I’ve tried to tell the story of my family’s motor trip to Florida, which I believe was in 1959, when I was eleven, many times before. One time I must have done fairly well, because Mothering, a pretty big magazine at the time, wrote me that they were very close to publishing it. At the last minute, they chose to use something else instead.
Writing down that version had all the magic of conjuring with a wand. It embodied the miracle of writing, the capacity of strange little black lines to bring forth a vision completely intact from within one person, and put it inside another person. Everyone who read the piece was able to experience the thrill of our three-day adventure through the kudzu-choked pine forests of the South, in the days before interstates, and then of the drive all the long, green way down the Florida peninsula.
Subsequent efforts to tell the story, after that first manuscript got lost during one of my many moves in the ‘80s and ‘90s, were duds. But the trip, my first impression of the world outside the womb of our hometown and its environs, still lives a mythic life in me. It is forever cut into my psyche in very bright, bold relief, beginning with my getting the earth-shaking news that it was going to happen.
Dad informed us one day that a family meeting—a family meeting—us?—would take place in the dining room later that afternoon. There, he dropped the news that he and Grandpa were closing the furniture store and taking us, in our rocket-finned Dodge Coronet, to Miami Beach with some of the proceeds. I staggered out into the front yard, dazed.
Some of my friends’ families, and my own grandparents, journeyed yearly to the Jewish Mecca in the South. Even our Christian neighbors, the Mortlands, had been to nearby Fort Lauderdale. However, I’d completely accepted that such boons were forever out of reach for our family. Now, suddenly, fortune had smiled upon me. Shafts of late-afternoon sunlight appropriately slanted down through the maples, onto the grass, like in a scene from a religious movie.
The two-week countdown to our leaving was, of course, agonizing. But we finally pulled away from all of our psyches’ habitual moorings, except for one another and the intrepid car, in the still-dark of an early August morning.
Everyone was much, much happier on the trip very soon after leaving, except possibly Mother, who wasn’t much of an adventurer. I guess it was brave of her just to come along.
Dad’s improvement began almost as soon as we left the curb. One of the many things I loved about Dad was that he always wanted to set out before the sun rose. I imagine all great adventures begin then, for where such things are concerned, who can wait? We even started before dawn on our Sunday fishing expeditions to Creve Coeur Lake, a few miles away.
Dad was taking a risk by embarking on this family trip at a time of personal economic uncertainty. Yes, he had a few bucks from the store sale, and he would have job prospects upon our return, but he was operating on blind trust that one of them would work out. They were all shoe-leather sales jobs, carpet or linoleum or furniture, and lately, his talk with Mom when he’d come home at night had sounded pretty stuffy to my brother and me. It was all “Garber said this,” and “Courtney said that.” The names were apparently those of prospective new bosses, but never having met the men, Fred and I couldn’t even picture the faces that went with them.
Dad started off the trip by pouring out a residue of such blather across the front seat into Mom’s ear, but as soon as we were out of the force field of St. Louis and our daily lives, it all dropped away. It was like some cleansing agent had gone through Dad’s mind and taken away all the boring stuff! He came alive as Dad again. He even became Daddy, the one who’d introduced me not too many years before to the zoo, the circus, the Cardinals, Martin and Lewis movies, fishing, and Rockwoods Reservation with its trails and cave, from which we’d plundered many a toad and garter snake, stuffing them into pillowcases and unloading them in the ancient bathtub in our basement. He started saying things like, “Hey, we just passed Red Bud, Illinois, and look—the sun’s like a red bud!”
We’d set off on deserted streets and crossed the Mississippi River half an hour later, as the very first rays of sun were pushing up. Then we drove south in Illinois along the Great River Road. I loved that name, as well as the big green logo of a ship’s wheel that appeared on every highway marker.
Our previous forays into the green fields on the East Side, beyond the sorrowful ruin that was East St. Louis, had been to Stoplight All-You-Can-Eat Fried Chicken, and once or twice to the horse races at Cahokia and Fairmont. Before long we’d passed those turn-offs, and every sight became a new vision swimming in through my eyes.
The real plot of this story doesn’t begin until we near Miami Beach, so how can I best convey the adventure? I hope it isn’t a cliché to say that the pioneers didn’t only live in the 18th and 19th centuries—every person setting out beyond the boundaries of his or her own life is a pioneer.
Yes, people had previously been where we drove, to build the state roads we took through the forests of Mississippi—probably the Works Progress Administration, back in the Great Depression, which had taken place a mere 20 years before. Someone had built the infrastructure, and someone else had built the new Holiday Inn motels that to us were bright, clean wilderness outposts. And yes, people lived in all these places we passed. It wasn’t an adventure to them to be there. But of course, it would have been for them to drive out of their lives to where we lived.
Dad had traveled extensively, but that had been in another life. He’d told us stories about how he and his friend Higgins had thumbed around America and Mexico. Plus, during the Second World War, Dad had put together shows for troop morale and had traveled by train with his performers all over America, including the Deep South, where we were heading.
For me, this world was as unknown as the uncharted ocean had been to Columbus. I acted as navigator, holding our AAA TripTik, its route thickly outlined in sky-blue marker, on my lap and advising Dad. I ached for us to take the scenic route, which time did not allow, that swept down to the Gulf of Mexico through Mobile and Tampa, instead of inland central Florida. Though my Florida dream was coming true, just around the corner were more dreams that remained elusive. This was, however, only about as pesky as a mosquito bite.
That first day, we made it to Tupelo, Mississippi. To me, both place names sounded nearly as exotic as Morocco or Timbuktu. My dim awareness at that age scarcely comprehended the significance of, or history behind the Jim Crow laws that were still in effect all around us. On the narrow forest highways we travelled along, “White” and “Coloured” signs were not even that common.
The second morning, we came to a rickety grey wood shack of a gas station in a tiny clearing by the side of the road, with only dusty ground surrounding the gas pump. We’d been going quite a while, and needed a bathroom. Mom had a Coke bottle in back for Fred and me to pee in, though that was always a risky, nearly acrobatic affair with the car moving, but sometimes we had to stop for “the other.”
The whole site—station, tires and car parts strewn around, mangy sleeping dog, rusted trash barrels, absolute mess of a tiny office, greasy little garage—was utterly foreign to a Jewish family from a Midwestern suburb. Pulling up at the pump, Dad got out and went to scout out the bathrooms. A little later, he returned with a sour look on his face. I never got to see how bad it was. Dad got back in the car and turned on the ignition, just as a man who looked like Junior from Hee Haw emerged from the office, crossed in front of our car, and drawled, “Kin ah help y’all?”
Nonplussed and not wanting to offend, Dad began pulling away, at a loss for words. As an afterthought, he turned his head and shouted loudly to the man, “We’ll come back later!” He was only trying to be polite, but the whole car erupted with laughter at his expense.
We finally made it to a better place, or at least one that looked better, an actual restaurant some miles past the station. Overjoyed to finally be able to relieve ourselves, we then realized how hungry we were! The morning before in Cairo, Illinois, in full view of the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, I’d had my first encounter with grits. Adding two pats of butter, I loved them! Fortunately, they came with eggs here in Mississippi, too. As I dug into my delicious breakfast, safe at this table in the wagon-circle of our family, so to speak, I heard a little scream nearby. I looked up to see Mother looking ghost-white.
“What happened, dear?” asked Dad.
In reply, Mom picked up her nearly intact plate of eggs, grits and toast. She raised it up and began tipping it toward us, stopping just short of where the food would begin falling onto the table. Dad, Fred and I craned our heads forward and suddenly I saw what had made her scream. In the middle of Mother’s grits was a hair! It was much too short to have come from her own head. A moment later, the four of us were tromping back to the car in protest. I was just thankful that I was a fast eater!
The next memorable thing was crossing into Alabama. It was not like a country character said in a story I read once, “State boundary? If you can’t see it, how come they put it on the map?” No, my “collection” of states was expanding so widely that I could scarcely contain my excitement!
Alabama was not quite as exciting as Mississippi (our first Deep South state) had been, until we got to Dothan, a very small town not too far from the Florida border. There, on a nondescript residential street that the highway narrowed to, were the first palm trees I’d ever seen actually growing out of the ground! Several tiny palmettos graced the front yard of a modest one-story house, so unobtrusive you could almost miss them. I must have lived my most recent lifetime in a tropical country, because as long as I can remember, I’ve been nuts about anything tropical. I drove my mother bananas (pardon the semi-pun), making her search St. Louis in the car with me for coconuts, mangoes and papayas, long before every supermarket carried them, until we finally found some in an “exclusive foods” store called Straubs.
Not long after Dothan, we crossed into Florida. Florida, Dad reminded me, was a long state. Mind-bogglingly, we were still 500 miles from Miami! We crossed the Suwanee River, which I’m not sure I had realized was a real place, and then swung south. Florida, it turned out, had “horse country” as well as its hundreds of square miles of citrus groves. We saw the latter from the top of Citrus Tower, a kind of little skyscraper in the middle of nowhere, exclusively for tourists.
On our last night on the road, we stopped at the Holiday Inn in Ocala. Here, I had a magical experience. Walking out to a traffic circle across from the hotel, I found a Grandfather Palm Tree, no little houseplant-sized thing but a great, drooping green fountain of a date palm; an old, old tree with dozens, maybe hundreds of fronds. It had lovely little red, orange, and golden berry-fruits. Hundreds of birds roosted, fed on the fruit, and screeched in its branches, creating a fantastic, twittering din there just as day was yielding to dusk. So many things were happening! I felt as if I’d somehow stumbled upon the centre of the Great Mandala of life.
Continuing south, we passed through some the Everglades. I don’t remember much water, though, only a lot of building and logging activity. At a tiny village called Clewiston, we had lunch at a big tourist trap called the Old South Bar-B-Que Ranch. It was impossible not to stop, as we’d been reading the restaurant’s billboard ads for hundreds of miles. It was one of those places where you can stick your head in a hole behind a cowboy façade, and a family member can take your picture. My brother and I were young enough to get a charge out of it.
An hour or two later, we were driving the Cuban streets of Miami—so many signs in Spanish! We drove a long way down some main commercial boulevard with Jai-Alai billboards and local people everywhere. This street led to the causeway to Miami Beach—where, dear reader, our real plot commences.
Our parents’ marriage always had a fault line running through it. It was a class marriage, at least in Mother’s mind, and sometimes the rift caused blowouts. “The Big One” never came, but there were some pretty big ones, as big as a child could imagine. One of these was the one of which rumblings began as we neared Miami Beach. Ok, people are funny, as Art Linkletter said every week. But they are also pathetic, heroic, brave, cowardly, disgusting, temperamental, unique, and stubborn!
I’ll delay the actual story a moment to give a bit more background and maybe create a bit of suspense, which all the Agatha Christie and Rex Stout books I’ve read lately have helped me value.
Mother and Dad shouldn’t really have had any class rivalry, except that Dad was a second-generation American and Mother a third. Their ancestors had come from Russia and Lithuania, respectively, which I don’t think made a difference, due to the German Jews supposedly making up the upper crust.
My Dad’s father was a cabinetmaker. In America, he worked in a furniture factory and later owned, serially, several furniture stores and a moving business. Back in Europe, the story goes that as an apprentice furniture-maker, he’d had to go into the forest, fell a tree, and create furniture from all of its wood, remaining alone in the forest until he’d finished. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? (Whether it really happened or not!)
Politically, back in the ‘30s, Grandpa had run as a Socialist for treasurer of the city of St. Louis. When he retired after the furniture store closed, he devoted all his time to the garden he cultivated on the huge corner property he and Grandma lived on. He also began to read his Bible seriously, and became an observant Conservative Jew. He died at 65, the same age as I am now, in 1968, back when people still looked and were thought of as old at that age.
Mother’s father, after whom I’m named, died just before I was born. Everyone I’ve met who knew him has said he was a kind man. He also looks that way in the pictures I’ve seen. He had a successful auto dealership in New York City until his wilful wife, my grandmother whom I called “Maw,” made him close it and move back to her home town of Lancaster, PA. Her father had owned a very prosperous scrap yard there, and her brother James somehow appropriated the whole thing for himself when the father died. The rest of the family sort of lived in the ruins of their former glory, like latter-day Scarlett O’Haras.
Drawing on this former glory, I suppose, Mother seemed to feel she came from patrician stock. She’d once dated a very wealthy New Yorker whose very name, Morganstern, sounds rich! But she broke up with him because she liked my father’s personality, or at least that’s what she always said. My father did have an infectious personality. He loved to tell jokes, and when he was young, he was also quite handsome.
Who knows, he might’ve even become wealthy himself, had he been able to pursue his chosen field, film. He’d loved movies from childhood on. From the ‘30s until the Second World War began and he enlisted in the army, he’d divided his time between Los Angeles and St. Louis. Out West, he studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse and appeared as an extra in a number of films. He read gas meters as a day job.
In the Army Signal Corps, he rose to the rank of Major. After the war was over and the shows he produced had finished their touring, he was put in charge of a big army film library in Long Island City, N.Y. Mother happened to work there. One day, a mutual friend put her in touch with “that handsome officer” because she, a civilian, wanted to buy something at the Post Exchange (PX), where only army personnel were eligible for the sizable discount.
Dad’s passion for film was so intense that he wanted to go back to California and go to film school on the GI Bill. He was very excited about this. Before their marriage, he asked Mother if she’d accompany him, and she said yes. When push came to shove, though, she began to feel she was abandoning her mother on the East Coast. California was too far away! Even St. Louis, where they finally settled because he couldn’t find a job in New York after leaving the army, and Grandpa had offered him a partnership in his furniture store, was like the Wild West for her. By that time, she was pregnant with me. Dad dropped all this information on me as the two of us breakfasted at Denny’s one day, when I was around 50. Had Mom not been pregnant, he said, he would’ve left back then. But his sense of responsibility toward a child, born or not, caused him to stay.
No doubt he went through a hell of a lot of resentment. When I imagine myself in his place, my blood boils! That, coupled with the hated sales jobs he had to take for years, and the increasing complexity of fathering as us children got older, made his sometime shortness of temper understandable. His resentment toward Mother seemed to dissipate as their 54-year marriage proceeded, until she told me proudly, a few years before she died, “Dad told me yesterday that the thing he likes best in life is when he and I spend the afternoon shopping together at the mall.”
However, a certain turmoil was rumbling underground as we drove south in 1959. As we approached our destination, it boiled over. Two people with two different visions are sure to run into trouble! Dad’s idea was to ensconce ourselves at the Raleigh Hotel in South Miami Beach—the seedy, rather than trendy end of town in those days, where his own parents stayed for their yearly winter sojourns.
Mother, on the other hand, had presentiments of luxury. The Fontainebleau Hotel—that massive, curving vision of green glass—called to her. She was like a showgirl who’d suddenly been called for her one big chance! She was Cinderella with one slipper. The other was made of curved green glass that fit perfectly!
Having paid the toll at the booth for the causeway to Miami Beach, we’d arrived at Showtime. Someone’s vision was going to prevail, while someone else’s would be trampled in the dust. What began as a discussion rapidly became a shouting match, with insults thrown like horseshoes: “You want to stay where your parents stay, the same way you want me to wear my hair like your mother’s! You never grew up!” to which my father replied, “We’re not millionaires! Come down to Earth!”
Tempers flared to red-hot, then to white. My brother and I cringed, the same way we did during our parents’ heated moments at home. I heard a sound, and saw that Mother had opened her car door and gotten out. She was opening the back door on my brother’s side. “Come on, Fred!” she commanded. “We’ll go to our hotel!” Fred followed obediently—as if you had much choice, with an angry parent. I sat where I was, feeling no more allegiance to one parent than another, but terrified to see our family break up before our eyes.
The temperature was in the 90s as Mom and Fred marched along the shoulder of the causeway, about to walk across Biscayne Bay. Dad put the car in gear and slowly drove alongside them, pleading, “Please come back. We’ll go there for dinner; for God’s sake, I promise!” Mother didn’t even look his way. The road was devoid of traffic, allowing us to make the entire fantastic Miami Beach skyline the backdrop for our psychodrama.
I can’t remember exactly what it was that got them back in the car. Maybe he just wore her out. Something kept my parents together, just as something keeps my current wife and me, as contrasted with my earlier marital unions, together.
Half an hour later, we were checking in to the Raleigh, and that was fine with me! There was an open-air tropical juice bar a storefront away, where you could get all the papaya, coconut, or papaya-coconut you wanted! Coconut trees waved in the air like hula dancers, and after a day or so, like old friends. What was not to like?
Despite a bit of trouble at the gate, I had arrived in paradise.
|By Max Reif. Max is also the author of a recently published book of poems, Journey from here to HERE, which can be ordered online. To view more of Max’s writing, plus his artwork, visit his website.|