In the early 1970s, my friends and I would borrow my little brother’s old red wagon and load it up with glass bottles we collected from the trash. The goal of collecting as many bottles as possible was to be able to walk to The Village Store on Prosperity Farms Road and turn them all in for recycling deposits. We could get a nickel for every bottle. After cashing in, we’d use our earnings to shop for glorious candy.
We’d set off in the sticky sunshine to trudge about a half mile down two lane Prosperity Farms Road and over the Earman River Bridge to get to the store. Just as we’d get to the point of debating the wisdom of hiking in heat so heavy it was hard to breathe, we would finally reach the open garage doors of the store and walk across the hard-packed dirt floor into the shade. Proudly, we’d show our collection of bottles to the clerk who would count them and point silently to the back door. We were well recognized in The Village Store as careful bottle handlers and selective candy shoppers who knew exactly what was expected.
After setting the bottles inside of the wooden crates stacked outside in organized chaos, and happily collecting our quarters and we’d shop with reckless abandon. Spending down to the last nickel, the debate would rage over Chick-o-stiks, bubble gum, candy cigarettes, and should we get some of those little wax bottles with the way-too-sweet syrup inside this time or not? Adding a Coca-cola in a big glass bottle to share we’d go happily back out the door, carefully carrying our reward for being good recyclers in brown paper sacks. Taking turns dragging each other in the now empty wagon, we’d make our way back to the Earman River Bridge. There we’d stop and after pushing the wagon behind the bushes for safekeeping, carefully climb down the steep riverbank to the cement wall under the bridge and sit in the cool shade under the bridge, dangling our feet over the water where we could feast on all that sugar without our mothers looking over our shoulders making dire predictions of horrible future dentist visits. In front of us, the brackish water of the river would barely move, and every now and then a fish would appear as a murky shadow just below the surface like a marshmallow popping to the surface in a bowl of molasses.
The Earman River and the bridge that crossed it at Prosperity Farms Road was a major part of the landscape in the southeastern part of the little Village of North Palm Beach. Boys would gather on the riverbanks to fish or if they were lucky, to chug up and down the river in little boats borrowed from their dads. Men on their way out to Lake Worth and the ocean to fish would wave to kids along the banks as they slowly made their way east, unless of course, the dad spotted his kids. Then it was, “Hey, get away from the river. I told you! Wait ‘till I get home!”
When I was ten, I decided I was going to live under the bridge. Convinced in the way that only a drama queen-in-training can be, I was sure that I had been horribly mistreated and was totally unappreciated. So, late at night, maybe all of eight o’clock, I pushed out the screen of my big front bedroom window, crawled over the bushes and stomped off toward my new home under the bridge. As I marched down the street steaming about how totally unfair parents could be, bare feet slapping the pavement, the cool October wind filled up my thin cotton nightgown like an air balloon and lifted my hair as if playing with it.
“I can live under the bridge and my friends can bring me food,” I thought. “That’ll teach my parents.” It was a great idea that got better and more elaborate in the details as I stormed toward the river. Until I reached the corner of my street, that is. “Hey. It’s really dark.” I looked warily around. Something in the neighbor’s yard rattled loudly. Eyes wide, I tried peering into the darkness to see what was making that rattling sound. One more loud bang further down the street and I turned and raced back to the house, climbed back in the window and dove in the bed and under the covers. There would be no living under the Earman River bridge anytime soon for me.
Once, my cousin Jack raced toward the Earman River for salvation. He didn’t quite make it, though. It was a family tradition to grab whoever was close to you when they least suspected it and rub your knuckles on their scalp while screaming, “Noogie!” in their ear. Jack made the mistake of daring my dad to give him a noogie late one Saturday afternoon. I think his exact words may have been, “well, you can’t catch me, old man.” The two of them stood frozen looking at each other for a moment. Time seemed to expand and everything was perfectly still just like in the black and white westerns we watched on Sunday afternoons on television. The rest of the family stood on the sidelines at high noon in front of the saloon in an old western town as the gunslingers stared each other down. My dad made a slight move and everything exploded. Jack dashed across the yard and over the fence like he was jet-propelled. Even more surprising, my dad did the same. The rest of us turned to each other, mouths open and eyes wide.
They didn’t return for a half hour. Both came back panting. Jack didn’t stop running until he reached the river thinking he could swim to safety. He hesitated before diving in and that’s where dad caught him and gave him the by then much deserved noogie.
The water of the Earman River was always brackish and the dark brown color caused parents to spend a lot of time over the years warning us to stay away from it. I had no idea what was on the bottom and I doubt if any of my friends did either. Boys would dare each other to swim from one side to the other, but I, along with the rest of my girlfriends, refused to get that close. I heard once that a shark had been sighted in the river which sent most of the kids I knew into a shark-hunting frenzy. After weeks of campouts and daily meetings where binoculars were handed around along with a thermos or two of koolaid without sighting even the bare tip of a shark fin, we became highly suspicious. There were numerous discussions of the likelihood that anything other than a muck monster or an occasional mullet could live in that brown water. The discussions became hot debates that the shark story may or may not have been invented by a parent who had finally lost patience with his kids coming home reeking of the river.The Earman River isn’t actually a river, though. Natural rivers in Florida tend to meander peacefully and lazily back and forth as if they have all day to get from one point to another, like the Suwannee River in north Florida. The Earman is awfully straight, even though I never noticed. Years after spending all those summer hours under the bridge and shark hunting along its banks, I finally learned the truth. The Earman River is actually a canal manmade in 1897 to help with drainage for the farms that were in the area way before North Palm Beach existed.
The cool bit of shade and concrete under the bridge was our oasis, a hideout. The hours spent lying on our backs munching on candy with the sound of the occasional car swooshing by overhead were filled with talk of what we were going to do and be. One of the boys even grew up to play with sharks. It may have been his dad who started the rumor that kept us busy one entire summer.
Author's Note: This is actually the short story that came out of the column written for Seabreeze Publications. You can find the condensed version at the following url: