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Dreamscapes : Once upon a time in the Florida everglades

William Starr Moake

It was the first time I had seen West Palm Beach, Florida, in decades. I stood at the corner of a busy intersection near Military Trail, gaping at multi-storey office buildings and rows of shops, fast-food restaurants and gas stations. Thirty years earlier when I lived here it had been an isolated rural area at the edge of the Everglades. I glanced around, trying to pinpoint the spot where an unforgettable day had unfolded like a Mark Twain tall tale -- the scene of the crime, so to speak.

I remembered a well-worn footpath leading through palmetto bushes and a stand of slash pine trees. It had been located directly across the road, but now it was impossible to locate the trailhead buried under the concrete infrastructure of urban sprawl. A curious sense of unreality swept over me without warning. Had the trail ever existed or was the whole adventure a boyhood dream? Feeling disoriented, I entered a restaurant and ordered a cup of coffee to clear my head. I came to my senses, realizing the escapade was not a dream. I remembered a photograph taken the first time the three of us explored the trail together. It showed Bradford Boatwright smiling proudly as he held up the tail of a diamond-back rattlesnake that was two feet longer than he was tall. His brother, Rusty, had killed the monster with a single rifle shot to the head. The snake bulged with a half-digested rabbit we found when we opened the snake's stomach with a hunting knife.

I lingered over a second cup of coffee, thinking about the Boatwright family and the important role they played in my introduction to South Florida. I was a damned Yankee from Michigan, but the Boatwrights chose to overlook my geographical origin and treated me like a member of the family. Born in the mountains of Tennessee, old man Boatwright had been an Army buddy of Johnny Cash when they served in the Korean war. In his wallet he carried a photo of Cash and himself in uniform, a guitar slung around Cash's neck as they stood next to an Army jeep. Mr. Boatwright was a strict disciplinarian with his two teenaged sons, literally dragging them out of bed by the feet at six in the morning as if he was still in the Army. I received the same wake-up if I happened to be staying overnight. Mr. Boatwright refused to tolerate "sassing back" from his sons and they answered his questions with "yes sir" and "no sir." He thought I talked too much for a boy, but he didn't expect me to call him sir because (as he explained one day) that title should be reserved for my own father. His favorite meal was beefsteak grilled with garlic and lemon juice and chased down by lots of beer.

Mrs. Boatwright was a gregarious southern woman who usually deferred to her husband's wishes, not from a sense of duty, but because she seemed to be very much in love with him. (He was a rather handsome man with curly dark hair a neatly-trimmed mustache.) Mrs. Boatwright experienced two medical misfortunes when I knew her. One night on the drive home from a party, she had to relieve herself in the bushes. When she returned to the car, she complained that a stick had poked her painfully on the leg. It turned out to be the poisonous bite of a water moccasin snake and her leg turned black and blue and swelled to twice its normal size. She recovered in a few days, but a few months later, she was seriously injured in a car accident. She suffered what is now called post-traumatic shock syndrome and for a long time after the accident she refused to ride in cars.

That same year I experienced my first car accident when Rusty tried to teach Bradford how to drive the family car. I was a passenger in the back seat and in those days virtually no one wore seat belts. Rusty instructed his brother to turn off the road, stop and then back up. Bradford got his foot jammed between the gas and brake pedals when he attempted to stop and the car crashed into a tree. I came up out of the back seat and hit the top of my head on the metal roof. I opened the door and staggered out of the car feeling like I would throw up. Examining the damage to the car, Rusty shook his head in disgust and said: "You're gonna tell dad, not me." Bradford panicked and broke down crying. Rusty feared his father's wrath, but he also had a genuine respect and affection for him that surprised me. In many respects he was very much like his father - the strong and silent type. He was muscular, built like a boxer, and he didn't know his own strength. He once knocked Bradford unconscious with a single punch thrown almost inadvertently when Bradford teased him too much.

It was different with Bradford. He was what old-fashioned southern men dreaded in a son, a flabby and sensitive mamma's boy. He was scared to death of the old man and painfully aware that he was a big disappointment to him.

The day of the adventure began innocently enough. I ran into Rusty during lunch at the junior high school we attended. "You wanna make some money today?" he asked.
"Doing what?"
"Delivering flyers in Haverhill. We'll get five bucks apiece."
"I have to go home after school."
"Not after school," he said. "Now."
I had never cut school before, but the idea intrigued me and I told Rusty to count me in. Five dollars was a lot of money to me at the time. After we found Bradford, the three of us collected bundles of advertisements at a store and got paid upfront. Then we set out on foot to Haverhill since the Boatwright car was off-limits to the brothers. We went door to door for a couple of hours before we realized it would be dark before we finished delivering all the flyers. The five dollars didn't look like such a good deal anymore. Rusty thought of a better idea. He knew that neither of his parents would not be home at this time of day, so we went to his house to get his .22 rifle. Then we hiked to a field behind the Haverhill area. Bradford found an old 55-gallon drum and began burning the remainder of the flyers to get rid of the evidence while Rusty and I took turns shooting at soda cans with the rifle.

Suddenly, we heard Bradford shout and turned to see a grass fire spreading in all directions from the oil barrel. We rushed over to stamp out the flames, but new flare-ups erupted as quickly as we could extinguish hot spots. I felt terrified because the wind was blowing the fire in the direction of the nearest houses. It must have taken close to an hour to finally put the fire out. Although we were exhausted and choking from the smoke, we intended to stick around for awhile to make sure nothing smouldered back to life. That was our plan until we spotted a sheriff's patrol car in the distance. The red light flashed and the car was definitely headed in our direction. "Someone called the cops," Rusty said. "Let's get out of here." As we ran through the slash pine trees, we heard shouts behind us: "I see you boys! Stop!"

We kept running until our lungs burned the shouts faded away. Eventually, we came out of the bush at the edge of the highway. Rusty told Bradford and I to stay put while he checked the road. All I could think about was the fact that we were fugitives running from the law. If we got caught, my stepfather would kill me. He didn't like me all that much to begin with and this would be the last straw if he found out I cut school, took money under false pretenses, used firearms illegally and nearly started a forest fire that could have destroyed peoples' homes. I would be dead meat in no time.

Rusty returned from the highway and kneeled down to catch his breath. "We're safe for now, but we can't stay here. There's swimming hole out in the middle of nowhere and the trail starts right down the road."
"The swimming hole?" Bradford said. "That's a long hike."
"You wanna stick around and get arrested?"
"Then shut up. By the time we get back, nobody will be looking for us."

After we rested, we plowed through the bush parallel to the highway until we came to the foot path. It was a hot day and we were all dripping with sweat as we started down the trail in single file. I brought up the rear of the forced march. I was day-dreaming about cooling off at the swimming hole, looking down, when I saw something move right where I was about to step. I jerked my foot back and jumped off the trail, letting out a yell. Rusy and Bradford ran back to find out what was going on and we all spotted it at the same time. It was a snake about a foot long. Rusty laughed. "It's a pygmy rattlesnake. Don't worry about it."
"Rattlesnake?" I said. "You mean it's poisonous?"
"The bite won't kill you or anything," he said. He was barefoot and I wore tennis shoes. "Didn't you see him on the trail?"
"I wasn't looking."
"You must have stepped right over him."
"I guess I did." Bradford picked up a stick and chased the snake off the trail. I noticed the tiny rattle at the end of its tail.
"Let's get going," Rusty said, walking away.
As we proceeded, I carefully watched every step I took.
"A friend of mine got bit by a pygmy rattler once," Bradford said. "It wasn't much worse than a honeybee sting." "Bee stings hurt," I pointed out.
"A lot of things hurt," Rusty said from the lead position. "Don't be such a baby." A bush limb slapped me across the forehead, but it didn't hurt as much as Rusty's remark. I almost wished the rattlesnake had bit him on his bare foot. We hiked across dry land for an hour or so, then waded into a shallow swamp covered with a scum of green algae. I kept thinking about water mocassins and quicksand. "I hope this isn't the swimming hole," I said. "Stop worrying" Rusty said. "I'll tell you when we get there."
"The swimming hole has crystal clear water," Bradford explained. "It's a spring that bubbles up out of the ground. You'll see how nice it is." Beyond the swamp we crossed over a series of small tree-studded hills, some surrounded by water. They were like islands and Rusty called them "hummocks." We stopped to rest in a clearing. I was winded after struggling to keep up with the two brothers and out of the corner of my eye I noticed Rusty poking around in a pile of leaves with a stick. I jumped to my feet when a small brightly-colored snake slithered out of the leaves and made a dash for the shade. Rusty didn't move. "Now there's a really poisonous snake." Bradford looked at me. "Coral snake. The bite will kill you in a couple hours."
I backed toward the opposite side of the clearing, never taking my eyes off the snake. Rusty doubled over laughing. "He ain't gonna chase you. Can't you see he's scared of us?" Bradford tried to calm me. "You have to handle a coral snake or step on one to get bit. They don't strike like rattlers."

I didn't care. I wanted to be as far away from that snake as I could get and as soon as possible. I started down the trail with Rusty still laughing. "Wait up," he said. "You don't know where you're going."
"I can follow a path." A minute later Rusty passed me. "Slow down. You're gonna wear yourself out."
Bradford tugged at my shirt from behind. "Let him lead the way. We might run into a big gator."
It was the last thing I wanted to hear. At that moment going to jail seemed almost inviting. At least in jail I wouldn't have to worry about poisonous snakes and man-eating alligators. But I knew Rusty wouldn't change his mind and I couldn't go back by myself. I was sure to get lost before I ever reached the highway. Years later my bones would be found picked clean by wild animals. So I put one foot in front of the other and followed Rusty with my head down to look where I stepped. The sweat ran down my cheeks and dripped off the end of my nose. My shirt was soaked and stuck to my back while the sun baked the top of my head. My leg muscles ached and I could feel a blister forming on the heel of one foot. The air I sucked in felt like steam from a sauna. This was no comfortable stroll in the woods like I was used to back in Michigan. It was more like a death march through jungle hell.

What seemed like hours later we finally came to the swimming hole. It was a circular pond about a hundred feet across and surrounded by cabbage palms. The pond was fringed with white sand like an ocean beach and the water was crystal clear just as Bradford had described. I had to admit it looked impressive. "How did you guys find this place?"
"Pig hunting," Rusty said.
"There's wild pigs out here?"
"He's getting nervous again," Rusty winked at Bradford.

"No I'm not." We took off our clothes and jumped into the cool water. I swam to the center of the pond and tried to touch bottom with my feet. I couldn't reach it, so I held my breath and dived down with my eyes open. The bottom was sand like the pond bank and looked about ten feet deep. When I came up for air, I heard Bradford holler.
"Owww!" He stood waist deep in the water and clutched one leg.
"What's wrong?" Rusty said, floating on his back.
"I stepped on something." When Rusty and I swam over, we saw the water turning red around Bradford. "You're bleeding," I said.
"It's my foot."
"Let me see it," Rusty said. Bradford leaned on me and his brother lifted the foot out of the water. It was gushing blood from a gaping cut on the instep. I had never seen so much blood and I felt dizzy for a moment. "Don't move," Rusty told us before he dived under the bloody water.
I wondered if alligators could smell blood like sharks. "Shouldn't we get out of the pond?"
"Wait a minute," Bradford said. His face was kind of pale and he didn't look too good.
The second time Rusty surfaced he was holding a broken beer bottle. "Pig hunters," he said, angrily tossing the bottle fragment into the palm trees. We got out of the water and Rusty tied his shirt around Bradford's foot as a bandage. The shirt immediately started turning red.
"Can you walk?" "I dunno. It really hurts." "You're gonna have to try." We helped Bradford stand up and he slung his arms over our shoulders for support. We started down the trail and Bradford grimaced each time he put weight on his injured foot.
"He's losing a lot of blood," I said.
"I can see that," Rusty snarled.
Bradford tried walking only on his good foot, leaning more heavily on Rusty and I, but that made our progress even slower. After several minutes, he was hobbling so badly we stopped to let him rest. I looked back toward the pool and realized we had only covered a short distance. At this rate it would be dark long before we reached the highway. The thought of wading through the swamp in pitch blackness made my skin crawl. Alligators and water mocassins came out at night and we wouldn't be able to see them until it was too late.
Bradford read the fear on my face. "I'm the one who's hurt," he said. "What are you so worried about?" "Nothing."
"Then why do you look so funny?"
"He always looks funny," Rusty grinned.
"I do not. You guys stop picking on me."
"He's afraid you're gonna croak," Rusty told his brother. Bradford didn't like that remark at all.
"We'll get you out of here," Rusty said to make amends.
"Maybe you should go for help while we wait," I suggested.
"Leave you two idiots in the bush by yourselves? You must be crazy."
"It might not be a bad idea," Bradford said. "I'm not sure I can make it."
"Get up!" Rusty ordered. "We're wasting time talking about it."
I felt like I was in the Army and Rusty was the general. I was a few months older than him, but he acted much more like an adult. He had a stony self-confidence I envied and nothing bothered him. We started down the trail again, Bradford hobbling on his good food and leaning more heavily on us. We stopped to rest every fifteen minutes or so and the highway seemed as far away as the Pacific ocean in my mind. We were like an expedition crossing an entire continent, but we would never reach our destination. One by one we would die along the trail and our remains would be discovered by archaeologists in the future.

Suddenly, I realized the heat was getting to me. We had no drinking water and I was as thirsty as a desert rat. I tasted a strange coppery flavor in my mouth and I ran my tongue over cracks in my lips. Bradford's arm felt like it weighed a ton on my shoulder. At our next stop I noticed that the sun was sinking low on the horizon. The swamp still lay far ahead of us.
"You look tuckered out," Rusty commented. "I'm all right," I said, not wanting to complain. "I'll carry Bradford by myself for awhile." I wasn't sure what he meant until I saw him lift his brother across his back like a sack of potatoes. Bradford clasped his arms around Rusty's neck and off they went with me straggling behind. I was amazed at Rusty's strength. His brother weighed at least as much as he did and both of them were a good twenty pounds heavier than me. I couldn't imagine carrying that much of a load on my back, but Rusty made it look easy. I fell into a kind of stupor as we trudged along the path. My mind wandered and I thought of a blonde girl I had met on the school bus. She was very pretty and I developed a crush on her before we spoke the first time. I wondered if I would ever see her again. At one point I looked up to see the sky streaked with red and orange colors as the sun was setting. In the gloomy twilight the sound of birds vanished and I noticed a strange hushed silence. Soon creatures of the night would wake up and begin prowling around. I wished I was at home in my bed.

It was dark by the time we reached the edge of the swamp. We sat down to rest and let our eyes adjust to the blackness. "I can't see the trail anymore," I said.
"I can," Rusty stated. "Just keep following me."
"There isn't any trail through the swamp."
"I know where I'm going."
"You think there might be alligators in the water?"
"Probably." I could see Rusty's white teeth as he smiled in the darkness.
"What should I do if one grabs ahold of me?"
"Bite him back."
"Will you guys shut up?" Bradford said. "I can't feel my foot."
"It's still there," Rusty said. "Let's get going."

As I waded through the swamp, I jumped every time something touched my leg in the water. I felt like a blind man feeling his way through a snake pit. I hoped the things that touched me were only twigs and hyacinth leaves, but I didn't have the courage to reach into the water and find out for sure. I pretended that what I didn't know couldn't hurt me. At last we were out of the swamp on dry land. With a burst of new energy, I volunteered to help carry Bradford.
"On your back?" Rusty said. "Don't make me laugh."
"Not on my back. Like we started, with him leaning on both of us."
"I could use a break."
"I'm sorry," Bradford said. "It wasn't your fault, so don't worry about it."

We resumed our trek back to civilization. The trail was invisible to me, but Rusty had no doubts. He was like a hunting dog with the scent of prey. Some time later a half moon rose and shed enough light to make the trail assume a vague shape in the leafy shadows. For a long time it was so quiet I thought I could hear my heart thumping in my chest. Then the buzzing noise began when a cloud of night mosquitos found us. They flew up my nose and into my open mouth. I coughed and snorted and spit, swatting them with my free hand. Day mosquitos were few and far between, but I was afraid these hungry little vampires would quickly suck our veins dry. I noticed Rusty wasn't fazed by them. "I must have a zillion bites already," I grumbled.
"All right, we'll stop here for a minute," Rusty said. He looked around and found a wet spot of ground, scooping up a handful of black mud. He smeared it on my arms and neck before I pulled away. "What are you doing?"
"It'll keep the mosquitos from biting. Close your eyes." I felt the mud on my face. When I opened my eyes, Rusty and Bradford were staring at me. "Aren't you guys gonna use any?"
"We don't need it," Rusty said. "Florida mosquitos only go after Yankee blood." "They must taste sweeter or something," Bradford chimed in. I was sure they were playing a trick on me and I felt like a fool as we slogged down the trail. Soon I noticed the mosquitos seemed to have stopped biting me. Or maybe they were still biting and I was just too numb to feel it. I was so exhausted I couldn't think straight. The trail was endless and every muscle in my body ached. I wondered if we were lost, if Rusty only claimed he knew where he was going so Bradford and I wouldn't freak out. My mind lost hope, but my legs kept moving mechanically as if they weren't attached to me any longer. It was nearly ten-thirty when I saw the lights of the highway glowing over the tree tops. We staggered out of the bush and collapsed on the road shoulder. "I'll get Bradford home," Rusty said. "You better not come with us because the old man is gonna be on the war path."

I went home to discover that my parents had called the police to report me missing. I explained what happened to Bradford in a carefully crafted story that omitted the part about our illegal activities and being chased by the police, but I was punished anyway as I knew I would be. My stepfather grounded me for a month and told me I would have to help him work on his boat every weekend. I didn't mind the punishment because I felt glad to be alive.
Bradford's foot healed without complications, even though he never saw a doctor. His father didn't believe in doctors unless you were dying. Both brothers got belt whippings from Mr. Boatwright, but it could have been much worse for all three of us. Our parents never found out about the flyers we burned or the fire or the police chasing us.

That was the first and last time I ever cut school. A year after my family returned to Michigan, I learned that Bradford had run away from home. He was fixing a flat tire on the shoulder of a freeway when a delivery van struck and killed him one hot summer morning in Los Angeles, California.

I finished my coffee and left the restaurant. As I stood at the busy intersection, I tried again to visualize a trailhead that had ceased to exist long ago. If I squinted just right, I could almost see the path unfurl like a ribbon through a vast wilderness of sawgrass and slash pine trees and misty swamps. I closed my eyes and saw three kids making their way along the trail to an oasis of crystal clear water, hoping to find sanctuary in the bosom of the Everglades.

© Bill Moake October 2004
Honolulu, Hawai

BIll's latest novel is titled "Terpsichore's Children" after the ancient Greek muse of dance. The web link page is

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