The great and the small. That’s what I recall when I think about Orlando, Florida, winter, ’73. Walt Disney World was just getting started and hadn’t caught on yet at all. Mostly a joke to all the locals. While the SAC air force base was something to be taken seriously, still flying those colossal B-52s to keep us all safe from the Commies. Acres of orange groves, grapefruit trees and Reed avocados—the huge, round, heavy ones, golden on the inside, that are more oily than their green skinned friends: Fuerte, Zutano and Bacon.
I don’t know there’s really much of a story to tell about Orlando unless I made one up about the Box turtles loping through the orange groves—white sand with orange trees sticking out of it. And of course, the tiniest, babiest green frogs borne in a puddle…because it rained and the sun came out hot as any winter sun could be, and breathed fiery life into those eggs…became legs jumping and singing with joy. Which does a frog do first? Jump or sing. Or both at the same time. It’s hard for humans to jump and sing at the same time. Even when that human is only 20, with jack rabbit thighs, getting well rested, that could jump over the moon…reflects off a puddle primordial with life. No swamps here in the high ground. Hell, Orlando is 100 feet above sea level.
At night, I slept on the couch of some rednecks from Alabama who liked my stories. By day, I followed my breath in their back yard, teaching myself to juggle with fallen grapefruits weighing a pound a piece. I’d take a break and pop a yoga pose that Stanley taught me back in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. He may have ripped me off for seven pounds, but he taught me meditation, yoga, and took me to see and celebrate the teenage guru Maharaji up in Ottawa, Canada.
Good hippies, bad hippies, you know I’ve had my share. Wasn’t I sort of a bad hippie? So I had found my rightful company. Them Bama boys were racist rednecks. And if there was one thing my mama taught me back in the Burgh, it was NOT to be a racist…like her father, my grandfather. But I was a very bad hippie boy in so many other ways. And didn’t I leave a girl in Kingston Town, as Harry Belafonte sang, not once, but twice. Didn’t I fill her with hope she would leave the island, and break her heart so bad she wanted to cut me open with two broken beer bottles.
Hell was still not too far behind me, trying to reassemble my soul up in Orlando. And what a long strange trip across the state of Florida to get there: Miami, Miami Beach, Florida Keys, Daytona Beach, Flagler Beach.
The motorcycle racer from Canada taught me the technique for teaching yourself how to juggle. Which I accomplished right there in the redneck backyard, tossing all those heavy, sweet, laden-with-juice grapefruits up in the air. If you can juggle grapefruits, my friend, you can juggle anything—jobs, girlfriends, drug dealers, aliases.
I can still juggle today. Just your basic three items, any three items. A book, a bowling ball, and a can of beans? Sure. Why not. For ten whole seconds.
The orange groves were really my favorite place to meditate when it wasn’t so hot you could fry an egg on your forehead. I’d take my blanket and a book. Rednecks don’t read, so I had to sneak off to do that. And if I stayed around the house, one of their girlfriends would just want to ball while they were off at the rock quarry, or construction site, or wherever they worked. And that would not be good for my health or housing. Though the thought of sleeping in the orange groves and living on citrus and avocados did not bother me. I was going clean. No pot, cigs, booze, women, Yikes!, and definitely not any psychedelics…like crazy women.
One afternoon, reading a trashy Ross McDonald novel in the groves, I was startled when the first big box turtle came lumbering by. I could almost hear the circus pipe organ music following on his heels. Big fella, had to weigh in over ten pounds, his back gleamed in the sun, shouting a pattern like the eye of God—rectangular, triangular and crazy diamonds in green, lighter green, blue, brown, red and black. I learned later from the rednecks that each turtle has a completely unique pattern on its back. I had seen one that was not even close to one of the really big ones. And, of course, they make good soup.
Well, I had been vegetarian ever since Ottawa, except when in Rome, if you know what I mean. But trying to keep all meat out of my mouth. I have always flipped-flopped between purity and gross carnal excess.
But as this turtle—my first turtle, but not my last—came along and looked over at me, stopped, pulled his head in so I could go over and examine him closely, then decided I was not a threat, stuck his neck out, and walked along more earnestly, I felt like I had been visited by a divine, wise being from another planet or dimension and blessed with its longevity and wisdom to navigate the perilous pathways of life with all of life’s predators. I knew I better not breathe a word of that nonsense back at the fort with the rednecks. They’d evict me tomorrow. They were already a little suspicious that I would not partake with them. But, eventually, it came down to more weed for them, so…the great Ganja importer can stay here till he figures a way home.
Most days, I’d be standing out in the backyard, grabbing up grapefruits and throwing them up into a white cloud sky. The way you teach yourself to juggle has two simple steps, one following the other. If you don’t master the first, you’ll never take the second. Holding a grapefruit, or a ball, an orange, a toaster in either hand you carefully toss one object into the air, learning a cascade pattern, directing its ascension to arc across, bi-laterally, to the either hand.
When the first grapefruit reaches the zenith of its track, I toss the second grapefruit into the air, aiming it in a simple crossover flight for the hand that just released its first fruit. All damn day long, save for time in the orchards, tossing one grapefruit to the opposite hand, back and forth, time and the body, breath and death, fear and desire.
Suddenly, oddly it grows quiet in here. Only the observer is left.
Whose hands are these? Who is juggling?
After days into weeks mastering the simple two object cascade, I was ready . . . to change the world, and add a third grapefruit. For this madness, I had to hold two fruits in my right hand and one in my left. Suddenly, I was very concerned with finding only the smallest, roundest, firmest fruits fallen on the ground.
My hands felt bigger back then, like I wanted and was able to grab more and hold onto more of this world. In the University of Colorado piano practice rooms, back when I was a dope addict, dope dealing, homeless college student sleeping in people’s cars, I could span an octave plus one, a ninth!, on the keyboard. I didn’t know how to play, but I would pound the keys anyway . . . Imagining I was Dave Brubeck, “Rondo Ala Turk.”
I couldn’t juggle, but I was going to juggle anyway . . . with these hands, these long slender fingers unbent or bruised by the world.
Now the first grapefruit is tossed up into the white cloud sky, and as it reaches its zenith, the second is thrown up from my left, just as before. But now the rhythm is exactly doubled, and as the grapefruit leaves my left hand, I release the second grapefruit from my right hand. My hands toss and catch, focused on the middle, the holy space in between, so I don’t crash the fruits in-air-collision, not watching, not knowing when and where, exactly, each fruit will fall into my palms. Faith. I have already done this for endless hours, like a young carny who wants to come out from the cotton candy shadows—putting it up, tearing it down, running the rides—and step out into the ring.
Behold. That’s me, I see myself from above.
Look! He’s juggling.
Just then, one of the rednecks’ old ladies comes bouncing out in the sunny backyard.
I’m shirtless, wearing the only tan I’ve ever had after some serious time under Jamaican sun, mon.
“Wow!” she says.
“Wow is right,” I continue. I can see she’s barefoot, wearing Daisy Dukes and a red checkered tie top like a flag at Daytona, covering her mosquito bite breasts.
I catch all the fruits and cradle them in a sort of hand basket next to my stomach.
“You finally did it!” she says.
“It was bound to happen someday, I guess.” trying to stay humble.
She bumps her hip into me. “Got some real, ice-cold lemonade inside if you’re interested.”
Am I ever. But her old man from Alabama has shotguns and Bowie knives and ways of dealing with me, slowly, that I can’t even begin to imagine. Nonetheless, I was about to take her up on her offer. I’ve always been the one to say, fuck it, and do what I want.
Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead.
Which is how and why I became a writer.
But then it happened, just as it had countless times before in Orlando. A B-52 descended, falling out of the sky, coming in for a landing at the McCoy Air Force Base. Part of the old Strategic Air Command, they always kept some up in the air, around the clock, just in case the Commies launched a sneak attack, first strike, we would have the planes loaded with hydrogen bombs up in the air . . . to strike. To retaliate! To kill!
You may think you have heard a loud jet take off or land near some airport, flying close overhead. But I assure you, you have not. The B-52 had four monster twin-engines generating enough thrust to catapult the largest jet plane with the biggest payload to ever fall from the sky. They don’t call it the Stratofortress for nothing, capable of carrying and delivering a 70,000 pound payload to the sleeping enemy below its 50,000 foot ceiling.
Standing next to her in the backyard, she is screaming in my ear, but I cannot hear her, as the white clouds are blotted out by America’s last line of D E F E N S E.
My mind stopped in its tracks, I swallowed my desire.
It’s all the same and connected—the B-52 above, the tiny green frog, borne yesterday, below. Each allows for and creates the other. When it becomes this extreme and too far out of balance, then each one turns into the destruction of the other. The world can’t juggle B-52s above and tiny frogs below, keep them both hopping through the air.
I know McCoy closed and the B-52s that were once there are gone. The SAC airbase became a regular commercial airport to fly folks in and out of Walt Disney World. Did the green frogs win that one, or are they gone too? I vowed never to return to Florida, so, I can’t say.
Next day, I called mom and told her I wanted to come home. Mom had moved back to Chicago to live with her mother, both widowed. I would sleep on the couch in their small apartment on West Cullom Avenue, oddly enough, the same street my parents lived on when I was born. But like a Ulysses, one can never go home. And what was home? Pittsburgh? Penn State? Boulder? Chicago?
Mom wired money to Orlando for a one-way ticket from Miami International to O’Hare.
A couple days later, the rednecks drove me to Miami and even stuck around to see me off.
There was nothing left for me to do. I had pushed it all the way to the end and had nothing but my weird stories and a crazy, peeling tan to show for it.
When I landed in Chicago at the end of March, it was still winter. Filthy snow hung around on the ground, matching the drawn, chalk-white faces.
My grandmother looked on me with quizzical contempt. The Swedish Matriarch was not pleased.
I took a job distributing leaflets, hanging them on people’s doors, or sticking them under their car’s wipers. Christ, I was depressed, lower than a tiny green frog trampled underfoot of the giant.
One miserable, cold afternoon, I was trudging across the Dan Ryan Expressway overpass, lugging my twenty-five pounds of door-to-door leaflets.
I lifted up my satchel and dumped a thousand 5 X 8 leaflets down on the rush hour traffic—eight lanes backed up to the Loop—the new reality we would march into. I dropped the A-bomb on it all, y’all.
A few days later, I took my first and last leafletting check and bought a one-way ticket to Denver.
I told mom it would be okay. I would get a job, a room to rent. I wouldn’t be living on the streets..
Mom was worried and scared, so she gave me about a hundred bucks, all she could spare, to pad my bankroll.
Gram was relieved. “You going back to school?” was the only way she could figure it.
“Maybe, I don’t know, “ I shrugged.
I bought an Army surplus backpack and stuffed my handful of clothes inside. I had landed in Chicago wearing just my Jamaican shirt, blue corduroys, and favorite flip-flops. I’d been wearing these same clothes for over a month.
But mom had taken me shopping for shoes, socks, underwear, tee shirts, a few shirts, pants and a jacket!
I still had some stuff in storage back at the cowboy hotel on Pearl Street, I hoped, I prayed. And now I had enough to pay for a room for a month and buy some food—rice and beans, follow my breath—till I landed a job.
I think maybe the sky loved me a little more, or I asked for more love from its clouds and colors back then. And it complied. Why? I still don’t know. I’ve never felt so small and great at the same time like did in those strange days.