By Tom Schobert
The end of summer always makes me think about the family vacations of my youth. Almost 60 years later, one such vacation has assumed legendary status in my personal pantheon of childhood memories.
For nearly all of his working life, my Dad received only two weeks of vacation per year. During the early 1950s, those two weeks were used up when he went to summer training with the Army Reserve. For family vacations during those years, we had to be content with the occasional holiday visit to Erie, Pa., to visit my grandparents. Those visits ended when Grampa passed away and Grandma moved to Buffalo to be closer to kith and kin.
That all changed when Dad’s stint with Uncle Sam concluded. He decided that from then on, he’d take the last two weeks in the summer — with the Labor Day weekend at the tail end — so he could squeeze out as much consecutive time off as possible.
On a Friday in August 1958, he came home with a lilt in his step, ready to begin his first “real” vacation. Around the dinner table he mused about various ways to spend that precious time off. You could almost see the light bulb switch on in his head. “Florida,” he said. “Let’s go to Florida!”
My sister and I were stunned. Florida – the land of palm trees, flamingos and beaches. It was a hitherto unattainable dream to visit this Southern paradise.
Mom, of course, was up for two weeks where she didn’t have to cook, clean or do any of the other domestic chores consigned to housewives in the “Leave it to Beaver” era. Grandma would come along, too. The more the merrier!
Without so much as a Google search or MapQuest query – this was, after all, 1958 – the five of us piled into the family Bel Air and hit the road. Mom had packed for all of us and stuffed a cooler full of sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs to sustain us. This did not mean, of course, that we would not be clamoring to stop at Stuckey’s every 10 miles.
Dad was at the wheel with Mom navigating. Grandma sat to my left in the backseat and my annoyed teenage sister sat to my right, with me in the middle. Did I mention we were making this Griswold-esque summertime trip in the days before most cars had seat belts or air conditioning?
After what seemed like endless days of driving, we finally crossed the state line into Florida. Conveniently, the ocean was easily accessible, so Dad steered into a parking lot and my sister and I scampered off toward the water. Salt water. I had to taste it to believe it.
Never bothering to make reservations, my folks just pulled into motels. Most times we got a room on the first try. The best one was in Vero Beach, where the other guests gathered around the pool were very friendly. After five minutes, no one was a stranger. Someone even organized a cookout with a grill provided by the proprietor.
It was so nice that we stayed for three days. Dad went “surf fishing” with his newfound buddies and came back with feet so sunburned he could hardly walk. No problem. A visit to the neighborhood druggist produced some sort of medication for “sun poisoning.” Somehow, he survived.
More adventures ensued, but the trip became a certifiable success for me when Grandma sprung for a live baby alligator for me to take home and nurture as our newest family pet. I don’t think baby alligators can be sold to 8-year-old kids anymore. Too bad. They make great memories!