One summer, our family left our home at 81 Earley Street on City Island, New York, and motored to Florida, where we lived on a 50' boat in the Biscayne Bay area of Florida. Our parents slept in berths above deck, while my brother Donald and I slept below deck.
That was the first time we spent winter and summer months in Florida and it was a year of learning new things. In the Biscayne Bay area, we had been able to wander through Miami's famous "Million Dollar Park" Off the parklands, and at the waters' edge, we saw many charter fishing boats. For easy access, the boats were berthed with their stern tied to the dock. In the afternoon, Donald and I joined the many curious people who came to admire the sailfish or marlin 'catch' of the day. Sometimes we saw bonito, albacore and swordfish as well. Once our father sent us over to the docks to look at a 6' hammerhead shark. The one we saw had brown skin and a white underbelly. Usually the successful fishermen sat in the stern of the boat, or stood on the dock, next to his 'catch,' where his trophy fish would hang up on a 'stringer' for all to admire. There was plenty of laughing, chatting and drinking with other fishermen, as they relived the day and swapped stories. We never thought that we would be part of that busy scene one day, but we were.
On a hazy day, mom and dad, with their friends, [Everett and Rita Wiehe], chartered one of those Chris Craft fishing boats. The water was choppy as we headed for the ocean in search of some 'trophy' fish. Mom and dad were in the cabin chatting with their friends while Donald and I were in the open-air stern, stretched out on cushioned bunks on either side of the boat. Once we got to our destination, we began trolling for fish. Actually, there was nothing for us to do and we were kind of bored. Our immediate view was of the two outriggers and the ocean. We were drifting and hoping to snag a fish, when suddenly we saw one outrigger jerk back and forth wildly. We yelled for dad, but through the open cabin door, he heard the irritating noise of the racheted Penn reel and he saw the outrigger whip and slice through the air. "We've got a hit!," he yelled, as he sat down before the outrigger. We were all crowded in the stern, our attention riveted on the outrigger . Something big had swallowed our bait and was fighting to get away. Dad gasped when he saw what it was. "It's a sailfish, ....we've hooked one!" The magnificent sailfish leaped out of the water, again and again, trying to get away and fighting for its life. The boat shuddered as the big fish tugged at the line. Dad and Ev criticized one another as they took turns at the reel. "Pay out the line Ev, let 'em run!"......... he needs to wear himself out." But Ev stubbornly tried to reel the fish in without any 'running.' Fortunately, Mrs. Wiehe photographed the fish as it jumped aloft [a beautiful sight], but at the last minute, close to our boat, the blue finned sailfish freed itself from our line. We watched as it won its struggle and got away! Exhausted, we came back to shore with photographs, a story of a lost sailfish, a memory of intense excitement, but no trophy fish. Next day, we saw other beautiful fish in the Biscayne Bay aquarium.... on land!
Very close to our boat and visible to us, was a huge aquarium that was housed on an old ocean liner. It sat in the mud in Biscayne Bay and, because it showcased many exotic fish, it was a great tourist attraction. Even though dad took us through it many times, [it cost 10 cents], I never got used to the foul smell of old fish tank water. It permeated the place. The fish inside the aquarium were unusual and nothing like the fish we had seen up north.
Around our boat, we saw huge stingrays, barracuda, snapping turtles, schools of mullet and we saw porpoises as they frolicked in the distance. We also saw a small, thin, transparent 6" fish with an elongated snout that we called needlefish. Later, Donald said that we had incorrectly identified these fish. Whatever they were, they swam in schools near the water's surface, at times skipping across the water surface, very close to our boat. In any event, daily exposure to the marine life that existed in Biscayne Bay convinced us that the last thing we ever wanted to do, was swim in those waters.
So, when our dad said that we had to learn to swim from the boat that summer, we were not anxious to get in the water,....... period. No one could have convinced me that one of those turtles or barracuda, wouldn't snap off my leg! But there was no arguing with dad. He said "we can't worry that you might fall overboard and drown, so TODAY you guys have to learn how to swim! Dad fastened a ladder amidships... then he put a piece of canvass around our chests to protect us from the rope he tied to our bodies. He tethered us to the ships railing, placed us on the bow of the boat, and said "JUMP!" I can still recall how that salt water invaded my nose as I plunged, down, down, down. It felt like my lungs would explode and that I would never come up. "Swim to the ladder!" I had a small problem here, because I had no idea of how to swim. But, I was so scared and so anxious to get out of the water and all things in it, that I flailed me arms and legs in an eggbeater stroke ...jet propelling myself to the ladder. When we were both up on deck, dad said "I'll give a quarter to the first one of you kids that can swim around the boat." .... "What did he say?" "Swim around the boat for a quarter?".... is he nuts?.... Donald was outraged. "I was just glad to get out of the damn water alive." Donald and I were masters at hiding our true feelings from our father so that he never knew how we really felt about his 25 cent offer. At times we were quite irreverent towards him and thought nothing of cursing him out like crazy.
A perfect example of our slightly wicked behavior occurred after our swimming lesson. Donald and I were on the starboard side of the boat, probably fishing, when we heard a tremendous splash. It sounded like a piano had just hit the water. Right away, we knew what it meant; that our father had fallen overboard ...... again! We rushed to the port side of the boat just in time to see the yellow shirt with the black dots on it, sinking downward. We slapped our thighs with great pleasure and laughed our heads off...... and Donald said "that oughta hold the old bastard!" As soon as our father surfaced, spitting water from his mouth, we stopped laughing and with false concern said: "are you alright daddy?" As children, we didn't have a lot of great moments, where we could laugh at dad,.............. or at least until he surfaced.... so we totally enjoyed it!
Summers in Florida, without air conditioning, were oppressive and at times downright unpleasant. Since we slept below deck, with little circulating air, and with hordes of hungry mosquitoes.... it was logical that our father felt bad for us. In fact, he felt so bad one night, that he woke us up from a deep sleep, yelling..."kids, kids....c'mon up here." In a stupor we climbed up on deck. The second we surfaced, we were hit with a blast of cold water, aimed at us by our father holding the hose! We were shocked and chilled. Then dad said, "okay kids, you should be cooled off by now..... back to bed." He was right, we were cooled off, only the cooling off 'procedure' left us madder than hell! In the depths of the hull, we mumbled our outrage. What was dad thinking! Unbeknownst to him, we used dad's best salty language against him! We were learning that sometimes, those bad words came in handy.
That summer dad made Donald a spear so that he could stab some of the mullet that swam in schools around the boat. It was made clear to me that it was Donald's spear, and that I was not to use it. How unfortunate for me, because I desperately wanted to spear at least one mullet. One Sunday, after dining out and while still in the parking lot....... I spotted those tell tale 'cats paws' all around the boat. Mullet! I jumped from the car, ran ahead of everyone, sprinted over the string piece, galloped down the gangplank, perfectly landed on the boat and grabbed the spear. Donald was right behind me, but not fast enough, yelling "no, no, not my spear." I remember thinking; how did he know that? But I was unstoppable. I was so nervous that I wouldn't get a chance to use it, that I tossed the spear into the school of mullet, found my mark in one of those shiny bodies and never realized that I had not secured it to the ships railing. Horrified, I watched Donald's spear zigzag away from the boat, lost forever in the side of an unfortunate mullet! In a split second, everything disappeared..... the mullet school and the beloved spear. Days later, on an exceptionally low tide, dad spotted the spear. He found it near the aquarium, almost totally encased in mud. My brother was happy to have it back, but my spear- fishing career was permanently ended.
One day, mom and dad announced that they had a change of plan for us regarding our swimming lessons. There would be no more swimming around the boat. Dad put it this way, "how would you kids like to drive over to the beach before breakfast, have a little swim, then when we come back, mom will make us all some pancakes?" It was a good plan, because early mornings were not too hot and the beach was fairly uncrowded. It meant we could learn to swim like normal people.
Dad was fascinated with the Good Year blimp that flew over the beach area, trailing advertising [usually a long stream of red banners or red writing] and he said, "kids, let's take a ride on one of those blimps." He was a risk taker and an adventurous person. "What's he up to now, for Christ's sake?" ... Donald complained. I remember thinking, 'not a blimp, he already took us up in an open cockpit airplane!' .. I was frightened at the thought of leaving the ground in a blimp, but dad loved the idea of floating around in the sky. He made plans to get us out to the airfield on a selected day and almost got us aboard one of their aircraft. He paid the $2.00 per person fare and yelled...... "run kids, run... they're getting ready for lift off!" It makes me chuckle to think how our entire family ran across the field in lock step toward the blimp..... dad charging off to his new adventure.... dragging his frightened family with him. All to no avail. They were releasing the ropes from the blimp as we approached. Disappointed, dad said, "don't worry kids, we'll go up another time." Happily, another time never came.
Most Sunday's dad would say something like ...."kids, we're going out to dinner and a drive." Eating out was weekend fare. Sometimes, we drove to the Maxwell House restaurant in Coconut Grove. After eating, we would visit with our friends, Capt. Smith, his wife Margaret and their daughter Peggy. I learned to ride Peggy's two wheeler that summer. Other times, we went to an open-air restaurant on Biscayne Bay Blvd., where they had those ruby red water glasses that I loved so much. Other times, we drove to a drive thru restaurant in Miami, decades before there was a MacDonald's! Dad pulled up the restaurant window, ordered "four fish and chips, please"........... paid 35 cents a plate, got our order and off we drove. Sometimes, after we finished our meal, we drove to the ice cream factory. Mom always ordered the same thing.... one vanilla ice cream pop, covered in coconut. Going there was always fun.
At times, Donald and I rowed over to a small island across from our boat and went 'exploring.' Once, we saw a dead animal there. It was orange with dark stripes..... too large for a cat. Another time, while rowing home, we watched a 30' boat explode, burn and sink into Biscayne Bay. Later mom told us that when the boat went down, no one was aboard...... but that the whole thing 'looked suspicious.'
Many times my brother and I fished from our boat. Using drop lines, we fished for trigger fish, jack crevalle and mutton snapper. For bait, dad would buy us smelly cooked shrimp at 10 cents a pound. Sometimes, we accompanied our father when he went to the fish market, where he bought the shrimp from a midget. She was the first midget I had ever seen and, I was fascinated by her small size. When dad was out of earshot, I actually asked her "why are you so little?" As she weighed our shrimp, she looked at me and said: "when I was born, my mother put a scale on my head!" What did that mean? That statement made no sense to me, but it caused me to freeze frame a picture of her in my mind... how she looked, her crooked smile, her long dark blonde hair and the white apron covering her short little body!
My brother and I liked to fish on a small steel float that slid neatly under a dock, completely surrounded by bulk-heading. It was near our boat but, you couldn't see us in there, where it was dark and cool. Once while fishing, 2 barracuda almost ate my leg! I sat on the edge of the float, dangled my legs in the water, when I decided to check my hooks for bait. The second I lifted my legs out of the water, 2 barracuda swam by the waters surface, right where my legs had been! Donald gasped "barracuda!" I recognized the spotted fish immediately and we both stared at them. In the sense that I never again let my legs dangle in the water, I never recovered from that experience.
We met 'Charlie' that year. He was an old conch shell diver, who searched for conch shell pearls. Charlie sailed his boat to another island in search of his shells and would be gone for a few days. Once he found a rare, beautiful pink pearl. With great pride he showed it to us and said "I've been looking all my life for this pearl!" It was about the size of his thumbnail. Charlie, a friendly man, was the first black person I had ever met and I was intrigued by the fact that he had a girl friend. She saw him off when he set sail for his 'special' island and, always seemed to know when he would return. She sat on the string piece and waited for him. Once she asked mom for a glass of water. I think I recall her because she was young and pretty and I thought Charlie was old and kind of ugly. Charlie's gift to us was that he taught mom the secret of making delicious conch chowder.
That summer, my brother outsmarted my father. Donald was a finicky eater and our father was always trying to change his eating habits. Annoyed, Donald conceived of a plan to outwit dad. He told me that he would ask dad to build us a little dining area in the stern of the boat, [dad did that], and that then WE would have control over our food. He said "we can eat whatever we like and toss overboard, whatever we don't want." Don't like peas?..... toss 'em, hate asparagus?....... toss it." Sometimes our discarded food would float right past the galley where mom and dad ate! Donald worried about the speed of currents and we became experts on how long it would take for our food to sink [lettuce took forever]. Fearful of being caught, we tossed some foods far from the boat, then watched it sink. Our parents never spotted our discards. At dinnertime, mom would elegantly serve us a tray full of food. She was so proud of her children she said, who ate everything on their plate! God, I felt guilty!
We went to grammar school in Florida that year. I believe the name of the school was "Riverside Grammar School." My teacher, Miss Hunt, who once tied me in my chair, said things like this to me: "Fay, in the south, we raise our hand, then we speak." Or.... "in the south, we say yes ma'am, no ma'am .... blah, blah, blah." One time, I tried to buy some school friends with my ice-cream money. That didn't work. The day that I withdrew the offer of my money, the girls withdrew their off of 'friendship.' I complained to Donald about all these things and he said that he was having trouble with teachers and potential friends as well. To him they said things like "how is it that up north you're so smart, but down south you're blah, blah, blah." That stunned me, because everybody always liked Donald. He said that 'Southerners' don't like us because we're 'Northerners.' It had something to do with the Civil War, he told me. We longed to go home. 'Home', meant returning to City Island where we were born, and where no one disliked us because of a war...... or our northern accent. It was time!