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Before the winds blow it all away...
by Walter Mills

Someday I would like to take my family back to South Florida to see the places I knew when I was growing up.  Until I was an adult, and had been away for a long time, I never knew how much those places were a part of me.  Before the hurricanes blow it all away, I would like them to see Flamingo.

It was once a general store and a rag-tag cluster of shacks down at the tip of the Everglades where the fresh waters of the sea of grass flow into the salt water of the Florida Bay.  For almost a century Flamingo had been the home of alligator poachers and moonshiners, along with a few farmers and fishermen scratching a living from the earth and water.  Mostly it was the final stop on the mainland for people drifting south, a wilderness that for many years was accessible only by boat.

I can't be sure, but my family's connection to Flamingo probably began with my grandfather, who was a ship's engineer and captain in Miami in the first half of the last century and knew all the backwaters of the Florida Bay.  Now that all of his children have died, including my father, there is no one to ask what he knew about Flamingo, but from an early age, each of his children got to know it well.

After WWII ended my Uncle Bill and my father came home and tried to make a living commercial fishing out of Flamingo.  They caught fish, hauled shrimp nets, and set out lobster traps, both in the saltwater Florida Bay and inland in the fresh water of Shark River and the Whitewater Bay.

Both salt and fresh waters were teeming with sea life, and the mangrove islands and the saw grass plains were home to bobcats and Florida panther, alligators and raccoons, and an amazing variety of birds.  When they were newlyweds, my mother and father lived for awhile on a houseboat there.

During the war and just after, my Aunt Clair had a part-time job collecting rents on some of the shacks in Flamingo. I can picture her walking around in her high heels and city suit among the hard-eyed characters, carrying her rent book.  Flamingo was the kind of end-of-the- road settlement where ex-convicts and fugitives from the law went to lose themselves. It was not unusual for my father and uncle to check their traps in the morning and find their jug buoys floating with the ropes cut and the trap and its contents stolen.

In 1947, the federal government created the Everglades National Park and burned down most of the shacks. Even then it remained a wild place for many years.  Sports fishermen came down from the north to fish for tarpon and snook.  Birdwatchers took skiffs out into the Shark River country to study the bald eagles, egrets and flamingos, the anhingas, birds that looked like snakes with long skinny necks sticking out of the water, and the many species of heron.  My father returned from Korea to work as a fishing guide out of Flamingo.

When I was four or five it seemed like a long trip from our home in the Redlands to the park gate and then forty miles down a dirt road that washed out in the rainy season to the marina and general store.  Early mornings we would get up in the dark and pack our lunches. Sometimes my grandmother would come along.  I have a photograph of a fishing trip when she was in her late sixties, round and white-haired, in a long flowered dress, sitting in a deck chair like Queen Victoria with my brother, sister, and me fishing behind her.

Map of Flamingo and Florida Bay 

We went away from Florida for awhile, but then we came back and my father spent his last years as a charter boat captain in Flamingo.  My Uncle Billy lived there most of his life, working for the park service.  When he died, his friends from the park scattered his ashes over the Florida Bay.   My brother and I both worked there when we were older.  It is a place of primordial beauty, the backwater of civilization. It calls to the drifter part of me.

(The above column originally appeared in the Centre Daily Times and is copyright © 2004 by Walter Mills. All rights reserved worldwide. )

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