Our old air conditioner finally died this May; and for a few weeks, while we waited for the new one, we kept our windows open, waking before dawn to a noisy chorus of insects and birds. Pushing off the sweaty covers and listening to the mournful cooing of the doves and the rumble of thunder over the Gulf, I was reminded of my first Southwest Florida summers, back in the late ’50s.
Part of the boom that doubled the region’s population in a decade, my family moved here from Chicago, when my father decided to sell his share of a family-owned seed company and try his fortune as a small farmer on the fertile fields of Iona, just south of Fort Myers. A true romantic, he was eternally hopeful and utterly impractical; and my New England-born mother was anything but enthusiastic as they loaded their six children and the family dog into our blue, wood-paneled station wagon for the long trek south.
I was nine, and firmly on my mother’s side on the question of uprooting our orderly suburban existence. All I knew about Florida was that it was the home of every poisonous snake featured in my brother Michael’s book about North American reptiles, and for weeks I pored over the descriptions of them all. There were the copperhead (mainly confined to the North Florida prairies, I was relieved to discover), the water moccasin, with its nasty temper and horrible, gaping white mouth; the deadly rattler; and most venomous of all, the red, yellow and black-striped coral snake, easy to confuse with a more benign species, the book warned, unless you knew that its red and yellow bands were always adjacent to each other-thus the helpful rhyme, "Red and yellow will kill a fellow."
On an earlier scouting trip, my father had already rented us a house a block from the Caloosahatchee River in the old part of Fort Myers. When we pulled into the driveway, I could see the shock on my mother’s face. "Oh, my," she finally said brightly, "isn’t it-picturesque." An old Spanish house of crumbling brown stucco, it brooded over a jungle of a lot dominated by a rambling banyan tree dripping with ghostly Spanish moss. An overgrown courtyard in the back was littered with palm fronds and rotting yellow fruits that even my father, an expert grower, could not identify. We later learned they were called mangos, and he sent some specimens to Chicago as a botanical curiosity.
In those days, Florida really was a far-off frontier to most Americans, exotic and sparsely settled. At first my mother hated it-the heat, the mildew, the poor schools, the small-town politics and newspaper-but there was something in the overripe, earthy atmosphere that we children found, like the mangos, mysterious and deliciously sweet. Free of winter coats and Northern strictures, we ran around our new neighborhood like near-naked savages, capturing lizards, cracking open coconuts and fishing off the seawall along the river, where one day our 12-year-old neighbor, Butch, reeled in a big, silver tarpon. We didn’t have air conditioning-nobody did, except for a few public buildings-so we spent even the steamiest summer days outside until dusk, when swarms of mosquitoes would descend from the sky and we’d run into the house, shrieking and slapping ourselves. Several nights a week, we’d hear the mosquito truck approaching; and we’d rush outside to join the other neighborhood children running behind it, an invisible troop shrouded in the billowing fog of insecticide.
I don’t remember ever complaining about the heat, or even noticing it that much, although we were always getting heat rashes, which sometimes developed into nasty boils called impetigo; and if you ran around barefoot you could get a weird kind of worm, too. It wriggled its way under your skin, leaving raised, bumpy paths like a creepy topographical map. But that worried me less than the snakes, which true to my book, were everywhere. One day a car ran over a six-foot-long rattler right on our street. My brothers brought the body home and coiled it up on the front stoop; and when my father came home that night, carrying a bottle of beer, he yelled and dropped the bottle, sending glass and foamy suds everywhere, while they doubled over with laughter behind the bougainvillea.
"Don’t you know snakes still have venom in their fangs after they die?" I chided them. But my knowledge didn’t protect me from my own close encounter a few weeks later, when I stepped right on a coral snake (red and yellow stripes touching, I noted even in my screaming panic) while I was hanging out laundry. Fortunately, I was wearing shoes, but my sister Virginia wasn’t when she walked into the closet in her bedroom and stepped on a bee. Her foot puffed up like an adder, and we discovered that the bees had built a hive inside the ceiling of the closet. We called a beekeeper, who collected the hive and the honey.
Florida was full of dark surprises like that, as moody and exciting as the storms that would suddenly boil up from a clear-blue sky and hurl bolts of lightning at us while we streaked for home through curtains of rain. While life up North had seemed clean and contained and predictable, here something primal was always lurking behind the pretty pastel surface. One summer afternoon in high school, when we were waterskiing on the shimmering Orange River, its shores in those days nothing but wild jungle, my friend, Earl, fell off his skis. We were circling back around to throw him the rope when he leaped completely out of the water, legs flailing in the air, and screamed, "Quick! I just stepped on an alligator!"
After I went off to college in North Carolina, I missed the wild Florida outdoors; and I kept promising my Northern boyfriend that someday I’d take him to a beautiful beach in Bonita Springs, where you could wade across a little pass to a deserted island. He came down in August for a visit, and he and I and another couple headed off for a romantic adventure. Green and glassy, the summer Gulf was a warm, sticky stew of squiggling life; clear jellyfish floated by as we waded across, as did little black tubes that looked like some kind of seaweed.
On the island, we were looking for a place to spread out our towels when a snake slithered across our path. Suddenly we realized that all along the shore, what had looked like piles of twigs were writhing nests of snakes. Screaming, we ran back to the pass and plunged into the water-and started screaming louder, as we saw that the floating tubes of seaweed were actually swimming snakes, scores of them, as far as we could see. An old fisherman in a straw hat was smirking when we came scrambling up on the shore. "I was wondering why ya’all would go out to Snake Island in the summer," he said.
Snakes never bothered me after that-once your worst nightmare comes to life, what’s left to fear?-and the more I regaled my college friends with tales of Snake Island, the more fondly I remembered the place. I went back a few years later, but they were building a big condo on the beach and a chain-link fence blocked the way. Now I doubt if I could even find the spot; and I’ve only seen one snake in years, a big, black racer that sped across my garden when they were building the mega-home next door.
I like to think he’s found a refuge somewhere, a last, hidden holdout from the days when life seethed below every Florida surface and we ran free and wild in the midst of it. Now, sealed up behind walls of windows with our new air conditioner humming away, we’re so safe and comfortable we won’t even know if he ever appears again.