I’ve gone almost a whole week without writing in this journal. Mr. Kramer would have given me “the eye” for that but I have a good excuse. This living on your own by yourself thing isn’t turning out to be as easy as I thought it would be. You have to do absolutely everything yourself. If it has to be cleaned up, you are the only one to do it. If you want to eat you have to fix it. There isn’t anyone to ask how to do something; you have to figure it out. So far I’m doing pretty good, but maybe having one other person around would be cool.
I’ll start back where I left off and write down all the craziness so I won’t forget how things really were that way if I ever do get to grow up and have kids and they have kids and I actually become a grandmother or great grandmother then I’ll tell them true stories and not exaggerated ones. And if they don’t believe me I can show them where I wrote it down years before they were born and prove I’m not making things up.
I was too excited to stay in the concession stand until it was all the way dark so I decided to walk around and see if I recognized anything. It kinda looked familiar in places but I didn’t have a lot of time to explore like I wanted to. Maybe I’ll go back this summer and figure out how to go tubing down the river again. It doesn’t look like anyone is using the place and it is a state park so I wouldn’t be trespassing; at least I don’t think so.
I stuck my hand in the water near the ramp where you pull the tubes out of the water and man was it cold; like ice water. I nearly fell in because the concrete boat ramp was all slicky from algae. I guess no one has used it or cleaned it off in a while. The water was so clear you could see the bottom even way out in the middle of the river when I was looking from the boardwalk. That’s about all I had time for because it had started getting dark plus no one had mowed the grass in the park in a long time so things were either sandy with no grass at all or the grass was really high which made the skeeters worse. The doggone things kept getting inside the rip at the knee of my blue jeans and my knee was covered with mosquito bites which were annoying and itchy.
All the light was going out of the sky when I pushed my bike to the entrance gate and waited on the other side of the big truck. I still had time to kill before I could get on the road so I looked around in the truck. One of the door windows was broken so it was easy enough to stick my hand in and unlock it so I could open the door and climb in. There really wasn’t anything in there but it wasted a couple of minutes until it was dark. I did find a lighter stuck above the sun visor but it was only like a quarter full. I still took it anyway; two little boxes of matches aren’t going to last forever.
When it was dark enough that I didn’t think anyone would see me and my eyes had adjusted I took off. Weaving around the closely packed cars really slowed me down. I would have moved over into the grassy side of the road but that would have been worse. Nobody had kept their cars in the proper lanes and some people with trucks and stuff looked like they had tried to go around however they could get around. The grass was too tall to peddle through anyway, not as tall as in the park but bad enough.
I finally got to CR49 and turned right and it opened back up and I was able to make better time, at least until I got to the next big intersection which was CR49 and SR247. The little town at the intersection is called Beachville and I measured that I had biked about ten miles. There was a gas station there that looked like it had blown up and there was all this debris everywhere and some cars were turned over. The road was still wide at that point so I was able to see by moonlight and it looked freaky, like out of some end-of-the-world movie.
I know I haven’t written about it much because I was trying not to think about it too hard but I kept wondering where all the people were. I mean, I know the places I came through aren’t Tampa but I had only seen a few people here and there. And if I could believe Jeff and Janie some kind of bomb threat made most of the people in Tampa run away. Well, where did all those people go? There were cars all over the place the last couple of days but no people. Did the flu and stuff kill that many? I hadn’t seen any bodies except for those two in that house and it sure wasn’t the flu that killed them. Now that I’m staying in one place I’ve seen a couple more people but I don’t think near as many as I should be seeing.
After Beachville the road finally started clearing up. There were a few cars here and there but they were pushed over to the side of road. There were even a couple of tractors on the side of the road. The road was also getting darker. The homesteads and trees grew a lot closer to the edge of the road. There were some fields but there were also a lot of planted pines and other types of tree farms. The trees were big enough that they took away my moonlight so I had to slow down again.
I had one dog chase me but it didn’t follow me far before going back to the house it had come from. Talk about a pants wetting bit of excitement. I figured that meant that people still lived in that place if the dog was still attached to it. I smelled cows but didn’t see any. And a skunk, I definitely smelled a skunk; that was gross. That smell hung around for a long time and I didn’t have any car air conditioner to thin it out.
There were a bunch of cars at the intersection of CR49 and CR252 too but they were all pushed off to the side. Most of these had their tires missing. I didn’t have time to check out and see if they had anything else missing but I did stop for a potty break and some water. I was hungry but I didn’t want to take the time to dig stuff out of the backpack so I started sucking on some Lifesavers; wintergreen and buttered rum are my favorite flavors but I decided to save those and suck on the weird tropical flavored ones instead. They were OK but almost too sweet, they kept my mouth wet which helped.
The trees backed up for the road after a little bit so it was easier to see again but then the moon went behind some clouds and it got really, really, really dark. I could still see kind of but not very far around me. By the time the clouds moved on the trees were practically on top of the road again.
I’d never had to really pay attention to how exactly long it was until you got to the road that goes back to Sparkleberry Ranch and we always came from US90 so when I peddled and realized I had made it all the way to US90 I knew I had missed my turn off. I was really mad and got kind of scared too. What if after being away so long I couldn’t find it?
I knew it wasn’t too far from US90 and I knew what the address was. I remember what the gate looked like and I knew it would be locked but only closed with one of those pinch clips because the electric company had to get back in there for the meters. I finally spotted it but it was no wonder I had missed it. There was a truck in the ditch by the entrance and the grass and saw briers were so bad they hid all but the posts that were made out of old railroad ties. The truck looked kinda familiar but it didn’t really register. I found out why a couple of days later.
I suppose I need to describe how Sparkleberry Ranch is set up. Mom and Dad owned the dirt road that goes back to the house so I guess that means that I do now. The road is a mile long and has two dog legs in it. The first third of the road is only thirty feet wide and is bounded on both sides by twenty-acre lots. Only the one on the south side of the road has someone living on it but the trailer was all torn up with the siding coming off and everything last time I was there. The county must’ve made someone haul it off because there isn’t one there now. The other twenty some family from Coral Gables used to come up and ride four-wheelers on. There wasn’t a house and they used to bring an RV with them. Daddy didn’t care for either of those neighbors because they let their trash blow all over the place and didn’t pick it up which meant it was always blowing into our road.
Momma called that section of the road “Magnolia Drive” because we planted a magnolia seedling at every fence post on the north side. Most of them were still alive and I could tell they’d grown a lot since I was here last because they were taller than I was even when I was sitting on the bike. At the end of that section of the road is a gully that stays wet all year. I remember Daddy telling Momma it was because it had a clay bottom to it. This is one of the places that Momma liked to go to pick black berries but we had to be careful ‘cause it could get snake-y. The grass was bad, but not as bad as I had expected. I think it is because it is still April and the grass hasn’t really started growing crazy. The grass came up to my knees but it wasn’t too thick so I could peddle through it. Right after going passed the gully you get to the first dogleg and it makes a sharp turn south.
The road is about forty feet wide for this third and Momma called it the Avenue of the Oaks because of the really big live oak trees that form a dense, moss-covered canopy. Momma tried to plant some dogwoods along the fence line here but not many are left. Two years after we planted them we had a real dry year and the deer ate the tops out of almost all of them. Momma was so mad that she told Daddy to be sure and fill the freezer full of venison as soon as he could. The canopy doesn’t let a lot of light in even in the middle of the day so the grass is never bad here. Plus it is part of an old wagon road so the ruts are kind of permanent. And where the tree roots are close to the surface the tall grass can’t get much purchase to take over.
The end of this part of the road doglegs to the left and the last section is sixty feet wide. This part of the road has oaks on one side too but they don’t cover the whole road. On the other side of the road is an eighty-acre square full of planted and natural loblolly pines. The grass on this stretch of the road was to the middle of my thighs and there was no way I could ride my bike through it. After I tripped for the third time I decided it was silly to break my neck this close to my goal so I put my headlamp on. I put it on dim to save batteries. That wasn’t a lot of light but at least I could see the tree trash on the ground and not trip over it. There aren’t any houses that can be seen from this part of the road so that didn’t worry me either.
The road ends right at the NW corner of our forty-acre square. Daddy built a really nice wide gate here with some fancy brickwork and pillars. But the gate was standing open instead of chained closed, that worried me and I began to wonder if someone had moved into my house.
I started to hurry but forced myself to slow down after a few feet. The gate may be wide but the road back to the house isn’t. Daddy left most of our forty wooded and they added new trees every year so that we could keep our “ag exemption.” I’m not sure why that was so important but Daddy thought it was. He said the exemption and the utility easement was the only thing that kept the property affordable whatever that means.
You can’t see the house until you are right up on it and even then if you don’t turn your head the right way you’ll drive right past it. Aunt Wilma was always threatening to have someone come mow down a bunch of the trees but the lawyer never gave her permission; she hated that. The forty is fenced in with five strands of barbed wire on heavy duty posts. Every so many feet instead of a regular post there was a railroad tie. I asked Daddy why one time and he said, “To make little girls like you ask questions.” That was his standard answer if my question was silly or if he didn’t have an answer to give me. The worst trouble I ever got in with my parents was one time when Daddy was asking my brother why he’d fallen out of a tree he wasn’t supposed to climb in the first place and I replied for him by saying, “To make grown ups like you ask questions.” I had a hard time sitting down at dinner that night. Daddy would put up with a lot of stuff but sass wasn’t one of them.
The utility easement is where these big ol’ wooden electrical poles run right through the property from one side to the other. There were gates at either end of the easement but nobody every used them because there was a sinkhole that had developed at one end of easement that was too hard for anything bigger than Daddy’s Kabota tractor to get around and since Daddy wouldn’t give them permission to cut into our woods any more than they already had and the power people didn’t want to pay to fill in the sink hole we were hardly ever bothered by them coming onto our property.
I finally got back to the house and just stared. I’d worked so hard to get here and now I wasn’t sure what to do. The moon was nice and bright and bounced off of the white trim that looked even whiter next to the dark red and gray brickwork and dark green shutters. The other thing that was white and stood out was the roll-down storm doors and the accordion shutters on the windows. I knew I needed to get to the security pole and the keys that locked the shutters before I could go any further and I was dead dog tired. I thought about just crawling up on the porch and going to sleep but that really wasn’t an option.
Momma and Daddy liked to plan for problems; I don’t know if it was the way they were raised or if was because of Daddy’s job or what. For this particular problem Daddy had taken some hard PVC pipe that had a glued on cap on one end and a threaded cap on the other. In this long piece of pipe he put a pole to open the role down doors and a set of master keys for the shutters and main door locks. He buried two of these “just in case” packages; one was in the orchard and the other was way on the other side of the property near a big piece of limestone rock.
I went out to the orchard and over to a concrete patio bench which I moved. I bent down and started digging in the soft sand underneath and within about five minutes I had the PVC pipe uncovered enough I could pull it out of the ground. It took me longer to pry it open and I wound up having to chunk it on the concrete of the porch to crack the end off. As soon as I got the pole out I started opening the roll-down on the front door, but only high enough that I could get to the door lock. Then I had to roll it a little high so I could roll the bike inside.
After shutting and locking the door and rolling the door back down using the widget on the inside of the house I got the shakes so bad and sat down and just cried like a baby. I don’t know why. It took me a long time to stop and I couldn’t until I noticed how I was rocking back and forth and holding myself. That scared me as bad as not being able to stop crying had. Even though I was able to stop crying I couldn’t stop shaking. I don’t remember much after that but I do remember walking into what was my parents’ room, ripping the dust cover off the bed, pulling the covers down, and climbing in.
I must have taken my shoes off but I can’t remember when cause when I finally woke up they were dumped by the side of the bed. I slept a long time but with no clock I don’t know how long. I woke up so hungry and thirsty my whole body ached. I got up and stumbled to find my backpack and drank a whole bottle of water while I dumped the food that was left on the floor trying to decide what to eat. I settled on fruit cocktail again and then ate two packages of peanut butter crackers too.
That didn’t leave me much food and what there was had to be cooked like the mac-n-cheese or the potatoes au gratin. I was still hungry but not hungry enough to go to the trouble of cooking. I ate a package of skittles while I wandered inside the house trying to think what I was supposed to do now that I was home.
Momma and Daddy built the house themselves, or at least as much as the rules allowed. Daddy would get mad sometimes that there were things that he could do but that the State of Florida said he had to hire somebody with a license to do. There were also all these inspections that the work had to pass before the guy from the county would initial it so we could do the next thing on the house. And some of the way Daddy wanted to do things made the county guy give us a hard time. It’s not that it wasn’t up to code, it was that it went way over what the guidelines said we had to do.
I enjoyed how cool it was inside the house and that got me thinking about the time the inspector came out and pitched a hissy about the fact that Daddy had filled all of the cells in the concrete blocks and installed specially made privacy windows. The inspector kept saying it was “unusual” and Dad kept asking him if it wasn’t against the rules why he wouldn’t sign off on it. They went round and round about it like a couple of bulldogs but Daddy won; Daddy nearly always won. Daddy said it was because he had right on his side, Momma said it was because Daddy could be more pigheaded and run them around until they would sign it just to have done with it.. Either way it worked because after a while the inspector would just come out, look, sign the paper and leave without saying a word.
The house is very sturdy. The walls for both floors are solid concrete block with solid Georgia brick on the outside. There are four bedrooms and three full bathrooms; a great room that is the family room with a big fireplace, dining room, and coat closet; a nice kitchen, utility room, and pantry. What was originally supposed to be an oversized two car garage became storage and Momma’s summer/canning kitchen.
The upstairs is kind of weird. Part of the upstairs anyone can find out about and part of the upstairs is secret. On the summer kitchen end of the house the second floor is made up of two bonus rooms; one was going to be Momma’s sewing and craft room and the other was going to be like a library/study area. The rooms are dried in … that’s what Daddy called finishing a room off … but hadn’t been decorated before the car wreck. The other part of the upstairs had two access ways; a set of pull down stairs that was hidden in the master bedroom. You could look at those stairs were all day and never know they are there because they look like a section of recessed ceiling that had that stuff called crown molding around the edge to hide it. The chain to pull the ladder down was hidden in the fancy looking ceiling light in the middle of the rectangle.
The other way into the secret upstairs area was by a set of very narrow and steep stairs that you got to by going through the coat closet in the great room. I hadn’t dared go up there since the wreck but I knew I needed to just to make sure that some of the secrets that Daddy made were still up there. There was nothing in the coat closet that I had to move so it was easy to slide the hidden panel and climb the stairs. It wasn’t as hot up there as I had thought it would be but it was dusty. I guess Daddy’s system only part way worked.
To keep it from being an oven up there Daddy had built in both passive and solar ventilation. I don’t remember exactly how it worked even though Daddy explained it at the time – I have some memory gaps from the coma – but it pulls the cooler air from downstairs and forces the hot hair out through a duct that empties into the soffit area. There are two dormer windows up there too. From the outside of the house the dormers look like fake ones that people use to decorate their house but these actually work. You can’t see into the house from the outside unless a light is on so Daddy installed heavy shutters on the inside of the windows to go with the accordion shutters on the outside. That’s why I had no worries about turning on the overrhead lights … only they didn’t work at first.
I finally remembered I would have to hook the leads from the lights into the wire that connects to the solar panels on the outside of the house. Uncle Charlie used to wonder what the panels were for until the lawyer said they were for the security lights. Well, they were … just not only for the security lights.
It took a few minutes but the little LED lights started to glow and I was able confirm things still looked like I remembered. In the middle of the room was a great big box that I knew housed the main central heat and air unit. There is an access hatch up here for if Daddy needed to work on it but you’d never know that if you tried to access the unit through the main intake vent. Daddy had shelves and worktables all around the walls. The room was actually pretty rough; Daddy said it was a work-in-progress. It had this special insulation on the ceiling and walls but no drywall yet. The floor was thick plywood with a couple of hatchways in it so that Daddy could access wiring and stuff for the house. I knew between the ceiling of the first floor and the floor of this hidden room was insulation and sound proofing so that you could be walking around up in the dormer room (that’s what Momma called the room ‘cause she thought it was silly to call it a “hidden room” when we all knew it was there) and no one downstairs could hear you at all unless you really dropped something heavy and even then the sound seemed to come from outside instead of above you.
What I had really come up there was to check to see if the boxes were still there. And they were, a lot more than I remember there being. I guess Daddy must have bought more stuff and not told Momma about it. On the sides of the boxes were the words Provident Pantry and Honeyville. There was supposed to be enough for a family of four for three months which I guess meant that I should be able to live on it for a year but maybe not. The only time I heard Momma get upset at the money that Daddy was spending was the time that he spent some of her grocery money on this long term storage food.
Momma was really upset because she got embarrassed at the grocery store when the debit card wouldn’t work and then they refused to accept her check even though it was on a different account. Momma didn’t raise her voice very much but that time she really raised cane. I remember my brother and I being sent to our rooms and still being able to hear her and Daddy fussing about it. She said that she could preserve better tasting food in jars than that stuff in the big cans and we wouldn’t have to worry about water for it either, and it would have cost less money. She also said that they had had an agreement that Daddy was going to stop bringing all that stuff home from the Base like the leftover pieces from the MREs that no one wanted.
I guess they fixed the problem that night because the next morning they were all lovey-dovey again but a fight like that is something a kid never forgets … especially when my mom was usually really sweet and nice and gave way to Daddy all the time. I never heard them fight about it again but it wasn’t something that was brought up much either, at least not within my hearing.
I went to the boxes and opened the first one and pulled out the first big can. It was labeled Mountain House Chili Mac. The directions on it seemed pretty easy – just add water and cook – but then I read that after you open it you have to use the whole can up within a week. No way; even if I ate the stuff for every meal for a week I might not be able to use it up in time.
Next box I opened was labeled Provident Pantry Creamy Potato Soup. It was just as easy to fix but the directions said it would last up to a year if stored in an airtight container after opening. That I could handle. I decided I would look at all the other stuff some other time, took my can of freeze dried soup downstairs and went out to the summer kitchen to take care of my next important job and this one was Momma’s doing.
Momma came from a family of small time farmers. My grandfather only had 80 and made a living but just barely. Momma said growing up she didn’t notice because all of her friends were in the same boat. She didn’t have a TV until she was eight years old and she was thirteen before they had indoor plumbing and it was only as reliable as the old electric well pump. Granddaddy and Memaw had built a new modern house by the time I came along but they used the old one as a storage building so I saw what it looked like. It wasn’t bad it was just really old. It was an old log cabin that someone had put clapboard siding on and looked all mismatched.
Momma didn’t ever want to have to go to a creek or spring to get water again in her lifetime but she knew that storms knock out power all the time and because we didn’t live at the property full time we never knew what we were going to find when we got there, especially if it was the middle of the night when we arrived. She also didn’t want to have to deal with cleaning up from frozen pipes. We didn’t have that problem in Tampa but north Florida can get below freezing a week or so out of the year. To prevent this Daddy made the plumbing so that the well bladder, the hot water tank, and the well pump was inside an insulated room in the summer kitchen. Also in this room was a handpump.
Uncle Charlie tried and tried and tried to make that pump work. He was convinced that if he pump the handle often enough for long enough it would start spitting out water. When it never worked he used to needle me about Daddy having installed it wrong. I always had to leave the house when he started that up or I was going to laugh myself silly and I would have gotten punishment chores on top of punishment chores. The trick was you had to prime the pump.
I was still laughing at the memory of Uncle Charlie getting all red in the face and frustrated when I remembered what I had to prime the pump with. Water. And I didn’t have that much left. I hadn't like the idea of using the muddy water from the gully but I figured I might not have much choice if I couldn’t get the well primed. I said a prayer, used the last of my drinking water, and then nearly panicked when it took longer for the water to come up the pipe than I thought it should. But once it did I had all the fresh drinking and cooking water I could want.
I wasn’t going to be stupid though. I refilled all of my water bottles and a couple of extra jars from the summer kitchen cabinets in case something went wrong. I also filled bucket after bucket of water to take a bath with. When I found I couldn’t even put my feet in the tub because the water was so cold I decided to let it sit overnight and hopefully warm up some.
With water chores finished I cooked my dinner and then sat down to do some serious thinking.