The Shack

It was an anomaly. There it leaned, the ramshackle shack on an exclusive shoreline in the midst of an upper class, somewhat secluded tropical enclave. It was just two doors up from the pointy southern tip of Merritt Island—land's end—in Central Florida. With just a narrow bridge over the Banana River separating it from the town of Indian Harbour Beach, the area was a bedroom community for Cape Canaveral, Cocoa Beach, and the long reach of NASA at the Kennedy Space Center. It is called, in fact, the Space Coast. We slipped in the back door on the water amidst this reputable decor, and the shack became our "hippie commune" home for two itinerant cruising families for a little over three years. At first, the neighbors were not amused.

We were nomads, living off the grid in a little known subculture of full-time boat "live-aboards." Yet, every once in a while, we would have to plug ourselves back into the system—the "real world"—and take on jobs like everyone else, because indeed as the saying goes, money doesn't grow on trees. We had already resigned ourselves to the fact that our stay in Florida was for the long haul since we had to purchase a new engine, take care of some health issues, and replenish our savings. What better place to hole up for a year, or two, or...(?) than this peaceful, well-protected anchorage known as Dragon Point near Melbourne, at the confluence of the Banana River and the Intracoastal Waterway, the tip of Merritt Island, under the gaze of the Eau Gallie bridge.

Nestled amidst the comfortable homes were two marinas and a yacht club. An elementary and pre-school were nearby, as well as two major shopping centers with supermarkets, and a laundromat. We could easily access all these places on foot, with just a short convenient dinghy ride up one of the waterway canals. We could get water at one of the marinas, and it was a pretty secure place should a summer hurricane pass this way. It wasn't such a bad place to be "stuck" for a while.

The first order of the day was to purchase a car, so Michel could hunt for a job, and then commute to it. Deciding that this was an ideal opportunity to fulfill his lifelong wish to own a "big American car," Michel rode our bike just across the bridge to the first used car lot, and for $500 bought an oversized, rusted 1970s era Ford LTD sedan. I was mortified. Car sizes had already downsized a bit in the States by 1985, so this was even big by American standards at the time. Furthermore, it really did look quite used. And, where would we park it? Later down the road, this wasn't going to endear us to our future neighbors.

Michel quickly found work with NASA-affiliated architectural and engineering firms (see Just Like Superman, posted January 25, 2013), and we registered the boys for school. This would be the first time they attended school in the States, the first time in English, and for Brendan the first time in school, period. We settled into the anchorage, meeting some of the other cruisers, got our bearings for daily necessities, places to tie up the dinghy to go onshore, and obtained permission from the local gas station to park the car. We had a lot more to do to get settled before school started in just a few weeks at the end of August.

Then one evening, while having a drink aboard a newly arrived boat, they recounted having seen a particularly large, "aluminum purple boat" at Port Canaveral. It could only be Jakaranda, our dear friends from Brazil! Right then and there, Michel hopped into the car, and drove up to find them. Indeed it was their boat, but no one was aboard. He left a note, and the next day they called Michel at work. They were looking for a good, safe spot to leave the boat for the winter while they planned on spending some time in France, and after hearing our praises for Dragon Point, we convinced them to come join us. They sailed down the Intracoastal Waterway to the anchorage just a few days later. It was a grand reunion since the last time we were all together was in Bahia, Brazil, just over a year earlier.

After a few days, and getting the "lay of the land" for themselves, Alec and Nadette decided that indeed this would also be a good spot to stay for a while—not only as a safe harbor for Jakaranda while they returned to France for a bit, but also for a longer term. They needed to do quite a bit of work on the boat, and why not put the two kids in school here as well? Then Alec spied The Shack. Nobody lived there. It seemed abandoned. There was a dock. There were parking spaces. What an ideal spot for our two boats and families to serve as a "pied-a-terre" during our stays.

Alec did some research and it seems the owner of the shack was an eccentric older, somewhat moneyed gentleman, who lived just two doors down on the very tip of the island. He was known for the infamous landmark dragon, situated at the foot of his seashore property, that reigned over the anchorage. Alec's idea was to rent the shack for all of us. There was a kitchen, a bathroom, and a huge "rumpus room" upstairs that could serve as a great playroom for all four kids. Also, since both boats needed some TLC, updating carpentry work and what not, this would give us some storage space while work was in progress. The owner agreed to rent the place, and since Alec was providing lodging, we agreed to provide transportation and thus bought a second early ’80s jalopy for the Jakaranda family. The Commune of The Shack was born.

The first day of school was in the offing and it was a mad scramble to get all four children accountable in the "system": medical check-ups, vaccine booster shots, residency establishment, various certificates signed in triplicate...It was a bit of an adjustment for Sean and Brendan to attend school in an actual school. Up to this point, we hadn't started correspondence courses yet, and Sean had only basically attended various pre-schools in France, Brazil, and French Guiana on and off. Now he was beginning the "big time" in first grade, and there were some hurdles, academically and socially. Although Sean was not socially timid (he loved to talk and meet people), he was not familiar with a social environment of school, which is partially a good thing. Nevertheless, we didn't feel our children should be totally isolated from the reality of "civilization." We needed to be sure that they were aware of as many walks of life as possible, so they could make their choices for themselves later on. We were careful not to have their future choices limited because we might have limited them to a certain lifestyle, or contacts, while growing up. They needed to be exposed to, and have the experience of, as much as possible. So, this was an opportunity to experience regular school.

Indeed, Sean had a vast knowledge of sailing, the weather, fish, geography, different cultures, countries, and languages. But when his teacher was rather surprised that he didn't know what a saddle was, or that he would point to the letter "M" for house (since the word "maison" for house in French does indeed start with an "M,"), we realized that he was "otherworldly" and had some different things to learn here.

Brendan was very reserved, even somewhat anti-social, and barely 3 years old. I was apprehensive of his reaction of going to pre-school. Although I only spoke English with my children in order to ensure their bilingualism, we lived in a predominantly French environment up until our arrival in Florida. Within our family we mainly spoke French (between Michel and me, and he and the boys), and most of the other children on cruising boats with whom we would come in contact during our travels were French. So even though we had a lot of opportunities with Spanish and Portuguese in South America, there was also a larger dose of French in our outside contacts compared to English. Even though the only English my children heard and learned was from me, they absolutely understood every word, yet they would respond in French. Thus Brendan was going to enter pre-school where he had to speak English, something he had never done. I knew he would quickly adapt, though. Several years earlier I had the same experience with Sean when I put him in pre-school in France, and he spoke more English at that point since he was more at home with me when Michel was working. His French teacher at the time was worried that he wouldn't be able to communicate in French. I assured her then, as I now reassured Brendan's teacher, that he understood everything. Given that Brendan wasn't talkative or outgoing to begin with, he would take his time before being comfortable communicating with these new people in this new world.

By Christmas, both boys were happy campers. The drama of leaving me in the mornings had dissipated for Brendan, and they both became comfortable with English. They made new friends, became involved with after-school soccer, and learned to ride bikes. Brendan and 2-year-old Gougou from Jakaranda, were a great comfort to each other in the dawning days of pre-school. They were both so similarly reserved that plunging them together in this new environment seemed to reassure them that they weren't abandoned.

We quickly settled into a daily, "landlubber" routine, or as the Parisian French expression goes: "Metro, boulot, dodo," subway, work, sleep—all that we originally aspired to escape. Nevertheless, it was somewhat of a schizophrenic existence in that we were citizens by day and river dwellers/live-aboards by night. Michel would drive up the length of Merritt Island to work in Cocoa Beach or Cape Canaveral, while I took the boys to school in the dinghy via one of the canals on the waterway. Then typically I would head to the neighboring laundromat on foot with my bag of laundry, or to the grocery store, post office, etc. I had a few part-time jobs here and there as well. Although we knew it was a temporary routine, I was a bit anxious as to how long it would go on, but thanks to our "hippie commune," it was "metro, boulot, dodo" with a twist, making it all rather tolerable.

Ah, but Florida, what a mixed bag. With the most oppressive summer heat we had experienced thus far (much more than Cayenne, near the Equator, because there, at least, breezy trade winds somewhat tempered the heat), we learned that the veritable Deep South was really quite "north o' heeah, y'all" up in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. It was a true "fantasyland" with the Kennedy Space Center, Disneyworld, and a whole host of other escapist "worlds" that were grafted onto nearby Orlando. It was Cuban, it was Jamaican, it was Haitian; it was displaced Southerners and seasonal Canadian "snowbirds." It spoke Spanish, "New Yorkese," and southern dialect. It was flat, but oh so green and wild with nature! It was an amazing wildlife sanctuary with herons, pelicans, and all that lived in the pervasive swamps rustled up by speeding airboats, and nary the tiniest of ponds was spared the ubiquitous alligator. It was irony as the very visible epitome of hi-tech—Space Shuttle launch pads—jutted out of Cape Canaveral's surrounding swampy wetlands, while resident alligators were always totally oblivious as to the unearthly history launched there. It was eery forests steeped in more swamps with trees dripping of Spanish Moss, evoking movie scenes of Louisiana bayous. It was the granddaddy swamp of them all, the Everglades. It was a canoe-camping trip down the St. John's River amidst cows knee deep in the water, munching on lily pads. It was regular Space Shuttle launches that we watched from the deck of Cowabunga, and our kids often marveled at from the schoolyard.

With Jakaranda, our two families would mingle, share, cross paths daily via this hub at The Shack, and we became one big happy family. We had a dock to ourselves where we could go on land. We had parking spaces for the cars, we had the luxury of running water and a shower. Several evenings a week, we would pool our resources for dinner and cook up a storm in the communal Shack kitchen. We would babysit for each other. Upstairs was the "Lego room"—the big space where all four kids pooled all their Lego resources (and that was quite a bit!) and would build the most extravagant things for afternoons on end when school let out. Sean and Jim would race down the length of the island road on bikes and then with Brendan and Gougou all four would conspire to build their forts, their fantasies.

The Shack itself was reminiscent of a mountain chalet with rough, wood-hewn walls swathed in ’60s decor of dark wall paneling and yellow-green shag carpeting; the kitchen was thrown together, an obvious attempt of an unskilled do-it-yourselfer expanding upon an earlier experience of fitting out a weekend camper van. Despite its "funkiness" and ill-conceived architecture amidst this tropical Florida setting, The Shack was perfect for our situation. It was much more spacious than our boats, giving the kids more room for rambunctiousness and immediate access to land. Needless to say, the neighbors didn't know what to make of all this at first. The sudden new comings and goings of these two huge, older model, somewhat rusty sedans ambling up and down their private road didn't inspire confidence nor instant love at first. As is often the case, however, the barriers were broken down thanks to the children. Two doors up the road lived the Martins: Susan, Patrick, infant David, and James, who was just Brendan's age.

Brendan and James became fast friends, and very soon so did the Martins. For the three years we were there we shared many a Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthday, and impromptu barbecue. They were there for us for the kids, for broken-down cars, for work on the boat, for school activities, for minor and major emergencies. Most unforgettably, they were there for us when Michel had his brush with death, almost succumbing to a catastrophic event of sudden death (see Heartbreak!, posted August 16, 2012), as were   Bill and Josephine Schaefer, who lived directly across the river from The Shack, in Indian Harbour Beach. Their teenage boys would babysit for us on occasion, and Bill and Josephine often invited us over for barbecues and afternoons swims in their pool. They were so generous with their time, advice, help, and their car. When Michel was in the hospital for one month in Lakeland, on the other side of the state, they insisted I take their car for my daily four-hour commute (two hours each way), not having confidence in our vehicle. (Future vignette "Life Preservers" will relate more of this).

Soon most of the neighbors along the dirt road became our friends and allies, and The Shack was no longer that ostracized suspicious hovel. We were accepted and made some friends for life. Since our ultimate arrival in California, several years later in July 1990, we have been back to visit our friends on Merritt Island and in Indian Harbour Beach several times. The place has changed, of course, and The Shack no longer exists. In its place now is a spanking new, modern, rather trendy home, worthy of its real estate. And as for Jakaranda—again thanks to the kid connection—our paths have continued to cross over the years from Florida to France, to Spain, to Oregon, Colorado, and California. We have precious memories and the photos to prove that once upon a time, at Dragon Point, on the tip of Merritt Island, was a world of our own. One would never know it now—but we do.