1/17/2015 – TRAVELING BY BOOK TO FLORIDA
It’s a bleak winter day in Maryland, and my feet ache to walk the hot sands of a South Florida beach. It’s time to reread some of my favorite Florida authors.
You might think I’m talking about Ernest Hemingway or Marjorie Rawlings. Yes, they lived and wrote about Florida, but I never could get into The Yearling. Anyway, their books just don’t evoke the same feelings of nostalgia as my favorites.
We’ll start with Robb White, who wrote a charming book for kids called The Lion’s Paw about three orphans who run away on a sailboat, taking it down the coast of Florida, across the St. Lucie Canal to Florida’s west coast and Sanibel Island. There they hope to find a shell called the lion’s paw. I bought a copy of this at a school book fair when I was in eighth grade. This copy finally disintegrated, but years later on a trip through Florida, I drove down one of Florida’s old-time shell-paved roads lined with palmettos to a book distributor to buy a reprint. A reprint. I’m not the only one who loved this book.
Then there’s Philip Wylie, he of the scathing Generation of Vipers, but he also wrote the Crunch and Des series of short stories published in the Saturday Evening Post in the 40s. Crunch and Des ran a sports fishing charter business in Miami. I remember going down to the Miami docks with my dad, watching the boats come in and the proud sports fishermen pose with their catch. The kiosks selling boat tours at the docks kept octopi in large glass jars. Fascinating. Wylie also wrote several mysteries set in Miami that evoke a simpler, more naive time and remind me of the Miami where my mother felt comfortable sending me as a young child off on the bus by myself into downtown to take piano lessons.
This South Florida was totally different from the brutal world John MacDonald wrote about in his Travis McGee series. Travis lived on a houseboat called The Busted Flush at Bahia Mar Marina in Fort Lauderdale. At the time, I, too, lived on a boat in Fort Lauderdale, but it was a motorsailer rather than a houseboat, and we docked not at plush Bahia Mar but up the New River behind a private residence.
Now I read Randy Wayne White’s mysteries set around Sanibel and Captiva Islands and Carl Hiaason’s hilarious novels. And actually, I don’t think Hiaason is making up those crazy people. I never met the ex-governor who ate road kill in Hiaason’s books, but I’ve met more than my share of, uh, unusual people in South Florida. There was leopardman, for instance, who wore only boxer shorts, a camouflage T-shirt, and cotton in his ears. There was a man who wore army khakis, sat with folded arms through a gentle tea ceremony and finally asked, “What about Pearl Harbor?” There was the woman who picked up dead fish from the beach, cooked them on coals left over from other picnickers, and then ate only the livers. Then there was the jovial Yorkshireman whose business was to repair marine toilets. He called himself the Headhunter and drove a van covered with such slogans as “Your No. 2 Is My No. 1.”
Ah, the memories. Maybe they’ll keep me warm this winter in Maryland.