The Everglades, Our Second Home
By Linda Edgman Beasley
Before we moved from Miami, Florida, the Everglades had a great influence on my family's lifestyle. My parents were married in Everglade City in 1942, and that was just the beginning of our many years of enjoyment in the marshy wetlands. My first memory of the glades was a time that my parents took me fishing. As I grew a little older, Dad began building airboats and touring the swamps. Soon he built a camp house in the Everglades so we could spend weekends as a family, away from it all. The older I got, the more time I spent with my parents in the great wetlands of Florida. We frogged, fished, and hunted in the Everglades quite often. It is where I learned to drive an airboat and a Volkswagen beetle that was converted into a dune buggy.
I am sure that some people are wondering what in the world I am talking about. Allow me to clarify some of the terms I have just used. The Everglades is a stretch of marshy grassland usually covered with water for at least part of the year. The Everglades National Park consists of 1,000,400. There is an additional 110,000 of Everglades outside the park. Therefore, the wetlands take up a large portion of Southwest Florida (Uhler par.5).
Airboats are flat-bottomed boats that are powered by an aircraft engine and propeller. The engine, prop and seats are mounted high on the boat to raise the center of gravity so that the boat will skim over the surface rather than having to push its way through the water. The ideal trail for an airboat is a couple of inches of water over a sandy bottom, but they are not restricted to that. They can go over grassy plains, through mucky swamps, on deep water, and over totally dry ground (Airboats).
While I was not overly fond of seeing frogs gigged, it's still a fascinating sight to watch a good frogger at work. He has to maneuver his airboat at a high speed in the dark with a headlamp attached to his forehead. When he spots his prey, he uses his right foot to control acceleration of the boat, his left hand to steer it, his head to aim his light, and his right hand to use a long handled gig to spear the frogs. He scrapes the frog off the gig into the frog chute and stabs another one, all the while maintaining control of the boat. It's as beautiful as a ballet to see it done well.
The frog chute is a large pipe leading from within reach of the gig to the bottom of the boat. A bag is attached to the bottom of the chute to catch all the frogs as they come sliding down. Once back in town, the sacks of frogs are taken and they are skinned and their hind legs off, throw the rest of the frog away. All of this is quite unpleasant for the frog, but you can get $8 a pound for frog legs, and they are very tasty too ("Frogging").
On my first fishing trip in the Everglades at the age of four, I caught a fish. It seemed to me at the time, to be a big fish. I yelled, "Oh Jesus, please help me. Please help me, Jesus." My parents enjoyed telling this story and laughing at the fact that the fish was only five inches long. Once I got older I told them "Laugh if you want to; it still felt like Moby Dick to me."
In our household, building airboats was a family effort. Dad always needed an extra hand to hold the conduit that he was welding or to help with the rivets. I was daddy's little helper. That meant I could spend some time with him doing something that he enjoyed. I enjoyed just being with my dad and thinking that I was his "right hand girl." I can't remember how many airboats that my dad built. All I know is that he was always busy building something.
Some people that I have talked to have never been on an airboat. I have to say it is one of the most thrilling rides one could ever experience. Imagine sitting in a boat fairly low to the ground, traveling at a fast rate of speed, with no brakes, heading directly towards a tall clump of sawgrass. There is nothing to worry about when riding in an airboat, the way the boat is built the front of the boat will push the grass down and glide right over the top of it. An airboat driver does need to have a keen eye for stumps in the grass. If an airboat hits a stump, it will flip over or become airborne.
My dad and a few of his buddies decided they would like to build a camp in the Everglades. They wanted a place they could stay for days at a time once deer season opened. They also wanted a place they could take their families on the weekends, just to get away from it all. Building this camp was no easy task. There were trees that had to be cut down, lumber had to be hauled thirty miles on an airboat, and all of the necessary tools to work on the camp had to be loaded on the boat as well. Once they completed the camp, it was a home away from home. It was equipped with three sets of bunk beds, one double bed, a sink, a stove, a refrigerator a small kitchenette, and a sofa. There were several windows that looked out onto the slough, where a momma alligator and her babies were the hit attraction. The only inconvenience was the twenty five yard walking deck out to the bath house and the bath house itself. There was no toilet, just a hole cut in the floor to use the bathroom.
Our family spent many weekends at the camp and enjoyed every minute of the peace and quite. There was peace and quiet with the exception of the occasional grunt of momma gator, the serenade of the crickets, and the songs of the tree frogs. This is where I learned how a woman becomes a woman and that my sister was not hurt and bleeding to death. I also had my first taste of frog legs at the camp, as well as gizzards. I found that I like both very much.
I did not learn to appreciate the beauty of my surroundings until I got older. The Everglades are home to many botanicals that are not seen anywhere else. The butterfly orchid is just one of these beauties. They are called butterfly orchids because the delicate petals at the center resemble butterfly wings. They seem to be suspended in the air, and they almost are. As epiphytes, or air plants, they attach their roots to pond cypress and other trees for support, but they take their nourishment entirely from air, moisture and sunlight (Carr 46).
I was amazed at the green tree frog and how brilliant its colors were. He is a bright shade of lime green and has a white line down his side that is outlined in black. The green tree frog is a nimble climber. It owes its agility to specialized feet, which have large toe pads that grip like suction cups. Boy! They do grip like suction cups. I enjoyed picking them up and holding them in my hand. I would turn my hand over and the frog would be stuck like glue, holding on for dear life.
Snails are very delicate and interesting creatures. Snails lay their eggs near the base of the grass stems-too high, and the grass topples over from the weight, too low, and rising water drowns the eggs. The snail kite feeds on this species, its beak curving precisely into the snail's whorl. Fish ripple out as the water rises and congregate as it falls, providing food for wading birds such as the wood stork ("Water, Bird and Man" 31-34).
Hunting in the marshes is a bit different than hunting in the woods. In the Everglades airboats are needed to get out to the heads (clusters of trees). Dogs are used to run the deer out of the heads and into the open grassland, where hunters are waiting to make a kill. If the dogs begin to bark, the hunters sit and wait. If no barks are heard, the hunters call in their dogs and load them back in the boat and ride off in search of another head. I have been on such a hunt, and my job was to unleash the dogs and put them in the water. When it was time to round up the dogs again, I would pull them from the water and leash them back in the boat. I can't recall a time that I went into the Everglades and came back home completely dry. I have driven the boat while my father shot a deer, and I have even shot my own deer. It was impossible to be a "girly girl" in my family.
Eastern Airlines Flight 401 crashed into the Florida Everglades on the night of December 29, 1972, causing 101 fatalities. It was the first crash of a wide-body aircraft. Flight 401 departed from New York's JFK on Friday, December 29th, 1972 at 9:20 pm in route to Miami International Airport. It began its approach into the Airport. When the co-pilot looked at the landing gear indicator, the green light that identifies that the nose gear is properly locked in the down position did not illuminate.
The pilots radioed the tower and asked to abort the landing. They asked for instructions to circle the airport for a bit. The tower instructed the L-1011 airplane to pull out of its descent, climb to two thousand feet and then make a U-turn and fly west over the darkness of the Everglades ("Eastern Airlines Flight" 401).
Ninety four passengers and five crewmembers died during the crash, and two more died of injuries later. The incident was due to burned-out light bulbs with a replacement value of twelve dollars. The landing gear was found to be in the down and locked position.
This event had a large impact on my family. We received calls from all over the country, asking Dad to assist in the rescue efforts. He not only assisted in the rescue efforts; he chauffeured reporters to the site of the crash. The only way to get to the scene was by way of airboat. Dad did this for several weeks until he just could not stand the site of the accident any longer. He had seen enough death and destruction to last a lifetime.
In my lifetime, I have had experiences that most people only dream of having, with the Everglades being merely a small portion of my experiences. I have to give my dad all the credit for creating the well traveled person that I am. During the process of writing this paper, my father passed away. It has been great therapy for me to remember all of the good times we shared together in the Everglades. At one point I thought I would give anything to be able to spend just one more day fishing, camping, frogging or hunting with my dad. These wonderful memories will keep my dad alive in my heart and in the hearts of my children and grandchildren.