The Spradley Family
Key Biscayne Lions Club May 12, 2020
It amazes me that 66 years later I am still in touch with
all the Key Rats I grew up with!
by Mark Spradley
Our father Gordon Spradley moved to Miami in 1921 when he was 10 years old. As a teenager he used to row over to the Key, and during prohibition he helped unload the bootleggers’ boats along the limestone cliffs where the tollbooth is now. They always pitched a few aside and later took them out to the twin islands to party. Decades later, we would party on those same islands.
Our mother Doris Erwin moved from Atlanta to Miami at an early age. She met my father at the Tower Theater, where he was the manager and she was an usherette. They both worked for Wometco Enterprises.
As a veteran of World War II, my dad used the GI benefits to buy our Mackle house on the Key. It was built on the corner of Woodcrest Lane in 1953, the year I was born.
At the time, many people thought that was a terrible idea. Grandma said Key Biscayne was too far from downtown and was nothing more than a swamp filled with mosquitos. We moved into the house that fall and my parents lived there until 1989.
The landscape was barren except for the long rows of tall coconut trees running in straight lines between the identical homes. As very young kids, we roamed our neighborhood at will. There were shortcuts between the yards to get to each other’s houses or hide from our parents. Moms would shuttle us back and forth to borrow sugar, bread or a couple of Salem cigarettes.
We could walk to the 7-Eleven, which was not air conditioned and had sliding doors across the front that were left open. If your TV went bad, you would take the tubes out, test them and buy new ones at the kiosk there. You could also buy ammo.
The old sewage treatment plant on Harbor Drive was a great place to fish, and we used to climb onto the rotating arm above one of the tanks. We dubbed it the “Pissmobile.”
The woods were at the end of our block and stretched all the way down Fernwood Road. We had paths that went straight through to the Cove Restaurant, or all the way south to Queen’s Castle and the dirt road leading to the Frosty King on Crandon Boulevard.
When I was 5, mom took me out of kindergarten so she would have someone to go to the beach with. I’d ride in the basket of her blue bike and we would head for the Key Biscayne Beach Club. The other moms would be there with their kids and we spent the day digging holes and making drip castles. Some days we might walk all the way to the lighthouse. One day two men walked up and introduced themselves as Senator Smathers and Vice President Nixon. They looked scary to me, so I hid behind my mother! My first swim lessons were at the Beach Club when I was about 3. I remember crashing through the waves and swallowing a lot of saltwater. All of us kids became excellent swimmers, divers and water skiers.
We roamed the woods where the old barn was and we all knew “Mack,” who was the caretaker at the time. He let us wander through the property as long as we didn’t bother anything. One day we got on the top floor of the barn and found a “secret” trap door to a big storage room below.
Our father used to take us fishing off the ruins of the Mashta House. We would go down to the dock where there was still an arched roof over the boathouse at the entrance to the lagoon. If you walked along the seawall, you could see the remains of rooms with beautifully tiled floors and walls.
Mashta Point remained a part of our lives through our teenage years, when we all went there to watch sunsets and later to take part in the “Dolphin Project.” There were two dolphins, Florida and Liberty, in the lagoon. They were being taught how to live back in the wild, and for a while we could ride them and play around with them. We helped feed them and babysat them at night.
You didn’t have to go far to find something to do. Yards were turned into baseball diamonds. There were swing sets, and we had a tetherball pole, stilts and pogo sticks. At night the whole neighborhood would play kick-the-can. When the mosquito truck came down the road, we would all ride our bicycles behind it, getting lost in the fog of oil and DDT!
You could pretty much go anywhere on the Key as long as you were back home for dinner. That was the focus of the day for our family. Everything was discussed at dinner. What you did at school that day. Reports from a neighbor that you misbehaved. There were those horrible discussions when you learned a long-time childhood friend was killed in an accident or died unexpectedly.
Part of living on the island was taking the “B” bus downtown. Mom would take us to the beautiful marble public library and then we would take a walk through the Bayfront Park Rock Gardens.
Later, when dad became the manager of the theater, we would take as many friends as we could into the movies for free. We would roam downtown and sneak into all the buildings, playing on the elevators. Once we got all the way to the top floor of the courthouse, which was really scary with the empty jail cells and vultures roosting on the gargoyles that decorated the outside.
As teenagers, we had lots of hangouts and built a lot of forts. There were keg parties on Virginia Key and “Beer Can Beach.” We skied off Campbell’s Beach or the mangrove platform. We had forts in the woods, the mangroves and Crandon Park woods. If you skipped school, you could always find some friends there!
When Nixon moved in, they blocked off Campbell’s Beach. But that didn’t stop us from racing through, because we knew the Secret Service agents had to stop at the perimeter. However, one day they followed us to the dock and had a machine gun aimed at me! My brother once tied coconuts to a kite and let them drag across the water through the secured area, causing the agents to chase them down to see what they were.
Dad worked for Wometco, and they also owned Miami Seaquarium, so we would get in free. We used to hang out at the Flipper set, and one Christmas we were allowed to fish in Flipper’s Lagoon. I worked there briefly selling fish food for the seals. Mom worked at Mills 5 & 10 for many years – the greatest place for all your school supplies and just about anything else. She also worked at Little Joes Barbecue and at Burdines. She was an artist and painted some of the historic places around the Key: The Cape Florida Lighthouse, the barn, the Calusa Playhouse. Many Key Rats have those pictures hanging in their homes now.
I came home with a monkey one day. He lived in the patio and used to play in the ficus tree where my fort was. We had a dog named Mike, and the monkey used to ride him around the house. Once the dog ran all the way to the traffic light at the Gulf Station and was terrorizing cars. That ended when the police gave him a ticket and mom had to go to court to pay a fine!
When I was 10 years old the Cuban Missile Crisis was in full swing on the Key. There were armed military vehicles on the roads and the threat of a nuclear war was very real. It didn’t help that we practiced “duck and cover” under our desks at school. This was supposed to be triggered by the first glimpse of the mushroom cloud! For years I had nightmares of a mushroom cloud over Fernwood at the end of our street.
I don’t remember it being that hot living in our home with no air conditioning. We had fans and a sea breeze, and the terrazzo floors were nice and cool. But I do remember when we got our first one. My dad installed it in the middle room, with fans and vents going to each of the kids’ adjoining rooms.
I was in the very first 4th of July Parade, dressed as a clown and walking the whole route on big clown feet. My friend’s mother paid me $10 to do it because he wouldn’t!
The best job ever was working at Crandon Park. I worked in the zoo and beach concessions, the amusement park and skating rink, and later as groundskeeper. The first job I ever had (besides a paper route) was at the Donut Gallery when they only sold donuts. We would be up by 4 a.m. to wrap all the papers in front of the S & W, and then we tore off across the island in our vespas and scooters. Since the milkman was also delivering that early, we sometimes grabbed a fresh chocolate milk off someone’s doorstep.
It amazes me that 66 years later I am still in touch with all the Key Rats I grew up with!
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