In the early years, life in Palm Beach was like something out of the children’s books that I was reading at the time. Eloise and Madeline were books that really caught my imagination as I felt the odd similarity between myself and them. And in Palm Beach, impossible things were possible, and things that seem so unreal to me now were quite real and commonplace then.
Any afternoon that the weather was good, Greg would gather us together and we would walk the lake trail, stopping along the way for this or that. Carolyn would ride in the pram, and Debbie and I would walk alongside, ready for the next adventure. Many of the governesses from all over Palm Beach brought their wards to the trail. It existed not as a place for visitors so much as promenade and bike trail for the residents. Entry to the trail was from certain residential streets along the waterway, but they were unmarked, and many who visited the island never knew how to find it unless they stayed at the old Biltmore Hotel, where it began. The trail was guarded by a lone policeman on a motorcycle. His name was Johnny, and he would always stop to say hello, slowing down from an already leisurely pace, to greet the residents, chat with the nannies and impress the children with his dashing appearance and a peek at his shiny unholstered gun. Aside from Johnny, the trail was not particularly a place to socialize. Most residents strolling or riding their bicycles had no interest in speaking to anyone beyond their own social circle. Eye contact was scarce. It was simply a place to see and be seen, as most places were anywhere in Palm Beach. For us kids, it was something else. The trail was our zoo.
We liked to catch anoles, the small and lightning fast lizards that inhabit the foliage there. Not only were they fast, but they changed color, blending in with whatever they were standing on; green for leaves, brown for bark, or the pavement. They were difficult to spot unless they were moving. The technique we learned was to watch for one that was sunning itself at some distance from the bushes, so that you had enough time to catch up and grab it by the tail before it streaked back into the greenery. The babies were easiest, as their little legs simply didn’t carry them as fast. You didn’t want to try to catch one once it had reached the bushes because there were other creatures living in there too, poisonous snakes and horrible spiders that would, and certainly could bite little fingers. Sometimes if we caught one too far down the tail, where it was thinner, the tail would detach from the lizard (I comforted myself with the fact that they grow back), and the remaining piece of lizard would squirm in our hands. We delighted in this activity, as it was hard to catch them and catching one was no small feat. Once caught, they would generally eye us suspiciously, tilting their heads and casting their tiny eyes upon us, as if to size us up. Occasionally one would bite as we petted and fussed, but the bite was toothless and weak, and was only unpleasant for us in the knowledge that the little beast was not as delighted with the situation as we were. Eventually we would let it go, watching it skitter back to the safety of the bushes.
Along the sea wall, there were limpets and sea snails, crabs and schools to fish to inspect. Low tide was an opportunity to clamber down and get a closer look, picking up the hermit crabs and holding them in our hands until they would slowly emerge, waving their little claws at us.
There were egrets and herons and pelicans perched on dock pilings, searching the warm water for dinner. Seagulls meandered here and there from every direction and flocks of turkey vultures circled in groups on high, often above the portion of the trail by the Palm Beach Country Club golf course. Grandma Speciale never liked the vultures, seeing them as a bad omen. She always commented that they were circling above because they were waiting for her to drop dead. As a result, I never quite enjoyed the vultures the way I enjoyed seeing the rest of the wildlife. They were sinister. I’d seen what they did with road kill, and I could only imagine my grandma in the same predicament.
Some days, we would walk to one of the few wild and uncultivated spots on the trail. It was there that someone kept a kindly Galapagos tortoise. I have forgotten his name in the fog of so many years, but he was gentle and tame with a wise old face and he was a great favorite among the children and grownups alike. The owner allowed visiting children to ride him on occasion, and for that purpose, he wore an ornate leather saddle trimmed in silver. It was like something out of a fairy tale to be seated atop this massive and ancient creature, traveling slowly with his permission, and I knew even then, how wondrous an experience this was. Over the years, as many times as we passed his territory, we saw him infrequently, but always stopped and called to him on the chance that he would hear and approach us.
Along the trail in the other direction, Greg liked to bring us to one particular empty lot, another of the few untamed parcels of land there. It stood open with orange trees and a huge coconut palm that grew completely sideways from a point only two or three feet upward from its roots. The tree could have accommodated thirty children or more at a time as we piled on astraddle, jumping up and down, making the enormous fronds sway up and down with our enthusiasm. Near it stood a trailside bench, a perfect place for the grownups to sit. The nannies would often congregate there, generally socializing, peeling and eating oranges from the nearby trees and letting their charges run a little wild in a spot where they could still see them. It was a kind of a breather for all concerned, and the oranges were superb. They were large with greenish-yellow and scarred skins but they were delectably sweet and the juicy flesh rendered so much juice that it dribbled down our chins to our shirts and served as a perfect snack in the heat of a sunny Florida afternoon.
The turtle was not the only exotic animal in our neighborhood. Down the hill and a couple of blocks away, there lived a friendly full grown kangaroo named Joey. It’s owners kept him behind a tall fence in their yard. He would shake hands with us when we saw him and was another excursion we always looked forward to. He was our neighbor, like so many interesting aspects of living in wonderland. Sometimes Joey would escape his confinement and bound down County Road, much to the consternation of the local police. He would bouncing down the roadway with cars cautiously letting him pass. The police would make chase in their cars and surround him, only to see him bound over one of the cars to continue on his way. These were years when exotic pets were permitted in Florida. There were residents too, who dressed in their fur coats and tiaras set with diamonds, would walk Worth Avenue with ocelots on leashes wearing stone studded collars. Fur was not really necessary in the tropical climate, but on Worth Avenue, reputedly the most expensive street in the United States, one would browse Cartier and Chanel in one’s best, expecting to be noticed and subsequently pictured and mentioned in the society column of the local paper, the Shiny Sheet.
The Shiny Sheet, unlike most newspapers, had less news of the outside world and more news of the island. It was printed on a high grade paper- a whiter paper that was not quite shiny- in order to allow well heeled residents to peruse the latest goings on without fear of unsightly ink transfer to one’s hands or clothing as is more likely with ordinary newsprint. The paper is still being printed today.