My dad bought a house on N.W. 65th Street in Miami, Florida in 1930. I was six years old, and I lived on that street until the summer of 1939. It was the venue of most of my boyhood years.
The house and yard Dad purchased were in deplorable condition. The folks who had lived there must have had trash in their hearts for they left a disgraceful accumulation of trash in the house and yard. They had raised chickens in the back yard and had nailed wire to the house, so the back of the house formed one end of the chicken pen. The wire screen had been removed from the kitchen window so they could pitch table scraps into the backyard for the chickens to eat. That saved lazy rascals a few steps each day.
The house rested on cement block pillars which allowed a crawl space from end to end and from side to side. Under the house an unhealthy and unsightly variety of trash had been allowed to accumulate. Dad supplied us with the necessary tools to remove all the trash and rake the entire yard and the entire crawl space. The house was cleaned out, patched up and painted inside and out. We made it livable and presentable within a few days. We were never "filthy rich" but we were never filthy poor. My parents refused to live in a trash heap.
West of our house was a large tract of vacant land. We turned a section of it into a ball-field by busting and removing the coral rock that abounded, and by uprooting the palmettos and scrub oaks that covered much of the field. That done, we spent happy hours across several years playing baseball there. The rest of the tract was left in its native condition, and became a good place for building huts and playing cowboys and Indians.
On the east our street dead-ended in a much larger tract of vacant land. It was several blocks long and wide, and we called it the sand-scrubs because it contained a few shallow pits of white sand surrounded by scrub oaks, pine trees and palmettos. In those pits we dug caves, and in the brushy areas we built huts, often playing for hours—barefoot boys with sun-dyed skins and vivid imaginations.
We had interesting neighbors. There were enough kids our ages to provide competitive sports and occasional fights. We organized a baseball team and called ourselves the 65th Street Terrors. The only game I recall was against a motley group from another neighborhood who proved we couldn't terrorize anyone. We lost the game with scores in the thirties. Most of the time we played against each other in what was called "work-up," because every time a batter was out the fielders moved up to a position closer to the batter's box. The rotation began in right field and ended with a bat on your shoulder and a return to right field sooner than you wanted.
Our football games were played in the street plus a few feet of grass on either side of the street. Much of the time we had a real football, okay for passing and kicking. There were times when we stuffed a football with rags for it could not hold air. The weight of these rag inserts allowed only short passes and you punted at the risk of breaking your foot. I recall a patch of time when we used a discarded boxing glove for a football. It wouldn't spiral but you could toss it farther than a pig-skin stuffed with rags. The game was always more important than the equipment.
Street hockey was another fun game. The puck was an evaporated milk can emptied of its contents. We cut crude sticks from branches. By time a couple of games were played the milk can was reduced to a small lump of crumpled metal that a fellow could knock for a sizable distance. If it hit you it usually drew blood. We took more hits from the sticks than from the can, and, given our tempers, all the hits were not accidental. However, no bones were ever broken and few scars lasted until the next hockey season.
On and beside the road we played marbles in season. Bull ring was the favorite among marble games and playing for keeps was the most fun. Those times when a conciliatory parent compelled us to return marbles to a whining or crying loser sapped the joy from our demonstrations of skill.
The bull rings we drew on the asphalt served another pastime. We would capture big red caterpillars, shake them up gently, and release them in the center of the ring. The lad whose caterpillar first reached the circumference won the pot--usually pennies. When we had no pennies we raced the caterpillars for bragging rights.
A favorite activity was tire-rolling. Each lad would get an old tire and we would whip them along the street, sometimes racing them clear around the block. Often we smaller boys would get into the center of a tire and let one of the guys roll it down the street as we revolved with it. The rollers delighted in hitting a puddle at the same time, for that always splashed the kids in the tire with enough water to soak them thoroughly. Old tires were never wasted. In those days, too, the tires contained inner tubes, and the tubes would finally have too many patches to be safely used on the cars. We would cut the tubes into narrow rubber bands and use them to make slingshots or to furnish ammo for our rubber-guns.
Being poor, as were our neighbors also in those Depression years, we made most of our toys. We made our own kites and they flew beautifully. We made our own guns, mostly rubber guns. We would fashions the stocks from box wood, the barrels from discarded lumber, usually soft pine. The barrels would be notched, and from old inner tubes we would cut rubber rings. Stretching these from the end of the barrel to the notches gave us repeating rifles and it was great fun to shoot each other with these harmless weapons.
We also turned palmettos into ammunition. A six-inch long stalk with the trimmed fan as “feathers” made excellent darts. They were pointed and notched and we fired them from a short straight handle to which a length of inner tube was attached. At the other end of the rubber we would fasten tightly a loop of cord. From this weapon we could stretch the rubber and release the ammo, sending those palmetto darts nearly a city block away. We never fired these at each other but there was a back yard on the next street that we delighted to fill with darts when the family living there was inside the house. The infuriated wife once threatened to shoot us with her “yellow shotgun,” which only ramped up our pleasure.
After living for a few years in the first house Dad bought, we moved into another just down the block. The second house was a bit smaller but he needed to rent the larger one to pay for the smaller one. The only regret I had about moving was the loss of indoor plumbing. In the second house we became the only family on our street with an outdoor privy. Each Thursday night all the neighbors hated us, for late at night the "honey wagon" came by and the cans of human waste were collected. You could smell that misnamed truck before you could see it. The odor would almost curl your eyelashes.
The privy was often the place where my brothers smoked their forbidden cigarettes. Just outside the door was a short Florida Cherry hedge. Upon leaving the outhouse they would strip a few leaves and chew them to kill the smoke odor on their breath. One day Mama called me to the kitchen door. She said, "Those boys don't think I know they smoke. Just look at that. "She was pointing to the outhouse. From every crack and knothole smoke was streaming forth. When I told them their secret was out they didn't quit smoking; they just quit chewing on cherry leaves.
In that backyard grew a prolific mulberry tree and an equally productive Hayden mango tree. The mango tree saved my life one day. My kid brother, "Moe," and I got into a fight that led to some shouted obscenities. Mother heard us and came to administer justice with a nail keg stave. We scooted out of her reach and climbed the mango tree. She couldn't climb it and wouldn't shake it for fear of dislodging and damaging the ripening mangos. She hated our cussing but she loved those juicy mangos. When she cooled off and got busy indoors we scurried down and wisely disappeared for a couple of hours.
We had an intriguing batch of neighbors. While we lived in the first house our next door neighbor was an ex-Kansan name Eckler who claimed a cowboy background. He volunteered to show me and my kid brother how to rope. We took turns being the dogies at round-up time. He would coil the lasso, say "Strike out," and we would run. By the third or fourth step that noose would go over our heads, settle on our shoulders and be quickly tightened as we were jerked off our feet. We thought it was fun, but Mama stopped it, alarmed at the number and severity of rope burns we were collecting on our necks.
Before the Ecklers moved in a couple named Talley occupied the house. He hit the bottle daily and was as rough as unfinished cement. He wanted to teach us to box. I would don a pair of gloves while he slipped his hard knuckles into the other pair. He sat and I stood, and more than once he knocked me across the room. Of course, I never got through his defense to land a single punch. Mama stopped that educational experiment, too.
Talley drove an old car with wooden spokes in the wheels. One of the neighbors had a dog that chased cars. He never caught one but the yapping annoyed Talley. "I'll fix that mutt," he told me one day. He tied a towel to one of the spokes and when the dog charged the car, barking vociferously, Talley slowed to a near-stop. That allowed the dog to sink his teeth into that terry cloth, and then Talley stomped the accelerator. The poor pooch couldn't extract his teeth from the towel and he bounced and rolled for about twenty yards before Talley stopped and let him painfully free himself. I will have to admit that the strategy worked. That dog never chased another car. He walked funny from then on, too.
In a house behind Talley's, that abutted our back yard at a right angle, lived a couple who also freely indulged the alcoholic spirits. On mornings when the woman came out wearing dark glasses we knew they had engaged in another brawl and he had blacked her eyes. Once he locked her out when both were soused. She kept calling for my dad, saying, "Charlie won't let me in the house. "Dad finally roared at her, swearing in his anger, "@#$&X, get under the house. "They had no children, which was good, for they were sober for very few days during the time they were our neighbors.
In another house adjoining our back yard lived an ice-man with several kids who sometimes joined us for play. He became the man I hated most. If prizes had been given for ignorance he could have turned his entire house into a trophy case. I didn't hate him for being dumb—there was a lot of that going around in our neighborhood. I hated him because he told his boys and my kid brother and me that if we cleared some ground for a sweet potato patch he would pay us well. For several days we grubbed palmettos and broke up and hauled off coral rock. Then a few weeks passed as we dunned him daily for our pay and he kept promising to shell out the next week. Finally he gave us each a nickel. I wanted to kill him.
Another neighbor who pretty well minded his own business was regarded as the resident thief. He often cut through back yards to his own little house and things would disappear in his wake. Mrs. Sammons, our grandmotherly next-door neighbor would set fresh-baked pies in the window sill to cool. Each time one disappeared she accused him of the theft. I thought it strange, and even admirable, that he never denied the accusation. He would just grin and go about his business. Nothing prompted him to anger, it seemed, unless he thought someone was mistreating his daughter. I don't recall--if I ever knew--whether her mother was divorced or dead. She lived with her dad and he was (we thought) obsessively protective of her.
Across the street, but not directly so, lived another family of Sammons, the son of the pie-baker, with his wife and boy. We called the boy "Hank," so his name was probably Henry. As an only child he had more stuff than most of the kids on the block. When we played football he usually furnished the ball. If we roughed him up too much or he thought he was being cheated, he would pick up the ball and head home. As a general rule, we would yield to his complaints and demands in order to keep a real football in the game. Now and then, when tempers were short, we would suspend play and tell him to keep his @#$%^&* football. Hank was okay. The last time I saw him, he had joined the Marines at age sixteen, claiming to be eighteen. With a grin he said, "If it gets too rough I'll admit my deception and be discharged. "
My favorite neighbor lived one street over, but a path through a vacant lot made it easy to reach his house. His name was Deckart (I'm unsure about the spelling), and he was what we then called "a naturalist. "He prowled the tropical jungles of Central and South America, collecting specimens of flora and fauna, which he displayed and also painted. He was an excellent artist. He had a parrot named Joker and an alligator named Sandy. He would allow us boys to see his collections and to watch him draw and paint. One evening I was standing by his desk, and carelessly set a bare foot down on a burlap bag that was tied and lying on the floor. All of a sudden that bag moved and I set a new record for the standing high jump. He had a large snake in the bag. His wife, who was bed-ridden at the time, was also an interesting person to chat with.
The strangest of our neighbors was a woman who lived alone and whose name escapes me. I referred to her simply as "the author. "She lived in a small frame house almost hidden from the street by a row of tall oleanders. The only times I ever saw her were when she would suddenly appear on the street side of those bushes with a little basket in one hand in which she carried envelopes containing her manuscripts. She would go to a post-office, mail them to someone, and return in two or three hours with the empty basket. What she wrote and where she sent it we never knew. She was like something from forty years before my childhood and was still a reclusive mystery to me when we moved away from 65th Street.
Through most of my boyhood years FDR was America's president. My first venture into politics came the year he was first elected. Our class at school, as a civics lesson, had its own election. Those were the days of poll-taxes, so we had to pay a one-penny tax for the privilege of voting. I paid my own and another boy's tax, instructing him to vote for Hoover. Later he admitted that he had cast his ballot for FDR. From then on I despised him as "a dirty democrat. "Ironically, I look back on FDR as our most effective president in those turbulent Great Depression years.
I took special pride in keeping our lawn neatly mowed and raked. This attracted the notice of several neighbors who then hired me to mow their yards and do other outside chores. I was paid a magnificent sum--ten cents an hour. Somehow I got my fill of yard work, and throughout my adult years I did it only because I couldn't afford to hire it done, and not because I enjoyed doing it. If you have never pulled sandspurs or dug palmetto roots or made coral rock fences for ten cents an hour in hot, humid south Florida weather, be glad. I wouldn't commend it to an enemy, much less a friend. I also sacked and carried groceries for an A & P store for ten cents an hour.
Like most boys, my brothers and I loved to play baseball, football and basketball. I was too short, too skinny, and too poorly coordinated to make the school teams, but I played in recreational park leagues while living on 65th street.
I was good with the glove but mediocre (on my best days) with the bat. I actually played two seasons in left field without an error, and I made the all-star team each year. I couldn't get out of the 230-265 range as a hitter, however. The coach told me one day, "Don't ever lose your glove, son. "My dad used to tell me, "Stand close to the plate, son; maybe you'll get hit by a pitch. "
The park leagues came after I turned twelve, however. Before then my activities, work and play had our immediate neighborhood and the street as their venue.
One of my greatest joys was fishing with my dad. Periodically we would drive down into the Keys and fish from the bridges. Back then, when the tide changed, you could catch fish about as quickly as you could bait and cast. I don't think we ever had a bad day or night in the Keys, except for the blood I donated to the hordes of mosquitoes that would attack me at the end of the bridges where the wind didn't blow as forcefully. Between trips to the Keys we fished Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, usually with less success but always with enough good luck to keep us going back.
Sometimes friends of Dad and Mom shared the fishing trips. Once, when the blues were running, we were fishing from the beach. I tired of the casting and reeling and looked around for something to do. Dad was using strips of mullet for bait and I prepared some for him. We didn't use the heads so I removed the eyes from one of the mullet and put them on a board. I walked over to where a friend named Ethel Cope was seated on the sand conversing with Mom. When I showed her the eyes, saying, "Here's lookin' at you," she nearly upchucked. Had not the bluefish been keeping him occupied, I think Dad would have blistered my hide. He was rather angry about it and made some threats that I took with all due seriousness. Mom also upbraided me, and I walked away disappointed in such a pathetic lack of humor in grownups.
I learned to swim while we lived on 65th Street. Of course, I had to leave the street for that. Miles to the northwest flowed a canal with white sand banks and clear, cool water. We boys would hitchhike to that canal and spend days splashing about. Before I could swim I crossed the canal walking underwater with a big rock in my arms to hold me down. The first time I swam across I felt like I had won the Olympic swim medals.
I frequently made the long journey alone, and sometimes hitching a ride was all effort and no reward. On one occasion a fellow stopped and told my kid brother and me to jump into the back of his pickup. We did, joyfully and thankfully, and discovered that he had been hauling fresh cow manure. "Oh, well," Moe said, "it'll wash off. "Scoured with sand and rinsed with canal water, we soon smelled like our natural selves again. It beat walking.
A truck occupied by two young men once stopped for me when I was headed for the canal alone. I ran to get in and they pulled away. They stopped again and I ran again. This was repeated a third time, and they were laughing at my frustration and stupidity. Angered beyond control I seized a rock and threw it at the truck. Big mistake!They slammed on brakes, leaped from the truck and knocked me down and nearly out. As they drove away I fired a stream of my father's favorite cusswords at them. A few hours in the canal restored my soul.
One day when a bunch of us boys were swimming in the crystal water a few girls came to share the fun. I had been swimming naked, and scurried behind the sandbank. One of the girls was a classmate and I could imagine the description of me that she would gleefully furnish at school. Foolishly, I sprawled on that sandbank, out of sight, while they swam for what seemed hours. Only if you have experienced it can you know how hot white sand gets under a merciless August sun in South Florida. I was broiling until, finally, one of the guys wrapped his under-shorts around a rock, walked upstream to where some weeds grew, and threw the shorts to me. I sneaked them on, raced down the bank, yelling like a liberated prisoner, and dove into the swimming hole. When I surfaced the shorts were floating beside me. I grabbed them, swiftly put them on again underwater, and then cautiously swam ashore, stroking the water with one hand and clutching the shorts with the other. The girls giggled, the boys laughed, and—shy little mutt that I was—I died several times.
On the highway near the swimming hole was a small airfield. There, one Sunday afternoon, I got my first plane ride. Dad knew the fellow who ran the flight school, and he took Dad, my brothers and me up—one at a time—for short hops in a Piper Cub. That was a huge thrill for a poor kid.
We had some mean kids in the neighborhood. The meanest was a guy named Harry whose widowed mother rented our "big" house. Harry was an only child and spoiled rotten. He was a few years older than I, and though he was skinny he was tough and wiry. He had exceptionally strong hands, and he delighted in grabbing my arm, then moving his hands in opposite directions. My skin would almost split from the twisting and the pain was intense. Worse than the pain, however, was the evident pleasure he took in that pattern of torture.
Harry had a bicycle and aspired to be a trick rider. He would pedal swiftly then stand with one foot on the bicycle seat, the other foot on the handle bars, with his arms outstretched for balance, or occasionally folded across his chest in a triumphant Mussolini-like pose. One day I saw him coming down the street at top speed. When he stood up, smirking at me, I dashed out and shoved hard. The bike kept going but he went flying headlong into a patch of palmettos. When he caught me he gave me a very efficient smacking around. He didn't stop pounding on me until I managed to grab a two by four about three feet long. With that as an "equalizer" I quit running from him and charged him with murder in both eyes. He beat a quick retreat with a promise to deal with me later.
Of course I shouldn't have pushed him off the bike. He could have been seriously injured. I confess that I never felt any shame for bushwhacking him until after the Lord changed my heart and life. And my conversion happened more quickly than my forgiveness of his meanness or my repentance for having propelled him into that palmetto patch. For a long time I enjoyed entertaining memories of him with his head in the bushes and his feet in the air.
One serious defect marred life on 65th Street. We made no place for God in our lives. Sundays were reserved for baseball games and fishing trips. I could count on my fingers and toes the number of times I was in church. Lacking parental models, I grew up a fairly contented heathen, an atheist for a while, a transgressor of God’s commandments every day. I never broke the commandment prohibiting murder. I might have shattered that one except for the fear of prison or “the chair. ”
Looking back, which an old man often does, I recall a happy boyhood. I cherished the fun experienced and the lessons learned on 65th Street. Leaving the street and moving out to North Miami Beach saddened me profoundly. But there I met Doris and then I met Jesus, and the fun really began, continuing to this day over sixty-eight years later.