Sometime during the autumn of 1939, shortly after the outbreak of war in Europe, my family moved to Florida. I believe my father was thinking of retiring there. Anyway, he rented a house in Punta Gorda, on Florida’s gulf coast, and we settled in for what we believed would be a long stay. I was in the fifth grade then, and I was enrolled in the Punta Gorda elementary school.
There are several vivid memories of that Florida interlude. For one thing, I remember that my new classmates insisted that I was a Yankee, despite my earnest protestations to the contrary. At that time Yankee was a pejorative term in the American South, and nowhere more so than in Florida. I pointed out to them that my paternal grandfather had enlisted in the Confederate army and was shot twice for his pains, (fortunately he survived the war, else I would not be writing this); but no matter how vigorously I argued, I was unable to convince my Florida friends of my Southern bona fides. I could have shown them the buttons off my grandfather’s Confederate uniform, and it would not have mattered. It turned out that the basic problem was that I was from North Carolina. People from South Carolina and South Dakota were Southerners, but anyone from North Carolina was definitely a Yankee. I was unable to overcome the tight logic of such an argument.
Another memory of those times in Florida is that the most attractive girl in my fifth-grade class developed a serious crush on me, and she was very obvious about it — so much so that it made me extremely uncomfortable. I was quite a singer at that time, and I had been chosen to sing several solos during our Christmas program. As I stood up to perform, that girl started making calf eyes at me from her seat in the front row. Immediately I was stuck with the most serious case of stage fright I have ever experienced. I couldn’t remember the words of any of the familiar Christmas carols. In fact, if someone had asked me my name at that moment I wouldn’t have known it. What a disaster! The remainder of that miserable day is mercifully blotted out of my memory. As Mark Twain said about a similar experience of his hero Tom Sawyer, “Let us draw a curtain of charity over the rest of the scene.”
During Christmas vacation that December, Dad, Mom, and I got in the family car and headed south to Key West. I remember all those long bridges between the keys, fishing from the piers, eating at a lot of seafood restaurants, etc. We were back in Punta Gorda in time for the resumption of school.
Florida was a very poor state in 1940, and at that time it had the smallest population of any southern state. The areas around Miami and Tampa and Jacksonville were quite attractive and prosperous, but there was widespread poverty in other parts of Florida. You could see many developments that had been opened during the Roaring 20s boom only to be abandoned after the economic crash of the 30s. The thing that Florida needed most at that time was air conditioning, but that wouldn’t become widely available until after World War II. Many people could not endure the year-round Florida heat.
Another memory of those days in Florida was listening to news of the winter war between the Soviet Union and Finland. Everyone was impressed by the way the Finns resisted so fiercely, throwing back attack after attack until finally forced to give in to overwhelming numbers of men and tanks. Observing the Finnish army’s performance, Hitler and many of the German generals got the impression that the Soviet Union would be a pushover. Late the following year they would learn otherwise.
Dad, Mom, and I listened to news on the radio every evening. Dad’s favorite commentator was Lowell Thomas, and I will always remember his sign off — “So long until tomorrow.”
Sometime after the beginning of the new year Mom and Dad decided to return to North Carolina. I never knew all the reasons why, just as I wasn’t certain why we moved to Florida in the first place. Anyway, I wasn’t disappointed. Our Florida adventure was over. Thirty-two years would pass before I made another trip to the Sunshine State.