Table of Contents

Marianna Florida

The world of people. In 1955 my dad was promoted from Research Scientist in Pineville to Chief Forester in Marianna. I don't remember the move, but I always got fussy as hell in the car. After all, I was a spoiled brat so that was my job. It's a good eight or nine hour drive. I'm sure I had time to do my duty. That was a big move in my life. I moved from an isolated farm to a suburban neighborhood full of people. I went from staying home full time to Mrs. Rhine's kindergarten, right by Marianna High School, then Riverside Elementary. I went from having no friends to palling around playing drunk men with Dale and Joe at school, playing and fighting the neighbor kid Ron and spending the weekend swamp walking with Joe. I left the so-called safe confines of family and entered the world of people, where I would dwell fairly happily until adolescence turned me into an introvert.

Collecting. In Marianna I developed the mild form of compulsive hoarding known as collecting. As far as I can recall neither of my parents were collectors, but they happily supported us kids in our collecting manias. My father traveled for the Forest Service fairly often, attending forestry conferences and the like in other parts of the country. He would bring me one of the little bars of soap from whatever hotel he stayed in, a free souvenir from a distant locale. I collected them avidly. In those days the wrappers were custom print jobs with the name and location of the hotel. Some had a bit of local color, e.g. a zia from a trip to New Mexico or an embossed outline of some grand hotel. I acquired a cigar box and began filling it with my soapy treasures. The paper-wrapped rectangular prisms of various sizes fit together nicely in the larger prism of the box, but the differing sizes made it a satisfyingly difficult puzzle. A new bar would sometimes require a complete reorganization. Plus there were a few round or oval bars who simply lived atop the other bars. I don't know what became of my soap collection, but I'm pretty sure none of those bars was ever unwrapped and used. That would have been sacrilege. My soap collection was an outward and visible sign of my inward and psychologically dubious hero worship of my father. Along the same lines I vividly recall a junior shaving set I got one Christmas: plastic bladed safety razors, a little pot of soap, and a shaving brush. My dad was the only person in my life who shaved, as far as I knew then, and the shaving set that represented him was like manna, the best gift ever. Now I can see that these poor sacraments were as close as I could get to the physical affection I longed for but never got from him. My father was kind but unshakably reserved.

But back to collecting. In a parallel development I also got interested in collecting rocks and artifacts by walking ploughed fields and snorkeling in Spring Creek with my brother TJ, a consummate collector all his life. I found some cool stuff, but never came close to developing a an eye like his. He could walk down a furrow I'd just scoured and come up with three points I missed. But that's OK. I didn't like walking head down, my eyes glued to the ground; it made my neck hurt and meanwhile I was missing everything else: the day, the sky, the undulating field, the breeze. Kinda like the way obsessively taking pictures makes you miss everything including the thing you're shooting. I was much happier snorkeling in Spring Creek. After we moved to Asheville I got much deeper into collecting, graduating from fossils and artifacts with Tim to gems and minerals with my dad.

Caves. One of the items in my slowly growing rock collection was an eight-inch segment of a white candlestick stalactite about an inch in diameter, gently tapering. Not white white of course, but a lovely pale yellowish white. It felt good in my hand, smooth and somehow still reeking of dark, of the cave some yahoo (possibly my brother) rudely wrenched it out of. Marianna sits in a karst landscape. The two most prominent public karst features are Florida Caverns State Park and Jackson Blue Springs. Every year or so we'd all go on the guided tour of the caverns as a weekend outing. I liked how cool it was, a stable year-round temperature in the high sixties. Thin-skinned Floridians were cautioned to bring a sweater. Tim dropped out of those outings as he took to caving for real. Caves were everywhere but they were not obvious. You needed to know someone who knew which muddy sixteen-inch hole you had to wiggle into on your belly if you wanted to see wonderland. Tim's buddies knew, people like goofball, who shall remain nameless. Caves were live or dead, live meaning still connected to the karst plumbing system, still dripping and producing formations. The cave I explored using a molotov cocktail as a torch was dead, boring. Tim was an avid caver and diver so naturally he became a certified cave diver. One of Florida's top cave diving destinations is Peacock Springs, a little under two miles from Riverhaven. I ran by it many times on my early morning runs in the mid-1970s. But Tim never went diving there. I guess he died too soon of his lousy southern lifestyle.

Reforesting the South. While I was living in Tallahassee in the early 1970s my social life—my love life in particular—was at such an all-time low I got in the habit of spending every other weekend visiting my parents at Riverhaven, a 90-minute drive east. To be fair to myself, I enjoyed those visits; I looked forward to them. I wasn't being a dutiful son, I was enjoying getting to know my parents as an adult. My father was proud of his contribution to the reforestation of the South in the 1940s and 1950s when he worked in Pineville and Marianna. That was the most satisfying part of his Forest Service career. I'd get up before dawn when he did so I could have that quiet time with him while Mom slept in. We'd sip the monstrously strong coffee he made (you could stand a spoon in it, as Mom would say) in an old-fashioned Revere Ware dripolator. It was an intimate time we shared. Sometimes the conversation got deep. One time I got him talking about his life in the Forest Service. There were tears in his eyes as he talked about reforesting the South. In Louisiana he developed a tree seedling planting attachment that could be pulled by the kind of small tractor common on farms back then. His Chief Forester nameplate from Marianna days was on his desk and his patent certificate was on the wall in his study at Riverhaven.

Planting pine seedlings by hand is a two-man job I'm deeply familiar with. Tim carries a steel dibble bar, too heavy for me to operate. I carry a big open shoulder bag made out of waterproofed canvas with a couple hundred seedlings in it to start, roots protected by wet sawdust. Tim walks ahead, pacing off the distance to the next planting spot. I trail behind as I gently disentangle a single seedling from the bundle. Tim drives the bar's narrow blade deep into the sandy soil with his foot, then pushes the handle away and pulls it back toward him, leaving a gap right in front of the bar. I kneel in front of Tim, jamming the seedling way too deep into the gap, then shaking it as I lift it so the roots straighten out and it looks like the soil level is going to match what the baby tree is used to. Tim pulls the bar toward him to close the soil around the seedling's roots, then pushes it away to close up the top, finishing the job with a boot stomp to firm everything up. Tim and I planted thousands of seedlings, working four hours every Saturday morning, eight to noon. How many we planted depended on what part of the farm we were working in. Dad had bought a 45-acre farm that had been worked until the soil was depleted. He had been growing cover crops on it for several years to rebuild the soil. It was part field, part scrub oak woodland. There was an abandoned farmstead in the scrub: house, corral, outbuildings and an open well, long dry. Planting went a lot faster in the field, but was way more interesting in the scrub. We'd plant around and between the scrubby little oaks and other shrubs, clearing as needed with chain saw, pruning saw, sharpened spade and lopping shears. Dad paid me a whopping 25ยข per hour. Every Saturday I'd come away with a whole dollar; real folding money! He paid us by the hour to plant trees that would become our inheritance. My dad's tree seedling planting attachment also required two workers. One drove the tractor and the other sat on the attachment, which had two blades: one dug a narrow furrow and the other closed it back up again; a pair of closely spaced wheels firmed the soil up. The second worker sat on the implement between the two blades, placing seedlings in the briefly opened furrow. This invention probably helped him get that promotion to Chief Forester.

Westmanor. We lived at 510 Westmanor Dr. Here's what it looks like recently. They changed the house numbering system.

Back in the 1950s the house was clad in whitish asbestos shingles and there were several mature pine trees in the front yard. The lot looks relatively flat now but in my memory it slopes downward dramatically to the southeast corner, a good example of how the lens of nostalgia distorts the past. The moments I remember in the front yard are times a storm was kicking up and I was running in the wind, a cherished memory. Nostalgia enhances the front yard topography to better support that. In my memory Westmanor goes a block or two further south, intersecting at least two more streets; did industrial development off Highway 90 somehow eat that up? Or is nostalgia radically altering my old neighborhood? And if so, why? I understand the front yard, but that? It would be way too much work to find out. The house itself looks pretty much the same but the garage was a carport when we lived there. The young live oak my dad once tied the wheelbarrow to had to go to make room for that two car garage. The lawn was more lush back then; cool St Augustine turf my poor brother TJ had to mow with a push mower. The wild area also seems to be gone. That's what we called a big irregular backyard bed anchored by longleaf pines, with azaleas, camellias, and small perennials below, plus a particular red cedar.

Riverside Elementary is gone now; permanently closed. The Hope School has taken its place. When I attended it was brand new, so new some classes happened in military-style temporary buildings. It was about a four block walk to school, less if I cut through the vacant lot kitty corner to our back yard. I would duck through the pole fence that separated our yard from the back neighbors' and dive into a big suburban woodlot which is now full of more little boxes made of ticky tack. We had recess at Riverside: unstructured time to do whatever you wanted and I loved it. Riverside had the requisite diamond and gridiron, but it also had a large area with trees left standing and all the underbrush cleared so it had an open park-like feel. There was nothing but a quarter mile or so of woods separating Riverside from the Chipola River; the park-like area was just the closest part of that. I never cared for ball games or team sports, so I hung out among the trees with my buddies. There were three of us: me and Joe and Dale; we were like the three stooges. Our favorite game, prophetically for me, was drunk men. We staggered around with our arms on each other's shoulders singing "How dry I am, how wet I'll be, if I don't find, a place to pee." I'm sure we did other stuff too, but I do remember drunk men so very clearly.

Joe moss. Joe lived in Grand Ridge, fourteen miles east of Marianna. Back then an adventure on the Greyhound bus. I used to go spend weekends with Joe and we'd go swamp walking. Joe's folks ran a motel in Grand Ridge. It's long gone. It was already subsiding into the swamp back then, like something in an Anne Rice novel. Joe's folks' motel backed up to the cypress swamp surrounding Lake Finnely, itself more a swamp than a lake. There were lots of fallen cypress trees slowly decomposing in the swamp. Dad paneled the study with pecky cypress: a fungus eats holes in older cypress trees while they're alive. Old pecky cypress that's soaked in swamp water for decades gets decorated. That's what we had in the den. Swamp water had crept into the wood creating dark curlicues, Arabian Nights designs. My brother sometimes pulled ancient logs and sticks up from mucky bottoms, wood not petrified but black with centuries of soggy age. Those sticks were so hard they just sat there on your table saw making fragrant smoke if you tried to cut them. Even with a brand new carbide tipped saw blade. The same thing seemed to happen to wood under tin. A farmer near Riverhaven knew my dad liked to salvage things so instead of bulldozing an old shed down he called Dad and asked if he wanted a crack at it first. Dad jumped at it. He called me in from Tallahassee and Tim from Marianna and we spent the weekend wrecking. I don't think I've ever done harder physical labor. We got all the good stuff out from inside then climbed up on the roof to salvage the corrugated tin. Something about the wood kept catching my eye as I sweated up there with my nail puller and crow bar. I called Tim over to confirm my suspicion. Yep, the nailers under that tin were oak. Oak that had been baking under that tin in the Florida heat for about a hundred years according to the farmer. Those oak planks were iron hard. You couldn't get a nail in. Once Dad saw them he became obsessed with using them to make a salvaged oak floor for the river house. He had to pre-drill for every screw. When he took a heavy duty floor sander to them they just ate up the coarse sandpaper belts one after the other. He settled for a rustic finish. There was nothing flimsy about the river house. So anyway, swamp walking was walking along one fallen tree to another, seeing how far we could go into the swamp without falling in. We carried a cooking pan that worked as a dry step between logs that were just a bit too far apart. We'd lean out and drop the pan, bottom up, into the muck. It worked as a step if it landed on Joe moss. Joe moss was what we called a prevalent moss that I thought was maybe peat but I wasn't sure, so I named it after my friend, Joe instead of Pete.

Red cedar. One day when I was six my dad took me for my first real hike. We walked a loop route: from home to the river at the Highway 90 bridge, turn left to hike along the river a good ways, then back home by a different route. The Chipola River is about half a crow mile east of Westmanor, and Dad estimated our hike to be three miles. I was a hiker! Down by the river I spotted a red cedar seedling a few inches tall. It looked just like a Christmas tree, only tiny. As I examined my tiny tree, Dad asked me if I wanted to take it home and plant it in the wild area. Yes please! He pulled out the pocket knife he always had with him and cut around the little tree, lifted it out, and wrapped the root ball with some tinfoil he found in the litter (we were still close to Highway 90). We took my tiny tree home (he must've carried it, since we did in fact get it home) and planted it out back. It was a sturdy young tree by the time we left for Asheville in 1961, many times taller than I was.

Rooting. One day I was watching my dad trim a shrub. He started telling me about rooting. I was skeptical. Just stick it in wet sand? Does not sound legit. So once he was done with that shrub, he told me to grab some trimmings and we went to the garden annex. I didn't know that word back then, but it fits. There was a large tool shed already there when we moved in. He built a sturdy lean-to onto the east side of that. The lean-to's other walls were some kind of translucent corrugated sheet, plastic or fiberglass, on two by four framing with four by four treated corner posts set in concrete. He never built anything flimsy. He built a stalwart table inside it against the shed wall, our potting bench. It now became the site of our rooting experiment. He filled a small tray with sharp sand and wet it down good. Then he had me stick some trimmings into the sand. Easygoing and informal; no retrimming the bottoms, no root growth hormones. He said it was important to keep the sand wet. That was my job. I had a watering can that made a gentle shower and a stool I could stand on to water. He said three times a day at least, and to keep an eye on the sand if it got hot. In Florida? I suspect he quietly made up for any lapses in my memory, but I felt like I was doing it myself. After a couple of weeks, we assessed our experiment. The leaves of several of the twigs had withered, but most of them still looked fine. He had me carefully dig one of these out with a spoon and rinse the sand off; dang if it hadn't sprouted roots! I went rooting crazy and stuck all kinds of unlikely suspects in sand along with some winners, in the process learning something about what parts of what kinds of plants liked to root. It's no wonder I wanted to be a scientist like my dad when I grew up.

Kettle tea. Meanwhile Mom was teaching me how to cook. Not intentionally; it just happened. A combination of necessity and my inquisitive nature. I wanted to learn about things. I wanted to learn how to do things so I could take control of my world. Mom was a tea drinker all her life. Hot tea, as it's known in the South. If you just said tea that meant ice tea, which in our house meant sweet tea in southern lingo, but we didn't call it that. Mom's ice tea was good and sweet, and it was our all day every day family beverage. She brewed it in a jumbo size Coffee-Mate jar: brown glass, straight-sided, almost a foot tall. She stirred it with a wooden spoon that took on a deep tannic stain, like the cypress pond water at that secret beach near Destin. I inherited that spoon, then lost it along the way. I'm no good at keeping souvenirs and keepsakes, although my love Ariel seems to have found a way around that, much to my delight. Mom liked to make herself a cup of hot tea as a break. I wanted to have tea with her, so she made me my own special version. She called it kettle tea: hot water in a teacup like the one she drank from, sweetened with plenty of sugar and enough milk so it wouldn't scald me. The tea I make today is my homage to the kettle tea she made me: relatively weak tea with plenty of sugar and milk. I think she'd approve.

Elephant ears. Mom gave me my first experience of poisonous plants, so popular in warmer climates. She planted a bed of wildly colorful caladiums, expanding on the theme of the closely related elephant ears that were already growing there when we moved in. Elephant ears are rudely invasive, like their namesake.

Elephants don't mean to mess stuff up. They're just so big, and hungry. There's no overgrazing like elephant overgrazing. That was one of the ecological problems Dad worked on in Kenya, part of the 800 pound problem of grazing competition between wildlife and livestock. Elephants had been migratory, but fencing the bundu put an end to that. They'd get stuck in an area and kill off all the vegetation. I never thought to ask him if B. rothrockii was any more resistant to elephant death than the native grasses. Anyway, the elephant ears had to be cut back frequently so they wouldn't crowd out the more mannerly and delicate caladiums. I loved to watch her work in the garden, so I was there one day when she did a big elephant ear cutback. She gathered her prunings so I wouldn't get into them, but the stubs where they'd been cut off remained. I went exploring after she left. I saw milky sap oozing from the stubs. It looked like cream, so I had a taste. Don't try this at home, kids. My mouth was on fire; it felt like I'd stuck a live wire in there. The oxalate crystals stung and burned at the same time. There was much screaming and sobbing, a call to the doctor, and an Rx to sip real whole milk, slowly.