When 'family' and 'vacation' were inseparable

The other day I paused by the curb to say goodbye to some family friends as they drove off for their two-week summer vacation. There they were: father, mother, and two sons, in an older station wagon packed to the windows. In an age when more and more people jet away, or cruise away, or take vacations to get away from their own children, the scene was pleasantly anachronistic and reassuring.

I recall a time when two weeks of vacation was all most people could expect. And the vacation was always within driving distance. When I was growing up in New Jersey, it was only natural that my dad's precious two weeks be taken during the summer, that blessed stretch of blue skies and warm days.

The destination of choice was neither exotic nor remote: the Jersey shore. More often than not, we'd depart for the shore and, upon arrival, meet our neighbors who had taken their vacations at the same time. There was fleeting disappointment at seeing the faces we thought we had left behind, but not enough to prevent us from enjoying ourselves on boardwalk and beach. For the first 12 years of my life, Atlantic City was the outer limit of my known world. Such was the modest tenor of the times.

During my 13th summer, though, there was something different in the air, something that didn't smack of the crowded reaches of the Jersey shore. I caught wind of it one June evening as my father hovered at the phone, the receiver cradled against his neck as he busily jotted notes. When he hung up, his face was positively aglow. Then he waved his arm before his family and grandly announced, "We're going to Florida!"

Florida!

The holy grail of vacations for a kid growing up in the New Jersey of the 1960s. Florida! It might just as well have been the Andromeda galaxy. My friends could hardly believe it. Their adulation made me feel like an emissary going off to explore some undiscovered country.

None of the other families on my block had ever been to Florida. My parents had gone there on their honeymoon in 1951, and their memory of the place had crystallized into something unblemished, most exalted, perfect. Their enthusiasm infected me and my two younger siblings. For the first time in my life I experienced some sleepless nights.

We intended to travel in July, the low season, when motels would be cheap. Our destination: Clearwater Beach. The motel my father had chosen was called The Islander. The price: $28 per night for our family of five.

My father organized the trip with all the aplomb and command of a sea captain. His detailed checklists of things to do and things to take were wonders in themselves. We were allowed one bag apiece and one hand-held toy or book. When the appointed day came (we never thought it would), he woke us at 4 in the morning. "Get up!" he announced in his jubilant reveille. "Florida!"

My brother, my sister, and I dragged our sleepy carcasses to the breakfast table and then out the door, where, in the darkness, my father was packing the '62 Chevy Nova, the car he had kept spotless and in pristine running condition since buying it new for $2,479. To his credit and determination, he got all five of us and our luggage into the cramped vehicle. Then, as the sun broke over the horizon, we slowly lumbered away from the curb. My mother, in a fit of euphoria, broke into a chorus of "Carolina in the Morning."

As we maneuvered the almost vacant streets on our way out of the city, I was already feeling a little antsy sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with my kid brother and sister. Twelve hundred miles lay before us. I was wondering where in the car we were going to fit all the souvenirs, the shells from the beach, and the crate of real Florida oranges.

And then, without warning, the car stopped in front of a familiar house. I watched, slightly horror-stricken, in the dawning light, as my grandmother - my grandmother! - eased herself down her stoop with her moth-eaten '30s-vintage suitcase. My father got out, and the groaning from the rear of the Nova was audible as Grandma, in all her girth, compressed me and my siblings into an anxious, sweating mass. Then she looked down at us and smiled. "Now," she said, "could anything be nicer than this?"

And so the six of us inched up the "on" ramp of the New Jersey Turnpike in that tiny car and headed south, without air conditioning, without cruise control, and without room to move a muscle. It was only the vision of Florida that sustained us through eight states and steadily increasing heat. But when we finally got there - heaven.

Now, in my adulthood as a teacher, I have embarrassing amounts of free time at my disposal, and I travel at will. But like anything one has a surfeit of, there is a tendency to take it for granted. I have traveled all over the world, often enough that I can barely separate one experience from the other. Was that Iceland or Italy where the swordfish was so delicious? I don't know.

But Florida! By today's standards of family travel it was a small step; but it was a giant leap for a teenager feeling forward for distant horizons, eager to know what lay beyond the Jersey shore.

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