Going native 


It's the time of summer when Orlando's mugginess is at its heaviest, and the sky can go from azure blue to angry gray in minutes. It pours nearly every day, usually around the same time. The land is hot and soggy -- suitable only for mosquitoes and alligators. And yet this summer, I feel strangely comforted by the regularity of the season's abundant rainfall and its relentless, oppressive humidity.

It's been 10 years since we left New England for the land of swamp and sunshine, and I'm thinking now of another summer, several years ago, when I dodged similar rains and sweated through comparable heat, crisscrossing the terrain, going places I'd never been, talking to people I didn't know. It was an election year, and I was stumping for votes.

My travels that summer took me the length and breadth of Orange County and beyond, from Apopka to Bithlo, Lake Buena Vista to Winter Park, Maitland to Kissimmee. I shook thousands of hands and drove hundreds of miles. I wore out my shoes, and I wore down my car, and though my tally eventually came up short, I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in the people and geography of Central Florida. It was my new territory -- yet still a strange and unfamiliar place.

"Why are you running for Congress, anyway?" a gentleman asked me that summer. "Why don't you start at a lower level, like state representative, or school board member?"

"Well, I haven't lived in Florida long enough," I replied, "so I don't really feel qualified to represent its citizens on a local level. But I've lived in America all my life ... "

He looked at me quizzically before turning away. "By the way," I added, realizing that this was one vote I probably shouldn't count on, "just how long do I have to live in Florida before you consider me a native?"

"Ten years," he said quickly. "Ten years."

Well, perhaps it had building all along. Maybe it's in the way I seem to go straight for the state and local section of the paper each morning before work; or the way the memories keep growing of the trips we've taken to the Keys, the Panhandle, and all up and down both coasts. It could be the accumulation of endless hours spent in I-4 traffic jams; or the fact that the heat and moisture just seem so natural to me lately.

Perhaps it's some form of reverse ancestor worship. I'm not a fifth generation anything. My forebears didn't come from here, but on the other hand, my kids know no other home. Can you feel attachment to a place through your descendants? Anyway, there must have been some magic in the number that voter proffered me that summer day, because sometime this past weekend it happened. A definite shift. I began to feel like a native.

Maybe the transformation occurred while splashing in the surf at Ponte Vedre Beach, where we had gone to spend a few days at an old friend's house overlooking the roaring Atlantic. I know I felt a little loopy riding the powerful waves that tossed me like a cork and made me come up to the surface gasping for air, yahooing maniacally in the strong, hot sunlight. "Wow!" my youngest daughter said to me, as the water foamed around us. "I haven't heard you laugh like that in a long time!"

Or maybe it happened the next morning, when my wife and I sat wordlessly on the wooden steps leading to the beach, watching the eastern sky turn pink and crimson and purple as the morning light crept its sleepy-headed way across the horizon. It was almost an hour between the day's first glimmer and sunrise, but when the bright-orange globe finally poked its liquid head above the water line, we found ourselves staring at its glow until our eyes hurt, grateful for whatever fate had led us to that shore, on that day, to witness that particular dawn.

So, 10 years have passed. I've spent a fifth of my life here in Florida and now realize I'll never leave. There are no other homes in my mind anymore, just pictures of previous lives to which I won't return. This is where we live. This is our home. Hot, humid and familiar.

Sometime that weekend I let it slip; it came out of my mouth softly, but clear and unambiguous. My family heard it. They were witnesses to the sea change. We were floating in the ocean -- our ocean -- that will forever break on the shores of the place that I finally recognize as my own.

"I'm a Florida boy now," I said, as another wave crashed around us. "Aren't I?"


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