“Homegrown in Florida” (2012, University Press of Florida) – a recently published anthology edited by William McKeen featuring stories by Michael Connelly, Carl Hiaasen and Tom Petty – includes my recollection of being the only Israeli (or Jewish, for that matter) kid in my high school.
Here’s Part I of “The Only Israeli in Town,” reprinted with permission of the University Press of Florida (please look for Part II next week):
When my father proposed cutting his 90-minute commute by moving from Sarasota to Crystal River, my mother asked him only one question: “Are there a lot of rednecks in that area?”
“I didn’t see any,” said my dad, a recent immigrant from Israel who himself could have passed for a redneck. He drove a pickup truck, wore shopworn jeans, often disposed of garbage by burning it, sometimes in ostentatious bonfires, and listened to gospel music. He certainly could hum more hymns about Jesus than most Northerners.
My dad, whose Jewish Russian family toiled the land of British-Mandate Palestine, failed to comprehend his Jewish Italian wife’s concern. He had a kind of a romantic notion of rednecks, equating them with cool-to-the-core cowboys. Still, he simply reported what he observed—that during the six months he worked as a computer programmer in Crystal River, he saw few, if any, good ol’ boys. As for the girls, he didn’t know because, being happily married, he never looked.
Usually skeptical, my mom believed him for some reason, about the good ol’ boys, anyway. Within weeks, we relocated to Citrus County, a place so Southern—unlike most of the rest of Florida—that it actually makes geographical sense for it to be so far down on the United States map.
My dad’s far-sightedness opened us up to possibilities we never could have imagined. We bought a house in the redneck mecca of Homosassa Springs and I joined the senior class of the redneck Crystal River High midway through the 1984-85 school year.
Other than Yankees, my classmates had never met any folks who spoke in a foreign accent. They knew no Israelis before me, and, after me, wanted to know no more. Well, that’s what I like to say because I think it sounds funny, but it wasn’t true. I faced no discrimination in Citrus County. And the last time I checked, Israelis and Jews and even folks from New Jersey were welcome there. Still, you would have expected my classmates to shun me, or at least keep me on the fringe of their social world. I would have a better story to tell if they did, but I must say they accepted me like a fellow Copenhagen-chewing, Coors-chugging, Lynyrd Skynyrd–head-banging redneck.
I never touched tobacco and, during high school, avoided alcohol. I did bang my head to Skynyrd, but I also listened to enough Euro trash, Old School rap and Hebrew pop to elicit a cross burning. Yet, somehow, I not only made friends but hung out with the “in” crowd. (Yes, there’s such a thing among rednecks, even if they don’t call it that.) How? I’m not sure. Maybe it was the spirit of the 1980s. We were all just out for a good time. Maybe it was because I liked everybody, so they liked me in return. I find this to be the case nearly everywhere—if you like people, they tend to feel the same—so why not in Citrus County? Or maybe it was because I played right wing on the school’s inaugural varsity soccer team.
Maybe not. I was the worst varsity player of all time—in any sport, in any state. And trust me, I’m not being humble. I would have been arrested for offensive public display or maybe even lynched by a mob on another continent. The coach and players only asked me to join the team because they thought I looked and sounded European.
Yet my social game took off—I’m not sure how or why. When, on our graduation night, I thanked my buddies for a sweet six months, they thought I was making up the timeframe. “I reckon,” Junior said, “you’ve been here two years.”
During that period—who knows, maybe time moved differently in Citrus County—we basically did only one thing, but we did it well: We created memories. Hardly a day ended without a journal-worthy development. If you asked them to choose one in particular, I reckon my buddies would recount the weekend we camped at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. It stood out like a snow-capped mountain in South Florida. It could have lunched a country singer’s career.
The school bell echoed as we walked to Junior’s beat-up van one Friday afternoon. This chubby, fun-loving fellow always parked a few blocks away to avoid being seen in or even near it. But he never felt embarrassed in front of us—we were like family.
We picked the perfect weekend to camp in Chassahowitzka. The spring air held off the Gulf of Mexico’s humid breeze, and the clear sky waited, like a boundary-less Etch A Sketch, for a propeller plane to scroll a message by a scorned lover. I felt so peaceful that I nearly fell asleep during our 10-minute drive, but my buddies kept me awake by blasting their (and nearly every redneck’s) favorite German bubblegum heavy-metal band, the Scorpions. “Bad boys running wild,” Klaus Meine bellowed, “and you better get out of their way.”
The van’s banged-up, corroded exterior masked a clean, comfortable interior. Its belly, packed with enough camping gear for an Amazon expedition, looked like a page from an L. L. Bean catalogue. At the only traffic light to slow us down, John turned around to wink at the tents, barbecue grills and coolers filled with cheap beer as if they were sophomore girls along for the ride.
No girls joined us that weekend. I’m still not sure if it was because we never invited them, or because we did.
When we reached the park, John—a Northern transplant who took his redneck conversion way too seriously by, for instance, always insisting on driving—headed to the parking lot, but Junior pointed another way.
“We’re in Chassahowitzka, Junior,” John said.
“Yeah,” I said, “I doubt your future wife is lurking behind the bushes.”
Junior laughed and shook his head. “Y’all need to chill,” he said. “I just wanna park closer to the spring.”
We came to a stop at the end of a dirt road, in a spot so precise Junior made John drive back and forth several times, as if teaching him to parallel park.