Coming of Age in Central Florida’s Orange Groves
Anne Hull Remembers Life Among the Orange Pickers in the 1960s
If the history of Central Florida were charted out on a graph, it would start with primordial sludge and then curve toward the Paleo Indians, the Calusa Indians, the Tocobaga Indians, Ponce de León, runaway slaves, snuff-dipping white settlers, the U.S. Army, Osceola, the great Seminole warrior, malaria, cattle, citrus, and a dull heat that left it undesirable for much besides oranges until the early 1960s, when Walt Disney took a plane ride over the vast emptiness, looked down, and said, “There.”
The interior of Central Florida was so desolate that my father kept a gallon of water and a box of Saltines in his car. He said you could eat all the oranges you wanted, but good luck if you needed a flush toilet or a pay phone. He also said it was no place for a child, though Disney was betting otherwise.
Florida’s other citrus-growing region was much smaller, east of the Ridge, along the coast, and it was called Indian River. The Indian River people did a better job marketing their fruit, rhapsodizing about tidal Indian breezes that rang like poetry in the Yankee ear. Their fruit was prettier to look at because each piece of fruit was buffed out to the shine of a Cadillac.
On the Ridge, we didn’t mind if an orange left your hands dirty as long as juice dripped down your chin. Plus, we had more groves, wall-to-wall.
The competition was from California, though it was hardly a contest. The unremitting heat and humidity on the Ridge made our citrus exceptional juice bombs. What had started to pose a threat was a variety coming out of California called the seedless clementine. It was a no-fuss version of the Florida tangerine, which was loaded with seeds. Dad said it might ruin us for good.
My father regularly had one citrus problem or another gnawing at him. A lower demand for navel oranges. Ortho raising the price on pesticide. He chewed so much Dentyne gum during that one that he cracked a molar.Astronauts were constantly flying overhead in Florida in those days, but the citrus men hardly bothered to look up. Nothing took their focus from the oranges. The moon was not an orange.
The seedless clementine seemed a threat of a higher magnitude.
One day my father and I were parked in a grove while he talked about it with the other citrus men on the CB radio. One said that the clementine could knock out twenty-five percent of our citrus business. Dad listened, jotting down numbers on a pad of paper, crop yield versus net sales. George LaMartin’s voice cut through the ear-busting static. He and Dad were the same age, but George cussed more.
George said America was going to hell in a handcart if people were too lazy to spit out a few goddamn seeds.
The crackle and scratch started to drown out the voices. “Go to 32!” someone said, before they lost each other. Switching channels, they met back up on 32 and kept talking.
Astronauts were constantly flying overhead in Florida in those days, but the citrus men hardly bothered to look up. Nothing took their focus from the oranges. The moon was not an orange. The moon was a fad. Citrus was king and it would last forever.
Looking out my father’s windshield, I was seeing things I would never see again. Places that weren’t even on maps, where the sky disappeared and the radio went dead. Whole towns were entombed in Spanish moss, with gnarled branches of live oaks and blackjacks strangling each other in the tannic darkness.
We rumbled past old pioneer settlements rotting in the humidity. Black creeks wound like tangled snakes. Birds spread their skeletal wings but never ﬂew off. When it seemed we might not ever see daylight again, the road deposited us into blinding sunlight.
Dad’s fruit-buying territory for Hood crossed over four counties, or about four thousand square miles of rural land and unmarked roads. He had maps in the car, seven or eight of them, but I’d yet to see him consult one. When he came to a cattle gate with a yellow rag tied to the middle rung, that’s where we turned left.
He didn’t disparage maps, but I got the feeling from him and the other citrus men that freestyle navigating was a point of pride. He also favored the “back way” or the “old way.” Old Highway 98 or Old Highway 64, we were always on Old Something.
One day we passed a group of men clearing brush on the side of the highway. They had chains attached to their ankles. They moved slowly, dragging their leg irons as they scythed through the tall grass in the ditches. Just in front of them was a truck that crept along and a guard on back holding a shotgun next to a watercooler.Knowing the money was going to orange pickers, the bank teller must have dug into her drawer for the most beat-up money she could find.
As we passed the shackled contingent, some of the men looked up. Their faces were slick with sweat. Dad said it was impolite to stare at the prisoners. I turned back around in my seat but watched them in the rearview mirror until they were a speck and gone. My father scrounged in his shirt pocket for a Winston, probably trying to think of a parable about the uneven justice of captivity. Instead, he asked if I knew any chain gang songs.
The hobo told the bum
If you got any cornbread, save me some.
We sang it together a couple times. It made me thirsty, thinking of the cottony insides of the prisoners’ mouths and the water truck they’d never reach.
Every Friday we had a car full of money. Dad paid the labor crews on Friday afternoon, so first thing in the morning we went to the bank in Sebring. It was ice-cold and brand-new, and our teller looked like Jeannie C. Riley who sang “Harper Valley P.T.A.” She counted out a thick stack of bills that she put into a leather bank pouch and slid toward Dad.
Out on the road we were Bonnie and Clyde. It was my job to hold the bank pouch.
“Would you mind keeping this safe for me?” Dad had said. He also took his gun out of the glove box and put it under his seat.
Knowing the money was going to orange pickers, the bank teller must have dug into her drawer for the most beat-up money she could find. The bills were greasy and thin, defaced with scrawling—Masonic symbols, Halloween bats, and the Egyptian eye, or devil horns on Abe Lincoln. The messages people wrote were in large block letters that spelled out HELP ME!!!! Or, PLEASE CALL LAMAR AT AVON PARK CORRECTIONAL.
From going through the bank pouch and studying the money, I learned the word “pussy” and the first two lines of John 3:16.
As abused as that currency was, my father said it worked fine. You’ll see.
Excerpted from Through the Groves by Anne Hull. Published by Henry Holt and Company June 20th 2023. Copyright © 2023 by Anne Hull. All rights reserved.