While in Florida this week, I decided to take a spontaneous side trip to Frostproof to see for the first time the lake-rimmed farm town where my stepfather, Wallace Reese, came of age. I grew up hearing his stories about Frostproof. When I discovered I was only forty minutes away, I had to go.
Wallace (No Middle Initial) Reese was the thirteenth of thirteen children born to Mrs. Ever Reese Troup. By time Wallace was born, I suppose she’d grown tired of naming children and so her youngest got only one. He didn’t mind. He went on to make a name for himself anyway.
Much of Florida’s terrain is flat, but the two-lane road, Scenic Highway 17, that leads into Frostproof rolls gently through sloping orange groves and past natural lakes. Its central business district, a crossroads with a bank, vintage car showroom, gas station-turned-bistro, and feed store at its core, looks much the same as the one Wallace walked in the 1940s and 50s. But looks tell only part of a story. I wonder if much has changed concerning race relations since Wallace’s time there. I wonder if Wallace, a black person, could walk freely into any neighborhood or business in Frostproof and be treated with respect–both then and now.
Apparently, he grew up in segregated conditions. According to a May 2004 article in The Ledger, the local daily newspaper, “The original lawsuit to end segregation in Polk County was filed in fall 1963, almost a decade after the Brown decision. A federal court ordered Polk County to end its “biracial” school system and desegregate in 1965. Integration began during the 1965-1966 school year and mandatory desegregation occurred during the 1969-1970 school year. The district remained under a federal court desegregation order until March 2000, when it was granted “unitary status,” meaning it no longer operates a segregated school system.” Wallace graduated from high school in 1959. Apparently, he attended segregated schools throughout his entire education in Frostproof. I wondered if he attended the large and quite beautiful Spanish Mediterranean school building we drove past.
When he was very young, his mother would take him on the bus with her to work. She was a maid for well-to-do folks, and Wallace grew up seeing and appreciating nice things. He developed exquisite taste in fashion, home décor, and automobiles and he loved literature, travel, and a good debate. And Scotch.
He liked to tell of working in Frostproof’s orange groves as a boy. His boss handed him a tool called a scuffle hoe and said, “Boy, all you got to do is keep this thing moving and make sure you don’t stop ‘til the sun goes down.” Laughing hard, Wallace made a push-pull motion to demonstrate how the hoe worked. He said it didn’t matter how you used it, its triangular blade would scrape weeds from beneath the trees as long as you kept it moving. He laughed at the absurd tedium, but the truth is that central Florida’s blistering heat could sap the life right out of a person. Not Wallace.
In his early teens, Wallace decided to hitch a ride with a friend to Rehobeth Beach, Delaware, where he got a job as a waiter and saved money for college. (I won’t say what he did to a white restaurant customer who treated him poorly. That’s a story for another time.)
After Wallace graduated from high school, he packed a suitcase, boarded a bus, and showed up at Florida A & M University. He walked into a campus administrator’s office and said, “I’m here.” The woman at the desk said, “I’m sorry. Your name doesn’t appear on our roster of admitted students.” No one ever told him he needed to apply to college. The woman looked him over and said, “Come with me.” She took him to the dean of admission’s office and explained the situation. The dean said, “Son, you look ambitious. I’m going to give you a chance.” He handed Wallace a college-entrance exam and a pencil. The dean admitted him that same day. Four years later, Wallace graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
Far from the fields of Frostproof, he went on to a successful career with the Office of Economic Opportunity, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and other agencies. He provided a home for our family and an environment for learning, creating, and laughing.
Today, October 25, is Wallace’s birthday. He would’ve been 72. I’m baking a German chocolate cake, his favorite, and singing off-key like he used to while listening to Isaac Hayes, Cannonball Adderly, and Nancy Wilson on his ’60s reel-to-reel.
Wallace’s stories of Frostproof and beyond planted a seed of imagination that, no doubt, helped inform my novel, The Road to Indigo.
I’m glad I was able to stand in Frostproof and say, “I’m here.”