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the lake

The acreage was completely barren in terms of irrigation. I had mentioned earlier, there were deep furrows between the rows of fruit trees, bent on collecting a pretty deep level of rainfall, that would probably leech out into the surrounding soil. There was enough moisture and humidity to always have everything green, and with the daily thunderstorms in summer, there was plenty of moisture to go around. They essentially lay un-mowed, for their depth and steep sides proved too challenging from my dad’s tractor experience. My brother and I first fascinated by the furrow’s peaks and valleys used to run up and down them, creating our own kid-powered rollercoaster. Lined with thick grass and a few weeds here and there, the furrows also provided ample depth for hiding from neighborhood kids or even mom when we just weren’t ready to go inside yet.

I’m not sure were the idea of a lake originated. I wasn’t privy to such planning, or maybe it just didn’t interest me, but my mother planned to have a lake dug. She hired a man named Bill who operated a huge piece of equipment called a drag line. It’s a cross between a digging machine and a crane. It had a huge rectangular steel bucket that would be set down and drug by a huge steel cable, collecting massive amounts of soil as it was hauled upwards. So Bill agreed to dig a quarter of an acre lake for us. Much to his surprise, when he arrived to see my mother had measured and staked out exactly a quarter of an acre. I think Bill was used to agreeing to lake digging that ended up being pond digging. Realizing his heavy task before him, he began digging in one corner and soon had a basic shape defined. The days went by with Bill becoming a constant fixture of our backyard. The hum of the machine, the crash of the bucket, the rumble of a load of soil falling into a massive heap. As he continued to dig, my parents also commissioned him to spread the soil to fill in the furrows in the orange orchard. My father also put in many hard day’s work running graders and levelers.

The air around the digging hole had a wonderful smell to it I can never forget. It was earthy, and warm, filled with moisture. It was almost sweet, lined with a touch of organic earth smell, mixed with a delicious wet summer pavement perfume. Perhaps it was the anticipation of swimming in it or just the memory of the soft earth yielding its bounty that led me to sit by the beginnings of its shoreline for hours.

My brother and I were fascinated in the finds we started seeing in the extracted soil. My parents called the soil shell rock. It was really a limestone mixture some 50-60 million years old. Between some of the bucketloads being mostly sand, there were other contents that contained beautiful white sea shells, remnants of a long ago warm, shallow sea that covered all of Florida at one time. Little white clams with delicate ridges appears, along with miniature conch shells and spiraled snails. We spent hours collecting the best specimens which would be proudly displayed in a spare room in our home that would house all my critters and finds.

Next to be revealed is a layer of brown clay, called Morrel. Officially, it sits on top of the bedrock, and is named the Hawthorn Formation. Made up of deposits from ancient rivers from the Appalachian Mountains, this clay, that she people called gumbo clay, was grey and very dense. My brother and I quickly discovered it could be mined, shaped and molded. It wouldn’t dissolve or disperse when you poured water over it. It was a treasure to use, since we rarely had modeling clay or Playdoh as kids.

One summer, shortly after the clay’s discovery, my brother and I formed our first company, called “The Shell Factory.” This name was already taken by a magical shop we visited while in Key Largo, Florida in the Keys. Not knowing anything about copyright, we loved the store so much, we officially deemed our undertaking as a branch. The original store was basically a tourist shell shop with amazing array of shells from around the world. Giant conchs with ends ground down for blowing, to magical chambered nautilus shells sliced in half to see their network of spirals. Drilled seashells dangling from hemp cords making delicately chiming curtains, to fish scale wind chimes that tinkled in the ocean breezes. It was an amazing store when you’d never encountered such things before. As a young and inquisitive mind of child of a hunter-gather type family it was a dazzling place. Although I was repelled by some of their unique gifts, mainly dried and lacquered stingrays, puffer fish and huge toads, posed in stupid postures and wearing human clothes. I was averse to outright killing of anything, but little did I know that most of the seashell inhabitants had been boiled to death for their houses.

So clay was being unearthed and gathered. I began being supervisor of production. The neighborhood kids, Cheryl and Tim, joined in as helping hands and soon had a number of piles of clay soaking in the edges of the lake, as not to dry out. Next came production. Crude bowls, ashtrays and candle holders where shaped and placed in old steel edge lined fish aquariums I had sequestered from our grandparent’s basement. The old glass aquariums acted as ovens and did a pretty effective job for hardening our products in the blazing sun of Florida’s summers. But soon production was halted. It seemed no one was interested in buying a gritty, brown clay bowl. Decorating and painting our products to improve their appearance wasn’t an option either, since the nearest hobby stores were forty-five minutes away.

As bowl production diminished, Bill continued to dig the lake. Getting deeper in the center, below the water table, the lake began to self fill. My mom still wanted it deeper, hoping to hit natural springs. I remember them buying Bill beer as a favor for digging it deeper and deeper. Soon we had pumps running to pump out water, so poor Bill could keep digging. Not only was the lake a full quarter acre, it was now at least fifteen feet deep at the center.

Intermittently, Bill continued to spread soil around the acreage, leveling out the furrows and yard. Toward the end of his huge task, he got a terrible parting gift. In the back, behind the lake was several huge bushes as well as a monstrous rough lemon tree. Bill was asked to knock down the huge bushes and did so with gusto one afternoon. However, he mistook one of the rough lemon trees for a bush as well and proceeded to bulldoze it into oblivion. This wouldn’t have been such a problem, but for what the lemon tree harbored under its thick canopy. In a gleaming white wooden box, nestled deep within the tree’s drooping branches, was our one and only bee hive. With one sweeping run, Bill pushed the lemon tree from its truck and rolled over the bee hive, crushing it under the massive tires of the bulldozer. All we remember as kids was the sound. It was like bullets ricocheting off the steel blade, but was actually bees hitting all parts of the machine with full speed. All we saw was Bill running. Running with everything he had, he dove into the water of the lake, not coming up for air for what seemed like minutes. Finally he surfaced and walked up to the house, dripping wet, grabbing dead bees from under his clothing. He face was a mass with several welts, along with some on his hands and two on his back. I don’t know if he went to the hospital. Knowing Bill and the rough folks that lived in that area, I doubt it. My mom blotted him with ammonia and that was the last time I saw Bill. We were all sad to see him stung and to have lost a bee hive we forgot to tell him about. City folk I heard him say. It’s true. My parents were no farmers.

The lake continued to fill, becoming a massive body of water. To my mom’s joy, Bill had hit not just one spring, but a few. You could see the bubbles coming up and when swimming over one, the water coming from the spring was super cold, compared to the general lake water. The lake because a haven for us kids in the heat of Florida summers. We’d play along the edge, build sand castles from the gray sand on its edges and use a huge World War II float my grandfather had commandeered somehow. It was a long, flat grey, fiberglass board with no opening on the top. It was probably over 15 feet long, with cleats on the sides. My grandfather said the Navy hung gear and nets filled with landmines off the cleats, while daring frogmen would silently swim our to enemy ships and attached bombs to their sides. It was a grisly and terrifying story. I had hoped our board, we ended “gator” had never seen such action. Our gator was so buoyant my brother and I and our two dogs could all easily stand up on it at once and paddle across the lake without getting wet. We ferried many a farm guest across the lake. The gator was so popular at the family bar-b-ques, shuttling cousins and neighborhood kids to the center of the lake. Of course shenanigans ensued, by one of us rocking it slightly, threatening our passengers with a dumping. It wouldn’t be the last time a cousin took an unexpected soaking in the lake and forgot to bring a change of clothes. Other lake toys included a huge, rubber tire tube my grandfather also precluded for us. This was no ordinary vehicle tire tube, but one from an aircraft. Working for Pan Am as a mechanical inspector surely had it’s advantages!

The family plus our dogs enjoying the "Gator" float in the lake

little clams

One year my dad bought an airboat. I forget what he traded for it, but he got it from his close friend Doug. That winter we went air boating a lot. It was a crazy ride, zipping down deep channeled waterways lined with lily pads, to turning and looking like you’ll run aground, only for continue zooming over long saw grass with water underneath it. Sometimes we’d run through tall grass and then break free into a larger waterway, but the boat would be covered in spider webs as well as the spiders themselves that had been hijacked from their grass homes. I hated that! It was so creepy. Later that year, I’ll never forget taking a spill. I went hurling through the air and landed face down in the water, when Doug, who was driving, did a sudden turn to miss a cypress stump, while my body continued on its original path. I was fun, but surprised. I remember mom being mad at dad. One of the many fun times we had where we could have been hurt. My parents were fun and somewhat reckless. I’m glad for that, because it led to many adventures.

So air boating continued. We used to go our at night too, armed with head lamps and gigs. Gigs are a super long thin cane pole with a four pronged metal barbed spears at the end. Our quest was to spear spring frogs. My dad called it “frogging.” I’d spot their reflecting eyes among the Lilly pads and we’d idle up, while my dad gigged them. Frog legs were delicious, but I only went a couple of time. After seeing my dad killing the frogs in the bag and cutting their back legs off, I decided this wasn’t for me. Back at the dock, you could see alligator eyes shine yellow if you used a flashlight to skim the water surface. They gathered in pretty big numbers, knowing that the hunters would be tossing back the frog bodies into the water. I was glad the frog bodies didn’t go to waste, but still I couldn’t stand the overall killing. It was too intense for me, as I loved every creature I met. Surely, I was a disappointing hunter to my father, but he never held it against me or said anything to goad me on. He seemed to accept the way I was without a fuss. I’m very grateful for that.

Anyway, how this story relates to the lake. While at the dock one afternoon, preparing for another airboat ride, but brother and I discovered freshwater clams growing in the sand at the water’s edge. Little butter yellow bivalves and long black mussels could be tracked down by their breathing tube that appeared as a little circle at the surface of the sandy bottom. A few minutes later, several fast food, styrofoam cups were filled with live clams and mussels. My brother and I held the cups full of muddy water and clams all the way home to insure their safety. Then that night we went to the lake and dispersed our catch into the lake’s edge. We dumped the clams on the bottom of the shallows and watched the clams come to life. They immediately extended a delicate little foot and proceeded to dig, disappearing from view in a few minutes. We hoped they’d live and live they did. They thrived. Soon our lake shallows were impregnated with all these sweet little butter bivalves and mussels.

Later when playing Indians with the next door kids on summer day, we started a fire and boiled a few of our clams for Indian dinner. But the eating fascination ended quickly with a gritty, fishy, rubbery clams that tasted nothing like the ones we got at Red Lobster. From then on, the clams were safe from us at least. Birds and raccoons did feast upon them once and awhile, but most lived happy, undisturbed lives in our quarter acre lake.

So for many years, the lake was woven into our stories. From escaping terrible angry bees, to avoiding summer heat, to running from a mad cow, or hiding from horseflies, it became an essential and unforgettable thing in the life of Twilight Acres.

Later the lake would have it’s challenges. Mainly from a duck named Sandra-D, who would forever change the face of our lake forever.

A rescued duckling named Sandra-D, after the Grease character, who turned out to be a boy duck!

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