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I knew the Galaxy was immense. I just never realized how roomy it would be. Yet that was the feeling as I drove down I-95 to the Florida Keys. It was spring break. I had one hand on the wheel and the other out the window, slapping time to the music coming from this massive Ford Galaxy.
It was a mid-sixties vintage – a time when cars were boats. There were five or six of us, all about twenty – college buddies and girlfriends.
The trip had all the forethought and planning one would expect from college juniors.
“Hey, you wanna go down to Florida… maybe see the Keys?”
“Uhh… sure. Anyone have a car?”
Someone did. The Galaxy would be supplied by one of my friend’s parents’. First, we had to go to New Jersey to pick it up. The night before we hit the road, we crashed in various rooms, beds and floors of the parents’ house. They were generous with their house and their car and food but they had one strict rule: no sleeping with the girlfriends… not under their roof.
As I recall I shared a pullout in the basement with one of my buddies. Now… this next recollection is a bit hazy through time but in my sleep, I must have forgotten I wasn’t with my girlfriend and gave my buddy a smooch. I’m not sure he even woke up. I realized my mistake. Whatever. And drifted back to sleep with dreams of being on the road.
The next morning the mom had breakfast ready for us and lots of sandwiches for the road. Lunch was covered… maybe dinner too.
I suppose we had maps though I don’t really remember. The only navigational guidance we needed was directions to the interstate - I-95. From there it was just a straight run down to Florida, past Miami and on to the Keys.
We wanted to see Key Largo, like in the Humphrey Bogart movie and then to Key West. It was reputedly crazy there and the closest you could get to Cuba.
Years earlier, before our time, before the embargo, Cuba had been a Spring Break destination. Now for those of us on the East Coast, Spring Break meant – Daytona Beach, Ft. Lauderdale, Miami and for us… the Keys.
My friend’s dad gave us careful directions to the I-95. This is what Dads did. And still do.
We filled up the 25-gallon Galaxy gas tank @ 38 cents a gallon, which came to about 9 dollars. So, the six of us ponied up $1.50 each to get us at least as far as Virginia. Sandwiches. Cokes. Gas. We were on the road.
You ever see the interior of a Ford Galaxy? It is immense. You could easily fit three across and there was even room for people to curl up in a corner and sleep. This we did a lot. We rotated drivers with absolutely no plan or logic – whoever felt most awake got behind the wheel.
The Galaxy had a little push button AM radio and one tinny speaker. But so did all cars back then. That’s what we were used to. The music sounded great… for a car.
Around this time there was a new Carly Simon song called, “You’re So Vain”. The lyrics were intriguing and it was good traveling music. It was also getting heavy rotation on all the AM stations. The song popped up in Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and so on down the east coast. I think it was around Delaware that we picked up on Mick Jagger’s background vocals.
Passing Baltimore I gazed out the window and pondered the phrase, “…they were clouds in my coffee, clouds in my coffee…’ I dwelled on that as we passed Washington, D.C. in the distance.
And so, a new meme began in the Galaxy (decades before the nomenclature of the meme). Whenever anyone said anything about themselves, the others would promptly hurl the accusation, “You’re so Vain…. you probably think this song is about you!”
This got us happily to the Carolinas.
Somewhere on this stretch, my girlfriend came down with a cold. Is there anything worse than traveling when you’re sick? I remember years later when the flu hit me on an eight-hour layover in Frankfurt. The thing of it was we weren’t coming home and to bed. No, we were on our way to Africa for a job.
That’s how I first arrived in Africa – sick. And no one cared. No one cares when you’re sick. My crew ran into town during this Frankfurt layover for a few hours for fun. And to get away from me.
Anyway, my girlfriend was getting sick so she curled up in the corner to sleep. This meant she didn’t join our merry on-the-road mayhem. Every road trip develops its own language, jokes and songs over the miles.
I felt bad for my girlfriend that she wasn’t playing in our new band. There was even some murmured whispers from a few of the others, not happy with her reclusiveness. Well that was awkward. Suddenly the Galaxy didn’t feel as spacious.
Respite came in the evening hours as the others dropped off to sleep. Then around 2 in the morning, there was a commotion up front. They had spotted something and we were suddenly pulling off the interstate.
In the dim light I saw the unmistakable peaked roof and yellow sign… Stuckey’s! This venerable southern purveyor was a favorite from childhood travels. I used to stuff myself with their pecan log rolls and play in the back seat with Adams Magic Tricks bought at this roadside paradise.
And they were selling fireworks!
Ok, this meant everyone had to wake up and get with the firecrackers. It didn’t matter that it was the middle of the night. We came from New York, where it was harder to get illegal fireworks than grass. Here in the South, these precious little combustibles were as bountiful as Coca-Cola. Here was an opportunity that couldn’t be skipped. So, we all jumped out to play – even my sick girlfriend.
There on the edge of the road, we lit and tossed firecrackers, oblivious to passing traffic, sleeping residents, wildlife, basic decency and our own safety. Barely out of our teens, we were invulnerable and we were on the road. Plus…. fireworks.
I Suppose It’s A Small World After All
Coming into Florida, there was talk of Disney World. It had just opened a year or two before. I had been to Disneyland with my parents as a youngster and had even seen Uncle Walt himself, driving an electric Model T Ford. But now the idea of a theme park seemed so uncool. My girlfriend agreed – we were definitely not playing well with others.
So, while they scraped together their $4 admission fees, we made plans to go into Orlando. I wouldn’t return to Disney World for another twenty plus years with my eight-year old. And then again when she was sixteen, for a Harry Potter convention. (As she waved her wand at Homeland Security, I reassured them, “Don’t worry, it’s not a real wand”.)
Anyway, my girlfriend and I went into town and being the film students and film buffs we were, made for the nearest art movie house. There, our only choice was a several years old release of “Fiddler On the Roof”… in Orlando.
So there we were, watching Tevye up on the screen, dreaming of being a rich man in his Ukrainian village of Anatevka. Down the road, our fellow travelers from the Galaxy were hanging with Goofy on Main Street, USA. It is a small, small world.
Moon Over Miami
We pulled into Miami in the early evening. I hadn’t been here since I was a kid and barely remembered its coral and aqua apartment buildings. We all had places we could crash so the group divided. My girlfriend and I made our way to her grandparents’ apartment.
I had never met them and was surprised at how tiny they were – like miniature ancestors. But they were very welcoming and happy to meet the ‘boyfriend’. The grandma was relentless and kept overpowering me with food.
It had been a long haul on the road and I was dead tired when I stumbled into the bathroom to wash up. Stepping to the sink, I jumped back at the sight of the grandfather’s glass eye sternly checking me out from a juice glass on the sink. I held its stare as I brushed my teeth. Ok, I probably blinked first.
The next morning the grandma foisted more food on us for the road. Then we joined the others for the final push to the Keys.
Here, we bid farewell to our four lane companion, I-95 and continued on a bright stretch of U.S. 1, past Homestead Air Force Base and the Everglades Alligator Farm, headed for the southern edge of the USA.
Key Lime Pie
We rolled into Key Largo. But the motels and Publix market didn’t really conjure up memories of Bogart’s “Key Largo”. Like the rest of Florida, it was flat, but here, also narrow. How odd to view the passing sea on either side of the highway. Let’s just say the Keys are really skinny. We also splurged for some key lime pie, which was a sickly shade of yellow, not lime, but still excellent.
Around this time, I was tiring of “You’re So Vain”, so I started reading. Somewhere I found a crushed paperback novel by John Updike about a guy named Rabbit.
Rabbit was old, like forty something. He lived by himself and somehow got into a situation where he agreed to let two young kids, lovers actually, stay with him. The kids must have been about the same age as my girlfriend and me. I thought that very generous and tolerant of Rabbit. I couldn’t imagine any middle-age guy doing that for us.
As we drove on to Plantation Key, Long Point Key and then Bahia Honda Key, I thought about Rabbit. Maybe he was putting up the kids in his place because he thought he could rekindle some of his youth. But what did that even mean? I was young, so what does feeling young even feel like? I didn’t know; I had no point of reference, not yet being old. It was just life.
I didn’t even want to imagine what it felt like being in your forties. It all seemed kind of grim. Where did I find this book?
On Bahia Honda, we stopped at a nice, cheap campground next to the sea and set up our tents. It was a pretty place with orange and grapefruit trees everywhere. My girlfriend promptly crawled into our tent and passed out for about eighteen hours.
I can’t honestly remember what we ate – maybe oranges and grapefruits… We tossed Frisbees and hung out on the narrow beach. Families and little kids ran about. We were college juniors sitting on a spit of land somewhere in Florida between one Key and another. Where was this journey taking us? Did we even know we were creating memories?
The Last Chapter
I went back to my book. Again, the young kids were making love all over the house, when Rabbit was gone and sometimes when he was there. I wondered if I would be that generous when I was a middle-aged guy like that.
OK. Stop everything. Hold the waves. Freeze the kids. Even stop Watergate… which was just warming up back in D.C.
Cut ahead to Now. I am that middle-aged guy. Ok, ok… I’m older than that guy in the book.
And frankly, I’m not sure I would put up with those kids. Or even put those kids up. They were self-entitled brats. And I think Rabbit was only trying to punish himself or maybe make amends for something that wasn't his fault.
Perhaps it’s a generational thing but I think I feel younger now than Rabbit did then. And I’m not in awe of the sexual freedoms the next generations bring. Hey, we’re the ones who started all that.
Ok, back to the beach. Resume the action. Now some of the others were starting to feel sick. We looked at each and decided that Bahia Honda Key was the end of the line… at least for this spring break. We wouldn’t be partying in Key West.
We’d hang out, juice up and work on our East Coast tans right here at this campground.
The owner of the place had posted a sign, giving guests permission to pick some fruit from the many bountiful citrus trees. Being young and witless, I suppose we didn’t really dwell on the interpretation of the word, ‘some’.
So, early on the morning of our departure, we loaded up the massive Galaxy trunk with about 200 pounds of oranges and grapefruits. We filled the immense trunk to the brim, even covering the spare tire. Unfortunately, the owner happened to swing by before we sealed the trunk for our trip back to New Jersey.
Of course, he gave us hell, but the fruit had been picked. It was a fait accompli. Kinda like the six of us. We had already been picked from our respective trees, we were still fairly green, but we were out in the world… ripening.
There was nothing left to do but squeeze the juice, hit the road and head back to school.
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