As the Dog Days of summer – July 3 to August 11 – draw ever nearer to an end (until, next year), I find myself trying to remember more details from my first summer in Florida after Mom and I returned from Bogota in mid-spring of 1972.
Until this Golden Anniversary year, I had not made much of an effort to remember those early months when I was acclimating myself not only to a new permanent hometown in the subtropics after living in the often-chilly environment of Bogota, Colombia (8,660 ft. above sea level), but a different country from the one where I’d lived for over half a decade. At the age of nine, I was too young to have kept a journal, and life was changing at an unbelievably fast pace that my mind simply couldn’t comprehend what was going on at the time.
There’s also the fact that the event that prompted our unplanned and quick decampment from the city known as the “South American Athens” was a cerebral hemorrhage that laid me low and sent me to the pediatric ward in Bogota’s Hospital Militar not long after my ninth birthday in March of 1972. I only have vague – if somewhat painful – memories of a headache that was so excruciatingly painful that I blacked out, only to wake up the next morning in a hospital bed with an IV stuck in my left wrist and the concerned faces of my mother, half-sister, and the pediatrician (Dr. Roa) who was supervising my treatment.
The effects of bleeding in the brain, combined with the speed in which Mom and I moved to Miami as soon as my doctors had cleared me for travel, and all the adventures, misadventures, and life-changing experiences I had between March and December of 1972, have made memories of those times both fragmentary and fragile.
Some memories, such as the time when I skedaddled out of the swimming pool in the courtyard of the El Portal Apartments complex in Sweetwater, Florida when I saw a ginormous palmetto bug swimming resolutely toward me, are startlingly vivid. I can still see the bright sunlight reflecting from the chlorinated water of the pool, that huge alien-looking Eurycotis floridana, scuttling in my direction, and my mad scramble across the shallow end of the pool and up the steps that led out of the pool as though it was yesterday.
Other memories (such as how long it took us to move from El Portal Apartments to our new house at 1001 SW 102nd Avenue or the exact day on which my half-sister Vicky arrived in Miami – a family reunion imposed on her by our grandparents and other relatives in Bogota – in the Dog Days of the Summer of ’72) are a blank. Obliterated, even. I can’t remember if she rejoined us during our last weeks in Sweetwater or shortly after we moved into the house on SW 102nd Avenue.
My most vivid memories of early August revolve around my mom’s efforts to make sure I learned English as quickly as possible. She was bilingual, having learned English from a British tutor that her dad, my grandfather Quique, hired when Mom was a teenager in Bogota. She had also traveled extensively and even worked for several years as a flight attendant for Avianca, Colombia’s flag airline, when she was a young woman, so even though she had a noticeable accent, Mom spoke English fluently.
Now, my mom did not resort to such measures as speaking to me only in English and making a sink-or-swim immersive experience. Sometimes she’d say some basic everyday phrases, stuff like “Good morning, Alex. How are you today?” and “Can you please take the garbage out to the curb?” to get my ear – and brain – accustomed to American English.
Mostly, though, she spoke to me in castellano but only allowed me to watch English-language programming on our Zenith color TV; I could watch anything I wanted until my bedtime – which at the time was 10 PM – including war movies and police dramas, so long as it was on English-only stations. For a while, the only time I was allowed to see anything in Spanish was the local CBS affiliate, WTVJ-TV (Channel Four)’s News En Español, which was presented by the late Cuban American television news broadcaster Manolo Reyes. I think – I am not sure – that I only saw that a few times because I had to be up by 6:45 AM, which is when News En Español aired on Channel Four.
Aside from that, I was not supposed to watch Miami’s sole Spanish-language station, WLTV, Canal 23.
Additionally, Mom would often get me issues of Scholastic Magazine, back issues of Reader’s Digest, and lend me some of her English-language books, along with a massive volume of the Larousse English-Spanish/Spanish-English Dictionary, which I studied intently every day during those last weeks before beginning third grade at the nearby Coral Park Elementary School.
I also remember that we went over to my godmother Carmelita Carrillo Blasco’s house, which was separated from our new home at 1001 by two other houses – the Blanchards’ at 925 SW 102nd Avenue, and the DiRosas at 935 SW 102nd Avenue – a lot in those early months in Miami. We ate dinner with Carmelita and her Cuban husband, Norberto in their kitchen or out in the backyard on many occasions, and we often ate either Colombian or Cuban dishes, always accompanied by tall glasses of iced tea.
Then, as now, the Dog Days of summer were hot and humid, but most of the houses on our block – including Carmelita’s and ours, had big shade trees in the backyard. I don’t remember how many trees the Blascos had, but we had not one but two mango trees in our spacious yard at the rear of 1001, as well as several gardenia bushes – including one right outside my bedroom window – and room for more shrubs or bushes. So with all that shade from the trees, it wasn’t as hot in the backyard as it was out in the less shady front adjacent to the always busy 102nd Avenue.
We also had a birdbath in the middle of the backyard and an open patio at the rear of the house – which was right next to the gardenia bush. I loved to sit out there in the afternoons, wearing shorts, T-shirts, and in my bare feet, and watch birds dive into the water of the birdbath. Most of the time the bathers were black birds that looked like crows, but sometimes I’d spy a blue jay or a cardinal coming in for landing on the lip of the birdbath and then jumping in or landing in the center with a soft wet splash!
I had a few friends on the block – which is sited north-to-south along 102nd Avenue and began on SW 8th Terrace at the northern end and ended on SW 12th Street at the southern end. Some, like Armando (who lived at 10135 SW 8th Terrace) and Luis (who lived across the street from Armando’s house at 825 SW 102 Avenue) were Cuban American and were my contemporaries. The only “Anglo” kids I knew well were the Blanchard Brothers; Robert, who was my age but only tolerated me slightly, and Patrick, who was three but – at the time, anyway – saw me as an “adopted big brother” because I was more patient with him than his real brother. Later, once I was more fluent in English, I would befriend other kids on the block, but my posse in the Summer of ’72 consisted mostly of Armando, Luis – whose parents were both physicians – and Patrick.
As I’ve said in previous posts about this pivotal summer of my life – only the summer of 2015 rivals 1972 in its life-changing impact – summer (even in the Dog Days) was all about having fun and hanging out with friends, often from early afternoon and well into the evening. In Miami, thanks to Daylight Savings Time, the sun sets after 8 PM even in August, so we boys would play variations of Cowboys and Indians, Cops and Robbers, or even War with our politically incorrect toy guns or have impromptu touch football games that we played either with regulation “pigskin” or non-regulation Nerf footballs. We’d kill time like that, goofing around and teasing each other the way that boys have done since time immemorial until our mothers called our names and we had to run home for dinner.
Those are the things that I remember most from the Summer of ’72, when I still had a few weeks before I started school at Coral Park Elementary School.