The summer of '65. My senses were assaulted by the seaweed and suntan oil smell of the beach. Fort Lauderdale shimmered in the penetrating heat. I immediately loved the fine white-sand beaches, the dark, cool, fish-net hung bars, the swarms of beach bunnies and even the gearhead lowriders cruising Highway 95. They reminded me of growing up in Tucson. They made me feel at home. But I especially loved the sea. I hadn't grown up near an ocean and its endlessness and warmth somehow made me feel secure and free at the same time.
It was off-season when I hitchhiked into town and down to the beach and started searching for a cheap room to rent. I talked to everyone and asked people I met if they knew of any housing and work. I wandered the strand watching others' lives unfold. I dipped my foot in the water, getting used to it, knowing that eventually, as before, this would feel like home and things would happen.
It wasn't long before I found two part-time jobs, one fixing small bikes in a motorcycle rental shop and the other in the bar next door, the Sandbox, just keeping things clean. I couldn't serve liquor yet since I was only 20. I'd never be a serious enough drinker to be a good bartender anyhow, but nothing to worry about, eventually I would make up for it in other self-destructive ways.
All along the Fort Lauderdale shore are these clusters of tiny bungalows in the sand, just across the road from the waves. They are built for tourists and when it's not tourist season, they lay idle, their owners more than happy to rent them to beach rats for a few dollars. They're just single-walled shacks, staring out to sea, made of wide, gray wooden boards, weathered by unremitting salt spray and overhung by tall sabal palms. But each elevated bungalow stands by itself, rickety plank stairs leading to a front door that both opens to the world and closes to protect. I found a cabin to rent in a half filled constellation behind the Sandbox bar - a tiny bedroom, a kitchen and bathroom but my own domain. The cottages floated on a wash of fine, white sand, deep and warm, eons of purposive coral reef decomposition that flowed inland from the conjunction of ocean and dry land. When I woke up in the morning and stumbled out for my first cup of coffee, my bare feet disappeared into the silky, warm seduction.
The motorcycle shop turned out to be a great gig. John and Roy, the two laid-back southern California transplants who ran the shop, were stoned a lot of the time and we only worked a few hours a day. You had to be easygoing to run that kind of business. The bikes, as everything else on Fort Lauderdale beach, were for tourists. They would rent them for a day or two and often as not, either leave them somewhere by the road and fly home, or smash them up and leave them somewhere by the road and fly home. So, I spent a lot of time going out and finding them and bringing them back, sometimes in pieces. They weren't very powerful bikes, mostly 50 or 125cc two-strokes, intentionally kept small in hopes that people would have a harder time killing themselves and stressing out our deal with the insurance company. My youth spent fixing my own cars qualified me easily to work on them. We could take any one of them apart, repair the damage and put them back together in a couple of hours with new forks from head-ons, new wheels for old, crumpled ones, new gearboxes mangled by drunks, and clutches, always clutches.
Fort Lauderdale is, of course, "Where the Boys Are". It became famous when George Hamilton and Connie Francis in the 1960 movie of that name exposed it as the sexiest place in the U.S. for spring break. Thousands of college kids would descend on the little town to party anonymously for a few weeks each year and the line between day and night would just disappear. Probably more girls have left their virginity behind in a shorter amount of time in Fort Lauderdale then anywhere else on the globe. The alcohol consumption was prodigious and drinking to blackout, de rigueur.
A lot of college dropouts like me came to visit and ended up staying for a while, so in the off-season there was a community of twenty-somethings that was like one big family. They'd mostly work at seaside hotels or inland during the day, coalescing every night in a few favorite bars like the Sandbox, coupling up and re-shuffling. In the hours of darkness they would forget their daytime personas and become what they really wanted to be, sleek, carefree and bewitching phantoms. But then, as always, in the morning they would fall to earth, rudely transmogrified by a gray dawn. Each night repeated the resurrection as spirits rose again, mingling, waiting to be released from the cycle by a shining prince or princess. You could know someone for a long time on the beach without ever seeing them in the light of day.
During the spring break blitz, locals (like I soon became) were inundated with offers. Girls cruised the beach in convertibles blatantly attempting to drag guys in to party. This was their once-in-a-lifetime fling and they were up for things they had never done before and would never do again. One time my friend Mike, and I were caught trying to sneak into a motel to meet a couple of girls who had invited us up. The motel managers were making a valiant effort to keep their places from being trashed and this one had a 'no visitors' rule. We were caught in police spotlights as we worked our way along a ledge on the second story, flat against the wall like a couple of prison escapees. We spent a miserable night in jail, bailed out the next day by his mother, all charges dropped. My first taste of bars. I almost learned my lesson.
Working in the motorcycle shop gave me the opportunity to build myself a couple of bikes in my spare time. Roy, the tall, blond surfer/drag racer dude helped me, first with an old Harley three-wheeler that I stripped down to nothing but an engine and wheels, and then a tricked out Triumph 650 with ape hangers, custom paint and pipes. I can't remember anything feeling quite as wonderful as cruising through the warm night down the coast highway to meet some girl on one of those bikes - the wind, the power, the roar and the silence. I was untouchable.
During the year I was in Florida there was one big hurricane during which they evacuated the coastal areas for a mile or two back from the beach. A lot of the city lifeguards hung out at the Sandbox and so we decided to defy the evacuation order and were witness to the most amazing power of the wind, ripping up palms and blowing out windows along the coast road. In a blinding soup of foam and spray, we forced our way down to the water during the heaviest part of the storm and threw ourselves into the roiling waves. The rain was firing down so hard you couldn't keep any part of your body above the surface, it felt like needles piercing your skin. We'd have to stay under and keep bobbing up for air, rolling and surfing in the chop like sea otters.
As I found my place with the beach dwellers, learned to trust in tomorrow just a little more, I began to find some nice girlfriends. I hadn't been with anyone during my difficult, abbreviated stay at college or when I was doing H in St. Louis so this laid back, sexy scene was a heart-opener.
Laura must have been about 18 when I met her and was working as a waitress at one of the hotels. She had the little cabin right next to mine behind the Sandbox but we first got together out in the ocean. She had this milky skin I'll never forget, a pneumatic little body and a bad crush on me. With her long, strawberry blond hair she was the quintessence of the bonny Irish maid. She'd follow me around on her days off, moon-eyed, and finally one day we found ourselves swimming out past the breakers together.
The Florida coast here is shallow for a long way out. In some places, you can actually stand on the reef, shoulders out of the clear water, looking down at the unspoiled, natural aquarium at your feed, almost a mile offshore. This means the waves, after breaking on the reefs, take long slow rolls to the beach, building up the most faultless faces and offering some of the best bodysurfing in the world. During a gale once, I caught a wave almost half a mile out that was so perfectly formed and locomotive that for a few moments, as I jetted toward land, only my ankles were in the water. It's true. But back to Laura.
After that first time, we would go swimming on days when it was calmer. We had our little secret code. When she'd shyly suggest a dip it meant she was thinking of me in that way. We were both just kids then and this little artifice was our timid foreplay. The beach was usually empty in the off-season and we'd wade out into the warm surf until the rhythmic swells were up to our necks. I'd slip up behind her and pull her close and she would let my hands lightly explore her curves, as she chatted idly about her day. But soon she would turn to me, letting the pieces of her suit slip off and we would become quiet and intense, our bodies now pressing hard against each other, finding all the places to fill, suspended in the lubricating sea. It started that way, almost by accident, each one of us not knowing what to expect from the other. Later, a smile and a look would bring us, hand in hand, to the beach. We just had to remember not to let our suits drift away when we were in the water.
That was a sweet time with Laura but she eventually got together with a preppy guy with money who adored her and wanted to take care of her, like I couldn't, or wouldn't. A good call, I think, and I didn't blame her. But sometimes at night, at the bar, I'd catch her watching me, secretly, sadly. She had reached in and touched my heart but she had not cracked my shell. I don't know why I didn't go for things like this when they happened. It was almost like it was just too good to be true.
And then there was Barbara, the young, immaculate businesswoman who lived up the coast in Boca Raton. I met her at the Sandbox and she just took me home one night. She was tall, slim, not so much beautiful as sculpted and regal, and a total control freak. But the women who came later in my life can thank her for teaching me to go down on my girlfriends. She knew what she wanted. Since I was getting what I wanted too, which included a good education, it worked out well, for a while. I could call her any time of night when I was in the mood, and a few minutes later be cutting through the sea saturated wind on my Triumph to Boca. She wouldn't even turn on the lights in her apartment when I'd arrive. She'd just pull me into her warm bed and we'd get to it. After a while, once we were both really hot, she'd stretch back over her pillows, throw her head back, spreading her legs with bent knees, her sign for needing me to finish her off with my mouth. She couldn't get enough of this and would go orgasmic for long minutes, again and again. I discovered I loved having her long, perfect body writhing under my control, a great asset I carried into my future. Once she was done, I could do anything I wanted.
But Barbara eventually hooked up with Mario, a slick New Jersey Italian, a Sandbox regular who had fallen madly in love with her and wanted to take her to California. The Mamas and the Papas were singing "California Dreamin'" on the juke box every night then and there was a lot of attrition in that direction.
These women were an exciting part of my young life but I reserved my love and devotion for those who were unattainable. I loved Roy's girlfriend, Wendy. She was about 5' 4", a slim, blond surfer babe with a heart of gold. I watched them living together and hanging out so easily with all our friends, always generous to young lost souls like me, always sweet and there for each other, and I longed for that. I longed for someone who loved me and whom I really loved. I didn't understand how you did that then but still dreamed I could someday be like them. But though I wanted too, I would never have thrown myself, begging, at Wendy's feet because she was Roy's girl and I was in awe of their relationship, so I pined quietly, resigned to being her friend.
As fate would have it, a number of years later I did catch up with Wendy again in L.A. She was single then, still beautiful, working as a waitress. We spent some time together, me driving up from Laguna Beach to spend the night sometimes. Even then I had strong feelings for her but I was tanking on smack by then and couldn't hold down a relationship or much of anything else so it didn't last - a lot of it's about the timing, I guess.
Probably my most memorable Florida girlfriend was Bunny. She was the last girlfriend I had in Fort Lauderdale and being with her was almost the last thing I ever did in my life.
She was a topless dancer at a bar across town, one that I had never visited, although later I would become all too familiar with strip clubs. At that time in Fort Lauderdale, if you lived and worked on the beach, you had all you needed and you might never spend time inland. The two parts of this town could have been two communities hundreds of miles apart. I met Bunny one night while she was drinking at the Sandbox on her night off, and she swept me up. She was mesmeric and irresistible. We eventually got into a pattern where she'd come to my cabin after her work shift was over, around 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning. Of course, I'd be dead to the world by then but a few nights a week she'd snuggle into my bed and we'd slowly exorcize our day's demons with languid sex. We'd sleep late together, have leisurely breakfasts, walks the beach, enjoying the advantages of night work. She was exciting and fun but did drink heavily, a trait I didn't share. One night she came in as usual, leaned over me to wake me before getting into bed, and as I opened my eyes, threw up in my face. It's the little things you remember. In light of what was to come, the drinking turned out to be an issue of minor concern.
The Florida coast and the Keys have always been magnets for mariners and pirates. There was a large community of free-wheelers that hung around the Fort Lauderdale area, ex-Navy SEALs, marines and special forces guys, mercenaries who would disappear for a few months at a time on private jobs and return, flush. You didn't really ask them what they were up to. They were a tight community amongst themselves and would sometimes group up and go off on missions together, and others just stayed out of their business. They were a tough bunch and bar fights between these guys were brutal and sometimes lethal.
One of the better known ex-SEALs, now a mercenary, deep-sea diver, was a guy named Okie who lived where I did, in the cabin community behind the Sandbox. Okie, who got his name from having grown up in Oklahoma, would get hired to do jobs like dive in Spanish coastal waters to retrieve sunken Russian subs with nuclear bombs onboard. When he was in town, he was the bartender at the Sandbox and the bouncer. We never had any trouble at the Sandbox when Okie was tending as he was not someone to be messed with and his reputation alone kept the bar a quiet place. One night he was in a fight at another club in town and took some guy out behind the bar and methodically broke both his arms to make his point. He had a face full of recently acquired scars from a fight with Mario, Barbara's new beau. Mario had broken a beer bottle and rammed the jagged end into his face. The scars were healing and he and Mario had made up and you'd see them together at the bar some nights, Okie serving, Mario drinking. These guys didn't take death and dismemberment too seriously.
Luckily, Okie loved me. He seemed to see in me everything he thought he never was - smart, sensitive, weak and helpless in a dangerous world. God only knows why a guy with his authority would envy me but he felt fatherly toward me and was always looking out for me, for which I was grateful. Also, he played guitar a little and thought I was the greatest musician he'd ever met.
Sometimes he and I would go diving for lobsters and come dripping out of the ocean with burlap bags full, build fires on the beach and boil them with great pots of spaghetti for all the local beach crowd, our friends. We'd play music until the sun went down and we'd each drift off to work our night shifts at tourist traps along the beach. Okie was a good guy and a loyal friend.
By now I had been living in Florida almost a year. I'd had a chance to explore my manhood a bit and had cracked the door to my solitude at least a little. I had been dating Bunny for a while. She would still disappear to her alter life and reappear a few days a week but we were having fun and getting closer, I thought. Her hobby, it seemed, was painting and from time to time she had brought me some of her canvasses which I had hung around my little cabin. Since she worked at night, we didn't spend much time around the Sandbox together but mostly in bed and hanging out in the mornings. Okie, while he knew Bunny, didn't know the details of our trysts. That is, until word came across town via the SEAL-net. It seemed Bunny had a boyfriend who had started wondering where she was spending so many of her nights.
John, also an ex-SEAL, was the inland counterpart to Okie. He had a reputation for being a very rough dude but we never saw him in our neighborhood because he wouldn't come around without securing a pre-visit truce with Okie. It was a territorial thing and they were the big dogs. One day Okie came to me to pass the message that inland John wanted to see me. I didn't even know who he was then, but I didn't like the sound of it. On questioning me, Okie realized that I'd been sleeping with Bunny who it turns out was actually John's girlfriend and was living with him. The reason she's had so much time to mess around with me was that John had been away in Africa on a job and had only got wind of her extracurricular activity when he returned. Now he had blood in his eye and was looking for me. Luckily, out of respect, he had sent word to Okie before invading his territory.
As Okie told me a little about John, I really started to sweat. I was surely in trouble here and I was way out of my depth with these guys. Okie couldn't protect me forever because I'd broken the cardinal rule, even though I hadn't known I was doing it - if you fuck someone else's girlfriend, they have the right to retaliate, no holds barred. He suggested I talk to John, under his protection, to see if we could work something out, so we set a time and I waited.
John came to my cabin on the appointed morning and we met out in front in the sand, me looking up at him. Okie was nowhere to be seen but I knew he was lurking somewhere close. John was an enigma. A giant, muscles not at all hidden under his neat black t-shirt, a crew cut and a surprisingly handsome, unmarked face. But he was disconcerting and his reputation had preceded him. I knew I had to be careful. He introduced himself and I immediately started apologizing for the whole thing. I never knew Bunny had a boyfriend. She had picked me up and never told me anything about him. If I had known, I never would have…
I stood there feeling as vulnerable as a mouse in the mouth of a lion. He listened quietly and then asked if she had given me any artwork. I said yes. He told me they were his, he had painted them, not her, and he wanted them back. Things just seemed to be getting worse and I almost broke my leg running up the stairs to my cabin to get him his paintings.
I got the impression, through his quiet menace, that he might have believed what I'd told him but that it would not make much difference. He left me, gripped in the gut with fear, taking the paintings with him. That night in the bar, Okie pulled me aside to let me know it wasn't over. John, knowing Bunny obviously better than I, had believed my story but could not overlook my insult. He'd let it be known that he would find me, somehow, somewhere, maybe while I was on one of my long night rides. Okie shook his head sadly and strongly suggested I leave town.
The next day I packed all my things, my guitar and rode the Triumph north.