"Let's go get lost" is a statement I heard
many times as a kid on a Sunday afternoon.
After church, and usually after eating dinner,
that's what we call the noon meal in the south,
Dad, Mom and I would load up in the car for the
weekly, Sunday adventure. We didn't care where
we went and, as far as I could tell, it was
whichever way Daddy's nose pointed.
Back in the late '50's and early '60's, central
Florida was a whole lot different than it is today.
There were literally thousands of acres of citrus
groves. These groves were dotted with hidden lakes
and ponds and, through later discovery, weren't
fished all that much. There were millions of things
to discover. Heck, I had only been on the face of
this Earth for a mere eight, or ten years.
I was raised in Auburndale, Florida, a small town
located right slap-dab in the middle of the state;
everybody knew everybody. We had two stop lights,
two main highways, and an "uptown" that closed
around five-thirty in the afternoon. Taylor's
Drug Store was the local hangout after school.
They made real milkshakes, root beer floats,
and the best hamburgers in the entire world...
well, our little world, anyway. The population
of A-dale, as we called it, was somewhere around
five thousand and I was one of 'em, and dang proud
of it. But in my short time, I had already seen
most of it, visited all the dime stores; all two
of 'em, rode my bike all over the place and knew
about everyone and everything in town. So, the
Sunday afternoon, "let's go get lost," trips
were much anticipated.
U. S. Highway 27 lies east of Auburndale and
treks north and south. There was a lot to be
discovered on 27, especially heading south. Out
there were miles and miles of orange, grapefruit,
and tangerine trees. Every once in a while there
would be an old "mom and pops" fruit stand with
a sign, miles before one got there, that read,
"Fresh Orange Juice Ahead". And sure 'nuf, there
would be an old, bare-wood shack on the side of
the road with several out-of-state cars parked
out front on the dusty roadside. Inside, their
passengers were sipping a sample of fresh, cold
orange juice and browsing among the many jars of
orange blossom honey, and jellies. We hardly ever
stopped at these stands, Dad would just say, "Too
many Yankees." And keep going. There was one we
did stop at one day, and it was true, the best
dag-gum orange juice I had ever drunk. I'm sure
they laced that stuff down with sugar to sell
more to the unsuspectin' Yankees!
Heading southerly from the groves, we came to
Lake Wales. Here was another old town kinda like
A-dale. The calling card to Lake Wales is Bok Tower.
The tower has a carillon and every hour the music
would play. Acres of well-kept gardens surrounded
the tower. We could see the rising tower from US 27,
built as a memorial to a man's wife a long while back.
It's on one of the highest elevations in Florida,
somewhere around three hundred and fifty feet high.
Hey, to a Florida kid, that's a mountain.
I remember one afternoon I saw a multitude of small
signs on the side of the highway in sequence. They
announced an attraction that surely peaked my
interest. Each word had it's own sign, "UP"..."AHEAD"...
"SEE"..."REAL"..."LIVE"..."ALLIGATORS". I asked my
dad to stop.
Inside of this colorful, fairly large building were
Indians! Real, live Indians! The women were dressed
in multicolored dresses that billowed out from
their waists. They were dark skinned and
mysterious to me. I found hand-made moccasins,
stuffed rattlesnakes on logs, beaded belts...everything!
What a find! They had fresh orange juice, too; a little
disappointing. It wasn't as sweet as the juice from
the other place. Out behind the store was a fenced
in area with a couple of 'gators that just lay there
in the sun. I couldn't even tell if they were alive,
or if they were even real. A few minutes later, after
a few more visitors had gathered, an Indian guy came
out and climbed in the pen with these big 'gators.
He was bare-chested and wore buckskin pants. The
'gators were alive alright! As soon as he climbed
over the tin-sided pen, those rascals sprang to full,
red alert! I thought for sure there was goin' to be
major trouble for that guy! Next thing I knew, that
old 'gator had been flipped over on his back and the
Indian guy was rubbin' that sucker's belly. He put
that big lizard to sleep right in front of us!
I begged for a belt, or moccasins...got neither.
Auburndale was the home of "Allen's Catfish House."
Dad always called him "Goo Allen"; I never did figure
that one out. The restaurant was decorated with
old Florida memorabilia; old crab floats, shellacked
crab bodies, faded sepia photos of men with 'gators
and large bass, nets; just all kinds of stuff I
found interesting. He even had an aquarium set up
with invisible fish from the Amazon. There was
nothing in the tank but water. We found it amusing
when the tourists would stand there and peer into
it, never to spot the invisible fish. There was a
mongoose cage, as well. Most people had never seen
a mongoose, I certainly never had. There was a wire
mesh cage. Inside the cage was another box with a
small hole cut in the front. What no one knew was
the box was rigged with a trip wire and someone very
close to the cash register had the trigger. After
staring for several minutes, straining to see the
illusive mongoose through the hole in the box, the
cashier would trip the box door and a large swatch
of fur would erupt outward and scare the living hell
out of the person standing in front of it. I was a
victim of the mongoose box.
Allen did serve up some of the best fried catfish,
hushpuppies, coleslaw and homemade French fries in
the world, his sign out front said he would; I would
have to agree. His menu included soft-shelled turtle,
frog legs, catfish, and swamp cabbage. All of Florida's
culinary delights were there; key lime pie made from
real key lime juice and egg yokes...the good stuff,
and thick meringue piled high on top, slightly toasted.
One didn't leave that place hungry, Goo saw to that,
personally. He would visit each table.
As I mentioned, there were lots of lakes; some
small and some extremely large. Some we couldn't
even see the other side of; they looked like the
ocean. We visited one of these lakes one Sunday
afternoon. We were on one of our afternoon trips
when we came across a handmade sign, nailed to
a telephone pole, pointing off to the right,
down some dusty, clay road. It simply read,
"FISH CAMP," scribbled in someone's handwriting
in red on a white background. Sure enough, Daddy
turned down the road and we drove for what seemed
like days. I looked back and couldn't see the
orange trees for all of the dust we were kickin'
up. Way down the road was another sign with the
same type of writing on it, "WELCOME TO LAKE
TOHOPEKALIGA FISH CAMP."
Once out of the car, I thought we had discovered
paradise. I didn't realize then, we probably had.
There were ancient oak trees covered in Spanish
moss; their branches spreading over grey-white
sand, and there was a certain coolness under them
in the shade. Old cabins hid among the oaks. The
big lake was far in the distance, and I could see
an old, gray, wooden dock with numerous, brightly
colored, wooden "boats with kickers for rent."
The sign at the dock said so.
I tagged along behind Dad into the little store
that rented the boats and kickers and cabins. I
remember Dad asking the lady behind the hand-operated
cash register, "How do you say the name of this
place?" She politely smiled down at me, then looked
up at him, "To hope ta hell ya like it," that's how
we say it." Hmmm, catchy. We never went back there
to fish or stay in the little cabins. Today the lake
is renowned for its large-mouth bass fishing. Big
national tournaments are held there, and it is now
know simply as, Lake Toho.
There were many of those Sunday "let's go get lost"
trips. Many led to future fishing trips that Dad
and I would spend hours catching bluegill, speckled
perch and catfish.
Florida was a simpler place then. People waved
from their front porches as few cars passed on
the "hard road." Neighbors were real neighbors.
There were no huge, plastic ducks and mice with
first names that lived here back then. There
were only a few shops that sold Florida souvenirs
and there was free, ice-cold orange juice inside.
Not any more. There are hardly any groves; new
homes have replaced them, and the new residents
lay claim to the shores from where I used to fish.
Now, when I return to Auburndale to visit my
roots, I always make that trip on a Sunday
afternoon. I drag Linda with me to point out
where I used to discover things. The old lakes
are still there, they just wear way too much
makeup. But, if you stop in some of those old
towns, that somehow have gone untouched, and
shoot the breeze with the old men that sit in
front of the barbershops, they
remember those places. Their eyes light up
when they talk about that old Florida.
There are many stories to be remembered from
around the cypress knees that grow at the shore
where I would sit and catch bream. The same
cypress knees the Seminoles would cut off and
create lamps, and sell them in their 'gator
wrestlin' shops...to Yankees.
See y'all next week. ~ Capt. Gary
Gary grew up in central Florida and spent much
of his youth fishing the lakes that dot the area.
After moving a little closer to the coast, his
interests changed from fresh to salt. Gary still
visits his "roots" in the "lake behind the house."
He obtained his captain's license in the early '90's
and fished the blue waters of the Atlantic for a little
over twelve years. His interests in the beautiful shallow
water flats in and around the famous Mosquito Lagoon came
around twenty-five years ago. Even though Captain Gary
doesn't professionally guide anymore, his respect of the
waters will ever be present.
Gary began fly fishing and tying mostly saltwater
patterns in the early '90's and has participated as
a demo fly tier for the Federation of Fly Fishers
on numerous occasions. He is a private fly casting
and tying instructor and stained glass artist,
creating mostly saltwater game fish in glass.