My journey to Florida began in Homestead – where I was born, in July of 1926.
It all started (I was told by my parents) just before the big hurricane in September of that same year, which almost swept away Homestead, as well as Miami.
My first recollections were those with my life in Coconut Grove, where my parents moved in 1927. We lived on Kumquat Avenue. My dad had a job with the Coconut Grove water plant before working with Pan American Airways in about 1928.
From Coconut Grove, my family moved to Coral Gables on Mariana Avenue, where I went to kindergarten at Coral Gables Elementary.
I attended there under the strict and watchful eye of Miss Abigail Gilday. I read the account of one of your contributors who described her as being six feet tall or maybe even a little taller. I would say he underestimated her height by about a foot! I remember on several occasions having been sent to her office (for reasons I will not go into at this point) and having looked up at her as an insect might have looked up at Gulliver. She was not only gigantic and imposing in her appearance, but she had a voice to match!
I went to school with a lot of unforgettable classmates: Walter Miller, John Tatum, Dennis Kelleher, Tom Ray and others. Because people didn’t move around too much, every year we moved along through the grades with the same kids. I could probably name a lot of my teachers, as well. Mrs. Feaster taught me to read; Mrs. Holiday, the multiplication tables; and Mrs. Furlong was in charge of “show biz” (The annual Christmas play). I learned math from Miss Madry.
I got my first job when I was at Coral Gables Elementary. I started selling and delivering the Saturday Evening Post and the Ladies’ Home Journal. The Post cost a nickel and the Journal a dime. I built up a pretty good route; I cleared about $.50 a week.
My next job was working at the Coral Gables Bowling Alley. I set duck pins and 10 pins. I think we used to get five cents a game. There was nothing automatic about any of it – WE were the pin-setting machines.
I went to Ponce de Leon High School in 1938. In many ways, it was like Coral Gables Elementary School in that most of the teachers had been there for years. Mr. Harry Rath had been the principal since they opened the doors. There were about 750 kids. There were only 125 in our graduating class in 1944.
Burdines was the only store in Miami that was air-conditioned. I think the Olympia Theater was, as well. The Coral Gables theater at that time had no AC.
Our family was pretty lucky during the Depression because my dad had been involved with aviation since he worked with Glenn Curtiss during World War I and then started working for Pan American Airways. He stayed with Pan Am and eventually became general foreman in charge of engine accessories for them at the old Miami International Air Depot.
I had my share of jobs during the years. I got up at 3 in the morning, folded newspapers for The Miami Herald, delivered them during the darkness of the wee hours with never a thought (on the part of me or my parents that there ever was a threat of bodily harm of any kind). I worked for the A&P grocery store, as well as Tanner’s market on the weekends. I even was employed for a time as an usher in the Coral Theater during my years in high school. I probably thought I was working too much and too hard. Today – looking back on it – I probably wasn’t doing enough of either one.
I had a loving family, I lived in a lovely city and made a lot of nice friends, many of whom I still have to this day.
We played “capture the flag” at night on the Coral Gables Golf Course after we had our meeting at Scout Troop No. 7. The troop’s log cabin was nestled among the trees on the back nine.
I learned to swim when I was 9 at the Venetian Pool under the tutelage of “Pop” Burr and never gave a thought to its beauty, uniqueness and/or availability to me as a kid growing up. It was only after I grew up, and traveled around in the world, that I realized it was a truly “unique” swimming pool.
We made forts using palmetto fronds nailed to pine saplings that we cut down on property and vacant land that had never seen a “no trespassing” sign.
We fought battles with “guns” we made ourselves from rubber bands cut from old inner tubes with our mothers’ scissors as ammunition.
I was given a BB gun when I was 10 with a strict admonition never to shoot where there might be harmful results. I have to confess that despite my promises to my mother to the contrary, I think at one time or another I shot at everything that walked or crawled or flapped its wings. I was never a very good shot so most every living thing was safe, but I shot many a bottle into shards and punched a lot of holes in tin cans.
After school at Ponce, we frequently cooled off by taking a swim in the Coral Gables Waterway.
My friends and I did a lot of camping out in the vacant woods south of South Miami. Of course, we usually did not have a tent, and when it rained – as it frequently did – we sure wished that we had one as we sat shivering, waiting for the warmth of the rising sun.
When we ran short of cash, we used to scout around for the deposit bottles that we redeemed for enough to get us into the movies. The movies cost $.10 for anyone under 12 back in 1938. On Saturday, they usually showed some kind of cowboy movie that preceded the regular feature. Every kid got a comic book and a candy bar when he walked in the door.
One of the most important holidays always was the Fourth of July. Today, there is not much in the way of fireworks, but in those days that was a big thing. And my parents knew it. It was the one event in addition to Christmas that they really went out of their way to make sure I had the right kind of a celebration. I think they allowed me five whole dollars to spend on whatever kind of fireworks I wanted.
I used to get a catalog from the Spencer Fireworks Company out of some town in Ohio in the middle of March. I spent the better part of two months poring over that catalog and deciding what my selections would be.
When the big day dawned, I started early, long before daylight, and finished late, long after dark. In those days, five dollars’ worth of fireworks was just about all that one man or an active boy could handle in one day.
Yes, those were the days. Before I went to high school, we spent the summers outside building forts, tree huts, battling with “rubber guns” and going to the movies on Saturday. In the fall, all of my male friends were involved in “sandlot” football with very little, if anything, in the way of football pads. No one seemed to be worried or concerned as we split up into teams and played football on the field at Salvador Park in Coral Gables or the Coral Gables Prado.
In those early days, girls were just not a romantic factor. If they could not climb the tallest pine tree like a monkey or run as fast as the wind like Carolyn Hunter, they gained no respect with the “fellas” and just had to be satisfied with playing hopscotch or jumping rope.
Of course, when we went to high school, things changed a little bit. I had a couple of romances with girlfriends that I thought were pretty super at the time.
As it turned out, I married one of them – Lenore Bennett. We were married in 1949 at the Plymouth Congregational Church in Coconut Grove and renewed our vows 50 years to the day at the same church, at the same time in the evening.
At the time I was growing up in Coral Gables, I never realized how fortunate I was. It was only after I went in the Navy during World War II in 1944 and got out and saw what the rest of the world really looked like that I really appreciated what my life had been like when I was a kid growing up in a town that you might call a place “next door to heaven.”