Mention Florida, even to this day, and I see a brace of coonhounds braying for the sheer joy of it, splashing through backwater ponds choked with water hyacinth. I see small hamlets appearing like mirages through thickets of palmetto and stands of loblolly pine along crushed-shell roads littered with rotting heaps of vegetation, the occasional dead armadillo, and God knows what else. I see men like Hank Kenshaw jockeying airboats across sawgrass prairies that stretch to the horizon.
My parents would chuckle when I insisted, even as an adult, that I could still remember the sound of that airboat from my first Florida visit. I had just turned four, yet I still hold the vivid image of that motor, which Uncle Hank had salvaged from a Cessna prop plane, roaring to life, and the sight of the still water of the lagoon just behind my uncle’s house suddenly erupting into furious sheets of waves as cattails lashed about like live wires.
I was on the dock with my dad, which he later acknowledged was about the most dilapidated structure he had ever dared stand upon. He was holding me on his shoulders while warily eying the tea-brown water below, which Uncle Hank delighted in warning us was lousy with gators and moccasins. Mom, who was holding my baby sister, reflexively backed all the way up the dock and onto the wrap-around veranda of the Kenshaw’s house before inching her way back toward us in a valiant effort to get within rescuing distance, if necessary, of her husband and first-born.
When Uncle Hank fired that thing up it was like standing 10 feet away from a jetliner. He stepped into the water and slowly turned the boat so that it was facing out toward the lagoon, ostentiously to avoid blowing us off the pier. But all that accomplished was to further whip up the water to the point that we expected the whole thing to collapse. Uncle Hank thought it was hilarious.
I also remember the plum-sized lump on Uncle Hank’s left wrist, the consequence of an airboat mishap that left his hand dangling by a few tendons. He managed to hitch a ride to. Melbourne, the closest town with a hospital. Family lore has it that the surgical team on call at the ER that night tried to convince Uncle Hank that his nearly severed hand was beyond repair . However he insisted that they do everything in power to reattach it. The surgical team did manage to reattach his hand and Uncle Hank was able to retain some rudimentary ability with it.
The accident did not deter him from heading back into the swamp to gig frogs, poach the occasional plume bird or alligator, or do whatever else was necessary to provide food for his family, all by the light of a miner’s headlamp.
As luck would have it, Uncle Hank was one of the first Floridians to reap the rewards of the new technological era. He had some land, thirty-odd acres of “wet pasture,” with a view of the ocean (if a wildfire cleared the vegetation and you had a pair of good binoculars.) By sheer happenstance, his spread lay not far from the Joint Long-Range Proving Grounds, where rockets periodically ripped through the night air, stilling for a few moments the relentless chatter of the bugs and frogs.
A few years after Russia launched the first artificial satellite in 1957, Uncle Hank sold his land to the National Aeronautical Space Administration. Again, family lore has it that when asked about his new status as a wealthy man he would say, “Sputnik sailed over our house one night and dropped a nice chunk of change in my lap.”
Later, he and a partner would start a concrete company and earn an additional small fortune paving some of the runways and tarmacs under contract to NASA
Our Second Florida Trip
Three years later, we made our second Florida visit. Uncle Hank was still in negotiations for the sale of his land, but some money must have rolled in, because he and my aunt Rosie had already purchased an 8-millimeter movie camera along with a movie projector. I recall spending a good part of the day clowning around with my cousins, and then watching movies of our antics that evening.
At some point during our visit, Uncle Hank took his oldest son Danny and myself on a drive in his pickup truck. After stopping at a small marina where he brought a stringer of red snapper from a fisherman who had just docked, Uncle Hank drove out toward the bay, stopping at a spot that gave us a wide vista. I was getting my first glimpse of the ocean, and I mentioned to Uncle Hank that I had expected to see big waves and surf crashing against the rocks. I don’t exactly remember his response. What I do remember is him saying later in a low voice, “Feel how still and quiet it’s getting.”
It was true. All at once, the whole world seemed to be holding its breath. The water was smooth as a mirror. The terms and the seagulls that had been circling over the bay had fallen silent. The clouds seemed frozen in place.
Then Uncle Hank started talking again in the same quiet voice. “There’s plenty of noise in the world, but I for one like to keep my eye on the quiet things, like that big cloud out there.” He gazed out over the bay. “Why don’t you watch it with me for a couple of minutes?”
That’s the indelible image I have — Uncle Hank facing the bay, contemplative, occasionally muzzling the rough of the coonhound he had brought along for the ride, while that cloud slowly started filled the sky, taking on the shape of a massive black anvil.
On the way back, Danny and I sat in the bed of the truck at Uncle Hank’s insistence, as an uninterrupted sheet of rain pelted us. By the time we got back to the house and pulled into the gravel parking bay, which was under several inches of water, the clouds had disappeared and the sun was out in full force. Vapor steamed off the pond-sized puddles and kudzu-covered telephone poles along the road. As we climbed shakily off the truck, mom ran inside to fetch towels. Meanwhile, Aunt Rosie upbraided Uncle Hank for letting us get so drenched.
“Young Tommy’s got something he can brag on when he sees his buddies up North,” was Uncle Hank’s reply. “He survived a good old-fashioned Florida monsoon.”
That evening, as Uncle Hank grilled snapper, I regaled him with questions about Florida. I was particularly interested in the venomous snakes, alligators, jellyfish. sharks and other creatures too exotic to live in a place as ordinary as Chicago. He told me about his younger days wrestling alligators with a traveling carny show. He said that the alligators were so lazy and well-fed that they sometimes dozed off while waiting to go on stage. He explained that a gator’s jaw muscles are arranged in such a way as to enable it to clamp its mouth shut with ferocious power. However, he added, the muscles to open the jaw were weak, and a skilled wrestler could hold a gator’s jaws shut with one hand. The wrestler would then embrace the gator with his other arm to give the impression that he was trying to subdue it by brute force.
“What he was really doing was hypnotizing it by scratching its belly,” Uncle Hank explained. Then he added, “Usually, if I’m talking to a Yankee tourist, I’ll hold up my crippled hand and say that some monster of a gator bit it off and ate it, but I wouldn’t try to pass that off on a smart young fellow like you.”
Uncle Hank comes to Chicago
I had just turned 13 when, six years later, Uncle Hank bought his family up to Chicago. Flush with cash, Uncle Hank was driving a pink Cadillac Eldorado. He announced his arrival by hitting his horn, which was modified to sound the first four notes of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” I ran out the door to greet Uncle Hank and kin about the same time as several inquisitive neighbors stepped onto their front porches. What we all witnessed was the spectacle of four giggling girls piling out of the car, as Uncle Hank laid on the horn one more time for good measure.
“I gotta pee like a racehorse!” one of the girls exclaimed, as Aunt Rosie and Danny emerged from the car. Dad wasn’t home from work yet, so it was up too my mom to assume the role of official greeter.
“So good to see you, Rosie!” she gushed, hugging her sister, before turning and calling out to the girls. “Sweethearts, the door is open!”
Uncle Hank strode around the car to join Aunt Rosie and mom. I lingered outside the house long enough to hear him exclaim, “My God, Doreen! How do you keep yourself looking so beautiful!”
During their stay, I spent a lot of time with Danny, who was just a couple of months younger than I was. I was fascinated by him. For instance, He might start a conversation boasting about the size of the bass he caught in a local canal, then shift to his plans to join the CIA, Danny’s brother, Hank, Jr., spent much of the visit lurking behind doors or furniture, springing from where he was hiding in the hopes of catching one of us by surprise.
And then there were my girl cousins. The highlight of the visit occurred the night Uncle Hank drove with Aunt Rosie to Waukegan to visit one of his buddies, leaving the kids behind. That’s when the Kenshaw girls decided to shower together in the upstairs bathroom. After at least a half an hour of giggling and splashing, the girls emerged shrieking and laughing from the bathroom soaking wet wrapped in a single beach towel. Attracted by the commotion, everyone in the house converged near the top of the stairs. I realized with anticipation bordering on delirium that the girls appeared to be on the verge of losing control of the towel as they scuttled toward my sister’s bedroom. Sure enough, midway down the hall one of the cousins apparently lost her footing, bringing down the whole crew, at which point, Hank, Jr., popped up out of nowhere to snatch away the towel and fling it over the stairway banister.
It was at that moment that Dad, who was the last to climb the stairs, suddenly froze. I can still recall the look on his face as he will stared, mouth gaping. Catching my eye, he recovered his composure and said, “Girls!” in a tone that was both a sigh and an admonition. “Those are your Florida cousins for you,” he muttered, managing to crack a smile.
Only years later that I determine that his smile was one of complicity, and acknowledgement that he and I had just witnessed something rare and exotic, something imported from a hothouse climate far removed from our northern urban prairie — a little gift from Uncle Hank and Aunt Rosie, along with the shellacked puffer and the big, white conch shell that held within it the sound of the ocean.