My mother usually worked second shift. On
the weekends we went to a place called ‘Miami Springs Powerboat Club’. It
was a house built on concrete stilts driven into the ocean floor seven miles
out into the ocean. There were 17 houses in all and the area is still known
as ‘Stiltsville’. On some weekends I would go with my family to the clubhouse;
on others I would go home with my grandparents and attend church then go
out to eat and enjoy the illusion of being an only child. Many families gathered
at the clubhouse. The first house was destroyed by a hurricane and so a
second was built with the first level open and the house built atop of that
to allow storms and hurricanes to pass through without causing any damage.
Many years after the clubhouse was built, Miami Vice filmed some of their
series there. There was one large room with beds at one end. In the center
were tables and off to one side was a fully operational kitchen powered by
a gas generator. Someone was always cooking lobster, chowder or boiled shrimp
freshly caught just outside where the boats were moored, ranging in size
from 14-foot powerboats to massive yachts. I was always the oldest child
and got to watch over the younger ones, helping them into swim suits, fixing
drinks and sandwiches, applying sun screen and baiting their hooks.
At low tide the area behind the clubhouse
would become a huge sandbar, and we would walk around collecting sea-shells,
picking up sponges, cracking open sea urchins for a delicacy we took for
granted. The wonder and beauty of the sea creatures I saw there, and the
infinitely varied color patterns of the seashells always confirmed my belief
in a power greater than nature. Sometimes we would happen on a special find
- an octopus, squid or conch. Those of us who dared would play with the poor
creature until we tired of the game or it would die. I collected sea-shells
and learned their scientific names. I loved the clubhouse, the families that
were there, sleeping inside on the sofas surrounded by other children. It
was like a sleepover every weekend. Sometimes, when not many children came,
I would get to sleep on one of the big yachts and watch over the children
as the adults were playing cards, listening to music and enjoying their time
away from the bustling city of Miami. Often I would get a tip for my dependability.
After the summer ended, I reached 12
and old enough to be a ‘Candy striper’ hospital volunteer. I would go straight
from school to the hospital where my mother worked second shift. It was
a small osteopathic hospital and I served meals, ran errands, and helped
in the pharmacy. At 8pm when my shift ended, I would sit in the admitting
office or in the nurses station to do my homework, read medical journals
and wait for Mom’s shift to end at eleven. I was dependable, so the head
of the food and nutrition department asked if I wanted to work for pay (at
5' 7" and 165 lbs. I appeared to be older than 12 years). My parents gave
permission for me to start my first real job - as a special diets cook. In
the kitchen, only Spanish was spoken with the exception of one bi-lingual
lady. On my breaks and on days when I was not scheduled to work I read the
diet manuals, always searching to try to understand why some foods made me
sick and what, if anything, they had in common.
At school I was among the students who did not have a record of
vaccination for smallpox, still mandatory in 1969. I was taken to the school
gym with a large group of students and we were lined up and given the inoculation.
By the time I got home from school I was sick, very sick. I couldn’t look
after my foster brothers, so they were left to their own mischief. When
my mother got home from work, she saw that I was delirious and feverish.
She somehow managed to get me to the car and drove me to the hospital. I
was diagnosed with Asian flu and was not even able to speak to tell her that
I had been inoculated that morning at school.
One day in the summer of my 13th year I remember being at the pier,
letting our 16-foot boat into the ocean and looking out at the water smooth
as glass. Heading out to the clubhouse, we found ourselves all of a sudden
in the midst of a storm with 16-foot waves crashing into our little boat,
the compass was spinning in circles and we were surrounded by darkness.
Thunder and the sound of crashing waves drowned the voices of my parents
yelling instructions. We hung on as we were bounced and thrown in the ocean
like a discarded drink bottle. My Dad had no choice but to turn the boat
into the waves and pray we didn’t capsize. When the calm returned it was
eerie and we didn’t know where we were. I wished I had picked that weekend
to go to my grandparents’ house or had chosen to ride with the boat club’s
commodore on his 42-foot cabin cruiser. When we finally found the clubhouse,
the Commodore had not arrived. Later we learned that he had ended up 400
miles up the Florida coast and was stuck on a sandbar. Later at the clubhouse
I learned that Stiltsville was in an area known as the ‘Devil’s Triangle’
where boats and planes were sometimes lost without trace. At work the following
week I was telling the nurses about the weekend and learned that one of
them was a widow; her husband had been an air force pilot traveling with
a squadron across the ‘Triangle’ when his plane disappeared from radar.
He was lost without a trace.