Thursday, December 24, 2015

Blue Christmas: Memories of Icicles Dangling from Orange Trees

The forecast for today is for record highs in the mid to upper 80s. Santa will arrive in Central Florida tonight wearing flip flops, red gym shorts and a white tee-shirt with SPF60 covering his exposed parts, no doubt.

It has not always been thus. Christmas has, upon occasion, been the time of horrendous freezes in Florida. While we await a Santa who will not doubt find his woolen suit very warm and itchy this Christmas Eve, my thoughts go back to Central Florida in 1983.

It was my first Christmas back in Central Florida after having spent the last two years in South Florida and the previous three years in law school. We had moved to Orlando the previous summer, Andy from Vero Beach, having left his job at the down-sizing Piper Aircraft, and I from Lake Worth, where I had tried my hand at a brief but painful stint as a Legal Services attorney and finished the year teaching journalism and English at Lake Worth High.

We had found a rental house on the outskirts of Orlando in an old neighborhood called Clarcona. Our subdivision of 1960s era CBS houses included the requisite crazy cat lady next door, the little hoods running the streets at night in their hot rods and the wheeling and dealing good ole boy landlord seeking to move into real estate after a lifetime of raising horses. The land had become too valuable for horse and cattle ranching and the pastures were already beginning to disappear by the time we had arrived in 1985.

I had auditioned and been accepted into the choir at the Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. Luke downtown. It was a long ride each Wednesday to practice and each Sunday to church. But I loved singing with a very high quality choir which consistently produced beautiful music from its loft high above the looming Gothic style cathedral and periodically was asked to sing in a circuit of Anglican cathedrals in England.

Candles in a sea of scents

Christmas Eve 1983, I had spent the day at a friend’s house eating snacks and watching football. A cold front had moved through the area that morning and gale force winds blowing in a dome of very cold air had whipped the area. The sun had come out bright and clear that afternoon and the highs reached the mid-60s. While the forecast said it would be cold that evening, no one really knew what was coming, forecasters included.

The midnight mass service at the Cathedral had been absolutely stunning. All the lights were extinguished following the communion. Candles had been handed out to parishioners and everyone took their turn lighting their candle from their neighbor’s candle to in turn light the candle of the person sitting on their other side. “Silent night, holy night….” we sang, the massive cathedral nave awash in a sea of wonderful scents of candle wax, incense and evergreens all lit only by flickering candles.

All too soon, that magical moment was over, the final processional hymn sung and the exhortation to “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord” was shouted from the narthex of the cathedral. The happy masses assembled responded “Thanks be to God!”

As I walked across the close of the Cathedral to the choir room to change, the cold wind of a winter Central Florida had not seen in at least two decades whipped up under my choir robe. Suddenly, I knew it was much colder than it had been forecast to be. And just as quickly I knew that my many tropical plants I had brought with me from South Florida sitting on my back porch were in major danger.

      Photo from Mt. Dora Citizen, July 17, 2015

Rolling Blackouts and Christmas Lights

Our house lay about eight miles north of Colonial Drive, SR 50, the eight lane highway which bisects Orlando east and west, stretching from Titusville across the Banana River from the Kennedy Space Complex on the east to Pine Island on the Gulf of Mexico to the west. The area along west Colonial Drive was an aging subdivision called Pine Hills, alternately known as Crime Hills for its high rates of burglaries and thefts.

Pine Hills was bisected by a major road called Silver Star. On our end of Pine Hills, Silver Star marked the limits of subdivision encroachment into the former citrus groves which prior to tourism were the economic mainstay of the region and which gave Orange County its name.

A strip shopping center had been carved out of the corners of Silver Star and Hiawassee Road, one of three north/south arteries running through Pine Hills. As I neared the bank at the intersection, the time and temperature sign out front read in succession 2:00 AM, 20°F.
My heart sank. I knew my tropicals were largely gone now. 

I got home, mixed myself a stiff hot toddy and went out to mitigate whatever damage I could. The first plant I picked up to move broke off in my hand, already frozen solid. I covered the plants with blankets and towels, an old Florida custom, and went back into my house to thaw out. There would be little left but a green mush when I took the coverings off two days later when the temperatures came back up above freezing.

The temperature would drop to 21°F that night at the international airport though in the hills north and west of the downtown core where we lived, the 18° recorded on my backyard thermometer would be closer to the lows experienced there. Rolling black outs occurred across Florida as power grids trying to keep largely electrical heating systems in homes and businesses overloaded the system. Public service announcements exhorted Floridians to turn off all unnecessary electrical appliances. Many huddled in the dark, some even resorting to the heated interiors of their cars, even as they awaited their Christmas lights outside to come back on along with their heat.

And that would not be the end of the cold. The following winter, a second killer freeze would follow the first with temperatures down to 19° at the international airport. Yet another killer freeze came in 1989. The landscape of Central Florida would be completely devastated with ancient palms and tropical trees and shrubs frozen to the ground, many never to recover.
The freezes came at a pivotal time in the Orlando region’s history. With the Disney complex to its south just over a decade old, there was already a tension between the historical ongoing agricultural usage of the land and the sugar plum fairies which danced in the heads of developers who envisioned a Central Florida of endless tract housing and strip shopping malls.

In the end, it would be that vision which prevailed, the unreliability of the weather making ongoing citrus production a poor bet. Many broken-hearted former citrus growers plowed their dead trees under after 1985. Thereafter the former grove land would sprout houses.

Photo from Orlando Sentinel, Dec. 24, 2014

This Year, Santa Comes on a Surfboard

This Christmas our worries are very different in nature. The beaches will be crowded this day as Cocoa Beach holds a Surfing Santa contest in temperatures usually not seen before April. The National Weather Service has predicted above normal temperatures all the way through January 5. The lows for the next week will not drop below 65°F, a mere five degrees below average highs for this time of year.

Many of us wonder if this is the harbinger of things to come in a state at great risk for coastal flooding if even the most stringent of predictions for climate change will prove correct. My father has long said that “In Florida only fools and Yankees try to predict the weather.” Perhaps that is true. I have no crystal ball to rely upon, only an uneasy feeling in my stomach these days.

I am glad that we do not face killing cold this Christmas. I remember those cold winters of 1983-84 and 1984-85  only too well. Even so, I would gladly welcome some slightly cooler temperatures if for no other reason than to give us a break from the daily highs in the 80s. And I look with no small amount of trepidation at a future in which this somewhat warmer winter may prove a desirable alternative to what could be coming.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)


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