Standing on my hotel balcony in the pre-dawn hours, I gaze out over several dimly illuminated swimming pools abutting a small man-made lake and a golf course.
Beyond the grassy carpet now black with night stretches a vast darkness that ends at a thin strand of lights marking the horizon. An enormous red-lighted Ferris wheel stands out, tawdry and proud of its daily victory over the slow-rising sun.
Into my sleep-starved brain a Bible verse crawls unbidden: What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. Credit the free-associative mind for prompting a connection between the sacred bond of matrimony and humankind’s stewardship of God’s other creations.
I was born not far from here in Winter Haven when the biggest tourist attraction in Florida was Cypress Gardens, then the water-ski capital of the world. We lived directly across the lake, which was big enough to produce whitecaps as thunderstorms rolled across the water. In those days, you were part of, not separate from, the moist, worm-rich earth and lakes that swarmed with alligators, water moccasins and so many fish you could hardly drop a line without pulling one up.
Doubtless visitors today to these now-manicured parts would rather tolerate the buzz of the leaf blowers soon to shatter the still-dark silence than anticipate making eye contact with the hideous moccasin, his gaping, cotton-white maw a terrifying invitation to death.
Not I. Not ever.
Snakes were part of an ordinary day before Walt Disney decided that Central Florida was the perfect location for a pretend universe. There was nothing here, after all, but citrus groves as far as any eye could see. But in my home town, citrus was king, queen, the jack of spades and the one-eyed joker. We were flush with profitable harvests. Come spring, houses were full with the perfume of millions of blossoms that soon would become oranges, grapefruit and tangerines.
As Christmas approached, the sweetness turned slightly fetid as juice was separated from the fruit and processed for distribution. Packinghouses were as familiar as churches. Noisy conveyor belts would transport the split hulls of fruit that had been drained of juice and dump them into large vats where fresh chemistry produced a brew smelling of decay and old perfume. Children may have turned up their noses, but adults smelled money.
All this is long gone, pushed south by developers and cooler temperatures that conquered the citrus belt. No longer do high school boys get excused from class for staying up all night firing the groves to keep the fruit from freezing. They always showed up anyway to display their soot-blackened faces, proud of having once again saved the crops and the town’s economy — men among men in the perpetual battle to thwart nature.
Gone, too, are the groves that provided endless entertainment and cover for make-believe cities and wars invented by children who couldn’t yet dream of computers or mobile phones. Gone are the spoiled grapefruit we plucked from the ground and lobbed as juicy grenades that left their giggling targets sticky with vitamin C and pulp.
In their stead are miles of golfers’ greens and fantastical monuments to a different sort of world, in which imagination is left to no one. The delicious aroma of millions of orange blossoms has been replaced with the less fragrant mist of chlorine churned with human sweat and the effluent of young bladders.
From my perch on the 12th floor, as the sun begins its ascent, I breathe deeply in search of the familiar, alas, to no avail. Someday in the future, maybe another woman will take my place on this balcony. An early riser, she’ll gaze across the vastness and remember how she used to play golf on beautiful greens here. She’ll recall the families who trekked to Orlando as to Mecca to worship at the temples and palaces of Mickey Mouse and Tinker Bell. But the courses will have been replaced with high-tech coliseums where robots engage in gladiatorial contests, remotely controlled by children from the state-run youth hostels.
She’ll breathe deeply in search of the familiar and pine for the sweet smell of chlorine and the comforting sound of leaf blowers. From the far recesses of her brain, a phrase will surface unprompted, something that was input long ago about God and letting not man put asunder.
God, she chuckles. Funny.