Table of Contents

Fishfarm

Vanished. The Fishfarm was in Micco, right across US 1 from a brackish estuary miscalled the Indian River, following local custom. Looks like the Fishfarm's gone now, developed over. I strolled up and down that stretch of highway several times via Google Maps and couldn't find it, although the abandoned tanks of the Walter H. Straub Tropical Fish Farm were evocative. It wasn't a big house but it was a place where we all could live. Elton loomed large in our soundtrack, along with Procol Harum and The Band. We wore out at least one copy of this record.

Wading into the rising sun. The Indian River is bedecked with little spoil islands alongside the main channels. One of them was right across from the Fishfarm, just a little ways out into the river. You could wade out to it at low tide. A few of us did that once at sunrise. It was our little ceremony to mark the end of a pretty decent all night acid trip. The river was flooded with shell pink light from the dawn and the sky overhead was a perfect turquoise. It was like wading into a Maxfield Parrish wonderland. We stood on its tiny beach for a few minutes congratulating each other for having survived the night. Then the mosquitoes drove us back into the water and we waded home.

Tripping. That was the first of three memorable trips I took at the Fishfarm. I had four productive trips on psychedelic pills during the relatively innocent period from 1968 to 1970, before Leela firmly steered me away from psychedelics into alcohol. Alcohol harmed me only very slowly, over the decades. It was harm my body could handle pretty well, so much so that Leela had to skyrocket my booze consumption to force a crisis when it became time to give up alcohol in the mid-2010s. Cannabis and other psychedelics harm me psychologically. That's an area where I am much more vulnerable. Booze was the answer, because a drug-free life was still decades out of my reach. I took my first trip in Indialantic when I was fresh off the boat, before the Fishfarm. Here's that story. The last was the trip I took right before Sam died. I tell that story here. My second trip on the Fishfarm was very calm and peaceful. I was alone the whole time. I got the acid on a blotter, and the guy cautioned me it would take a while to come on. Real LSD is like that. It was a quiet sunny day. I put the little square of paper under my tongue mid-morning then had a mellow breakfast of granola and fruit, again following my connection's advice. In early afternoon I walked west to the back of the Fishfarm. I had scoped out a spot I wanted to hang out in, a little clearing in the palmetto scrub. I leveled out the ground and put down my blanket, pad and zafu. My plan was to sit in the dappled shade and meditate. As I knelt there I began to feel really calm and peaceful. The acid was beginning to work. I didn't even try to sit cross legged. I've always been miserable in that position. But I could comfortably kneel Zen-style for hours on end back when my knees were younger. I just needed a zafu turned on edge or a seiza bench under my butt. For the first time in my life I did formal meditation and it felt wonderful. I was really quiet inside, booted by the drug into something I wouldn't experience again until my cataclysmic wakeup in 2019. After a while I felt something on my head and I realized a bird had perched there. Several birds perched on my head during that trip. They didn't even shit on me. One of them did collect some of my luxuriant tangled hair for her nest, which hurt a bit, but I didn't care. I was the hippie St Francis of Assisi.

Cooked food. The Fishfarm had a semicircular drive beginning and ending on US 1. There was a small parking area in front of the fish shop/garage, which was just west of the very oddly laid out house, of which more anon. The garage was home to an extraordinarily diverse collection of absolute junk amassed by previous owners. Cleaning out the garage was a task often spoken of but that was about it. I once I spent a long afternoon surveying the junk with that in mind. Based on that survey I declared the junk in the garage a complete set: yes sir what we have here is one of each. That bit of faux wisdom became the garage's benediction and claim to fame, putting to rest any idea of cleaning it out. One of those items was a rickety electric range where Sam made cooked food for the fish. He got the recipe from another tropical fish farmer in the area. There were lots of tropical fish farms along the Space Coast in those days. Cooked food ingredients were water, rolled oats, menhaden meal and vitamin K. He boiled water in a huge old black speckleware pot, added the other ingredients, and then stirred the mess until it coagulated. The menhaden meal made it smell intensely fishy, to the point of gagging if you got too close. Nobody wanted to be nearby when Sam was cooking cooked food. I think that suited Sam just fine. Time alone was at a premium on the Fishfarm. Once cooked food cooled it didn't smell that bad. It was fun to carry the pot around and scoop out handfuls to throw at hungry fish in the outdoor tanks. It reminded me of feeding the chickens cracked corn. Bananas and loquats grew along the north side of the front yard. We ate the loquats, one of my favorite fruits, but I don't recall any bananas getting ripe. That area had also been invaded by Surinam cherry. The Surinam cherries tasted awful. Just another exotic invasive. There was a concrete lined goldfish pond at the northwest bend of the drive. Sam stocked it with koi; the herons approved. The front yard inside the drive was the front yard, with lush St Augustine turf, especially lush over the inadequate drainfield. There were a good half dozen graceful coconut palms. But the front yard's crowning glory was a multistem ficus whose flexible branches whipped and writhed like Medusa's hairdo when a hurricane kicked the wind up. Sam put a giant rope mesh hammock up in the middle of the ficus. That became the site of many family photos.

Artesian wells. A decaying wooden effigy of a windmill decorated the goldfish pond. It had no sails, but was instead driven by an overshot water wheel, in an oddly mixed metaphor. They come in every flavor of the rainbow. Flowing water to drive the wheel was free, just like in the old days. It was water nobody wanted: artesian sulfur water. Several abandoned artesian wells on or near the property ran continuously, slowly depleting a stinking aquifer. They formerly irrigated orange groves, now abandoned. The wells sported thriving colonies of sulfur and iron bacteria in disturbingly bright colors. One of them provided water for the Fishfarm, and man did that water ever stink. The standing joke was the Fishfarm was the only place where it smelled worse after you flushed the toilet, only it wasn't really a joke. There was no city sewage or water, just the drainfield and the stinky sulfur water. Only a very thirsty person would drink that water. Plus it wasn't safe, contaminated with coliforms and who knows what else. We had drinking water delivered in five-gallon glass carboys. The working carboy sat in a tilt-a-frame on the kitchen counter. There were supporting carboys up and down the hallway, empties on one side and fulls on the other. Replacing the working carboy was a job for a strong back. A full glass carboy was one heavy mother.

The siting and layout of the house was weird. The house sat no more that ten feet from US 1. When an eighteen wheeler roared by at seventy, the noise brought conversation to a halt. After a while you scarcely noticed. There was a momentary pause in the chatter then talk resumed mid-sentence as the roar faded. It was an L-shaped house with the bottom of the L sitting on US 1. It had two front doors off the back of the L, both opening onto the drive. There were no back or side doors. When you went in either front door, you were in a hallway paralleling the drive; that's where we kept the carboys. When you entered you had to go left or right in the hall to get anywhere.

Walk in either front door and turn right and the hallway takes you into the master bedroom, with a sulfur-scented ¾ bath. Head east down the hall from the master bedroom and on your right you find the following:

  1. a doorway to Sam's office
  2. an archway that lets you look but not go into the dining room through decorative wrought iron
  3. the doorway into the kitchen

The hall ends in a little stub created by the kitchen partition. That was the site of a large algae-prone aquarium. You get to the rest of the house through the kitchen. Turn right into the kitchen. There's water in the tilt-a-frame to your left if you're thirsty. Then head back west through a wide archway into the dining room. Look to your right through the wrought iron. Wave to the people out in the hallway. The dining room had mural artwork. The most fetching of these was a very nicely done trompe l'oeil painting that made the drywall look like Roman ruins, plaster crumbling off to reveal ancient bricks. Another awarded the Fishfarm the Tim Leary Good Cribkeeping Award. Turn left in the dining room and go through an even wider archway into the living room, home of Padrugpadrug. Go on through the living room and there's yet another archway into a short east-west hall with a bedroom at each end and a full sulfur-scented bath right in front of you.

Exotic invasives. The inside of the L, which should have been some kind of tropical garden getaway, with maybe a fountain, orchids, wind chimes had no doors that opened to it. It was a creepy place, with clayey soil nothing would grow in but some sprawling vines, probably an exotic invasive. Florida was never one to turn away a nice exotic plant or animal looking for a new place to invade, and the Fishfarm had its share. Most invasives simply outcompete the local yokels, inflicting mere environmental or economic harm. Fishfarm hosted a celebrity: the deadly rosary pea. Rosary peas were rampant in dry scrubby areas. Google if you like poison porn: seventy-five times more lethal than ricin. The walking catfish is also an invasive celebrity of sorts; fish are not supposed to walk across the road at night, much less your front yard. Sam had the gall to try his hand at raising them. But these were different; they were albino. Well that's a bird of an entirely different color. Who wouldn't want an albino walking catfish strolling about the yard? No garden party's complete without one.

Scabby oranges. I discovered the abandoned orange groves by accident. I decided to go exploring in the thick palmetto scrub south and west of the Fishfarm one day, so I traded my summer uniform of baggy shorts and bare feet for some hot but necessary protection. That palmetto scrub was thick and tangled, nothing like the open riparian forest with palmetto patches we had at Riverhaven. I was soon in an abandoned orange grove but I didn't know it at first. It was so overgrown that the trees were scarcely recognizable, mostly smothered with vines and outcompeted by palmetto. But they still bore fruit. The oranges were ugly, covered with brown scale, and just to die for delicious. In those days, even though I had some claim to being a Florida boy, I still thought oranges needed to be cut open to enjoy. I hadn't yet learned they taste notably better if you take the time to peel them then savor them section by section. I learned that in Seattle, with help from Leela. Out there without a knife I came up with a brilliant solution. Palmetto stems are notoriously sharp-edged and have nasty invisible sawteeth. I pulled off a dead palmetto stem and easily sliced my ugly orange right open. Such a classic human moment: a brilliant solution to a nonexistent problem. So much of our material culture right there.

The pleasure of anticipation. Gail was a connoisseur of anticipation. I picked it up from her. I wasn't keen on anticipation before. I wanted it all and I wanted it now, like any self respecting kid. One year in Asheville I snooped in my parents' closet, opening presents addressed to me. It put a damper on that Christmas. Maybe that made me more receptive to Gail's refined take. In any case I learned from her example. Every year I watched her and Sam play the anticipation game as the holidays approached. All two years, that would be: 1968 and 1969. Sam was gone before the holidays of 1970 began to reach our shores. Starting sometime in November Sam would tease Gail about her upcoming birthday and Christmas presents, threatening to spill the beans. One year he teased I have it right here in my pocket, wanna see? Gail would run shrieking from the room, hands over her ears. Nothing was worse than spoiling the surprise, no no no no no shut up go away! I don't want to know! More on this anon.

Hurricanes. I have a memory from our prep for Hurricane Donna in September 1960 in Marianna. It's just a snapshot, a single image: my father is tying our wheelbarrow to the trunk of a sturdy young live oak tree. Sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s a hurricane was offshore in the Atlantic and the Fishfarm was on the fringes. I went out to lean into the wind and enjoy the intensity; I've always loved storms. It was raining hard and horizontally. Visibility was just a few yards. I could barely see the scrub on the other side of US 1. As I was staring out into the swirling gray over the Indian River the rain lightened up for just a bit and I realized I was looking at a waterspout. Then suddenly they all appeared. The waterspout I was looking at was just the closest one of a line of seven spinning majestically across the Indian River. That's a sight you don't forget.

Sheer heaven. Every now and again we'd all pile in the station wagon and go to the beach. I didn't like going to the beach back then either, but there was an extenuating circumstance just as there was at that secret beach near Destin. The beach was Wabasso Beach Park, about an 18-mile drive. The beach was the normal beach for that part of Florida: steep sunny and breezy, middling surf; better if a storm was kicking up. The extenuating circumstance wasn't there, it was on the way home, on US 1: one of the last roadside citrus stands to offer free all you can drink fresh-squeezed OJ. All you got was a tiny paper cup, but they would keep filling it up for you. I never saw anyone turned away, certainly none of us. Few things taste better than fresh-squeezed OJ anyway. After a hot sticky day at the beach?

Blue balls. The Fishfarm retail shop was the scene of one of those found out too late moments. June was one of the six or seven of us at Mel High. She was a studious and voluptuous redhead who seemed awfully smart even by our standards. I suspect she was the smartest of the bunch, the far end of the far right tail. It was late in the summer of '69. I was surprised to see her walk in the shop. I never knew she was interested in tropical fish. No, she'd driven all the way down to Micco just to tell me what a fucking idiot I'd been. This was her revenge for being scorned. She'd had the hots for me all year, and I never once got a clue. Her heavy flirtation went right past me. We made out for a while there in the shop, which was very sweet, and I begged for an extension. But time had been called: she was headed out the next day for school in Georgetown, and I would never see her again. As much fun as that would have been, I'm still glad I stuck with Hutch, blue balls and all.

I owe a lot of who I am to that vanished place. The Fishfarm was a strange place, but it was my home for four critical years of my life: college. I got to visit my folks in Kenya, but that lasted a month, and only happened twice during my college days. For the summers, holidays, midterm breaks and any time I needed it, Fishfarm was home.