Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Hurricane Memories

Isabel Photo from Nasa.Gov

                As I drive through the remnants left in Palm Beach County by Isaac, I’ve been thinking  back over a lifetime of hurricane memories.  Yes, I am a life-long resident and no, I’m not going to subject you to every memory—just a few. Promise.

                During Hurricane Betsy (1965) I set up the wondrous Show and Tell to entertain my little brother with “shows.” (For those of you who have no clue what I’m talking about, here’s a LINK to the little television-looking box with a record player on top and a slot for the film. Basic, I know, but it was hot stuff back then.) With storm shutters installed, the house was as dark as any movie theatre I’ve ever been in.  An added bonus of our show was the sound of the scratchy records helped mask the eerie sound of the wind.

The Amyrillis in an advertisement for
Rutledge Inn. It actually was not quite as close.
                Betsy was also the year a freighter named Amyrillis ran aground on Singer Island.  The ship didn’t quite make the safety of the Port of Palm Beach. There were thirty souls on board and none were lost. For years (at least it seemed that way to me), the ship was wedged deep in the sand and became a tourist attraction for tourists and Florida natives alike. We swam right up to it and knocked on its sides. If anyone had ever knocked back, I think we would have fainted.  Amyrillis was not pulled back out to sea until 1968, when it became part of an artificial reef.

                Fast forward to 1979 and Hurricane David. By this time, I was a teenager and actively involved in hurricane preparations. I scrubbed bathtubs and filled them with water. Mom was in charge of dosing the water with Clorox to disinfect it. I helped Dad wrap the air conditioner wall unit with garbage bags and duct tape to keep the driving rain from seeping through. We threw the lawn furniture in the pool (not recommended anymore) and lowered awnings.  

                We hunkered down inside and stayed up as late as we could talking and listening to the radio, flashlights close at hand. Towels were jammed under the front door to keep the rain from pouring in.  The howling wind was constant until finally, blessedly, it just stopped. We were in the eye.  Dad opened the door and we peeked around him. He grabbed his car keys and headed toward the marina to re-tie his boat. We headed outside to walk the dog and play in the brief recess from the wind.

                Twenty minutes later, we noticed the far side of the eye wall moving toward us. A solid gray that looked like something was churning behind it, it slowly crept closer. Dad wasn’t back yet. My family knew Dad had been through hurricanes his entire life. Born in Boynton Beach and raised in Delray, he had loads of experience. That didn’t stop us from getting concerned, though. The wall slowly crept closer. No Dad. Mom made us come back in the house and start getting ready for the other side of the storm. No Dad.

                Just when we could see the eye wall practically at the end of our street, the screeching of tires heralded Dad’s return. The door had barely slammed shut behind him and he was still stuffing towels back into the door frame when the howling started. 

Katrina Eyewall
When a hurricane first arrives, there’s a build up to the action. First, clouds move in and then start zipping by faster and faster. Then, the rain starts. , Finally, the storm starts to build in intensity. With an eye wall, there’s no build up. It’s peaceful and calm and then- wham! Back in the thick of it.

                Isaac was only a tropical storm when it passed through South Florida. Even so, he managed to dump up to fifteen inches of rain, cause flooding, power outages and even appears to have spawned a tornado in Vero Beach. Unfortunately, Isaac is now pounding into New Orleans. A not so nice anniversary present for those who survived Hurricane Katrina.

                Floridians tend to take our hurricanes matter-of-factly. We watch the news, stock up, board up, burrow in and wait for it to pass. Anyone who grew up along a Florida or Gulf coast understands that while some of the memories are fun ones, there is nothing fun about the whine and hiss of the wind and driving rain as it searches for a way in. There is nothing fun about what hurricanes leave behind.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

S'mores, Scouts and Summer Camp

      Anyone remember the taste of a campfire s’more? The taste of a gooey, slightly burnt marshmallow and melted rich Hershey’s chocolate nestled between two graham cracker squares as the flavors hit the tongue? Take a bite and rich sweetness oozed out the other side. I sure remember and I remember where I first tasted the treat that can send me back to my childhood with one bite.

     I spent parts of three summers at Camp Welaka, the Girl Scout Camp nestled next to the Village of Tequesta and Jonathan Dickenson State Park just over the Palm Beach/Martin County line.  These days, it’s a simple drive through a nice residential area to reach the camp gates. In the 1960s, the drive took a long time as we headed into what appeared to me to be total wilderness. I was excited to finally see the two pine trees that framed the road into camp. A wooden sign over the road declared that this was “Camp Welaka.”  “Welaka” means “Chain of Lakes” in Seminole and was the final choice of several suggested names for the camp. Generations of grown up Girl Scouts still smile whenever they hear that name.

We lived for letters from
home--even if home was
only fifteen minutes away!
     During my weeks at camp, the girls in my unit hiked, worked feverishly on crafts with yarn, popsicle sticks, paints and plaster-of-paris.  In the evenings, we gathered around campfires to sing songs like “Make New Friends (But Keep the Old)” in rounds.  With the pungent smell of mosquito repellent and suntan lotion in a thick cloud around us as we sang, we sat close enough to feel the heat on sun kissed faces and toasted our marshmallows on saw palmetto stems cut and carved to a sharp point. We cleaned up in open air showers, wooden walls for privacy and the often cold water helped wake us up.  We swam and took swimming lessons in the man-made lake safely within the three-sided dock complete with lifeguard stands. We piled into vans and headed over to Jupiter Beach to tip toe down the coast, flashlights unneeded in our hands in the bright moonlight as we hunted for turtles laying eggs and stood silently in wonder when we found one.

One of the more pleasant
visitors to our tent.
      The last year I camped there, we learned everything anyone could ever know about canoe safely in preparation of the big trip down the Loxahatchee River across the Jupiter Inlet that only the oldest girls took each summer.

       Girl Scouts came to the area long before my involvement. In a wonderful (but now out of print) book titled, Footprints in Time, author Claudet Benton, herself once a Girl Scout, fills us in on the story.  According to Claudet, it was January 1920 when the president of the national Girl Scouts “called a meeting at the Women’s Club on Flagler Drive in West Palm Beach to organize Girl Scouting in the Palm Beaches.” That meeting was followed by a national charter issued on May 5, 1920 which was the first in Florida. The initial troop had 47 teenage girls as members. 

       Claudet states that Camp Welaka itself is actually the third, and most successful of the Girl Scout camps in northern Palm Beach County. The first, Camp Schaum-a-Hatchee, was in the same area, but was destroyed by the hurricane of 1928 shortly after the first, and only, camp session.  It was followed by Camp Margery Daniels on the same property on the Loxahatchee. That camp was open from 1929 until 1935, when it closed due to the aftereffects of the Great Depression.  Soon thereafter, funds were raised and camp re-opened and stayed open until it property had to be expanded in 1939 to handle all of the Scouts who wanted to camp.  After closing briefly in 1946 during a polio scare, the Camp remained open until 1958 when “The New Site,” now known as “Camp Welaka,” opened for campers. 

          Meals not cooked over a campfire were and are served family style to campers sitting at large wooden tables in the main lodges. There is a stone fireplace in the room made with stones salvaged from the fireplace at Camp Margery Daniels. Over the fireplace is a polished metal plaque mounted to the wall that carries this inscription:
“I have given you shelter only. For the atmosphere and spirit which will prevail here you will be responsible. If you would make me happy bring from the woods the loveliest of flowers and shrubs and surround your camp with the beauty of growing things. Margery Daniels”
       Ten years ago, I sent my daughter to Camp Welaka and once again my feet touched the wooden  floor boards of the main lodge. The path to the camp has changed in the intervening years and the area surrounding the once remote main gate now has homes in all directions. But when I picked my daughter up from her week at camp and stood with her in a song circle next to the flag post at the main lodge, my mind took a leap into the past. If I had not been holding her small hand in mine, it could have been 1967 all over again.

There’s a good reason Girl Scouts continue to exist and continue to gather at Camp Welaka. The women who started this whole thing in Florida in 1920 saw the future and made it happen. Then, as now, girls head into the woods to learn all of those wonderful things about nature that we tend not to notice as we hurry about our day-to-day lives.

August 30 is National Marshmallow Day.  I’ve got some marshmallows. Who’s up for a s’more? 

Copyright (c) 2012 Ruth Hartman Berge
This article first appeared as the August "The Florida You Don't Know" column with Seabreeze Publications, Inc. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Some Things Never Change


In the fall of 1977 my parents filled up the gas tank with expensive sixty-six cents a gallon gasoline and drove me, their oldest child, from our home in North Palm Beach all the way up to Tallahassee and Florida State University.

It was the year the first Apple computer went on sale.  Fleetwood Mac released “Rumors.”  The Woody Allen movie, “Annie Hall” premiered and young women everywhere were copying her fashion sense. Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown. “Smokey and the Bandit” premiered starring Palm Beach County’s own Burt Reynolds and kids everywhere started begging their parents for Trans Am cars just like Burt’s.  We adored KC & the Sunshine Band.  Elvis Presley died and Jimmy Carter was President.  We had no idea at the time, but by the end of 1977, Teddy Bundy was on his way to Tallahassee, too. But that’s a story for another time.

Me 1977 
I was eighteen and my then (and now) best friend Becky and I spent months getting ready. We saved S&H Green Stamps from every grocery trip to Publix. We spent hours wandering through the Palm Beach Gardens S&H store debating what to get with our stamp books.  Trips to Kmart resulted in a green bedspread and a blue bedspread and sheer white curtains with big blue flowers and green leaves to tie our whole color scheme together.

My suitcases and assorted boxes were crammed in the back of my parents’ panel station wagon. The trip seemed to take forever—really only about seven or so hours, but a lifetime when you’re in a hurry.  I-10 wasn’t completed in those days and in order to get to the state capitol, we had to leave I-75 and drive up and down rolling hills over a two lane country highway and underneath pine trees dripping with Spanish moss until the highway turned into Apalachicola Highway which ran smack into the capitol buildings. 

Eventually, our car pulled up in front of Landis Hall, the freshman dorm. It took us ten trips to get all of my belongings up to the fourth floor. My parents took me to dinner and then drove off to a local hotel for the night. The next day, they took me to breakfast before turning the car toward home.  I was ready to start my grown up life.

It wasn’t until years later that my mother confessed she cried half of the way back home.  She held it together until the car pulled away and left me standing in the courtyard of the dorm waving goodbye.

My Son :-)
Some things change. This time, I'm the mom. This week, I took my grown-up 23-year old son to breakfast before he left to go to college at University of Central Florida in Orlando. He’s finishing up his education and not planning on moving back home again.  He's 6’4”, so I had to reach up to hug him goodbye.

We both got in our cars and yes, I held it together until his car was out of sight.  I, too, then cried most of my way home. Some things don't change at all.

Copyright (c) 2012 Ruth Hartman Berge
Note: I very rarely use my children's names in my writing and never use their images. My son gave me permission to use his picture this time. I'm lucky to have both a son and a daughter - both of whom are terrific and who have been well worth the white-knuckled, gray-hair making thrill ride called "motherhood."

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

How Floridians Stand The Heat

                It’s hot and sticky outside.  Then again, it is every summer at this time.  Other than sitting inside in the air conditioning, where can you go to escape the heat and humidity?
                Have I ever got an answer for you!
                On Military Trail south of Blue Heron Boulevard lies the absolutely perfect place to be on a hot summer day in Florida. The Rapids sits on thirty acres and has everything from sedate children’s sections (Tadpool and Splish Splash Lagoon) to Big Thunder with its forty-five degree drop and speeds up to twenty miles per hour.
                Bet you didn’t know The Rapids has been around for a long time. 
The Original!
               I was thirteen or so when my family went camping in the campgrounds now tucked behind the huge Rapids Water Park. In 1979, the owner of the campground thought some water slides might be a nice amenity to offer his campers. He built a hill and installed four flumes on four acres of land. We rode those four flumes over and over and begged to stay the entire day so we could ride them some more.

Black Thunder

             The owner decided campers weren’t the only people who might enjoy cooling off on a water slide, so he opened it to everyone. Today, those original flumes are still in the park. Called “Old Yellar,” they’re now tame compared to rides like Black Thunder, Big Thunder and Tubin' Tornadoes.

                I was there again recently. I walked through the entire park (a feat in itself), hearing the screams of terror and joy as children and adults braved the waters. Everywhere I looked, people were smiling.  How many places can you go to see that? I even rode around the Lazy River a couple of times in an inner tube. No fish swimming beneath me there like my trip down the Itchetucknee (see Rescuing Mom), but round a corner and an unexpected fountain of water thoroughly soaks those floating by. (See what sacrifices I make for my readers?)
                I made sure to sample the concession stand and use the lockers—the food was good, the lockers clean and the anti-slip surface much appreciated.
                I rode the waves in the wave pool and relaxed in my lounge chair under a huge shade tree next to the Lazy River. I decided to stay for a while and sat peacefully watching the park slow down and start to close. As the shadows lengthened, I became aware that the sound of rushing water had stopped. Fountains were turned off and fewer inner tubes, now all sans passengers, drifted by my chair. The lifeguards (Red Cross certified) pulled tubes out of the water and straightened the chairs around me.
                I asked a couple of lifeguards what they liked most about working at the Rapids. Dan, who’s been working at the Rapids for four years, told me that he likes being outside. He says his job is fun and he enjoys meeting people. He also enjoys the rides when he’s not working.
              Katie’s a first year lifeguard at the park. She just moved down from New York and enjoys watching the guests smile. She likes being able to help them. It’s a good thing they enjoy people because somewhere in the neighborhood of 400,000 people visit each each year.
                When I was thirteen, I loved riding those flumes. I might be quite a bit older with grown children of my own, but I still love riding those water slides.  And everything else on those thirty acres.
                For more information on Rapids Water Park, head over to their website at or call 561-852-8756. The park is open daily through September 7 and weekends only from September 8 through October 21 (weather permitting).  If you aren’t up for a full day under the sun, ask them about the Sunset Special. It’s a great way to get your feet wet.