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Florida Icon: Vickie Smith

I can look out my bedroom windows on a full-moon night, and I can see the moon reflecting on the Weeki Wachee River. It’s heaven on Earth.

When I graduated from high school, you either got married, went off to Gainesville or Tallahassee to go to school if you had money or you became a Weeki Wachee mermaid. I had friends who were mermaids, and they said: ‘Come on. It’s fun.’ So, I became a mermaid.

At first, you don’t want to jump in that cold water. But, honey, the minute you’re submerged, you don’t ever want to leave.

There wasn’t a set salary when I started. We were paid for what we did. We got $3.70 per show. We were paid half that if we announced the show, and we were paid a quarter of that if we took tickets. If we made $98 for two weeks of work, we were rich.

I was born in Tampa, but I grew up in Brooksville, about 9 miles from Weeki Wachee, where I live now.

I guess I didn’t go very far. We had a fish-feeding segment of our show. We’d put bread in our mouth, and the fish would come and take it out of our mouth. We drank a bottle of Grapette under water, too. That’s a soft drink that has some carbonation, but not as much as a Coke. We’d also eat a banana. You’d take three or four bites, and the turtles helped to get rid of the rest.

My husband built this house, but he’s from Tennessee, and he wasn’t used to building for Florida weather, so I don’t know if the windows would hold up in a hurricane. We’re seven miles from the gulf as the crow flies.

Years ago, my mermaid friends plied me with martinis one night in Tampa, and when we walked out of the Columbia restaurant, we saw all these tattoo parlors. That’s how I ended up with the Ariel tattoo on my ankle.

I didn’t realize the notoriety that would come from being a mermaid. People would stop us and ask us for our autograph. I got fan letters. That was a total thrill. My picture was on 26 different postcards. I have a stack of books in the house, and I’m in every one of them.

Back in the 1950s when I was growing up, gosh, it was so much simpler than it is today for young people. Our telephones were still hooked in the wall.

The guava paste in Tampa, that’s really good. I grew up with that stuff. The center is like guava jelly, and you eat it with Ritz crackers. You ought to try it.

They did not want us mermaids cutting our hair. I remember one day I cut my hair short — I don’t even know why I did it — and they fired me for it. Toward the end of the day, they hired me back.

There’s no other place on Earth that you can experience what you can experience when you are under water in a natural spring. When it rains, you look up and it’s like seeing a million sparkling stars.

Florida is not New York. I don’t want everything to be paved. I don’t like tall buildings on our beaches. Florida is different. Let Florida be Florida.

I met a lot of celebrities who visited the park. We had campfires with Arthur Godfrey and roasted wieners, but I was too young to be really impressed by Arthur Godfrey. Florida Gov. Farris Bryant visited, too. And Don Knotts. I met him but don’t really remember. The one I really remember is Elvis Presley. He was very soft-spoken, a true Southern gentleman, and he signed albums for us. The day we swam for Elvis, I got caught for speeding on the way to work. I kept the ticket. It’s in my scrapbook. That was 1961.

My daddy had a sawmill. He worked from sunup to sundown. He was Spanish, but I never learned a word of Spanish because he wanted his kids to be accepted as Americans. He couldn’t do his banking in Hernando County because they wouldn’t do business with him since he was Spanish. He had to do his banking in Dade City.

Weeki Wachee, Silver, Rainbow, Wakulla — these springs are important. They’re fed by the Floridan Aquifer. And with all of these millions of new residents coming into Florida, you know where all of their drinking water comes from? The Floridan Aquifer. They’re drinking that aquifer dry.

This probably won’t even be accepted as a real problem until after I’m dead and gone, and then my children and grandchildren will have to face it. My great-grandchildren will be the ones who will have to ask: ‘What happened to all those beautiful rivers in Florida?’

I’ve always been happy. Even today, at 83, I’m happy. I love my life. I love my friends. And even though my husband has Alzheimer’s — he’s in a VA foster care home in Spring Hill — I’m happy and grateful for what I have.

This group of former mermaids started doing a show at Weeki Wachee once a month, and they asked me to join. They became my sisterhood again. Once a mermaid, always a mermaid. We called ourselves the Legends — and we are legends. We all swam at different times. Some of them are still in their 60s and some in their 70s. I was the only one in my 80s. It’s just so much fun. There’s magic in that water. When I jump in, I’m 17 again.