When we first arrived in south Florida, we lived in a small two bedroom house with my paternal grandmother in a little town called Ojus. It was crowded. After all, there were four of us plus her in that tiny house. I don't even recall where we all slept. I do recall it always seemed dark in that house. Before air conditioning became readily available and affordable, keeping a house cool in the heat of south Florida involved hurricane awnings and lots of shrubbery and trees to block the sun.
The town was just a tiny place with no municipal services like water or sewer, just an unincorporated area in the northeast section of Dade County. That meant we washed in, cooked with, and drank well water. Now, up in the mountains that might have meant fresh clean water but not in south Florida. Down there it meant rotten egg smell and a certain sliminess. The smell was from the sulfur content of the water and the sliminess was due to a type of iron bacteria that left a rusty residue in the water. Grandma would fill old half gallon glass milk jugs with the water and set them in the refrigerator, a noisy old machine that seemed on its last legs. Once that water was ice cold, it was more than tolerable, especially on hot days. And there were a lot of hot days. But the rust would settle to the bottom of the jug and you would be careful not to disturb it when pouring a glass. The combination of the sulfur and iron created a rather unique odor and that odor lingered on all who bathed in it.
The town was quaint and had a number of small stores and a post office. It was also bordered by a canal that ran from a lake (actually an old rockpit) that eventually fed into the Intra Coastal Waterway and a wonderful place called Greynolds Park. There was an elementary school about 8 blocks south of my grandmother's house, oddly enough called Ojus Elementary School. It was where I got my first taste of the Florida educational system. A major change from New York. Had there been a summer between school in Farmingdale and school in Ojus, the transition might have been easier. It was April when we moved, late April, the school year was winding down but it was like I hadn't been to school all that year.
This was 1956, I was 9 years old, I knew nothing of Florida. I found that they had been teaching about the state all year. The names of each county, where they were on a map, major cities, the history, and so on. I hadn't a clue. It was the first time I felt stumped in a school setting. On top of learning to deal with the trauma of moving, I now had to catch up in school. I was fine in math and spelling and reading but history, though my favorite subject, was not the world and US history I had been learning but history as it applied to my new state. The influence of Spain, the emphasis on agriculture, and tourism. Geography was local also. In New York, we never drew a map of the state, I had no idea what the state capitol was nor where it was. But Florida's shape was everywhere on the walls and the state capitol was duly noted. I figured I was in deep trouble.
The school itself was much like my old one except instead of brick it was stucco. Inside, the desks were old and scarred with the initials of decades of children who had sat in them. The walls were a dull pale green. The floors were covered in linoleum. The paint on the window frames was peeling. The usual blackboards, the rows of desks with inkwells we never would use. I liked school, I just never liked the environment.
The school was segregated, as was the norm then. While my old school wasn't, we only had a few African-American students so it didn't make an immediate impression on me. That came one day while I walked to school and looked across the two highways and railroad tracks that separated Ojus from what I learned was called "Colored Town" and saw the squalid, weather worn, wood buildings and shacks where the "colored people" lived. They were closer to my school than my grandmother's house but the kids were bused some 8 miles away to a "colored school". I had much to learn about my new cultural surroundings.
A Night Unremembered
7 years ago