Relishing endless family moments on the coast of Florida
There we were again. The Pryor family riding along south in the family “truckster” on another Florida vacation. By 1980, we had graduated from an Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon to an ugly brown custom van, but, the trip itself, including its destination and anticipated adventures, was the same for me. My life was full of family vacations to Florida from my earliest childhood to those happy days of July travel with my own young children and understanding wife. You see, just as my father before me, I did my best to give my family a memorable vacation, but, looking back on it all, a lot of mistakes were made.
It all began with my father, affectionately referred to by me as “Daddy.” He started the Florida vacation tradition in the ‘50s when he would pack the family Ford every July for an unaffordable trip to Daytona Beach. Daddy took care of all the travel arrangements because, after all, that was his profession. He spent his entire career in bus transportation, and a large part of his work was preparing schedules for bus service and chartered tours. He loved to print out what time we would leave and exactly what time we would arrive in Madisonville, Cartersville, Atlanta, and, of course, Silver Springs and those glass-bottom boats. We did Silver Springs every year because, as a bus man, Daddy could get complimentary free passes. Some years ago, when I was cleaning out the family home, I discovered a box of vacation photos, and 90 percent were of fish taken through those clear glass bottoms. Some of the photographs included shots of our shoes as we sat in a circle peering through the glass into the clear Silver River below. If you know anyone looking for a lot of photos of fish swimming around 1950s-style shoes, just have them give me a call.
One year Daddy decided he would air condition our old Ford by buying a block of ice and placing it in the front passenger floorboard. We rolled up all the windows and he turned on the heater fan to blow across the ice and cool the ride for even us kids in the backseat. Genius idea, except the ice melted by the time we got to Etowah, and my mother was in ice water up to her ankles. Daddy never had an air-conditioned car or one with power windows because he considered them “just one more thing to break.”
After we checked into our apartment in a house just a block or so from the beach (no such things as condos in those days), Daddy would rush out to buy smoked mullet. No one but Daddy ate mullet, smoked or unsmoked, but he apparently loved it. I never knew him to regularly drink beer, but he loved tavern snacks. In Florida, he would always buy a couple of beers to enjoy as he ate his pickled hard-boiled eggs and those short, hot pickled weenies. He’s the one who taught me to appreciate sardines with cheese and crackers on our Florida vacation. Even today, I still crave sardines with crackers and cheese complimented by Vienna sausages and Beanie Weenies when I hit the Florida line.
Daddy was not a fisherman or an outdoorsman at all, but always wanted to take me fishing when we were in the Sunshine State. I remember a catfish once caught him while we were fishing on a pier on the Halifax River. Did you know a catfish has spines that stick out and stab the skin of your hand if you don’t know what you are doing? I learned that watching my father lying on the pier crying out in pain with blood everywhere. Not the image he was after.
When I was a child, our Florida vacations were real adventures. We always attended a band concert at the bandshell, hand picked Indian River oranges walking in the scalding hot sand of a random orchard, built sand castles, ate tons of shrimp, and visited old St. Augustine and that ancient fort. Daddy would never stop to let us see a man wrestle an alligator or go into the “Reptile House” for fear we would get off schedule. Bathroom stops were rare. There was no Magic Kingdom or Universal Orlando in those days. If there had been, we probably would not have gone because they would not have served smoked mullet.
Our Daytona Beach vacations always included nightly visits to the Boardwalk and the amusement park. One year when I was barely a teenager, I took a friend on vacation with me, and when no one was watching we put peroxide on our crew cuts and suddenly became two blonde and tanned hunks walking around the beach looking for babes. That was the year my buddy and I met two hot but older girls from Knoxville and took them on a date to the Boardwalk. We ate lots of hot dogs, cotton candy, and candied apples then boarded the Ferris wheel. The bad news was the ride stopped a lot and the buckets rocked and swayed at the top of the ride. More bad news was that my buddy got motion sickness and threw up in his bucket. The worse news was my knockout date and I were directly under my buddy’s bucket. In fact, there was no good news at all about that night, and when we disembarked the girls hit the ground running and disappeared into the neon lights of Joyland.
Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, my wife, Norma, and I regularly vacationed with our three children in Florida, first primarily on the East Coast and later on the Gulf Coast. Many of those fun vacations were with 15 or more other Knoxville families and their children, but, just like my dad, I always prepared a strict itinerary. For several years, we loaded our Vista Cruiser and pulled a U-Haul trailer crammed with high chairs, baby cribs, tricycles, balls, and toys of all sorts. One year, to save on space, Baby John rode in the baby crib in the back of the station wagon like a pet monkey, and in Florida he crawled on the beach leaving a trail in the sand like a snail. It’s a wonder we weren’t arrested for child abuse. I discontinued the stops in Silver Springs in favor of Disney World, but always bought a big bag of oranges, a few beers, and lots of sardines and crackers.
Seems like most years we had at least one emergency room visit for a jellyfish sting, a kidney stone, or some kind of gastrointestinal concern. One Easter Sunday, the Easter bunny left Easter baskets for our three children just as we hit the road to return from visiting relatives in Riviera Beach. Within 20 minutes of starting north on the parkway, I had to stop on the side of the road because the boys had smeared my daughter Amy’s face and hair with melted marshmallow chocolate from candy Easter bunnies. I think that’s the maddest I ever saw my wife Norma. I still carry a vivid image of her spinning on the side of the Sunshine Parkway tossing those three Easter baskets into the swamp like a discus champion. The children recall that incident every time someone talks about how sweet their mother is.
These days, my Florida vacations involve children, grandchildren, and our grandchildren’s friends and fiancés. It sure can get chaotic and mistakes still occur. As for me, I’m still my father’s son, dedicated to tight travel schedules and an occasional can of sardines enjoyed with a cold beer.