We got married shortly after the death of Dale Earnhardt. It was a uniquely dim period in American history. Not long before our wedding, the World Trade Center attacks had happened, then our nation was at war. American flags fluttered from every pole, business, and automotive antenna. There was an unspoken gloom in the air.
I was in our apartment, watching the news, eating breakfast before work. The Space Shuttle Columbia disaster had recently occurred. Cable news was blaring footage of NASA’s STS 107, which disintegrated upon the reentry, killing seven crewmembers.
It seemed like the world was falling apart.
The news anchors were incessantly talking about shark attacks, terrorist attacks, suicide bombers, shoe bombers, car bombers, mystery bombers, and “American Idol.”
Our kitchen phone rang.
It was my new wife. I heard screaming toddlers in the background. My wife worked at a daycare.
“Hey,” she said, “don’t forget about tonight, we’re meeting the realtor after work.”
More toddler screaming.
“I can hardly hear you,” I said. “There’s a lot of shouting.”
“Oh, that’s just little Timmy. He’s pooping.”
“He yells when he poops?”
“No, he’s hollering because I am currently wiping his bootyus-maximus,” she said. “Look, just don’t forget about the realtor, okay?”
I hung up and I said a silent prayer for Timmy’s unfortunate plight in life.
After our shifts ended, I picked up my wife from work in the singular car we shared—a stunning ‘89 Nissan Maxima which, at one time, had been metallic gold, but was now completely obscured by approximately six inches of rust.
We followed our realtor’s SUV deep into the country, taking a labyrinth of dirt roads into the West Florida woods until we heard banjo music. Finally, the realtor pulled over beside a cattle gate with a painted plywood sign reading LOT FOR SALE. Although, to call it a “lot” would be misleading. It was an alligator singles bar.
The realtor removed her spike heels and laced up her hiking boots. In minutes, we were plodding through bald cypresses, palmettos, and the shoe-sucking mud, following a meandering creek. A deer bolted past us. Then a hawk of some kind.
The realtor looked at her survey map and, between mosquito swats, she said, “So, what do you think of the lot?”
“It’s awfully swampy,” I said, plucking a freshwater leech off my neck.
“You should make an offer,” the realtor said. “This is Florida, honey. Leeches are hot right now.”
So we made an offer that represented every dime we had. I look back now and I laugh because the price we offered was less than most people pay for a GE dishwasher. But to a couple of broke newlyweds, we might as well have been buying an island territory in Micronesia.
The seller accepted our offer. The next weekend my wife and I had a picnic in our forest. We ate sandwiches from a wicker basket. We swatted yellow flies, communed with the poison oak, and fended off black bears.
Yes! Bears! Shortly after we bought the land, a neighbor sighted not one, but six black bears wandering our property. This neighbor even took a photograph, which made the local paper.
We were fools to buy this land, of course. Everyone said that building a house in a swamp like this would be pure idiocy. So, naturally, we built a house.
Ours was a simple floorplan with a cheap interior and an air conditioner that worked on days of the week beginning with P. Our dirt road had deep ditches. Our mailbox had been assaulted by sophomores with baseball bats so many times it was formally declared unfit for service in a letter the mailman left on my porch.
And this home has been our life for 20 years. We have lived within the West Floridian wilderness. And we’ve seen the forest slowly disappear around us, one tree at a time.
First came the subdivision across the street. Then came another subdivision. Then the multi-thousand-unit apartment complex in our backyard, complete with fitness room and dog park. Then someone got the bright idea to build a Walmart 1,584 feet from my doorstep.
Then came the breakfast joint, the dentist’s office, the golf-cart dealer, the supermarket, the retirement home, followed by ANOTHER retirement home, a gas station, a car wash, and a tattoo parlor. And as of yesterday, I read in the paper they are going to construct—why not?—a Dave & Buster’s.
But sometimes I still sit in my front yard, late at night, listening to the frogs sing their evening arias, and I remember things. I remember that young couple who sank their savings into a swamp. I remember their ‘89 Nissan.
Truthfully, I don’t feel any older than I did when we first bought this land. Yes, I realize that I’m not the same hummingbird I used to be, but it doesn’t seem like that long ago. Not to me. Why does life move so fast? And why does it keep speeding up?
In 30 days my wife and I will leave this boggy place and move to a new state. Our old lives will be behind us, a new phase will commence. And the remarkable thing is, there’s nothing remarkable about that. Neither is there anything exceptional about how each day I become a little older, and less like that young man I used to be.
Even so, no matter how old I get, somehow it still seems as though Dale Earnhardt died just yesterday.