It is summer. Full on swampy summer. Florida summer. The kind of weather that only mad dogs and Englishmen would be out in. The kind of weather that you’d want to drive to Florida in an unair-conditioned Plymouth.
So come along with me and the rest of the 20 Prospect Clan, on our Summer Vacation 1975…
In the summer of 1975 the 20 Prospect family piled into our Forest Green Metallic 1973 Plymouth Fury and set sail for Florida. It was to be an epic vacation for the clan, a 2 week tour to sunny Florida. As a family we had never ventured further away than Pennsylvania on a family vacation, spending most of our holidays in close proximity to our Western New York homeland. But in winter of 1975, Mom and Dad saved their money and planned to introduce us to the world. Well, a good chunk of middle America and the Southeast at least.
Dad never took the direct route anywhere. That was for novices lacking in imagination and creativity. No, he spent weeks planning our route and having a AAA Trip Ticket assembled for our adventure. The southbound route would seek out 4 lane interstate highway as much as possible, taking us West on I90 through Pennsylvania and into Ohio, turning southward through Kentucky, and Tennessee, before angling back East into Georgia and Florida. Our return was to be a straight shot up the Eastern Seaboard through Georgia, the Carolina’s, Virginia (which at the time was “for lovers”) Maryland, Pennsylvania, and home.
And so, before dawn one July morning in 1975, we set out from Batavia on the New York State Thruway to begin our 3 day journey to Florida. Mom had roused me from sleep at 4 am, and the excitement of the trip was not quite enough to keep me awake once we had made the requisite stop at the Dunkin’ Donuts around the corner, for coffee and donuts. I slept the first 45 minutes in the car as the sun began to rise, ensconced between Dad & Mom in the front seat, while my Bruddah, and two Sisters shared the backseat. I awoke as we pulled into the Angola service center for the first bathroom break. It was the first of many wonders, a building built between the north and southbound lanes, with enclosed pedestrian bridges over the highway from the parking lot. The thrill of watching semi trucks pass beneath me at 55 miles per hour was about as good as life could get for a 7 year old boy.
The hours in the car passed slowly. The comic books I brought along for the trip gave me headaches to try to read, despite the plush, loping handling of our land yacht. Entertainment consisted mostly of scanning the horizon for other amazing sights, like fields of grapevines along the shore of lake Erie, or blooming fields of Chrysanthemums behind the “Mums” restaurant in North East, P.A. The wonders of nature continued as we reached Ohio, and discovered that the rest stops along the interstate were equipped with pit toilets. Oh the excitement! Oh the smell!
I can’t remember where we stopped that first night. I can only remember it seemed like we’d been on the road for over 12 hours. Perhaps because we had. The bypasses around Cleveland, and Columbus seemed to last forever. For a state that looks so small on the map, Ohio takes an eternity to cross.
The entertainment on Day 2 consisted of a game to be the first to spot “Stuckey’s” signs along the road side. Points only counted in you shouted “STUUUCKEEEYYYS!” at the top of your lungs. Between this, and the road noise from the open windows it’s a wonder we had any hearing left. Did I mention that the Fury did not have air conditioning? Yes, six people in a car on the open road through the bible belt in the sweltering July of 1975 is a smell that one can never forget. It is burned into my memory, just like the lyrics to “Midnight at the Oasis”. While Wikipedia claims it was released in 1974, the song by Maria Muldaur, a classic piece of 70’s schlock, played about every 30 minutes on our AM radio during that trip.
Relief from the heat came from thunderstorms in Tennessee, which unfortunately required us to roll up the windows. I sat on the floor of the passenger side in front of the floor vent feeling the cool breeze and road spray on my face. It was a tad moist inside our rolling green terrarium to say the least. The second evening we stayed at a Travelodge in Knoxville, that blessedly had an outdoor pool. Much swimming, and rejoicing.
This was the summer of my Fried Egg sandwich fetish. It was all I would eat in the restaurants along the way. In the rural America of the mid 70’s, McDonald’s were a rarity, and a place considered not suitable for daily meals. I mean really, you had to stand to order. No, road cuisine consisted of Howard Johnson’s, Sambo’s, Lums, and local diners. There was no such thing as non-smoking. You ate in a blue haze of Salem, and Winston smoke, and the food was served by women named Stella in brown and orange smocks. It you were lucky, they had a peg game on the table to entertain you while you waited. The whole decade was orange, brown and yellow, including most choices on the menu. Somehow, and for some reason, my parents humored me by politely requesting a fried egg sandwich with nothing on it at every restaurant from New York to Florida. Somehow, and for some reason, these polite bee-hived southern women humored the strange looking Yankee waif, and for that I will be eternally grateful.
I can still remember the excitement and thrill of the crossing the state line into Florida, and looking to be the first to spot a palm tree, or orange grove. It was an exotic, other worldly place. We spent over a week traveling in Florida. We visited Cypress Gardens, and took in the water ski show, back when the place was just gardens and a ski show. We visited Clearwater, and marveled at the little lizards running around pool side at the motel. We stayed in motels with outdoor swimming pools, and I played with kids from South Carolina, who had strange, exotic accents. We ate peanut butter cheese crackers, and Tom’s Pork Rinds from the vending machines before bed. We fought over who would be the first to break the paper seal on the toilet seat in the room. Or who would get a quarter for the magic fingers on the bed. We went to the Ocean, and collected sea shells, and played on the beach.
The centerpiece of the vacation was a visit to Disney World, which was still in its infancy. I closed my eyes and screamed my fool head off on Space Mountain, and crawled from the car crying when the ride was done, much to the amusement of my elder siblings. We rode the carousel of progress, and the Pirates of the Caribbean. Toured the Haunted Mansion, and ate waffles for breakfast on Main Street U.S.A. I’m not sure who enjoyed Disney more, me or my parents. They loved the place, and would return many times in the next 30 years, with the grand kids.
But not everything went well on that vacation. While waiting in line for Captain Nemo’s Undersea adventure, I had to go to the bathroom, and while I was inside, I missed the launch of Apollo – Soyuz in the sky to the east. Something I will regret until the day I die. Later that day my 18 year old Bruddah wandered off and got separated, resulting in much frustration for my folks. He didn’t turn up until we got back to the car after the fireworks. Just the first of many rebellious acts on his part.
We visited the Cape Canaveral after the launch, and toured the museum there, before heading north for home. I don’t remember much about the return trip, aside from hellacious traffic jams passing around Atlanta, with nothing to look at but Kudzu, and a filthy dirty Ramada Inn in South Carolina. After we returned to 20 Prospect, I pined for the adventure of the family vacation. I would look over the map of Disney World again, and again, wandering through Adventureland, and Tomorrowland, over and over in my mind. I would ride my bike down the sidewalk to the southern corner of Prospect Avenue, and stand looking out onto Oak Street, thinking “a person could take this street South, and eventually end up in Florida. What an amazing world.”
We would return again in 1976. This time in our new air conditioned Chrysler Newport, and without my Bruddah, who was working a summer job to save up money for college in the fall. The AM radio had moved on as well, and now played “Afternoon Delight” by the Starland Vocal Band all the way there and back that Bicentennial Summer. The world was red-white-and blue, and we would celebrate July 4th, 1976 at Busch Gardens. We were seasoned travelers now, and had added in Ft. Lauderdale, to the staples of Disneyworld and the Kennedy Space Center. That would be the last of the big family vacation. My siblings were graduating one by one, and soon it would be just me and my folks taking the mid summer trips around the country. Looking back on my childhood vacation, it’s little wonder that I would someday take to the open road like a duck to water. As much as my roots were planted deep in the soil of 20 Prospect, a part of me always thrilled at the thought of being shaken from sleep at 4 am to begin another epic journey to faraway lands.