A lot of people have, in the process of becoming my friend, had a moment where they felt the need to ask me, a man of leisure and refinement, why I had not used my obvious intelligence to make millions, end world hunger, or improve the World Wrestling Federation, and I always have to chuckle and tell them “I wasn’t always this smart.”
The bulk of my childhood occurred in rural Florida, only a stone’s throw from Walt Disney World, during the time when Central Florida was just beginning to boom. Old Floridians were selling off their land as fast as they could. Entire counties worth of Orange groves were leveled, paved over, and subdivided into curbed, storm-drained, cookie cutter neighborhoods with names as compelling and imaginative as Brookglenn, Glennbrook, Brentwood, Glenbrent, Woodglen, even Oakwood. Each one had a dramatic entrance flanked by swooping stucco buttresses with the name painted across them in big loopy cursive.
The idyllic, pastoral fugue these names were supposed to invoke didn’t affect the population much except when they were buying the home. I suspect my father got a glazed look in his eye when he looked at the brochure for Whistling Pines, never suspecting that as raging, bored, highly literate pre-teens, my friends and I would discover late one night the letters on our entrance were easily removed with a Philips head screwdriver. He lived in Whistling Penis subdivision for 14 hours before anyone noticed. If only we’d had YouTube then.
Without the narcotic effect of cable or video games, our minds were free and quickly turned to the detailed and somewhat destructive exploration of our new home.
As my pop was the plumbing super, we got a discount on a house. We visited it nearly every day from slab to roof beams and moved into it’s gleaming vinyl interior in 1975. The subdivision had space for 400 homes. Only half were started. For the next three years, I lived in a construction site.
Which makes a lot of waste. Which has to go somewhere. Which is expensive. So to cut costs, they’d drive a bulldozer at a 30 degree angle into the ground, digging a long sloping ditch. Over the next year they’d fill it up with trash, cover it with dirt, then build a house over it.
Of course, as 10 year olds, we didn’t know anything about all that. All we know is one day we’re taking a shortcut home from school. We stop at the bait shop and buy nickle cigars and we’re smoking them in the dark shadows of the abandoned orange groves when we come across a huge hole in the ground.
It started at our toes and sloped gently down until the rim of the hole was several feet over our heads. You could see striated clay in the walls, citrus roots dangling like severed limbs, a little water seeping into the very bottom of it. And there was a tiny pile of trash way down there. We walked all the way in, amazed at the tufts of dill weed and long grass poking over the edge of it over our heads.
No one else knew about it. It was ours.
We immediately set out to create thrones. I found a big brass plate in the trash and used it to carve a hole out of the wall. My buddy, Tim McDonald, dug his throne with a board and we stuffed ourselves into them. Then we used the trash to build a tiny village. We got into it, carving roads and garages and using twigs and pieces of cardboard from the trash pile to create huts and corrals and a ramp. Eventually, we had to step back and admire out work, a miniature primitive encampment a good yard wide, several levels with connecting roads. It was a marvel of imagination. It was the Anasazi ruins. It was Rome.
Naturally, we had to set it on fire. And just as naturally, it only made sense that, in order to put out the fire (which was getting pretty big pretty fast) we should use our pee.
Now, if we had really thought about it, even in our wildest imagination, we would never have considered that in Florida, where it rains almost every day, where the tangle of weeds is so pregnant with moisture that even on a dry summer day in the afternoon if you walk across a field you’ll be soaking wet, we would never have believed that trees might be dried out.
But apparently they were, because the orange tree hanging directly over our miniature inferno promptly burst into flames the very second we ran out of pee. We stood there in the bottom of this pit, horrified, as the next tree exploded, then the next, then–
We ran like hell. We dove between house rows and crept around garages and took another short cut through the little woods behind my house and snuck in through the sliding glass doors and were sitting in the living room watching Gilligan’s Island when my dad burst into the house.
Sirens were wailing and smoke was drifting over the subdivision. Dad came in and told us half the orange grove just burned down. We acted rather astonished. Thirty years later, I gave it up and told him and he didn’t believe me.