“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 II of “The Only Israeli in Town,” reprinted with permission of the University Press of Florida (to read Part I, please click https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-only-israeli-in-town):
When we reached our destination in the woods, we saw a couple of tents around the spring. Before disappointment could set in, Jimmy and a few of our other friends emerged to grab the coolers.
“I want to help,” I told Jimmy. “Tell me what to do.”
“If you really want to help,” said a stocky, ultraconservative fellow who acted mature beyond his years when sober, “nothing.”
I really wanted to help, so I jumped into the spring’s crystal-clear, cold water. I tried reaching the underwater cave, but the deeper I went, the farther it seemed. When I sprang back up, I smelled burgers grilling and heard beer cans popping. I rested on a fallen tree in the middle of the spring. Then I swam to the far corner, stood up, and followed the narrow, winding stream to the Chassahowitzka River. A sea cow the size and shape of a Volkswagen Beetle and her baby paid me no attention. Neither did the modern-day dinosaur sunbathing on the other side.
I would have stayed for hours, but the barbecue smoke pulled me back to camp. As I walked up, Junior handed me a plate of black-eyed peas and hamburger patties.
“Is there any pork in this?” I asked, knowing my buddies always tried to sneak trief (unkosher food) into my chow.
Junior laughed, shaking his head no.
“What’s this?” I put the plate to his punim (face) and pointed at miniature coal-like particles mixed in with the gray-colored peas.
“Pepper,” Junior said.
I brought a fork-full to my mouth, pretended to swallow and glanced at my buddies. They burst out laughing and pointed at me. I spat out the pork-infested peas and grabbed a cold beer to swoosh out the residue.
When the sun set, we lit a campfire, played poker and told tall tales. We fell asleep just before sunrise.
I woke up feeling carefree. It was only when I started peeing on a tree that I realized why: I was naked. While I slept, my buddies had undressed me and hidden my clothes. I ran around looking for them until Jimmy pointed up. My bathing suit, jeans and T-shirts rested like a bird’s nest on a top branch. I climbed the tree to snatch my clothes. When I touched the ground, my buddies gave me a standing ovation. And Jimmy pointed his .38 Special at me.
“You crack me up, Bo,” he said, “do it again.”
He wasn’t hung over – he was still drunk from the previous night.
“Put that toy away,” I said.
“You don’t believe it’s bona fide?” Jimmy said, and before I could answer, he fired a shot in my direction. It hit the ground a foot or so from my legs. He’d obviously meant to miss but managed to startle everyone, including himself. He was so surprised that he fired again, this time purposely missing with greater inaccuracy.
“If you do that again,” I said, “I’ll be forced to kick your ass.”
He put the gun away, grabbed a beer and started cooking breakfast. I kept a close eye on him to make sure he didn’t sneak any pork into my food.
On Saturday night, we temporarily left our camping site to go to the country fair. Jimmy and the others walked toward the parking lot, while Junior, John and I headed to the hidden van.
As darkness spread like dye in a glass of water, we got lost. Junior and John stopped to look around. I walked a couple of steps past them and fell into a nasty pool of quick mud. Paralyzed with laughter at seeing me swallowed up by the earth, Junior and John took their time before helping me. They pulled me out just before the slime blocked my air supply. They did grab the flashlight and radio from my hands much earlier, but that was before they realized the situation’s full comic potential.
“I’m sinking!” they imitated me. “I’m sinking!”
We found the van and drove to Junior’s house to shower and change for our big night out. By the time we reached the fair, the girls were gone. I’m still not sure if it was because they thought we weren’t coming, or because they knew we were.
Junior and John had other things on their minds. They ran to tell Jimmy and everyone about the quick-mud incident. They kept blurting, “I’m sinking,” in a strange, still mostly Southern twang. For months, they continued uttering that phrase, making fools of themselves with their feeble attempts at an Israeli accent.
They kept saying it the last time I visited Citrus County – in 1995, for my 10-year high school reunion. That weekend proved to be one of the biggest letdowns of my life. I realized they were no longer the good guys I remembered them to be. In fact, they were downright racist. Maybe they were always like that and I had neglected to notice or maybe they grew into the stereotypes they had pictured for themselves. Either way, I showed them no sympathy.
I decided to skip my 20-year and upcoming 30-year reunions. I plan to stay away from Citrus County, not because I no longer love it, but because I want to make sure I always will.
My parents never went back. Maybe my mom saw then what I see now. God knows, she couldn’t wait to leave.
On my high school graduation night, my dad asked me to call him when we got back in town the next morning.
I dropped a dime in the Crystal River Burger King phone booth at 6 a.m.
“Junior and John will bring me home after breakfast,” I said, assuming that my mom, who rarely wakes up before 10:30 a.m., was still sleeping.
“I’m coming to get you right now,” my dad said. “Mom’s ready to go.”
Soon, we drove our packed cars out of Homosassa Springs to Fort Lauderdale, where friends told my mom they saw few, if any, rednecks.