The Folklore Project
By John T. O’Neal
Things everyone knows about Florida: the heat and the sunshine.
But unless you’ve been to rural Florida (what Daddy called “the flat woods”), you may not know about the dark. Florida dark, in the flat woods, in the summer, is different than other darkness. You can feel it. The sounds of frogs, crickets, gators, and the like make it seem like the dark completely surrounds you. It covers you completely. The humidity presses and clings to your skin, the smell of flowers fill up your nose, and the air is so thick and stagnant you could cut it with a chainsaw. The dark’s not just limited sight, it’s something that touches every other sense you possess.
That type of dark, like the heat, usually begins in May.
But May 1975’s darkness in Davenport, Florida, didn’t have a damn thing to do with humidity or heat.
I never knew my grandparents. They both died the same night in May of 1975, in the same house, seven years before I was born. My parents weren’t even married then. Actually, they had started dating shortly before my grandparents died. I don’t know much about my grandparents — mainly, I think, because it was too painful for my daddy, and momma didn’t want overstep and tell me things daddy couldn’t say himself.
What I do know is that Daddy grew up in a small house in Davenport as an only child. A small town in Polk County, not far from Orlando, Davenport didn’t have much other than the citrus-packing house where my grandparents met. They both worked there: J.T. and Elizabeth. They married and settled in a small house. My father came along shortly after. The house they lived in didn’t have an indoor bathroom until my father was 6 or 7. There was no TV until he was 12, much less central air. Back then, central Florida was groves and pastures; Walt Disney was still just some guy in California who made cartoons.
I also know that my grandmother, Elizabeth, was an amazing, strong woman. Everyone loved her, most of all, my daddy. Daddy’s uncles and his cousins (more like brothers and sisters) all loved her, too. She was kind, funny, and loved to have fun. They called her Nanie (“Nay-ne”), and after daddy moved out on his own, he would always stop to see her at work as he came back to Davenport.
Family was important, especially Daddy’s grandfather: “Papa” C. (Out of respect for that side of the family, I’ll leave their last name out). Papa and his wife ”Granny” lived right down the road from Daddy, where, when Papa wasn’t working for Coca-Cola’s Minute Maid citrus operation, he was tending to his own orange groves and working his own cows. They weren’t rich, but they did well with what they had. Daddy spent much of his childhood and teenage years with Papa and working with and for him. One reason for being with Papa all the time is that Daddy took to hard work like a duck to water. Another was that he and J.T. didn’t get along.
J.T. was a hard worker who loved to hunt. J.T. could also be a drinker, and Jack Daniel’s was a favorite, from what I understand. J.T. wasn’t always good to Elizabeth. He could be mean or grumpy, and he did a damned fine job of making sure his son would never be close to him. Papa could be tough, but he was tough to make you better, and it was a toughness based on love. But J.T., my grandfather, could just be mean as hell. It’s hard for me to judge a man I never met, and only know through secondhand stories. I can’t conclude that J.T. was evil — he had a hard life before Elizabeth ever came into the picture— but I know that night in 1975 does his memory no favors.
I obviously wasn’t there in 1975, and those who were that night and are still alive have never told me about it. To be fair, though, I haven’t asked much out of respect or maybe fear. I haven’t read any of the police reports, even though I’m sure I could, so take the next few lines as part secondhand and part speculation.
When Daddy entered the house that night, his parents J.T. and Elizabeth were already gone. Each killed by gunshot wounds. At the time, a murderer was on the loose in the area, but considering J.T.’s temper and disposition, not many thought this was random. I don’t know for sure who shot first or who died first. I don’t know what the house looked like. What the blood-spray pattern was, or even if there was one. I don’t even know what caliber the rounds were, but I’ve got a good idea in my mind’s eye from similar crime scenes and photos I saw back when I was a state prosecutor.
Real or not, it’s not a pleasant sight. I’m sure all those documents are somewhere in the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, and I don’t know if I’ll ever want to see them.
What I can only imagine is my 6-foot-4-inch father pulling up in his truck to the sight of police cars at his parent’s house. What I can see in my mind is the sight of his parents on the floor, dead. What I can feel is the feeling that my daddy must’ve had: no siblings, and now no parents. He was alone. As an only child myself, that’s what I would have thought. Amid all the lights, people, and loss, that night was darker than any night he’d ever experience in the flat woods.
After the family learned what happened, everyone gathered up. Like I mentioned before, Daddy’s cousins were more like siblings. His uncle and aunt, George and JoAnn, brought their kids over to Papa’s house, and everyone began the grieving process. If Daddy thought he was alone, I’m comforted in knowing it wasn’t for long.
In the middle of all that, Daddy’s cousin, 12-year-old Lisa, the only girl, was crying. She loved Nanie, like they all did, and couldn’t hold her tears back knowing she was gone. Her youngest brother, Steve, was also with her and crying, too. At some point, my tall, burly father took both their hands into his, so cracked and worn, and walked his cousins away from the crowd. Those kids’ hands were undoubtedly trembling, but then were steadied by the same calloused hands that held me up years later. He led them outside, under a clear, star-filled sky. He looked down and examined them both for a second. Then, in the midst of it all, he leaned down and told them, “We’re gonna be alright. Don’t cry, and don’t you worry.”
I heard that story for the first time at my father’s funeral from my Aunt Lisa, who eulogized him. I cannot imagine the strength, kindness, and selflessness it took for a man who had just lost both parents in one of the most violent ways imaginable to comfort two small children. It still amazes me to this day to think about it.
Years later, I found all this out while sitting across from my mother at the Main Street Restaurant. I was home for Christmas, my junior year at the University of Georgia. I was eating buffalo wings. And I was absolutely floored. My whole life, I was told my grandparents “got sick,” or something like that. But my mother sort of blurted it out, and I was left with a dropped jaw and wings that no longer were appetizing. From that day on, every time the May heat set in, I’ve always wondered about that night, about my grandparents, and about what my father had gone through all these years.
Everyone in my family has told me how much my coming into the world made my daddy happy. I always knew, and never questioned, my father’s love. I knew every time he said it, and when he’d look proud after I won a football trophy, or when he’d tear up when I had to go back to college or law school. My memories of my father are good, and I hope, like all sons in the South, that I made him proud. I also hope that my being born in May helped him cope with that night he lost his parents. I hope that the birthday parties, the cake, and all the rest he took part in when I was little took his mind out of the Florida dark that I am sure surrounded him that night (and a lot of days and nights after). I hope that if anything, he could maybe see a little Nanie in me.
I hope when I came along he didn’t so much mind the May heat.
As I write this, it’s April 29, and even up in Georgia the temperatures are starting to rise. My birthday will be here in a week or so. Ever since that day at Main Street, when May arrives, I think about my birthday less and 1975 more. How did my daddy make it through that? Would I have? How did he look that loss in the face and move forward? Am I that tough? Will I ever be?
I don’t know, and God knows I don’t want to find out. But the fact that my father could make it through that and go on to have a respected career in agriculture, get married, and start a family, puts any hardships I’ve ever had, or will ever have, into perspective. Maybe this whole story is macabre or “Southern Gothic,” but what happened after, how my daddy moved beyond it, in the end is the remarkable part.
I don’t know why I feel compelled to write about it now — why I’m driven to tell a story I wasn’t there for, to an online magazine, for others to see. I hope that if my family reads this, they won’t be too angry. I didn’t write it to air family secrets. I wrote it to get something off my chest.
I wrote it to tell people about my daddy’s strength, about Elizabeth’s kindness, and, yes, about J.T., too. All of them run through my veins and make up parts of me. Learning about my grandparents, and what my father went through, has given me such perspective on who I am and what I want.
It’s also let me know about a strength in my family that runs deep, and I’m comforted to know I have that strength, too.
Heat will be coming soon, it always does; but if I’ve got half of the guts and grit daddy had, it’s gonna be all right.