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'I saw myself as a boy out of school for the summer'

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By BILL MAXWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 14, 2002


Every year about this time, I am compelled to write about the summers of my childhood -- when school let out from June to late August, when my buddies and I took off our shirts and shoes and took to the woods and lakes.

What makes me write at this time is a wonderful scene I encountered a few days ago as I drove from Gainesville to Mascotte, where my mother was born and where I have at least 75 relatives. I was going there to look in on an uncle who was ailing.

On what is usually a deserted section of Highway 33 in Lake County, I spotted two African-American boys in a field of yellow and orange lantana. Forever the journalism snoop, I stopped my SUV, got out and waved to the boys. I had to know what they were doing so far from civilization.

Their answer was a simple one: They were out of school for the summer and were "playing." Playing? What kind of play? They were "just walking through the woods," 12-year-old Marcus said.

His companion, 11-year-old Sean, said: "A lot of butterflies always come out here. You can see a bunch of them now."

Sure enough, I saw what I thought were dozens of variegated fritillary and painted lady darting in and out of the flowers. Dozens of other butterflies, probably viceroy, were puddling near the base of a sycamore that seemed out of place. I asked the boys if they knew much about butterflies.

"I don't," Sean said. "I just like looking at them."

"Me, too," Marcus said.

I told them a few things, like how to recognize the different varieties of butterflies by knowing their silhouettes. The viceroy, for example, is medium-sized, with rounded wings and no tails. Although the American snout is medium-sized, it has angled wings and no tails. Marcus asked where he could find this kind of information. I told him that hundreds of colorful books have been published on the subject. I took his address and promised to mail him a butterfly book.

The boys were cousins, attended school in Lake County and lived in mobile homes near on a dirt road. I retrieved my camera, binoculars and notebook from my SUV and spent the rest of the afternoon trooping through the woods with the boys.

I liked them immediately. In them, I saw myself as a boy out of school for the summer. They were innocent black kids enjoying the wonders of nature, their self-worth not dependent on peer pressure. Remarkably, they wore simple white T-shirts and cutoff jeans, whose brand names I could not detect. They carried their sneakers strung over their shoulders.

We walked along a path that led to a huge live oak. Beneath the oak, the boys led me to a pile of dried Spanish moss. There, beside the moss, lay one of the biggest indigo snakes I had ever seen. It did not move as we stood there, its skin as black as ink.

"Doesn't he crawl away?" I asked.

"Not anymore," Sean said. "One of these days, I'm gonna try to pick him up."

As a boy in the woods of Mascotte, I, too, had seen indigo snakes and coachwhips that became accustomed to human presence and did not race away.

Marcus was fond of dragonflies, or "skeeter hawks," as he called them. He sneaked up on one perching on a dog fennel and caught it by its tail. The dragonfly swiftly bit him and escaped. We had a good laugh.

From there, we searched for gopher tortoise burrows. We found at least 30 active ones near a watermelon field that had not been used for several years. We walked to a pond, where the boys kept cane poles and lure hidden beneath a sheet of rusty tin.

With a spade they also kept there, we dug at least a dozen red worms and threw two lines into the brownish water. Within minutes, we caught eight hand-sized bream and a catfish, strung them on a palmetto frond and secured them in shallow water as we explored the woods on the other side of the highway.

Here, we came to a hardwood hammock that seemed out of place for what is mostly a sandhill area. Marcus and Sean understood the anomaly. Inside the hammock beneath towering trees, we saw giant grape vines. This was a jungle. When I was a kid, we used to swing on such vines and pretend that we were rescuing beautiful girls from cannibals. These two boys swung on the vines for my entertainment. As a 56-year-old, sedentary writer with brittle bones, I did not swing from a vine that day.

From the hammock, we walked to a prairie-like field where bald eagles nested in a tall, petrified pine.

"They had a baby last year," Sean said. "We see them all the time."

I asked the boys why were they were not in summer school or in a supervised summer program. Each rolled his eyes at me as if I were crazy. Indeed, I felt crazy for having asked the crazy question.

This is summer, when kids need to be kids.

Yesterday, I bought a book about butterflies and one about dragonflies and mailed them to Marcus and Sean. I know that they -- as it should be in the lives of boys -- will make great use of these colorful books during the remainder of their summer vacation.

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