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By Ron Stock
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 Ron Stock
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Chapter OneSandy Memories
The wind is warm through the partially opened window, and even though the car's air-conditioning works perfectly, I'm not tempted to turn it on, as the wind brings me the scent of summer with just that slightest hint of salt and swamp. I am on my way through Jacksonville, Florida, headed to Key West, where almost 25 percent of the population is separated, divorced, or widowed—a perfect place for a guy like me to start over, one more time.
Many of the men in Key West are fleeing a bad divorce or two or even three, and some are trying to distance themselves from their kids who just want the life insurance money when dear old dad finally croaks. As for the kids, they probably don't realize they have to stand in line behind the money-grubbing exes for their share of any insurance payoff.
While in high school and college, I got to visit most cities in Florida, yet somehow I missed Key West. Although it was on my list of must-see places for checking out the "3 B's"—beach, bars, and babes—for some reason, I just never got around to visiting the place. Maybe I was too lazy to drive the added fifty miles from Miami Beach to Key West to see if Key West's beaches were any nicer, the bars any wilder, or the babes any sexier. Miami Beach is hard to beat on all three, so fifty miles more down the road did not happen. Now, well past those carefree days of yore, I'm determined to see what I missed out on just to save a few miles.
Fifty years have flown by, and going to Key West isn't for the "3 B's" anymore, but to take a permanent vacation from the responsibility of caring for my wife Lucinda, who is hopelessly institutionalized in a $10,000-per-month, exclusive Alzheimer's facility. Don't get me or my intentions wrong; I deeply love Lucinda, and I will keep in touch with her doctor and will return home to California on occasion to see her. For forty years she was my closest friend, lover, confidant, and the kind of wife and mother who is usually only found in fairy tales. But now, Alzheimer's disease has built a wall between us to the point that neither I nor our children exist in her version of reality anymore. Each visit has become an exercise in self-torture since she no longer recognizes me, and to see the woman of my dreams, and my realities, look at me like a stranger is more than this old heart can bear.
I hear myself sigh as the miles roll past, and I wipe away a tear with the heel of one hand. Thank God for small favors, at least she is still physically healthy and seems blissful in her own, new world. I realized months ago that the lady I had spent most of my adult life with was gone, the disease having taken her from me just as surely as if the reaper's scythe had descended through cancer or a heart attack, and now I think I've finally gathered the pieces of my broken heart into a neat enough bundle to start a new adventure.
I am looking to take the last breath of happiness before I take my last turn 'round this dusty old rock. I dream of watching Key West's magnificent sunset, hand in hand with "the one," and in my dreams I remember....
I remember Stacey, whose smile and charming personality could once light up a room and draw men like moths to a flame, where, if they weren't careful, they would lose themselves in her light. I remember Jackie, whose sultry demeanor could melt the hardest male heart into something akin to warm tapioca pudding. Then there is Ginny, who was as beautiful as a spring day, as sexy as Aphrodite, and brighter than many of my old college professors.
Some fifty years ago, each of the three was once the true love of my life. I am not sure which one will be "the one" with me on the beach. Very coincidentally, all three live in Florida, and all three are widows, meaning all three are single, still in the prime of their life, and available to reunite with an old boyfriend—me. After all, I think I've still got what it takes, even after all these years.
I never was much for the whole meet-and-greet thing of dating, hooking up with a new girl every week. And at this point in my life, the thought of going looking for a new girl somewhere out in public is almost as daunting as trying one of those online dating sites. So, rather than look for someone new in my life, I thought I would come back to Florida and contact Stacey, Jackie, and Ginny and find out if any one of them still had any sparks of love for me.
Granted, it's a real stretch to think an old high school sweetheart might still carry a spark, let alone a flame, for me after five decades. So, I'm banking on the theory that girls always carry a small flame in their heart for their first real boyfriend, sort of like the little blue flame of the pilot light in my gas furnace, a tiny little flame but one that never goes out completely.
Like Sleeping Beauty, who awakens from her long slumber at true love's first kiss to find her Prince Charming, I believe maybe one of them—Stacey, Jackie, or Ginny—will find that little pilot light still lit after all these years. Then, with a little time and a little coaxing, maybe I can nurse that tiny blue flame into a roaring inferno and become Prince Charming to one of them once again. It may be a fairy tale to believe a girlfriend from fifty years ago might still carry in her heart a little spark of love that can be awakened like Sleeping Beauty. But can't life sometimes be like a fairy tale?
I so hope my fairy tale, my Sleeping Beauty, will come true.
* * *
It's not so far to Key West, but I feel the sudden urge for the sand and sea, so I bring the car to a stop in one of the beachfront parking lots along Jacksonville Beach. Tossing shoes and socks into the back seat, I place my feet on pavement that's rapidly growing hot, but I know I'll manage the walk to the sand in spite of the fact that I don't own sandals, and flip-flops always seem to leave a blister between my toes. Tender feet are a family deficiency, I think as I step out of the car; must be something in the DNA.
I dodge the broken beer bottle littering the side of the walkway and, for a brief instant, consider returning for my tennis shoes. But I decide to risk my tender soles on the fifteen-foot walk, for the sheer freedom of not bothering with them. Life, after all, is full of risks to be taken, and only those bold enough will reap the massive rewards of a little cool Florida sand between their toes.
I stop just short of the receding tide and close my eyes. I breathe deeply of the salty air; the sound of the breakers, the warm sun, and the sea breeze take me back in time. The memories come unbidden, cascading through my brain as if in competition with one another to be the first to the surface of my mind or to be the one labeled fondest. This beach was once my favorite playground, and returning here today brings me back to the best four years of my youth, to the long summer days and the cool nights spent right here with my car and my friends on this very same sand.
Back in those days, there were no honor meters to try to grab a few dollars from the beachgoer; you simply drove onto the sand and parked where you wanted. The car was the entertainment center of the beach, the latest Elvis song or reruns with "Wolfman Jack" cranking out of the radio from Jacksonville's newest station, WAPE, "The Big Ape," with the Tarzan yells between songs so everyone in earshot knew exactly what radio station was playing. The cooler would be placed in the sand in front of the car, within easy reach, and the ice would be cool and refreshing in the summer sun.
Joining the parade of cars on the beach was the social event for those in my age group, and also the best way to go about that most important of activities: meeting girls. One of my friends was so aware of that fact that he named the gathering "The Parade of Poon-Tang."
I open my eyes and return to the present to find that the beach is now just an isolated stretch of sand, sand, and more sand. Not a car can be seen along the strand, motor vehicles long ago banned from the beach by some nutty environmentalist claim that leaky brake fluids and radiator coolants were killing some rare type of sand crab. It's too bad, I think; the types of crabs most often found on the beach in my younger years were the human type and couldn't be killed by simply lying under a leaky '39 Chevy.
Looking down the long stretch of hard-packed sand, I can see the Jacksonville Beach pier, made of concrete and steel and state-of-the-art. But in my mind, I can still see and smell the creosote-soaked pilings and weathered wood of the old pier, which was lost to a hurricane that ripped along the Florida coast and devastated the city of Jacksonville and its beach. The old wooden structure hadn't stood a chance against the fury of God's winds and the awesome surge of the sea. The pier had been like a summertime friend that I could depend on for fun and adventure, and when it crumbled into the salty depths, it was almost like the death of a childhood companion.
Thoughts of the old pier bring back memories of a night long ago when, at the very end of the rickety wooden structure, a first-time date had jumped from the handrail into the dark, swirling waters below. I can still vividly remember her, in full formal attire from our night at her cotillion dance, silhouetted against the moonlight just before she leapt into the darkness.
Her intentions weren't self-harm; she had simply wanted to prove to me that she was a member of a group of elite Jacksonville Beach swimmers who called themselves "The Jetty Jumpers." The Jetty Jumpers were known throughout the area for their daring in jumping from the jagged rocks of the local jetty into the swirling water, only to swim under the surface for minutes on end against the treacherous currents beating upon the razor-edged stones, before finally making their way safely back to dry ground.
As I watched her swan-dive into the dark waters, her gown flowing like angel wings, I was sure she would be listed as "missing girl" in the next morning's papers and was already trying to figure out how to explain it all to a pair of grieving parents and the Jacksonville police. Well, sure, I thought, we had had a few—maybe more than a few—Singapore Slings at Wally's Well, the local watering hole. Maybe it had been my idea to wander out to the end of the pier alone with her, but surely it wasn't my fault that she had taken the plunge.
I wandered back the length of the pier, down the several flights of steps, and out onto the cool sand, contemplating what my fate might be. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't think of a way to explain the events of the previous half-hour to her parents.
I mean, saying "Your daughter took a dare and jumped off the pier; she wanted to prove what a great swimmer she was, so I dared her" didn't seem like such a good idea when I considered the fact that her father was a former NFL linebacker who would undoubtedly proceed to break me into tiny pieces for standing idly by while his precious little girl jumped from the pier in her $500 formal gown that he had just paid for—especially since the jump had been made on a half-assed dare. On the other hand, telling her father that she had been very drunk at the time and that, before I could stop her, she had leapt from the railing, screaming "YEE HAWW!" on the way down would undoubtedly end up with me being the next person listed as "missing" in the local paper.
I shook my head, wondering why the girl had been shouting "YEE HAWW!" It made no sense at all, but then again, jumping from an ancient wooden pier while wearing a formal ball gown in order to plunge three stories into the dark, swirling water made no sense either. I finally decided that it might be best to let the parents and the cops try to figure out the logic behind the plunge.
As I was about to make the walk to the nearest phone and just take my medicine, my date waddled out of the crashing surf, giggling like mad, her formal dress hanging from her body like a big, white, wet chamois blanket. I can still hear her slightly slurred words: "Hey! Wanna do a duo off the pier? Just me and you?"
I smile in spite of myself at the memory of taking her to my car and peeling off the formal gown; after all, a beautiful, wet, naked, and slightly drunk Jetty Jumper giggling "Yee haw, yee haw" over and over in your front seat is one of those memories that will last a lifetime. We didn't consummate anything that night; she was soaked and coated with sand on every surface and most likely in every orifice. Such activities would not likely have been very comfortable for either of us.
Now, the midday sun turns its full brilliance onto the waves and land, warming the sand under my feet as I turn and head down the beach. My intention is just to walk with my memories as far as I can, yet I am brought up short for a moment to discover a private beach attached to a still more private condo project.
The private beach happened to belong to the Ponte Verde Beach Club, where I had walked many a slightly swaying date down the cool, moonlit sands. I would bring the ladies here, and since I was in good with the doorman and bartender, I would be allowed into the private club where my (usually) under-legal-drinking-age date and I would be served gin and tonics to our hearts' content. Things were much easier back before bars began to get sued and closed down for serving underage patrons. Back in the good old days, the worst that would happen was maybe a citation or a warning, if even that.
Back then, the beaches were great for walking without shoes, plopping down in the cool sand, and just watching the waves gently roll in, a girl under your arm and a little gin and tonic in your belly. At times, the beach itself was better than a movie when it came to entertaining a date. You never quite knew what to expect, and occasionally you would be treated to a show as a gigantic sea turtle hauled herself out of the surf to lay her eggs in the soft sand before lumbering back into the waves.
Let me tell you, if you ever had a date with a few gin and tonics under her belt and you got to watch the momma sea turtle lay her eggs, you could bet your bottom dollar on some action. It seemed that watching that big reptile carrying on the species ignited a passion for some heavy-duty making out. I learned that sea turtles can be valuable in far more pleasant ways than as an ingredient in some exotic soup.
Just south of Ponte Verde Beach was a wonderful little area called "Hill 13," a secluded area of high, snow-colored sand dunes that afforded a grand panoramic view of the ocean. It was the perfect place to take a date. With a big fluffy blanket, something cold to sip on (preferably 3.0 beer), and your girl next to you, the sea and stars would make the rest of the world just melt away as surely as the fresh, salty breeze kept away the sand flies and mosquitoes.
The real attraction of the place was that it was the best location in the area for a teenager to take his date in the hopes that one or both of them would lose their virginity during the evening. Hill 13 had the dubious honor of being the place where a great number of Jacksonville senior high boys experienced their first episode of premature ejaculation as raging hormones, heated passion, and the unexpected sensation of putting on their first condom overcame their ... umm ... self-control. I never had that experience myself, of course, but one of my best friends confided his experience of the embarrassing event to me one night after a few (well, more than a few) beers.
I pass the gleaming new concrete and steel pier, wrinkling my nose to try to catch one last whiff of the old creosote-and-salt smell the summer sun would leach out of the wooden structure that extended into the surf in long-ago and better days, and come to what was once Jacksonville Beach's grand, historical boardwalk.
Only a glitzy, restored Ferris wheel remains of what was once a teenage paradise of arcades, corndog stands, fortune teller stalls, souvenir shops, and an enormous bingo parlor. Now all the wonder and color of the place has been stolen by the generic facades of an upscale chocolate shop, a wannabe Starbucks, an overpriced sunglasses and beachwear store, a B-grade family restaurant, and a gallery full of cheesy whale paintings and dolphin sculptures.
Somewhere in the middle of these no-personality, modern monstrosities once stood my all-time-favorite boardwalk stall: Mahoney's SkeeBall Arcade. Honestly, one might wonder why a single skee ball arcade would entrance me more than any of the other attractions of the old boardwalk, but the truth is, the main attraction of Mahoney's SkeeBall was, for me, Coach Mahoney himself.
Each summer would find the owner and operator of Mahoney's SBA dressed in the same faded and frayed Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts, and flip-flops, sitting out front in a broken-down lawn chair, his khaki-clad ass threatening to drop through to the ground.
Excerpted from Reconnecting by Ron Stock Copyright © 2012 by Ron Stock. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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