I spent the weekend in Sarasota Florida, the town where I was a ten-year-old, a teenager, a boy-scout, a high-school graduate, and twice bereaved.
Sunday Morning, my last morning in town, I had to get up early to drive my brother Randy to the airport. It was still dark when I drove back through town, musing on all the places I remembered and the places I didn’t.
I drove south on US 41, the “Tamiami Trail” that takes you from Tampa to Miami, and that serves as the “main drag” for downtown Sarasota. I’ve driven it hundreds, perhaps thousands of times before, and the ride seemed shorter. SMALLER. I used to drive it in a 1972 Buick Electra 225 Limited, an 18-foot land-yacht with more horses under the hood than many small aircraft. This time I was in a Dodge Neon. You’d think the place would seem LARGER, what with my car being able to actually fit in the lanes, but no… smaller. The drive was a short one, and halfway “home” to my Grandmother’s condo in Pelican Cove I decided to detour. I left 41 and headed west for the north bridge to Siesta Key. I didn’t drive the full length of the key, but I did depart Midnight Pass Road to detour yet further past the little “mini-downtown” of Siesta Village and the Siesta Beach where I spent countless summer days tanning.
The sun hadn’t come up yet. The beach looked peaceful, empty, and inviting. But not THAT inviting. Besides, Randy and I strolled the beach on Saturday. I kept driving.
Back on Midnight Pass Road I headed for Stickney Point road, where I headed east again, crossed the Intercoastal Waterway, and met up with US 41. South again, towards Pelican Cove… and I discovered I was hungry. Waking my aunt, uncle, and cousins in the condo would be kind of rude, and they didn’t have any decent breakfast foods there anyway, so I stopped at the Denny’s around the corner. This is the place where I had my “last meal” before driving to Utah in September of 1987. It’s just a Denny’s, but to me it is THE Denny’s. I had chicken-fried steak and basted eggs… a meal I would never have considered as a 19-year-old who was still addicted to pancake syrup.
The sky was that crack-of-dawn blue you get before the sun has come up, and I decided to drive some more. From Denny’s I headed a block north on 41 to the southern tip of Beneva Road. I don’t know that I’ve ever driven Beneva all the way to the north end (10 miles? 20 miles?) and I did not intend to do that this morning. I was looking for a house.
My friend Harry Wigley (yes, that’s his name) and I used to play over at his house all the time. I couldn’t remember where it was, or what it looked like, but I was pretty sure it was between Gulf Gate Drive and Captiva Gardens, and wasn’t more than five or six blocks west of Beneva. I figured I’d drive around until I saw a road sign I recognized.
I saw several. The names, however, rung with me as names that I’d seen before, but wasn’t supposed to turn on. They weren’t landmarks. They were scenery. Then I hit “Biltmore Rd” and knew I needed to turn. “BILTMORE!” I didn’t shout. This was a quiet time. As I drove, I at first thought that one of these houses must be it, but I’d never be able to remember which one. Then I recalled that Harry’s house (well, it was his grandmother’s house — I never DID get the story of how he and Tommy ended up living with her) was across the street from a creek, not other houses. Biltmore Road had houses on both sides.
Then I hit Biltmore Way. “OH YEAH!” my brain exclaimed. Two Biltmores. Giving directions to other friends was always a trick, because there were two Biltmores. What a stupid subdivision.
No sooner had I turned right, than I had a creek on my left, and there was Harry’s Grandmother’s house on the right. It was on a corner… there, across the T-street was the neighbor’s house where we’d carefully fished crossbow bolts out of a garbage can. No, we weren’t dumpster-diving. We were pulling the bolts out of the holes we’d made when we fired them. I turned onto the T-street and recalled the day with the model rocket engines. Me, Harry, Mike Sylvester… and who else? Why were we BEHIND Harry’s house that day? These were all neighbor’s frontages… and then another light came on. Another friend of ours lived back here… it was either Robbie Ayala, or Chris… the last name escapes me (and I’m not sure I’ve got the first name right). We were in that driveway RIGHT THERE… making bottle-rockets with lengths of dowel and Estes “C” engines. We’d roll up an index card and tape it to the top of the engine, and then roll another one into a “capsule”… into which we’d tuck a hapless little lizard.
I pulled a three-point-turn and faced back towards the T-intersection. There was the stop sign. I’ll never forget that launch.
The dowel was too long and floppy, and the rocket got turned sideways on its way out of the pool-pole (extendable pole for pool-cleaning tools). It wobbled and wiggled eight feet above the road, shooting towards the intersection instead of the heavens, it’s hapless astronaut with his TP-streamer parachute bound no doubt for a trip straight into the creek. But the engine had spent its few seconds of thrust already, and popped the ejection charge… BANG! The lizard-capsule shot straight into the stop sign, point blank. His streamer unfolded with insulting smoothness as he dropped to the ground.
We stood in amazement, roared with laughter, and then made ambulance noises as we retrieved our reptilian rocketeer. He lived, and we set him free.
As I drove towards the stop sign, I could not help but notice what appeared to be a white blast-blemish. It seems unlikely to me that the same mark remained for 24 years, but it would sure make a nice story. It’s more likely a dusting of spray paint from the next generation of hooligans.
I felt wonderful as I drove away. Memories of my times with Harry flooded back. Micronauts. Model rockets. Legos. Dungeons and Dragons. Boy Scout trips.
I worked my way back out of the subdivision, took Pinehurst from Beneva to 41 (it’s the only straight connection between the two thoroughfares for a mile in any direction), dog-legged across the freeway to Southpointe Shores, where I used to live, and drove around there for a bit. More memories came back, and again I realized that everything seemed smaller. Just like the town itself, my memories of these houses were bigger than the homes themselves. Harry’s Grandma’s house had been the same way. That stop sign wasn’t really all that far from the Ayala’s driveway. Todd Josko’s house wasn’t really all that far from mine.
Okay, sure… THOSE trips were made on bicycle, or on foot, so there’s a reason the distances seemed shorter. But the houses themselves… tiny.
On Pinehurst I’d driven past the little cinder-block house where my OTHER Grandmother had lived. Grandma Tayler died 20 years ago, and the place is still there.
Coming back out of my subdivision I drove the length of the mini-mall where Mike Sylvester introduced me to Donkey Kong, and where Todd Josko showed me how much better an Apple was than a TRaSh-80. The convenience store and the commputer store aren’t there any more, but the Adult Bookstore is. Sadly, it looks far classier than anything else in that plaza. It’s changed names a few times, I’m sure, and probably even changed hands, but it stayed put while the places I actually WANTED to see — especially the little hobby shop — were gone.
I’ve lost touch with Mike, Harry, Robbie, Chris, Todd, and the others. I can’t fault the hobby shop for being gone. From where it, and many others stood, I’m the one who left.