My parents moved to Southwest Florida after my father retired from the banking industry in New Jersey in 1971. They traveled to buy a house in Fort Myers and wound up in a house in The Villas, a community in Fort Meyers on the very south edge of the population of town, just east of The Tamiami Trail (Route 41) where College Parkway turned into Woodland Boulevard. Back in 1971 this was as far south as you could before you started hitting wide open land between Fort Myers and Naples. The day I left for college, my parents sold their modest
brick Cape Cod home at 291 Parkway in Harrington Park, New Jersey. For seventeen
years this was my home, my anchor, my life.
I remember the day we last left that house. Mom and Dad had the Ford Country Squire station wagon loaded up and were pulling a travel trailer to go on and explore retirement homes in Florida. I had my 1964 black convertible Ford Falcon with red bucket seats loaded up to go to Rider College. (I loved that car! From the inside the falcon was identical to the 1964 Mustang). We were hugging good bye in the driveway shaded by huge oak and beech trees that rarely let the sun reach the sparse grass that my father could never seem to get to grow in our front yard. I was a little teary eyed since I knew for sure this was the beginning and the end of two distinct eras in my life. My father was the only one without a tear in his eyes until I looked back and pointed out that he had forgotten the old wooden address sign with the name Fous on it wearily leaning on a short post in the pachysandra.
The next time I saw that sign it was hanging sideways from a nail in the garage in the new home in Fort Myers. Seemingly ignored and forgotten, it looked woefully out of place, a dark wood sign with dead green moss that rarely saw the sun and the “u: in Fous had fallen off and the post was gone; but I suppose my Dad could not quite bring himself to toss it – a reminder for him of the home and life he left up north. It would look so out of place in the bright yard on Beacon Street anyway.
My first trip to Fort Myers was as a hitchhiker. I left New Jersey early one morning after my girlfriend dropped me off at a truck stop on the Jersey Turnpike. I went in to the diner and walked around asking truckers if anyone was headed south and could bring me along. I scored a ride about an hour later. When that trucker stopped at a roadside rest stop near Atlanta to take a nap, I switched to another truck that brought me to Tampa.. I was pretty proud of my self – two rides and I was already pretty close to Fort Myers. The rest of the rip, however, took me as long as the first two rides. There was no Route 75 all the way to Fort Myers back then, so it was Route 41. I walked and got short rides occasionally all the way to Fort Myers.
I had not told my parents that I was coming and I was determined to walk up to the front door of their new house and surprise them like some scene from a Hallmark card.
Since I had no idea where “The Fort Myers Villas” was, I had my last ride drop me off in downtown Fort Myers. This was early evening of the second day of travel. I asked a few people where Beacon Street was and was pointed further south on 41, the exact direction my last ride was headed. I started walking with my thumb out. But after about thirty minutes I decided to call. (Remember pay phones?) – They dotted the road every mile or so; except there was no answer.
I kept walking south and would call at every payphone; finally about two miles from College Parkway Mom answers. They were at the movies. “You are WHERE?”
Here were my first impressions of Fort Myers:
The Smell, Its funny how you can remember smells. I don’t notice it now but I remember how different it was then. I was not accustomed to sulfur water, the smell of standing rain water or the rush of the humidity laden air as it hit me when I would first walk outside. The grass and bushes smelled unusual to me. When I got near to the Gulf of Mexico it did not smell like the cold salty, sea-weedy air of the Jersey Shore – it smelled more like fish and sand and overheated pavement.
The Noise at night with the crickets and frogs was a cacophony reminiscent of third grade band practice warm up. It seemed to envelope me as I ventured into the yard. Behind all this insect noise were the constant hum of central air.
The Greenery; Leaves looked waxy and thick, grass was as tough as wire, palm trees, were everywhere. I remember stopping to fix up a palm frond just to feel it and I remember walking in the grass barefoot just to feel how thick it was. And boy was everything green and lush and tough looking.
The Water; It was everywhere. It rained every day. There were canals, miles of them; The landscape was designed for heavy rains. Swales, ditches and retention areas – were all foreign to this boy from New York
The Bugs, oh yeah the bugs. After a couple of days my ankles looked like strawberries. No see-ums; Mosquitoes; Horse Flies. These too were rather new to me. The good news on the bug issue – bugs don’t bother most fulltime residents. We develop a resistance to their poison and either they don’t bite us at all or their bites don’t itch. (But we do need tourists to feed them.)
The People; Everyone was friendly and from somewhere else, (sorry Gail – I hadn’t met you yet – Gail’s Mom was born here in Lee County Florida, by the way, 92 years ago) . Newcomers wore their state of origin like badges. They hung old license plates on their mail boxes and folks greeted strangers with the one word greeting, “Whereyafrom?” because it was a sure conversation starter.
The Sun; Florida is, after all, called The Sunshine State for a reason.. The sun is pretty much always shining. Most newcomers make the mistake (like I did back then) that they are tough – they tan – not burn. WROOONG.
The Furnishings; Leave your furniture up north. Most of it won’t fit here –either in style or size. It seemed that every house I went into was full of bright and light furnishings, in the seventies this was more pronounced than today.
I drove my 1964 Falcon back for my next visit and earned three college credits for doing a market research report on retirement in Florida. I recently found a copy of that report in my parents old trunk. I had interviewed dozens of retirees in Cape Coral and Fort Myers. I will write more on the differences between Cape Coral and Fort Myers for a future e-letter.
I did not come to live full time in Fort Myers until twenty years after my first visit.
I’m glad I did.