Bulldozers, Billboards, and Bugs….
The 1960’s brought rapid change to my hometown in Florida; the neighborhood of my childhood like so many others in the state – evolved around us.
During the 50’s the ‘quiet’ moments that golden little neighborhoods such as ours had, became more and more inundated with the noises of the surrounding traffic; tourists. It was a yearly influx of seasonal visitors which changed our cricket-laden nights – into something much different.
The sounds surrounding that yearly wave of traffic became consistent and downright annoying at times; horns blowing impatiently along with the sudden ‘thump’ (s) of another accident at the nearby intersection. These were the sounds that invaded the peace within the walls of our home – but, it was a ‘seasonal’ change and this yearly ‘cycle’ continued to dissipate as the heat of another summer approached.
‘Tourist season‘ was the event that us ‘locals’ were accustomed to, even poked fun at – and it happened every year. Well, that is until one year the traffic came – and then never went away.
My family home was approximately 60 yards from Highway-41, the changes would not leave us in peace as seasons of the past (my window on the world). Everything associated with traveling through our city was changing; including our moods.
There were simply more people visiting Florida, and more of those remaining.
THE YELLOW TRUCK
One day a yellow truck appeared, surveyors. The surveyors left bright markers with numbers in our neighbor’s yards. The protruding stick’s were apparent along the deep ditches of old highway-41, and this was just the first wave….
The need was undeniable as the little two-lane rutted hwy from the forties was growing – and the machinery was moving into place. As a kid of ten all’s I could do was watch…..
I watched as the hundred-year old oak trees surrounding Ms Cunningham’s stately home at the northwest corner of Hanson and Cleveland were felled. The stately ‘old-Florida’ home was ‘jacked-up’ and hauled-off (Flint/Doyle), this but one of many house moving events passing the intersection outside.
Novotony’s Court (orig Wallace’s) in the southwest corner of the intersection would lose the front part of their Motel to the new 6-lane highway, including the water fountain/fish pool in the front yard. Mrs Novotony was forced to move to the remaining rear section of the building nearer our home; they were elderly German survivors of years past.
During the daylight hours trucks were moving massive equipment and homes, there was the constant clanking of the bulldozers, their steel tracks shaking the earth. The squealing of cable as the ‘drag-lines’ swung into action. There was dust, mud, and all the accompanying litter (fortunately, discarded soft-drink bottles were worth their deposit).
There was also optimism, eliminating the mosquito infested ditches on either side of highway-41 would reduce the threat of disease. Hopes were that the newer highway would reduce the frustrating lines of traffic, reduce the noises of horns and allow a smooth flow while easing the growth of our community. No one could deny the need of the insensitive changes that were taking place; for we had seen and felt it all coming – change was imminent.
One Saturday as the machinery sat idle, my friends and I went to explore a strange soft substance used as a ‘base’ layer in highway construction – it was thick, mucky, and very similar to soft clay. We would throw a rock into it and the rock would just “splat” while remaining exactly as it was thrown; this was interesting stuff.
The extent of our knowledge was that it was called “Marl,” a clay base-like substance that was chopped and laid out much like a mulcher chews up dirt leaving it wide, flat and seemingly moist. On occasion we saw vehicles ‘stuck’ in this quandary but that did not deter us from wanting to venture out onto the wide and thick areas of this, it looked possible and interesting and with a little high-stepping three boys began their Saturday trek within the new boundaries of the highway.
This stuff swallowed us; we soon sank to our knees and were each absolutely STUCK – the substance seemed a mix between quicksand and flypaper – we struggled to pull our own feet, struggled to help each other – all to no avail. We were NOT getting loose and soon realized that – we were also in a place we shouldn’t have been.
The neighborhood Sinclair Gas Station (Wallace) was nearby (19 cents a gallon) and the attendants knew each of us well, they had repaired our bicycle tubes and then chased us away from their business numerous times. They also were aware of our situation – as we were in plain view. The attendants knew that we were not in danger and I think that is why they left us to suffer for a period of time -they also must have wanted it to sink into our minds that we were in a construction area of which we were not allowed.
When the workers were satisfied from watching our delima they rescued us by laying boards across the surface of the muck, and pulled us free. I think that’s the first time I remember the words “I told you so” repeated in a kind fashion. Our group of neighborhood boys had been defeated by mother earth – now we had to explain to our parents.
It took several years for that little two-lane to become a six-lane avenue. Paralleling the road improvements came the by-products of which had not been anticipated – the large and very tall florescent signs; very tall.
Those tall signs now lit up even the darkest corner of our home at night, along with the light came the bugs and insects that were attracted to those lights (and the other bugs that preyed on them). “Bing-bing” the sound of the ‘bell’ announcing another customer at the gas station also seemed more pronounced after dark.
Soon we lost the home behind us and a convenience store/laundromat sprang up; I could actually reach from my tree house and touch the corner of this new structure. As a child it was nice to have candy so convenient that the changes became less important.
Our town was changing and the character of our neighborhood (one of many) had been permanently scarred from this change. The shade surrounding those hundred-year old oaks was permanently replaced with asphalt and cement. The darkest side of our home which even the moonlight couldn’t touch before – was now bright from the fluorescent light radiating from the nearby billboards. Neighbors were displaced and their homes became commercial properties.
As those bulldozer blades pushed the familiar dirt of our surroundings aside, they were also cutting the heart of our past. It wasn’t as simple as walking across the street anymore. The innocence of our neighborhood was simply shoved aside – and that’s just how it was..