Sounds of the Times

While the beauty of the Ocala National Forest is indescribable, the sounds of the forest were memorable as well. On warm summer nights chirping crickets and croaking bullfrogs filled the air with a sound as big as a big bass drum. Throw in the bellow of a bull alligator and a chorus of owls and it made an unforgettable concert indeed.

On summer afternoons the sound of thunder rumbling in the distance was a prelude to the frantic sounds of preparation: Run to gather in the clothes drying on the clothesline, prop the wicker rocking chairs on the porch so the cushions wouldn’t get wet, roll up the car windows, and run through the house closing windows. Then stand on the porch watching the rain come across the lake. The glassy surface of the water turned wavy as the wall of rain came closer. Someone inevitably quoted Moby Dick with a shout of, “Thar she blows.” Finally a deafening crescendo as the raindrops hit the tin roof of our little wooden house.

Those forest sounds were timeless but other forest sounds were sounds of the times. I remember days when we watched the fuzzy images on our black and white television as NBC News broadcast a countdown of a rocket launch from Cape Canaveral. Right after liftoff we would rush outside to scan the skies for a peek at the rocket hurtling toward outer space.

On some days the sonic booms were much closer. The forest was home to a military practice bombing range. The jets rattled the windows and we felt the bombs explode. Pilots often flew frighteningly low over Church Lake and at times neighbors called commanders to complain about how close the pilots flew. The sounds of the planes and the bombs brought to mind the sounds of the nightly news where we heard about the war in Vietnam. On Wednesday nights during the church’s weekly prayer meeting, I heard prayers for the soldiers. I heard men, women, and teenagers pray for soldiers by name—their sons, nephews, boyfriends, classmates. Their prayers were simple and personal and real. Just on the other side of the church from our little wooden house was the church cemetery. I remember being at home and hearing the jolting sounds of the 21-gun salutes during funerals for soldiers.

On other days the sounds of the forest were quieter. Hymns chiming from the church steeple. The low hum of Mother’s New Home sewing machine and her sweet soprano singing while she worked. Ski boats on the lake. Swimmers laughing and splashing. Burgers sizzling on the grill. And the sound of fallen oak leaves skittering across the yard in the wind. The sounds of peace. And freedom.

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Fine Antiques, Beauty Salon, and Live Bait

One of our forest neighbors was such an interesting person I’ve often said that if she were a character in a book, no one would believe her. It’s impossible to think up anyone as fascinating as Dorothy Green actually was. A recovering alcoholic, Mrs. Green was a faithful church member who always sat on the second row on the left side. She usually entered the sanctuary from the front door just behind the piano. Everybody saw her come in because she usually arrived a few minutes late—just as the announcements were being made or during the first hymn. Before she sat down she asked whoever happened to be seated behind her to finish zipping her dress up the back. After she sat down, she put on her earrings and lipstick or took the last few curlers out of her hair. Then she pulled her dress just above her knees and pulled up her stockings, discreetly securing the garters to her girdle.

Tall, round, and bottle blonde with skinny arms and legs, Dorothy Green was a handsome woman in a 1960s beehive, red lipstick sort of way. She lived with her husband, Sam, who was a successful accountant in a downtown Ocala firm. Mr. Green was attractive and always well dressed. He was a deacon and gave generously of his time and business acumen in the church’s administrative affairs. He also served faithfully as an usher. In fulfilling his usher duties he was always on time—thus he was not home to zip Dorothy’s dress on Sunday mornings.

Their home was not so much a house as a family compound. The front part of the house was a small log cabin in which Dorothy ran an antiques store. First-time customers were often shocked to find such high quality antiques in such an out-of-the-way location. The back door of the tiny log cabin opened into a large, rustic living area with exposed beams. It was furnished with comfy wicker rocking chairs, armoires, antique rugs, massive china cabinets, display cases and bookshelves full of fine china, Indian pottery, jewelry, bric-a-brac, and antique books with hand-tinted engravings. Chairs and tables were draped with antique quilts, handmade lace tablecloths and other antique linens. Every item in the room had a tiny white cardboard price tag attached with a string.

A 1960s concrete block addition to the log house was accessed by a door the passage through which felt like a time machine. The bright galley kitchen, luxurious modern living room with deep shag carpeting and feminine bedrooms with graceful beds covered by frilly coverlets were a shocking contrast to the warm, old-fashioned feel of the other part of the house. But again, every piece of furniture—every canopy bed, every antique dressing table, every chest, every rug, every bedspread, and every sterling silver hairbrush carried a price tag. Even the canisters in the kitchen and items in the bathroom!

But the fascinating property did not end with the house. When I first became acquainted with the Greens there was a trailer (a.k.a. mobile home) where Dorothy’s daughter, Delores, lived with her husband and three daughters. The oldest daughter was my age. I have a memory of going down to visit one day when there was a real-live monkey in a tall pine tree beside the trailer. The monkey was a refugee from a colony of wild monkeys that lived near Silver Springs. The trailer was later moved after the Greens built a new home for Delores and family on the back of their property just across the fence from the church cemetery. Two other trailers remained, however. One trailer was for Dorothy’s parents and another for her grandparents.

But wait! There’s more! Right behind the main house was a long, narrow, carport-like shelter that housed several concrete reservoirs, each about eight feet square and about 3 and a half to four feet deep. These each held a different type of live bait which Mrs. Green sold as a supplement to the antiques business. In the rafters of the structure she stored various dippers and nets. Customers would drive around the dirt driveway behind the house, running over a hose connected to a bell and Dorothy would come out of the house in her curlers and Daniel Greene house slippers to scoop minnows into a Styrofoam cooler or put crickets or worms into a cardboard container with air holes in the top.

Behind the bait shop was an above-ground swimming pool and behind that a small pond that usually had at least one alligator living in it. Beside the bait shop was a rustic enclosure that included a bathroom and was furnished with daybeds and all the chairs, mirrors, and sinks necessary for a fully functioning beauty salon. It was in that room that Dorothy hosted birthday parties for her granddaughters and where we waited out afternoon thunderstorms until we could get back into the pool.

The pool was rather small and only five feet deep, but since I was not allowed to swim in the lake without my brothers and they were busy with summer jobs, I accepted every invitation to swim with Mrs. Green’s granddaughters. There was a price to be paid, however. No one was allowed in the pool without a stretchy rubber swim cap. I was mortified by having to wear a swim cap. But Dorothy was steadfast—everybody had to wear one and she had many to choose from. They were all garish colors accented with gaudy rubber flowers and ridiculous rubber fringe. Maybe she was a fan of those 1940s Esther Williams water ballet musicals or maybe she admired the Weeki Wachee mermaids, but Dorothy Green thought she looked lovely in her bathing suit and swim cap. On days when she was planning an afternoon swim, she didn’t “do” her hair. Instead she put on her swim outfit early in the morning and wore it all day. She cleaned house, sold antiques, and dipped bait dressed as a 1940s bathing beauty.

At some point Delores and her husband and the granddaughters moved out of state for a while and Mrs. Green was lonely. She liked to talk and I liked listening to her stories and she was always kind to me so I rode my bike down to visit her even when the grandchildren weren’t there. She told me about buying bargain diamonds at pawn shops and she let me read Uncle Wiggly and other stories from priceless first editions. She gave me a small silver turquoise ring and an antique gold bracelet that are still in my jewelry box today.

Slightly eccentric and with a checkered past, she frequently spoke of the evils of alcohol and how thankful she was to have become a Christian and given up the high society lifestyle. If I had read her in a novel I’d say the writer’s character was unrealistic. But I actually knew Dot Green. She was unrealistic! And she was one of the characters who made growing up in the forest the experience of a lifetime.

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Mother’s love of turtles

One might assume that a woman born and raised in Alabama with parents who farmed would be a country girl. Not so much the case with my Mother. She knew how to process garden produce and she had picked cotton as a little girl. She even knew how to kill and dress a chicken. But my Mother was no country girl. She wasn’t a city girl either. She was small-town all the way; definitely not outdoorsy. She never went barefoot and the only times I ever remember my Mother spending time outdoors involved cleaning it up. She raked leaves and planted flowers and picked up fallen limbs. She did enjoy picnics and cookouts, but never walked nature trails without being coerced. My Mother seldom went outside just for fun. I’m sure part of the reason she didn’t venture out was that she did not like critters. Mother had no tolerance for bugs and she was certainly not comfortable around snakes, alligators, squirrels, lizards, frogs, etc.

We used to drive over to Daytona Beach and go swimming—until the summer the Basford family came to visit and we all went to Marineland. Once Mother saw some of the critters that live in the ocean she was done with saltwater swimming.

When we moved to the Ocala National Forest in 1964 the abundance of critters made it a little boy’s dream and my Mother’s nightmare. Don and Tom were thrilled with having a lake to swim in and minnows and crickets and fireflies to catch. Daddy joined in their enthusiasm for the fabulous woods while Mother kept her thoughts to herself and didn’t sleep.

In their explorations of the yard and the lake, Don and Tom found two small eggs and brought them to the house. No one knew what might be growing in those eggs. I was hoping for baby ducks. Mother feared alligators. Don and Tom planted the eggs in one of Mother’s flower pots on the porch. When she went out to water the maidenhair fern, African violets, and Mother-in-law tongue, she would douse the pot that held just sand and eggs and dread what might be growing there. Months later—just when Mother had begun to believe the eggs were duds with nothing in them and that she could sleep easy—the eggs hatched.

The mysterious eggs revealed two tiny little alligator snapping turtles Don and Tom named Tiger and Speedy. Tiger was so named because he was mean and wont to bite. Speedy was the habitual winner of turtle races across the coffee table in the livingroom. At our parents’ insistence that wildlife belongs in the wild, Don and Tom eventually put Tiger and Speedy in the lake and heard Mother’s sigh of relief.

In the 1960s turtles were popular pets. Mrs. Hartman even had one. She taught 4- and 5-year-olds in Sunday School at Ocklawaha Bridge Baptist Church for more than 30 years. Less than five feet tall, Mrs. Hartman and her husband came to Florida from Kansas during the Dust Bowl years. She grew strawberries and made the best boiled peanuts ever. She was adored by generations of preschoolers and every year for something like 17 years, she brought her pet turtle to Vacation Bible School. If a sweet lady like Mrs. Hartman liked turtles, how could anyone else not like them? My Mother just pursed her lips and said, “Hmmm.”

I don’t remember where it came from, but somehow I eventually acquired my own pet turtle I named Stripeback. He lived on the same porch that birthed Tiger and Speedy. Stripeback lived in a gold plastic bowl with a little rubber palm tree that I bought at Woolworth’s in Ocala. Stripeback had tiny little claws and learned how to climb up the screen on the porch.

Mother had no memorable distaste for Stripeback—probably because she knew from the beginning he was a turtle and she didn’t have to wonder what horrors might emerge from a mutant egg—but he did nearly scare her to death one night. She was awakened by a loud, scratching sound coming from her closet. She woke Daddy up and he found that Stripeback had managed to get out of his bowl and crawl through the house to attack a cardboard shoe box. Don says Tom put the turtle in the closet, but Tom has never confessed. Either way, Mother was so thankful the noise was just the turtle and not some other imagined terror that she more or less made peace with Stripeback after that.

Many years later, we added another turtle story to the family archives. One afternoon Mother was in the yard planting caladium bulbs when Daddy started to cut the grass in the front yard by the lake.  Mother heard what she thought was a flying rock whiz by and hit the house. Daddy then began to see baby turtles by the dozens. The vibrations from the riding lawn mower must have sent them scurrying. They seemed to be coming up out of the grass. Daddy hit several before he realized what they were and got the mower stopped. He gave up on putting the mower away. He just stopped it in the middle of the yard and left it until the baby turtle parade was over.  It was amazing to see so many tiny turtles and what was most amazing was how they instinctively knew where the lake was and which way to go to get there. Not one single baby turtle went the wrong way.

With her children all grown up, Mother was confident her turtle-keeping days were over. She was mistaken. Wanting a pet of her own and having heard about Stripeback, my own daughter decided she wanted a pet turtle. It wasn’t until I started turtle shopping that I learned little turtles are now contraband—illegal to sell.  When I told my Dad Jennifer wanted a pet turtle and I couldn’t get one, he took care of it. Granddaddy managed to get Jennifer a turtle in Florida and bring it to her all the way to Birmingham, Alabama. This incident is one more piece of evidence that parents mellow when they become grandparents because my Mother the critterphobic held a little clear plastic box with water, a rock and a turtle in her lap for the whole nine-hour drive.

Upon her Granddaddy’s suggestion, Jennifer named her turtle J.P. Morgan after the 19th century millionaire who was once the richest man in the world. We thought it was appropriate considering how expensive it was to buy the aquarium and filters and other equipment needed to keep a little turtle healthy and clean. Mother and the little turtle must have bonded on the trip from Florida to Alabama because later that evening she looked at J.P. Morgan swimming in his 10-gallon tank surrounded by $300 worth of turtle amenities and when he smiled his little turtle smile, she actually admitted he was cute.

*Having been a turtle owner twice, I don’t recommend turtles as pets. Turtles carry germs that can be deadly unless they are cared for properly. Proper care is A LOT of trouble and it’s very  expensive. It’s best to enjoy seeing turtles in their natural habitats in the wild and at zoos and aquariums.

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He stopped a jail break with a broom handle

In one episode of “The Andy Griffith Show,” Aunt Bea decided it wasn’t good for Opie to hang out at the jail. She insisted Opie find somewhere else to play and when that got him in trouble, they all decided the jail wasn’t such a bad place to hang out after all.

When they were little, my brothers Don and Tom (formerly Donnie and Tommie) and my cousin, Charles, like Opie, hung out at the jail. The town wasn’t Mayberry, North Carolina; it was LaFayette, Alabama. But if you know Mayberry, you know LaFayette.

My dad’s father, John Thomas Estes, Sr., died before I was born so I never knew him. But everybody in LaFayette, Alabama, knew him. A veteran of World War I, Granddaddy Estes was a farmer who never owned a house or a piece of land. He raised his crops and his family on someone else’s land, earning a share of the profits (if there were any) after the harvest was sold. After his children/field workers grew up and left home he became the jailer in LaFayette. He and my grandmother, Naomi, lived in an apartment at the jail. They kept the place clean and cooked for the inmates and even though Granddaddy was not the Sherriff—like Andy Taylor, he had the respect of everyone in town.

My parents owned a small house and a few acres of land about 8 miles from town. When they came to town and stopped by to visit, Don and Tom blew through the apartment and went to hang out in the jail with their Granddaddy. They would walk down to the depot and get on the train and ride in the engine with the engineer down to where the train stopped for coal and water. They would walk over to the courthouse and sit on the courthouse porch in straight wooden chairs leaned back against the wall talking politics and weather with men smoking pipes and unfiltered cigarettes.

Sometimes an adventure with Granddaddy involved a walk over to the “filling station” to buy a bottle of Coca Cola from the cooler beside the tire display.

On one of those adventures, Tom earned a nickname that followed him into adulthood: Yellowjacket. Tom was just a little boy and his screams after being attacked by a swarm of yellowjackets brought assistance from all over town.

One day while visiting his parents at their jailhouse apartment, my dad stopped a jailbreak. He was in the family apartment when one of the cooks came running, yelling, “Mr. Raymond, Mr. Raymond. They are coming out.” When Daddy followed her around behind the building he found that the prisoners were, indeed, trying to escape. They had managed to chip away mortar holding a window in an aging wall and one prisoner was trying to back out the window. Daddy grabbed a nearby broom and began spanking the conveniently displayed backside. The invisible head attached to the escaping rear end yelled and cursed and complained about the beating he was getting. Daddy told him to go back in, otherwise he would keep beating. The arse finally went back in and Daddy later had to testify in court that the man had attempted (unsuccessfully) to break out of jail.

Years later the City of LaFayette tore down the old jail with the iron bars and built a modern incarceration center where the back yard had a tall fence with rolled barbed wire across the top. But Granddaddy kept both keys to the old jail cells. He gave one to Charles and one to Don and Tom. He wanted them to keep those keys as a reminder to always stay on the right side of the law.

Even though I didn’t know Granddaddy Estes and I didn’t inherit a jail key, I had my own crime deterrent to keep me out of trouble. By the time I was born most people called my Dad “Reverend Estes.” To many, he was a mild-mannered preacher. But to me there was always the mental image of my dad as the man who stopped a jail break with a broom handle.

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The Day We Caught the Alligator

Even for Florida kids used to living among critters, a baby alligator was cause for excitement.

It was the 1960s and alligators were on America’s Endangered Species List. In Pre-Disney Florida, tourists flocked to Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute in Silver Springs to look through thick glass windows at snakes, alligators, and giant turtles. Ross Allen was an earlier incarnation of The Crocodile Hunter minus the Australian accent. He put on shows to demonstrate how to safely pick up a rattlesnake, milk the poison from snake fangs to manufacture antivenin, and make an alligator fall asleep by lightly stroking its belly. As kids living near the famous attraction, we saw the show every time out-of-town relatives came to visit. We’d seen it so many times we didn’t even jump when the snake sprang up to pop a balloon, moving faster than the eye could see. We weren’t nearly as impressed with the attraction as city kids because we lived among the wildlife every day. Toads and tadpoles and cotton-mouth moccasins lived in the spot where we swam. We always made lots of noise on the way to the lake to try to scare them away before we got there.  Coral snakes lived in the garage. An afternoon of swimming was often interrupted when someone spotted what might look to a city kid like a floating log. We knew the floating log was a gator and we’d have to get out of the water until it went away. Every night we were sung to sleep by the music of the forest: owls, frogs, crickets, and the occasional bellow of a bull alligator to its mate. To us the most exciting thing about Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute was that he sometimes bought live snakes from locals and he paid a dollar per foot. He also bought turtles. The tiny ones would bring 10 cents each.

One summer morning after Mother left to go to work in town, Daddy walked down to the spot on the lake bank where he fished. His habit was to feed the breakfast table scraps to the fish. On this particular morning as he was tossing toast crusts into the water he looked down and noticed a three-foot-long baby alligator right in front of him. He called for Tom to bring him a net and he quickly scooped it up. Probably the result of an injury, one of the baby’s eyes was scaled over—otherwise it could not have been captured so easily. We were used to alligators—big ones—out in the lake, but to have a little one in the yard was big news. Could we keep it? What could we name it? Even though Daddy immediately shot down the idea of keeping it, we were still so excited we called everyone we knew. We called Mother at work. (Now that I’m a working mother, I see this from a completely different side. Imagine being at work and learning that your three kids are at home playing with an alligator.) We called all the neighbors. We even called Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute. We knew they kept alligators and that they bought snakes and turtles, so we reasoned that they might want to buy our alligator. If a snake brought a dollar a foot, surely a gator would make us rich!

Tom was barefoot in the yard with a large cardboard barrel and a leaf rake discovering that it’s not the size of the gator in the fight but the size of the fight in the gator that makes a difference. The baby’s tiny, razor-sharp teeth destroyed the wooden rake handle effortlessly and I don’t believe Tom ever did manage to get that little monster on its back so he could try the belly stroking thing. Tom was still staging his own alligator wrestling show for the neighbors when we learned that we had to set the gator free immediately or face a mandatory three-year prison term for capturing Federally-protected wildlife. So we reluctantly took the excitement back to the lake and were amazed at how quickly our imagined fortune swam away.

Before we had time to fully grieve our loss—more excitement. One of the neighbors coming through the woods to see the gator had spotted a huge black snake. We followed the snake along the fence line and with the help of a vacationer at the campground just on the other side of the fence, we managed to get it into a large burlap bag. This we were sure we could sell to Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute. It was a rare king snake. So with Daddy’s permission (and probably to get us out of his hair so he could get some work done), the three of us and the three McCandless kids piled into Daddy’s Volkswagen Beetle with the snake tied up in the trunk and headed toward Silver Springs. The snake brought 5 dollars—enough for ice cream sandwiches for everybody on the way back home.

So while city kids were buying tickets at a tourist attraction to spend an exciting and memorable summer day looking at snakes and alligators through thick glass windows, we went home to find something else to do to fill the rest of an exciting and memorable summer day—it was almost noon.

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Lela Leslie Willingham

I never knew her but Lela Leslie Willingham had a profound influence on my life. She was an English teacher in LaFayette, Alabama in the 1930s and 40s. She was quoted regularly in our home when I was growing up.

If anyone ever asked, “Where’s it at?” my mother answered, “Between the A and the T.” We all learned that it was not acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition.

My brothers and I would never–even if talking in our sleep–be tempted to say something like, “I seen it happen.” Any such butchering of the English language would, according to our mother, cause Lela Leslie Willingham to “roll over in her grave” and we certainly didn’t want to do that.

Proper grammar was important in our home. It didn’t matter that we lived in the woods; we were expected to talk like we were “somebody.” More than 60 years after my mother finished high school, I find myself telling my own child to look between the A and the T and realize that the fear of Lela Leslie Willingham is alive and well today.

She might have been sweet and beautiful, but I always pictured Lela Leslie Willingham as white-haired with a bun, chunky-heeled lace-up shoes, and a mean disposition. Either way, she was a real stickler for grammar—so much of a stickler that it has stuck for three generations.

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Tubing Down the Ichetucknee

Floating down a river on a rubber innertube is a timeless experience of Central Florida at its very best. Crystal clear icy cold water, warm sunbeams, blue skies, cypress and oak trees, turtles, snakes, alligators, egrets, sandhill cranes, eagles, dragonflies, bass, bream, catfish, and water lilies—these Florida treasures are never quite as awe-inspiringly beautiful as when viewed from in the river. When you are floating down a seven-mile stretch of a river where you see and hear nothing but natural wonders it’s easy to forget your troubles and imagine yourself transported to a different place in time. The unspoiled beauty allows you to experience the same Florida of Seminole Indians, Spanish explorers, and early settlers. This is the real Florida—the one we had before a celluloid rodent turned it into a plastic fantasyland. Even the names of the rivers invoke thoughts of beauty and history: Silver River, Juniper Springs, Rainbow Springs, Ocklawaha, Homassassa, Ichetucknee.

I don’t remember the exact year, but it was in the late 1970s when some friends and I decided to kick off the summer with a tubing trip down the Ichetucknee River. The trip was planned for Tuesday and after church on Sunday night we gathered to finalize the details of our plan: where we’d meet, what time we’d leave, etc. Our thought was “the more the merrier” so we invited everyone within earshot to go with us. Someone even began pleading (jokingly) for my mother to come along. Clara Estes was not a nature girl and she hadn’t worn a swimsuit in years. The idea of her floating down a river on an innertube was laughable and she knew it. In an effort to quickly end the discussion of Clara going tubing she said, “I’ll go when Bobbie Grant goes.” Mother was positive that Bobbie Grant would never go so she knew she was safe. Her heart almost stopped when Bobbie said, “You’ll go if I go? This I’ve got to see. I’ll go!”

 Ever so reluctantly, my mother kept her promise. Unfortunately I missed mom’s first (and what I was sure would be her only) trip down the river because on Monday I got a call that a summer job I’d interviewed for was mine and I had to start work on Tuesday. Mother surprised us all on her return home by announcing that she loved tubing and would like to go again. She later volunteered to chaperone a church youth outing to the river and talked my dad into going too. A couple of years later my grandparents and my cousin came for a visit and Mother even managed to talk her Daddy in floating down the Ichetucknee River.

My PawPaw loved being outdoors and in the woods. For many years he supervised a crew that cleared land for powerline construction for Tallapoosa River Electric Cooperative in Alabama. He liked rivers and fishing, but he was not so sure about going tubing. He gave in only after his only daughter and two of his beloved granddaughters poured on the sweet talk.

At the river outpost where we stopped to pick out tubes, Mother and Grandmother decided that PawPaw would probably be more comfortable in a small rubber raft than in a tube. Somehow that seemed a little more substantial for a 70-something year-old man wearing pleated dress slacks, dress shoes, a white short-sleeved dress shirt, and a jaunty gentleman’s hat. That’s how PawPaw dressed almost every day. He wore a suit on Sunday and overalls when he was working in the yard or cutting firewood. Since he was on vacation he didn’t bring work clothes. His skinny white legs had never seen the light of day. He even wore long pajamas. This man so eschewed the idea of exposed legs on men that he kept a special classification for the kind of man who would stoop so low as to wear “Bermuda shorts.” He even said the words with a sneer. He was not one of those men. He kept his legs covered like the good Lord intended. PawPaw going tubing in a raft with his long pants on seemed like the only way.

Getting PawPaw settled into the rubber raft must have been an ordeal. I’ve somehow blocked out that memory. I do remember trying to get him out after sitting so long his legs had gotten stiff and that was traumatic. But what came in between is one of my most precious memories of him. He declined the paddle that came with his raft rental; choosing instead to just float where the current took him. Whether he was mid-river, next to the bank, front ways, sideways, backward, or hung up in the forks of a fallen tree, PawPaw enjoyed every inch of the ride. He gazed into the sky, studied the tree tops, inventoried the fish, and surveyed the wildlife—completely heedless of river traffic. He bumped into other tubers, floated ahead at times and at other times lagged behind our group—never making the slightest effort to control his direction or speed. The only thing that concerned him in the least was the 2 inches of water that seeped into the bottom of his raft. He was convinced that the raft was going to sink. Every time anyone caught his eye he would scoop up a palm full of water, lift it up high and slowly pour it out. He also gave regular updates on the amount of water in his raft. “It’s getting deeper and deeper.” He’d laugh and shake his head and say, “Any minute now you’re gonna find just my hat floatin by itself.” But we didn’t lose him. Instead he lost himself in the beauty of the forest and made us all a beautiful memory of a man enjoying God’s creation.

When Uncle Vernon, Aunt Nellie and their son Cary came to visit, we took them down the river too. Like my mother, Aunt Nellie was not exactly a nature girl. But she figured if Clara could do it, she could too. Her main concern was her hairdo. Mother assured her that is was possible to go tubing without ruining a professional hair-set.

Arriving at the dock to get in the river, Clara (a river veteran by now) stepped confidently to the front of the line saying, “Come on, Nellie, I’ll show you how to get in without getting your hair wet.” She dropped her tube, stepped off the bottom step, chest-deep into the icy cold water. She carefully positioned the tube behind her and hopped on. At this point no one knows what caused an upset in the delicate balance of the universe, but the next few seconds took place in slow motion. Mother’s tube tipped back, her feet flew up and she did a perfect back flip. She sank all the way to the bottom and same up sputtering through her fallen bouffant hairdo.

The ramp was full of people waiting in line to get into the river. We all gasped but no one knew what to say. It was Nellie who spoke first saying, “Well Clara, if it’s all the same to you I don’t believe I’ll do it that way.”

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Hello world!

Family Stories from a Forest

 “Florida Baptist Convention Rural Pastor of the Year.” A framed certificate on the wall gives a hint but doesn’t begin to tell the tale of an entire family’s 50-year adventure in an exotic place like no other. Orange groves, alligator-infested swamps, sparkling lakes, subdivisions, trailer parks, fish camps, stately homes, rustic shacks, tourists, snakes, thoroughbred horses, cattle ranches, snowbirds, Yankees, and Florida Crackers. They were all part of daily life in the Ocala National Forest. Our family moved there in 1964 when my dad became pastor of Ocklawaha Bridge Baptist Church. The church is still there and still an integral part of the forest community. But with the large sanctuary, concrete walkways, and multi-purpose gymnasium, it’s much different from the place of my earliest memories.

            I was only two and a half years old when we moved there so it’s hard to say where my real memories end and my recollection of family stories begin. According to the family legend, on the family’s first (and only) visit to the church before we moved there, my mom did not even see all of the house the church provided for the pastor. She made it as far as the living room then said, “I’ll wait in the car.” She had no idea God would call her family to serve in a Florida jungle and didn’t quite believe her husband would consider moving so far away from her family in Alabama. But the family did move there and we planted roots in the Florida sand.

            This is the setting for Family Stories: A country church in a year-round tourist mecca and a small wooden house beside the church with a lake in the front yard and a wilderness campground in the back yard. Eight miles away was a world-renowned tourist attraction. One hour away was the world’s most famous beach. In pre-Disney Florida, Silver Springs was a destination. Even now almost everybody I meet who was born before 1964 has been to or at least heard of Silver Springs. It is still a beautiful place.

Some of our family stories actually happened before we moved to the Ocala National Forest. They are stories of my parents growing up in east central Alabama during the Great Depression; stories of the family’s years in northwest Florida while Daddy was a student at Baptist Bible Institute in Graceville, Florida, or at his first pastorate near Grand Ridge, Florida; and even stories of our adventures and exploits after we grew up and moved away. As the stories have been told and retold around a diningroom table situated near a window overlooking majestic oak trees draped in Spanish moss they have become intertwined with who we are and the world we inhabited. They are all family stories from a Forest and I hope you’ll agree they are stories worth retelling.

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