2051 North Bay Road was a step up from the small Asheville clapboard cottage where I was born and was certainly an improvement over the boarding and rooming houses, apartments, converted multifamily homes, hotel room or two and a few spare bedrooms in strangers homes. It was not that my residence really mattered because I never knew the difference. My first memory was of my mothers sister and my Uncle Barney leading me by the hand tearfully to meet my mother after living with them for my first three years. I had lived with them virtually from birth and had evidently served as a surrogate for the baby boy my aunt had lost in childbirth. The baby had been still born and is buried at the foot of my grandmothers grave. As best I can determine, North Bay Road was my tenth or eleventh “residence” by the age of three and a half years old. I had my own bedroom on the first floor where oftentimes Alice, the maid, would bunk with me to assuage my fear of the dark. I was afraid because I had served a little “time” in a closet for misbehavior in addition to there being an antique lamp that reflected a grotesque shadow on my bedroom wall when it was illuminated by a nearby street light.
North Bay Road in Miami Beach. The house where I came to live sat back off the street and had what I thought then was a long driveway where my mother and her new husband parked their identical Lincoln Continentals. It was a stucco Mediterranean with a terra cotta roof nestled on two lots a few blocks from what was referred to as the “Miracle Mile” and a short distance from Alton Road. It was only a street or two away and around the corner from a bridge leading to downtown Miami, across the street from the bay and just a short distance from the beach. My mother often played tennis and rode horses on the bridle trails at a nearby country club. It was about as far as she could get from the dirt farm she had grown up on in South Georgia. She left with three of her four sisters after “graduating” from the third grade. I have been told that they had planned to hitch hike their way to Jacksonville but found a roll of bills under a bench at the train station. That windfall funded their tickets and gave them enough extra to pay for a room they shared in Jacksonville for a few weeks. It is amazing how far a pretty girl with a nice figure can travel accompanied by a little luck and determination. I never really appreciated this quality in my mother until late in life. It is said that a woman can marry more money and celebrity on a Saturday’s morning than she can earn in a lifetime. Actually I’ve really never heard that said but in my mothers case it makes sense to me.
North Bay Road was one of the toniest, fashionable, high brow neighborhoods in all of South Florida at that time with the possible exception of the restricted and gated islands situated around the bay and off the causeway. I took up residence on North Bay Road on August 13th 1947 and can still visualize the monkey cage and swing set on the manicured extra lot beside the house where my fifth birthday was celebrated. There were servants quarters at the end of the drive access through a small screen porch and short pathway along the masonry fence. I remember most the dining room where my step father would hold court when he was home and summon Alice with a buzzer under his end of the table. Alice who happened to be “colored” served us from the left and instantly burst through the kitchen door when she was summoned morning and night. She lived behind the house next to the garage always, wore a crisp white uniform and tiny hat that resembled those worn by nurses in those days and cared for me with as much devotion as anyone before or since except perhaps my wife. Old “scar face” had been a neighbor before the Feds indicted him on a tax issue and put him in the big house. He and my stepfather were probably acquainted because my mother later told me that he, Cap, as he was referred to, was a professional gambler with no visible means of support. I remember little of him except he had thinning hair and smoked cigarettes in a long cigarette holder and wore multi colored shoes. I was not allowed in his bedroom at the back of the house upstairs because of the many guns he kept there. My mother had a separate bedroom across the hall. Once when my mother was entertaining her youngest sister and her new husband in the front room my uncle discovered a “tommy gun” in the umbrella stand by the door and managed to open fire not thinking it was real. I’m sure there is still evidence buried in the old plaster walls if they were examined. Cap had been a combat pilot in World War I, and some said became an ACE before the war ended. I have never been able to validate that claim but I have been able to confirm that he was once a fighter pilot. He also had a connection with the Miami Sea plane base according to his obituary and while I can not confirm it, flew the Burma hump. He owned a DC3 which I have been told was a duplicate of the one he flew in World War II. He kept it at the 20th street airport until it burned in a mysterious fire. The truth of the Burma hump story may be found in the two sacred monkeys of India living in a large cage on the lot next door. I have a searing memory of them because after being told repeatedly not to go near, I entered the cage one afternoon and still have a scar on my left forearm to prove their residence. They were not child friendly. Alice patched me up and had no choice but to inform my mother. I think I may have spent a little time in the closet over that trick.
The home across the street was larger than ours and although I do not remember being invited in, I do remember having lunch on a concrete table with a large umbrella in the yard adjacent to the tennis courts with my best and only friend, Benjj. He was about a year younger than I and our relationship finally ended one day when his mother ushered me home for throwing his toys in the bay. She wasn’t mad but just afraid I might throw Benji in. Although it was never my intent, that was my last day at Benji’s house. I told my mother he had asked me to do it so I was merely accommodating him. He is probably a lawyer today because he certainly convinced me. Actually, Benji was not my only friend. I came to know a sub teen girl who lived in the house behind us. I really liked her but unfortunately that relationship ended too when my mother discovered she and I behind the garage with my shorts at my knees and her examining my hither parts. Sex education started early for me and I came to miss her.
One sunny afternoon the doorbell rang and my mother was greeted by a stranger with a sopping wet five year old in hand. He explained he had been walking by the vacant lot next door to Benji’s house and caught me doing a pirouette and falling head first into the bay. The water wasn’t deep but the sea wall was too high for me to climb out.
Cap didn’t get upset when I put a For Sale sign I found in the garage one Sunday morning in the front yard and a nice couple knocked on the door wanting to tour the house.
Once when I found a handful of milk bottle caps that solicited for the March of Dimes I offered them to the neighbors and received a pocket full of money. When my mother asked me how I came upon the money I told her that “the people just gave it to me” and then pulled a few bottle caps out of my pocket and said further “after giving them this.” My mother merely took me to the charity headquarters where I offered a donation. My mother may not have always been as attentive as she should have been but her defense years later was that she had created “one really independent guy”.
Cap never involved himself in my discipline, except once, even after the afternoon my mother was entertaining several ladies from “the club” in our living room. While Alice was serving, I slipped out for a stroll. Cap had brought home a beautiful Terrier puppy as a gift for me and I had decided to have him or her join me on a tour of its new neighborhood. We managed to get a block or so away when a large sedan careened around the corner and killed the puppy instantly. I had not thought to put him or her on a leash. I ran home crying, interrupted the party and my mother left her guests to retrieve the corpse. The last time I saw my new friend was the following morning in the trash can by the street. Cap had been repairing a gate in the back yard to help restrain the new family member when the death occurred. Perhaps I now know why I have such a love of Terriers.
I believe Cap greatly cared for me. He had repeatedly begged my mother to allow him to adopt me. He spent time with me when he could and loved to take me to the airport to climb aboard his DC3 where I would pretend to be flying. I have accumulated three thousand flying hours and know exactly how aviation got into my blood.
He only disciplined me once and this incident deserved it. He had purchased a new bedroom set for my room. It was solid wood and the dresser and the head board were hand carved. If I were to guess it was expensive. He was however, clearly unhappy when he discovered that I found a hatchet in the garage and had chopped up the dresser. He didn’t paddle me and I don’t remember him raising his voice. He knew I would soon forget a paddling. He asked me which of my possessions was my very favorite. He asked in such an unincriminating way that I joyfully told him I liked the clip on tie with rhinestones I had gotten for my birthday. He asked me to retrieve it and when I did he handed me the hatchet and a small piece of lumber and instructed me to chop it up. I have never forgotten that experience and can still remember the sparkle in the grass from the three blue rhinestones. I have never destroyed someone else’s property since.
I think Cap was a good guy. My mother and he were mismatched. He was older and probably a little wiser. They both drank too much and may have lost sight of what is important in a marriage or neither really ever knew it. I believe he loved my mother but I will never know. When they married it was a May, September arrangement. He had a grown family somewhere in Ohio. I never learned what had happened with his first wife. My mother told me she had never met his family. Cap was always somewhat of a mystery man.
One day years later after the marriage had ended and he died, I happened to be driving down Beach Boulevard and saw a shiny new XKE convertible with a young man behind the wheel, possibly Benji, and wondered out loud….perhaps that could have been me.
After two short years my mother and I were on a train heading for New York City where we would take up residence in the Martinique Hotel somewhere in Manhattan near the Empire State Building where she would work for the next year in the barber shop located in the basement and I would be enrolled in a boarding school–my next STOP OVER.