All over the South, there are subcultures that exist within and around the mainstream culture that we see in our everyday lives. Often, these cultures predate the modern ones that threaten to overwhelm them, but narratives about the people who practice their own ways of living can lead to struggles for acceptance, or even for survival. Here, we read about one writer’s experiences growing up among “swamp people” in south Florida.
Tamiami Trail Tale
by Jennifer Weir
My mother’s fourth divorce had forced yet another move, just six blocks from home yet not as quiet, not as safe feeling. Much closer to the center of town and the pier, my mother knew me well enough to know these would be perks, incentives to choose the chaos over other more stable options. She had been as destructive as any hurricane that had ever battered our small strip of paradise nestled among the mangroves, tucked behind Tampa Bay in our safe harbor. Halfway through my sophomore year of high school, in 1995, things had once again begun to unravel and by that summer things were untenable.
Standing at the screen door of our new home, anxiety from witnessing a cat’s fatal attempt to cross a similarly busy street nearby years ago welled as for the first time the mostly black, ragged feline ventured from the patio. This was home now. The former cul-de-sac in our small coastal town was now my stepfather’s street. This street with the sprawling live oak and brightly painted block homes in such close proximity was nearly the same, this was our street. The cat was pleased, a flash of black with the misty tip of her tail flicking with joy, retreating to the comfort of the hibiscus shade to enjoy the spoils of victory. Relief and disgust mingled as the side gate of the neighboring yard creaked open. Jack, the seventy-seven-year-old neighbor, had been helping with the renovations, inserting himself into grandfather’s life. My semi-retired yank grandfather had come from North Carolina to turn a moldy rat trap into a cute starter home, and Jack had helped regardless of protest. Asking jokingly several times if Half Back (a term coined for North Carolina when referring to the northern migration and subsequent exodus from Florida) was more hospitable than the swamp? Grandfather while begrudgingly allowing the help, seemed to warm to the gangly, often crass neighbor.
Nodding to the cat pawing the soft beige belly of its recently won prey, “She yours, or you hers?” he asked. After eight months of renovation, this was the first time he addressed me directly, the gentle rasp of his voice was soothing in comparison to the booming northeastern dialect of my grandfather.
Thinking on it for a moment, I answered, “Probably I’m hers . . . She disappeared one day and was gone for a year then came back and ran off my new kitten, like nothing happened.”
He smiled, reached into his shirt pocket to retrieve a short, fat, filterless cigarette, tamped it on the back of his hand twice, then asked, “You partial to black cats?”
There had always been a black cat in my life, but not by design. As the conversation led deeper into his thoughts on the meaning of the cats that had been and most likely would come and go, he shared that he liked cats but was allergic and hadn’t kept a cat in twenty years, since his wife had passed. Cats, the harbor, the bricks that lined our street and, somehow, we came to scarlet fever. How he lost his first child, a girl named Jean, then how Teddy, his youngest, had fallen into the meat grinder of war in Vietnam. He shook off the look of loss, let out a short-choked laugh and excused himself, abruptly slipping back through the creaky gate that shielded him from the world and the world from him.
Elderly neighbors are a penny a bushel growing up in the Sunshine State, but to meet an original Cracker who can honestly trace and willingly share this lineage is rare. Most are descendants of penal colony survivors, something not many are open to discussing regardless of generational distance. I spent hours over the three years I lived next door listening to Jack tell me tales of the ancestors of the great count who had happened upon our safe harbor, tales of the last indigenous family he could recall. Every building’s inhabitant from inception, destruction, renovation and rebuilding, business or otherwise since the foundations were poured, the oldest families, houses, coves. I was often mildly offended by his sometimes racist or sexist comments but eager for the history embedded in the often-rambling stories and then one afternoon upon sharing my plans to drive south from the Tampa Bay area to the Keys, the wild stories he told created a torrent of memories that would swirl in my mind for days.
I was transported to an early morning years before the divorce, in 1992, when we were still a big sprawling extended family. The aroma of Grandma Jo’s fry dough and pizzelles hanging in the air, the scratchy couch with its buttons and weird lumps, the exposed sensation of waking surrounded by aunts and uncles. Confusion and curiosity setting in as I rubbed my face and tamped down unruly morning locks, the lingering embarrassment that these newly won relatives would see me in such disarray, but they were quick to embrace and usher me to the table overflowing with coffee, baked goods, and loud jovial banter. With no recollection of being relocated in the night, I was shocked and sat rapt as my aunt recounted the news of my uncle’s accident. Being closest to the hospital made our already bursting home the natural headquarters for relatives to congregate during off hours, and it was glorious to be so wrapped in all of it regardless of these unfortunate circumstances. The conversation quickly shifted to the details of the accident, which were known because although my uncle was unconscious, the passenger was thrown clear and, only sustaining minor injuries, was able to give an account of the incident.
They were hauling a boat, there was a long weekend ahead, and the southern tip called. The boat was loaded with coolers of food and beer. They were getting started late because they had stopped for lunch, but they were on the last stretch and in the words of my uncle— “Whammy!” Suddenly a black flash of a car appeared from behind the truck and trailer doing double the speed limit and attempted to pass. Instead, the car swerved over the double white line crashing into the front quarter panel of the truck, the car swerved but quickly corrected and sped away. Leaving my uncle and his friend to fishtail and flip onto the steep swampy embankment of the Tamiami Trail, where they were trapped for an unknown amount of time, until finally a passerby saw the red of the overturned trailer lights and stopped. This, while interesting, was the least interesting thing discussed that morning. The topic of grifting undesirable ne’er-do-wells known as swamp people, swampers, and swamp rats was the absolute most fascinating thing I had ever heard in all my thirteen years.
The tales varied, but those that were the most intriguing were about swamp clans who could domesticate all varieties of wild beasts to block the notoriously narrow causeway strip laid through the swamp. Tales of pet gators, big as cypress logs, trained to happily lay in the path of any passerby, and ambush slowing motorists fascinated me. Each tale ended the same regardless of what wild or domesticated beast was described— ambush! The descriptions washed over me, tortoise set on one side enticing fruits on the other, packs of tame raccoons freed daily to cause general chaos, dogs trained to sadly limp along the shoulder, key deer stolen as fawns taught to play dead on the warm early evening asphalt, and the ghastliest to my young mind: sacks of pythons loosed upon the road. However, the most outlandish were the long-lost descendants of the well-known and abandoned Tarzan chimps, rescued and retrained and of course intent on clumsy destruction and distraction leading to the well-known end— ambush! I sat, mouth agape as they discussed the likelihood that Mr. Fled was some form of grifting swamp something or other. Making note that they had not so much been robbed as left for dead, I was shushed and went back to listening with a mouth full of fry dough, stealing sips of coffee from the cool uncle as he animatedly encouraged my stepbrother and cousins to form a posse with him and take a ride.
I had sat in the backseat on many trips, coasting through the swamp and had never once seen anything that resembled the sudden tsunami of superstitious fear pouring out of my family. As the weeks of recovery went on, there were fewer stories. I would sometimes hear snippets of things: sexy ladies in need of help, spike strips strategically placed, and the broken-down family with young children or a watermelon swaddled to resemble a baby, all passed through lips in our overcrowded kitchen. Eventually, the appeal of the topic expired, dissuaded only by the lack of localized folklore to easily obtained general folklore. My dreams and intrigue were not so easily redirected however my obsession lived for years lurking in the corners of less than pleasant dreams. Eventually worming into my wild nightmares. Nightly gauntlet races through a treacherous swamp corrupt with giant rats and swamp men harnessing all manner of beasts in a cartoonish attempt to rob me, or worse, on my way to a patch of sugar sand subsided into nothing more than the occasional confusing interwoven snippet of less mythical night terrors.
I recall spending one of many countless evenings in Jack’s yard under a live oak that shaded both our yards but let the dappled amber of the streetlight illuminate the edge of our properties enough, so it was never dark in either of our backyards. Jack’s hands were always busy as he shuffled from one pile of gathered and systematically organized gadgets in various states of usefulness, most of no use to anyone else. He told me what he knew of clans that still lived by old traditions, stayed to themselves, fishing and hunting, gathering here and there, even certain sects that respectfully harvested a single manatee yearly. His warning was that maybe some of those outlandish things I’d heard all those years before weren’t all that far off. He said that he supposed living just gets harder and where a canoe carved from a tree might have been enough back twenty-five years ago . . . well, an airboat is just about the best way to navigate the wetlands and you just couldn’t go carving that out of a tree.
He talked of conch shacks, cracker homes, and caravans that were all here first, and hitched his thumb towards his own home, muttering, “I fought two cycles of councilmen over my place, got a right they said, as do the swamp folks.”
There were laws allowing some to maintain such homes, but he explained how “they don’t let you fix ’em up just anywhere anymore,” even though in his opinion they’re a heap safer than those highway houses he’d seen rolling around. Tales of sheriffs “down there” clan bustin’, dragging kids away from families, driving elders out under the guise of elder abuse, all in the name of gobbling up the coast poured from him.
“Getting to be nothin’ but gulf front condos,” he lamented.
His opinion was that if they could scratch out a life out there among the mangroves, with the gators, snakes, big cats, and skeeters chomping at their heels without ripping up all the wonder of the grove, then he was on the side of the clans. He went into the largest of his sheds, and returned with a live trap, set to mending it, launching into the story of how he had to fight to keep trapping wild rabbit and squirrel just five years before. The neighbor had realized that he was eating the things he was trapping. After years of no protest, that was the issue. He went to a town council meeting with a crock of stew, and everyone declined even though he could see the intrigue and curiosity.
“It smells good because it is good, and I don’t see how you can outlaw something I have done my entire life?” he said to me.
They had adjourned without much said other than he should try to trap outside the prying eyes of the public. He never gave it another thought; he had just carried on. He had not often left our small town, let alone the county. The wisdom gleaned from observing the evolution of a scratch of dirt with a safe harbor and a fresh spring touted as the fountain of youth to an out of the way small town you might miss from any direction had imparted empathy in him that is not often associated with older Southern men.
His own struggles with keeping life comfortable had carved out this quiet softness. He loved the problem-solving of building with scavenged goods, it being illegal, put him and the clans in a funny predicament he explained. If they need to buy a highway house, how are they going to do that without money? Many of them didn’t have a council of men they could intimidate into looking the other way. My privileged protests were met with the philosophical question of why taking here and there from those with more than enough wasn’t just modern gathering. He wasn’t wrong, and he knew that the insurance was reimbursing folks and if all that “and worse” was just hearsay he couldn’t condemn a group doing what they always did, since even before his kin was rode down here.
Although he often became heightened and flustered trying to get his point across, this evening he had remained calm as he guided me into an awakened state of acceptance. No matter the topic or heat of disagreement between us, he never let me go back across the fence without a flash of his less than toothsome grin, often he would reach out lovingly, his calloused and swollen hand barely resting on my shoulder and as he did every night told me to “get on in before the skeeters make a feast of you.” This night was no different, he let out a raspy laugh, shook his head gently and watched until I was safely inside away from skeeters, packs of raccoons and swamp rats.
Find out more about Jennifer Weir.