Graduation. My hair was full length at my high school graduation in 1969. Like they sang in Hair, it was down to where it stops by itself. In my case, that was about halfway down my shoulder blades. It had been that long for a while and wasn't getting any longer. Graduation was outdoors; we were sitting in the bleachers, so my hair was about knee level to the jocks sitting behind me. When I got home to the Fish Farm for my graduation party, I discovered a wad of bubblegum enmeshed in my hair. It had to be cut out. Gail did the job; my hair didn't look any shorter when she was done. We proceeded to have a big stoned drunk time.
Pet names. That was a big summer for stoned drunk times. I was cast adrift, in free fall between high school and college. Mom made sure I was enrolled in Florida Prebyterian College before she left to return to her Johnnie Boy in Kenya, who was no doubt keen to be reunited with his Faysey Waysey.
Nuts to the point of coming unhinged. In those days my brother Tim was in the Navy. He enlisted to avoid being drafted and regretted it ever since. He'd been trying to get a medical discharge, arguing that that would be better for both him and the Navy. He wasn't making much headway with the doc. He was out on furlough and had come to the Fish Farm for a visit, bringing a couple of friends: a quiet guy he'd become friends with in the Navy, and a longtime friend from from childhood who was a flaming goofball. Goofball still lived in Marianna, and the 2 Navy dudes had gone to visit him there, then the 3 of them had driven down to the Fish Farm in goofball's car, a '62 Impala convertible land yacht. It was the second night of their visit, and we were all getting well oiled and hilarious, drinking and smoking and carrying on.
Drunk & crazy. My brother was reminiscing about snake hunting in the Everglades when goofball interjected "That's not far; let's go on a snake hunt tonight!" We were just drunk and crazy enough to do it. Five of us piled into goofball's Impala: me, my brother, the quiet Navy dude and Sam, with goofball driving. Goofball was a crazy driver; we made serious tracks down US 1. I could see the speedometer from my spot in the middle of the huge front seat and we were often going 80; the speed limit was 70. We would talk loud over the road noise, then go quiet at times, taking in the night as we rolled south. We were steadily drinking and smoking. We brought plenty of stash.
Helps if you know the guard. We turned west onto the Tamiami Trail. The Trail has some cool family history. In the late 20s my dad worked as a photographer for the Miami Herald. The Tamiami Trail opened in 1928. My dad was assigned to cover the ribbon-cutting ceremony. I used to have a photo of him from about this time, a handsome young guy in a zoot suit with his foot up on the running board of his square-bodied black sedan, which sported a raccoon tail flag. There were 2 ribbon cuttings. The first one was on the Tampa side, but south of Naples; they were just opening the part of the Trail that crossed the Glades. The dignitaries would then drive in a grand procession across the swamp to cut the ribbon on the Miami side. They were billed as the first to cross the Everglades on the completed Trail. My dad knew a guy who worked construction on the Trail, and they hatched a plan so Johnnie (my dad) could score a scoop. The night before the ribbon cutting they snuck around the barrier and hid my dad's car a couple hundred yards down the Trail. It was supposedly carefully guarded so no one would steal the dignitaries' thunder by beating them across. The next morning Dad snapped the ceremony, then while the dignitaries were settling into their vehicles he snuck around them, hopped in his car, drove across the Trail to Miami, and was all set up to snap the other ceremony when they arrived. No one ever knew he beat them across.
Snake hunt. We drove along the Trail to the middle of the Great Cypress Swamp then turned south on an unmarked dirt road that looped back east through the swamp. That dirt road was our destination. My brother chose it because it was snake-hunting territory where you didn't have to slog through the muck, because snakes would cross the road at night.
Hood ornament. We drove very slowly, everyone armed with a flashlight, eyes glued to the roadway for snakes. Everyone had an open window to look out except me, since I was sitting in the middle of the front seat. So I got the honor of sitting on the hood of the Impala as we cruised very slowly through the swamp.
He sold rattlesnakes to a guy who extracted venom. It was an unforgettable experience sitting on the hood and floating through the Glades. I forgot about snake spotting. I was transported by the sights, sounds, and especially the rich smells of the Everglades at night. There was a background scent of decaying vegetation, deep and earthy, spiced with a little rotting flesh here, a bit of skunk there. Every so often we'd go through an area where something was blooming, and OMFG, those floral scents. I have never smelled anything so riveting, so intensely sweet, tropical, and mysterious as those night-blooming scents in the Everglades. We finally made it back to the Trail. My brother, with his ever-sharp eyes, scored the only snake: we had a pygmy rattlesnake in a snake bag in the trunk.
But I managed to sleep at just the right time. It was 4 in the morning when we headed back up US 1. Everyone was dead beat, worn out by the long night and the booze and the dope. Goofball was driving even faster. I dozed but couldn't get to sleep. I didn't want to lean on goofball to my left, or my brother to my right. We were a dirty, stinky bunch and I did not want to snuggle.
The accident. I was suddenly jerked awake by my brother's right arm. He had turned and was reaching across in front of me to grab the wheel. That's when I finally looked up and saw the pickup truck coming right at us, not more than 30 ft away. We had drifted across the median and were going north in the southbound lanes at goofball speed. He'd apparently passed out. My brother was trying to wrench us out of the path of the pickup but it was too late. Looking at that truck, I knew for sure I was about to die. My last thought was, huh, what a grubby way to die. Then everything went black.
Somehow he accomplished both with his arm broken in forty eleven places. I came to lying on my back. My brother was standing over me, shouting something. I passed out again. My brother had been partially successful: instead of a flat head-on, we hit the pickup truck corner-to-corner, killing both drivers instantly. I crushed my brother's arm and shoulder, breaking it in god knows how many places. He wore a full body cast with his arm propped out in front of him on a strut for months. There were photos of him in his cast under the banyan tree in the front yard of the Fish Farm. The impact released the ragtop. After crushing my brother's arm I rolled over the dash and out the top, turning at least one somersault in midair. If I'd been wearing a seatbelt I would've died in the car; I sailed out just in time. When he saw I was alive, my brother had 2 missions: stand north of me to make sure another car didn't run over me there, and release the rattlesnake.
We'd been almost all the way home. They took us to the Vero Beach hospital. I had three broken ribs, one of which was poking into my right lung. My lung collapsed in the ER. They put a tube in my chest and told me to cough. Right. But I had to cough. The ER nurse stayed with me, using every trick in the book to get me to cough. As I coughed I could hear gurgling under my bed. The other end of my tube was submerged in something. As I coughed, weakly, I gradually cleared out and reinflated my lung. Quiet Navy dude was in a coma for 6 months. Sam was just shaken up.
Hello death. It would be more than 50 years before I recognized the real significance of what happened that night, my final thought. I was perfectly calm. Death had come for me, and aside from still feeling really dirty and hung over, I was perfectly OK with that.