Prairie Memories by Gary Heintz: Florida Memories
Dad met Mom when he was taking naval flight training in Florida. He had been aboard the USS Helena, a light cruiser for several years and was stationed in Pearl Harbor in the fall of 1941. His application to flight school was approved and he transferred to a ship that was heading back to the States. A week later, the Japanese bombed Pearl, and the Helena was struck by a torpedo that passed under an empty mutions barge tied alongside. The barge, being empty, rode high in the water, allowing the torpedo to pass underneath and strike the cruiser. Although undamaged, the barge sank. Sailors said it died from fright. The Helena returned to New York for repairs, while Dad started flight training. He met Mom in Jacksonville where she and her sister were working in a glove factory. They were daughters of a Southern Baptist preacher, and were experiencing their first taste of independence. Mom and Dad fell in love, got married, and planned on making their home in Florida. After the war, Dad missed South Dakota and his friends, so they moved to the flat, treeless, windswept prairie that surrounded the little town of Harrold.
Mom and I went by train to Florida when I was four years old. It was a big adventure for a four year old, and I remember the sound of the train clicking down the tracks, the dining car, the changing of trains, all the activity that was so commonplace for travelers back when trains were one of the main sources of travel. Getting off the train and meeting my grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles was overshadowed by the strong, sweet smell of Georgia pine. It was everywhere. We arrived at night, so my first look at Florida was the next morning when the birds started singing. My Uncle Chuck’s birds were of real interest to me. He raised chickens, and I rode along with him in his Jeep as he fed and watered the birds in the large fenced-in yard behind his house. Grandma Bohannon was a tiny lady, with hair she kept in a bun. When she undid the bun at night, her hair would fall past her waist. Grandpa Bohannon was almost completely blind and spent much of his time in bed. I remember there were walking canes hanging on many of the doors in the house so he could find them if needed. One sunny day he sat at the kitchen table and saw my shadow as I passed between him and the kitchen window. He was delighted and we made a game out of me trying to sneak in front of him without him seeing my shadow. That is the only real memory I have of my grandpa.
Christmas time in Florida was different from the one I had experienced in Colorado. Ernest and Jerry, my older cousins, took me with them out into the woods behind their home as they looked for a Christmas tree. The weather was hot and the sand was dry and deep. By the time we found a tree that satisfied them and cut it down, I was more than ready to go home. The older boys drug the tree home while I drug the axe. I was homesick for Dad, and although he was driving to Florida, he wasn’t going to be here for either Christmas or my birthday on the 27th. Mom did her best to help me enjoy the time by giving me my gift from Santa, a small windup guitar that played “Red River Valley”, and a few days later my birthday present, a Roy Rogers wristwatch with a picture of Roy riding Trigger. I kept both of these presents for a long time, the guitar ending up in my kid’s toy box, and the watch is still in a box with other childhood memories.
I made several other trips to Florida with Mom, all by train, and grew up identifying with the South. I am proud of that heritage and have many precious memories of family and Florida. As happens with all of us, I wish I had more of those memories. One that will never fade is the smell of that Georgia pine.
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