Deeper South Where the Big Bugs Fly

I think I was in 3rd grade when we moved from the frigid winters of northern Minnesota to the stagnant humidity of Satellite Beach, an island off the coast of Florida. My dad had been transferred to Patrick Air Force Base. I remember leaving our house in Minnesota at night. The movers had already packed our things in boxes, loaded the truck, and left before us. It was pitch dark and as I sat in the car and watched the bright lights of cars both oncoming and going along side us on the highway, I remembered I had left my little Indian purse on a window sill in the house that I would never return to. I don’t remember where or how I got the purse but I remember it was a dark brown cow hide with fur trim and a draw string. It was threaded together with strips of leather and beads. I pictured that pint size purse alone on the window sill, forgotten.

Our house on Melaleuca Drive was only a few blocks from the beach and five houses down from the dead end of our street where a causeway was under construction. I had never seen the beach before nor did I know what a causeway was. The street was named after the Melaleuca tree. We had a big one in the middle of the front yard. Its bark is a thick, spongy, soft bark that peels off. Large mutant moths, like only the deep south breeds, cling to it and masquerade themselves into the same color as the tree so they can spy on the world, undiscovered.  The house had been unoccupied for two years before my dad went down there and bought it, prior to coming back to get us. Our first night in it I was scared. There were dead roaches in the toilets. I’d never seen roaches before. I would soon learn there were lots of big bugs in Florida I had never seen or imagined before. I also learned that roaches fly. That first night, we slept on air mattresses because our furniture had not yet arrived. I remember Poncho slept beside me. I woke up feeling something crawling on me and I quickly brushed it off and then felt bad that I may have brushed it onto Poncho. My dad worked on the house and yard a lot. He did this everywhere we lived. With this house on Melaleuca Drive he put a new rock front on it that was pretty hip at the time.

It was a nice house with a decent size fenced in back yard where we would eventually host our neighborhood friends in tether ball tournaments. The back yard had a checkerboard style cinder block fence across the back  with chain link on the sides. When it rained, thousands of snails would come out of nowhere and ever so slowly make their way up the cinder block. I’d always go out there and pick the largest, the smallest, the darkest, the lightest. I wondered where they hid when it wasn’t raining.  A lot happened in that backyard. In addition to the tether ball and colony of snails, we’d watch the Apollo missions from our yard in the evenings. Cindy, my older sister says we watched them from the beach but what does she know? I don’t remember how many we watched and of course at that age I didn’t understand the significance of it. But I do remember us all being out watching the dusk turn to dark as we awaited seeing the magical rocket go up with a flaming tail following. I knew whatever this meant, it was important. History was being made and I watched it from my yard.

Poncho was young then, maybe a year or two old. He was the smartest dog I’ve ever known. We got him when I was about five years old and ended up having to put him to sleep after I was married. He traveled the country with us and by the time of his death had seen as many states as me, which was around 40 I think. He was as much a part of the family as the rest of us. I’d walk him down to the dead end of our street where the causeway was soon to be and sit down to look in the sand for shells. Basically the sand was all shells so I’d pick out the most interesting, only to end up throwing them down when I got called to dinner and do it all over again another day. One day, Poncho and I went to do our usual but Poncho wasn’t cooperating. He stopped abruptly before we got to our normal sitting spot and refused to go any closer. I had to pull him to where I wanted to sit. As I looked for shells, I turned from side to side and noticed a long snake stretched out behind me, the head to my right, the tail to my left. Poncho had tried to warn me. Later, a neighbor boy caught it and declared it a corn snake.

Poncho loved to get out of the house and run, and not come back. If it was a weekday he’d run the mile or so to my school. There was a tunnel under the causeway and a paved bike trail to my elementary school. We rode our bikes to school every day. Poncho knew the way and would sometimes be found roaming the outside hallways of the school and have to be sent home. All the kids knew him. My mom would take him to school parades and the kids would greet him by name. I think he liked his notoriety.

I had a best friend in Florida. Her name was Theresa Ferguson. She was unique and I liked that about her. She had a hamster named Amos. Theresa and I liked to watch a scary television show called Circle of Fear on Friday nights. I’ve never met anyone since then that has even heard of the show but I can still remember every episode. Since we only lived in Florida for two years, and I was young, Theresa and I didn’t keep in touch when I moved away to California in the fifth grade. I did however find her again in a tragic way. My mom was reading an article in Redbook magazine about a serial killer, Christopher Wilder. Pictures were posted of women he had lured with promises of making them famous models. Theresa always wanted to be famous.  There she was in the magazine. She’d been lured many years prior from a shopping mall in Florida and murdered by him.

We were friends with our neighbors across the street. They had a key lime tree in the back yard. I remember one year there was a big black widow spider living in that key lime tree.  I think it was about the size of an egg and it’s web large. It may have been guarding the key limes.  My dad says my mom made the best homemade key lime pies he’s ever had. I don’t remember them, but I do remember the spider.

My mom used to take us to the beach. She isn’t fond of the sand or sun since she’s allergic to the sun but she took us to the beach anyways. One year, friends of ours from Minnesota came to visit for Christmas. It was pretty cold on Christmas day, but we took them swimming in the ocean anyways just so they could say they did it. I used to like digging up the little periwinkles. There were so many sizes and colors, each one as unique as snowflakes. One time I took my bucket and dug up periwinkles with the intention of keeping them. I’m not sure I knew they were alive and needed to stay alive. When we got home I left my bucket of periwinkles in the car. The next day, the hot Florida sun, combined with no water, produced a bucket of dead periwinkles that stunk like rot. The smell wafted from the open car door like a dead body. Poor periwinkles. I didn’t mean to kill sea life. Sometimes we also found real Indian arrowheads in the sand, too. I don’t think we realized that meant actual Indians had been there many years ago and how special that was. One of the beaches closest to us was Indian Harbor Beach.

While we lived there, we visited a lot of tourist attractions. We were there the year Disney World first opened its gates. We went in the middle of July. I still remember the sweat and weariness of standing in line for two hours in the sun to get in the haunted mansion. We went to Six Gun Territory and witnessed gun fights in the street. I don’t know if its there anymore. I still have my gum-parker souvenir. It’s a little ceramic cat laying on it’s back so you can rest your gum on it’s stomach while you sleep at night and pop it back in your mouth again in the morning. I wonder who thought of that. I guess it’s a good idea for people who don’t need flavor in their gum or mind the dust. I also still have my souvenirs from the year Disney opened. I have two necklaces each with a wooden character trinket – Pinocchio and Minnie Mouse. We went to St. Augustine, and Busch Gardens. My mom took us to see Gone with the Wind across the bridge at a theater in Melbourne. It wasn’t our choice, but she also took us to the drive-in to see lots of Disney movies like Song of the South so that made up for it.

I hadn’t been back to that house in Florida since we moved away in the early 1970s. I decided a few years ago at the spur of the moment to drive to Satellite Beach over the weekend. I’d been gone over 40 years and I wanted to revisit it. I didn’t tell anyone I was going. After I arrived, I called my parents who live in Kentucky and said with pride and excitement, “You’ll never guess where I am.” Their first and only guess was jail. I’m not sure what to think about that. I was still able to find my way around and things still looked familiar to me. I found my street and house. It looked like a jungle. In fact there was so much foliage, the house wasn’t even visible but I could count down from the end of the street and knew that was our lot. There was a sign in the yard that said it was a Natural Florida Habitat or something of the sort. I think it was just a mess and a convenient way to get out of yard work. I easily found my way to the beach area we used to go to. It was different. There wasn’t a long shore of sand. I guess the tide was up and walking out in the water felt like we were on a huge rock, rather than soft sand. Coming home, we drove up the coast past Patrick AFB, Cocoa Beach, signs to Melbourne, and Cape Kennedy (as it was called in those days). It’s hard to believe so much time has passed. When I was there it seemed like I’d gone back 40 years through a time machine to a place I’d long ago put in the back of my mind. Being there made it all fresh and current, like it was just yesterday I’d been living there. The further away I drove towards home the further away that lifetime felt.


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