The happiest years of my childhood were 1986 through 1989 when I lived in Key West, Florida. Although my dad was officially stationed out of an air force base on the mainland, he worked nearer to Key West which has a naval station and housing. So that’s where we lived. Although he might not agree, it was his best assignment ever from my viewpoint. Before, we went from living in the desert to sleeping next door to the Soviets. Hmm, I’ll take a tropical island next to Cuba any day.
Living on base housing was great. It was like the Wonder Years where you could run around the neighborhood and play in the streets. It was a total free for all for kids there because base housing was on its own separate island and restricted from the public. I never realized how good I had it until I came to live in Michigan (where I lived in a house that the neighborhood drug pusher used to live in.) Anyways, since it was base housing for families, that meant there were children EVERYWHERE.
My best friend was my next door neighbor named Brandon. What little competitive spirit I had was always riled up by him. I hated that he could always out run me but I ran my heart out. When he got his training wheels taken off and graduated to a “big bike” I saved my money so that I could get my own and I made damn sure that I could ride it. I drew the line at liking Michael Jackson though. Even then, I knew something was not quite right with that guy.
I began school there. As cheesy as it sounds, l learned some life lessons there even some that I could not comprehend until years later. Suicide, divorce, sexual abuse, politics, long-distance relationships, and intelligent ducks, were new to my consciousness. My first kiss and make out session occurred there. I should weep that I got more action as a six year old than as a twenty-six year old! What I learned in kindergarten and first grade doesn’t seem to compare.
We left after I had completed first grade. I said goodbye to Brandon as he was watching a baseball game. His mom told me to write. I never did. I wonder about him sometimes just like I do about John, Bo, Mindy, Ian, Rob, Mrs. Allen, and Mrs. Greer. I wonder if my climbing tree is still there, if my golf clubs are still in the creek, if my one-day pet lizard still lies in the plot next door, and if the Filipino ladies are still stealing unripe coconuts from the tree in the front yard.
When my dad retired, he told me that we would be moving to Michigan but he asked me where I wanted to live. I took that to mean that I had some say in the matter and I begged him to take us back to Key West. He said no. I kept at it until he lost his cool and yelled, “If you want to go back and live with all the fagots, then go!” I never brought it up again.
I’ve lived in Michigan for a long time now and I consider myself a Michigander and will carry that identity wherever I roam. Key West, though, will always be a part of my heart. Not the actual place, but the memories and experiences of what it represents. The last time I was there, I had an odd sensation. While I felt detached from what was there and happening, it was all familiar. Everything that I saw, felt, and even smelled, seemed like an echo of the life I once had. The Winn-Dixee, the beach, the stinky mangroves, the theater, and even the same sweaty juggler guy were all there. It makes me smile to think that they still are.