I grew up a somewhat typical teenager in suburban New Jersey in the late 1950s. I was halfway through high school with a lot of friends and an active social life. My world was perfect. What did I know?
The winter of 1960-61 was particularly harsh, with several severe snowstorms. A few times we were snowed in. As the most agile family member, it was my job to climb through a window, trudge to the garage, retrieve the shovel and then dig us out. For me, it was an adventure. My parents had other thoughts.
Over the Memorial Day weekend of 1961, my parents flew to Miami and rented a three-bedroom house in North Miami Beach. After they returned to New Jersey, they rented out our house. I packed what I could, but much of my childhood was left behind. The day school was over, we got in our car — a red-and-white Ford Fairlane station wagon (remember those?) — and drove to Miami. The plan was to try it for a year, but I knew we would never move back north.
I was 16 years old, and the world as I knew it was over. After what seemed like three endless day of driving, I became a new kid in a new neighborhood, with all of my lifelong friends and most of my “stuff” a thousand miles away. No cellphones, no e-mail, no Facebook, no Twitter, and no long-distance phone calls in our family budget.
I made a few friends, but mostly I explored the neighborhood. In those days, the “heat” was not a basketball team, it was what you confronted every time you went outside. I was taking three to four showers a day. Even back then, teenagers did not do that sort of thing. But I soon learned that it was a great way to cool off.
Aventura was still a swamp in the early 1960s. Who even knew about mangroves? The 163rd Street Shopping Center was the big deal in town: an open-air mall with covered walkways to provide shade and to help you stay dry during Florida rainstorms. The Guns of Navarone was playing at the Wometco 163rd. It was the first movie I saw in Florida. I do not remember much about the movie, but I do remember that the air-conditioning was excellent.
I also found a stock brokerage office at the mall next to the theater. It, too, had great air-conditioning, and you could go inside for free. There were also a few theater-style seats to sit on and watch the stock-market ticker. That became one of my favorite activities that summer. I learned some stock symbols, listened to the old geezers trade stock tips and stayed cool, at least for a while. Who knew that less than a decade later I would open my first dental practice a block away from the mall?
Without my bicycle, I would have been an absolute prisoner on Northeast 171st Terrace — just another treeless block in a one-story subdivision, without a candy store in sight. Victory Park and Greynolds Park were within bike-riding distance. Victory Park, which has since been consumed by the North Miami Beach municipal complex, had a real fighter plane, and I was able to climb into the cockpit. I lived a thousand dreams in that relic, knowing deep down that myopia would prevent me from ever being a real fighter pilot.
But the best adventure for me was Greynolds Park. It was an unspoiled natural space, and the boathouse had a snack bar and tables in the shade. I hiked the trails, found the crab holes, pondered the coral rock formations, picked up pine cones and climbed the mountainous ziggurat up to the very top.
After a few weeks, I convinced my uncle to hire me as a shipping clerk in his dress factory in Miami’s Garment District. It was not air-conditioned, but a large stationary fan kept the air moving enough for a transplanted Northerner to survive. The job was boring, but the trip to and fro was an odyssey. Getting from North Miami Beach to 29th Street was a grand adventure: Walk to 163rd Street to catch the once-an-hour Haulover Beach Bus on its counter-clockwise route to 125th Street and Northeast Sixth Avenue, then catch a City of Miami bus to 79th Street and Northwest Seventh Avenue, then transfer to another Miami bus for the ride down Northwest Seventh Avenue to 29th Street, then walk to the factory at Northwest Fifth Avenue. By the time I got to work, it was time to go home. But it was a job, it paid a few dollars more than the bus fare, and it took up most of the day. That was my agonizingly lonely and seemingly endless first summer in Miami.
Fast forward through the final two years of high school, three years at the University of Miami, four years in dental school at the University of Pennsylvania, 27 years practicing dentistry in North Miami Beach and Aventura, and 14 years of blissful retirement. These days, I take my grandchildren to Greynolds Park so they can experience those same joys of nature that I enjoyed as a teenager. The more things change, the more things stay the same.
Today, I know a little more than I did in 1961. I have made my peace with the heat, and besides, today everything is air-conditioned. Almost 50 years later, I have found my place in the sun. North Dade is the center of my universe. My family and friends are all in South Florida, and there is no place else I would rather live.
My world is perfect again.