Barrier Island, Cape Canaveral
The limestone shelf has always been here. Porous limestone, ancient fossil limestone, an African fragment broken before time began from the great continent Pangea. It forms a hard swollen finger pointing south. Thin sea water, skinny as a snake, slips over the shelf, falling and rising for a hundred and forty million years. Glaciers creep close from the north; glaciers recede.
At the top of the finger, the wide Suwannee Channel cuts this new shelf off from the rest of the land mass. Eventually, though, time fills the channel with sediment, and the land—a young land, a youthful land—joins the continent. Quartz-rich Appalachian sand arrives from the north. Pushed by the water, the sand is always moving across the limestone. It scurries like pale crabs, filling in the low places, piling up against the high.
On the Atlantic side, on the middle of the coastline, a long soft sand barrier island emerges like a slender sleeping body. For miles, this island stretches lazily between swirling inlets on its north and south ends, where salt water rushes in with the tides and brackish lagoon water slides out. Under it all, coquina rock composed of fragmented shells and quartz cemented with calcite, sits just offshore like a rough armor. The sea pounds on the east side of the beach in the winter, whispers in the summer. The shallow tidal lagoons languish, drifting south as a river might. The rains pour down, but the land is so porous—sand, limestone, coquina—that the water disappears into it.
A cape of sand swells like a breast into the Atlantic—Cabo Cañaveral, as the Spanish call it, “place of canes.” Tall cord grasses stand in the shallow salt marsh, and sea oats send their stalks six feet high, securing the wide dune of sand fronting the sea.
The people arrive. They walk down from the north. They paddle dugouts of palm and cypress following the water trails. They are later known as the Ais and the Timumcan. The land is good to them. They dig the clams and grow rich with shells. They weave palm fronds into hats, rope, and roofs and eat the berries of palmettos. They build smoky smudge fires to ward off swarms of mosquitoes. They wait out the winter storms, the summer storms, the long streaks of lightning. They watch how the clouds march across the wide-mouthed sky. They see how the sand moves, how the beaches change, how the animals find new paths.
More people come, this time from across the sea, the white sails of their ships spread like herons on the wing. They call themselves Spanish and French and English and investors. They are following the promises of paradise.
Their big ships stay out beyond the reef and send in smaller boats like gnats to the shore. The men’s armor flashes under the bright sun. They clang ashore. They hack through the scrub with swords. They are searching, searching for gold, for silver, for youth, for advantage. The mosquitoes crawl up into their helmets and down their cuirasses. A young Spanish explorer, Ponce de Leon, sets foot ashore twenty-eight miles south of the place of canes and names the land “La Florida,” feast of flowers.
The next wave of people come from the Carolinas. They bring indigo and cotton and black-skinned people from far away. They lure islanders from Majorca with promises of land for little work, a life in paradise, fruit dropping into their hands. Half the people die their first year. The indigo and cotton wither under the hot sun, unable to draw sustenance from the sand. The First Peoples are killed, become diseased and die, are gone by the 1700s.
Most of the newcomers, though, avoid the long barrier island near Cabo Cañaveral. Its land is too thin. The sun is too strong with no soft shade of trees. The coquina reef makes it too hard to land boats. “No ship escapeth which cometh thither,” one Englishman says of the reef and tides.
But some Whites stay and build houses of wood with roofs of palm, live lives like the First Peoples, only with guns. They hang “mosquito beaters” made of palm fronds next to their shack’s entrance and use them to beat away the clinging swarms before they open the door. They plant scraggly orange groves and scavenge the remains of reef shipwrecks that wash onto the beach. It’s a rough life.
At the end of the Nineteenth Century, one man builds a railroad on the mainland running alongside the barrier island lagoons, now called the Indian River and the Banana River. He carries people to his hotels in the south. No one looks out the windows on their way to Vero, to the Palm Beaches, to Miami. They speed past the tiny mainland towns of Cocoa, Eau Gallie, Melbourne.
Only a few hardy souls venture across the languid lagoons to the island. The cape is now known as Cape Canaveral, the Banana River Naval Air Station arriving with a new war against the Germans, but later abandoned to the sand and the waves and the wind. The towns remain sleepy backwaters. The old quiet prevails.
Until the Rocket-men arrive.
Copyright 2016. Linda S. Buckmaster