“You wanna go to work with Daddy today?” It was the words I adored most from my father while growing up in Central Florida.
I nodded eagerly, keeping my lips tight since my mother and younger sister were usually asleep this early in the morning.
“Go on then!” He smiled opening the front door, “Get your butt in the truck!”
Getting into my dad’s truck was like climbing a metallic golden mountain named Dodge. My father was a mechanic for Certi Fine Fruit Company and it was normal for him to have to go deep into the groves to work on tractors and equipment on the weekend on occasion. My family had a history working for the business, all of us living on the same street. I was sixth generation there; the houses rented out to them were in front of the actual mechanics’ shop. Sadly, it’s all gone now.
The whole ride was filled with orange groves on both sides of the road with the occasional house, however today you’ll find nothing but subdivisions and businesses. Not all of them were the orange groves my father worked in, but I remember watching the passing trees. The rows were hypnotic as gaps opened and closed at various angles. If the orange blossoms were in bloom and the weather nice, we would ride with the windows down. The smell was a bitter sweet fragrance so thick in the air that even on your exhale it seemed to be full of the scent.
I used to count the sharp ninety degree turns; one, two, three… five I think was the magic number. My smile would leave my cheeks aching as I caught the flashing orange of the clay road on the right. This is where we were headed and this was my personal favorite grove with my all-time favorite type of oranges; Naples. The truck suspension would creak and moan turning down the clay path. Giggling, I enjoyed bouncing around on that old truck bench seat.
To this day, I remember we were going to the “Hancock” grove area, rightfully named after the lake. If you go there today, you’ll see very little of where I used to run and play. The back half of the grove is now a golf course, while the front half is a gated multi-million dollar home development. The once all natural lake is bejeweled with a man-made beach and skiing buoys. Every time I see it, my heart aches to see the phantoms of the groves I adored so much.
The truck rolled to a stop, the dust from the road rolling past in a heavy sleepy cloud of orange. Sliding off the edge of the seat, I landed on my feet excited. I followed my father close on his heels to see what task had been set before him. Conversation was short and to the point between us, if we even spoke at all the whole time we were out there. Cicadas shrilling, mockingbirds chirping, and the sound of an old tractor starting were all music to my ears and worth more than any conversation could have brought me.
When it was clear my father did not need me to be his helper fetching and holding his tools, I changed my agenda to exploring. The sun was warm and toasty on most days, as expected in Florida. Often I would come across a wild rabbit, little anole lizards, birds of all colors, and even at times snakes seeking out rats who often took residency in the barn. Occasionally I would find a toad, chasing him to his hole and crouching there, grow curious of what his life must be like. Crunching sounds often led me to the discovery of a marching green Gopher tortoise, the vagabonds who aimlessly wondered the realm of the orange groves.
A whistle would interrupt the world, the animals and I pausing to look in the direction it came from.
“VALERIE!” My father’s voice would roar. “WHERE YOU AT GIRL?!”
Running, I’d always manage to pop up from behind him in an instant. His smile under his bushy moustache was wide, expressing his enjoyment of my adventures as I stood there red-cheeked and beaming. There was no denying he knew how much I loved nature and being out there with him. The usual routine there at Hancock was he would open the passenger side door of the truck and obediently I would climb back into my spot. As he came around to his side, he’d magically have an orange for me. Sometimes he’d hand it to me, other times he’d take a moment to peel back the top half like an apple, poking a hole in it so I could squeeze and suckle the juice from it.
“You wanna do some fishing before we go home?” And I would nod excitedly; fishing was my other love.
He would start the truck and go deeper through the grove, working our way to the edge of the lake. The road was right along its side, often I wondered if we hit a bump hard enough if we would tumble down into the lake. Stopping, my dad had cleared out a spot for fishing just for the sole purpose of providing me a safe spot. He would set up my fishing pole, handing it over to me not caring I was sticky with orange juice. It was my pole and he left me to do what I had been taught to do.
My shoes would make sucking squishy sounds if I got too close to the water’s edge. Squinting, I looked for lily pads to toss my line next to in hopes of luring a fish out. Ironically, I don’t ever recall catching much out of the lake, but we spent hours there. Turtles would pop their heads out of the water, curious as to what we were doing there. Water fowl often filled the far edges of the lake, ducks swimming in the shade of a tree and sometimes a blue heron would join our side.
If I was lucky, my floating bobber would hop, dipping in and out of the water for a second. My grip would tighten, lipping to the fish, get it, take it. Under the water it would go and stay. My heart thumping in my ears I would jerk up on my pole. The tugging and bending of the tip of my rod would confirm I had a fish on the hook. Reeling the fish in, fighting the constant pulls and tugs I would bring in my prize for my patience. Often we would catch Florida pan fish of all kinds; Bluegills with their blue toned sides, Shellcrackers with their spots bordered in red and orange, and even Specks with the spots and opalescent gray scales.
It was always sad when we finally would have to give up, often from the rumbling of an afternoon thunderstorm and the incoming dark clouds. The water would turn choppy and angry in an instant, forcing us to pack up. Climbing back in the truck, it seemed that we both would sit in there, sighing, not wanting to leave the peacefulness the grove brought to us both. I think the last time I ever went out there, was after I saw them clearing half the grove to make way for houses. After that, I could not bear to ruin my memories of the orange groves that made up most of my childhood.