do, and I was worried about the professor’s reaction. But Kleeman was quietly amused by Alan and suggested that I take my meal back to the Fortnightly and eat it there.

Judy came back around 10 and Alan was already asleep. Our room was actually two rooms, a bedroom and a sitting room with a sofa and a decanter of brandy on a small, round, antique table covered with a lace doily. The staff had put a play pen in the sitting room, and when I sneaked in for a night cap I tip toed around Alan as he snoozed peacefully. Judy was exhausted but managed to relax a bit before we went to bed.

We met a business man on holiday and a woman in town for a conference at breakfast. She was especially helpful when Alan lunged forward and upset a glass of orange juice onto his mother’s lap. Judy was gone the rest of the day except for short breaks around lunch time and mid afternoon. She had to nurse Alan at regular intervals, and she used her breaks to center her thoughts and let go some of her tension. That day she was interviewed by more faculty members and gave a lecture to a class. I took Alan on walks in the surrounding blocks and was impressed by the manicured shops and homes around Park Ave. Men and women wearing business suits, and small groups of ladies at their leisure strolled up and down and sat at tables outside of restaurants and bistros. Flowers hung from baskets from the sides of the buildings, and the exterior of every establishment looked shiny clean and freshly painted. I naively assumed that all of Winter Park was wealthy. I pushed Alan past Central Park and crossed railroad tracks into West Winter Park. The houses became simple wooden cottages on small lots marked off by chain link fences, and I realized that I had wandered into a very poor neighborhood just two blocks away from stores selling expensive jewelry, French wines and fancy chocolates. The disparity seemed odd.

Judy and I had a few moments together in the late afternoon before she was whisked away again. While she was gone that evening I read the Orlando Sentinel while Alan napped, and late that night I opened the window of our room and watched the traffic flow by on Fairbanks. I could smell jasmine on the balmy air, and I thought that Winter Park was a slice of heaven.

Professor Small drove us to the airport the next day, and he was cautiously encouraging about Judy’s chances. Her lecture had gone over well and the faculty she met had felt comfortable with her. Our hopes ran high.

We boarded a plane at Orlando International Airport and waited for take off. The pilot mumbled something unintelligible over the intercom, and the air flow was shut off in the cabin. We continued to wait at on the baking tarmac and the interior began to get hot. Alan gradually got cranky. He twisted and leaned in Judy’s arms, and decided to cry. Two stewardesses descended on us, and one of them picked up Alan and began to walk him around the cabin. He was surprised by being held by an unfamiliar woman and quieted down. When he started to crank up again she scurried up the aisle and took him into the pilots’ cabin. We could hear her cooing to him, “Look at all the pretty lights!” as she showed him a control panel with dials, buttons and glowing lights.

The pressurized air system was repaired after we sat for twenty minutes, and the stewardess handed Alan back to Judy before we took off. Judy nursed him and he fell asleep for the two hour flight to Pittsburgh. We had to catch a connecting flight for Allentown, and discovered that the Pittsburgh airport was something of a maze. It was apparent as we dashed from building to building taking multiple turns off of branching corridors that the airport had been built piece by piece with no architect in charge of making the over all plan coherent and navigable. We reached the gate just before the end of the boarding call. Judy had carried Alan, and I had hauled the stroller, diaper bag and a carry on bag, and we were both out of breath as we trotted up the jet way and boarded the plane.

Judy’s parents picked us up in Allentown and drove us back to their home outside of Kutztown. The temperature was in the low thirties and there were traces of dirty snow in the yards of houses along the way. The subtropical flora and midsummer heat of Central Florida felt like a dream, a mirage that we had been allowed to have a glimpse of for a short while. And while we wanted to go back there and start a life with all sorts of new possibilities, we had no idea if that was going to happen. We retreated to State College the next day and waited for the phone to ring.

2.  Lowered Expectations

Judy got the job, but the dean of faculty low balled the salary offer. We had been living on soft grant money for the last five years at Penn State, and Judy and I decided that we had to take the opportunity. We assumed that the money would get better once she had been there for a while and had earned tenure.

We were set to move in mid August, but Judy got anxious for arrangements to be made and sent me down to Orlando in July to find a rental house. My car started to break down on the outskirts of Sanford, a mid sized town twenty miles north of Orlando. The car limped into the parking lot of a 7/11, and I went inside. I got permission to leave my car there over night until a service station across the intersection opened the next morning. A cop at the counter warned me to take my valuables out of the car. Sanford looked sleepy, run down and rural like farm towns in Ohio, but displayed a more sinister character after dark.

I had seen hotels along Lake Monroe three blocks away, and I huffed and puffed with two heavy suitcases in ninety degree heat to the nearest one. That night I studied the Orlando Sentinel for houses to rent, and tried to call a woman on staff at Rollins whose number I had been given in case of an emergency. I got her mother instead. She was babysitting at her daughter’s house, was very suspicious when I explained my situation, and offered hostility instead of help. She thought that I was trying to scam her. I slept fitfully that night not knowing how bad the car was and whether or not I would be stranded without transportation in an unfriendly town 1,200 miles from home.

I went down to the 7/11 early the next morning and managed to drive the car a few hundred feet to the garage. When I walked back to the hotel I saw a man standing on a dock in a marina off of Lake Monroe. He was looking down and talking to something in the water. There was a strange note of affection in his voice, one that might be used when talking to a persistent but familiar enemy who had become something of a friend. When I drew along side him I saw that he was speaking to a twelve foot alligator cruising semi-submerged between the small pleasure craft and fishing boats. The reptile stared at the man with shrewd eyes as if summing up the pros and cons of coming closer to shore for a quick lunge.

I bought a pack of cigarettes and sat in my room and smoked. I didn’t usually indulge, but the strangeness of my situation made me feel justified in doing a little damage to my lungs. I pored over a map of Orlando and the newspaper until the garage called and told me that a blocked fuel filter had been the problem. They replaced it and my car was fixed.

I drove from Sanford down through Longwood and Casselberry and was struck by the hodgepodge zoning plans of the cities along State Route 17/92. I passed car lots sitting next to residential neighborhoods next to decrepit motels next to a church next to a day care center next to a strip joint. I arrived at Rollins, dropped off a few things in Judy’s new office and asked for advice about Orlando neighborhoods from the lab technician in the biology department. Winter Park was too expensive for us when I factored in our monthly pay from Rollins. The rock bottom salary the college had offered would push us further south. She hinted that parts of Orange Blossom Trail could be a very scary, and seemed reluctant to comment when I mentioned that I had seen ads for very cheap houses in Pine Hills.

I began to drive around Orlando and noticed that the traffic was very busy and intense. Drivers were aggressive and took a lot of risks by changing lanes without signaling, running red lights, tailgating, cutting off other drivers and switching lanes in intersections. I felt like I was driving inside a hyperactive video game.

I decided to check out Pine Hills for myself. It didn’t look too bad until I saw a one legged man wearing nothing but torn, cut off shorts hopping in his front yard on his remaining leg while brandishing a crutch at someone who had apparently fled before I passed by. A car was up on blocks in the man’s driveway, and newspaper bundles were stacked in his carport. I saw similar yards with rundown houses in the adjacent blocks, and I understood why the rental prices were so low. I eventually came upon a fairly suitable house in Azalea Park on the east side of town. Some of the houses in the area looked poorly kept, but the streets around that location looked decent enough. The price was right, the ride to campus could be driven in twenty minutes, and there was a large park about ten minutes from the house. It met all the criteria that Judy had set for me.

That night I stayed in Professor Kleeman’s house. He and his family were out of town for the summer and they offered its use to me. Although the kitchen was clean I saw ants and cockroaches as long as my thumb cavorting around the sink and counters when I went to get a glass of water late at night.

I started out late the next day for Pennsylvania and had to stop in South Carolina for the night. When I walked into the motel office a woman was having a rant with the night clerk. She wasn’t mad at him, however. She told him a story about an evil woman in her church who had done her wrong. The clerk nodded along and offered comforting words whenever she paused for breath. The woman concluded by saying, “I’m a Christian woman and I know that I’m supposed to forgive and forget and that our Lord says that ‘vengeance is mine’ but I do hope that I live to see the day when Doris gets her righteous punishment for her sins against me.” The clerk said, “I’m sure you will. The Lord takes care of His little lambs.” The woman smiled at him and left. I escaped as quickly as I could from the office with a key to a ratty motel room featuring worn carpets, chipped furniture and a wall unit air conditioner that rumbled and complained as it struggled to remain in operation. The booming sound of the clerk’s voice echoed in my ears for several minutes after I closed the door and lay down on my bed.

I got back home to State College late the next day and collapsed. I waited until the next morning to tell Judy that Orlando was a big, noisy, difficult place, and that the idyllic conditions at the comfortable and genteel Fortnightly Bed and Breakfast were the exception to the rule. The City Beautiful, home to Disney, palm trees, orchids and gators, was going to be a challenging place to live.

3. A Hostile Landscape

Judy and I took the kids out to a buffet restaurant a month after we moved into our rental house on Sage Drive in Azalea Park. Alan had enjoyed putting his chocolate pudding in his mouth, hair and nose. By the time we had wiped him, the high chair and the table down it was a bit later than we expected. When we walked out of the restaurant the sky had turned an ominous, bluish black, and a violent bolt of lightning streaked down to earth in a pink, crooked flash accompanied almost simultaneously by an alarming BOOM. We piled the kids into the car, strapped them into their car seats and sped home. The sky opened up just before we got the kids inside, and we were all soaked. After we toweled them off and they settled down, I sneaked away and sat on the steps of our Florida porch and watched the dark clouds roll by. A cool wind blew through the viburnum hedge along the driveway and the crape myrtles in the yard.

That night I took the garbage out to the curb after dark. When I reached the bottom of the driveway my face ran into something sticky and elastic, and out of the corner of my eye I saw something the size of the palm of my hand suspended in mid air. I yelped and hopped backward, and then stepped forward for a closer look. The suspended object was a banana spider, and it was sitting in a web that it had strung from foliage on either side of my driveway, a span of at least fifteen feet. That was a bit terrifying to contemplate, but the thing that bothered me more was trying to imagine what a spider that big in a web that huge hoped to catch and eat.

A few days later I bought a kit and assembled a small lawn mower. Our yard was a half acre of muddy looking sand and struggling patches of St. Augustine grass. Sand spurs grew in great abundance, however, and I discovered their presence when I tried to walk barefoot across the lawn to reach a hose. The round stickers lodged into the soles of my feet and sent me hopping back to the carport. My toes felt like they were on fire.

I got the mower started and began to cut grass and throw up spurts of black sand into the air. I soon was choking and wheezing and decided to take a break. I happened to look down at a ragged tuft of grass and saw something odd poking out of the ground. I bent down. A dull gray creature the size of an overgrown grasshopper stared back at me. Its head looked like the monster’s head in the movie, “Alien”. I took a step toward it and it reluctantly retreated into the hole it had dug into the ground. I later found out that the insect was a mole cricket and that he and all his friends and acquaintances were eating the grass in the lawn from the roots up.

An older couple next to us and a widower across the street were friendly. They gave us advice about gardening in Florida and shopping and navigating in Orlando. But the rest of our neighbors seemed suspicious of strangers and reluctant to show any interest in newcomers. When we took the kids to the park several blocks away we encountered a little boy. He came up to Annie and Alan with a smile on his face and began to play nicely with them. An old woman with a lined and tanned face wearing a shawl sprang up out of nowhere. I gave her a friendly look, but she scowled at me as she snatched the boy by the arm and dragged him away from us. Her eyes were hostile when they met mine, and I could see that she thought that I had evil intentions concerning her grandson. We were used to meeting young parents with children in parks in State College, and Judy and I were surprised that we were considered a threat for being friendly to a child.

Daily encounters with workmen and service people could become unexpectedly hostile. One postman said rude things to me if he saw me working on a landscape painting in the front yard. Another seemed affronted when he saw me playing with my kids in the carport. He questioned my intelligence when he found out that I stayed home with the kids while Judy went to work. He thought that I was foolish for having stuck around for the hard work of raising children when any man with half a brain knew that women were just for pleasure. The garbage men hated their work, and one took intense pleasure in ramming our can against the edge of the truck until he broke off the handles. The bags had stuck inside, and I guess he felt justified in doing some damage to get them out. The customers and store keepers in the strip mall nearest to our house spoke to me first in Spanish, and when I didn’t answer in kind they looked at me with guarded expressions. My tanned skin had fooled them at first, but they had figured out my ‘deception’.

We saved and borrowed money and moved out of Azalea Park at the end of one year. We bought a house in a working class neighborhood in Seminole County on the outskirts of Winter Park. The neighbors on either side of us were a lot friendlier, and we soon made friends with a family down the block who had kids about the same age as ours. We felt a lot more relaxed, and the postman wasn’t interested in making rude and personal comments. He just delivered the mail. Our garbage cans were not further molested.

A heroin epidemic swept through our old neighborhood a year after we left, and the park where we met the little boy and his grandmother was no longer safe for children. Used needles littered the ground around the swings and the picnic shelters. Judy and I felt that we had escaped just in time.

Palm at Chilean Dr

When Nature is Out to Get You: Gators

One day I was painting by myself at Black Point Nature Preserve on Merritt Island.  If I squinted hard as I looked southeast I could see the vehicle assembly building far off in the distance at Cape Canaveral.  It was a brisk day in February and the saltwater marsh was alive with migratory birds and Canadians.  Squadrons of low flying thrushes buzzed a few feet above my head, and their wings made a thrumming sound like the engines of WWII fighter planes:  vrooomph.  Canadians drove slowly by in large, white Winnebagos on the winding road that snaked its way between the ponds.  Many of them would pull over and get out to watch me paint my landscape.  They would inevitably ask, “Have you seen any alligators?”

The nearest bathroom to my work site was a mile or two away.  I usually went behind some bushes to relieve my bladder when my morning cup of coffee cleared my kidney.  On days when the preserve was busy I went down a raised path that divided two black mud ponds until I rounded a bend where small trees and bushes hid me from hikers, bird watchers and gator seekers.  On previous trips I had spotted the bones of wild pigs on the ground along the path, but thought nothing of it until this particular morning when I nearly tripped over a gator.

He lay across the path five feet ahead of me.  He was eight foot long from head to tail and moved incredibly fast as he rushed and dived into the canal on the right.  I had rickety knees, but when I saw the gray blur of his body in motion I managed, without actually being aware of making a conscious decision, to leap backward five feet.  After I caught my breath and calmed my pounding heart I crept closer to the edge of the canal.  I could see his knobby head half submerged in the water a few feet away and that his ping pong ball sized eyes were keeping a careful watch on me.  I opened my zipper and peed into a bush while keeping a careful watch on him.

That might have been an act of bravado on my part, or perhaps my fright gave my bladder an overwhelming need to be emptied.  At any rate, when I finished and closed my zipper I backed up the path till I rounded the bend, and then trotted fifty yards to put some distance between me and the gator.  I wasn’t sure that he would remain in the canal and that he was able to distinguish me from a very large wild pig.

I went back to my painting and lied to Canadians when they asked me about where all the gators were.  I didn’t want to have to run back there and wrestle a very nice, polite man from Ontario from the jaws of death.

I was nearly over my fright and had settled into my painting once again when I heard a crackling sound behind me.  Bushes, rushes and small trees grew along the edges of the ponds around me, and when I looked carefully I saw a two foot gator climbing into the low branches of a mangrove shrub ten feet to my rear.  It was too small to be much of a threat, so I ignored it.  Then I heard crackling sounds to my left.  A three-footer tried to find a comfortable spot to sun in the branches of another mangrove.  And another appeared straight in front of me.  They were all small, but I started to get the feeling that Tippi Hedren got in “The Birds” when she saw bunches of crows staring at her from their perches on a jungle gym in a deserted school yard.  Nature, or Gatordom, seemed to be marshaling and concentrating its forces on my position.

I began to paint faster and faster in a style that was more emotional and expressive than usual as prehistoric reptiles continued to gather around me, and I began to ponder the brevity and fragility of my existence.  I ended my work when the sun dipped toward the west, the shadows lengthened, and my nerves were completely shot.

I was happy when I crossed over the bridge from Merritt Island to the mainland in Titusville, and took comfort from a visit to a kwicky-mart on the edge of town.  The gaudy displays of beer, chips, soda, tobacco and tabloid magazines made “Nature red in tooth and claw” seem far, far away.

I decided to paint a cityscape the next time I went out.


Black Point Marshes Black Point Mangroves