We were smart. The kids in my neighborhood in Winter Haven, Florida had street smarts. Well, grove smarts. Nothing you could gain from books or teachers. No, this was the raw intelligence gleaned from closely watching those around you. Real world information processed at the speed of early 1970’s life.
We were insulated from the outside world by the citrus groves and swamps that surrounded our dead-end street.
We didn’t own the grapefruit grove behind our house, but it was ours. The kids in the neighborhood wandered through the sandy grove with a possessive swagger. This was our turf. Internal conflicts were resolved by orange fights. Even though they were grapefruit, this was the term used to describe the hurling of citrus fruit in an all out war, regardless of variety. Many a battle plan was drawn up in the sand. Diversion and guerrilla tactics, frontal assaults and flanking moves, snipers and catapults – Napoleon and Patton could have learned from our brilliant military intellect. The call of “grove fight!” brought kids from every direction to the grove for battle. Hard green golf ball sized fruit blackened eyes and bruised the bodies of many a turf defending warrior. After the fruit had matured, the softer “thwock” of juice-laden heavy fruit signified the sound of a direct hit. And after the harvest, the dreaded rotten bombs of overripe oozing grapefruit made a sickening thud as is exploded on impact, splattering its sticky liquid shrapnel.
I grew up fearing the same things as everyone else my age: rattlesnakes, going to school in my underwear and my mother’s wrath. But in Polk County we had something else, too. We had Grove Men.
Grove Men weren’t necessarily evil beings, but they rivaled the worst creatures of ancient Greek mythology. They were shrouded in mystery, yet they belonged in the community – like Boo Radley. They were the caretakers of the groves and while they looked like the rest of us and moved seamlessly through the community, they transformed into heartless harvesters of citrus and children once they set foot in the grove. This was where our reign over the groves ended. No amount of tactical maneuvering could match the Grove Men’s loud equipment. Odd looking tractors with large air-blast sprayers in tow, cab-less one seat trucks used to load tubs of harvested citrus and the terrifying hydraulic tree trimmers with huge circular saw blades used to cut the top and side limbs of the trees and children in their way.
But the rumors of what Grove Men would do to kids was what struck fear in our hearts. Though no one could actually provide proof, it was well known in the neighborhood that all Grove Men carried shotguns packed with salt. When a victim was shot, salt would burn inside the wound for days. Like the electric paddle at school, this was something we didn’t question. Whispers of its existence were enough.
Just as the call of “orange fight!” brought us to battle, the cry of “Grove Man” sent us scattering for our lives. It was survival instinct for all kids to disband in completely different directions once the call was made. Fear gripped us and adrenaline took over as we ran through the grove like cockroaches with the lights turn on.
Last spring my son, daughter and a friend were playing in a small abandoned citrus grove near our home in Palm Harbor. Suddenly, they were apprehended by Pinellas County Sheriff’s department deputies. Five cruisers showed up in fact … for three criminals aged nine to twelve. They were given a lecture about trespassing and turned over to parental control for the dreaded mother’s wrath.
I can’t help but think it might have been avoided had I taught them the lessons of Grove Men avoidance. Today’s Grove Man wears a sheriff’s badge and the groves have barbed wire fences with signs threatening prosecution of trespassers due to Citrus Canker. But now I finally have proof. The Sheriff’s deputies all carried handguns and each had a shotgun mounted in the car. One can only assume they’re equipped with salt-filled rounds.
The Grove Man’s machinery seeks wayward children
Photo from flickr