A Little House Near Heaven

“A wonderful bird is the pelican:
His bill can hold more than his belly can.
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week,
But I’m damned if I see how the hell he can.”

One of my earliest memories is of sitting in the sand out front of my parents’ little house on a beach in Florida watching a couple of guys lug their huge beaks around and listening to my mother quote this limerick by Ogden Nash.

I just looked up the poem, to make sure I got it right, and realized she maybe paraphrased that last line: “But I’m darned if I can see how the helican.” My mother considered swearing to be indicative of lack of intelligence or lack of vocabulary, or both. She must have edited the original into something she would have considered appropriate for my 3-year-old ears.

Crabs, also, I remember. Mama called them sand fleas, but I loved them. In the evening after dinner, we would be strolling along, hand-in-hand, right next to what she said was the “swash zone.” That’s where the waves are so low they just barely ripple over your toes. (What a lovely word, “swash.” Not to mention “strolling.”) So, yes, the two of us would be strolling along, and the sand crabs, in pairs, would be strolling along in the opposite direction. We would politely step to the right and go around them; they would just as politely step to the left.

Pelicans, crabs … and clams. Coquina clams are about half an inch long and live in beautiful shells I remember as being mostly white. Here’s Mama’s Coquina soup, almost enough for a week:

Take the big stainless steel bucket past the sea grass — taller than me — and the sand dunes – kick your way through them and the soft sand sifts upward to sniggle your nose — down to the swash zone. Wait a moment till the great flat wave recedes. Then, when you can see little wiggly holes in the sand, scoop up a swatch of it, not too deep, just a few inches below the shifting surface. Four or five swatches should do it; there are so many little wiggly holes. Lug the bucket, maybe a third full, back to the kitchen, set it on the stove, turn the fire on to high and add diced potatoes and maybe some carrots or green pepper or celery or onion or parsley. Anything but cilantro, Mama. In a few minutes the Coquinas, minus shells, and the vegetables have risen to the top of the bucket. Dinner is ready. Just make sure not to get the ladle too deep or you’ll have a bowlful of what you surely can’t put in your belly along with the bread Mama and I knead together and the butter from the cow who lives down the way.

I can never return to my little house on that warm and peaceful stretch of beach. The house, the beach, the pelicans, crabs, Coquinas … gone. All gone.

When I was 4, the federal government came in, tore down my entire neighborhood and began construction of a guided missile operations site that would eventually become a rocket launching site. I’ve been told that my house, no longer the launching pad of my life, is now the site of a launch pad at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.