We moved to Florida in consideration of my father’s health. Trading an actual house for a mobile home… in a mobile home park. Not a step up, to be sure.
Our trailer home was on the first street off the highway, just around the corner from the 7/11 convenience store (which coincidentally, was open from 7 am to 11 pm each day). Just south of our place was the ‘Sam Snead Golf Course’. My bedroom was adjacent to my parents’, and my window faced the golf course, which had flood lamps to accommodate evening golfers.
Frequently, through my bedroom wall I could clearly hear my parents arguing. Over time, my mother began to throw and break items that were handy during those disagreements.
She also began hitting me and my sisters when unhappy about something we had done. Often with a shoe or hairbrush. On one occasion, I corrected her in front of another adult when she said ‘journally’, rather than ‘generally’.
A mile south was Fairglenn Elementary School. We were able to walk to school. The facility was clean and a rather modern design. Apparently, the practice of education had just recently been introduced in the deep south.
My mother invested her time and energies in raising the two of us. My father took a job at a Sears store in Cocoa. He worked in the appliance department.
It was sometime during second grade that I began engaging in disruptive at school. Florida schools had a liberal paddling-policy, and it seems that while the punishment didn’t achieve the desired result, it continued nonetheless.
I remember that my mother would shop at the local Publix grocery. And she began bring home a children’s encyclopedia set for me, one volume each month. Over the subsequent months, I believe she collected the entire set. And I would read each book from cover to cover.
Later, we received a monthly issue of Highlights Magazine. Apparently, I enjoyed reading, and learning.
Things were noticeably different in the south… I remember a sign on a restroom door at a local restaurant that said “Whites Only”. Seeing it was little more that a passing curiosity to me at the time.
Blacks in the south were prevented from voting until 1965. Even now, Florida is one of 10 states that still have schemes to deny voting rights to a large portion of its population. Of course, that’s where they invented slavery.
I had a toy car that I remember losing while we lived at the trailer park.
My mother became enraged about something I had done, and stomped on it in front of me. I believe that she could try to hurt me in such a way startled me profoundly that day. It was just the beginning of her deep swings between nurturing us, and the sudden attacks.
Sometimes I think that incidents like that weren’t a big deal. Until I realize that those events still come to mind over 50 years later.
Seat-belts were first mandated in the US in 1968. But in the years of our childhood, following the neighborhood mosquito-spraying truck through our neighborhood on bicycles didn’t raise any objections from our parents.
In our country people smoked wherever the would. Restaurants, hospitals, and movie theaters. In Florida, we had drive-through liquor stores that would serve even mixed drinks, in plastic to-go glasses. It wasn’t illegal to drink and drive then.
Florida Air Academy was a private, all-male, grades one through 12, military-structured boarding school located in Sunrise, Florida. 180 miles south of our home.
I was nine years old, and starting third grade the year my parents made the trip to drop me off at this imposing facility. The stucco buildings were white with clay-red terracotta roof-tiles.
The students were issued military-style uniforms. We were assigned a bunk-bed in one of several second-floor dorms, connected by a wide dark-green tiled hallway running the length of the building. There were restroom and shower facilities at the halfway point along the hall. Classrooms were situated on the ground-level below the living quarters.
Being a military-themed institution, we spent a great deal of time lined up in formation before each meal. A portion of our daily routine included marching about in the often-times muddy lot in the above photo.
I believe the genesis of my pronounced and uninterrupted inability to connect with peers can be traced back to my years at this school.
The few memories of that my time there range from uncomfortable to tormented. Somehow, I seemed to draw abuse from other students as a matter of routine. The corrective staff paddling sessions continued.
On most weekends and holidays students were permitted to go home on a pass, providing they hadn’t collected an excessive quantity of demerits during the week. I regularly exceeded the limit, and only qualified for a visit home over regular school holidays.
I discovered a cluttered basement below the ‘chow-hall’, and found a working bicycle there. I remember spending a good deal of my free-time riding in tight circles around a boiler. A dim stained light bulb illuminated the dusty room. The following year, the bicycle was missing.
The trip home and back during those rare reprieves was aboard a Greyhound bus. The school would drop me off at the local station with a ticket, and I’d ride to Ft. Pierce, where there would be a layover.
I remember buying comic books to read each time I was there. Casper, Richie Rich, Scrooge McDuck, and Archie. I remember they were 35 cents each.
The route had stops at towns along the way. There was no interstate highway then. Eventually, I’d arrive in Cocoa, and be picked up by my mom for the short trip home.
On one occasion, my mother drove past the trailer park on the way home. I asked where we were going. She said they had moved while I was at school.
Taking a Fall
During my second year at the school I had been places in a smaller dorm located at one end of the building.
It was accessible via a balcony off the outdoor staircase, and required going outside and through the main hallway doors to use the restrooms and showers.
At some point, I was being chased down the hallway from the shower area by an older boy who was throwing shoes at me. With my towel around me, and my bag of toiletries I flew through the double-doors at the end of the hall. Outside, and around the corner on the balcony… but it had rained earlier, and the concrete balcony was wet. I remember sliding to my left, between the deck and the bottom railing tube. On the pavement below, I recall wiping blood from one side of my head before everything went black.
I woke up in the hospital four days later. My mother was there. I had sustained a concussion. I went home from the hospital at some point, but not long afterwards was dropped off at the school again. The school had attached chain-link fencing to the balcony railings while I was away.
I’ve been asked why I didn’t tell my parents that I wasn’t happy there. Why hadn’t I told them I didn’t want to go back… I wasn’t aware that I could.
Between camp and school I did make a friend at the trailer park. Danny lived towards the back of the park, with his parents and brother Robert.
There was an occasion that while I was staying overnight with him, that his father punched him. I had never witnessed this before.
My father was rarely ever upset with me or my sisters. He did once, however, come to my room after arriving home from work, inquiring why my mother had asked him to kill me.
After my first year at FAA I was housed in the regular dorm-rooms. I have a single memory of living there, and it must have been one of the many weekends that most of the students were away at home, or on one of the visits to the beach that the school would facilitate.
James, albert and I were in our dorm that afternoon…
Summers were spent at camp in Lake Wales. Just me the first year, my sister as well later. Eight weeks of assorted activities.
There was horseback riding, tether-ball, archery, tennis, water-skiing, campfires, and an overnight camp-out in old covered wagons.
This is where I learned how to properly hold dining utensils. The buildings were wood framed, with huge swaths of screened windows, covered by hinged plastic panels attached to roped pulleys. The panels were lowered to keep the rain out during thunderstorms.
We lived in cabins with 2×4 bunk-beds. Each cabin had a ‘Camp Counselor’ to keep us safe and on-schedule. I still have a scrapbook containing some of the weekly post cards I sent home from camp. I do still remember sitting on my bunk writing them. I had a pronounced difficulty with commas. They looked like tiny spirals.
Camp was a relief after the school year. But there was always a desire to be home instead. I typically fell off the horses, and although I don’t recall any conflicts with other kids, there wasn’t any real connection either. One boy in line behind me for water-skiing went on about the “huge pike-fish at the far side of the lake”, and how I should avoid falling in that area to avoid being bitten. I believe I opted out of the activity, and he took my place.
Over the course of those years, my parents continued to struggle in their relationship. They separated at regular intervals, with my father moving out, and some other guy moving in. But to my distress, they would patch things up again, till the next cycle.
My Other Younger Sister
My youngest sister, Ruth, is ten years behind me. She arrived while we were living in the mobile home. We added a room to accommodate her.
School’s Out, Forever!
Towards the end of the sixth grade school year, I was hanging out with another student.
We were both often ‘grounded’ with demerits, and spent the weekends straying off-campus to get away. One day I had accompanied him to an abandoned office building with broken-out glass doors and windows.
While separately exploring the building, he thought lighting it on fire might be a good idea. We were seen running from the place, and collected by the local authorities. He admitted to starting the fire, and cleared me of responsibility. I was barred from returning to the school.
My parents were generally unhappy when they were together. My mother was unhappy the rest of the time as well. They had the adjacent bedroom in our mobile home, and there were few evenings that I didn’t lay in bed listening to the arguments between them…
I could always tell when I was about to be confronted and punished for something at home. Perhaps it was the urgency, or tone in the way I was yelled for.
On my way to account for whatever it was that I had done, I ran down a checklist in my mind, trying to figure out which event may have come to their attention. Often, it was something I had completely forgotten about… The hole I drilled through my bedroom wall to install a microphone in the living room, or the power cord to the entertainment center that I cut, wired in reverse, and then patched up with scotch tape. I had heard stories of playing records backwards to reveal some novel secret, but wasn’t able to get the record player to cooperate with my then-limited knowledge of electricity.
My mother was the household administrator of physical punishment. When I was young, this was delivered through instruments like a handy hairbrush, or an easily removed shoe she was wearing. Without some item being handy, slaps, kicks, or a bit of yanking about would make due.
At school, in the south at least, beatings with a paddle were the custom. I recall one boldly labeled “Board of Education”. These occasions of corporal adjustment didn’t even trigger a notice being provided to my parents. I believe at some point in Junior-High I finally refused to cooperate, and was from then on just suspended from the bus, school, or both.
In 7th grade shop class I actually made a paddle, and gave it to my mother. Bad idea. I was beaten with that on numerous occasions, but one day ran across it hidden away in a closet. The next time she went there to retrieve it for use, I went to its new location, and tossed the several cut-up pieces to her feet. I was beginning to learn that I could have a say in what happens to me.
I recall an occasion that our mother took us to Sears, and told us we each could pick out any toy we wanted. Nothing like this had ever happened before, but we didn’t give much thought to the ‘new deal’, and proceeded to make our selections.
As the items were being paid for at the register, mother extracted a credit card from her purse, and handed it to the cashier. She then made a comment, to no one in particular, that now my father would have to ‘pay for this too.’
It was clear to me, even then, that the ‘gifts’ we were receiving were actually an extension of their continuing arguments, and it struck me that I now had been weaponized in that battle. The toy, whatever it was, immediately lost its value.
Dr. Smith was our dentist. He had an office on Merrit Island, across the two rivers from Cocoa.
He had an exceptionally disconcerting habit of addressing fidgeting while dental work performed. If I squirmed too much, he would abruptly grab my head, covering my mouth and nose with his hand to prevent me from breathing, and then wait till I ‘settled down’.
As I rejoined my family in the waiting room afterwards, I was always publicly rewarded for my great behavior with a few pieces of candy from a small treasure-chest shaped box.
I’ve shared this story with dentists I visit now. And often, I’m told that back then this treatment wasn’t uncommon.