In the summer of 1969 my husband, Richard, two daughters, eight-year-old Kim and six-year-old Kelli, and I moved back to our home in Orange, Texas after a six-month stay in Mentor-on-the-Lake, Ohio. As happy as we were to be home, it didn’t take long for us to realize at least one advantage of living away from there. Richard was my second husband. Our friends and families in Texas couldn’t resist giving us regular updates on the activities of my ex-husband or his ex-wife, reminders that plunged us momentarily into our separate, not-so-pleasant pasts. In Ohio it hadn’t been like that; new friends and neighbors there treated us like the bonded family unit we’d become since our marriage a year earlier.
That’s one reason why we didn’t hesitate to move again the next summer, 1970, when the number of East Texas construction jobs trickled down and Richard’s union spread the word that the Turkey Point nuclear facility in Homestead, Florida, near Miami, was offering premium pay for highly skilled, certified welders. We put our house up for sale, sold it quickly, then waited around for both the closing date and my ten-year class reunion. Over the next few days we put our best furniture in storage, gave away the rest of it, then loaded up the station wagon and a small trailer, said our sad goodbyes, and took off early one morning for the bright lights and big city.
Our first bit of bad luck occurred about four hours into our trip when the station wagon broke down as we passed through a seamy-looking, industrial section of New Orleans. Richard managed to get the engine going again long enough to coax it to an auto-repair shop, where he parked and unhooked the trailer at the side of the lot. The family parked in the non-air-conditioned shop office, spending an entire afternoon and a hefty chunk of our savings there.
Upon our eventual arrival in Miami, we checked into a motel and settled in to stay for a few days. The next morning, after a Waffle House breakfast, Richard left to locate the nuclear plant, where he was tested for the better part of the day and hired to begin work the following day. Meanwhile, we began searching the newspaper for a furnished house in a good school district. The cantaloupe-colored, stucco-sided, two-bedroom house we found and rented was owned by a Cuban lady, Mrs. Phelps, who had recently moved to New Jersey, leaving behind cupboards full of dishes and an attic full of Christmas lights and decorations. The house was on a corner in a neighborhood of similar stucco, pastel-colored houses, the elementary school within easy walking distance. A fruit-laden mango tree grew in one corner of the backyard near a cluster of other small trees on which Mrs. Phelps had cultivated beautiful orchids.
Kelli and Kim in backyard of Miami house.
On our first full day in the house Richard went to work, I got busy putting the house in order, and the girls went outside to play. Moments later I heard a scream and looked out to see Kelli flat on the ground. She had tried to climb a tree in the front yard and had fallen from its branches. She was unconscious for a brief moment, her thoughts noticeably confused after she came around. I was panicking inside but tried to remain calm. We had sold our second car before the trip; I had no way to drive Kelli to an emergency room, even if I’d known where to find one. Our telephone wasn’t due to be installed for another day or two, so I couldn’t call for help, and we hadn’t yet met a single neighbor. All I knew to do was pray silently, put an ice bag on the bump on her head, and watch her constantly to keep her from falling asleep. As I remember it, she recovered long before I did.
On Richard’s first day off work we couldn’t wait to explore the tropical paradise we’d call home for the immediate future. We put our bathing suits on under our clothes, jumped into the station wagon, and drove over the bridge across Biscayne Bay to spend the day on glamorous Miami Beach. We were disappointed to discover that most of the beachfront property was inhabited by high-rise hotels and restricted to their guests. Finally, after driving around for a while, we spotted a stretch of beach that was accessible to us. Amazingly, it wasn’t even crowded. We undressed in the car, picked up our blanket, towels and picnic lunch, walked across an asphalt parking lot into the sand, and got our first clear view of the Atlantic Ocean. We were filled with excitement as we dropped our bundle and raced knee-deep into the gently lapping waves. The girls squatted down to immerse their bodies in saltwater up to their necks, and Kim stood up again almost immediately, saying, “Look! I found a balloon.” Kelli popped up right behind her: “I found one, too!” Each of them was holding up a used condom. Richard and I gaped at each other for a split second before he ordered, “Drop it and get out of the water; we’re going home.” Our first dip in the Atlantic Ocean had been in a stream of raw sewage from a nearby posh hotel. I don’t remember how we explained our sudden departure to the girls.
Things got better after that. The girls made friends in the neighborhood and more friends once school started. I was Kelli’s first-grade room mother and did my share of walking the same path they walked to school, usually with cookies or cupcakes in hand.
We quickly established favorite places to go in Miami: the Steak & Brew restaurant for Saturday night family dinners that included unlimited pitchers of root beer; the rock quarry where the girls could swim in clean, crystal-clear, fresh water; and, best of all, the grassy inlet where we could wade out and surf fish in saltwater. We baited our hooks with long strips of mullet and caught two-foot-long, hard-fighting barracuda, one right after another. Richard cleaned them on the spot, storing thick fillets in an ice chest to fry when we got home. We left those fishing trips feeling tired but happy. Richard drove while I rode shotgun with my bare feet on the dashboard and sang along with the radio about "me and you and a dog named Boo.” In the backseat the girls munched on fresh peaches, the dripping juices leaving trails in the dirt on their arms. We fished that same spot many weekends, abandoning it only after staying there till nearly dark one evening when Kelli got her line tangled on her last cast and Richard slowly inched it back in to find a five-foot shark on the end of it.
Kelli and Kim in crystal-clear waters of rock quarry.
We visited the popular tourist attractions, too, mostly when friends from Texas came to see us. Unenlightened in those days about the plight of dolphins, we thoroughly enjoyed their leaps, spirals and splashes at Miami Seaquarium. We visited the Serpentarium, fronted by the towering head of a giant, concrete cobra, and made numerous trips to Parrot Jungle & Gardens, a mecca of tropical plants and brilliantly colored birds where we took turns being photographed with parrots on our heads and outstretched arms. We went several times to the real tropical beach, the kind we’d expected in the first place, at Crandon Park on Key Biscayne. We’d alternate playing in the ocean and resting in the sand, frequently treated to Calypso rhythms on drums and guitars played by dreadlocked musicians set up under a tarp a little way down the beach. We also enjoyed watching the ever-present Limbo dancers: young, suntanned men and women who threw their heads back and laughed as they competed to answer the challenge: “How low can you go?”
Top to bottom: Kelli, Kim and Linda at Parrot Jungle
Kelli and Kim on the beach at Crandon Park
One day we traveled north of Miami into the Everglades National Park to show Kim and Kelli the wilderness, a place untouched by time (if you don’t count the wooden boardwalks with railings to keep fools and children from falling into the swamp). We took off once for a weekend mini-vacation in Key West, driving seemingly endless miles across narrow roads and bridges to see sea turtles and spectacular sunsets. Another day we woke the girls up before daylight and drove to Cape Canaveral (called Cape Kennedy then) to see the launch of Apollo 15. A lot of other people must have had the same idea, because what I remember most about that event was a vast sea of parked cars that stretched interminably around us. We waited and waited, in and out of the car, and finally saw in the distance a big puff of smoke that obscured the rocket-ship headed for the moon.
At some point we did get a second car. Having the station wagon always available made my life easier, and the little blue Corvette (used) that Richard had fallen in love with was perfect for him to drive to work and for the rare nights we went out dancing. Those were the days when hot pants were in fashion, so I’d put on mine, either with go-go boots or Roman sandals with long straps that wrapped around my calves and tied behind my knees, and Richard would wear his striped, flare-legged pants and a gauzy shirt that had puffy pirate-sleeves and a big, pointed collar, leaving the shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest. He’d pick up the kids’ favorite baby sitter, then we’d head out in the Corvette for a night on the town. Miami was known for its nightlife, but it was expensive. Most of the nicer clubs had a three-drink minimum, and we limited ourselves to that. Fortunately, I never acquired a taste for liquor, so we’d both order bourbon with Coca-Cola on the side. I’d drink all the Coke, and Richard would drink the bourbon.
Linda, Kelli & Kim with Richard's blue Corvette.
Linda, posing with Flamenco dancer at Miami Beach nightclub.
There were plenty of ordinary days in Miami, too. Richard worked from four to midnight, so I slept in shifts. I’d stay up until he got home around one in the morning, fix him something to eat while he unwound and we shared the news of the day, then we’d go to bed. I’d sleep for a few hours, get up to get the girls off to school, then go back to sleep another hour or two. After a while it began to feel normal. We had a house to clean, grocery shopping to do, dentist appointments to keep, all the things people need to do wherever they live. Somehow, though, surrounded as I was by dense greenery, vivid flowers and bright sunlight, I didn’t mind those chores and errands as much as usual.
In Miami I felt alive, almost electric, with a grand sense of freedom and adventure. We lived there for just over 18 months. When the nuclear expansion became operative and Richard’s job ended, we moved on to new places and new adventures, but I don’t think we were ever again as carefree as we’d been during our Florida days.
I’ve been told that Miami has changed in the forty-plus years since we were there, that it’s a harder, harsher place to raise a family now, not as safe as it once was. I guess that’s true of most places.