Thirty years ago, when I was 10, my family and I moved to a brand-new Florida suburb, where I learned to waterski, kiss girls, listen to rock n roll, smoke cigarettes, and know (and somehow avoid most of) the trouble that bored, suburban adolescents without adequate transportation and supervision often get into.
My stepfather, a career USAF fighter pilot, had just returned from a harrowing year-long tour of Viet Nam. There he had endured the 1968 Tet Offensive, which briefly overran Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base (his duty station), leaving 23 dead and a score of military planes and other equipment in fiery ruin. In early 1969, my stepfather, my mother, and my younger sister and brother and I moved from temporary base housing at Eglin AFB to a new ranch house in a small suburb called Longwood, outside the small Florida town of Shalimar. It was the largest house we had ever lived in. The streets were quiet, the summer afternoons rainy, and the bayous clear and full of fish. I had my own room for the first time, and we lived on the edge of a oak and pine forest filled with snakes and secret places. Dad built a screened porch so we could enjoy the outside free of mosquitos and barbeque on the weekends with the hibachi he brought back from his southeast Asia tour. My sister and I played records on that porch on a small, plastic turntable Dad bought in Hong Kong, and we had a small garden patch at the edge of the forest where we grew squash, watermelon, and tomatoes.
When Mom and Dad first bought the house, it had no grass in the yard. So we plugged it with sprigs of centipede grass, one by one, stuck in the loamy sand. Dad later installed a sprinkler system that he dug by hand, sweating profusely in the hot Florida sun. He kept his old National Geographics in the garage, and he built a small fountain in the backyard out of poured concrete. For fun, he bought a fire-engine-red Chris-Craft powerboat with a 90-horsepower Evinrude, which we launched down at the neighborhood park on Garnier's Bayou. There, I would take my glasses off and wade out into the water with a pair of wooden waterskis strapped to my feet, then squint at my Dad as he advanced the throttle and pulled me violently forward, hanging on the ski rope. I quickly learned to find my balance hurtling over the blue-green water at 45 miles per hour. We would later picnic under the shade of live oak and loblolly pine trees, eating hotdogs, hamburgers, and my mother's potato salad that I loved so much.
I went through a couple of bicycles over the years we lived there. I came there with my second bicycle, a German three-speed bought from a hausfrau who used to clean our apartment when we lived in Kaiserslautern. (My stepfather was stationed at Ramstein AFB for more than three years during the 1960s.) One Christmas, I received a dark-green Schwinn "lowrider" with a banana seat, high-rise handlebars, and lots of chrome. (I never realized then that such a bike would be a collector's item today.) I rode all over the neighborhood, which was several miles from town and then relatively free of traffic. I was blissfully unaware of the unending monotony of ranch houses and small patches of scrubby forest throughout the neighborhood. The only way into town was on a four-lane, high- speed highway with no shoulders and no parallel bike path, no sidewalk, absolutely no other alternative to the road. Our bikes were toys, not transport. We never rode anywhere but in the neighborhood and along the sandy paths through the woods.
As the years passed, I learned to play touch football with the neighborhood kids; went through a model-rocket phase, where we fired them off all over the neighborhood; went trick-or-treating from house to house, bringing home paper bags full of sweets; flirted with and innocently kissed several neighborhood girls; smoked my first cigarette (a Marlboro); and hung out behind the houses at night, talking about music, cars, girls, school, and fishing. We camped out in backyards, listened to records such as Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Waters," The Fifth Dimension's "Aquarius," and the Beatles' "Rubber Soul," and our mothers drove us to school dances in town.
Our mothers drove us everywhere: clothing stores, record stores, the base exchange (the "BX"), the mall after it opened, the movie theater, and the beach. We thought nothing of just hopping in the car and going where we needed or wanted to. Gas was less than 50 cents a gallon at the BX, and we took it for granted that this was the way to live, even that this was our reward for working hard and being good Americans.
In 1970, Dad bought a red 1964 Mustang convertible, and we would put the top down on a Friday night and all five of us would ride out to the Officer's Beach Club for dinner. Although we never went faster than 60 or so, we knew that Mustang could go over 100 miles per hour. Occasionally, Mom and Dad would hire a babysitter and they would go out for drinks and dancing. My mother would wear a cocktail dress and high heels and put a scarf over her hair, and they would head out into the warm evening, my dad wearing his regulation USAF sunglasses and sporting a toothy, jaunty grin. My mother's own car was cool, too; it was a gold Camaro with a white naugahyde interior, and one of the most memorable sunsets I can remember seeing happened one evening when Mom was driving me and several friends of mine somewhere, anywhere, and I happened to look up into the sky through the front windshield as we were crossing the Shalimar Bridge into Ocean City. The sky was streaked with red, white, and blue, and the clouds were golden.
Since my mother still lives there (though in a different house), I visit the old neighborhood several times a year. I go for long walks around my old haunts, and although much is the same, it's clear that certain streets, including mine, have seen better days. I remember the newly-built houses, the manicured green lawns, children everywhere, baseball in the street, the blue sky.... Now, several houses are shabby- looking and the lawns are ill-kept; there are lots of retirees, sometimes just one per house; the streets seem dead with only the occasional car passing through; and the neighborhood seems faded and tired in many sections. Our old house has been maintained , but now there are many new houses behind it where there used to be forest. The whole place feels too quiet, even creepy.
Although it's still a desirable area, especially around the waterfront, you can see how the home designs and street layouts have fared over the last last three decades. A few of the houses are timeless, and some have been remodeled or renovated, but many look tacky and kind of sad. (The 1960s and '70s will not be known as a golden age of residential architecture.) The wider streets seem too big, and the large yards apparently overwhelm many owners--several of them, in the less swanky sections, have just let them go to weeds or scrub grass. The public areas are not well maintained, and, thirty years later, there are still no sidewalks.