Stem To Stern: A Childhood Remembered

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I don’t know about you, but I feel a bit lost at times in this age of drastic change. I’m often consoled by folks quoting Thomas Wolfe: “You can’t go home again,” or “change is inevitable,” and “time marches on.” I have no problem with marching on but, if I’m going to march, I’d rather hike up an ethical hill or down a sensible path. In this graceless age, madness is convention, and it seems as if it’s just an unrelenting spectacle to see who wins the prize each day for ridiculous, insulting ideas. I’m amazed by friends and family who nod their head and embrace the lunacy, without considering the consequences. When it all gets to be unbearable, my wife and I smile at each other, count our blessings, and think of how lucky we were to be raised in a different time. Julia and I were both born here in West Palm Beach in the 1950’s. Our parents hailed from West Palm as well. When folks around here ask us where we’re from, they are amazed at our nativity and often ask what life was like in this area when we were kids. In my attempt to describe the world as we knew it, I realize that today, ours would be considered a fairy tale childhood, full of wonder and a freedom now lost to a tangled digital umbilical. Today, I hug our grandkids and fret about the world that surrounds them, knowing that the media and the Internet, and not trial and error, will shape their minds, choose their friends, and steal their innocence, all while they are far too young.

We were blessed to grow up when Palm Beach County and South Florida were still wild, west of Military Trail. Our entire childhood was based on the water. Julia’s formative years were spent in the small town of Glen Ridge, south of Morrison Field (now Palm Beach International Airport) which was just east of the western limit of civilization in West Palm Beach. Glen Ridge was situated along the Palm Beach Canal or C-51. Fishing, swimming, water skiing and pedaling the several miles east to the beach were daily activities that kept the neighborhood kids outside until suppertime and out of the hair of stay-at-home moms. No shoes, no shirt, no helmet, no seat belts, no air conditioning, no cell phones, no lifeguards, no problems.

These days, after a glass of wine or three, Julia and her sisters are quick to tell the secret of learning to ski on the canal: One was more than inspired to stay up on one’s skis by the speed bumps in the canal. Yes, in the canal. Alligators up on top were sometimes slow to get out of the way and an unavoidable scrape was not uncommon. Ah, yes … a little fear goes a long way. Fishing was as much a part of the routine as skiing, and casting a purple worm off the bank or retrieving a Jitterbug would result in strikes of largemouth bass, bream, pickerel, and gar. My Aunt Mary and Uncle Hal McLane lived at the far end of Glen Road on a ten-acre wild preserve, paralleling the canal, where they ran a commercial orchid farm and raised three kids and an endless lineage of great dogs. When the neighborhood kids weren’t in or on the canal, they were running through the wooded areas that surrounded the town, climbing trees, building pine needle forts, serving up mischief in “Taylor weeds,” or marveling at my cousin Dickey’s snake pit while attempting to contribute to its diverse population. Blue herons, owls, sandhill cranes, bobcats, gators and cottonmouths were as common as the diligent folks that called Glen Ridge home. There was no traffic to speak of on the town’s narrow, rural streets so most kids learned to drive by 11 or 12 years of age. By the time they applied for their license at 16, they had all been driving for years, stick and auto, and could teach the driving inspector at the license bureau a thing or two. My brothers and sister and I loved visiting our cousins and little did I know that I would eventually court and marry the prettiest gal in the town. Through some miracle and twist of good fate, Glen Ridge has escaped the destruction, dilution and absorption of development and is still much the same as it was back then. Although now bordered by an interstate highway and flyovers of six and eight lane boulevards, the town has retained its “Mayberry” atmosphere. My cousin Dickey now presides as the Town Marshal, and his wife Alice sits proudly in the mayor’s chair. Together, they help maintain and nurture the homespun feel of long ago and, barring any term limit amendment, they’ll both retain that status until their departure from the planet. I still love to visit that special place, full of memories and family ties, and marvel at its stubborn existence as an oasis in the soulless desert of urban sprawl.

My childhood, through the sixth grade, was spent in an equally magical place in southern Palm Beach County. Hypoluxo Island, located in the southeast corner of Lake Worth (the lake, not the city), was the first land to be settled in what is now Palm beach County. Archaeological sites have found evidence of inhabitants on the Island from as far back as 500 B.C. We arrived there a few years later, in the 1950’s, after my parents called it quits. Today, the Hypoluxo Island demographic is white collar and well heeled. When we were kids, the neighborhood was much more rank and file. Middle-class, hard-working folks raised large families in small houses and the Palm Beach style Manalapan on the south end was yet to be fully developed. At our house, inside was for meals and sleeping, outside was for everything else. These were the days before air conditioning and the adults stayed up late until it was cool enough to sleep, with oscillating fans on the bedroom dresser. For us kids, it was a tropical paradise. The island was positioned between the main body of Lake Worth on the west shore and a lagoon on the east side, which was connected to the lake on its north and south ends. We fished both sides, without fail, every day after school. Mangrove snapper, toadies, sand perch, snook, trout and tarpon filled our dreams at night and tested our drag during the day. Mango, guava, calamondin, kumquat, carambola, papaya and coco plum, grew wild in the Australian pine, sea grape and gumbo limbo thickets that covered much of the island. Consequently, we were never without a snack while exploring and conquering our childhood domain. My stepfather, Freddie, taught us how to drink from the plentiful traveler’s palms on the island with a sharp stick or a nail, when hard play worked up a summer thirst. The lake and lagoon shores were awash in driftwood, which provided us with raw materials for tree fort and club house construction. The water on both sides of the island was wide and calm and caressed by a prevailing ocean breeze which produced a perfect environment for sailing lessons from my mother. Mom had spent her adolescent summers on the Chesapeake and was more than qualified in handling any type of sailing vessel. With patience and encouragement, she had us soloing in the Moth by the age of eight. I can still hear her clear and simple instructions as she stood on the shore: “Come about now, dear. Hard rudder, duck under that boom, excellent! OK, back to me now and this time, remember that centerboard.” In the late 50’s and early 60’s, the boatyard owned a Republic Sea Bee, a single engine “pusher” sea plane, which my father flew to deliver parts and mechanics to customers in need. Every now and then, Dad would have the Sea Bee up on a check ride and put her down in the lake near where we lived. With the advanced warning of a fly-by and a wing dip, my sister and I would wade out to meet him and climb aboard. Off we’d go, slipping the surly bonds of Earth like some kind of Huck Finn royalty, as our neighborhood buddies watched in awe from our tree fort in the gumbo limbos.

As we aged, the lure of the water took us outside the neighborhood in search of waves to ride and bigger fish. We had a 14-foot plywood skiff, pushed with an 18-horse Johnson clamped on the stern, a six-gallon 50:1 mix tank, and tiller steering. At ten years of age, Freddie figured he had schooled us well and trusted us enough to handle the boat and behave out on the water, a rather generous assumption on his part. He would drop us off at daybreak at the ramp on the west side of Lantana Bridge, near Merletto’s Italian restaurant, and tell us to be back by 5:00. Since there were no cell phones, one of us had to have a watch and you had better have “your dumb ass” back by 5:00. In those days, the mackerel and the bluefish would run in the Palm Beach Inlet and south of the turning basin in massive schools. We would run from the Lantana Bridge, all the way north to the Sailfish Club with feathers, double hook rigs and bunker and have the time of our lives, lunching on peanut butter and guava jelly and cream soda. On weekends with Dad, we’d chase sailfish offshore with Capt. Frank Ardine, or load up in the old Tern, cruising up the Loxahatchee River to Trapper Nelson’s to visit the fugitive hermit and marvel at the wild animals in his makeshift zoo. The approach to Trapper’s on the Loxahatchee was and still is, truly an untamed wilderness, right out of a Tarzan film, and just the kind of adventure we craved at that age.

High school brought an end to that carefree childhood and my friends and I went to work after school and on weekends to fund our first car, pay the auto insurance and have money for dating … there ain’t no free. Still, our love affair with the water continued and the beach became the center of our universe when we had time off. Those sunburned days with nothing but Sea and Ski for protection would catch up with my fair skin in later years. After work, bonfires and skinny dippin’ along “Double Roads” in Juno became our Saturday night ritual. We’d bring a surf rod and paddle the bait out on a surfboard, shark fishing where we had been swimming and surfing, minutes earlier. Not exactly intelligent behavior but such are the sins of youth.

All in all, when compared with the snarled web of chaotic development and ill-mannered interlopers that Palm beach County has become, ours was a simpler age, full of Southern charm and the ability to make our own fun. Brotherhood, conflict resolution and the lost art of being able to laugh at oneself, were learned from life lessons and not downloaded from an elite digital curriculum or an HR handbook. We were fortunate enough to frolic in that small town glue that held our dreams together and provided the best of what the adventure of the great outdoors had to offer. No, we can’t go home again, but we can still open the windows, hug our neighbor and march on, barefoot on the beach. The carpetbaggers have yet to figure out how to sub-divide our blue Atlantic into zero lot lines and the sun still rises out of that beautiful ocean every morning. If you peel away the counterfeit glitz of the “Gold Coast,” it’s still a great place to be from.

In fond memory of Dave and Narine Ebersold, who were there before most of us and helped put the magic in those tender years on the island. Somewhere up in heaven, there’s an old F-100 step-side with two lovebirds in the cab and Buck Owens twanging on the AM … “Together Again.”

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This article originally appeared in the June/July 2024 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.


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