Chapter One, How I Got That Way, Part 8

Trapped in the Piney Woods

Groveland is located about six miles from the famous Citrus Tower in Clermont, about 30 miles west of Orlando and 40 miles from Lakeland. At the time I lived near there, it consisted of Piercefield’s gas station, Edge’s dry goods store, a bank, a drugstore complete with soda fountain, no red light and not much else on two sides of a two-lane highway. The high school was two blocks away from downtown. Around it and behind it were residential streets lined, in stereotypical southern fashion, with giant, arching, live oak trees.

Across the street from the high school was the First Baptist Church, which my mother, my sister and I attended on Sunday morning without fail, on Sunday evening probably and, my sister and I, for choir practice on Wednesday night. We did not attend the Elm Street Baptist Church, even though we were closer to its congregation financially, because it was too close to being “hardshell.” We were much too upwardly mobile for preachers preaching energetically and rhythmically and repetitively or for too many “amens” coming from the congregation during the sermon. The street the high school was on terminated about three blocks from the high school in a lake with a dock and a public area with a small wooden building that served, for a brief time during my senior year, as a community center. There were houses around the lake on one side. The other side was a swamp.

The First Baptist Church of Groveland, Florida, where I spent and enormous amount of time during my high school years.

The First Baptist Church of Groveland, Florida, where I spent and enormous amount of time during my high school years.

Not far from the intersection of two highways at one end of town was the B & W canning plant, the major employer in the area. Among the first impressions one might receive upon arrival in Groveland was a smell like orange candy, a byproduct of the plant, I assume because the orange peels were burned after removal from the oranges to be canned. The smell was at first pleasant, but rapidly became cloying and all of my memories of Groveland, good and bad, are tinged with the smell of burning orange peel.

Next door to the high school on the other side, the land sloped off into a swampy area that was never mentioned or talked about, Stucky Still, the colored section of town, about which much more will be said in the chapter on race relations. Beyond the canning plant, the highway led to another small town called Mascotte, in which lived, basically, the poor white trash. Along this highway were spread out assorted small businesses, including two restaurants where I worked at different times, at least one gas station and, later on, a large, brightly-lit truck stop. The residences located on side roads off this highway were the houses of poor people and became progressively shabbier as one approached Mascotte.

If you continued in this direction past Mascotte, you would presently arrive in Sumter County, where the nearest drive-in movie, or movie of any kind, was located, except for a very short time during my senior year when an attempt was made to establish a real movie theater in what I believe might have been the old city hall. The attempt failed rapidly. When the movie “The Last Picture Show” came out, it was, to me, a very unwelcome reminder of the movie situation in Groveland. A date to go to the drive-in movie was within the bounds of respectability, but if you went with a carload of girls and sneaked next door to the Veterans Hall where a rockabilly band would be playing and there was booze, you were risking your reputation and who knows what else. Nevertheless, I did it several times.

Our house was five miles out of town on the highway that led to Tavares and to the major highway to Leesburg, 17 miles from Groveland and the only town of any size closer than Orlando. We lived in a renovated chicken barn, a hideously ugly, featureless, long “CBS” (cement-block-stucco) rectangle. Though ugly and low status, it did have the virtues of being roomy and located on a lake, a smaller one, called Indian House Lake. Although one end of the lake, like most central Florida lakes, merged with the swamp between it and the next lake down the road, it was spring fed so that it was cool and deep in the middle, over the spring.

The view from the Citrus Tower in Clermont, illustrating the general landscape around Groveland.

The view from the Citrus Tower in Clermont, illustrating the general landscape around Groveland.

There was a nice house next door to us on the lake, with a well-kept lawn sloping down to a dock with a rowboat tied to it. It was occupied during part of the year by an old couple who lived the rest of the time in the north somewhere. You could imagine that, originally, the house and the chicken barn were all part of one property, before the chicken barn was turned into a residence. This old couple had given us carte blanche to use the dock and the rowboat or sit in their yard when they were not there, probably, I imagine, in exchange for our keeping an eye on their house when they were gone. Our outboard motorboat, big enough that we used to fish on Biscayne Bay in it, lived on a trailer and was launched from our yard for occasional water skiing or into one of the much larger lakes in the area for water skiing and other kinds of outings on Sunday afternoon.

My Dad in our boat on our lake, about to take me for a water ski spin on a Sunday afternoon.

My Dad in our boat on our lake, about to take me for a water ski spin on a Sunday afternoon.

My father scouted the swamp when we first arrived and killed the only alligator he found, long before they were protected, instructing us to always stay near the spring if we were in the lake because if the alligators returned, they would not come near the cool water, nor would any snakes. I never saw either snakes or alligators in the lake, but I was afraid enough of the swamp end that once, when I got blown there in the rowboat by the winds of an oncoming storm, my sister—a much more courageous person than I was at that point—had to wade out to the edge of the swamp to rescue me because I was afraid to get out of the boat and pull it out of the mud in which it was stuck.

The lake was great for swimming, although there was a better one for swimming down the highway a short walk, which had a sandy, rather than a muddy, bottom. Although ours was a smaller lake, as central Florida lakes go, it was big enough for me to row out to the middle of it from the dock, with a book and an apple, and stay there until the mosquitoes drove me back inside or my mother began honking the car horn insistently. And, it was once the scene of three teenage girls on the side of the boat away from the house and toward the uninhabited side of the lake, daring each other into skinny-dipping at my 15th birthday party.

The dock at the house next door, from which could be launched a rowboat. The dog and I spent a lot of time in the rowboat.

The dock at the house next door, from which could be launched a rowboat. The dog and I spent a lot of time in the rowboat.

The house was long enough that only one half of it had been finished into a two-bedroom residence. Part of the other half was a utility area, part of it had been made into a studio apartment and a large part had been left unfinished, other than to plug up the drain holes remaining from when the building had been a chicken barn. When my brother-in-law, a career Marine officer, was sent, ostensibly to Japan, (but really Vietnam) soon after we moved from Miami, my sister and her newborn baby came to live in the studio apartment. In contrast to our lifetime of conflict, during the two-year period we lived together in Groveland, we became allies of sorts. If my mother could be persuaded to babysit, my sister and I could go out, at least to church or Leesburg, on our own. It was my only break from generalized boredom until I later moved into town.

The utility area was a washhouse/toolshed and the unfinished area, its ugliness notwithstanding, made a truly excellent place for teenage girls to dance. I had at least three slumber parties while we lived there that featured, in addition to the swimming, our dancing to my sister’s 45-rpm records played on her record player. (I deeply missed the sanctioned dancing that occurred during lunch time at Madison Junior High in Miami and was probably trying, pathetically, to replace it in some way.) After the first of these parties, held soon after my arrival, by way of my attempting to make friends, our preacher preached a sermon on the evils of dancing. It being such a small town, no one was mystified as to what event prompted this sermon.

I expected that sermon to mark the end of my swim/dance slumber parties, either because no one would come, out of concern for their reputations, or because my mother would cave to the preacher and forbid the dancing. But, the sermon only made it that much more exciting and my mother, as churchy as she was, loved to dance and saw the no-dancing sermon as, once again, a little too close to hardshell Baptist doctrine to be obeyed. She was, apparently, not alone in this sentiment, as the gossip died down, at least in our hearing, and we continued to hold our hat-covered heads up when attending church. As far as I know, among the many churches to be found in the area, it was only the Baptists who forbade dancing. The Methodists were fine with it and school dances, though rare, did occur.

In addition to the large open area in the house that could be used for dancing, I was pleased at the size of my room, which was twice the size of the room I had shared with my sister in Miami. The windows looked out toward the highway, about 30 or 40 feet away on the other side of a strip of orange grove. Cars and trucks on the highway could be heard clearly, a fact that only mattered late at night, when I might be recovering emotionally from some traumatic event of the day involving school or family.

As a sophomore at Groveland High School, I am sitting on my bed in our house on the road to Tavares. About 40 feet from the window behind me is the road that carried the lynch mob eight years earlier.

In my new large bedroom as a sophomore at GHS. Outside the window is the highway to Tavares. In the bedside table, unlike those of my girlfriends, are stacks of books, and on it is a strong light to read them with. Never would have made it, sane, without the books.

I would hear the singing of the tires of an approaching semi from very far off, hear it approach and then fade into the distance and think to myself, where is it going? Is it going someplace better than here? And, I would be filled with despair that I would never go anywhere or see anything but Groveland, that the misery I knew now was all I had to look forward to and that, perhaps, this wasteland was all there was for people like me. It was certainly adolescent angst, but the events of my life have suggested to me that not everyone’s adolescent angst was as severe as mine was. Were it possible, I used to say to myself, I would climb into any one of those passing trucks and go to any of their destinations, as long as it was away from here.

The high school was so small that I graduated in a class of 36. It was the smallest high school allowed to play football in the division of small high schools, but it was also the best football team in that division because, until the rules changed just before my senior year, boys who had been held back and were behind their class, therefore older, were still allowed to play. There were players who deliberately got themselves held back just so they could play football another year or two. I could imagine that my high school alone was the reason why the rules changed, requiring that participants in extracurricular athletic activities maintain at least a C average. While I was there, the school just missed losing its accreditation and ended up being accredited as the second lowest high school, scholastically, in the state of Florida, the worst being Key West High School.

Groveland High School as it looked when I was a student there. This building was in the process of being razed years later when I made a nostalgic visit and I reached through the fence and grabbed a chunk of it as a sort of victory gesture. Someday I may stomp on it and crush it, but not just yet.

Groveland High School as it looked when I was a student there. This building was in the process of being razed years later when I made a nostalgic visit and I reached through the fence and grabbed a chunk of it as a sort of victory gesture. Someday I may stomp on it and crush it, but not just yet.

All but a handful of the students had been classmates since first grade and the social hierarchy was known, accepted and maintained faithfully. As a newbie, I had to pass muster before a place could be found for me in the class system, among the children of the workers at the canning plant. We did own an orange grove but it was too small to confer upon us much income or status and the first year we lived there it was so damaged by a severe frost that it could not be expected to support us. My father, therefore, had to find a job at a phosphate mine near Lakeland, placing us unquestionably where we belonged, in the upper working class. The fact that my mother worked briefly as a salesclerk at a short-lived grocery store in town supported this assignment.

I was viewed with suspicion from the start, as a city girl from Miami, but became gradually more acceptable, probably due to my church attendance and the fact that my clothes, although homemade by my mother, were made with great skill and style and many of the other girls also wore homemade clothes. There was a skating rink in Leesburg and, again pathetically, I tried to re-create my success in Miami by persuading my mother and sister to take me there, but I soon found that roller skating in Leesburg was nothing like roller skating in Miami and gave up on it.

After a disastrous season on the basketball team my sophomore year, it was clear that I was not an addition to the athletic program, but I went a long way on my singing voice and by being witty. Eventually I became popular enough to be elected cheerleader in my senior year but only because the field was greatly narrowed when they made the new rules about scholarship and the athletic program. I never became popular enough to have more than a handful of dates with boys still in high school and only had a date for the Junior/ Senior prom when I was a junior, by inviting an alum and threatening suicide if he refused. I did have a bona fide date for the prom when I was a senior, a young man I had been dating who was really too old to go to the prom and only did it so that he could propose to me that night. I refused him. I was only seventeen and I wanted to go to college.

There were really only three acceptable things to do on a date. You could go to the game, wherever it was, football or basketball. You could go to the Sumter County drive-in movie. Or, you could go to church. Afterward, you could go to Kimbrough’s for a hamburger. There was an attempt to establish post-home game dances, but it failed rapidly, due to pervasive disinterest on the part of the boys in dancing. The only regular school dance that persisted was the Junior/Senior prom. There was also a brief period during which a community center with dancing was attempted in the unused building on the lake in Groveland, but it, too, never became popular with anyone but the misfits. In short, being a teenager in Groveland was just about as boring an adolescence as one can imagine.

groveland football 600ed

The Groveland High School football field, first choice for a Friday night date.

My time at Groveland High School was made infinitely more bearable by a teacher with whom I formed an early bond. This was the science teacher, Ernest Chesson, called “Chess” by students who both loved and hated him. Upon my arrival the first day of school, I was assigned to Mr. Chesson’s homeroom. He introduced me to the class, clearly interested in me and concerned as to how I would fare with the locals. I was terrified but being brave and trying, unsuccessfully as usual, not to use big words and accidentally reveal my intelligence. That Chess picked up on that immediately, I have no doubt.

A few days later, a little less terrified, I was leaving homeroom for class, the last one out, as was my habit to reduce any bullying that might occur, and was even humming a bit to myself. My brother, who had only recently exchanged being a jazz musician for being a literature student at the University of Florida, had been visiting us and playing his jazz records. I had been trying to sing like Ella Fitzgerald and the tune I was humming reflected that. As I passed by Chess standing by the door, he stopped me and asked, “What is that tune you’re humming?” I flashed him my most charming smile and said, “Take the A-Train,” then sang the first line of the chorus and did a little scat riff. From that moment onward, Chess was mine.

If I got in trouble, he defended me to the faculty. If I needed a reality check on the workings of the social system, he provided it. He wrote my references for college. He urged me to go to college, knocking down all my arguments about being poor and female. He even gave me a nickname, a great honor in the south, even though he was the only one that ever used it. It was “Little Miss Logic,” inspired by the questions I asked him in the three classes I took from him. It was a psychological antidote for me to the nickname given me by other students, “Barbwire,” a play on my name, Barbara, my stringbean build and my bon mots, which sometimes contained “barbs” no matter how hard I tried to stifle them. Chess never being one to stick to lesson plans, his classes often featured periods of pure stand up comedy involving witty exchanges between he and his more smart-mouth students, usually including me. I was a teacher’s pet in his classes and did not care who knew it.

He defended me, but I also defended him. He needed defending, first of all, because he looked so strange. He was very tall and thin, with a high, long, beaked nose. People called him “Ichabod Crane” behind his back, at least those literate enough to know who Ichabod Crane was. He also needed defending because he was prone to outbursts of temper in class, often directed at displays of cruelty and ignorance. He once, in the middle of a frustrated tirade, kicked a nearly empty wastebasket from the front of the classroom to the back and I was startled to note that I was the only student that seemed to be surprised.

But, mostly he needed defending because the word on Chess was that he was “queer,” the word then used for gay. I heard rumors that he had come on to students but I simply did not believe that. I knew for certain that any male who deviated in the slightest way from the football model of the ideal southern male was likely to be called queer and had already discovered that these were the boys with whom I was most likely to be friends. Several boys in the high school were also called queer, standing out for their intelligence, love of music or reading or because they were too shy to date girls. If there were actually gay boys among this group—or on the football team—there is no way I would ever have known it.

It soon became clear to other students that any negative comments about Chess made in my presence would be rebutted. When, as the only functioning person on the annual staff, I selected him as that year’s favorite teacher, no one was surprised or opposed me. As it turned out, after I graduated and needed him—not once, but twice— to write me reference letters to get me reinstated after being expelled, I went to see him at his apartment and he tacitly admitted to me that he was in fact, gay. In discussing my plans for the future, I told him of my ambition to go to San Francisco and asked him, knowing of its reputation as a haven for gay people, if he had ever thought of going there. Fixing me with a meaningful look, he said, “yes, I tried that, but it wasn’t for me.”

Kimbrough’s Restaurant

Although the respectable social life for both adults and students in Groveland revolved around church and football, the most important social place for me was a restaurant. Kimbrough’s drive-in and restaurant was the hangout after every date, until a rival drive-in opened up on the other side of town my junior year. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, between nine and midnight, when it closed, it would be hard to find a table inside or a place at the counter and it would be surrounded by cars waiting for curb service.

Since its clientele consisted of more than just high school students, there was also enough business during the week to make it worthwhile to stay open then. It served the many truckers who came through and those Groveland High School alumni who had stuck around and found jobs in the area after graduation. The Kimbroughs were a highly respected family and their daughter, a class ahead of me at the high school, was among the most popular and admired of the students, a cheerleader and the center of the in-group. I never saw her at Kimbrough’s and have often wondered if she was never there because she considered her own family’s restaurant to be beneath her.

Kimbrough’s was a square, modern style building with three glass walls, set in the center of a huge parking lot just outside of town on the way to Mascotte. Its most interesting feature, and one I have never come across since, was the open-air dance floor on the roof, accessible by a stairway at the back. There were two fixtures providing access to the jukebox downstairs. Why they were not destroyed in the rain, I cannot explain. The dance floor was open to the sky, much like the roller rink in Miami where I first experienced popularity, so its appeal to me was not only through the jukebox and the dancing but because it recalled for me my magic nights at the outdoor skating rink in Miami. In both places, there was often a tropical breeze to blow away the mosquitoes, an advantage not to be sneered at in Florida. The dance floor was mostly used by the teenage girls, male dancers being hard to come by in Groveland. But, it was the dancing I cared about, not especially the boys. I could have a great time dancing with my girlfriends, the same ones I was later on the cheerleading squad with.

What you chose songs on from the jukebox if you were upstairs on the roof patio. I don't know what to call this, so I'm calling it a fixture.

What you chose songs on from the jukebox if you were upstairs on the roof patio. I don’t know what to call this, so I’m calling it a fixture.

I started working at Kimbrough’s the middle of my junior year, on Friday and Saturday nights, after my parents’ move to Lakeland. I was inspired to get a job at Kimbrough’s because my sister had worked there while she lived with us. On Sundays after I started working, I would hope for a ride to go and hang out there after church. So, my life came to revolve around Kimbrough’s. Once I started working there, one of the few pleasures in my life was free access to the jukebox. My friend, Sarah, who also worked there, had charmed the jukebox guy into showing her where the free play button was and she subsequently showed me, so that late at night after we were closed and cleaning up, I could play anything I wanted to on the jukebox.

A jukebox similar to the one at Kimbrough's. I know where the free play button is, but I can't tell you because Sarah swore me to silence.

A jukebox similar to the one at Kimbrough’s. I know where the free play button is, but I can’t tell you because Sarah swore me to silence.

The jukebox selection was a strange and eclectic mix dictated by incomprehensible rules of the jukebox company so that half the tunes were country and rock and those were the ones that were played by customers. The other half, never played, awaited my exploration. Here is a small list of the played songs I remember being on the jukebox: Buddy Holly— That’ll Be the Day, Every Day, Peggy Sue; Everly Brothers— Wake Up Little Susie, Cathy’s Clown; Paul Anka— Diana; Jerry Lee Lewis— Whole Lot of Shaking, Great Balls of Fire; Elvis— Heartbreak Hotel, Blue Suede Shoes; Chuck Berry— Maybellene,  Johnny Be Good; The Coasters— Yackety-Yak; Frankie Ford— Sea Cruise; Duane Eddy— Rebel Rouser.

The other half of the songs were obscure pop tunes no one but me would play. Some were by black artists like Johnny Mathis (Maria), some were pop songs I later learned were show tunes and there was a smattering of jazz, as well, including my beloved Ella Fitzgerald (Take the A Train). Whereas I loved the country and rock as much as anyone else and when not working could be found with my friends on the rooftop patio dancing to them, midnight to two in the morning was my own private time to explore music no one else would listen to. I see that advantage now as one of my few windows on the wider world.

My job at Kimbrough’s was the beginning of what I think of as my independence from my parents and that early shot of independence figures large in my later challenges to authority. One of my father’s favorite sayings was, “As long as your two feet are under my table, you’ll do as I say.” With their move to Lakeland and my job at Kimbrough’s, I felt that I was paying my own room and board, as my brother had at 16, my feet were no longer under my father’s table and I was therefore no longer required to do as he said, insofar as I could maintain that attitude without being caught.

It was through connections that I landed the job at Kimbrough’s with no waitressing experience. My sister had taken a part-time job working there soon after she arrived from Miami to live with us. Since she worked at night, it was not difficult for my mother to babysit my infant nephew so that my sister could make a little extra money. When my brother-in-law returned from Japan and my sister left the job, she recommended me as a replacement and Sarah was pleased to train me.

At about that time, my father grew weary of his 80-mile round-trip commute to his job in Lakeland and my parents resolved to give up on waiting for the orange grove to recover enough from the freeze to support us. They decided to move to Lakeland halfway through my junior year. I could not face still another move just when I had begun, once again, to have friends. I wanted to stay and graduate with my class. It was not easy, but I persuaded my parents to allow me to live with Sarah’s family, at least for the rest of that school term, and pay my room and board myself with my earnings from Kimbrough’s. Part of the deal was that I had to take the bus to Lakeland every weekend, which precluded my ever dating. It was not much of a sacrifice since I rarely had dates, anyway, and I could talk them out of making me go if there was something really special taking place.

My room consisted of one half of Sarah’s bed, which I was forced to sleep in with one arm and leg hanging over the side to avoid rolling downhill into her, since she was much larger than me. My board consisted of Sunday dinner after church, since both she and I otherwise ate at school or Kimbrough’s. Another part of the deal was that I had to stop seeing Sarah’s brother, with whom I had had two or three dates. This requirement, no doubt, related to the fact that my parents had met while my mother was living with my father’s family at age 16 and this had resulted in their shotgun wedding. I’m sure they feared that history would repeat itself. That, too, was no big sacrifice, since I had already decided that Sarah’s brother and I had nothing in common.

That arrangement continued to the end of my junior year, when Sarah, a senior, graduated and left for college and I had to find another family to live with and then persuade my parents to extend my deal. This I managed to do, making the same arrangement with the family of another school friend, Diane. This time, my room consisted of one third of a bed, shared with two sisters, or I could sleep on the couch in the newly-built living room in front of the fireplace, which is what I usually did when there was a fire. I was very happy there, and had a whole school term of experiencing what life was like in a family with a rational, understanding mother and loving sisters. I had my share of the chores and I had to follow the same rules as my friend but there were cousins living down the road and constant activity, since everyone was active in both church and school. I endeavored to go to Lakeland less and less, had a few more dates with boys in high school and, by the end of the year, had a fairly steady boyfriend from among the male alumni who frequented Kimbrough’s.

Although by the time of my senior year I had attained enough status that I was at least not at the very bottom of the caste system, I had done so by dint of conscious alterations in my personality. Sometime late in my sophomore year, I realized that my Miami personality was never going to cut it in Groveland, so I began to consciously and cynically copy the behavior of those around me, insofar as this was possible. My social prospects went up as soon as I came to that strategy but cynicism has its price. While my skill in faking it has been a great asset in finding work, it also set me up for a lifetime of resentment that such deception should be required and provided me with an unshakable fear of having my cover blown. It probably was not very good for my confidence and self-esteem, either. There can be no doubt that simmering resentment that I should have to resort to concealing my true self—not an evil or dishonest or irresponsible self—made my bursting out of the fake persona that much more spectacular when it happened later.

Cast of the senior play from my high school annual, complete with signatures. The cheerleaders in the play had to hotfoot it from their photo shoot to the play photo shoot and had no time to change from our summer cheerleading outfit.

Cast of the senior play from my high school annual, complete with signatures. The cheerleaders in the play had to hotfoot it from their photo shoot to the play photo shoot and had no time to change from our summer cheerleading outfit.

To illustrate the depth of the cruelty that sustained the caste system, there is the story of my first brush with suicide ideation. It happened early in my junior year while I was still living out of town and riding the school bus to school. Although it was only a 15-minute ride down the highway from Groveland to my house, the school bus ride was much longer because the bus turned off the highway and went through a maze of dirt roads to pick up students who lived even further out in the boonies than I did. One of these was my classmate Jim, who lived on a much bigger lake in a much, much nicer house with a much bigger dock, to which was moored a much bigger boat, than ours.

Jim was one of those who had been born and grew up in the area and was thus at the center of the most popular clique in the high school. He was the darling of the in-group. He would never have deigned to speak to me for long at school, but it was a very long bus ride and we two were among the very last to be delivered home on those rare days when he did not have some other way home. We never sat together because of our mutual disdain, mine concealed and his open, but there was one day when he invited me to sit with him after most everyone else had left the bus. I was surprised and mystified but I went with it.

After some preliminary talk about classes and people, Jim led the conversation around to water skiing. It was well-known in school that I was a pretty good skier. He said he was having a waterski party the coming weekend and then waited for me to look at him expectantly hoping for an invitation I had no right to expect, given the difference in our standing. Then he invited me. I was quite excited and moved heaven and earth to persuade my father to drive me to Jim’s house on the appointed day and to pick me up at a set time some hours later when Jim had said his boat would return from the spot on the other side of Jim’s lake where we were to go skiing.

Waterskiing on our lake. I was the best skier, if not the most popular, in the school. Here, it looks like I'm about to fall, but I'm actually just not quite balanced yet after kicking off a ski.

Waterskiing on our lake. I was the best skier, if not the most popular, in the school. Here, it looks like I’m about to fall, but I’m actually just not quite balanced yet after kicking off a ski.

When I arrived, Jim intercepted me before I could get to the front door of his house and walked me to the dock where he told me to wait, that the others were inside the house and about to come out. When they came out, a party of about 10, they all began to jump on the boat and closed in tightly to prevent my boarding. I was left standing on the dock while Jim yelled from the cabin, “there’s not enough room for another person, I’ll take them and come back for you.” It was a variation on the old snipe-hunting trick where the victim is left alone in the woods.

I was on the dock for three hours, unable to leave because I had no ride. It occurred to me to walk the two or three miles home, but I could never quite let go of the hope that Jim actually would come back for me and I would not be there. I was too shy to go knock on the door of the house where I knew Jim’s parents were, although it would have been reasonable for me to think that they would have driven me home and, hopefully, lectured Jim later.

During that three hours, I processed my situation. I could not bring myself to believe that Jim had set me up for this humiliation, that it was a prank similar to those pulled on “Carrie” in the Stephen King novel and movie that came out years later. But, what other explanation was there? Was it possible to interpret my inability to board the boat as a random occurrence? No, they had elbowed me out. I finally came, reluctantly, to the conclusion that it had been a setup, a malicious setup from the git-go. This led to more general conclusions. I was a mutation of some kind, too smart in the wrong gender, hopelessly four-eyed and flat-chested, perhaps even an alien from another planet (I read a lot of SciFi) and that this was a foretaste of my future. Nothing would ever change. I would be a mutant from here on out.

About this time, it occurred to me that it was a big lake. If I swam straight out across it, sooner or later I would get tired and sink. I did not actually attempt to do that, but I spent a lot of time trying to talk myself into it. When my father finally arrived, I was sitting alone on the dock. The boat had not returned and, it by now being obvious that its return would only make the trick more delicious to Jim and his friends, my only goal was to be gone when they did get back. Alert to any sign of disrespect to his family, my father asked me why I was alone on the dock. I lied and said, “Oh, everyone else already went home.” I am pretty sure he was not convinced, but he kept a wise silence on the subject.

It took me all of my life to finally completely acknowledge that it was an intentional prank, invented to humiliate “Barbwire” and that the story was probably told all over school soon after and probably contributed to my continuing unpopularity. I never mentioned it to Jim or anyone and proceeded as if it had never happened. I ignored Jim on the school bus for the remainder of that semester, moved into town the next one and steered clear of Jim for the rest of my high school years. I learned 50 years later, from a booklet on my 50-year class reunion, which I did not and would not have attended, that Jim still lives on Cherry Lake in the family home and still stands up at football games when they play “Dixie.” However, the only lasting effect on me, these days, is that I have to think of this incident anytime I hear Otis Redding’s song, “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.” It was a lake but, same difference.

There was one person to whom I did tell this story at the time but he was certainly not one of my classmates. He was, in fact, one of the few good things that ever happened to me while I lived in Groveland and was perhaps the single most influential person in my life, the person who influenced me the most in the direction that led to Berkeley and my actions there, therefore everything else that happened to me in my adult life. He was my lifeline out of the South and into sanity. Since he will figure large in the remainder of this book, I will go into some detail here to introduce him.

Roland W. Eves, whom I never did quite marry, as he looked in 1962.

Roland W. Eves, whom I never did quite marry, as he looked in 1962.

His name was Roland W. Eves, but at the time I met him, everyone called him Roy. He was arrested in 1961 in Tallahassee for helping to organize and participating in sit-ins aimed at desegregating lunch counters. Ours was a lifelong relationship that ended only with his death in 2000, an event that prompted me to accomplish a goal I had had for many years–to organize, edit and excerpt 40 years of his letters. The resulting book was never published, but I handmade about a dozen copies to give to our friends at his memorial party in San Francisco a year later. Herewith, the preface to that book, which I read aloud at the gathering, as a bit of a eulogy:

On a warm Florida night in 1959, the Groveland High School chapter of the National Beta Club, an honor society for rural students, was visiting its counterpart group in New Port Richey. The host chapter had chartered a shrimp boat to cruise the teenagers romantically around Tampa Bay. I was 16, skinny, four-eyed, flat-chested and ready to find some hole to hide in until the ordeal should end, this being my standard adaptation to contrived adolescent mating rituals.

On the dock, however, my best friend Sarah, in whose glamorous wake I could usually be found trailing, struck up a typically flirtatious conversation with the nearest group of boys. I stood by, ready to take up my usual role as court jester to the Queen, should the need arise. The group included Roland W. Eves, “Roy” to his oldest friends.

Somehow, in the crush of hilarious introduction, I squeezed in a witticism and caught  Roy’s eyes. As we boarded the boat and, much to my surprise, Roy cut me from the herd and lassoed me into a relatively quiet spot for closer inspection. We then proceeded to engage in an exclusive six-hour conversation unlike any I could then claim to have had. I had never seen anything like Roy. Well, I can hear him joking, you were a hick at the time and hadn’t been around that much… true, but I have now and if I’m a hick, I’m a much wiser one. I can still say with a straight face that Roy was one of the most consistently amazing people I’ve ever met.

For me, Roy was the weekend. When I got home I wrote him, starting a correspondence that lasted, with one or two notable hiati, for nearly 40 years, ending only when we finally lived close enough together to visit and phone instead of write. I never lost one of Roy’s letters. After his death, I reread them and was reminded just how many chunks of my personal philosophy came directly from Roy. The very idea of a personal philosophy came directly from Roy. What my life would have been like had I not met him is one of my worst nightmares. What he gave me was later polished and sanded and pounded by experiences I shared, as the man said, “with the best minds of my generation,” and on that subject, I claim a doctorate from the school of hard knocks. It was my own life, but Roy started it for me. There is no way around that.

If there were nothing else I could say about Roy, I could say that, of all the relationships in my life, nothing else resembled this one. We were almost never in each other’s physical presence but lived our lives from high school on, as he said, “in reference to each other.” During the 60s, we danced around each other in double triangles a lot. He must have asked me to marry him a dozen times, but never when both of us could have done so without breaking off a relationship with someone else. Even so, I never allowed myself to be in a relationship that would require me to ditch him. That stipulation became the final test of any new romantic relationship and its potential to confine me. I believe the same was generally true for him.

On the other hand, as we agreed years later, it’s damn lucky we never married, because it would have ruined our beautiful friendship. We were friends, we were lovers, we were comrades-in-arms, we played teacher/student both ways. About this aspect of our relationship, we often jokingly asked each other whether we had stumbled into the plot of Pygmalion, he teaching me about “Cultcha,” or whether it was really Breakfast at Tiffany’s, me teaching him about the life of ordinary humans. Either way, we both knew, all joking aside, that our friendship was a very special one in a very special time and that maybe the right word for it has not yet been invented. The last time I saw him, he provided the final word on the subject, saying that we were “siblings who committed incest.” Exactly.

Roy could make me laugh, no matter how far down I was. Even dead, he made me laugh, as I read and reread his letters. Now, there’s a friend. Somebody who can posthumously laugh you out of the dump you’re in because he’s dead. We were pen pals, we were colleagues, he insisted we were family. We were tragic and isolated pieces of flotsam and jetsam, grabbing for each other in the stormy sea of history and if that’s melodramatic, who would forgive me faster than Roy, a closet playwright and the most dramatic person, counting me, in pretty much any room either of us were ever in.

The one relationship we always kicked around but never manifested was–he writes, I edit… and Roy needed an editor. To begin with, he was a rotten speller. I never noticed it until I edited his letters, because I was so dazzled by what he said. And then there was the problem that he didn’t believe in drafts. He liked to think the truly great writers got it right the first time. I was never able to disabuse him of this naïve and sophomoric notion, but we certainly had some delicious conversations about it. So I guess we ended up playing writer/editor posthumously. Given our personalities and respective egos, maybe that’s the only way it could have happened– for more than a half-hour.

Our journey was deeply karmic in the sense that whatever I was supposed to do in this lifetime, I needed my relationship with Roy to do it right. And his letters say it was the same for him. His death made no difference to that. It only reminded me once more, as he did so often, who I am. It only, through my tears and laughter, made me dream my dreams again and renew my resolve not to “let the bastards get me down,” or at least to hold them off as long as possible.

In 1960-61, Roy was at Florida State University in Tallahassee and I was attending Norman College in Norman Park, Georgia, a Bible college 60 miles north of there run by the Georgia Baptist Convention. At his urging, I had done my damnedest to try to get to FSU, but I just couldn’t scrape up the money. I was expelled from Norman, with credit, in June, 1961, basically for hanging out with Roy when I had signed out to visit my parents. In the fall, I finally made it to FSU, choosing that university only because Roy was there.

We were a part of a network of people the administration referred to, according to Roy, as “The Bad Attitude Group.” Like many of Roy’s friends, particularly the female ones, I was expelled in short order, thereby losing nearly a semester of work and, as far as I knew at the time, all hopes of higher education. We were thereafter physically separated until the 1990s, except for visits– him to Berkeley, me to Huntsville, Texas, and San Pedro, California. Although we constantly fantasized trips together, I was never in a position to stop working and go with him, but his letters from the far corners of the Earth, full of references to people and events, always spoke to me as if I were part of it, as if he were surprised that I had not been there, too. His view of me kept open possibilities I would have closed, on my own, long before.

How much did I trust him? In 1961, in Tallahassee, a group of us were climbing up the publicly-owned huge pecan trees to shakedown pecans. (We were scavengers long before it was cool.) About two stories up, I found the next branch a little too awkward and wanted to turn back. Roy said, “Nonsense, here,” reached his hand down and grabbed my wrist, trapeze-artist style. To my great astonishment, I allowed him to pull me straight up to his perch without my being supported by anything at all but his strength. A fall would have been fatal or crippling. But, I let him do it. Aside from my son, my father and my husbands in the best of times, I have never trusted any other man that much.

How much do I owe him? In the late 70s, deep into my Earth Mother incarnation, I had a dream about Roy, whom I hadn’t seen in years. In it, I was at the creek where mothers with babies usually spent a hot summer afternoon. Something pulled me downstream, away from the group, where I discovered, to my horror, Roy’s body, incompletely buried in an eroded bank. Then I remembered that I had killed him. I tried desperately to cover him up, so as not to be caught, but his head and arm kept falling out, beckoning, making me think of Captain Ahab on the whale. (Roy had once given me a copy of Melville’s Moby Dick, which he had hand-covered with fabric and his own illustration.)

I tried to remember why I had killed him, but I could not. Just as I realized that not only would I be caught, but that Roy would not be there to help me deal with it, I woke up. No mysteries there, for us Jungians. Roy was my intellectual animus as well as the unwilling keeper of my social conscience. (He protested that notion vehemently.) I had killed not him, but the part of me he had nourished and protected and loved. The dream was clear. You can only have this idyllic country life by murdering a huge part of yourself and wasting the education you fought so hard for at a time when the world needs it and you. In only a few years, I was back in graduate school, to Roy’s great delight, finishing the anthropology doctorate I had abandoned, pregnant, in 1970.

They say great minds work in similar ways. I don’t know if that necessarily makes minds working similarly great, but I do know it was great to experience some degree of mental similarity with Roy. The words “unique” and “complex” have become overworked in this time of bubbling psychobabble, but Roy was truly a unique and complex individual, way too deep for the understanding of most people, a genius too observant and compassionate to be of much practical use: courageous, usually; brutally honest with himself at times, unspeakably dense at others; screamingly funny, rivetingly serious; curious about everyone and everything; rife with faults, most of which he would point out to you before you could name them. In later years, I was shocked to find there were subjects I could not discuss with him. I also discovered that we could both maintain a snit for quite a while. But he could always talk me out of it and I could always talk him out of it. I’m told he could be infuriating, but somehow, the only thing he ever did that truly infuriated me was to die too soon. Exasperating, yes. Infuriating, no.

The last time I saw Roy, I apologized for not being able to pay him back some money he had given to me to use for something I didn’t use it for. He placed his hand over mine on the table, looked at me from his heart and said in a voice I knew to be his real voice, “Never mind about that. Just be my friend.” It sounded so strange to me because we have been so much more than friends, at least in the way that word is commonly used. I fear that I was not as good a friend to him as I would have wished. There is much I wanted to do for him in the last decade but I could not do because I loved him too much to lose him. He would accept no help, no sympathy, no advice and would warn you away with a look if you tried to insist. “No blame,” I’m sure he would say, quoting the I Ching.

If ever the phrase “labor of love” applied to anything, it applies to this modest endeavor. Reading Roy’s letters was the only thing I could think of to do to keep my wild grief for him from sinking me (shades of Holly Golightly, to whom he had compared me, against my adamant protestations.) Editing them made his presence a near-tangible thing, helping me one last time through a really hard spot. I don’t know how much my picture of Roy is like anyone else’s picture of Roy. I know well that I probably only have a little sliver of his story, but it’s a damn fine sliver and I offer it joyfully, hoping only to honor him.

Jentri Anders, August, 2001, Trinidad, California

 

Roy’s candid self-descriptions were something entirely new to me, both in what they said and in the fact that he said them. We shared so much in common that the mere fact that the world contained someone else so like me, who seemed to be doing fine, gave me pretty much the only hope I had that I might someday be happy. I incorporated his statements about himself rapidly into my own outlook, where they have remained thenceforth:

Of course, I’m an intellectual misfit. Everyone who is capable and willing to think at all is a misfit in this freakish society that scorns and mistrusts its best minds.                      July 1960, New Port Richey

I try very hard to be pessimistic as a matter of principle, because if you expect the worst, then you are prepared if it happens, if not delighted. Optimism, however, is apt to be very depressing.                    October 1960, Tallahassee

 

I had only just started my correspondence with Roy when the dock incident occurred and I described it to him in, perhaps, my third or fourth letter. Here is what he replied:

Well, well, well. Were you really quite serious about the swim-far-into-the-lake or were you allowing your imagination just how much play? Poor dear, it really does sound like you had a difficult September-beginning. Shall we at least pray, deah brethin, that you’re good and over that now. (There follows various jokes about the inadequacies of his typewriter.) Apparently, I cannot bear to be serious about this, for fear I shall become very too serious indeed. But, now comes the inevitable seriousness… how can I say please get hold of, stabilize, yourself when I know so little of how and what you are now. But do, please. You are much too wonderful to be wasted like so much—nothing.                                                September 1959, New Port Richey

 

There was another event that seemed accidental at the time but came to resemble, in retrospect, the dock incident as an example of intentional cruelty. In my junior year, I was part of the committee delegated to decorate a rented hall for the junior/senior prom. It was an unfamiliar place, not part of the high school, and featured a wall composed of full sliding glass doors looking out on a garden. We entered the hall to decorate through one of those doors. I was very nearsighted and also very vain, so that I would only wear my glasses in class, trusting to my ability to recognize people by their general shape and movement patterns the rest of the time. This datum was widely known.

In an atmosphere of giggly excitement, we went back and forth rapidly from cars to the hall and back, carrying boxes full of decorations. On one of my trips from the hall to the car, I walked full speed into a previously open but now-closed glass door and broke my nose. Whoever closed that door had to have done it immediately after I came into the hall and there was no reason to close it, since we had not finished unloading. Blood poured from my nose and there was great pain, but the blood eventually stopped and it occurred to no one that it needed medical attention.

I attended the prom with two black eyes and a swollen nose, but was not diagnosed with a healed break until years later. It was not especially disfiguring. There is just a slight flat place in the  middle of my nose that used to not be flat. It has occurred to me in subsequent years that Cherry Lake Jim was there that day, along with a few of his buddies. Sending me to the prom with two black eyes would have been a wonderful joke, although it is possible that the closed door was just absentmindedness on someone’s part or that the joke went further than expected. I will never know.

By the end of my junior year, I had perfected my false persona to the point that when the rules on extracurricular activity became suddenly more restrictive and the entire cheerleading squad had either graduated or become disqualified, it was not entirely ridiculous for me to run for cheerleader. My athletic ability had never been impressive to anyone, but I had managed to overcome my lack of self-confidence in this area by scraping together some information I viewed as relevant. One was that there had been a tiny spark of light in my otherwise disastrous basketball year as a sophomore.

There was a basketball practice from which our female coach was, for some reason, absent and the male coach of the boy’s team replaced her. I had established myself as the worst person on the team, but because of lack of stamina and strength, not for lack of skill or co-ordination. I actually did pretty well in short spurts and held my own if we were just practicing making baskets rather than making baskets as part of the game. During the practice game that night, the ball was, probably for lack of a better alternative, passed to me and I managed to pass it smoothly, between running bodies, to a teammate who scored.

To my infinite surprise, the coach turned to me, instead of the scorer, with a grin and said, “Great pass.” It was the only compliment I ever received involving team sports and I was as startled as everyone else. I wanted to go explain to him, “Wait, you don’t understand. I’m the worst person on the team. You’re not supposed to praise me.” The memory of that special moment helped me get through it later on, when my tail bone got broken. A very large size guard on our team ran straight into me during another practice game and send my skinny self flying through the air to land my entire weight on my bony tailbone. I would have quit the team right then, but for that tiny moment of praise I had gotten from the men’s coach. Contemplating a run for cheerleader, it told me that perhaps I was not a complete loss athletically.

I had had a similar experience my junior year involving swimming. We had a new PE instructor that year whose forte was swimming. We had no pool but she had observed the lake only three blocks from campus and saw no reason why that would not serve just as well to teach swimming. She had somehow been able to convince the principal to allow her to engage in this highly untraditional activity. This teacher had been a member of the Tarpon Club at Florida State University, which performed synchronized swimming routines. All of us girls dreamed of performing water stunts at Weeki Wachee Springs, a central Florida tourist attraction, so we were quite enthused that she might teach us some of these stunts.

On the first day that we assembled on the dock she asked who among us could already swim and I was very surprised to find that only half of us said “yes.” We were, after all, in Lake County. There were places to swim all around us. It was hard for me to imagine how anyone in this location could have made it to age 16 without learning to swim, but that seemed to be the case. Then she asked us, one by one, to swim a short distance parallel to the shore so that she could assess where we stood in terms of technique.

To my amazement, it turned out that I was the best swimmer in the class in terms of technique, if not stamina. Again, I tired easily but I excelled in short spurts. She immediately chose me as her assistant, to help the girls who could not swim at all. Everyone, including me, was flabbergasted. I helped her during classes and she saved 10 minutes for me at the end, during which time she taught me syncopated swimming tricks and encouraged me to try out for the Tarpon Club, should I ever happen to attend Florida State University. That I would ever perform at Weeki Wachee Springs was on no one’s radar since, in addition to swimming ability, one needed a beauty queen’s body to work there, but the whole experience went a long way towards reversing my low status with the team sports people and improving my confidence in my physical abilities, in general.

Other thoughts that encouraged me to run were that cheerleading was very close to dancing, I already loved dancing with my friends who were on the cheerleading squad, and that waterskiing and roller skating could be considered athletic if one did not equate athletics with team sports. I did not have a very good voice for shouting, but my vocal training as a singer had taught me to project. I went to practice, learned a few cheers, performed them alone at a school assembly and lost the election. I was, however, the first alternate and when someone else dropped out, I was in. I used it as an argument to my parents as to why I should be allowed to remain in Groveland for my senior year instead of moving to Lakeland to live with them and it worked.

Through a statistical fluke, I ended up being a cheerleader my senior year at GHS.

Through a statistical fluke, I ended up being a cheerleader my senior year at GHS.

In telling the story of my high school years to people who cannot understand how such a tiny high school works, I have encountered a reluctance on their parts to believe that someone who was elected cheerleader could possibly have been as unpopular as I claim that I was. My response is that because of the new rules, it was a case of desperation, a dearth of candidates with good grades and my own success in pretending to be someone that I really wasn’t. And, I was not the only nerd on the squad. The rule change had opened doors for other girls who would never have had a chance otherwise, as well. It did not raise my popularity with the boys in any way and I knew less than nothing about football, although I could follow the basketball games. I was so nearsighted without my glasses, which I refused to wear for games, that I never had the faintest idea what was going on on the field. The head cheerleader called the cheer and I did it.

Cheerleading was just exactly as much fun as I thought it would be. I got to hang out a lot with my friends, go on the long bus rides to non-home games, do something that was very much like dancing, which I’m sure led to my later interest in bellydancing, and attend a number of boisterous slumber parties. Combining it with my job meant that I was always in a big rush on game nights to get from the game to the restaurant and change, but it turned out that I had more stamina then I thought I had and I was actually able to both cheer and waitress on the same night. It was great training for the split shifts I worked later as a waitress in the summers, earning money for college.

GHS 1960-61 cheerleading squad, note the 40s uniform. Unlike the Clermont squad, which had short skirts, we were required to keep them below the knee. Couldn't bleach or dye our hair, get pregnant or use cuss words, either.

GHS 1960-61 cheerleading squad, note the 40s uniform. Unlike the Clermont squad, which had short skirts, we were required to keep them below the knee. Couldn’t bleach or dye our hair, get pregnant or use cuss words, either.

 

So long, GHS

Post-graduation, I was forced to go to Lakeland and live with my parents again. After a year and a half of thinking of myself as economically independent, it was very hard for me to return to having my feet under my father’s table and my every move under my mother’s thumb. The expectation was that I would look for a job and I assumed that the same demand would be made of me that was made of my older siblings upon their graduations from high school, that a portion of my paycheck would go towards my upkeep at my parents’ house. It was at this point that the ongoing debate about my desire to go to college became more heated.

I had saved up money from my job at Kimbrough’s and later at another, fancier restaurant down the road that had opened up and brought me better tips. Rather than spend that money on the senior trip or luxuries like my own formal for the two proms (I wore my sister’s wedding dress, instead, with a red sash around it, fooling no one), I saw my savings as my college fund. I begged my parents to forgo my paying them rent to live with them and let me save it all for college. I succeeded in getting them to agree to that arrangement but it soon proved moot, since I could not get a job because of my age.

Whatever my mother had done when we moved from Cleveland to Miami, to get the school to take me even though my birthday was a few days after the cut off date, now became a great burden for me. Everyone else was 18 when they graduated but I would not be 18 until October. In spite of my impressive typing skill and already extensive work— albeit not office— experience, high grades, fantastic references from former employers and teachers, pleasant appearance and the desire of those who interviewed me to hire me, every place I applied had an inflexible corporate policy that employees must be over 18. I did not find a job until halfway through the summer and then I was hired only after lengthy negotiations between my boss and the corporate personnel office to make me an exception.

This delay resulted in something of a repeat of the agonies my sister went through the summer after her high school graduation, when the job she found only lasted a little while before everyone went out on strike and she found herself unemployed and living at home. The relationship between my mother and I followed the same trajectory and rapidly became unbearable. Although my parents were thrilled and proud that I had landed what was, to them, an incredibly good job, the job itself only increased my determination to make it to college. After a lifetime of working, I can still claim that it was among the most boring of all the jobs I have ever held.

The job was as clerk-typist for a land title company. It consisted of one thing and one thing only, aside from the responsibility of watering the houseplants. That was to file stacks upon stacks of nearly identical legal-sized blue title search forms and to type up a list with specific pieces of information on all the title forms I filed on any particular day, including a tedious summation of the surveyor’s report, full of numbers and descriptions of the property, that had to be correct to the tiniest detail. Each form had a 10-digit identification number by which it was filed, in an enormous room full of identical file cabinets. I often thought that there was only one job on earth more boring than this one and that was to be the person who came behind me checking that I had filed each and every form correctly.

There was a 15-minute coffee break in the morning and afternoon, which everyone took at the same time, leaving one person to answer the phones. One day, during coffee break, the person who checked my filing was the focus of a ceremony honoring her 25 years with the company. She was given a pin and everyone clapped. It was like a nightmare to me. If I did as my parents wished, held onto my “good” job and did not go to college, 25 years from now I might be checking the work of someone like myself and they might give me a commemorative pin during coffee break. In the words later to be penned by Bob Dylan, I thought something like “there must be some way outta here.”

There was a way out, but it was not the way I expected. It was, at about this time, that my life was once again both spared and disrupted by a car accident. My parents had given me, as a graduation present, my mother’s car, a very nice Mercury four-door with automatic transmission and luxury features like power seats and windows. Of course, it could not be in my name because I was only 17, but they assured me that in every other way it was my car and I could do anything I wanted with it, including sell it to raise college money. I am sure that part of the reasoning for giving me the car was that it would improve my chances of getting a job, which it did. They probably also harbored some faint hope that I would become so enamored of having my own car that I would forget all about college.

On my way to church in Lakeland, standing in front of my car, soon to be totaled between Lakeland and Winter Haven.

On my way to church in Lakeland, standing in front of my car, soon to be totaled between Lakeland and Winter Haven.

The job I found was not in Lakeland. It involved a 20-mile commute to Winter Haven, through a seemingly endless, flat, Florida high-grass swamp. One morning driving to work through the swamp, I found myself in an unfamiliar situation. For a very long time, it seemed to me, I was following a small sports car with a large dump truck in front of it. The sports car was tailgating the truck so closely that I could see no space between them. It was a 2-lane highway with no passing lanes, but one could see for very long stretches ahead because everything was so straight and flat. I could not imagine why the sports car did not put more distance between itself and the truck, so that the driver could see ahead to pass it. The truck was going slowly, under the speed limit, so that I was getting later and later for work. I finally decided that the truck might be towing the sports car and my only option was to pass both of them at once.

I waited for my chance, had plenty of room to get around both of them, honked my horn, speeded up and started to pass them when, to my horror, I saw that the truck was making a left turn into a previously invisible driveway hidden completely by the tall swamp grass and unmarked by anything, not even a mailbox. It was far too late to stop. I put both feet on the brake pedal, and straightened my body out in the seat trying to stop, but I hit the rear double wheels of the truck nearly head-on. If I had not hit the wheels, the car would have gone under the truck and I would have been killed instantly. The sports car did not stop and sped away, leaving the scene of the accident and me holding the bag for having caused it.

I have counted it as one of the miracles in my life that I did not sustain even a bruise in that accident, but the car was totaled. I remember seeing the hood snap up at the hinged end, then come directly toward my face, where it stopped about 6 inches from the windshield. Had it come a bit further, it would have decapitated me. It so happened that, that day, I was wearing an all white dress and had not pinned my hair up, as usual, but had let it hang loose. When the two men in the truck got out and ran over to the car, they told me later, they fully expected me to be dead. When they opened the door, with great difficulty, since it was jammed shut, and I stepped out in my white dress with my long blonde hair, they told me that they had both thought that they were seeing an angel. Then they were both astonished, they said, because although I was shaking, I was not crying or hysterical or hurt in any way and immediately asked if anyone had a phone so that I could call work and a wrecker to get the car.

I cannot remember the police coming or how I got to work. I think maybe the police drove me to work. I do remember everyone trying to persuade me not to go to work. Everyone was amazed that I had survived unhurt, including my father, who later said that when he saw the car, anything he had thought to say to me vanished from his mind in his gratitude that I was alive. Unlike my older two siblings, I had not been nearly fatally injured in a car accident. When my case came up in traffic court, I was given a $25 ticket for something like unsafe passing or reckless driving, but the judge made it a point to explain to me that he understood that this accident was not really my fault, it was the fault of the driver of the sports car. My version of the story had been supported by the truck drivers. The judge said the law required him to issue a ticket to someone involved in an accident and I was the only person available. It was never explained to me why the ticket could not be issued to the driver of the sports car in absentia or as a John Doe or something, so I count this as my first experience with the injustice of the law.

Although I went to work that day and the day after and functioned and everyone remained amazed at my apparent calm, the emotional fallout hit on the third day. I was sitting at my desk typing when I saw again the hood of the car coming straight for my face. I began to shake uncontrollably. I made it to the bathroom before I threw up and then began crying. I now know that this is called a delayed reaction and that I had been in psychological shock, though not physical shock, for two days. I had been getting to work on the Greyhound bus, but my boss sent me home anyway, even though I would have to wait in the bus station for several hours for the next bus to Lakeland.

The difficulty and expense of commuting on the bus every day soon caused me to quit the job, which I would have done soon anyway, since I expected my acceptance letter from Florida State University to arrive any minute, along with the information that I had been accepted into a teacher’s loan program which would have paid my tuition and allowed me to repay it by teaching in Florida. The acceptance letter arrived but I had not been accepted for the teacher’s loan program. My test score had not been high enough, since I was coming down with the flu the day I took it, had been feverish and, as far as anyone seemed to know, had had to take it that day or never. Since part of my college expenses were to have been met by selling the car, my college career appeared to died aborning. Between the loss of the expected car money and the expected teacher’s loan, I did not have nearly enough money to pay my expenses at FSU.

The shock of the accident and its fallout affected me in a deeply philosophical way, as well. In between replaying the accident over and over in my head, including the fact that I had not been hurt in any way and including the looking-like-an-angel part, I began to feel that I had been spared because there was something important that I was supposed to do in my life. I was, at this point, still extremely religious in my own personal way. I came to believe that God had sent the accident to shake me up, to demonstrate to me that my life was too precious to waste on being ordinary and following the ordinary paths I was expected to follow—a good job, a good marriage, church every Sunday but not too literal a following of the words of Christ.

Although the circumstances of my life shortly after these events removed God from the equation, I date my commitment to fulfilling my unique purpose in life from the accident and I have never wavered from that commitment. I have always felt that my life was given to me at the age of 17 and I resolved then that I would not waste it doing only what was expected of me. I would determine what God had in mind for me and do that as best I could. I have also never wavered from that plan, though the idea of God has gone through several transformations and ended up closer to the idea of karma.

The accident was not the only thing traumatic happening to me at that point in time. I had also, in my own mind, if not technically, lost my virginity. By that I mean that I had spent the night with a man I had been dating, an older man, had attempted intercourse, but full penetration had not, in those archaic words, “been achieved,” probably because I was so terrified and tense. The man had became frantic, because he could now be accused of statutory rape, a term with which I was unfamiliar. He berated me for entrapping him this way, treated me to a discourse on how I must be frigid or otherwise hopelessly damaged and would probably never be able to engage in normal sex relations. Then he dumped me. There will be much more about this in a later chapter. For now, it matters in that I am sure my thought processes and decision-making ability were impacted by these two events occurring within a week or two of each other.

Adding to the turmoil was my rapidly deteriorating relationship with my mother. Initially relieved and proud that I had found what was to her a wonderful job, she was dismayed when I began looking for an apartment or a room in Winter Garden, in order to save myself the commute that nearly killed me.  Since I had not been living with my parents for the last three school semesters, the idea of having my own place seemed a logical solution to me even though I anticipated problems finding such a place due to the fact that I was still 17. Without her knowledge, I had looked at several places, lying about my age, and was about to rent one of them when I wrecked my car.

Logically, the car accident should have been an argument in favor of my living near my job, but no one who lived near my mother ever expected her to be logical. When I revealed my plan, her irrationality went into overdrive. There was a scene that took place in the kitchen where in she goaded me into saying, “you just can’t stand it that you can no longer control me, can you?” Before I could blink, she had slapped me so hard in the face that my head banged against the refrigerator door, making an impressive noise. Instinctively, I threw the knife in my hand into the kitchen sink, and slapped her back in the face, in the same movement. She was coming at me again when my father, hearing the commotion, rushed in from the living room and grabbed her.

It was downhill from there. The three of us screamed at each other for some time, after which I retreated into my room, counted my money and reread a recent letter I had received from Sarah, who was attending a Bible college in Georgia. She was urging me to join her there, since I had lost all hope of attending FSU. It seemed like the only route open to me.

© Jentri Anders, 2016

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