Key Biscayne Lions Club May 30, 2022
by Melissa Trantham Tyler
Key Biscayne. 1950’s. Chills and Fears.
Who would have guessed that it could be “freezing cold” on a tiny island linked to Miami by a causeway—just short of six miles long–that swung across the aquamarine waters of Biscayne Bay? It was the mid-1950’s. Jutting out into the bay, The Key was blasted in winter on all sides by winds that whipped up from those waters. The temperatures would often dip into the ‘40’s, temporarily drooping the leaves of the tropical plants that flourished in the sandy soil, much of which was fill. Raw, damp, chilling wind. Terrazzo floors, a godsend in the summer, captured the cold and shot it through our bare feet in January.
Our small home had a tiny, gas-fueled heater in the hallway. We dressed next to it and inhaled its smelly fumes. It did little to heat the house. The builders of our development of the compact, box-like houses—more than 500 of them– had not considered how cold it might get in the sub-tropical cloister for families trying to find their footing after World War II. My parents were from central Florida, land of lakes and oaks and Spanish moss. There was nothing familiar or comforting about their new environment, selected by default when Daddy got a job with a Miami law firm.
There was a plot of undeveloped of land—probably four of five lots worth of space–that abutted our house on Cypress Drive when I was five or six. For me, it was a vast playground. Volunteer plants—most of which would have been considered weeds—pushed through the sand. The spicy scent of invasive Brazilian pepper blew through the bay-churned wind. Some plants grew tall and dense enough to provide forts and hiding places for our games. The “flats,” as we called the area, offered grand opportunities to explore. My little friends and I never seemed to deplete our imaginations when we played on the flats. We convinced ourselves that an odd hunk of concrete with rebar poking out of its jagged crevices was a dinosaur nest. Daddy said that there had never been dinosaurs in Florida, because the land mass that would eventually become our state didn’t exist in the time of dinosaurs. We decided that he must have been mistaken.
We had to be careful on the flats. There were monsters there. Giant land crabs.
They were huge. Bright blue with orange on their bellies. Other-worldly. They skittered and scuttled with claws raised high to pinch off our fingers. Fast and threatening. They made crunching, rattling sounds as they dashed sideways across the rocky sand. We screamed and ran. Cried and flung rocks at them. No way were we going to let those hideous creatures run us out of our territory. It never occurred to us that the crabs might have been afraid of us. I read, years later, that some people eat them.
We took turns serving as scouts to survey the area, check around rocks and under clumps of weeds, using sticks to chase off the grotesque, demon crabs before deploying the rest of the gang for games and fantasies. I remember the wild surges of adrenaline and thumping heartbeat when it was my turn to be the scout. Trembling and sweating. Part of the pleasure of playing on the flats was the sense of bravery, confidence, and accomplishment that those terrifying scouting missions begot. In fact, those experiences just might be what led to my love for horror movies. I secretly liked being scared. Still do.
On the Key was a small, private beach club. Buying a 1,000 sq. ft. house among so many identical ones on Key Biscayne came with a membership to the club. A lifeguard station suggested that mothers might steal a glance at a novel or chat with a friend while their children were monitored by the strapping young man atop his bright, white perch. There was something else, though, that was as terrifying as the possibility of drowning in the surf.
The fifties were fraught with fear of polio, a disease that crippled and sometimes attacked the lungs, making breathing impossible without an iron lung. There were films on TV that showed rows of patients enclosed—with their heads sticking out-in metal tubes that manipulated the air pressure inside and “breathed” for them. Sometimes, books were affixed above the patients’ heads, and they turned the pages with the eraser-ends of pencils held in their teeth. Little kids with withered limbs struggled to walk with metal crutches clipped to their tiny arms. Lots of them. On TV. Almost every day.
Mama was an accomplished and committed “germaphobe,” and her fears—very likely well-founded at the time—were visited upon me. Perhaps she reasoned that fewer people on the beach—at the Club-yielded diminished probability of contagion from the dreaded disease.
An early version of social distancing. No public pools. We swam only in the ocean at the Beach Club. We were glad it was there for us.
Key Biscayne 1950’s.
Just offshore from the far end of the beach at The Key, as we came to call it, is the southernmost island in Biscayne Bay connected to the Miami mainland by a causeway that slices across the bay with views on both sides of the aquamarine water. Aquamarine doesn’t truly describe the depth and variation of the color. Turquoise. Lapis lazuli. Spellbinding and ever-changing. The houses were tiny, concrete block boxes that resembled each other. A Mackle development. Famous, then and now. White, concrete tile roofs. Carports. No garages. One bathroom. One thousand square feet. All 500-plus of them could be had for about ten thousand dollars, each. You can buy one now for a lot more.
The Key was an enclave for families emerging from WW II to take advantage of the opportunities there. Our house was on Cypress Drive. We had one car. Sometimes, Daddy would drive it to his office downtown. When Mama needed it, she would take Daddy to the bus stop. Most of our neighbors had only one car. That was the way it was.
There weren’t many trees except for palms, braced by boards, at first, but the plants that flourished there grew quickly. Rubber trees. Sea grape. Hibiscus. Bright, yellow allamanda—poisonous but pretty. To call The Key a tropical paradise would be trite, but two non-native, invasive species encroached and proliferated. Australian pines and Brazilian pepper. The straggly, unlovely, tall pines created something of a windbreak, which helped in January when chilly winds whipped off Biscayne Bay to buffet The Key and push temperatures down. The pepper plants bore tiny red berries, but it was the leaves that made my eyes sting if I rubbed them after playing in the dense, low-slung branches. When the winds came, their peppery aroma filled the air. Daddy told me that those plants didn’t belong there. He knew.
Until my sister was born five-and-half years after me, I was an only child. There were kids to play with on The Key, but they played rough. It was no ghetto—just an affordable, post-war development for young families starting out. I was permitted to go to certain houses to play, but I sometimes came home with bruises and bloody scratches. A particularly mean little kid bit me on the arm. Hard. I clocked her. Mama had taught me to stand up for myself in conflicts, but I doubt she would have sanctioned my having struck anyone. I was glad that I did it, anyway.
The nearby Crandon Park Zoo and the Miami Seaquarium held delights and surprises. Nasty monkeys at the zoo performed shocking behaviors as my parents snatched me by the arm and rushed me past their enclosures. Tropical birds shrieked. Lions roared. One of the lions had a toothache, and he roared in pain at night. My visiting grandmother said she could hear it at our house, at least three miles away.
I wanted a sandbox, but Daddy wasn’t much of a carpenter. It is likely that we didn’t own a hammer. One day, there was a big surprise. A dump truck arrived and released a huge pile of white sand. Right in our tiny front yard. It was a mountain, bringing me instant popularity in the neighborhood of cookie-cutter houses and kids looking for adventure. After a few weeks, we had worn down the peak to a gentle mound filled with tunnels which we delighted in filling with water from the hose. We buried each other. Scooped and molded damp sand into novel formations. Started over on new projects. We were occupied for hours. I always had sand in my pants, managed by my parents’ stripping me naked and hosing me down on the back stoop. Sandy clothes were tossed into the washer and dried on the clothesline, clipped with wooden pins to the ropes. No dryer.
Sandpiles attracted critters. Cats. Raccoons. Rats, maybe. Who knows what else. They left unseen things like ringworm and impetigo in my glorious sandpile. I thought ringworm was the coolest. A perfect ring on the skin, caused by a fungus. No actual worm was involved, but we imagined that there was. A worm! Instead, I got impetigo. The treatment was twice-daily scrubbings with sterile soap in a green bottle, called Phisohex, of the raised, crusty sores. For weeks, the impetigo hurt. Itched. Once the sandpile was ground down by our play and incorporated by rain into the lawn, we didn’t have any more sand.
I had aged out of the precious nursery school and kindergarten, The Little Island Playhouse, where we were taught by Miss Claus. I asked if she were Santa’s wife. No. Every day, we sang songs by the Andrews Sisters, whose harmonies we would never approach. Our wooden schoolhouse had once been the commissary for a huge coconut plantation from the turn of the century. I had not been included in any family conversations about where I would attend first grade, but I was too young to understand that we would eventually move. I expected to be able to play perpetually with my Key friends.
My sister arrived, a tiny bundle of squalls that occupied Mama 24/7. Diapers and feedings—bottles, then. At the time, I would have preferred a puppy.
We needed more room. We packed up and left The Key forever for Coral Gables, where my family would live for almost thirty years. I would enter first grade at St. Stephens in Coconut Grove. That’s another story.
Mama got her own car.
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