I was born in Pahokee, Florida in 1955. From the map snippet on the right, you can see it’s a very small town, on the southeastern portion of Lake Okeechobee, and located on the western edge of Palm Beach County.
Odd thing is, we never lived there. At the time I was born, we actually lived in Belle Glade, a few miles south. I am not sure why I was born in Pahokee, and not at the hospital in Belle Glade. My younger brother was also born in Pahokee, while our sister was the only one of us actually born in Belle Glade.
I attended first grade in South Bay, which you can also see on the map. By that time, we were living in Bean City, which you can’t see on the map above, but you can find it if you enter it in the google map search bar. When we lived there, it was a company town, where my Dad worked, and there was not only a store, but a post office as well.
How our family ended up in Florida is quite a story, as I suppose are the stories of all families and how they ended up wherever they are. My mother’s father was from Wisconsin, her mother from southern Georgia. My dad was from East Tennessee.
As my Grandfather told it, he was on the way to the outhouse one brisk 4th of July morning in the early 1920’s, and after having to chip ice so he could get there and do what one does in outhouses, decided to leave Wisconsin and join his uncle Mahlon down in South Florida. So, he and his parents fled south to the warm tropical climate.
My grandmother’s family was suffering hard times. She was only 8 years old in 1925 when her father died at a relatively young 56. Doing whatever it took to keep the family farm from being sold for taxes, her mother would load up the kids and head down south in the vegetable picking season, which coincidentally was very near Belle Glade, which is where my mother father and his family had settled.
My mothers paternal grandmother was a friend of Lawrence E. Will who was at various times a Fire Chief, newspaper man, boat captain and author. He wrote some locally famous books about the 1928 hurricane that devastated the area, killing over 2000 people in a single night.
One of the stories in his book “Okeechobee Hurricane” was about how my great-uncle Mahlon’s house was swept off its foundation into the Hillsbourough canal, with a number of women and children inside, and how the water gradually rose until the only available space was in the attic. My grandfather, a good swimmer, helped get all the non-swimmers to safety in the attic, and then used his pocket-knife to cut a hole in the gable-end of the house so everyone could escape to the roof.
My great-grandparents, grandparents and a few aunts and uncles are all buried in that cemetery now, very close to the mass grave that was dug to accomodate thousands of unidentified bodies that were found after that storm. I still top and visit when I’m in the area, which is rare anymore.
In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, my mothers father met my grandmother, while they all worked out at Brown’s Farm, a huge vegetable growing enterprise in the swampy fields between Belle Glade and West Palm Beach. In 1934, they were married.
My father ended up in the Glades in the mid 1950’s working as a mechanic for some of the big farm operators in the area. His older brother Sam had been in Miami for years, and Dad and his first wife had lived there for a period as well. When he divorced his first wife, he ended up working in the Glades, where he met my mother, who was working as a waitress in one of the diners.
One of my aunts married a man who was raised by some people who were connected to the famous Ashley Gang that terrorized the southeast coast of Florida in the early 1920’s. As a kid, this was a badge of honor, remote as it was, and was just another reason to be proud of being a native born Floridian, especially at a time when there were increasing numbers of tourists and immigrants.
I grew up proud to be from Florida, with stories told by my relatives of hardships endured, and triumphs over nature.
Then came the presidential election of 2000 and the hanging chad mess, which the rest of the country laid entirely at the feet of the state of Florida. More recently, the Trayvon Martin shooting.
There’s always been the slightly funny stories told of all the little old Jewish ladies who for a long time inhabited what is now South Beach, all the way up the coast through Fort Lauderdale. Even one of my favorite movies, Torch Song Trilogy referenced this when Arthur’s mother, played by the marvelous late Anne Bancroft had a line about what older Jewish women did when their husbands died. They moved to Florida.
I did move back to Florida for a period in the 1990’s, when I worked for the now defunct Adelphia Cable. I was renting in a house in Cutler Ridge, just south of Miami in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew came along and nearly wiped us off the map. So, along with my grandparents, I have my own hurricane stories.
I still have a lot of family in Florida. My younger brother and sister, a half-brother and his wife, an aunt, several cousins, and my son and grandchildren.
In the next few years, we’ll be returning to Florida I hope, and spending many long years enjoying the tropical climate, smelling the plentiful flowers, savoring the many lush tropical fruits and vegetables, catching fish from the ocean and the many lakes and creeks.
I know you can’t go home again, because I’ve already discovered that the place in our heart that we’ve treasured as “home” is a place that is static and unchanging. The places we grew up however are not static, and they do change, and when we go back as adults we are always confused because the vacant lot where we had grand games of baseball seems so small and dingy, and the houses so close together and it really wasn’t so far to the corner store as you remember.
Florida is often the butt of a joke these days, but I remember it as a grand place, full of adventure and fun, where there was always something fresh and tasty on a tree in grandma’s yard, or a catfish wiggling on the cane pole you left set at the canal, or if you were real quiet and snuck up under the window sills and listened, you might hear the adults telling another grand tale of how things used to be.