Everyone has milestones in their life they stop and either celebrate or reflect on. In my case, it is something that looks superficial but made a profound difference. Fifty years ago this month, my parents, brother and I packed up my mother’s car and pulled out of the place I live now to move to Palm Beach.
It’s easy to minimise the effects of moving, especially in the United States. Europe likes to pride itself on the cultural differences of each region and town it has, as opposed to the supposed homogeneity of these United States. But this country is diverse as well, a diversity that has been papered over in various ways. In my case, it’s not an understatement to say that moving from an area that is a mixture of Appalachia and the Old South to the place “where the animals are tame and the people run wild” (which I shamelessly cribbed from Monkey Jungle) might as well have been a move abroad.
American Boomers largely grew up in a “core” culture was based on a country whose centre was the Northeast and Midwest. We think of four seasons (my Arkansas mother thought Chicago had only two, Winter and August) with white Christmases, leaves dropping in the Fall and new Easter dresses in the Spring. That whole scenario is frankly ridiculous in the context of South Florida. We had but two seasons: rainy and dry, the former punctuated by hurricanes (we had two in Palm Beach the year we moved there). Who needs to fool with multiple wardrobes in a place like this? How can Santa Claus crawl down chimneys in a place where most houses don’t have them? People who grow up in such a place develop nonchalant habits about the weather that are hard to break when they move elsewhere.
The natural beauty around us is something we, unfortunately, took for granted. One year we travelled to California, driving down from Oregon. Stopping at the fruit inspection station at the state line, the inspectors marvelled that we would even think of leaving such a paradise to come and see the place (which we found to be an awesome break from what we were used to). My first elementary school, a Spanish style building with a central courtyard, had bananas growing in it. One of my mother’s fairway shots at the Breakers was ruined when a palm frond fell to the ground in the middle of her back-swing. And, of course, there were the orange trees in the back yard, next to the pool.
We spent a great deal of time on the water, in keeping with our long nautical history. Our house was half an island width from the ocean, not too far from the Kennedy complex. When we wanted quintessentially American burgers and fries from the drive-in, West Palm Beach’s premier car hop place, The Hut, was right across Flagler Drive from Lake Worth. One could sit in the car and see the shimmering lake and Palm Beach across it. We also, being at the edge of the country in every sense of the word, went to the Bahamas, where we continued our sub-tropical life on our boat, although sometimes things got eventful with things like this and this.
It’s hard to encapsulate the place in a short piece. Facebook dwellers can take in more than they have time to absorb on the page I Grew Up in South Florida in the 60s 70s and 80s, which has literally thousands of photographs and reminiscences of the place. But many who stop and comment lament the changes that have taken place. It’s inevitable that it would change, but it’s hard to imagine a region that filled up and remade itself in such a short time, and usually not for the better. Between the end of any kind of open space and the environmental destruction that such rapid development in a fragile place incurs, there’s a strong tug of regret at what’s happened to the place, and that tug transcends differences in politics and outlook.
And what did we replace it with? That’s the hard part. In many ways, to grow up in South Florida in that era was to grow up in the country’s future, a future that, like the effect on the environment, isn’t an improvement.
The first futuristic part of living there was the demographics. Today we’re regaled with stories about our aging demographics, but for South Floridians this is old news: we grew up in a place with a very grey population. The focus on the elderly, as opposed to the dominance of the young that was the hallmark of early Boomer times, fell hard to some extent on those growing up. Yes, a youth culture was certainly out there (thanks in part to things like WQAM) but we knew we weren’t the stars of the show. We weren’t shy about expressing our feelings about it either: making fun of the old people was a favourite sport, but now the shoe is on the other foot. Today we are the old people we used to make fun of.
The second part of this was the lack of community of the place. South Florida is a transient region, certainly for the retirees but for everyone else too. People came from various races and cultures, but they didn’t get along very well. In this millennium Tom Wolfe was surprised that South Florida’s original “cracker” settlers had been displaced, but that happened a long time ago, much to glee of Miami Herald Liberals who took their places in the driver’s seat of society. Although there are exceptions, in a place where the regional bird is the middle finger, the multicultural dream of a diverse region living in unity is just that–a dream.
Without any community to resist, the Sixties went through the place like Hurricane Betsy. This is my extended reflection on that reality, so I won’t spend much time on that here.
Finally South Florida proved a tough social system where just about everyone played for keeps. For me a lot of that came from living in Palm Beach, although I discovered that getting away from there to other parts of the region wasn’t the cure-all either. There’s an upside to that, though: had, for example, the conservatives had at the helm a few South Floridians instead of people who were busy trying to reconstruct their idealised past, the right wouldn’t be in the tight place it is today. (OTOH, if the left hadn’t doped its way through the 1970’s, another good South Florida habit, they might have finished the job sooner, too).
But such are speculations. The reality is that anyone who is raised in such a place is detached, to a greater or lesser degree, from the country it’s supposed to be a part of. That leaves an indelible impression, one that isn’t effaced by going elsewhere. For us who experienced the place, it’s impossible to shake the memory–and the effects–of the region where the animals are tame and the people run wild.