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by Ray Allen

Part 1 - Mama and Papa

Chapter 11: The Later Years

SS Florida

The S. S. Florida, P&O Steamship Company’s Flagship during the 1950’s. The ship was a favorite sailing between Havana and Miami.  It also carried cars, so Cubans could bring their cars along when they came up to Miami to shop and visit.

As kids, we never realized it at the time, but as we grew up, Mama and Papa grew older, and of course, nothing lasts forever.  After Papa retired from the Harbor Pilots, his knowledge of ships and the sea kept him busy.  He was constantly called out of retirement to work for the P&O Steamship Company, the same firm that had been established by Henry Flagler and employed his father. 

During the nineteen-fifties, he worked as an officer aboard the P&O cruise ships that were some the first modern vessels that led the way for our glittering fleet of today. In those days,  P&O had four or five ships sailing regularly to the Bahamas, Cuba and the Caribbean beyond.

The flagship of the fleet was always the S. S. Florida,  the largest and grandest of the group, and the one that sailed to Havana three times a week.  Papa served as Captain, First Officer, and other positions whenever the regular officers were on leave.  He loved “The Florida”, and working on her gave him the chance to visit all his friends in Cuba. 

One time, in 1951, he took me and my cousin Hal with him.  It was our first trip to a foreign country, and we couldn’t have been more excited.  At ages 11 and 10, we were given the Bridal Suite, since it was un-booked on that cruise.  We were amazed at the luxury of this half-round room on the top deck with a full curved wall of windows toward the bow.  The bed was huge, and there was a crystal chandelier in the center of the suite that swayed as the ship rolled on the waves.

We ate in the dining room, strolled around the deck, and tried to act grown up. Papa was working on the bridge most of the time, so we were free to explore on our own. But we later found out we weren't free at all. All the officers knew who we were and were watching us like hawks.

View of Miami from Crandon Park

Havana Harbor, showing the old Spanish fortress “El Moro” in the foregroundwith its famous lighthouse that guards the harbor entrance

In Havana, Papa took us to visit the Itturiagas, his great Cuban friends. With their daughter, Conchita, and her son, Manolito, who was about our age, we toured around and spent a day at Havana's famous Veradero Beach.

Papa also took us across Havana Harbor to visit Moro Castle, the ancient Columbus-era Spanish fortress with the famous lighthouse that guards Havana’s harbor entrance.  At that time, visitors were rowed across the harbor in small boats to visit the fortress. That was fun, and I remember Papa speaking his Spanish to the old weathered Cuban man who rowed us across.

At “El Moro”, Papa got the soldiers to show us the “torture chambers.”  One place that was unforgettable was a low, stone-staired cell that had an iron grate at water level, with waves splashing in.  On the wall were thick iron ankle shackles, and we were told that condemned prisoners were locked there at low tide, and left to die by drowning as the cell filled with water when the tide rose.

Papa also took us past the incredible Spanish-era Havana Cathedral and into the famous old part of the city, Habana Vieja. He knew of a great shop there called La Casa de los Trucos or "The House of the Tricks" which was a magic shop.  He took us in, and spoke in Spanish to the shopkeeper, and we came away with all sorts of marked cards, special masks, and my favorite—stink bombs.  These were little marble-sized glass globes filled with brown liquid.  You were supposed to throw them down on a sidewalk, and as the glass shattered, a horrible odor would rise all around.  It turned out the contents were some concoction that had an intense smell of rotten eggs. Hal and I loved those little stink bombs, and threw them everywhere for the rest of the day, watching people’s reactions.  Papa enjoyed it with us.  But I carefully packed some of them away in my suitcase to take home.  (By the way, La Casa de los Trucos is one of many Havana businesses that have been transplanted to Miami.  It's in our Little Havana neighborhood, right on Miami's "Calle Ocho" today.)

View of Miami from Crandon Park
Papa took us to Havana aboard the SS Florida, and even though we were kids, we had a taste of the wonderful exciting place that Americans enjoyed so much before Castro. During the fifties, Havana was a larger city than Miami.

At the Itturiaga’s home, we heard the grown ups talking about Ernest Hemingway, and the old days.  As we knew, Papa had known Hemingway both in Key West and in Havana years before.  Hal and I weren’t old enough to be interested.

When we arrived back in Miami, Papa handed us US Customs Declaration Forms, and told us to fill them out.  He explained we had to list everything we were bringing in from Cuba—anything we had purchased there.  So I dutifully filled it out with a list that I remember included “mask, cards, and stink bombs.”  In Miami, when the Customs Agent came on board to check in the arriving passengers, we were told to give our declarations to him as we were disembarking.  We did that, and he screamed, “What!  You can’t bring bombs into the United States!”  I was scared for a minute, until I saw Papa laughing.  Of course he had set it all up with his buddy at Customs.

As we grew older, we realized that as wonderful as they both were, there was trouble in paradise.  At one point, Mama decided she had had enough of Papa’s drinking and philandering, and began talking about a divorce.  As kids, we were protected from most of the details, but suddenly, Papa was building a new house. And where?  Right next door to the Old Nest, on the opposite side from the famous fountain.  Once it was done, a smaller one-story “modern” house, we called it the “New Nest.”  Mama and Papa rented the big old house, and moved next door into the new one.  For awhile, that was fine, it seems, but a few years later, Mama moved out and back to the old house, alone.  And we all heard they were actually divorced.  About this time, we all remember a beautiful Cuban girl who was around more and more.  Her name was Haydee, and thinking back, it was clear she wasn’t there just as an acquaintance. 

View of Miami from Crandon Park

This is Papa in his Captain's uniform, from a photo taken aboard the S.S. Florida in 1950.

But whatever was going on, Papa managed to turn on the charm and turn things around.  Suddenly he announced that he and Mama were to be remarried.  The second marriage lasted a couple of years, but the same old problems cropped up and they divorced again.  After that, we figured Papa would live at the “New Nest” permanently. 

That’s not exactly the way it worked out.  He improved a small building on his old river property, and moved there.  Then one day out of the blue, he announced he was marrying one of his childhood sweethearts, Florinda Russell.  She was a widow, and he was single, so he saw no reason not to get married.  Sadly, very soon after their marriage, Papa fell ill with cancer and was gone very quickly, at 68. 

As for the grandchildren, our Uncle Melville, Papa and Mama’s oldest, who had been a wonderful uncle to all of us all through the years, married late in life and suddenly we had a sixth cousin, Patricia, who was a teenager from her mother’s former marriage. So for holiday gatherings at Mama’s and elsewhere, we continued to have great times with the whole big growing family.  

Mama lived on until she was 80, as smiling and lovely as ever.  We always said she was the most unlikely “divorcee” in the world.  But looking back, it just showed her character and dignity.  She was a very strong, intelligent person and in a lot of ways, decades ahead of her time.  Her entire life she had kept herself very well-informed about current events, politics and other important news.  She was always interested in science and nutrition, and active in the work being done for the elderly. I remember she predicted how old people needed help from the government as health costs continued to rise.  Medicare was a revolutionary idea in her time, and she was all for it.  She was also one of the most excited people in the United States when NASA landed men on the moon.

During her last years, she enjoyed “going downtown” on the bus as she always had.  And she used to giggle and tell us about a game she played.  She’d sit down next to another older lady, and strike up a conversation.  In Miami, small talk almost always turns to “How long have you been here?” since almost no one is a native.  Mama would tell us, often her seatmate would reply, “Oh, my family’s been here forever.  My father came down in the forties.”  Mama would smile her beautiful smile, and say, “Oh, that is a long time.  But my family came in 1896.”  She never met another lady who could beat her at that little game. 

View of Miami from Crandon Park
Carmen Jones was Mama's last movie. She loved the music but not the costumes. Dorothy Dandridge was nominated for an Oscar for her performance.

During these last years, Mama loved movies, and would go downtown to see one now and then.  She particularly enjoyed musicals, and she heard they had made a movie of the opera, Carmen, and named it Carmen Jones.  She knew it had an all black cast, and starred the very beautiful new black star of the time, Dorothy Dandridge.  She thought that was a great idea, and wanted to see it.  Later she told us all about it.  It seems she went alone to the Miami Theatre on Flagler Street, sat down and loved the first half.  She said the music was so beautiful, but the costumes were something else again.  She understood that Carmen is supposed to be a siren, but the necklines on Ms. Dandridge were too much.  She said those necklines were just too low, so she got up and walked out.  She also told the usher, “I don’t want to watch that kind of movie.”  Mama was far from a prude, but Hollywood was moving too fast for her.  Carmen Jones was her last movie.

But she never quit going downtown.  In fact, the year she died, she was there to get some yarn at Burdines, and I remember it was 1966.  That year, the city she could remember with under 1,000 people was well on its way to its second million, so downtown Miami was a congested, traffic-filled snarl, so far from the sleepy village she had once known. 

View of Miami from Crandon Park
Gesu Cathedral is Miami's oldest catholic church, located just one block from the city's center at Flagler St and Miami Avenue downtown. At the bus stop in front of Gesu is where Mama collapsed on one hot day. The city around her had grown in her lifetime from under 500 when she arrived to almost two million.
She had always been quite healthy, but this day must have been very hot, and waiting at the crowded bus stop in front of Gesu Cathedral, she fainted and fell backwards toward the downtown Miami sidewalk.  As she told it, “God was there, and put Jimmy Hawkins’ son there to catch me.”  It seems a young policeman happened to be standing behind her at the time, and noticed her beginning to fall.  He caught her, she came to, and then she found out he was the son of an old pioneer policeman Papa had known fifty years before. She thanked him, got on the next bus, and went home.  Divine providence?  Must have been.

A few years ago, my mother asked me to create a slide show for a program on the Dillons and Moodys for The Miami Pioneers Club. With all the changes in Miami today, very few people know such a club exists, but it does.  Originally, your family had to be in Miami before 1915 for you to be a member.  In more recent years, for obvious reasons, they changed the date to 1925, and then, I believe, to 1940.  It is not a huge club, but a very enthusiastic one, so I was glad to do the slideshow.  After showing the pictures and telling the group about Mama and Papa, I was besieged by elderly men and ladies who had known them so many years ago.  Everyone remembered them both, and I was struck particularly by the elderly gentlemen who were there.  One after the other, they raved about Mama, a couple of them with tears in their eyes.  “You’re Adelaide Moody’s grandson?  Well, that’s wonderful!  She was the prettiest girl I ever saw!”  “And she was the nicest woman in town, “ added one lovely old lady. They all remembered Papa of course, and each had their recollections about him.

View of Miami from Crandon Park

Today’s Miami seen from Biscayne Bay.

And the Old Nest?  Soon after Mama left it, the neighborhood was in decline, and it became a low-rent apartment house for struggling Cuban refugees.  Soon after that, it served as a Cuban church.  And then one day, during the 1970’s it was finally taken down—certainly not by a hurricane, but by a bulldozer.  Today, the New Nest is gone, too—not even a tree we might remember remains.  The whole half block that was once Mama’s and Papa’s is completely redeveloped into small Habitat for Humanity houses.  Highland Park, once one of Miami’s best addresses, and now, practically “downtown”, is one of the areas being redeveloped for low cost housing to help incoming immigrants, a huge need in Miami. The young growing families in the new houses on the land Papa and Mama called home know nothing of what went before, but Papa and Mama would both approve of how the land is now being used.

Papa’s river property was bulldozed long ago, and has disappeared into a long string of luxury condominiums that now line the river where his  boats used to be. So today, there are no physical reminders of the whole world we knew with Mama and Papa.  But we  have our memories.


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Copyright 2007 Ray Allen - Used by Permission
3/1/07 L.C.

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Tallahassee, Florida USA