Whenever I write I have an audience in mind: a professor, a friend, an unknown sixth grader, an unknown mystery reader—someone I have to—well, not impress maybe, but I have to make her want to read more. I write these exercises for Robin. I want my writing to be good. I have no illusions that these exercises reach that pinnacle. They’re not even first drafts, but little more than free-writes with no revisions or edits, though I do try to check them for spelling errors if I have time.
I’m conceited enough to think that my “real” writing, the stuff that does get revised and edited, and revised some more, qualifies as good. I’m realistic enough to know it will never be great. I know I’m not a great writer because no matter how hard I try, I can never make people understand the significance of the trees.
I was born in Winston-Salem, NC. We left North Carolina when I was three years old. Even so, I still have distinct memories of being there. I remember in first grade, when Mrs. Woolfinger asked us where we were from, feeling special. I was the only person who was from a city that had two names. My dad smoked Winston cigarettes and Mrs. Woolfinger smoked Salems, which made me feel, at six years old, not just special, but famous.
I’ve always believed we moved from Winston-Salem to Washington, D.C. but I think the truth is we lived in a suburb of Maryland. When asked, though, I still say we lived in D.C. I don’t know where Dad was working in NC, but the family was struggling. He found a much better job at AT&T, but it meant working in D.C. Mom was pregnant with my little brother Joe. With another child to support, whatever job he had in NC was no longer sufficient so we up and moved. I remember the apartment we lived in. When it snowed, we had only one day to play in it. By the next day it had turned black, a layer of soot having settled on it. We soldiered on, playing in it, anyway, causing the soot to mix with the snow. On day three the snow, mushy now, was gray. I remember the Super at our apartment was a tall, rail thin black man named Mr. Washington. I thought the city was named after him. He ran the building and cities were named after him. I was in awe of such an important man. I remember seeing the Capitol building and the Washington Monument (more proof of Mr. Washington’s importance). I remember hiding behind the overturned sofa when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. We huddled there, Mom, my sister and the baby, and our neighbor Mrs. Delotta, a black lady, and her two children. Mrs. Delotta aimed a shotgun at the front door, while we listened to the rioting and looting taking place outside the window of our second-floor apartment.
South Florida was experiencing huge growth. AT&T wanted to transfer my father to Fort Lauderdale. My mother, sister, brother and I went back to North Carolina to stay with my grandparents while Dad went to Fort Lauderdale to work and save money and find us a place to live.
Nearly every day I ran off into the woods behind my grandparent’s house with Memaw’s poodle, Coquette. We stayed gone for hours and both of us got spankings when we finally came home, covered in dirt and brambles. My face was stained with the wild blackberries I ate. My sister told me they were poisoned by the farmer who planted them, and I would die If I ate them again. I cried myself to sleep, sure that I wouldn’t wake up. The spankings were never enough to deter us from doing it again the next day, and despite my sister’s warnings, I continued to eat the wild blackberries.
I was five when we moved to Fort Lauderdale. The first house we lived in belonged to my Uncle Bobby and Aunt Butch (her real name was Eunice, but no one called her that). We rented it from them. It had a palm tree in the front yard. A palm tree! I’d never seen anything so exotic, except on television. They had palm trees in Hawaii and California! I looked up and down the street for Polynesian women wearing grass skirts. I used to climb trees when Coquette and I ran off into the woods. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t climb the palm tree. There were no “arm branches” jutting out of the trunk for me to grab hold of. If you can’t climb the tree, how are you supposed to pick coconuts?
In our case, we didn’t pick them from the tree, we picked them up from the ground when they fell out of the tree. There were already four or five of them in the grass when we moved into the house. Mom brought one of them into the house. We couldn’t figure out how to peel it. After several hours and many false starts Dad took a hatchet to it.
We couldn’t wait to try the coconut milk.
Yuck. It tasted nothing like milk.
I’d had coconut before, in pie, and on cakes. It comes in little plastic bags from the store and looks like shredded confetti. When Mom cut a chunk of white plastic out of the husk Dad had whacked open I said, “Where’s the coconut?” she said, “this is it. Try it.” I did. It wasn’t bad, but it didn’t taste anything like what I’d had in pies or on top of cakes. In time I learned to like it, but I never did develop a taste for the watery stuff she always called coconut milk.
Every house we lived in either had a palm tree in the yard or was within spitting distance of one. Every major thoroughfare was lined with them. And of course, they were all over the beaches.
When we first moved to Fort Lauderdale they seemed so foreign and exotic. Within a year, they were just part of the background. By the time I started elementary school I stopped seeing them at all, like a new scar that you obsess over for a few months until you forget it’s there unless someone asks you about it.
You don’t miss something that’s not there. Because I’d stopped seeing the palm trees long ago, when I left Florida for Great Lakes, IL in 1992 for Corps School following Navy Basic Training, I never missed them. To be sure, I was kept too busy to miss much of anything during that time.
When I graduated Corps School I was sent to my first duty station at Camp Lejeune, NC. This was the first time I’d been back to North Carolina since we’d joined my dad after staying with my grandparents after living in D.C. (they’d moved to Fort Myers, FL soon after we’d moved to Fort Lauderdale). Camp Lejuene is on the coast and Winston-Salem is closer to the center of the state, so it’s not like I was back home again. Still, hearing the accents of the locals felt strangely familiar. I saw a bumper sticker that said, “If God is not a Tarheel, why is the sky Carolina Blue?” I looked up. The sky was a remarkable blue that day, but to my mind, no bluer than a Florida sky. I’ll take a Florida beach over a NC beach any day, but that was pride speaking. Shown a photo of both beaches, without any telltale landmarks, I’d have trouble telling one from the other.
I’m out of the Navy now but keep up with friends I’ve made during my time in service. We’re scattered all over the place. Three of us wanted to get together a few years ago. Rather than meet up at my city, or Mike’s city or Kim’s city, we decided to pick a place none of us lived. We could combine a reunion with sightseeing in a new place. The Holocaust Museum had just opened in Washington, D.C. All of us wanted to see it. We picked a weekend in April that worked with all of our schedules.
Much in Washington was new to me then; not just the Holocaust Museum, but the Vietnam Memorial. But much more was familiar. The Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument brought back memories from my childhood, as did seeing the cherry blossoms. It was a pleasant trip down memory lane, but nothing more.
In 2001 I received an invitation to attend my 30th High School Reunion. I tossed it in the trash. Those were not especially happy years. I didn’t fit in at my school. I went to school out of district. The school I was supposed to go to wasn’t rated very highly and my parents pulled some strings (and bent some laws) to get me into the school where the more affluent kids went. By “more affluent” I mean “rich, but not connected enough or rich enough to get into the snooty private schools”. We weren’t poor, but compared to my classmates, I was a pauper. I was the only person in my class who didn’t get a car for his 16th birthday. The only one whose college wasn’t paid for—you get the idea. I didn’t hang out with those people when I was a teenager, why would want I want to hang out with them now?
But I wasn’t a complete hermit back then. My best friend still lived in South Florida. There were a couple of other people I’d been good friends with. If Geoff, Mary and Jackie were going to be at the reunion, I’d go. I checked with them, and all three were going. I sent in my money, booked my hotel, and bought the plane ticket that would take me from Birmingham, where I’d now been living almost longer than I’d lived in Florida, to Fort Lauderdale.
Three months later when I picked up my luggage at the carousel at the Fort Lauderdale airport , I wondered if I’d made a mistake. Yes, it would be nice seeing Geoff, Mary and Jackie, but I’d also have to hear about all the people who were so much more successful than I was, and how their lives were so much better than mine. I went outside and let a cab driver put my bags in his trunk. I got in the back seat and told him which hotel I was at.
We left the airport and pulled onto the interstate. I was pleased that after being gone so many years it still looked familiar. I looked out the window, wondering how much the city had changed since I’d left.
When I’d returned to the state of my birth I felt nothing but a sense of familiarity at hearing a southern accent.
When I returned to Washington, D.C. I felt nothing but a sense of nostalgia when seeing national landmarks.
The taxi pulled off Interstate 95 and I saw the median of the street lined with palm trees. My heart caught in my throat.