A wide swath of land and water that occupies the southern half of Florida is commonly known as the Everglades. But to people who live in the region, it is more commonly referred to as the ‘Glades.
For me, my experience there occurred in the summer following my junior year in high school. Since I had recently turned 16, I was able to obtain a commercial drivers’ license, although I had been driving since I was 12 years old. Chief benefit of that adult license was that I was able to obtain a summer job as a full-time employee of the National Soil Conservation Service.
Prior to that high-paying job, I had run the gamut of a large number of part-time employments, which included yard work, newspaper delivery, movie usher, waiter, soda jerk and short-order cook.
Chief station of my work in the ‘Glades was about five miles inland from the Florida Coast. It was a large facility with a number of trucks, tractors and related equipment to monitor the progress of the current project, which was aimed at draining much of the wetlands. To accomplish this drainage, a number of large canals, some 20 yards across, had been dug alongside what was then known as the “Back Road.”Somehow a very pervasive strain of plants, called Japanese Water Hyacinth, had been introduced into the canals and had proliferated so much that they completely covered the surface. They were so thick, in fact, that they permitted us to literally “walk on the water” because a pair of 2×8 boards atop the plants formed a natural bridge. To accomplish most of our work, which included measuring the depth of the water table at a number of small pipe-wells that had been placed about a quarter of a mile apart, we would scamper across the boards into fields of six-foot tall saw-grass. To find the wells, we would use two-foot machetes to cut our way through the grass. One day I wore a short-sleeved shirt and found out how saw-grass got its name.
My immediate supervisor was a fellow named Bob Wardlaw, who would pick me up every morning at a designated spot in Lauderdale and drive me to the SCS installation. Little did I know that he would eventually save my life.
One of the first workdays at the garage, I and another teenager were given the job of fastening six-foot wooden railroad ties to the tracks on a large Caterpillar tractor. The wooden cleats were installed to keep the heavy tractor from sinking into the muddy marsh. We were warned to keep our shirts on while handling the railroad ties since they had been coated with creosote, which had the effect of burning the skin. Since it was an abnormally hot day, we disregarded the order and worked shirtless. That night while taking my evening shower, I found out how seriously the creosote could set your skin aflame.
In addition to our machetes, we were issued a snake pistol, a single-shot affair that fired a .410 shotgun shell. We were warned to keep the gun at a far distance from our leg when shooting at the large cottonmouth moccasins that roamed the ‘Glades. The cottonmouth was an amphibious creature that one could spot gliding through open water or slithering through the tall grass. Its venom was very toxic, but it had such short fangs that it could not penetrate the knee-high lace-up boots that we all wore. The only time you were in danger was when you reached down to unscrew the top of a capped well.
Getting back to Wardlaw, one day we were working in tandem on a project that necessitated trotting across one of the canals. Since Wardlaw was a good 50 pounds heavier, he would always go first. On the return trip across the water, I noticed that the boards sank slightly under his weight. When it came my time to go across, I got as far as midway and the board gave way completely. As I sank into the water, the plants began to gather so it was like being in quick sand. Fortunately, before I sank completely, Wardlaw was able to get to the truck, grab a rope and toss it to me. He managed to pull me ashore and we drove the short distance to Lake Okeechobee, where I dried out.
Continued Next Week