Sunday, August 20, 2006

Gimme a V, an A, a C, an A, a T oh never mind!

When I was a kid, we would go to Florida once a year right around April or early May or so, or about the time Mom would starting talking to the spatula and getting answers. Not that she was any weirder than most mothers of the early sixties whom you could find picking up a little extra formula to stock up for the blessed event along with her Marlboro’s. Six months along she rode in the car without seatbelts while the old man’s best friend put his ’57 Plymouth into a river one night because “he knew the way.” Ok, Dad, this guy was over from Germany. Remember that famous sense of direction from the war? Stalingrad? We were supposed to open a second front in Marseilles!

Mom just came a little unhinged at the beginning of the end of a long Canadian winter. This was a season that started around American Thanksgiving (Canadians have theirs a month earlier, the idea being the Pilgrims celebrated somewhere near Oshawa and then the weather turned so they made for Plimoth) and ended somewhere around Memorial Day. This also was a holiday Canadians don’t have since they have nothing much to remember.

At any rate, both my parents would get cabin fever and would figure out that Dad had, in 1968, enough vacation to allow him not to work until 1992. So they would pull out an old Holiday Inn hotel directory, some road maps (one with ‘Stalingrad’ crossed out and ‘Singer Island’ written in in pencil) and plan another journey down south. I of course was thrilled since it would get me out of school for at least a week and this year, I might miss Canadian spring which was a season marked by the melting of months of snow, uncovering dog turds deposited the previous December.

We drove. We always did. It was how my parents were able to afford a vacation. For starters, there was only one of me and I stayed in hotels free if I was under six. And of course, I was six until my voice broke and even then I was six with a bad cold. Plus I didn’t eat much, plus in those days Exxon paid you for gas, it was that cheap. We also stayed at an efficiency motel in Florida which meant that Dad got to pack sun tan lotion, swim trunks and dark glasses while Mom got to pack a fry pan and kettle. Yep, breakfast at home. Num.

We could make the trip by car in about three days. Dad drove insanely long distances, harangued my mother about her map reading skills, told me to pipe down and listened to AM radio all the way down. We didn’t have FM radio. We did have huge Chryslers, but they all had AM radios. Every few years, Dad would go downtown to buy a new car. He never took us along; car buying was something serious men did and women and children only got in the way. Anyway, I would watch him go and hope like hell that THIS TIME he came home with a car. An elegant, graceful machine. Red, bucket seats, a stick. Something that said quiet muscle and refinement and every time I hoped for that I was disappointed when he came back with some slab sided monster of a Fury, Polara, Gran Fury III (apparently one and two died on the operating table or went bad and threw a little girl down a well) and I’d resign myself to hiding in the back seat of another one of these monsters for the next three years. But they made the trip in relative comfort, seeing as the front seat was as big as our living room and we only ever listened to AM radio in the kitchen anyway.
I remember one trip that we started out at around seven in the morning. I had set my alarm clock for six and mysteriously unplugged in once it went off. Like I wanted to freeze time while we were away or have a permanent memento of having gotten up to go on vacation. We loaded up the family tank and headed for the border. Those days, the border was fun. It was a little wooden cottage with a swinging screen door that creaked appropriately and a picture of the president. You stopped, they asked you where you were from, where you were going and would you please have a pleasant day. Of course, the warm familiarity of the American side would be offset on the Canadian side when you got grilled about where you were going and why and just what the hell was wrong with vacationing at home anyway? Hint: Permafrost and Tundra versus Palm trees and Sand but lets not get too obvious, shall we?

Like I said, Dad would drive like hell for about ten to twelve hours and we always tried to get south of Washington, DC on day one. We usually made it to northern Virginia except for once when we got gas outside of the beltway and the attendant told the old man that the clicking sound the engine was making was as a result of the oil pan being almost bone dry. Yep, Dad had neglected to check the oil which he remedied by blaming Chrysler for making primitive machines that needed lubricants in the first place. That trip, and that first night, we got a complete oil transfusion and wound up in a the mother of all awful HoJo’s See, my folks were pretty much creatures of habit and somewhere in there they glommed on to any kind of overnight residences being either Holiday Inns or Howard Johnson’s. Now not that this should disparage either of these fine companies, we had plenty of good night stays with both. It’s just that Mom kind of artificially narrowed the field when she would ask directions to the nearest Holiday Inn or Hojo. What if the franchise board hadn’t made it to that part of South Carolina?

The mother of all bad Hojo’s that night was a run down place just outside of Washington. It was run by a guy who was a part time innkeeper and full time antiques junkie. The lobby was filled with grandfather clocks and old chairs covered in signs telling you not to sit on them. He carried the antique theme over to the hotel in that it seemed that none of the rooms had been cleaned in a good long while. Somebody must have had a “how many burning cigarettes can you rest on a level surface and forget?” contest in the room we stayed in and we were too tired to spend a lot of time watching color TV, a novelty for us in the early seventies. But at least the prostitutes kept their voices down while arguing that night…

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