Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Best Show in Florida

For years Sunday nights were special for my siblings and me because The Wonderful World of Disney television show with its fascinating and funny stories from the life of animals out in the wilderness to cartoons showing the misadventures of Mickey, Donald, and Goofy. Up until the early 1970’s the show was my family’s only connection to the world and characters Walt created.

Some nights the show would highlight the Disneyland theme park out in California enchanting my younger cousins, siblings, and myself with images of the fantastic rides and amazing sights for anyone lucky enough to live near it or able to afford the trip to such a fantastic place. As much as my kinfolk and myself may have desired to see the home of Mickey and Donald at that moment in time such a long journey out west might as well as been on the other side of the planet for us given money and time demands that our parents faced.

The opening of Disney World outside Orlando, Florida in 1971 changed all that. I do not believe news filtered down to children then as fast as it seems to do now but when the announcement of Disney World’s construction reached us I do vaguely remember something akin to a small riot erupting with only my grandmother threatening to make us pray all afternoon bringing back some order. Other small kiddy riots and celebrations occurred in the neighborhood and school among our friends with the spreading realization that Disney World’s location would allow us a chance to experience what we all saw on television. After that, it just became a waiting game for everyone to see when the parents would finally breakdown and take us.

The summer of 1972 was the magic moment for my siblings and me with our mom and dad loading up the Chevrolet and beginning the drive south to the Sunshine state. Now as much as the marriage between our mom and dad was an utter disaster on par with major earthquakes and killer tsunamis I have to give them credit for even attempting such a trip. Having them sitting so close together confined in a hot car for hours with four small children in the back was just asking for trouble.

Being the oldest kid, I remember some of the drive but unlike today travelling along I-95 with its countless opportunities for bathroom breaks and convenient place to eat, I recall very long stretches of nothing but billboards and trees lining the roadside. Only when we crossed over into Florida do I remember seeing the ramshackle souvenir and fruit stands that sold dead baby alligators dipped in lacquer frozen in menacing positions and countless bags of Florida oranges stacked far higher than I was tall at that age. Arriving in Orlando back then was a very different world as compared to the huge city that exists today. There was an absence of other flashy tourist traps and while I could be wrong, to me the town retained a hint of the rural atmosphere that existed before Walt discovered the place.

Driving into the parking lot of the motel my dad picked for our stay in the Orlando area was a huge disappointment. The first thing I noticed was the lack of a pool that every motel in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina just thirty miles up north from my hometown had in abundance. The place looked rundown and a little scary for some reason but that may have been because it somehow reminded me of the Bates motel which I knew about from seeing the movie Psycho at the hometown drive-in with my uncle and his date.

My parents, who never missed a chance to argue, really went at it in that parking lot with my mom wanting us to find another place so we could have a pool. My dad’s position was that the trip was already way to expensive and that the whole purpose was for us kids to see Disney, not swim in a pool which we could do a lot cheaper back home. What decided the matter was the radio, which almost at that moment began reporting a hurricane moving toward the Atlantic coast of Florida. Some serious dark and intimidating clouds even then were floating by with the wind picking up speed seemingly by the minute.

It was not long before that motel was providing refuge from howling winds and blowing rain but neither my siblings nor I were worried about that. We had heard our parents discussing the possibility the hurricane could derail the entire trip, forcing us back home without actually making it inside Disney World. For me the stage was set for a long night’s vigil to wait out the storm willingly saying prayers to the point my grandmother would have been proud.

Cooped up in the room for so long I clearly remember the fake wood paneling on the walls that for some reason was popular back then. The two creaky queen sized beds with frayed blue blankets that had my mother and baby sister in one and my dad and youngest brother, Peter, in the other. Middle brother Bobby and I were sharing a lumping rollaway bed that the old lady who ran the motel, along with her husband, brought us after we checked in. In the corner of the room was a huge wood paneled console television with a fuzzy color picture that not only had the standard three national networks broadcast through local affiliates but some sort of strange, to me, independent station that aired movies and ancient shows that my parents remembered from their teenage years.

As the night progressed old movies and archaic reruns came and went on that independent station broken only by and occasional tired and worried weather guy in a rumpled suit giving an update on the storm.

Sometime that morning the wind and rain that at times shook the entire motel stopped so suddenly that its absence was actually scary in itself. It had been a good while since the rumpled weatherman had interrupted whatever show was on to update where the hurricane was heading leaving the big question of whether we would reach Disney World still in some doubt. With the wind and rain apparently over, I opened the room door to peer outside seeing only the parking lot with minor debris lying around and the motel owners gathering it up. Feeling the need to satisfy my concerns over how the hurricane might have ruined our trip, I decided to ask the old man and his wife what, if anything, they knew.

The old couple had taken seats underneath the awning directly over the entrance to the motel office and for the most part just seemed to be enjoying the return of calm weather and the lingering breeze. Both saw me approaching them but neither seemed overly concerned about a young boy they did not know leaving his parents behind in a motel room early in the morning after a hurricane. I actually remember taking this as a good omen figuring if they were going to hassle me they would have said something earlier.

“What can I do for you this fine morning young man?” The old man said looking at me with a friendly twinkle in his eye. The old lady looked towards me and just smiled then turned away returned to her thought.

The man’s accent was the first thing I noticed the second was how genuinely friendly he seemed. Grownups forget that many kids have a natural ability to know when their presence is only tolerated and my instinct was telling me this man truly being sociable.

“Sir, I was wondering is the hurricane coming back, my parents have said that if the storm stays we will have to go back home without seeing Disney World.” I said hoping the answer I would get would be the good one.

The old man laughed and slapped his knee just like I had seen in several Western movies. “Don’t worry little one, the storm is moving up the coast and will be memory before long.”

That of course was just the answer I wanted leaving a big smile on my face. I began to turn away and head back to my room but the old man stopped me.

“Please, sit down and talk with me for awhile. We can enjoy the nice breeze, which will be gone soon, and we all will be sweating like pigs again. What type of soda do you like?” He asked and after telling him grape the old man yelled out to his wife to get me a bottle of what I wanted.

With a bottle of grape soda in my hands we began a conversation that had him asking as many question about me as I asked of him. He asked me about my school, my favorite subjects, what foods I liked, what I thought of my younger siblings, what I wanted to see at Disney World, and many other things. From the questions I asked him I learned he was German, that he and his wife had come to this country a few years after World War Two. Since my knowledge of the war at that age came primarily from “Hogan’s Heroes” reruns I think he forgave me for asking him if he fought for the bad guys, which I believe he did. I have no idea for certain if he did fight for the wrong side and if he did what he may have done, seen, or knew about during those bloody years, all I do know he was a kind man to me and was clearly enjoying my visit.

Our conversation eventually drifted to the Apollo program and it was then I learn he had seen most of the rocket launches at Cape Canaveral since they began using that site. He had even seen the Apollo 11 launch that had taken the astronauts to the surface of the moon. We talked about what we would like to see next happen in space and my hopes of what would be common up there when I grew up.

Just when things were starting to wind down there was a rather large splash across the road from his motel and it was then that I noticed the full moon reflecting off the water of large pond.

“Young man, you came all this way to see strange creatures and a fake castle, you need to see the best part of Florida before it is paved over and forgotten.” The old man rushed inside the office and grabbed a huge flashlight but before coming back out turned off all the outside lights. With only the glow from the moon we both walked across the road that the entire time we talked was completely devoid of any passing cars. As I was taught, I looked both ways before crossing and noticed how isolated his motel was, the only lights I could see were to a small gas station a few miles down the road.

“I know it is hard for active young boys like you but be silent and watch the water and the sides of the pond.” He said to me as we stood on the far side of the road.

The first thing I noticed was the gently swaying trees on the edge of the water. Their long dangling limbs seemed to be dancing in the breeze painting ripples on the water where they touched the pond. In the water gentle swirls showed where bass played and occasionally jumped looking to catch a flying insect themselves returning after the passing of the storm. After turning on the old man’s huge flashlight sinister pairs of eyes were spotted in the water cruising along like submarines stalking unknowing merchant ships. And like castaway survivors on small deserted islands bands of turtles clung to limbs of fallen trees sticking out of the water.

Using the beam of light to probe the shore of the pond brought the snorting sounds of wild pigs roaming around. At one point the light reflected off the eyes of some species of wildcat lounging on the limb of a tree, an angry snarl resulted in me disturbing it and it jumped from the tree and disappear back into the darkness. It was only when several pairs of those sinister eyes cruising the waters began coming our way did the old man pull me back across the road and turn his business lights back on.

“Well young man, remember this night for me and what I showed you when you are all grown up and have children of your own.” He said shaking my hand as if I was a real adult and with that he sent me back to my room where I found everyone still sleeping.

We did indeed make it to Disney World and even with my parents complaining my siblings and I had a great time. Many years have passed since that old gentleman showed me the true wonder of Florida and each time I find myself in that area I think of him and that pond. I have no idea where his motel was located and figure since it was only twenty minutes from the entrance to Disney World some giant resort or outlet mall now occupies that location. Such is the price of what we call progress but the show on that pond with a full moon hanging in the sky will stay with me until the day I die.


PENolan said...

Great story. It's almost like being there beside you - not only at the pond, but also in the car.

Randal Graves said...

Oh man, aside from select details (a hurricane, for starters!) this was nearly the same trip we took to Disney World in 1978. Big stretches, HUMIDITY, bags of oranges, and I remember swimming in some pond near some family friends who had moved down there a few years earlier. I can't even imagine what such a trip would be like now.

sunshine said...

Not sure how I missed this!

That was a great story. I think it just goes to show about how mindful we should be when dealing with children. They remember things..

We've never been to Disney. Too expensive for us all to go and in reality.. I hate amusement parks. :P


Will "take no prisoners" Hart said...

It's amazing how many places there are that we can only go back to in our minds. And, no, because of that progress you were talking about, it doesn't even take all that long to create this any more.

Rhiannon said...

What a charming tale you weave...true I believe?..:o)..I love how that very special elderly man showed you something very important in life when you were still at a young age...and such a good memory for you also.

I grew up in Los Angeles county the valley, and went to Disneyland about 4 times in my youth. I only liked the "non scary and no dizzying" Dumbo and such..those spinning cups can really give you vertigo. I was "forced" to go on the rollercoaster...and when I got off my face was green and I got sick all over the place. I remember I kept crying to the "adults" "I will never ever ever ride a rollercoaster again in my life" far that's true and I hope it stays that way. By the way BB did I ever tell you that I lived in Myrtle beach, my husband at the time was in the airforce and an air traffic controller..not an easy job by far..if people even had a clue about that. We lived in a motorhome right next to the military runway...we saw some pretty "strange" looking jets or whatever you want to call them come in late at night..they didn't touch down and then "roll" they would just touch down and land..if you know what I mean? I've not talked about the certain kind of "craft" we saw there coming in a lot late at night. I love to go over to the beach at Myrtle beach during the day. At that time there really weren't too many people hanging at the beach..muggy as heck in the do you stand it?

When I was one of those late 60's early 70's bohemian "hippie" type girls, I used to drive my sea foam color vw bug through Topanga Canyon in the later hours of the day heading to the beach..all the avid "suntanners" were leaving the by the time I got there, there was hardly a soul around and I take a long walk upon the beach and then sit in the sand and watch the sun go down and the full moon come that sure was beautiful..and the sound of the ocean waves pulling in and out. Most peaceful "real" times of my life.

Well, this is getting a bit too long, but I wanted to thank you for your mention of "Gaia" in my I'm not familiar with that word I googled it and read about the theory...found it very thanks for sharing that in your comment on my blog.

Have a nice weekend BB..maybe you'll head to the beach with your little girl this weekend..and have some mellow quiet time.



Teeluck said...

That was truly a wonderful post.

lime said...

what a marvelous gift of a bygone day. what a poignant memory. you tell it so well i was under the awning, across the street and peering into the darkness under the moon with you. thank you.

Beach Bum said...

PENolan: Of course the dialog is made up but just about everything else is true.

Randal: I still get a kick at stopping by those ramshackle souvenir and fruit stands. I never buy anything except oranges but I like looking at the junk they sell.

Sunshine: The part of the pond. swamp really stayed with me. The greater anti-development theme is the part I made up but the old man really did want me to see the activity. I would have given his name if I had more certainty in what it was. It was a German name but I never heard of it before so I left it out.

Will: As we were leaving the motel I asked my dad how long till we arrived. He said about twenty minutes and about that time we passed through the big gates. Since we belong to the Disney Vacation Club (timeshare) we drive all around that area which truly has every damn spot developed down to the centimeter. If it ain't some resort, attraction, golf course, outlet mall, road, its part of the drainage system. If trees are standing its only to provide basic concealment to things Disney does not want you to see. Would somehow love to know where that rundown motel was just to satisfy my curiosity.

Rhia: You did mention about living in Myrtle Beach. I miss that Air Force base, it was so cool watching the A-10s fly all around that area.

I'm pretty good about riding roller coasters but I rode Space Mountain in Disney World for the first time two of three years ago and I hated it. They had me in the front of the rocket looking car and with my 6 foot-5 inch size I felt really off my center of gravity. With it so dark I never knew when the turns or drops would come and when it was over I was very sore.

Teeluck: Thanks, I mentioned it to one of my very best friends they other day in an offhand matter and she told me to write about it.

Beach Bum said...

Lime: I hate to say it but the most amazing thing to me at that age was the independent television station and the fact it stayed on all night.

Yes, I was already addicted to the boob tube and only cringe at how 24/7 cable stations have us now.

TomCat said...

Beach, you have an uncanny ability to snatch me into a different world and make it real. Thank you.

Happy Mothers Day!

Pixel Peeper said...

You have an uncanny ability to transport your reader in time and place!

Wondering about that German motel owner - I always wonder what brought Germans to this country (being German myself).

Beach Bum said...

Tomcat: Thank you, nice to write something that falls so easily together like this one did.

Pixel Peeper: Thank you and welcome and come again. Good question, as I pulled the dusty memories out of my head I thought about that myself. I came up with several possibilities but naturally its all speculation on my part.

Marja said...

what a great and touching story What a wise man to let you experience the wonders of nature.
These eyes where they crocodile eyes??? brrr
My brother just went to disney in paris where they had a great time.
I went several times to the efteling a fairytale park in Holland which is pretty good too only a lot smaller than disney of course

TomCat said...

You're most welcome, my friend.

Beach Bum said...

Marja: Yes, they were alligators and are related to the crocs somehow. That old German man was very nice and while I believe he fought on the wrong side in WW2 I do not believe he was a Nazi.

Tomcat: Anytime my friend.

Gwendolyn H. Barry said...

Smack that!
Beach, you can write, my friend. You should be doing it and living off it. It's like slipping into an easy chair and forgetting time because you are simply some place else... where you stay as long as the words roll by. Thx