A Conversation With Carlton

by Rick Beck

Part 8

By the time I got home, I'd lost the excitement I left the school hanging onto. I put the box in the middle of the dining room table. I'd tell my parents how I kept sinking holes in one, one after another, until I won all the prizes on the table, behind the golf hole.

He probably had a trunk full of prizes. As soon as I was out of site, he went out and brought in more prizes for the table.

What was the big deal? I sank a golf ball the way he showed me how to do it. Big whoops. I moved the box off the table. My father would simply yell, 'What's that junk doing on the table. It's dinner time. Put it somewhere else.'

Later that day, I moved the box upstairs and put it under my bed. No one cared what I did. It was a one time deal, and it was over. I wouldn't bother to mention it to anyone. I'd never see the man again, and he'd never see me.

The memory of the day I couldn't miss, faded away by the following week. The only time I remembered what happened, was when I caught site of the box under my bed.

On a Thursday evening, after a day of roaming the endless job sites, I'd come in after five and before six. A few minutes after I got home, my brother came in. He always timed it so he had to spend as little time in the house as possible. He'd come in just before six, and he'd be gone by six thirty. We sat in front of the television, until my mother came home, and then we'd eat, but there would be a change on this Thursday.

My father came into the living room. He turned off the television. He was going to speak. This couldn't be good.

"Tomorrow, I want you both here at three o'clock. Granny and Pop have retired to Florida. They want you to spend the summer with them. Your Uncle Joe and I will drive you there. We'll be leaving at three o'clock, so both of you be here, and be ready to go."

It's the way things were done at my house. Oh, by the way, the summer you'd planned, forget it. You're going to Florida, and we did.

I didn't understand the significance. It was something else I was told to do. I was told when to do everything, but going to Florida would mean, getting away from my parents for the entire summer.

No yelling, no beatings, no constant anger with everything I did. Two months of incredible bliss were on the horizon.

The last time I remembered taking a trip was when I was five, and my great grandmother died in Chicago. We'd gone there for the funeral. I loved being in the car. I loved being on the move. I loved being out of the house.

Leaving Friday afternoon, by noon on Saturday, we were in Florida. It was a different world. We drove down a long narrow road, with towering trees on both side, speeding toward Fort Walton Beach. After twenty-four hours in the car, we pulled up in front of the house on Kepner Drive. Granny and Pop came charging out of the house. There were hugs, kisses, handshakes for everyone. The air was fresh, the day was warm, and big fluffy clouds lazily moved across the Florida sky.

My father and Uncle Joe ate lunch, and then they went to bed. They would get up late tonight, and make the drive back. As they slept, my grandfather came and got me. My brother split for parts unknown. I followed Pop into the backyard. There was an incredible garden beside a patio he built for cooking out.

"We'll pick vegetables for tonight's dinner," he told me.

There were tomatoes, radishes, carrots, onions, celery, lettuce, and a dozen different things for a salad or a meal. He handed me squash, two huge tomatoes, carrots, and a host of spring onions. With our arms loaded, we took the food into the kitchen.

I'd never been so involved in what we would have for dinner. I had been eating food all my life, but I'd never picked what I was going to eat out of our garden before. Florida was definitely a new world, and I was no longer unseen and unheard. My grandparents treated me like they liked me being there. How cool was that.

I never wanted to go home, but I'd only been there a few hours.

My brother had a summertime friend picked out for him. John was a Florida boy through and through. He and my brother were constant companions from the first hour we arrived in Florida.

John's brother, Avery, was my summertime friend, but as luck would have it, he was at boy scout camp, and wouldn't be back for a week. I'd be on my own until then, and that suited me just fine. I liked being alone, thank you very much.

My brother was Granny's favorite. I'd known this since we were little kids. More than once I'd seen Granny slipping my brother money, or giving him something while she thought they were alone. It didn't bother me. I didn't want anything. I didn't expect anything.

After we ate a wonderful meal, with a fresh salad, and garden fresh veggies, to go with Granny's meat pie, Pop told me to wait for him near the truck. Pop knew the score, and he didn't like playing favorites, but he wanted me to know I was OK with him.

Once things settled down, Pop told me, "Go get in the truck. I'll take you to the Gulf of Mexico. We'll watch the sunset."


Beside my grandfather, we drove out of our neighborhood, passing Choctawhatchee Bay, at the end of the next block. We drove around the bay to the right, until we reached Route 98, where we turned left, driving over a bridge that took us toward the Gulf of Mexico.

My grandfather parked facing the Gulf of Mexico, only a few dozen yards away. It was like totally green. It was beautiful, and you could see forever, and the sand was white as snow.

"You like pumpkin seeds?" he asked.

"I don't know," I said. "What are they?"

Pop took a tin out from under the seat and we ate pumpkin seeds and we watched as the sun was setting in the western sky. Believe me when I say, this was nothing like Hillcrest Heights, Maryland.

Until Avery returned from Boy Scout camp, Pop kept me with him. If he left the house, I was with him, and I'd never had an adult want to spend any time with me before. I liked Pop, and he seemed to like me just fine.

One morning, Pop came into my room and to wake me up.

"Come on. We're going out."

We drove down to Chactawhatchee Bay, made the right turn to go toward Route 98, and instead of turning left to go over the bridge, we turned right. We drove up two blocks, and he turned right and parked the truck on a side street.

I followed my grandfather to a restaurant. We stepped inside, and my grandfather spoke.

"Everyone, this is my grandson, Dick. He's staying with me this summer," Pop said.

"Hello, Dick," a chorus came from a dozen or so people seated around.

We moved to a both halfway back on the left side, and we sat down.

"What do you have?" A woman with a pad said, as she cracked her gum, chewing vigorously.

"I always get pancakes, Dick. They stick to your ribs," he said.

"I like pancakes," I said.

"Two short stacks, Mabel. You want coffee, Dick," Pop asked.

"Coffee?" I asked. "Sure."

I wasn't allowed to drink coffee, but if my grandfather wanted to order me coffee, I'd drink it. It took three or four teaspoons of sugar and a good amount of cream from the container, but once I got it right, it was the perfect beverage to have with pancakes. I loved it.

Florida was another world. For the first time in my life, I wasn't afraid all the time. I think I felt good, but what was good? The people around me, except for my brother, and he was hardly ever around, treated me nicely. Like they didn't mind me being there.

Avery was nothing like John. John was happy-go-lucky. He always smiled. Avery was somewhat more serious. He was smart, handsome, and he knew everything there was to know about Florida. We weren't inseparable, like my brother and John were. We were together a couple of times each week, and Avery knew stuff. I began to think of him as the doorway to adventure. Every time we did something, it was totally new for me. Avery took everything in stride.

I was accustomed to being alone. At the foot of Hollywood Blvd., one block over from Kepner, and two blocks down, there were some bushes and underbrush. My grandfather showed me a path that went through the undergrowth.

"Just through there, maybe teen feet away, is a beach, and the bay. You can swim there, when we can't take you to the Gulf. It's like a private beach, you'll mostly have to yourself," he told me.

And it was. It was my private beach. For the first week I was there, I'd do my chores, as assigned by Granny. Take out the trash, do the breakfast dishes, or vacuum, and then I was free to go off on my own, and when I went off on my own, I was on my private beach.

It was maybe fifty feet wide and ten feet of sand. I'd come through the brush and toss my towel on the sand. I'd sometimes go swimming right away, depending on how hot it was, and then I'd lay out on my towel, listening to the bay waters lapping at the sand.

Granny knew where to find me if she wanted me. She'd drive to the end of Hollywood, toot the horn, and I knew to run for the car. If she was going shopping, or somewhere cool, she'd take me with her. I didn't mind, because no one seemed to mind me being around. It was a change from what I'd been used to, and I knew I could get to like it.

In the back of my mind, though, I knew at the end of the summer, I'd return home and to the insanity, where I lived. I tried not to think about it, while I was having such a good time. I never thought peace and quiet could be such a nice relief.

I didn't know there was anything but the craziness at my house, until my grandparents retired in Florida.

"You were like a butterfly, emerging from a cocoon," Carlton said. "You got your first breaths of fresh air in that small Florida town."

"Yes, I suppose I did. I'd been imprisoned within myself. I'd known fear and trepidation, and little else."

"I didn't mean to interrupt you. It's just that I could see this beautiful butterfly, making his way clear of the cocoon. Go on."

"Being in Florida for the summer, with my own assigned special friend, who was supposed to entertain me, I suppose, filled my days with adventure. I never knew what Avery would have us doing the next day, and we weren't together every day, but several days a week, he'd be at Granny's and Pop's first thing."

As I spoke, Carlton leaned forward in his chair, as if he didn't want to miss a word. I hardly knew what to tell him, and what to leave out. It was as clear to me as if it happened the day before. It had been a little over ten years, since that first trip to Florida.

Avery never told me, what we might do next. We were usually busy, having so much fun, I never thought to ask about what came next, but in a day or two, after the last time we parted company, Avery would come charging in through the front door, the screen door banging behind him.

One morning, Avery had been in an obvious rush.

"Come on, Dick. Joe's waiting for us at the end of Hollywood. We'll be back later, Granny. Joe's waiting for us," Avery told Granny.

"You going in his boat," Granny asked, knowing more than I did.

"Yes, we're going water skiing. Probably be back by two or three," Avery explained, as the screen door banged behind us.

Joe was the local doctor's son. He had a sixteen foot Lonestar speedboat, baby blue and white. I remembered, as Joe grew up, one summer he'd come tooling up to Granny's in a baby blue and white 1955 T-Bird. It was a classic.

That morning I saw the Lonestar for the first time. A kid, not much older than me, had his own speedboat.

We boated from one side of Choctawhatchee Bay to the other. As we returned to our side of the bay, Joe pointed the boat toward the Destin Bridge, and the Destin Pass, that emptied into the Gulf of Mexico.

If you stand on the Destin Bridge, which loomed on the skyline, directly across from my beach, you could see the different colors where the bay met the passage way to the Gulf, and the water in the pass was turquoise and green. The Gulf was a lighter green, and it was a rainbow of colors in that short distance. It was beautiful.

We didn't go all the way to the Gulf. We turned around, while still in the passage, and rocketed back into the bay. The wind in my hair felt good. Avery sat beside Joe in the front. I sat in the back. When they talked, they had to yell, and even then, I couldn't hear them.

Joe drove the boat directly toward my beach. I wondered if the day was over, but about half way there, maybe five or six miles away from the bridge, Joe cut the boats engine down to an idle.

"It's time for water skiing. Can you water ski, Dick?" Joe asked.

"Hardly," I said. "Not much water, where I'm from."

"We'll teach you, if you want to learn," Joe said. "Can you swim?"

"Not much water where I'm from," I repeated. "I'm not afraid of the water, and I'd love to learn to water ski."

Joe and Avery laughed.

"It's a start," Joe said. "We'll have you up on skis by day's end."

He was a lot more confident than I was.

After the boat was still in the water, Joe came back to where I was sitting, putting two water skis up on the side of the boat.

"Here's the plan, once I'm ready, I'll reach up, and you'll hand me the rope."

Joe handed me the plastic handle of the ski rope. After putting the skis in the water, Joe went in after them. A minute later, with the skis now on his feet, he reached up for the rope, and I handed it over.

"OK, Avery. Take the slack out of the line," Joe said loudly.

Avery waved me up in the front seat. He eased the boat into gear, and gave it a tiny bit of throttle. The boat eased away from Joe.

Joe yelled, "OK."

Avery moved the throttle firmly forward. The nose of the boat came up, and I couldn't see anything in front of us. So, I looked back to see Joe coming out of the water, riding over top of the smooth surface. He made it look easy, as he zigzagged, from one side of the wake to the other. Each time he passed over the boat's wake, he went several feet into the air, landing with a splat I could hear over the engine noise.

Avery cut the speed back a little, and we did a wide arc out into the bay. I couldn't imagine being where I was, doing what I was doing. This was a different world. Everyone was friendly, and both Avery and Joe could do a lot of good stuff. I couldn't do anything.

For quite a while, Avery drove the boat, and Joe followed behind, making the most of his water skis. After two big arcs around Choctawhatchee Bay, Joe waved, and Avery waved back. Joe let go of the rope, and he sank in the water. Avery brought the boat around, until we were idling right beside Joe.

It was time for Avery to ski. Once Joe was in the boat, and behind the wheel, Avery got into the water, putting on the skis. I handed him the rope, and went back up to sit beside Joe.

We took another tour of the bay. Joe steered the boat in a different direction than Avery took, and while the scenery on land changed, I was mainly interested in what Avery was doing. He was more athletic than Joe, and quite capable on the skis. He loved to race out to where he was almost up beside the boat, and then he ran across the wake, until he was skiing on the other side of the boat.

He put on a good show. The sun was high in the sky by then, and it was a warm, perfect day.

Avery finally waved, and Joe cut back the speed, and the boat idled, as we drifted up beside Avery. He handed me the skis.

As we sat together in a tight circle, eating sandwiches Joe's family's maid prepared for us, we talked about the beautiful day, the perfect temperature for both the water and the air, and how much fun it was being 12 and free as birds.

Avery was cool. I'd never met anyone as alive as he was. Joe was cut from the same cloth. It was about having fun, and not an unkind word was uttered. I knew this was temporary relief from my life back in Maryland, but I intended to make the most of it.

"Want to give it a try, Dick," Avery asked.

"Sure," was the proper answer.

It's what two Florida boys expected another boy to say, and as unsure as I was about what to do, I'd seen both of them do it. They made it look easy. I wasn't going to make it into something hard, I was in Florida. I was determined to do what Florida boys did.

We drove the boat close to an island a couple of miles from my private beach. I could see it from where the boat stopped.

The boat idled. I jumped in. I could feel the bottom. The water was maybe three or four feet deep. Then, Avery jumped in beside me, standing up, he took one ski and than the other ski from Joe. He let them float beside us, as he turned his attention to me.

"We came into the shallows, because this is your first time water skiing. You'll be able to feel the bottom, as Joe takes the boat out to get the slack out of the ski rope. It'll be easier for you to feel what you are doing that way. I'll show you what to do," Avery explained. "Can you put these on?"

He indicated the skis, and he held one as he floated one over to me. It was awkward at first, but by bending my knees, I got the first ski on. He let me have the other ski, and I was able to balance myself on the bottom, while I put the second ski on.

"Now, drop your butt between the skis, until it touches the sand.

All you need to do is keep the ski tips up, Dick. Keep the rope between the skis. That keeps you balanced. If you let one of them dip under the surface of the water, when Joe hits the throttle, you'll plow the water and end up with a face full of the bay. By keeping the ski tips up, they will be at the proper angle for them to pull you out of the water. You don't need to do a thing, except keep the tips up. Keep your arms straight and firm, not rigid. You need to be relaxed. The power of the boat will pull you right up on the skis. Two seconds after Joe hits the throttle, you'll be riding on top of the water."

Avery turned and took the rope from Joe.

"Remember, hold your arms straight out. Allow the power of the boat to pull you up. As you feel the boat pulling you, don't bend your arms. You'll immediately come out of the water. Keep the rope between the skis. Got it?"

"I got it," I said.

Avery signaled Joe to begin taking the slack out of the rope.

I'll wait here, and Joe will bring you back to this spot, once you've had enough, and he'll steer the boat close enough for you to let go of the rope, and ride the skis to me. Once you let go of the rope, the skis and your momentum will keep you on top of the water long enough to be sure you're in the shallows. and I'll be waiting for you. Got it?"

"Got it," I said, ready to get the show on the road.

Avery raised his arm and dropped it quickly. Joe hit the throttle. The engine roared in my ear.

I was as ready as I was going to get. Hold my arms straight out. Keep them relaxed. Keep my tips out of the water a few inches, and in two seconds, I was gliding across the surface of the bay. If there was wind sitting in the back of the boat, being out in the middle of the bay, fifty feet behind the boat, the force of the wind was blow-drying me in no time.

I stayed directly in the middle of the wake, and was a little afraid to venture out over the foot to eighteen inch high wake on either side. As we began to arc around the first time, not getting too far from the islands, where I'd started, I did what I'd seen Avery do, pulling some rope toward me, grabbing it firmly, I used the leverage to propel myself out over the wake, getting airborne, and the skis slapped against the considerably smoother water, outside the wake, beside the boat.

After maybe 15 minutes, Joe waved. I waved back. He pointed toward the islands. I waved again. As he went in closer to the first island, I swung out over the wake, let go of the rope, sailed up to within ten feet of Avery, and I sank into the water, touching bottom.

I felt absolutely fantastic. I could water ski. While doing it, I got the kind of sensation of speed, I'd never experienced before.

Avery was immediately collecting the skis.

"How'd you like it?" He asked.

"I loved it," I said. "It was great."

"You did a lot better than most guys do the first time out. You didn't fall. You came right out of the water. I'm proud of you."

"Thanks," I said. "I'm kind of proud of myself.

I thought to myself, now there are two things I know how to do, putt a golf ball, and water ski. Was there no end to my talent?

I'm sure my smile was as big as all outdoors.

We handed Joe the rope and the skis, and we got back into the boat. I was still beaming from my adventure, but Joe had more for me to do.

"Want to drive the boat?" He asked.

"I wouldn't know how," I said.

"You know how hard it was to water ski?" Joe asked.

"It was a piece of cake. I did what Avery told me to do," I said.

"Driving the boat is even easier than that," Joe said.

With a little bit of instruction, I sat behind the wheel, thinking of how many ways I could screw this up, but Joe told me what to do, and he was right. There was nothing to it. The breaking system left a little bit to be desired, but we had the entire bay to stop in, so it wasn't a factor.

Just the same, I was happy to turn the driving over to Joe, after I took the boat on a tour of Choctawhatchee Bay.

I'd driven a boat for fifteen minutes and I didn't run over a thing.

Joe took us to the Cinko Bayou channel. It emptied into the bay, and it was only a few minutes from the islands. Moving at a slower speed, in about ten or fifteen minutes, Joe pointed at a big old house that was surrounded by a dozen blooming magnolia trees.

"That's my house," Joe said. "I park the boat at the pier."

The pier was maybe twenty feet long and there were places to tie up several boats. What a great place to live. It was a big house.

After we tooled around a little more, Joe dropped Avery and me at the bottom of Hollywood Blvd. on my beach. I was tired and hungry, but I could water ski, and that made me feel good.

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