Friday, April 5, 1991
Orange Daily News
News travels fast when it's your bread and butter. I'm June Ward, a reporter from Orange Daily News in Orlando, Florida. As a field reporter, most of my days and nights are cooped up in a vehicle on watch and wait mode, as I chase my next meal ticket for another psycho story or on location at the scene of a crime. And crime is up this year. Writing about crime is my collective bargaining agreement with myself for job security. But today I'm driving the scenic drive around Orange Lake to a place called Plantation Hill, in pursuit to my next breaking news flash.
I've imagined with a touch of curiosity and a pinch of envy what it would be like to live at this well-known address overlooking Orange Lake. Drive up the long driveway of the magnificent Plantation Hill farm and meet the charming Hart family. A gigantic white mansion perched up high on the hill, nuzzled under the towering oak trees has been a pivotal location in our area. It's a landmark roadside attraction for sightseers to observe and marvel, ooh and ah over a house built back in the antebellum days. On the other hand, as I juggle Orange Daily News first page newsflash of the year, it's a mystery to where the story began. My theory is it's just beyond the security gate on Plantation Hill, behind the red doors of the white mansion where only the Hart family is exclusively entitled to see.
I often drive these winding roads around Orange Lake to entertain a different perspective on life. I listen to music blasting melodies as my car speakers vibrate rhythm through my soul to shake off another hangover aftereffect between me and my vodka martinis.
I roll down my car window, and the fresh air awakens me. The stunning ocular birds-eye-view of rolling landscape and music bellowing melodies clears the clutter from my overly pickled brain. I need to concentrate before I do my interview for the big story. And stop the press because the rumors about the Hart family is just like perfume - it's impossible to hide. I can smell a story for miles away.
I've almost reached the highest elevation here in Florida. Driving over hills is a rare event for Floridians. Reaching above sea level is exciting for most flatlanders. It's like a gopher poking its head above the ground to see if life does exist out there. Even though area sinkholes are the hot topic to write about these days. Sinkholes have been in the press a lot lately. The natural disaster appears at random taking everything in its path straight to hell. But today I'm searching for the subject matter of a womanly made tragedy.
The hills in Orange County are more of a ridge with rolling dome of sand peaks rising abruptly from the surrounding flat terrain with rows and rows of orange trees trimmed and manicured perfectly around the lake.
I've heard many stories about this land and family. I knew one day I would drive through the massive metal gate, up to the long driveway under the parasol lined oak trees. Gray moss hanging from the trees, blowing in the warm breeze is such a romantic scenery of the old south. The canopies of trees line the county road as the sunlight filters through the Spanish moss-draped oaks. Looks as if someone carefully placed the moss on the trees like an old man's beard. As kids, we always called it tree hair. It makes me want to relax in a hammock, sip martinis, read poetry, and dream about the perfect man coming to rescue me from myself. Hold your horses . . . this will never happen sober or drunk. How could gray moss be romantic when it's infested with redbugs? Dang, I despise them bloodsucking bastards. It makes me itch just thinking about redbugs.
It may sound shallow, but when you live on flat land, hills become a fascinating event to experience. My parents would take my sister and me over to Lake Wales when we were kids for our Sunday afternoon entertainment to the gravity-defying Spook Hill. Centrally located in the middle of Florida just south of Plantation Hill. Spook Hill is another free roadside attraction. Many things have changed over the years, but this legend has been around for decades, and many stories have been told about Spook Hill. The story about the battle between the legendary Seminole Chief and a man-eating alligator is known by most locals. It started when the Seminole tribe broke from the Cherokee nation, and settled in central Florida. The Chief was the leader of the villages surrounding Lake Wales. The lake is located just south of Highway 60 taking travelers across the state from east to west passing many orange groves owned by the Hart family.
It's interesting what plays inside your head when you're alone in a car driving. Childhood memories pop into your head, just like my favorite song. Always in my eight-track playing. The words stuck in my head, and I catch myself humming the song all day.
I think this part of central Florida is the prettiest in our area. The Seminole Indians believed the area to be sacred to the Seminole's Sun God and built their thatched-roof houses known as chickees.
The tribes were terrorized by nightly attacks by a massive twenty-foot alligator, and they lived in fear of the evil alligator. A large gator could kill anything close to its size. Drag the carcass underwater to dine on later, or just a gator bite could end a life. The alligators got the redbugs beat all to hell. The creatures in Florida slither and bite their way through the state. The heat seems to help them grow.
Spook Hill is where the Chief and the man-eating alligator fought their last battle. The Chief was a fearless warrior and the leader of his people. The tribal shaman placed the Chief under the protection of the Great Spirit to protect him as the chief set-out to defeat the evil gator. The hunt lasted for many moons. The legend states the Chief wrestled the gator and miraculously the Chief pulled the monster down into the lake. The lake turned red with blood. The tribe watched the surface of the lake by moonlight. The Chief popped up from the water and sounds of chanting rang out as the victorious Chief rose from the lake of blood. Years later, when the Chief died, he was buried on the shore of the site.
The gravity-defying legend began to grow when other people settled in Lake Wales. They noticed something puzzling about the hill. People traveling from coast to coast used the old trail around the lake until they discovered their animals were laboring downhill. As time went on, the citrus industry grew, and orange groves covered the hillside and transportation became modernized citrus workers parking their vehicle on the hill became horrified to find their car moving backward uphill on its own. They blamed the occurrence on spooks. The area became known as Spook Hill, and the paranormal continued to occur. It seems a shift in the earth's gravitational field has occurred at this historic site. One thing for sure, this area grows some sweet oranges.
Year after year, tourists and locals from all over come to this novelty hillside illusion to experience Spook Hill. Park their vehicle on the marked white line on the road. Place their car in neutral, and this is where my dad turned the radio off, and tell the story again as we sat spellbound by his voice, glued to the car window and watch the phenomenon. Suddenly the car rolls backward uphill, defy gravity, and we experienced the legend of Spook Hill.
The closer I get to the entrance at Plantation Hill, I can feel the thrill of excitement run through my veins. Nothing is more stimulating than a chase to a great story. I pull my car over to the side of the road and stop, put my car in park, and turn the engine off. I get out of the car and stand on the side of the road, staring with starry eyes of amazement at Plantation Hill. I take my sunglasses off, check the time, look back up at this unbelievable estate. I slowly take in the views and dream about what it would be like to live on an estate so majestic. I feel I'm on another planet created for only the upper crust. It's one of the most breathtakingly magnificent estates in the south. The signature picket white fence marks the boundaries stretching to infinity. The grounds landscape regarded as a paradigm of excellence made for magazines.
I stand on this landmark, amazed at the views. I take in a deep breath of a fragrance from a breeze traveling through the trees, over the top of the orange blossoms, across my face. It feels as if it cleanses my soul. I take my tape recorder out of my pocket, turn it on, and record a dialogue.
"This is June Ward, journalist reporting for Orange Daily News. This is my journal for the assignment Connect the Dots. The most newsworthy scandalous event in Florida. I'm the first to interview the owner at the most lavish estates for updates to National News Headlines. The story of some legendary deeds of exploits with a little bit of spooky and a whole lot of wealth behind those red doors. It's a private, prominent family who owns numerous land projects here in Florida. I'm interviewing the new owner of the property for a front-page exclusive news spread. Footnotes on the geographical region; by 1940, grape agriculture had declined due to fungal diseases and replaced by citrus farms. Citrus plantations flourished around Orange Lake, providing the basis for the local economy until the 1980s, when freezes began to devastate local groves. The citrus industry faded, and the property around Orange Lake rezoned for residential development, and property values have exploded in some parts. The sacred grounds are one of the most desirable sought-after panoramic views in the surrounding area. Just a few citrus plantations and vineyards managed to exists today. Turning our area into the largest corporate conglomerate in the world in terms of an empire for thoroughbred breeding grounds and amusement parks. My interviewee is one of the Hart family fourth generations. The new owner gave a quote yesterday and granted an interview. Lucky me I was picked to be the interviewer. A quote from Ms. Hart; It's time to talk and clear up the disgraceful allegations of the real owner of the Hart Estates. End of dialogue."
I look up and absorb the thought about what a prime opportunity to report a story such as this, it's an excellent score to my resume. It looks ultra-peaceful up there. I'd fight tooth and nail to keep this property too. There's one thing about Plantation Hill it's guaranteed to make you green with envy.
I drive up to the security gate and ring the buzzer. I wait. I release the top to go down on my Mustang convertible. I hear a southern drawl coming from the speaker, "Hello!" I take my seatbelt off, and I leaned out the window toward the speaker and said, "Hello! Yes, I have a meeting this morning with Ms. Hart."
I hear a loud, clanging noise. I jump about four inches straight up out of my seat. The large gates start to move and swing backward as I watch the pathway open. I cannot believe I'm this nervous just going through the security gate. I put the car in drive and start moving forward. The wind starts blowing through my hair. I soar like a bird under the large oak trees. I park my car in front of the mansion. I gather my things. Go up the steps to the front door. I look down and in front of the red doors is a large doormat with the words, Welcome to Heaven.
I stop for a minute and think, Heaven. Sure, Heaven could look like this, but looks can be deceiving. I knocked on the massive double red doors and waited. Mentally backpedaling all my questions, I want to ask. First thought registered in my mind is I should have brought someone with me. There're speculations someone was murdered in the house. I look around the front porch, my heart started pounding out of my chest, overthinking all the rumors running rapid in town about this family. The porch is enormous as I sized things up and agree with my brilliant idea. I should have brought someone with me. Because in theory, the criminal usually returns to the scene of the crime.
I rehearse in my head; I can do this. I've got to build up my confidence and stop thinking the worst. Shame on me for being a halfhearted chicken shit. I cannot be afraid. I've got to be the top performing journalist. Come on, let's get this show on the road. I knock again. I've got to stop writing these spooky horror stories in my head. This may be the break I've been looking for in my career to establish I am an accomplished journalist. Wait-a-minute, stupid-brave are two different things. Yes, this is stupid. I should have brought someone with me. Where did I put the company’s pepper spray for field reporters?
While I fumble through my bag, no one comes to the door, so I look for the doorbell. I readjust my clothes, tuck my hair behind my ears. I stand quietly as butterflies’ takeover my stomach thinking about my pepper spray. I take it out of my purse and check to see if it's on lock or spray position. I move it from the lock position to unlocked with my finger. I turn against the wind and press the knob to verify if it still works and placed it in my right-side pocket. I scratch my nose. Look behind me again. I reach for the doorbell, and I hear one of the large red doors start to open. My nose starts to burn. I get a sensation I've never felt before. My nose feels like it's on fire. I realize I got pepper spray on my finger and rubbed my nose. Tears filled my eyes. I look down thinking; Shit! What should I do?
"Hello, I'm June Ward from Orange Daily News. I have a meeting with Ms. Hart at ten this morning." I reach for my security badge hanging around my neck. "Here's my identification."
"Yes, please come in. I'm looking forward to our chat, I'm Ms. Hart."
I try to stay focused. My nose on fire. I can't let this woman know I have pepper spray and its unlocked ready to use. I gawk for a moment at Ms. Harts face. She stares back. Then I surveyed my surroundings. I study her demeanor. Her pink scarf around her neck flew straight up like a headsail on a sailboat when a gentle breeze from the outdoors surged through the front door and caught her scarf. Ms. Hart's posture is as straight as a ship's mast. She exhilarates a gravitational force like the sea at high tide as I swoop in for the trophy catch. I step over the threshold with my briefcase in hand into the entryway of this massive house, and the feeling of shock and awe suddenly rocks my world. I transformed into this self-restraint timid news reporter. I nervously strain to speak. Sweat pops from my forehead that felt the size of large oranges falling to the ground. I smirk at myself with this awkward moment of silence, thinking this is ridiculous. My nose is on fire. I feel my face turn blood red. I rapidly look away from her. Oh my God, she's beautiful. I instantly have a girl crush. The words in my head keep drilling like a jackhammer. What should I say? Don't mess this up and garble my words and act like I don't know what I'm doing. Fuck my nose is on fire. I can't let her know I have pepper spray on my nose. Stop looking at her face. Oh my God, she is so beautiful. Her beauty is jaw-dropping intimidating. I try to refocus, saying to myself don't just stand here, speak you, idiot. Speak. Speak. Stop looking at her face. I gasp for air. I've never had this happen to me before in my sixteen years as a journalist. I don't know what to say.
Ms. Hart glared back at me with suspicion in her eyes. My sixth sense fires up, and I realize she's not the only person with this unnerving awkwardness rambling around like a wild seagull looking to capture this year's Pulitzer Prize feature-writing award. Every journalist's goal of a lifetime. I can see it now, my biography in print: June Ward joined the Orange Daily News in 1975 as a field reporter. Ms. Ward's article on April 1991 series, "Connect the Dots," about a prominent family in Florida who helped capture a violent killer on the loose. The series won several awards, including a Dart Award for Excellence coverage for trauma and the finalist in Pulitzer Prize, in feature writing. Ms. Ward was born in Orange County Florida. Ms. Ward earned a bachelor degree in journalism in 1975 . . .
Abruptly, I finally woke up from my pipedream and nightmare all at the same time. I felt Ms. Hart threw out a red flag and became suspicious of me. Maybe it was my reaction to the house or the enormity of the story about to unfold or the look of holy shit I've got pepper spray in my nose or perhaps it's just Ms. Hart's angel eyes.
"Ms. Hart, may I use your ladies' room?"
"Sure, it's this way."
I follow Ms. Hart, I start to rub my eyes and stopped. Thinking to myself, don't screw this up, keep your hands off your face. I close the bathroom door with the need to scream at the top of my lungs. I dropped my things and quickly wash my hands, then my face. Looked up in the mirror and laughed out loud and whispered, "You've got to be kidding me. Get your shit together, you sloppy drunk."
I open the door and looked around, trying to find a rational way to get back in the game. It's a difficult decision to invite a stranger into your home and spill your guts to someone so willing to listen and broadcast to the world. Talking to a stranger eye-to-eye, and divulge your most intimate thoughts about your personal life is like a fish out of water. I also surmise Ms. Hart knew it was time, time to jump ship and let the world know her side of the story, and nobody is more fortunate than I to listen to her story. So, I turned on my southern charm, hoping she would relax and not shut down and run me off. The first impression seals the deal and sets the stage. There is one thing about two southern belles face to face; there is never a moment of silence. And that dumbstruck moment was more than awkward for both of us. I went back to the entryway, and Ms. Hart was waiting for me.
When I finally stopped gawking at Ms. Hart. I scanned the room as I moved toward her. It's more than what I imaged. Just the entryway seemed larger than my apartment. I feel the room could swallow me whole. The story is as big as Plantation Hill and as hot as my nose as I sniff out my next move.
The family history in this home goes back to 1833. The extensive spanning ceiling with thick wood carved crown molding, down to the wood floors is for the imagination to ponder all the relentless scandal occurring on this property for years.
"Ms. Ward, welcome to my home. Let's go to the study," said Ms. Hart.
I followed Ms. Hart as we strolled over to the right, and she opens sliding double doors going into an enormous study.
"Please call me June."
"Take a seat anywhere. You can keep your belongings right here," Ms. Hart pointed to a table. "Would you like some tea, coffee or a coke?"
"Yes, sweet ice tea would be excellent. Thank you."
"You are more than welcome. I'll be right back. Make yourself comfortable."
I turn around as Ms. Hart gracefully leaves the room. I take in the full view of Ms. Hart's backside. Mentally noting my first impression. Gee whiz, stop staring. I hope she doesn't smell liquor on me. I wonder if she has any aspirins. I look back at my notes and write. I guess she's in her thirties. It's hard to tell she's very well preserved, classy, and sophisticated all in one tiny package. Well-dressed, extremely attractive. I think I've made a note of such. A gold charm bracelet around her right wrist twinkles when she moves her hand. She's friendly, presents herself as well educated, the prim and proper southern belle, manners always first and foremost. I put my things down, and I walk around the room. I feel I'm in a public library. All the dark wood, the massive desk, dark leather chairs and couch, books lined all the way up to the ceiling. A rolling ladder to retrieve the books on the top shelve. Sunlight filters through the room from the front windows facing east from a wraparound porch. The house is silent. I can hear the airflow in and out of my inflamed nasal pathway. I smell fresh paint, and the room is spotless. It would be interesting if these walls could talk.
I organize my thoughts. I add to my list of questions to ask; a tour of the mansion. I better get ready. It's going to be a long day. Let's see, I need my recorder, camera, writing tablet. Holy cow, look at the artwork. I love the straw-hat self-portrait of the most famous painter. I move closer to the art, and it looks just like Mr. Hart. That's cool. It is Mr. Hart. I look closer, and the artist is his granddaughter. Ms. Hart walks back into the room.
"June, here's your sweet tea."
I turned around. "Thank you."
Ms. Hart smiled, "I hope it's to your liking. Where would you like to start? I'm yours for as long as it takes. I'm ready to tell my story."
I stare in silence again over her beauty and pleasantly surprised about how much she gives a down to earth presence. What a relief, I'm not stuck here all day in this spooky house with a fuddy-duddy.
"First, thank you for having me Ms. Hart, it's such a pleasure being here. As we go along with the interview process, I'll use my tape recorder to dialogue, and I'll take notes. With your permission, may I take some photos of the property?"
"Of course, but only with my approval for print or the media," said Ms. Hart with an inexorable look.
"Your artwork is beautiful. Who's the bookworm?"
"Thank you, Ms. Ward, I'm sorry, June. Me, I'm the bookworm. My daddy kept every book I ever read and then some."
Ms. Hart comes over and points to the picture I was looking at and smiles. We stand side by side, looking at the artwork. I glanced at her perfect white teeth, gorgeous smile, and flawless skin with sheer unadulterated envy. Knowing I, the green-eyed drunk with a bright red nose, eyeballing the brown-eyed beauty marveled at the thought as to what it would be like to be wealthy and beautiful.
Ms. Hart said, "Great memories there. I did that painting in oil when I was in college. You know it's a portrait of my grandfather Thomas Jack Hart, Jr."
I smiled, looked back at the portrait and nod with a genuine reply as I recollect some fond memories of my grandfather, and said, "Yes, I recognized the legendary Mr. Jack Hart. All your paintings are beautiful. My father worked for your family in the 1950s. Every year Mr. Hart would come to our home around the Holidays and hand deliver a frozen turkey. He was the sweetest man."
"Yes, he was. Well, well . . . what a coincidence we'd meet like this," said Ms. Hart.
I took a sip of my tea and said, "Wow, this is some tasty tea. I'd like to start our interview by getting to know more about your father Mr. Thomas Ace Hart, III."
"Yes!" said Ms. Hart and instantly, her tone of voice rises to a higher pitch, her eyes light up. She claps her petite hands together with enthusiasm as her charm bracelets twinkles. "That's exactly where we should start. But please call my daddy Mr. Tee, everyone called him Tee. I think we should begin by taking you on a tour of the estate. You know my daddy was everything to me. I swear, I can hear him talking to me some days."
Ms. Hart turns around and walks off. I run over to the table and put my glass of tea down. Grab a piece of ice from the glass and rub my nose with the ice. I grab my things with the other hand and run to catch up with her, petrified I'd be lost for days in this spooky mansion. We started walking from room to room as she began chattering rapidly. Her southern drawl simmering sentences spewed words like a hot flash. Her hands expressing every word as though she's conducting an orchestra. Knowing I could never write that fast, so I turned on my recorder and said, "Dialogue Ms. Hart."
"So please, June follow me," orders Ms. Hart with invigorating excitement, "Let's get started on this grand tour of the Hart family estate. I get a little teary-eyed just thinking about it. I've had way too much coffee this morning. The caffeine makes me jabber on like a fool. Y'all got everything, darling. Watch your step. Come this way. Would you like for me to hold something for y'all sweetie?"
"No. No, it's OK, I got it. I need to stay close to you so I can get this on my tape recorder. Keep talking. Keep talking. I'll ask questions as we go along."
Suddenly a newfangled effect morphed at once, and I could feel the presence of another person following us. I felt a sensation, so to speak as if her father was walking right along beside us. I looked behind me and saw no one. When Ms. Hart started telling the story, it seemed Mr. Tee was narrating. We exited the hall into another room, as it changed into a different atmosphere. Out of the blue, something created the impression we are walking back into the past and thrust into a dream, and the most sought-after breaking news flash came alive in a different decade.
July 2, 1957
It all began in the late afternoon on a blistering summer day in 1957. It's time to let the old heavenly wise narrate this storytelling because we are a vital link in the sky to Connect Tee Dots. My sweet daughter, bless her heart is a superb tour guide, but I'm the only storyteller in this house. I, Tee Hart resident of Orange County Florida, love this old house.
Being of sound mind and memory and not acting under duress or undue influence. I fully understand the nature and extent of all my property and my character thereof, do hereby make, publish, and declare this story to be my Last Will and Testament. I do revoke any, and all other wills and codicils heretofore made by me, Tee Hart. Cuz, I ain't leaving this old house. Now with that said, I would like to start this blessed gathering of the minds because numbers and alphabets are connecting the celestial map to the ever-expanding universe. I'll let all involved toss their two cents worth into the bucket of the little or big dipper. Suit yourself, it's your chance to compare oranges to grapefruits. Y'all meet the clan to help solve the clues in this tale. Draw your own conclusion in the adult version of Connect Tee Dots, by using the metaphor to illustrate the ability or inability to associate one idea to another. Hopefully, y'all will find the big picture from a large mass of data because the earth is our stage, and life is a mastermind playoff game, and God Almighty is the referee. Don't worry about winning or losing the game, ignore the scoreboard just focus on living your life to the highest standard every single day, and y'all will find the results in the end. Guaranteed, nobody is going to get out of here alive.
I hear some folks can't understand a southern drawl. To help y’all non-southerners we prepared a language linguistics. SOUTHERN GLOSSARY. We don't want anyone to miss out on any clues on your visit here at Plantation Hill.
WELCOME TO FLORIDA.
The story begins as all stories in Florida, the weather. And when your livelihood depends on the weather what happens up above affects what's down below.
It's a mighty rare occasion when I get home early from work, but that particular day in July started a long stretch for a heat wave. Also, that year started many remarkable lifelong changing events here at Plantation Hill.
It was hotter than the hinges of hell, 98 degrees, dew point 82 Fahrenheit, winds zero miles per hour, visibility clear, precipitation none, perspiration heaps, humility measures as thick as molasses. While the heat took over the day and night and the next day and the next day it felt like hell here on earth. The heat just saps the life right out of ya. You could nearly bake taters in the sun, cuz Lord ha' mercy it was like someone forgot to turn off the oven.
I remember in the 50's, it was the decade that changed the world. It seemed every decade had a single year to remember. The depression in 1933, the 40's had Dr. Seuss's first edition of the paperback book version, and the 50's everything changed. Color television was introduced, a report was announced that cigarettes may cause cancer and Elvis gyrates on Ed Sullivan's Show. But 1957 was the year that changed the Hart family. Come to think of it, that was the year when I started thinking a lot about names. I found value in a person's name, even if it is a nickname, but your name can either define you, or it can defy you. Tee is my nickname, my dad gave me long ago. Some people say, Mr. Tee, that's just a southern thing. A name can titillate images of what a man with the name Tee resembles. What is he about? What are his values? All questions I never thought about until 1957, when I turned twenty-five years old.
When I was a little feller, just knee-high to my dad, he'd take me out to the orange groves, and I'd point to the trees and say Tee. After that, Tee it was, and Tee it is. I'm just a carbon copy image of my father. My father is a bigger than life 6.3 southern gentleman. The strongest man I've ever known. Huge but gentle hands. Hard working mans-man, worshiped his family, his land, and orange trees. Along with a few southern belles if they got his attention and they had to be pure southern belles because my father could see right through the ways of the south of sincere charm. He's known in our area as the zillionaire land tycoon of his days and has big shoes to follow.
I never thought I was going to reach eye-to-eye to my dad. He always told me when I could go eye-to-eye and toe-to-toe to him, this land would be all mine. It was my legacy. It will never leave the hard-working large hands of the Hart family. He made me promise on the Bible, and the Hart's never break promises. Maybe, break the hearts of a few southern belles but never a promise.
My job is to take care of trees on this land that takes care of us. You know fruit trees covering half of Florida, the pink, white, yellow color oranges, grapefruits, and tangerines have grown on our farm forever. Dad set me up with this lifestyle, surrounded by trees when I was sixteen. When I finally became taller than my dad. Just looking at my father was like a reflection of what I'd look like later in life. I took on the job just as serious as my dad. I finished high school, and my final stage for higher education became hands on. Out in the field right alongside my dad is where I learned living on a plantation is a lot of hard work and is good for a man's soul.
Now my beautiful wife Sara and I were playing in the dirt, just like all the Hart generation. When we got married, dad moved out of the old plantation on the hill and gave it to us as a wedding gift to watch over the fruit. Then my dad went on his new adventure in 1957 buying up all the land he could find in Florida. Dad said the 110-mile stretch of land going from the Golden Glades in Miami to Fort Pierce, known as the Sunshine State Parkway coming straight through Orange County is a goldmine. He always said build a road they will come. In the long haul, he was right.
My wife and I have known each other all our lives. We were both born and raised in Orange County. We started first grade together. We knew back in high school, our love would last forever. We were like two peas in a pod. Sara's favorite saying, we're two seeds born to make more Tee's.
I entered the house and hollered, "Sara, I'm home. Where are you?"
"I'm upstairs unpacking more boxes," Sara hollered back.
"Stay there, I'll come up and help you."
I reckon someday we'll get unpacked after moving into the family mansion. I adore this old house. My great grandpa built this house. As long as I can remember, it's been white with a red front door. Dad has refurbished, remodeled, readjusted as time improved to more of the modern way of life. I think that is where dad got the bug to build and became the land visionary. But all the Hart's have orange blood running through our veins.
"Tee what's that smell?" Sara complained with a disgusting look on her face. "Did you step in Wagmores poop again?"
"Dad-gum hound dog. Sara if he poops one more time on the front porch I promise I'm going to have dad build him a dog house out in the back forty."
I shake my head every time with a burst of laughter about the same ritual for the rite of passage with Wagmore sandwiched between Sara and me. Knowing I don't own this dog, this dog owns me, and if Wagmore pooped less that would be the most impressive dog trick he ever performed. The same old dance on one foot is where he got his name Wagmore because Sara wouldn't let me name him Poopmore. I swear this dog can smile and wag his tail at the same time. Under most circumstances, that dog is smarter than both of us.
"Shoo, shoo," Sara's arms fly up waving. "Please go back outside and clean your shoes. You smell like rotten eggs."
"Damn dog!" I turn around and hop out.
My wife's sense of smell is on the sensitive side these days. She is seven months pregnant. We're betting it's a boy to carry on the family business for the fourth generation of orange blood. And that's it, one child, a pooping dog, 15,000 square foot house to keep clean, and 6000 acres of oranges crossing four counties of central Florida is plenty for me. Now with a child on the way, I've talked Sara into bringing Willy May back on board to help out. I'm looking forward to Willy May's collard greens and biscuits. Willy May can cook for a king. Well actually, she did cook for grandpa King before he passed away. I started writing down Willy May's recipes, and some of her funny sayings when I was seven years old. Then after that, I was anchored to dad's coattail. Willy May is one of the funniest and sweetest ladies I've ever known. But she disliked the word sugar. Willy May gets this look of total fear on her face when the word sugar comes up. It reminds her of her mama's name Sugar, and there's no love lost there. I'll let Willy May tell that sour story about Sugar.
Looking back, those were the days I felt most alive when it was just Sara and me. Life just could not have gotten any better in 1957. Sara can drive me bonkers, but it's a good bonkers. She's the only woman for me. We'd go out to the orange groves Garden of Eden maze and talk and walk for hours. It's beautiful out there, it's our breeding grounds. The oranges look like little gold nuggets hanging from the trees. The garden can drunken you with just the smell, as the sun filters through the foliage, the maze of hot soft white sand-lined paths to Providence. Each tree is a treasure from God. Being out in the groves is my addiction that feeds my needs. I crave nothing else other than Sara. This land nourishes my soul, and my wife fulfills my heart. They are both gifts I cherish. The energy that fuels me. Sara would bring a picnic, and we'd eat and drink, sometimes make love under the orange trees away from peeping eyes. Our stark-naked bodies mimicking nature. I'd place orange blossoms behind Sara's ear, and that was a clue to remove each other clothes. We think that's where she conceived the little one on the way. Now it's a big one. Sara looks as if her tummy could pop.
Later that evening, we sat out on our large front porch in our rocking chairs, watching the lightning bugs dance in the sky. The view of oak trees points down through a tunnel as we watch from Heaven. It's our favorite place to relax after supper hiding from the day's heat as the sun goes down west behind the house. We were mentally checking off the list of baby items. Getting ready for our bundle of joy. I love watching my wife. She glows just as much as the lightning bugs. I love looking at her body, her round belly as we rock and talk. I kept asking Sara this one question, and she's the only one with the answer.
"So, Sara, will you tell me tonight?"
"Tee, why do you keep asking me. We agreed we'd pick the name after the baby's born. I want to meet her first, and the name will come. What is it with you and this child's name?" Sara asked.
"You keep calling it a girl. What if it's a boy?"
"I promise before we leave the hospital our blessed arrival will have a name," Sara said. "Let's settle this Tee. If it's a girl, I name her. If it's a boy, you can name him."
"Deal! You know it's a boy."
"I'm not sure you're right. Until then, we are going to call it, an It," Sara smiled.
"Willy May is coming to the house to stay with you tomorrow. She's going to be here as long as we need her. Dad told me Willy May is better off with you than with him. He doesn't have enough for her to do. Dad's going to move out of the guest house into one of the new townhouses he built on the other side of town, or he may move into the condo by Jackson Lake. He's got something up his sleeve. He bought a new house in Orlando, where he said there's major action. Not sure what action he's talking about. Willy May can live in the guest house. Whatever is best for you and what's Its name."
Sara grins, knowing she won the nightly battle over names. Then rubs her belly. Looks over at me and avows what we both know to be true.
"Your dad owns half of this county. The man can live anywhere he wants. He's going to miss Willy May. I'm glad Willy May is coming tomorrow. She can help me unpack before what Its name gets here."
"Sara, don't worry about dad. I think Willy May is getting in the way of dad's lifestyle of women coming and going. You know, after my mother passed away, dad had a revolving door policy for any female over eighteen. Dad will keep Willy May on the payroll, even if he doesn't have any work for her. I'm glad he's sharing her with us. We need some help around this place."
"Why hasn't Jack remarried?" Sara asked with an uneasy concern. "Your dad is not getting any younger."
"Sara, you know dad is too busy buying land and building. I guess if he finds the right woman, he may get married again."
"Tee if anything ever happens to me, I want you to remarry. Your dad looks so lonely."
"First of all, do not talk like that. Nothing is going to happen to you. You know the doctor said, your diabetes could be because of the pregnancy, and after you have It, you'll get better."
"I know what the doctor said, and I'm glad Willy May is coming tomorrow. I may never let her go."
We rocked and watched the world go by, and the bugs started gravitating to the porch lights, and I think about my dad. It was just dad, me and Willy May until Sara and I got married two years ago. My mother died in a car accident out on Highway 27, death trap when I was ten years old. Fifteen years ago, and a million tears have dropped. Now adding to the chaos is our bundle of joy.
My days are complete with being the husband Sara deserves. Everything is second fiddle. Even running the citrus business, juggling between the pickers, equipment, the land and trees, making orange juice and this humongous house, Sara comes first. Our roles of father and son have switched. I make the money, and Dad spends it on investing in more chaos. I don't even know how much we're worth, but it's a pretty penny. Another day, another dollar, another pain.
"Sara, you ready to go back into the house?"
"I think so. The skeeters are coming out."
Good morning Ms. Willy May Bell Parker, your cooking woke me up. The coffee smells incredible." I crammed my mouth full of a warm biscuit with melted butter dripping from my fingers. "Damn these are good."
"Good mawnin, Mr. Tee. How's Ms. Sara doin'? Bacon over yonder."
"Sara's doing well. Her tummy is getting big. She needs to rest. She couldn't sleep last night."
"Oh my, Mr. Tee, that sweet thang gonna keep y'all up fur piece. I can't wait to meet dat Tee baby. I guess y'all looking fer collard greens at supper time?"
"Whatever you make Willy May, you always make it tasty. Keep an eye on Sara. I hid her cigarettes. If she finds them, try and hide them again. I'll check in around noon. Got to go, thanks for the biscuit and coffee. Oh, and welcome home!"
"Have a great day, Mr. Tee. I's gonna check on Ms. Sara. You's don't fret," hollered Willy May smiling like sunshine. "My, my, my, when dat boy ever gonna slow down?"
All the kitchen chores are complete. House sparkles. Wagmore's fed and Willy May tiptoes upstairs to check on Ms. Sara. Willy May opens the door to the baby's room and peaks in. Stops and stares at all the baby things, looking around, checking things out, and Willy May ponders over her day . . . "I can't believe what I see, I declare, dat Tee baby got's everything. Oh, I's so excited I's get to take care of one-more, pink baby. Watch'um grow-up to be a fine, strong Hart. I think I's make some pastry, maybe a pee-can pie fer Ms. Sara tonight . . . Oh, I's can't do dat, it's gots dat nasty sugar in it."
Suddenly, Willy May screams of pure fright. Went popeyed and hollers out, "Holy chicken lips, Lordy, Ms. Sara, you done scared me to death. Snuck up on me like that! Look at you's." Willy May took a step back. "You's an eyesore, dat belly bout to pop. I'd hug you but not sure I's get my arms around all dat."
Sara laughed and said, "I didn't sneak up on you, you were in another world. Come here and give me a hug. Tell, tell, how do you like our baby's room?"
"Oh, Ms. Sara, it's downright purdy."
"Willy May, are you still getting up with the chickens?" Sara said, standing there in her nightgown. Cocks her head to one side, her right eyebrow goes up as if Sara caught Willy May in the act, knowing the answer but challenging Willy May's morning habits. "You know I need my beauty sleep."
"Ms. Sara, you knows I's waste no daylight. How's y'all mama now?"
"She's good. Everybody's good. OK, where do you want to stay? Here with us or the guest house?"
"I's not worried bout where I's stays. I's happy as long as I's on the Tee Farm."
"Then it's settled," Sara confirmed with a big smile, "You're going to stay here with us in the main house. When the painters came last week to paint the baby's room, I had them paint your old room your favorite color."
Willy May is listening intensely, "Yes ma'am," she said, smiling from ear-to-ear, three gold teeth gleaming. Her smile shining bright against her black as coal skin. Her head wrapped in a yellow bandana and her white signature apron. Willy May's favorite working attire. Willy May figure has filled out over the years to an earthly woman. As the story goes, Mr. Jack tells everyone, Willy May is Plantation Hill's Dixieland Delight. The sweetest heart south of the Mason-Dixon Line, a gourmet chief, skilled housekeeper, not a lazy bone in her body and a mama anyone would be proud to have as their own.
"Willy May, it's so good to see you, I've missed you," Sara expressed with her soft voice of affection.
"Oh, Ms. Sara, I's missed you's too. But you's didn't. Is my bedroom purple? I's gots a purple room, oh Lordy-e-bee Ms. Sara, I's gots da see. Do's I get my own rocker to rock our sweet thang? I's wore out my udder one." Willy May dashes over to her bedroom at the end of the hall.
"Willy May, whatever you need just let us know."
"Oh my, it's so nice to be back home in dis old house. You's know, I love being here. It's got that loving feeling in every room in dis house." Willy May opens her bedroom door. "Oh my, oh my, ain't dat a purdy color. I's take good care of you, Mr. Tee and our sweet thang," Willy May cried out.
Willy May looks around her bedroom. Stops and looks at the pictures hanging on the wall.
"Mr. Tee and I's do dat one a long time ago. These are from his coloring book."
"I know. I found Tee's coloring books out in the storage shed in a box and had some of them framed. They look great, don't they? I have some in the baby's room too," said Sara.
"Poor thang, he had problems coloring inside the lines. I's love' om," said Willy May.
"Come on, Willy May let's have breakfast, I'm starving."
"Goodness gracious, Ms. Sara I's bets you are with a tummy like dat." Willy May stopped for a minute and rubbed Ms. Sara's belly. "Ms. Sara, what you and dat baby hungry for?"
"Grits and Coca-Cola, I can't get enough grits and caffeine. Willy May have you seen my cigarettes? I swear I'm losing my mind. I keep losing my cigarettes," said Sara.
"Nope, Missy ain't seen no cigarettes.”
Mr. Tee is the apple of his dad's eye from the time he was born. Tee learned the trade of a polished, refined gentleman from his daddy. Watching another little Hart come into the world will bring so much more joy to Willy Mays life. Going back before the Hart family entered in Willy Mays life is too painful for her to remind herself. Willy May would never change a thing if it never brought her to this place on Plantation Hill. Willy May has had a hard life, but the Hart family kept her employed for years and treated her just like family. Willy May cannot have children, and as she tells the story, she was born in North Carolina, and some low life from high places took her childbearing hips away from her. She tells everyone she's from Florida hoping she'd forget where she was born. When Willy May was a young girl, she lived in North Carolina. The local officials took Willy May out of her classroom to a new program called fix'n up the feeble minded for the public good (Sterilization Eugenics Program). Deeded her socially unfit to have children when she was seventeen in 1929. She came to Florida in 1932. She said she lived in a maze of trees, trying to heal scars back in those days. Willy May almost starved to death when she came to Florida.
Later, Mr. Jack found her living under an orange tree as she tried to hide. Mr. Jack told Willy May, God sees us all as equals, and I know you need some help young lady, and he held out his hand. The bigger than life Jack took her in, and after Willy May got better, she'd go out to the groves with the pickers to help harvest the fruit. Most money she ever made. Willy May would smile and say, "I's paid good money." Then old man bigger than life Jack Hart, Jr., always told her, all money is good money. Willy May said, the Hart family never pitied her. Back in the day Willy May was weary of white folks but found some good people who took care of her, now she takes care of them. She said every morning she woke, she told Mr. Jack; you's oranges nearbout big as your heart and bout sweet as you. Old man Jack would chuckle and say; you keep eating them oranges, they'll give you the squirts again.
"Ms. Sara, how's y'all doing up there? If you's needs me just holler. I's going to play in the flower garden. I's be back at noon to make lunch," said Willy May, "Oh Lord-e-bee, I needs to clean, clean, clean before sweet thang gets here."
"Willy May wait," hollers Sara and walks into the kitchen. Sara pauses for a minute out of breath as she inhales another cigarette, "Tee's busy tomorrow, and I need to go to the doctor. Would you like to go with me?"
Willy May turned around and looked at Sara with her cigarette dangling from her mouth and thought dang burn it, she found them cotton pick'n stinky thangs. "Yes'm Ms. Sara," smiled Willy May, "I's make sure I have my clean apron on, and my chores are done."
At lunchtime, Tee came home, and Willy May was in the kitchen, making him a sandwich. Tee was washing his hands, and Sara enters the kitchen.
"That's not funny," Sara announced, "Who hid my cigarettes in the toilet paper ring?"
Tee looked over at Willy May. She gives him a glassy-eyed look she is innocent.
"Sara, my love. Now really? That's the weirdest place for you to hide your cigarettes from me," said Tee. "I thought you were smoking in the bathroom. You promised me you'd stop smoking."
Sara said in a perturbed way, "That's not funny! You know I'm just going to go uptown and buy another pack," Sara stood in the doorway trying to find a place to put her hand on her hip. Then finally crossed her arms over on top of her belly. "I'll be so glad when I get my waist back."
"Well, I reckon I'll have to find a better place to hide your cig's. Come on beautiful and have a bologna onion sandwich with me. Willy May makes the best," said Tee.
Sara and Tee were like two baby kittens playing with yarn when they got mad at each other. Now it was time, Tee declared the next challenge to win the battle of Sara smoking.
Sara slowly walked over and sat down beside Tee and said, "Hold the onions, extra mustard, add a pickle on the side, no make that two pickles. A side order of more grits with two eggs fried in butter. Got some chips and dip? If not, I'll take some fries with ketchup. Is there more ice cream in the refrigerator? Add more bacon to the bologna. Add a tomato too, with lettuce. No hold the lettuce and put all that on three biscuits, and I'll have a coke with that, please."
"You's want any fried chicken and watermelon?" Willy May asked.
"We have leftover fried chicken? Absolutely, add some of that too."
"Where do you put all that?" Tee questioned.
Sara rubs her belly and laughed, "Right there."
I kiss Sara on top of her head, "Don't be mad, Sara. You told me you'd stop smoking."
"I said I'd try Tee. Stop hiding my cigarettes from me."
"If you can't find your cigarettes then you can't smoke them."
"Tee, don't be silly. There's a grocery store just ten miles up the road. I'll just go and buy another pack. Now I know you're hiding them from me. That's not nice, Tee. I thought I was losing my mind," said Sara.
"Eat, sweetheart. Give me a kiss. I love you, and I'm just doing what's best for you and our It."
"I'm not kissing your nasty onion breath."
"Onions smell better than them cigarettes."
Days flew by at the Plantation, there is no idle time for Willy May. She takes care of the Hart family as if they were royalty. She cleans a 15,000 square foot house as if it were a day in the park. She cooks three square meals right out of a southern style cookbook from memory. Takes care of the flower gardens and can change sweet thang's diaper before mama even knows it's stinky. Being a caretaker and a mama is all Will May cares about, and the Hart family is her only family.
"Good mawnin, Ms. Sara! Ready for the Doc?" Willy May asked.
"Yes, I'm ready, willing, and somewhat able. Are the grits still warm?"
"I'll be down in about thirty minutes. I'm still looking for my cigarettes. I'll be ready to go after I eat some of your lip slapping yummy grits. What do you put in your grits to make them so tasty?" Sara asked.
"It's my secret recipe. If I's told you, I's have to kill y'all," Willy May laughed. "Mr. Tee knows, he got all my recipes. Poor thang can't boil water. I's thought all southern folks know how's ta boil water. Mmmm ain't dat some-pen."
Tee's orders to Willy May were to watch over Sara carefully because of her diabetes. She passed out once and scared everyone.
The ladies rush out the door, and before they know it, they're at the doctor's office waiting, and Ms. Sara comes out just a grinning'.
"Is sweet thang good, Ms. Sara?" Willy May asked.
"Yep, we are right on schedule, everything's good Willy May. Well, except for . . . don't tell Tee. The doctor wants me to stop smoking. Let's skedaddle, I've got to stop by mama's house on the way home, and I need to pick up some cigarettes, and we'll be home before Tee gets home for lunch."
Ms. Sara and Willy May hightail it down Peach Street on the other side of town to see Sara's mama, Ms. Long. They walk into the house, and all they heard was heckling chicks screaming, "Surprise!" And dang . . . they cut the lights on, and it's a surprise baby shower for Ms. Sara.
"Mama, you didn't have to do this," Sara said as she catches her breath and grabs her belly. Totally flabbergasted, almost in shock when they all jumped up and screamed like a bunch of wild hooligans. "Are you trying to put me into labor?"
"Sara, I didn't do a thing, Roseanne and Lisa did it all," said Ms. Long.
Sara belly laughed and said, "As soon as I got catty-cornered to the house, I smelt cornbread and fried chicken, and I knew something was up. Mama, you never cook like this for lunch."
"Girl, get your fat belly over here," said Lisa.
"Oh my, look at this, wow this is beautiful. The food looks delicious. All my favorites. I can't believe y'all did all this," Sara said with excitement as she looks over the food.
"Lisa, did you get a count on everybody?" hollered Roseanne.
"Done," confirmed Lisa.
"Y'all listen up. Sara, you get comfy in the princess chair," ordered Roseanne.
They all slowly wander into the living room, and the house is all decked out in blue and pink baby stuff. Everybody hugging as they gossip their way out of the kitchen.
"Sara, you comfy?" Lisa asked.
"Yes, I'm comfy. Don't start until Willy May gets out here. Willy May, get your fanny out of the kitchen and come join us," Sara yells.
"Willy May, take your seat right here. Ready Lisa?" Roseanne asked.
"Ready . . . hit it," said Lisa, as she walks over the record player, puts the arm down on a record and runs out of the room.
The music starts blasting. Here came Lisa and Roseanne running around the corner with pillows stuck under their clothes, clapping their hands and singing, humming along; wowa, woe, woe, woe, wowa, let me tell you a story from a long time ago.
Everyone started clapping, singing along, laughing at the fun-loving, dancing chicks jumping around. When the music stopped, they stopped dancing and singing. Lisa lifts the arm off the record, and the laughter turned into story time.
"Now that was entertaining," Sara's mama murmured.
"Thank you, Ms. Long. Y'all, please excuse me, we're going to read a love story about Sara and Tee, and how this little bitty pretty one got started."
"Oh no, you're not. Not again," Ms. Long grumbled. "Y'all are not going to embarrass me again. We're not going to talk about sex in my house. Furthermore, it's not proper. Y'all know better."
"I'm sorry, mama, I know at my bachelorette party you got embarrassed because we talked about sex."
"I promise Ms. Long this time we'll keep it clean," vowed Lisa.
"Once upon a time, long, long, long ago, wait did I mention the word long."
"Funny Roseanne emphasizing on the word Long," meddled Sara.
"Well, at least I didn't say fat long ago, please without interruptions. May I continue, there was a princess named Sara Long and her prince charming who took over the first-grade classroom by passing notes to each other. Then there was the time they got caught kissing under the high school bleachers, and from then on nobody could get them apart. Later they married with a lavish ceremony and became Mr. and Mrs. Hart. Then one-night Princess Sara ate a seed out in an orange grove, which brings us here today."
"Stop!" yelled Ms. Long with an irked tone in her voice. "There will be no sex lessons at my house. We are not discussing sex and how to have multiple orgasms. There is no such thing as orgasms or sex toys. I do not want to hear this again. I just don't understand where y'all girls hear this stuff."
"My goodness, mama," giggled Sara, "You've been listening to our sex talks. I thought you blocked us out."
"OK, Lisa, it's time," said Roseanne.
"Y'all, I would like to present our first gift to Princess Sara."
The gifts surround Sara's chair, and she began opening the most insanely gorgeous wrapped presents. The first gift was an engraved sterling silverware cup, plate, piggy bank, with the name, It's a Hart. Lots of blankets and clothes, a stroller, and a gadget to pump milk, which brought out the most laughter. They cut the cake, ate, and gossiped about the latest rumors.
Roseanne said, "I'm full as a tick."
Lisa said, "I promise there ain't any breast milk in the cake."
The party ended, and the guests started to leave while Willy May cleaned up. Sara and her mama took everything out to her car as they conversed about how everyone looked. Who was the most unladylike this time around?
"Mama thanks, it was so good to see everyone again."
"Yes, it was sweetheart."
"Willy May, are you ready?"
Willy May entered the room, drying her hands on a towel, smiling from ear to ear.
"What a fun time, Ms. Long thank you for the invite. Ms. Sara, you's got that breast pump, cuz Missy you gonna need that thing. You's can breastfeed dat baby from the other room with bosoms like yours."
Sara laughed, "If my boobs get any bigger, they are going to drag the ground. It's like my boobs get bigger, and my arms get shorter. Mama, after I have this baby, these babies are going to go down, aren't they?" Sara grabs her breasts and rubs them. "Damn they hurt."
"Let's hope so, sweetheart. They do look painful."
"They are, mama."
"Willy May, it was so good seeing you again," said Ms. Long.
"My pleasure, Ms. Long."
"You take good care of my girl," Ms. Long smiled a propitious goodbye.
"Yes, ma'am," beamed Willy May.
Sara and Willy May got home late that afternoon. Willy May fussed all the way home about poor Mr. Tee ain't got nothing to eat.
Days passed by, and many grits and biscuits were consumed as they waited for the Tee baby. Willy May worried Ms. Sara wasn't ever going have that sweet thang. Just when they finally got some sound sleep, a Woo-Wee echoed throughout the house.
Willy May heard Mr. Tee telling Ms. Sara to breathe, and a thunderous pounding began at Willy Mays door. Willy May bounced out of bed hollering, "Woo-wee where's my bloomers and apron. Woo-wee Mr. Tee I's declare I's worse than you's. I's feel I's going to lose it when I heard my Ms. Sara holler out in labor. I's thought dat baby gone got stuck up in der. Ms. Sara all worked up."
Before they know it, they're driving to the hospital. Willy May and Ms. Sara in the back seat holding hands. Mr. Tee still telling Sara to breathe.
Willy May moaning and groaning, "Woo-Wee," as she inhaling deep breaths right along with Sara.
Well, as it goes, Ms. Magnolia Blossom Hart, (AKA, Missy nicknamed after her mother), entered the world at eighteen inches, five pounds, two ounces, arrived on September 3, 1957. First thing, Willy Mays said, is Blossom resembles Mr. Tee's momma.
"Woo-Wee Mr. Tee, I can tell Ms. Blossom gonna change our lives forever."
Mr. Tee and Ms. Sara brought Ms. Blossom home from the hospital as Willy May waited outside at the front door in her clean apron. House as tidy as it could be. Willy May couldn't wait to hold her pink baby.
When Willy May got a hold of her sweet thang, she just smiled and stared into Blossom's big brown eyes and said, "Missy you mighty tiny, Woo-Wee look at that beautiful face. Woo-Wee, that youngun can squall. We's gonna have us a good time now. Woo-Wee, you's as sweet as apple pie with whip cream and a cherry on top."