Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Papa and the Blitch Boys, Ocala, 1941
When I was growing up in Gainesville, the outermost reaches of our world – except for the stars – were Jacksonville, on the Atlantic coast about 70 miles to the northeast, where we went to buy school clothes and Christmas presents, and Lake Weir, a couple of hours’ drive to the south, where we spent our family vacation each August. But by far the most important features of the gameboard onto which I had been placed were the pretty town of Ocala, where my mother’s family lived, and Blitchton, the ranch where my father had been born and raised – both less than an hour from our home even at Daddy's cautious driving speeds, and less than half an hour from one another.
As I began to write these memoirs from the perspective of decades it vividly came to me what very different places Ocala and Blitchton were, what striking contrasts there were the families who lived in them, how each of my parents was represented by one of these places, and how important my experience of them was in my own evolution.
At the time I’m remembering, the 1940's and early 50's, my father’s family had been in Florida for generations, well before the Civil War, and my father’s father, who was a doctor, had developed a big ranch and farm at Blitchton, southwest of Gainesville, about a dozen miles north of Ocala. There my father and his brother and sister were born and raised, never in their lives to dwell for long more than a few miles from the soil of their childhood.
My mother’s family, on the other hand, came from Kentucky and Tennessee. Mother’s father, William Henry Fleming, had brought his wife, Frances, and my mother, then three years old, from Mufreesboro, Tennessee to Jacksonville in 1912, where he prospered in a wholesale grocery business in partnership with his wife’s brothers. The family grew to four daughters while the war brought great prosperity to the Batey-Fleming Company. After going back to Tennessee for awhile after the First World War, Papa and Mom Belle moved back to Florida, to Ocala, with Mother, Martha, Lorraine, and Shirley.
During the early 1940's I thought of both Ocala and Blitchton as being far from Gainesville, not just because of Daddy’s tortoise-like driving on two lane roads, but also because visits were rare and communications were almost entirely by letter. Long distance phone calls over those 30 miles or so must have been expensive; even urgent news of a birth or death would most likely come by Western Union telegram. I remember that my mother and her mother (Mom Belle to me) began, as time went on, to telephone one another more frequently, but still at intervals measured by months rather than days. Probably my first exposure to psychic phenomena was that the receiver of the call, whether my mother or Mom Belle, had almost always been just on the verge of picking up the phone to call the caller when the phone rang. On the other hand, I don’t recall any long distance calls between Gainesville and Blitchton except when Otis died.
A trip to Ocala began with Mother and Daddy in the front seat and me and Riley and Gordon the back seat – usually after a couple of minutes’ delay while I had to get out of the car and run back into the house for one reason or another. I was notorious for that. It was just assumed that as the car was pulling out of the driveway, Fleming would need to run back into the house.
Then we’d make our way down University Avenue past the blocks of brick academic buildings and out of town south on Route 441. After we had crossed Paynes Prairie I felt as though we had left the known world behind and were exploring Oz or Africa. The excitement of the three children of course translated quickly into unseemly activity in the back seat, sometimes degenerating into shoves, shouts, accusations, and counter-accusations.
“He started it.”
“I did not. He’s sliding over on my part of the seat.”
“I am not. Gordon bit me!”
And from the front seat, “You all just settle down.”
“But Riley’s . . .”
“Don’t make me stop this car!” says my father eventually.
Whimpering: “But I didn’t do anything! Fleming started it.”
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” Mother says. “Look! There’s a white horse. Lick and stamp!”
My mother, like her mother always the pacifying spirit, would try to distract us with some game built on spotting license plates or billboards. Burma Shave advertising in particular, one small road sign following another to complete a verse, was a boon to parents.
Some of the sights and smells we experienced along the way – which was entirely rural except for a couple of tiny towns -- made such an impression on me that they are alive at this moment, monuments to the power of memory and imagination. The smell of freshly mown grass and of burning pine wood are the smells I most loved – and among the things most likely to lure me back for another incarnation. The dizzying sweet fragrance of cut grass might be generated in several ways fascinating to a child: A farmer mowing a pasture with spinning blades pulled behind his grumbling tractor. A State Road Department machine, its long arms of chattering pointed teeth spread like an airplane’s wings, would be trimming the right--of-way. Or, best of all, a gang of convicts in striped clothing would be felling roadside grass with slingers, each man chained at the ankles, one arm rhythmically swinging the wooden handle that split to hold the sharp horizontal blade, while lounging guards with shotguns lazily watched, swatting flies and nodding.
“Why are those men in jail?”
“Because they did bad things. If you break the law you get put in jail.”
“Gordon bit me. He oughta be out there with chains on.”
“I should not. Shut up!”
“Never say ‘shut up’ to anybody,” Mother says, reaching back to administer a gentle swat on whatever leg she happened to contact. She had formerly given us the biblical information that whoever calls his brother a fool goes to The Bad Place, but saying “shut up” was apparently less serious – in the realm of the impolite rather than the sinful. . . although in our family politeness (and what Daddy called courtesy) ran a close second to godliness.
Because of the convicts, Daddy might talk about his uncle who had been the warden of the Florida state penitentiary at Raiford, and might tell us again about the many reforms the warden had instituted, including a “trusty” system that let many prisoners out to work for the day without guards – a system that actually reduced the number of escapes. Daddy might also tell a story or two about our grandfather, who had been the state prison physician, in charge of the prison medical system, and in that role would tour facilities around Florida, including a trip to Miami by train when he took my father along with him. Daddy said that at that time you could see the entire town of Miami from the station platform.
“I could have bought half of what’s now downtown Miami for five hundred dollars.”
My father was always tantalizing us by mentioning real estate he could have bought for practically nothing which now would have made us millionaires -- including a strip of lots across University Avenue from the University of Florida later called “the Gold Coast”. Those tales did not enhance my opinion of his judgment and were one of the reasons I developed such scorn of his caution, his extreme avoidance of risk-taking. I interpreted what he told us as meaning that if he’d been willing to take a few chances when he was younger we’d be rich and own a movie camera and a big boat like Uncle Hugh Ray.
(I don’t think I knew at that time that Daddy had put a lot of inherited money into creating and selling lots in Lakeland during the Florida Boom in the 1920's, only to lose it when the bubble popped and people couldn’t make their payments. And only later did I come to fully appreciate that my father and his brother had greatly increased the size of Blitchton by buying hundreds and hundreds of acres of neighboring land at prices like two dollars an acre. The value increased by thousands of percent over the years, particularly after race horse breeders from Kentucky started a kind of gold rush to develop white-fenced race horse farms in the Ocala area that rivaled those of Lexington. By good fortune, the increase in Blitchton’s value was probably at its peak as my father reached retirement age, and sale of land there not only provided my parents with many comfortable years but also is now doing the same for me.)
“You never want to go to jail,” Daddy said. “I was visiting Raiford and walking past a maximum security cell and this prisoner said to me, ‘See if you can help me! They keep me locked up like an animal, and I’ll be here all my life.’ I told him, you should have thought of that before you killed those people.”
This tale of confinement created a farfetched association in my mind.
"Mother, remember what Dr. White said when you called him when Riley bit me?”
Mother responded, “He said, put some iodine on Fleming and a muzzle on Riley.” Everybody laughed.
The scent of stinging iodine, which with aspirin and Campho Phenique was the core of my parents’ medical arsenal, momentarily drives other smells from my mind, but now the overpowering beauty of wild wood smoke returns me to 1943. Sometimes it came from a forest fire, sometimes from a smoking, sparking pile in a farmer’s field, but most persistently it came from the small cabins, usually the homes of Negroes, which were scattered along both sides of the road during much of the trip.
From those homes, even in the summer when fireplaces and chimneys were idle, there always came a smell of smoke – hickory, pine, and oak. The most conspicuous source was the burning logs which boiled laundry in the huge black iron cauldron behind the house, but there were also wood stoves used for cooking (my own grandmother at Blitchton had one until she went exclusively to kerosene), and I think that the very walls of the wooden homes themselves emitted the smell of smoke stored up over years, abetted by meals abundant in smoked ham and bacon and sausage.
Oh, and there is one more wonderful smell which, like those cabins and steaming cauldrons, would be a rare find on Florida highways today. That was the incredibly rich odor of tobacco leaves hung to cure in tall ventilated barns. Sometimes we would stop next to a tobacco barn which was near the road just so we could sniff the delicious air which the warm breeze carried from it, and get glimpses of the broad leaves through the slats. I have driven hundreds of miles through the South in later years without seeing a single tobacco barn or a cabin like those that were the main features of our drives to Ocala and Blitchton.
Built of graying boards, whose character and beauty were greater for never having been painted, the small homes were topped with metal roofs, each with a brick or field stone chimney pointed to the sky. The whole structure was separated from the ground by piles of the limestones or flint which abounded in the surrounding fields. The design was always basically the same: An open front porch sheltered by the outcropping of the tin roof; the porch furnished with two or more chairs, the porch railing supporting pots of geraniums or petunias. The sand walk leading to the porch steps was likely to have decorative borders of half buried tires or interesting stones. The front door was right in the middle of the house and was usually open so that one could see straight out through the open back door. On either side of that central passage were the mysterious dim rooms which we would never see except for tantalizing glimpses through the windows as we sped by at fifty miles an hour.
“Darn Yankee!” my father would mutter, glaring into the rear view mirror as a more reckless driver approached him from behind. “Those Yankees drive through those mountains to get down here, and when they get on these flat roads they think they’re on a race track.”
I always silently gloating if, when the proclaimed Yankee car finally zipped around us, it turned out to have a local license plate.
At last we entered Ocala – driving east past the courthouse square on the road that went to Silver Springs, passing the ivy covered Ritz Apartments and their Spanish tiled roof on our left as the last landmark before Mom Belle and Papa’s house.
Mom Belle had been born Fannie Belle Batey on December 4, 1880 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and got her degree from Soule College as a music major, specializing in piano. For her whole life she spoke admiringly of her teacher, Professor Franz Josef Strohm. She also played on the college basketball team. After graduation she taught piano in her home and was organist at the Presbyterian church. During the summer season she would travel, chaperoned by a female relative or two, to stay at mountain resorts and provide their music. She even made such a performing trip to Chatauqua, New York.
Papa was born William Henry Fleming in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, in 1883. He left school and started working in a grocery store when he was about twelve years old. The grocery business became his life. When he met Mom Belle, he owned a grocery store in Murfreesboro, in competition with his future wife’s father and brothers. During their courtship, young Henry and Fannie Belle went on picnics, and when violets were blooming Papa would pick a bouquet for Fannie Belle to pin to the scarf she wore when playing the church organ.
Feeling that Henry needed a little nudge, as my mother said, Fannie Belle suddenly said to Henry during one of those picnics, "When are we going to get married?" Henry's immediate reaction went undescribed, but the wedding took place in June 1907, and my mother, Jean, was born two years later.
The new family might have remained in Murfreesboro except for the wanderlust of one of Mom Belle’s brothers, the adventurous Uncle Buddy (Hal Batey), who preferred train travel to high school and in his youth ranged over much of the South in boxcars without bothering to buy tickets first. Uncle Buddy is a story in himself -- an unusual combination of jolly adventurer and hardworking businessman, who later became mayor of Gainesville, Florida (in the 1920's, I think) and lived there to be 101, a widower who fixed his own breakfast of sausage, eggs, and grits every morning and was fatter than a barrel. What I most remember best are his four chins and his wonderful laugh. Let him be an inspiration to all who believe that grease brings longevity, and that humor is more important than diet in promoting health and long life.
Anyway, young Hal returned from a railway excursion to Florida brimming with enthusiasm for the possibilities he saw there. He convinced his father and other family members – including Mom Belle and Papa – to move to Jacksonville during 1911-1912, where they set up a jointly owned wholesale grocery business, the Batey-Fleming Company. Mother’s sister Martha was born soon after the move, followed by Shirley and Lorraine.
The Fleming sisters at Jacksonville Beach -- Martha, Jean (standing), Shirley, Lorraine
My Mother told me that the First World War gave a big boost to the Batey-Fleming Company, and that Papa made a lot of money. She mentioned sugar and cigarettes as especially profitable. There’s a photograph of my mother from that time, expensively dressed, sitting in a big open car, looking the part of a little rich girl.
After the war was over, Mother’s parents decided they didn’t want to raise four girls in Jacksonville (my mother mentioned a large military camp nearby), and so in 1919 they moved back to Murfreesboro. But the Great Depression came early to Tennessee, while Florida was still doing all right economically, and so early in 1925 Papa moved his family back to Florida, where he preferred to become a salaried employee of Batey-Fleming Company rather than return as a co-owner. His mission was developing the business in Ocala.
It seems funny to me that although, according to my mother, Papa opposed anything that would cause his daughters to leave home – from marriage to having a job – Mother was married within two years after the move to Ocala, and three years later her sister Martha secretly eloped to Inverness and married Hugh Ray. It is amazing to me that Martha's marriage was kept secret from Papa for months; only Mom Belle knew. It goes without saying that Martha continued living at home for awhile after she married.
My father was the athletic coach and history teacher at Ocala High School. He was living at his parents’ home at Blitchton, where he had been born two days after Christmas in 1896. After periods of being away at school, voluntarily serving in the navy during the First World War, and developing real estate in Lakeland, Daddy had returned to where he needed to be to meet my mother.
As a newcomer (teased about her Tennessee accent, which is hard to imagine, considering what a 1920's Ocala, Florida accent must have been like), Jean Fleming was told by other high school girls that Coach Blitch was real cute, and so she should sign up for the basketball team. Thus began the swift undermining of Papa’s yearning to keep his girls at home, unmarried and unemployed.
Kodak photographs show Mother in her basketball uniform, with bobbed brown hair, posing prettily next to Daddy while his chaperone mother stands alongside like a gray granite obelisk, determined to enforce the most extreme requirements of Southern Baptist virtue.
I don’t know much about the courtship except for basketball trips and movie dates, and I also don’t know how my parents got around Papa’s objections, but in the summer of 1927 the wedding took place and the photograph albums are now filled with pictures of an attractive couple visiting places like Chimney Rock and Lake Lure in their long, angular car.
Newly Married Jean Fleming Blitch, Chimney Rock, September 1, 1927
By the time I knew Papa he no longer had a lot of money. He had been stricken by the two-headed dragon of the Great Depression and the chain stores. My mother, who rarely referred to anything negative, told us, “Papa hated the chain stores. He couldn’t compete with them and he won’t shop in them.”
Not only did Papa always do the grocery shopping for his household, but he also persisted in the grocery business in spite of Piggly Wiggly and A&P. For as long as I can remember, until not long before Papa went into a nursing home he owned a general store in Belleview, then a tiny town south of Ocala. It was called the Farmers’ Supply, and it sold everything from canned foods and overalls to milk, fresh meats , mule halters, pitchforks, seeds, and fertilizers.
When I was a little boy I spent a day there while Papa presided in a white apron, usually behind the glass-fronted meat display case at the back of the store with a helper or two alongside. The freshest meat in the store must have been chicken because the chickens were alive and running around outside the back door until a customer wanted one.
I liked exploring the walls and counters of the big store, tugging at tools and leather harnesses, stroking saddles, smelling the dry seed corn, feeling the coarse tough fabric of stiff new work clothes. More than anything else, though, I enjoyed the lunch: A bottle of ice cold chocolate milk and a wedge of sharp cheddar cheese sliced from a big round in the glass case, along with Saltine crackers and canned deviled ham and sardines.
I remember with equal sensual pleasure Papa’s black van, a Merita Bread truck in its previous incarnation, which he regularly drove to the west coast of Florida by way of Blitchton and Yankeetown to sell spices and coffee and tea and I don’t know what else in many places along the way. I loved to climb up in the back of that van and smell the hundred sweet and pungent smells -- cloves, black pepper, coffee beans, vanilla. . . that emanated from the bags and boxes and tins on the wooden shelves that filled both sides.
But I have left myself, my younger brothers, and my parents passing the Ritz Apartments, about to arrive at Mom Belle and Papa’s house on the next corner on the left.
It was a stucco, two-storied house on a double lot with a screened porch and a bay windowed sun room across the front; the livingroom preceded the dining room, with bedrooms and bath along the right side, and a stairway led up to the partially finished attic which was the dormitory for juvenile guests and the art gallery for my young aunts' pastels. The kitchen was at the back, with a view of the banana trees at the rear of the lot, and a garage apartment above a detached double garage, usually inhabited by a tenant.
It seems to me that every time we drove up the driveway into the porte au cochere on the right side of the house, Papa was outside pushing his lawn mower or raking leaves. He always wore khaki pants and a slightly beat up Stetson hat which must have been demoted from formal wear to yard wear as it aged and softened. If the weather was cool, he wore a zippered leather jacket. He was so lean and slender that his trousers were a bit baggy in the seat, and appeared on the brink of slipping down right past his hips.
Papa - William Henry Fleming, 1946
Maybe Papa looked a little stern in general, but on the occasions when I and my brothers were with him he was jovial and affectionate. He would hurry toward the car and hug, pick up, swat on the bottom, and pinch me and my brothers with such rough enthusiasm that I escaped as soon as possible with aching ribs and a stinging bottom. I don’t know where the pinching came from, but it hurt, and I told Mother that I wished she’d ask him not to do it.
Mom Belle, being heavier and less mobile than Papa, would greet us at the porch door. If Papa had a figure like a carving knife, Mombelle was just the opposite. She was very, very fat –- as round and soft as a cotton ball. In contrast to hugging Papa, hugging her was like hugging a big, sweet-smelling pillow.
Mom Belle, 1946
Mom Belle and Papa were different in other ways, too: As soon as we three boys arrived Papa would usually try to put us to work in some way – but Mom Belle – blissfully – would intervene and usually feed us. Papa would grumble about us being spoiled, and say that boys need to learn to work hard while they were young. Papa's gods were hard work and earning. Mom Belle's were food, poetry and music.
Entering the house, I always appreciated that even the interior walls of the home were sharp-edged stucco, like wind-whipped wavelets on the surface of water; I liked moving my finger across their edges and points. It was also curious that the ceiling lights were turned on and off with pairs of buttons on the wall rather than a single switch.
In my earliest visits to Ocala, Mother’s younger sisters, Lorraine and Shirley, still lived at home – Martha having by then revealed her elopement and moved to her own home a few blocks away. All four sisters were pretty. I remember Lo, the youngest, as a slim blond, and dark-haired Shirley as shorter and more filled out. To me Martha, a long-haired brunette, looked like a movie star and was glamorous in every way.
As I write this I find myself wondering what Lo and Shirley, girls in their late teens and beginning twenties, did all day after they'd finished high school and before they got married. When I asked Mother how her unmarried sisters spent their time, she hesitated before answering, "I never thought of that.” They didn't go to college, weren't allowed to have jobs (until Shirley, in Mother's words, "overruled Papa" and started working for the telephone company harvesting coins from pay phones), and probably didn't have many household chores except (in theory) making their beds.
In that world, even people with moderate income had a maid do the cleaning, and in families like Mom Belle’s it was considered bad practice to teach daughters to do housework because it implied they might be reduced someday to cleaning their own homes. Mom Belle refused to teach Mother to cook because she was brought up believing that genteel young ladies had servants to do that kind of thing.
Papa, on the other hand, was the self-appointed sole grocery shopper for the family, as well as the enthusiastic chef. Mom Belle was more keen on eating than cooking, but she had her own special recipes, most memorable of which for me were apple dumplings, which were immortalized in the following bit of history:
Once when we were all finishing a dinner at the Ocala dining room table, I – about 3 years old – asked, “Mom Belle, can I have another one of those apple dumpling things?” Why that would have been so humorous to the adults that they retold it in the family for years, I have no idea, but by now even I think it was funny.
Apple dumplings: peeled apples wrapped in crust open at the top, baked until apples soft and crust brown, sitting soaked in a pool of buttery sweet sauce.
Mom Belle and Papa's house always smelled of something good cooking. I recall breakfast and Papa as one: Hot biscuits (nobody ever heard of a biscuit from a can or mix in that house) with plenty of butter melted on them (and cane syrup to turn them into a sweet dish if one desired), sausages or bacon or both, sliced tomatoes, grits, mountains of scrambled eggs, damson plum preserves, and milk and orange juice and coffee. I particularly remember Papa and his coffee – which he drank at every meal unless there was iced tea – because of the hissing sipping sound he made as he sucked it from a full cup.
Biscuits sometimes gave rise to the story of the Yankee who was puzzled and therefore kept saying “no” when his Southern hostess offered him a “hotten”. Only later did he realize that he'd been offered a “hot one” from the latest batch of biscuits.
Speaking of Papa and breakfasts, my father recalled with an expression of appalled amusement that when “Mr. Fleming” went along to the Big Scrub (now part of the Ocala National Forest) with the Blitchton men on deer hunting/fishing trips (Otis would go in advance with a wagon loaded with tents, food, and other equipment) Papa would at dawn (with the essential coffee brewed over a campfire) eat cold, greasy, fried fish left in the frying pan from supper the night before.
Besides the huge breakfasts, the thing that comes to mind most often about eating at my grandparents' dining table was that I seemed to be fated to sit at Mom Belle's left hand, where she could prey on my plate. Yes, it's true. Unless I managed to empty my plate before she emptied hers – and she often ate at an eager pace, while I've always been a slow eater – her plump hand would dart over like a bird's quick beak and snatch tidbits of fried chicken or fish or steak or cake from under my nose. I don't even remember her asking, “Are you planning to eat that?” as some predators do.
Of course I wasn't allowed to go hungry. No one was. But we children were definitely at the mercy of adults in Ocala, as our plates were served by others, and the unfortunate who was seated next to Mom Belle might find his saved best last bite devoured by his grandmother just as he was about savor it.
Before Shirley and Lorraine married and moved to their own homes, here's what I remember: There was a lot of lolling on unmade beds and listening to phonograph records and talking about boys amid a tumult of stuffed animals and pillows and mirrors and perfumes and cosmetics. Loraine sang a song she had written about the boy she was eventually to marry: "Freddie, Freddie, he's the cutest boy in town. . ." A few years later, Lo and Freddie were married in that house, and we children watched through the screen doors as Freddie had to be supported among the flowers and potted palms by two friends lest he sag to the floor in a faint before the ceremony began.
Some of the records – 78 rpm -- particularly impressed me: “The Music Goes Round and Round,” volume turned up as loud as possible. (“I blow through here, the music goes round and round, whoa ho ho ho ho ho, and it comes out here.”) “A-Tisket, A-Tasket A green-and-yellow basket. . .” “Flat Foot Floogey” (I thought it went, “Flat Foot Floogey with the flawed jaw,” but the lyrics were actually even stranger, “The Flat Foot Floogey with the floy floy.”) “Jeepers Creepers, where’d you get those peepers?” “Three Little Fishies”, “Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh”, “Beer Barrel Polka”, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” Two songs I liked to hear often: “The tumblin’ tumbleweed,” and “Cool, clear water,” had been found in an alley.
A few songs from those days were still being played when I was in high school: “Deep Purple”, ” “Falling in Love with Love”, “And the Angels Sing”, “South of the Border”, “Blueberry Hill.”
It seemed that the unmarried Ocala daughters were always trying to “protect” Papa by hiding facts from him — which I eventually began to suspect meant trying to keep him from finding out about something which would make him angry at his daughters.
For example, when I was visiting Ocala once, Shirley and Lorraine took me in the family car to the Pig Stand, and then for some reason they wanted to look at a vacant house. Maybe Papa was buying it for rental. Anyway, we drove over there, and into the port-au-cocher, which, like the house, was very small. (It seemed that for some time before the 1940's every house in Ocala was built with a port-au-cocher, which was nothing more than an open, roofed area for sheltering a car next to a side door of a home.) In backing out, Shirley scraped a fender on one of the supporting posts. The immediate concern was not the car, but Papa.
“He’ll die if he finds out!”
“He might have a heart attack!”
On occasions like this I got the impression that Papa’s health must be very fragile, since any upset was expected to make his heart stop functioning, and yet he lived strong and healthy, except for deteriorating eyesight (he refused cataract treatment), well into his eighties.
Somehow the girls managed to charm an auto repair man into having the fender repaired before the end of the day when Papa got home from his general store in his van -- thus saving his life one more time.
At some point Papa bought the girls a roadster, a kind of sports car with just a front seat that held three people if the one in the middle didn't mind getting intimate with the round-knobbed gear shift lever. I think it was that car which had a little crank on the dashboard that raised and lowered an air vent on the hood just in front of the windshield, and in the rear, where the trunk would have been, was a rumble seat. I loved riding in the rumble seat, which gave the sensation of riding in a padded bucket completely exposed to the wind.
My aunts (who, like all my mother’s sisters, banned the word “aunt” because it made them sound old) always took me to two big destinations: The Pig Stand was a drive-in which had been the main Ocala hangout for teenagers even before my mother was married . At the Pig Stand I always had a cherry smash while Shirley and Lorraine drank “cherry dope” (dope being the old slang for Coca Cola).
Our other destination was the tourist attraction that put the town on the national map -- Silver Springs. Although a less crowded place in the 1930s and early '40s than today, it was much more famous than it is today. Florida had no Disney World, Sea World, or other big “attractions”. Orlando was a sleepy small town with oak-lined streets, sustained by orange groves and cattle ranches. Silver Springs and Daytona Beach – and around St. Augustine the Alligator and Ostrich Farm, and Marine Studios – were the full menu as far as most Florida tourists were concerned, except for the “Live Giant Gator” and “Live Rattlesnake” hidden by high board fences behind assorted filling stations along U.S. 1 and U.S. 27.
Martha and Lorraine (seated) at Silver Springs
In addition to the glass-bottomed boats, the Jungle Cruise, the Seminole Indian village with its bead-clad Seminoles and dug-out canoe, and Ross Allen's reptile farm (you could hardly ever go to the movies without seeing a “short subject” of Ross Allen wrestling an alligator or milking a rattlesnake), Silver Springs was the widely publicized setting of most of Johnny Weismuller's underwater Tarzan exploits.
At Silver Springs, a thick aroma of orange blossom perfume extended even to far reaches of the parking lot from dozens of scented candles, liquids, fabrics, and even pottery for sale in the crescent of gift shops that faced the water. The thrill of going to “the Springs” was vastly increased by the fact that it was fifty percent owned by the Ray family into which Martha had married, Hugh being the son of the founder. Where other visitors paid admission, we just walked in. Our pride was increased by the fact that the glass bottomed electric boats were named after members of the Ray family, so that we could watch the “Martha Ray” pulling silently away from the concrete docking area with a load of camera laden tourists.
At that time, for the locals, Silver Springs was for swimming rather than for shopping or sightseeing. It had a narrow white sandy beach and a terrifying tall high dive tower. (There was a separate beach and picnic grounds for black people nearby around a bend in the river.) The clear-as-air water that boiled up from huge fissures far below the surface felt ice cold year round, but that didn’t deter people from swimming out to bask on the square float, or my aunts from trying to teach me to swim. My mother said that the first time I saw the smooth, crystal surface of the water there, when I was a toddler, I ran back in fear because I was at ease only with the rolling green whitecaps of the Atlantic at St. Augustine beach.
This is beginning to sound like a travelogue, so I’ll just mention the main thing that made Silver Springs a monumental, mystical part of my memories -- swimming underwater. Gliding in 72 degree totally transparent water in the shallow areas near the shore I could admire the pure white sandy bottom just two or three feet below the surface, undulating with refracted light . . . but when the snowy bottom abruptly dropped to the boil of the springs many yards below I’d find myself over a deep canyon, like a bird soaring low over the land suddenly passing a cliff’s edge and seeing the bottom of the Grand Canyon in miniature hundreds of feet below.
Martha and Hugh were the only wealthy wing of the family. Their one-story red brick house in Ocala was not ostentatious or particularly big, but there was something rich and exciting about its furnishings — the awnings above the windows, the venetian blinds, the glider and matching furniture on the glassed-in porch, and the big oval blue mirror over the fireplace, which, along with the huge stuffed swordfish Hugh had caught -- turned the house into a magical place. Besides, Hugh had every kind of gadget before anybody else did. In the 1930's he had a home movie camera, and a phonograph that made many recordings of adults talking and children laughing and singing. He even had his den air conditioned years before most people even knew air conditioners existed, and on a 90 degree summer day we would creep respectfully into that refrigerated sanctum and marvel at its wintry coldness.
I also admired Hugh because he was the first man in the family whom I realized drank alcohol. It turned out that several of his generation did, including my father on occasion, but Hugh was the first one I learned about. The parents of my parents had such a horror of the very idea of drinking alcohol that it was kept secret (to Papa, even playing rummy on Sunday was verboten, and the thought of a son in law drinking Black & White scotch whisky might have brought on the much-anticipated cardiac arrest). Martha told people that the bottle of club soda in their refrigerator was there because Hugh found it refreshing.
I began to see my own immediate family, at least my father, as being restricted and smallminded, while I began to admire and emulate the liberated and adventurous Hugh Ray. My father would sit and politely listen to female relatives talk all afternoon, and later complain about it bitterly and make the rest of us share his discomfort, whereas Hugh would just walk out of the room, go off alone, and stay in a good mood. He was notorious for sitting in his Cadillac outside some wedding receptions and listening to the radio while others made small talk. Of course I realized as I grew up that it's much easier for rich people to be impolitely independent and outspoken than it is for those in less gilded surroundings.
Papa supplemented his Farmers' Supply income with rental property. Remember, the country was still in Depression in those years. At one time he rented out a house and several apartments (from one of which came the upright piano on which I learned to play). Except for grocery shopping and cooking, fishing, and listening to the radio, particularly to football and baseball games, I don’t think he did much but work, nor had much interest in anything but work and renting. If he had a vacancy, he would put a sign out in his front yard, right on the main road from Ocala to Silver Springs, and spend as much time as possible sitting outdoors in sight of the sign. Several times he was absent from family gatherings because he would go on no trip or visit until the vacant place was rented.
One thing that he said impressed me so much that it has always stayed with me. It came from his telling me and my brothers something that he and his friends had done recently. He referred to his friends as “the boys.” Gordon or Riley, much too young to be tactful, laughed and asked, “Why do you say ‘boys’ when you’re old?”
Papa answered, “Your body grows up and gets bigger and gets older, but you never change. You’re just the same inside when you get older as you were when you were young.”
That image of an never-aging being trapped in an aging body has had great truth and poignancy for me all my life.
Mom Belle was the exact opposite physical type from Papa. They both ate copiously, but Papa stayed lean and wiry, while Mom Belle just got fatter. And while Papa had devoted his life to work and money, and thought that we boys were treated much too indulgently, Mom Belle was a poetic, artistic soul. She loved sitting on the screened front porch, and my most persistent Mom Belle memory is of her sitting in her white, wicker rocking chair on the porch, fanning herself with a cardboard church fan – perhaps with a gaudy picture of Jesus walking on water – or with a palmetto fan she asked me to cut for her. Palmettos look like small palm trees, have no spines on their stems, and with knife and scissors one of their leaves is easily converted into a rounded fan with a smooth natural handle.
Copies of “The Upper Room” Methodist periodical resided on a table next to Mom Belle, while her rocking chair had a kind of narrow basket woven as part of one arm, for holding knitting materials. One of my privileges was to comb and brush Mom Belle's long, long hair down over the back of her rocker, and then to braid it into a pigtail that reached to her waist when she stood. I recall that learning to braid didn't come effortlessly to a five year old, but that the process was fun and the result gratifying.
It was on that porch that Mom Belle introduced me to poetry. These lines have stayed in my memory while others have faded:
"The stag at eve had drunk his fill,
Where danced the moon on Monan’s rill. . .”
Those were sweet hours with a relative I loved, before I was old enough to question and rebel and to be dulled by sophistication. I have her wicker chair with its knitting basket arm sitting not ten feet from me as I write this, and I try to invoke her presence because she is the soul departed from my family I most regret not having communicated with more and come to know better.
The emotion that rises from the proximity of her empty chair as I write of her sitting there whispers of some mystery here, and that I should be silent