When I was around 13, my dad was operating a crane working on the railroad bridge that crossed over the Savannah River on to Hutchinson Island way up river west of Savannah. I would break my J.C. Higgins 16-shot 22 rifle into two parts. I would stuff the gun in a croaker sack made out of burlap.
The sacks were used predominantly for picking cotton during my childhood but the name comes from it being used to haul the fish, croaker. It was also known as a burlap bag. I think if you used it to transport food like potatoes or other vegetables it became a burlap bag.
I would board the Daffin Park bus headed downtown. I would transfer to the Mill Haven bus at a very busy bus stop on Broughton Street. I think I would get off somewhere over in the Port Wentworth area. My memory fails me. My dad would escort me across the railroad tracks onto the island where there was an abundance of giant sized marsh rabbits. I would put the gun back together and go hunting.
I would inevitably get five or six rabbits. At the end of the day I would load my gun back into the croaker sack, along with the dead rabbits, and head for the tracks.
I didn’t own a watch and I don’t remember how I knew when to return to the point where my Dad would meet me and escort me back across the river on the railroad trestle.
At the end of the day, work was shut down on the bridge repairs. There would be a sudden stop of the constant distant noise of hammering and diesel engines coming from the construction site.
Looking back, I think that noise was sort of a comfort to me out there in the middle of an endless, very quiet marsh. As soon as the construction noise stopped, a crescendo of animal and bird noises seemed to suddenly fill the air. The early spring is mating season for most animals, and certainly for our wonderful prehistoric alligators.
The bellowing of the male gators gave one notice that with the setting sun, the marsh was not the best place for a human to be. So back on the Mill Haven bus, now with a sack full of bloody dead rabbits. Downtown to the transfer point to the Daffin Park bus and home. I was invited to visit my crazy Aunt Tess in Florida just north of Tampa. She had an ulterior motive for inviting me. Uncle Edwin sold junk jewelry out of the trunk of his car. He stored tons of the stuff under his bed.
Aunt Tess wanted someone around to keep an eye on things so she could ride with him on his sales route. That little bit of information was not included in the invitation. I had acquired a single-shot 20-gauge shotgun. Thirty-inch, full choke barrel. It would put a tighter pattern in a target than a lot of 12 gauges. I packed my shot gun and my J.C. Higgins 22 rifle and took the train to Tampa. It was a major adventure for a 13-year-old. I already had in mind that I was going after big game.
Gators! Believe it or not, the weapon of choice for a gator is a 22 rifle.
I had been to Florida many times before. My mom’s people had orange groves near Tampa and we would go down for a visit.
Some of you might remember when a shelf between the back seat and the rear window of a sedan was standard. Seat belts didn’t exist unless you were a NASCAR driver. I would ride the whole time, it seemed, laying on that shelf watching the world go by.
Florida was a wonderland for this 13-year-old.
Two-lane concrete roads.
The constant bump, bump, bump as you rode over the seams. Speed limit 45 or lower. No Disney World. There was Silver Springs and glass bottom boats.
They would ride visitors out across the open swamp. You could look down through the glass bottom and see all manner of fish and vegetation.
Richmond Hill had a monkey farm just south of the crossroads. By the time you got from the southside, through downtown Savannah and out old highway 17 as far as Richmond Hill, it was time for a break. Had to stop at the monkey farm, and for a small fee you could feed the monkeys.
In those days, Florida had lots of untamed swamp, farm land, orange and grapefruit orchards and cattle ranches with everything right up to the side of the highway and a lot fewer buildings and flashing signs to block your view.
If there was a business sign, it was generally neon and was turned off at the end of the night for that business. Florida could get very dark. You could see the night sky lit up with stars.
Alligators and all manner of animals crossing the roads, with a good chance of making it all the way. Deer grazing. Roadside fruit and vegetable stands that actually had fresh fruit and veggies grown right there, not shipped in either green or rotten from California or some other foreign country.
Howard Johnson motels with their famous 27 different ice cream flavors. There was a chain operation called Stuckey’s, where you could buy gas, groceries and souvenirs.
Wonderful giant, gummy pecan rolls and a whole section of amazing things like monkey heads carved out of coconuts.
Cypress knees from the swamp. Beautiful wood.
Some carved into faces and such by very talented people who braved the cypress swamp waist deep to cut the cypress knees.
A favorite memory is picking a tree ripened orange or grapefruit from the family orchards behind my uncle’s house.
Nothing ever tasted better. On the way from the Tampa railroad station, Aunt Tess described to me the drive leading up to her house with royal palms lining the way. Sure enough, there were the royal palms. Royals get extremely high, 50-80 feet in the air with very smooth white trunks. The driveway was not much more that a two rut wagon track. I could not see the other end. I was watching for the mansion that had to be at the end of this magnificent royal palm drive.
Well, maybe once upon a time.
What came up was a little unpainted wooden house. It had wooden shutters over the window openings with screens but no glass. Screens were a must with the house sitting adjacent to a swamp.
The shower stall was located on the back porch. There was a string one pulled for water, very cold water from an artesian well with a strong smell and taste of sulfur. There was a screened porch centered on the front of the house. I started to pull the screen door open. Aunt Tess started yelling, “Wait! Wait!” She took a long pole and very carefully moved a section of a giant spider web away from where it had draped over the door.
Then I saw them. Giant spiders with leg spans measuring several inches.
Double bodies, each as big as a thumb. They had their webs strung from both corners of the house to the corners of the porch.
It was Aunt Tess’s all natural bug repellant. It worked. No bugs in the house. I wasn’t particularly interested in going in myself. Now I admit, many years later I was using pump sprayers all over my property here in Richmond Hill. I have an abundance of trees, about a hundred, and lots of ornamental bushes. I then realized that by general spraying I was killing everything out there that crawled and anything that ate the crawlers. Every spring I get an influx of the golden silkorb spider, also known as the banana spider. The females grow until their bodies are well over an inch long. Legs out there over 2 inches. They spin golden webs in a very intricate pattern that shines like gold in the sunlight.
It has been observed that those webs, wound the same thickness of a steel cable are stronger.
I keep the webs off the paths. Well, sometimes I forget and end up doing the “spider” dance.
Otherwise I leave them to themselves. End result is a measurable reduction in skeeters and an abundance of butterflies, dragonflies, bees, etc. I guess I am as crazy as Aunt Tess!
Sadly, the webs have no effect on the gnats. Highway 144 in Richmond Hill reaches a long way as sort of a peninsula surrounded by salt marsh. I’m sure God put it there for the gnats. Then we came along as a food source.
Aunt Tess introduced me to the shower stall, the chicken coop full of young hens and pullets, a hand pump on the back porch if you wanted a drink of water, and the cache of junk jewelry under the bed.
She informed me that she would be leaving with Uncle Edwin early the next morning and I was to stay there and watch the jewelry, watch for chicken hawks and don’t disturb the spiders.
My visit to Florida ended up having a lot less to do with being a housesitter as it did with my encounter with big alligators, chicken hawks and a train called the Silver Meteor.
Never hire a 13-year-old filled with wanderlust as a security guard.
Roy Hubbard is a retired Green Beret and environmentalist who lives in South Bryan.