Bob and Alberta lived on their ranch in central Florida, on land that was occupied by pine barrens, prickly pears and palmettos. Bob’s people had settled the place who knows how long before. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of his great-, great-, great-grandparents didn’t spring from a marriage between the early European explorers and the Native population of the time.
I met Bob and Alberta in the early 1970s when I went to work there in the summers. I was still a boy.
I don’t know how I was allowed to get away with it. Maybe it had to do with me making a little money, and giving my parents a break from my presence at the dinner table. (I was skinny, but my appetite knew no bounds.)
I think of Bob and Alberta this time of year.
Bob told me it might be weeks between visitors during the winter. Then that visitor might only be the state trooper coming by on his monthly rounds.
If they got visitors in the winter, he said, they would almost get giddy with joy.
By Florida standards, December, January and February were cold and barren. Snow would fall and gust sometimes, but of course, it would never stick for long.
It could be cold, close to freezing. To old Floridians, that near freezing could spark fear of an apocalypse. That’s because every 20 years or so, the fingers of the winter of the real north would come down and kill orange groves and winter crops, while bursting pipes and wreaking havoc.
Bob and Alberta’s ranch was pretty far removed from everything. It wasn’t like it is today, a world of freshly sprung-up suburbs full of Northerners, and what’s left of the cattle ranches, citrus groves and growers all owned by the banks, corporations and investors.
Roads that were nearly vacant in the cold months 50 years ago are now in a continual state of agitation as the new hordes travel to the strip malls, office buildings, doctors’ offices, megachurches, big box stores, building sites and convenience stores.
Central Florida was still Old Florida 50 years ago, occupied by cattle ranches and citrus groves.
Folks did not just jump into the car and take the half-hour trip into town. That would have seemed improvident — not just a waste of money, but a loss of money and time. Money that could only be earned through untold hours of blood, sweat and tears, and time that could never be replaced.
The tears would have been hidden, but a life working with lines of cattle that go back not only through generations in your care, but generations of your family’s stewardship as well, and cash crops that could be destroyed in one night by a killer frost, could be nearly heartbreaking at times.
Bob would say, “Well, those are the times that separate the men from the boys.”
With those words, they would cheer themselves up. With them, they used to get through the lonely times, the various downturns in the wider economy, and loss.
The way people are is so different today.
I take time to see Bob and Alberta around the New Year. They have long gone from the land, but their spirits remain to visit me during these cold lonely times at our place in the real north, a place that is not yet ready to give up the old ways.
Forrest Hartley lives far, far away in Hadley, N.Y. Leave a message at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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