I’ve caught him! A warm welcome to my virtual friend of many years, and faithful supporter and encourager of struggling authors. It is a privilege hosting master story-teller Tom Winton today, a man who writes with his pen dipped in his soul – and I leave him to speak for himself…
Three years after my first trip to the Florida Keys, my parents decided to leave Fort Lauderdale and move us back to New York. I was not happy, but as always I had nothing to say about it. In my fourteen years on the planet, I’d already hung my hat in ten different apartments, duplexes, and houses—all but two of them rentals.
Nevertheless, I got used to living in Queens, New York, and for the next eleven years, I actually had the time of my life. The cracked sidewalks; bustling traffic; relentless city noise; never having much jingle in my pockets—none of it mattered. Coming of age in New York during the 1960s and 70s was an incredible experience. Day in and day I out I felt like l was living in the center of the universe. But then on a cold night in January of 1974, one month before my twenty-sixth birthday, my life took a sharp turn in a different direction—a southerly direction.
I had been dating my girlfriend Blanche for just eighty-nine days, which for me was a record of sorts. After all, I hadn’t been what you might call a one-girl kind of guy. Nevertheless, with Blanche’s parents out for the evening and the two of us sitting on the sofa watching TV, she turned to me and asked point blank, “Tom, what do you say we drive down to Florida tomorrow and get married?”
Talk about getting hit with the proverbial ton of bricks! I loved Blanche very much but was not ready for this.
“Florida!” I blurted as if the word was a question, “I…er, what do you mean Florida … and get married? Are you serious?”
“Sure,” she said, pivoting on the sofa, looking deeper into my eyes. “You’ve told me more than once how you liked living down there when you were a kid. Why not take a trip? Come on! Let’s go to Key West and tie the knot! You love me, right? You’ve told me that plenty of times.”
“Well sure. But I, ah …”
I paused right there and studied her hope-filled hazel eyes and kind, beautiful face. Then, a somewhat long moment later, I said with my head bobbing ever so slowly, “You’ve got me there. And you know what? What the heck … let’s do it.”
Later that night I drove my beat-up Plymouth back to my apartment. And in the pre-dawn darkness the following morning, Blanche picked me up in her canary-yellow Chevy Vega. With the temperature only sixteen degrees, and a blizzard quickly bearing down on the city, I threw my hastily-packed suitcase into the trunk and we raced out of New York.
Around noon two days later, both of us road weary as long-distance truckers, we pulled into the marl parking lot at The Ranch House Motel in Marathon. Despite being tired we were both still riding an excitement high, and when we climbed out of Blanche’s car, the weather was absolutely perfect. The Florida sun was bright as can be, and a pleasant breeze was rattling the palm fronds in front of the motel’s office. Looking back now, I’m sure the local Chamber of Commerce was full of smiling faces that January day in 1974.
All these years later I can’t recall a single thing we did after we arrived at the motel that day, but I certainly remember the next afternoon when we marched into nearby Fisherman’s Hospital to get our blood tests. As I swung the entrance door open to the then tiny hospital, and my bride-to-be stepped inside before me, a stray cat whisked its way in between us. The only humans in the waiting room were two nurses sitting behind a small counter. As we approached one of them scooted after the cat and the other rose to her feet. Neither of them had shoes on.
With a ceiling fan turning slowly overhead like a scene from Casablanca, the nurse behind the Formica counter asked us in a sing-song tone, “Hi! What can I do for you today?”
“Well, um … tomorrow we’re getting married in Key West, and we need to get blood tests,” I said.
“Oh, wow, that’s terrific. You just wait here and I’ll go tell the doctor.”
She then opened the door behind her, stepped inside, and told the doctor what we needed.
“They’re getting married tomorrow?” he said, as if it was the best news he’d heard since freshwater had been piped into the Keys, “Well send them right in! And don’t charge them anything for the blood tests.”
With that accomplished we drove down to Key West the following morning to a 10 o’clock appointment with the justice of the peace.
Like all the rest of the Keys, Cayo Hueso was a totally different place back in ’74. Many Conchs still lived and worked on the seven-square-mile island; it was almost devoid of traffic; the pace was slow and easy. As Blanche and I motored slowly beneath the sleepy town’s towering Poinciana trees and gently swaying palms, we felt like we had arrived at the birthplace of absolute contentment. When we pulled in front of the then new Monroe County Courthouse, there wasn’t a single car alongside the block-long row of parking meters.
After we stepped inside the building, we were directed to the Justice of Peace’s office. And when we got there I was more than a little surprised to see a lady sitting behind the desk.
“Good morning,” she said with a wide, cheery smile on her face. Then, shifting her eyes to a piece of paper on the desk, she added, “You must be Tom Winton and Blanche Nielson.”
“Yes mam, that’s us,” I answered.
“Well, have a seat.” she said, extending an upturned palm toward two chairs across the desk from her. The words had barely left her mouth before another woman appeared in the open doorway.
“Martha,” she said to the Justice, “I’m going downstairs for an ice cream cone. Want one?”
“Why sure, Sandy. I’ll have chocolate.”
Looking back at us over her bifocals then, Martha asked, “How ‘bout you kids? Would you like a cone?”
The fact that it was 10 AM had nothing to do with why Blanche and I passed on her kind offer. We were as nervous as two children on their very first day of school, maybe more so. But the “ceremony” was quick and painless. So quick, that by the time Sandy came back to the office with two half-melted cones of ice cream, we had both said, “I do.”
Four sunny days later, when we were crossing over the Jewfish Creek Bridge on our way back to New York, my new bride turned to me saying, “Tom, I feel like we’re leaving home. It’s so nice down here.”
That was it. We had gotten what they call “sand in our shoes.” We were enamored by the Sunshine State. And three short months later, after tying up all our loose ends, we packed up what little we had and moved to Sarasota, Florida. And for most of the next forty years we remained in the Sunshine State—taking more than our share of trips back down to that enchanting string of islands they call “The Florida Keys.”
Tom’s Amazon Author page:
Two of the six bestselling novels he has written take place in the Keys. You can read my review of “Hemingway’s Ghost” HERE.
Four Days with Hemingway’s Ghost: Amazon US – http://www.amazon.com/Four-Days-Hemingways-Ghost-Winton-ebook/dp/B008FBXENQ/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top?ie=UTF8
Amazon UK – http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B008FBXENQ
A Second Chance in Paradise: Amazon US – http://amzn.com/B00GM2IR64
Amazon UK – http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00GM2IR64