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.