People who visit the southeast coast of Florida nowadays see hardly a remnant of what it was like when I first moved here in the early ‘60’s. Starting a few miles north of Palm Beach and extending all the way to the south end of Key Biscayne—with a few breaks for local, county and state parks and National this-and-that—there are now nothing but hotels and condominiums. For a stretch of coast approximately 80 miles long, only government intervention has insured minimal public access to the beaches. Most of the parks are devoid of their native vegetation, having long since been taken over by Australian pines and other exotic flora. Ironically, the only examples of the original coastal jungle are, for the most part, on private estates where they were preserved to provide isolation and privacy.
‘Twer not always thus. Back when I was a young buck (he says with quavering voice), there were still long stretches of southeast Florida beach in more-or-less pristine condition. The native dune vegetation was in good shape, and the subtropical jungle of gumbo-limbo, wild coffee, sea grape and other similar trees and shrubs was relatively undisturbed. The sea oats, bay cedar, scrub palmetto, yucca and prickly-pear cactus of the dunes were thick and essentially self-protective, discouraging much incursion by creatures soft of foot and thin of hide.
In the summer of 1963 I took a job as an ocean lifeguard at the Lake Worth, Florida, public beach. In those days you needed basic lifesaving training (easily obtained from the Red Cross), and the ability to drag a 35-lb. balsa wood and fiberglass surfboard out through the waves. A black Speedo, a whistle, a bottle of Coppertone and the obligatory Ray-Bans completed the equipment and the qualifications. A sports car or motorcycle was an optional but popular accessory.
We had wooden stands about eight feet high to perch on when the weather was nice. More inclement days were spent in a sort of hut built under the stand, with solid wooden windows that swung upward and latched open. This broke the wind and provided protection from blowing sand, but not much else. Cloudy winter days with a 20-25 M.P.H. wind off the water and fifty-degree temperatures involved old army blankets and sweats with the cuffs cut off so that they could be doffed quickly on the way to the water.
We lifeguards lived it up, to put it mildly. Since we got to the beach an hour before the crowds to rake up seaweed and tidy the area, we also got first shot at the young northern and Midwestern ladies on their first days of vacation. After staking out a particular target, our first thought was to keep her from getting too badly sunburned. (Blistered shoulders and other parts have spoiled many a romantic evening.) Naturally our solicitous care was appreciated, and it was unusual for one of us to fail to at least get a date with the young lady for coffee at the “Casino,” a line of shops to the rear of the beach. The rest, from that point on, was pretty-much dependent on the weather, state of the wallet, and how skittish the object of our affection might have been.
One of our favorite things—and one of the least expensive—was to have a lobster party on the beach. (This is where the differences between those days and today come to the fore.) A couple of us and our companions would hike about a half-mile south of the public beach. At that point we were away from all residences, and had reasonable privacy. Driftwood made a good fire in a hole dug in the sand. While the coals were forming, we’d impress our dates by swimming out to the rocks offshore and bringing back a couple of lobsters each. A glove and a gooster* hook were all that was needed, for back then there were plenty of lobsters to be had with little effort. We’d build up a big bed of coals, cover it with seaweed, throw in the lobster tails (Florida “lobsters” lack claws), more seaweed, a piece of wet cardboard to keep the sand off, and fill in the hole. After an hour or so of skinny-dipping—if the ladies were willing—we’d return to dig up our dinner. A couple of six-packs added the necessary liquidity. A full moon was a bonus.
We partied. It was nothing to get to the beach at 8:00 AM, work until 5:00 PM, go home and clean up, and pick up your date for an evening and early morning of hitting the various night spots: the Loggia, O’Hara’s, the Leopard Lounge, 256 and the infamous Candy Bar (they had go-go girls!). We hung out in the same places and drank with Kennedys, George Hamilton, and the rest of the Palm Beach glitterati. A golf shirt, khakis and Topsiders were all you needed to blend in. We’d take our dates home whenever they had to be in, make another round of the spots, get home about 4:00 AM, fall into bed, and be up at 6:30 to do it all again. About every four days we crashed. Days off were spent—you guessed it—at the beach.
There are things I’d have done differently. For one thing, I would have spent less time worrying about other people’s sunburn and more time keeping my own hide in shape. Florida dermatologists are getting rich off the beach bums and bunnies of the ‘60’s. There were local girls who deserved more attention than they got, and the time for playing was over all too soon. The assassinations of Jack Kennedy, his brother Bobby and Dr. King spelled the end of innocence for my generation and opened up a decade of disillusion and acrimony. There are no more beach parties, the lobsters are gone from the shallow water, the beaches are lined with plate glass and bulkheads, and those of us who played on them are grandparents—the ones who made it this far.
There’s a section of jungle along the shore, about a mile from where I live, that has been preserved by the Nature Conservancy and is administered by Palm Beach County. I used to like to go there and meditate. I’m going to start doing it again. If you sit in the right spot, between the dunes, you can’t see the condos and other blight. Sometimes you can almost feel it again—how it felt to be young, with world enough, and time.
Gooster – slang for langouste, a common name for the Caribbean Spiny Lobster, which is actually a huge prawn.