Before I tell you about the mango tree, and the fruit rats, and some impetuous youthful behavior, you need to know that my old man loved Florida. He really did. For some reason our state never quite returned his affection.
Soon after we moved from Chicago to Miami in 1951, he killed a harmless green snake in our yard. He never slew another one, but the wheels of karma were already set in motion. Nature was going to play some dirty tricks on the snake slayer.
We lived in a modest little house built after World War II, one of those two-bedroom, one-bath GI specials that went up in about 20 minutes. It was an okay building except for cracks just wide enough for all manner of outside creatures to venture inside. When the roaches weren't rearranging the silverware, they liked gliding across the living room like kamikazes and landing on my dad's bare chest.
That's when it dawned on him. Nature was settling a score.
Ever throw bread to a duck? Nothing to it. Bread lands on lawn. Ducks quack happily. When my dad fed them, they flew up at his face impatiently, honking in anger.
One time, on a Sunday drive, he rolled down the window of our old Nash Rambler so we could enjoy the balmy breeze. Almost immediately a wasp sailed through the window and stung him through his shorts in a delicate place.
One night, as he stood in our above-the-ground pool, he noticed a large tree frog clinging to the trunk of a nearby coconut palm. "Isn't that frog smart?" he lectured. "It's up there next to the spotlight where it can catch bugs." The frog chose that moment to spring off the tree and land on Dad's chest. The frog survived the ensuing panicked swatting and churning backstroke.
On camping trips, after consuming beans and weenies, we always played cards at the picnic table. What could be simpler? Turn on the Coleman lantern and deal. Sure, the occasional moth might fly into the light. Nothing scary about moths.
Suddenly, my father shrieked and pitched backward, almost bringing down the table with him. As he thrashed on the grass, some kind of never-before-seen insect — surely it hailed from the deepest reaches of the Amazon — clung to his eyebrows. About 6 inches long, the creature boasted multiple legs and nightmarish, bulbous eyes.
If you are squeamish or easily frightened, please stop reading now and make yourself a cup of tea. I am going to tell you the famous Miami mango tree story.
In our neighborhood, everybody loved our mango tree. My dad planted it in 1953. Within a decade it towered over the house. We ate mangoes at breakfast, and in salads, ice cream and milk shakes. Dad took boxes of them to work. I brought boxes to school. We put them on a table next to the street. "Help Yourself," the sign said, and motorists did.
The rats loved our mangoes too. At dusk, they'd leap in waves from the telephone wires into the tree and commence gnawing. By morning, dozens and dozens of rat-mangled mangoes lay on the lawn.
My mother, a city girl, feared rats above anything. After they ate our mangoes, perhaps they would eat her family.
"Ernie, you've got to do something," she said.
"Oh, Bea!" he said. "They're outside. They can't hurt us."
"I hate rats. You have to poison them."
Poisoning rats is usually a bad idea, especially outdoor rats. They eat the poison and look for someplace dark and dank to die.
He put out the poison. A week passed, and we smelled something awful. It was summer, damp and hot, and the odor of decay wafted through the house. The smell was especially acute under the bathroom.
We had a crawl space under the house. All the houses on my block did. They were for ventilation, not storage. Nobody in their right mind ever crawled under a South Florida house.
But my dad was going to. He needed to recover that dead rat.
Word got around. Neighbors showed up to watch .
My dad marched into the yard dressed like an extra from Lawrence of Arabia, wearing a long-sleeved shirt and long pants tucked into his socks. He wore boots, a scarf, garden gloves, hat. Rat tools included a flashlight, cardboard box and the kind of tongs one uses to pick up a steaming ear of corn.
He stood anxiously before the crawl space door, approached it, thought better of it and backed away. He approached it again, backed away, working on his courage while trying to quiet his imagination.
What might be waiting for him under the house? Other than a dead rat?
Cockroaches, of course, probably albinos. Newts, toads, witches? Perhaps. Surely something with dripping mandibles lurked in the darkest corners.
The great man knelt with resignation, took a deep breath and began the slow crawl toward the opening.
I must have been 13 or so, stupid and insensitive. Or just a pawn in Mother Nature's practical joke. From a few feet away, I leaned against the rake with which I had been gathering rat-gnawed mangoes from the lawn and watched.
Dad's head disappeared reluctantly into the crawl space darkness. Followed by his neck and shoulders.
With the rake I reached over and touched the small of his back.
For a moment, dead silence.
And then, from the crawl space, came a cry, a howl and what sounded like the speaking of tongues. His cursing filled the humid summer air, and not just run-of-the-mill profanities, but the special stuff usually heard only in Army barracks during the craps games.
Now he tried to stand in the little crawl space, as if he could lift the entire house upon his shoulders. He failed, of course. He had to retreat on hands and knees. Then he was standing. Then he was running in my direction.
I was running, too — like an Olympian, like those guys fleeing the dinosaur in King Kong. Arms pumping and mouth agape, I somehow leapt the garden fence in a single bound. Never looking back, I continued running, one block, two, all the way to Biscayne Canal, where I hid for several hours under the Sixth Avenue Bridge.
At nightfall I limped home, prepared to accept my fate, whatever that might turn out to be, a beating or an orphanage.
He was sitting in his easy chair and calmly reading the evening paper. The smell of dead rat was gone.
He passed away 30 years ago. Every time I buy a mango I miss him.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8727.