I love my childhood playground. As we are getting deeper into hurricane season, I am reminded of the mangrove islands that are my backyard. This one in particular is my favorite and the host of many memories.
So, imagine being able to play on an uninhabited off-shore island as a little girl growing up in Key West Florida, how cool would that be? I am still that little girl playing on that island now, at 69 years young. The mangrove tree that my tree house was in, blew away in hurricane Donna in 1960 on my 12th birthday. Lesson learned by hind sight: all mangrove trees are weakened by nails put in them. Still, that tree house and those memories are rich touchstones for me today. I remember my Daddy used every opportunity when he was in port to take my brother and I out to work on the tree house. I was reading Swiss Family Robinson at the time so we named ours Falconhurst like they did.
Long before that, Daddy took the family of 6 out in the boats he built. As the family grew, Daddy built another bigger boat and gave my brother the 12-ft runabout named the Ronnie L. My brother Ron was 18 months older than I, and like me, was glued to my Dad when he was in port. Never ones to miss out on an adventure, our two sets of feet always hit the deck at 4:00 AM when Daddy would say “anyone want to go fishing?” I learned from Ron that Dad didn’t just go fishing, they went exploring and I could not understand my two sisters for staying home and doing housework. I wanted to join the team that was exploring and feeding the family instead of the home team who kept our house looking nice.
What I didn’t realize then was that I was being trained as a Tropical Oceanic Wilderness Guide by the seat of my bathing suit at only seven years old. The purest fun on the backcountry islands of the Gulf side of the Lower Keys was pulling back the mangroves and peeking into each and every island with wonder and amazement. Let me take you there now……
We arrived in a small boat and pulled back the red mangrove tree branches to see a beach in the distance. This island had a shoreline made of sand from storms that roll up a 16-ft channel from the northwest. There is a magical glow of green over the whole island. The bugs aren’t bothering us too bad, so off we go. The path follows the high tide line and there are low succulent ground cover plants that smell pungent when you step on them. About half way to the end of the right side of the island, we see a path that cuts off to the middle of the island away from the water. It is soupy and a little stinky as we slosh through black mangrove roots that are coming up like snorkels to breathe air.
In the distance, as we stop to let our eyes adjust to the low light coming through the tree canopy and we see an open area. Wow! We are surprised by a very old man-made structure in the middle of what seems to us to be a meadow. Later we learn about a hermit who lived out here in the time before the railroad. There are white and yellow butterflies and dragon flies in beautiful colors.
It seems spooky and yet we go straight ahead towards the water on the back side of the island and then loop to the right. We have to do the limbo under and climb over some of the trees, but it’s more fun than it is difficult. At the end, as we curve back, it opens up wide like the feeling of being in a cathedral and we stand in awe below the ancient forest of very tall red mangroves that are centuries old. We can see out from under the trees to the other islands in the distance and the colors are gorgeous aqua and green like stained glass.
It is so quiet, peaceful and lush, like something in a dream. A Great White Heron croaks when we surprise him and we nearly jump out of our skin. Then, we headed back along the front of the island where we left the boat. We left the other end of the island to be explored another day.
Before I was old enough to join in Ron and Dad’s adventures, they would drop Mom and us girls off on Falconhurst where we would play pirates and make tea parties out of things that had floated up. Mama would not have much of Dad if she hadn’t brought us along as infants in her arms on Dad’s boating adventures. I graduated from tea parties when I heard Ronnie’s tales of exploring deep into the surrounding islands. Most of the islands don’t have any land at all, just mangroves with little tidal creeks meandering through. Ohhh, this was the life for me.
Over many months we took materials out to our Falcon Hurst and built the most fantastic tree house a kid could dream of. There was a trap door in the bottom that locked. The windows locked and had screens when we cranked out the shutters. There was a trap door on top so we could climb out and fish from the roof. We had a bunk for Dad and bunk beds for Ron and me. We kept canned goods and water and cooked down on the beach on a grill. When Dad was out at sea working as a Navy Sonar-man, he let Ron and I go out and work on Falconhurst. Being 10 years old and earning the privilege and trust of our father to go out to the island by ourselves was beyond words. We knew just how far our 6-gallon tank of gas would go and still get us back home.
Even at seven years old, I could see in my classmates, during summer recreation out at Higgs Beach, their abject fear of the water. Yet I was down on the bottom bringing up all manner of sea life to show them up on the pier. I still remember the moment when something deep inside me decided that I was going to grow up and teach kids not to fear what is in the sea. I told Daddy that taking people exploring was what I wanted to do with my life and he took me seriously. He really trained Ron and I to do everything out there on the islands. He used his words and we used our hands, so we would learn how to always get home safe. Our father was a very wise man ahead of his time. His way of teaching us, now they call it Montessori, was a method of raising his children to leave home with ability and confidence.
Over the years, I have taken friends to Falconhurst for a walk down memory lane. I show them my favorite hide outs from my brother and bask in the sheer magic of the island. It is a place that has always spoken to my soul and the little girl in my heart. Gratefully, I am still living that dream today.