The car's clock came up to noon as we passed through Newark and Jersey City along the New Jersey Turnpike. The stench and smoke of industrial plants along the highway reminded me of my father's stinky cigarettes. The tops of New York City's skyscrapers could be seen in the distance towards the east. We had been to the Big Apple a couple of times during our previous annual migrations south. This time, it held no allure for the Florida-bound Simkovits clan. Our family had been lifted years earlier to the top of the Empire State Building, then the tallest building in the world. It was windy that day, and Dad could not get his cigarette lit while my brother and I huddled around him at the outdoor observatory.
On another day we took a shivering boat ride around the Statue of Liberty where Dad grumbled that it was " hideg mint egy kurva, (cold like a whore.)" For lunch, we dined on chicken soup, lox, chopped liver, and tasty rye bread at a deli in Times Square. We also spied unkempt black men wheeling racks of clothing down the streets of New York's garment district as we shopped for bargain wallets, purses and key chains among the sidewalk street vendors. Dad wanted to get some cheap souvenirs for his key people at Montreal Phono's plant and office.
As those black workers passed by, under her breath my mother said something to my father about " piszkos fekete (dirty blacks)" and " Boldog vagyok nincs azokat az embereket Kanadában ( I'm happy we don't have those people in Canada.)" She had similar sentiments about her home country's cigányok , gypsies. I felt a little cringe inside me every time my mother or father said such comments.
During our New York nights, my brother and I watched late-night TV on 24-hour stations while my parents went out with some of my father's New York business associates for a fancy dinner, a Broadway play, and after-show dessert (bringing us back a piece of tall New York cheesecake). None of us wanted to stop in New York this time for more sightseeing, cake or chopped liver. Mom's desserts and homemade, onion-fried and egg-laden ground chicken liver was just as scrumptious.
"New York City is too crowded and dirty," Dad said as we passed by. "It's dangerous for people like us with Canadian license plates."
Perhaps he was right. In Montreal we never saw so many metal grates, shutters and padlocks protecting store windows and doorways, and so many cars with cracked windows, banged-up bodies or bald tires parked on the streets. New York was an unwanted diversion from reaching our south Florida beach hotel. Instead, after we passed Newark airport, Mom took us through another round of her backseat-kitchen goodies.
After Mom's car lunch, Dad stopped again for gas. He bought a Mid-Atlantic States map, Mom threw out the trash, and we all made another bathroom run. After eleven years of the same, we had the routine down pat.
Steve took over the driving, with Dad taking my front seat position, and me taking over my brother's back seat spot, ready for a nap. My driving-assistant job was done for the next six to eight hours. I could put my head on a pillow and stare outside until my eyes shut. I glanced at the passing billboards and the occasion license plate, and watch the patchy-snow-covered farmer's fields pass us by. The fields' furrows seemed to be running right alongside our car. I was satiated and satisfied with my mother's back-seat cuisine, and gazed into the world as it went by, white-line after white-line, car after car, license plate after license plate, billboard after billboard, field after field, mile after mile, anticipating how much warmer it would be, and wondering which state we would be in, when I would wake up.
The sky was getting dark when my eyes opened again. From the highway markers I could tell we were in Virginia. "Did I sleep through Delaware, Maryland and DC?" I asked as I rubbed my eyes and I stretched my arms and legs as much as I could in our crowded car. My brother heard me and said, "I'm up to thirteen states, Harvey; you better get cracking." I had seven license-plate points when I fell asleep, and we rarely saw more than twenty-five different state and provincial plates for our whole trip. "I guess you are going to win this one, Steve," I acquiesced.
I was glad DC was behind us. As with New York City, Washington had become a "been there, done that" experience for our family. Dad had taken us there for a few of days on our fourth car trip to Florida in 1964, when both my brother and I entered into our double-digit years. It was during the time his Kosice step-mother stayed with us in Montreal for six months, the first time he had been with her since he escaped from communist Czechoslovakia in 1948. Dad wanted to " megmutatni Amerika ( show America)" to the woman that raised him along with his step-brother-my father's natural mother having died when he was a toddler.
In Washington, we did a boring bus tour of Arlington Cemetery and the John F. Kennedy Memorial, among other sites. It was the year after JFK's assassination; both my parents had cried when he died. They wanted to visit his final resting spot. On the day JFK was killed, kids in Montreal were let out of school early. Dad came home from work early-a rarity for him-and we all stayed glued to watching Walter Cronkite on TV. Over and over again, the news anchor took us through what was known about the President's shooting earlier that day, and his subsequent death in a Dallas hospital. My teary father could not stop saying, "Gosh; it's unbelievable." My mother kept on saying, "He was so young; and his kids just babies."
The snowy weather, combined with stone buildings and monuments of DC, reminded me of the stone-cold expression of my nagymama (grandmother). A tall, heavy-set, rectangular-faced, Slavic woman, her lips seemed always tightly pressed together. Only my father could separate those lips by making her smile or laugh. She spoke only a few words of English, and spent most of the day quietly sitting in the same chair, either watching TV (though she did not understand a word), or darning her clothes, or writing letters and postcards to her eleven siblings back in Czechoslovakia. When she wasn't sitting in her room or in front of the TV, she hovered around my mother while Mom cooked and cleaned the house. I rarely approached her, unless Mom asked, "Go and nicely call nagymama for dinner."
" Létszives gyere enni, nagymama (please come eat, Grandma)," I said, and then lead her into the kitchen like a dog leading its master.
One evening, while I was doing my school work in front of my favorite afternoon TV show, nagymama attempted to speak in English. Pointing to me and then the TV, she asked, "You do school on TV?"
I called Mom from the kitchen and told her what my Grandma has said. We both laughed as Mom made an attempt to explain to her what she had said. Nagymama later complained to my father about how we had made fun of her. When Dad asked Mom and me about it later, my mother said in our defense, "Nagymama misunderstood us. We were not laughing at her, just at what she said." He pressed Mom for more information, and my mother added, "Why are you and she making such a big deal out of it? She's always telling me how to cook and clean, and I don't say anything."
Nagymama seemed to have held a grudge. She spent more time in her bedroom after that; and her first time visiting us in Montreal also became her last.
Nagymama and my mother at the JFK
memorial, Arlington Cemetery, late
December, 1964, during an unusually
snowy week in DC
In Virginia, we started to see SOB billboards sprouting up along the road. "Steve," I suggested to my brother, "let's forget about counting license plates and spot the SOB signs."
"Good morning, sleepyhead," Dad said. "We'll be at South of the Border sometime around midnight. We'll stop there like we usually do." He cracked open his window to take in the fresh Virginia air, and to light his pipe once more before Mom's car dinner.
SOB (South of the Border) was a southwestern-style resort hotel, restaurant and retail shopping complex right on Rt. 301 (I-95 was not yet complete through the Carolinas). It lay in South Carolina, just over the North Carolina border. Dad said, "Did you know that SOB got started as a beer joint in 1949 to attract people from North Carolina where it was illegal to serve booze? Lots of people traveled there just to get a drink. It only developed into a vacation place in the early 1960s, after the state's prohibition was over.
"They built it just for us," Dad added with a smile. "And they even have a small chapel there if someone needs a fast wedding," he giggled, poking at my adult brother who recoiled with a laugh.
One could not miss SOB. A giant, neon Pedro (SOB's Mexican mascot) and a nearly 100-foot climbing tower with a giant, spot-light lit, multi-coloured metal sombrero at the top greeted arriving visitors. Over a hundred billboards from about two hundred and fifty miles in either direction foretold of SOB's coming. Steve, Dad and I vied to see which one of us first noticed the next SOB sign during the hours leading up to the place.
We rolled into South Carolina's South of the Border soon after midnight. The weather rarely went below freezing at this highway oasis for weary travelers. We exited our car for the first time without our winter coats, and went straight for Pedro's Coffee Casa and souvenir shop that were open 24 hours a day. As in previous years, the place was flush with noisy travelers. All the sitting booths were taken. Dad had the four of us sit at the long counter along one wall so we would not have to wait.
My tired eyes stung from the restaurant's bright lights. The hubbub of passers-through and running servers kept me from nodding off. We ordered our customary Pedro's chicken soup from our behind-the-counter waitress. She had a small, colourful, sewn image of Pedro on her shirt above her breast. When our soup was put in front of us, we quietly spooned it down, our faces hanging just above our bowls. We all blew into the hot liquid in unison to cool it off. Steve and I slurped down chocolate milkshakes with whipped-cream toppings. Dad downed a couple of black coffees. Mom had a Sanka decaf with two packs of sugar.
After he finished, Dad stood up. "Hurry up. I'm going to pay the bill and go find some tooth picks for my dessert."
Mom added, "Make sure to go to the bathroom, and we'll meet at the souvenir shop to shop for tchotchkes." My mother grabbed and tucked away a fistful of paper napkins and sugar packs into her purse-as she did at every coffee shop and restaurant we stopped at. Had there been some bread or rolls left from our meal, she might have carefully wrapped them in a napkin and taken them too.
The SOB retail shop was loaded with a treasure trove of cheap souvenirs. We examined the shot glasses, drinking cups, coffee mugs, and wooden backscratchers-all decorated with colourful images of Pedro or his sombrero. Dad bought a few things for his office staff; Mom picked up some items for her brother and his family in Montreal. Dad let Steve and I pick out one item for ourselves that he paid for. Anything else had to come from allowances.
My brother and I each obtained yet another back scratcher (previous ones being broken or lost). Those long, shellacked wooden sticks also came in handy for dueling when he or I got into a brother-poking mood. Back home, those SOB souvenirs joined similar items on our basement bar shelf, or became tucked away or lost in a drawer, or were given as gifts to my Montreal uncle, aunt or cousin. A souvenir from Pedro, carefully wrapped by Mom in white tissue paper and a small brown paper bag, always brought a grin or hoot or kiss, and a " köszönöm szépen , Nusikam (thank you very much, Anna dear)" from Lali bácsi és Marta néni ( Uncle Lali and Aunt Marta) .
As the clock neared 1 a.m., Dad started the car engine. Backing out, he glanced up and down the road, "We should someday pass by here during the daytime to play some mini-golf, or climb Pedro's sombrero tower, or get something at his Ice Cream Fiesta ."
We agreed with Dad, yet we never visited Pedro by daylight when the rest of the resort was open. (Our return trip put us there again in the middle of the night.) The moment we left SOB, we knew Florida was not far away.
I was by Dad's side again as he drove the rest of the night on Rt. 301 through the sleepy towns and dark villages of South Carolina and Georgia. He was careful not to drive more than 5 mph over the speed limit. He was not about to be stopped by a ticket-hungry cop who was short on his quota. It seemed like every hour or so we passed another one of those buggers. Either their cruiser lights were flashing after stopping an overzealous driver; or their vehicle lurked in the darkness by the side of the road, ready to pounce on an unsuspecting traveler. The speed limit was down to 50 and 55 mph, and considerably less in and near the villages. The limits were lowered by 5 or 10 mph at night, indicated by special coated signs that reduced the number when a car's headlights shined on them. Few travelers were on the road in the wee hours of the morning, and Dad could keep a steady, though reduced speed.
Dad kept his right hand firmly at the top of the steering wheel as he placed his left forearm on his lap, lightly pinching the side of the wheel between his left thumb and index finger. As he held his right hand's fingertips on the backside of wheel, he lifted his right hand's palm every minute or two to check his speed on the dash. My father was a good driver; never had an accident, and rarely received a speeding ticket. I always felt secure with him taking us places.
My belly was satisfied with Pedro's cooking. I had little to do besides watch far-off, bright headlights take many minutes to come toward us from a distance, and then quickly zip by and disappear behind us as if they never existed. After what seemed like a long time of my head bobbing on a car pillow against the window, I nodded off.
The sun was rising over the horizon when I woke up on the morning of our second travel day. Spanish moss hung from the southern oak and cypress trees. I had tried to stay up to help my father with map reading and anything else he might need, yet sleep took me over well before Savannah, GA. I did not remember Dad stopping for gas in the middle of the night, for cold outside air no longer rushed through an open window or door to spur us awake. Dad was now on I-95 again and doing near 80.
"Good afternoon, sleepyhead. Hope you had a good rest," Dad said quietly with a smile. "Did you know that Spanish moss is neither Spanish nor a moss?" he added as he pointed to the oak trees lining the highway.
"Yes, I know, Dad." (George had told us years ago that it was some kind of plant.)
Looking for a road sign, I asked, "Where are we, by the way? And, how much longer do you think before I can drive?" I said as I yawned.
"We're already in Florida, which means we're almost there," Dad told me with another grin.
I knew Dad was kidding. We had six to seven hours of driving left in the Sunshine State. I-95 was not complete along the entire Florida east coast. We had to cross over to Orlando on I-4 and take the Florida Turnpike south. The turnpike was laid with a concrete hardtop instead of asphalt, something unusual for us Canadian folk. That highway rumbled louder under our car's winter tires.
"When do you think I can drive?" I asked again.
"As soon as everybody is up and we have some breakfast. We'll then stop for gas and you can take over."
My waking eyes were still tired, and the sun rising above the horizon made them sting. But the worst of the trip was behind us. I could feel the warmth of the early-morning sun enter my body as the disk rose steadily higher into the sky. It beckoned me to bask like a purring cat.
There was more room to maneuver in the car. Most of Mom's cuisine had been devoured; bags of food garbage had been removed at our gas station stops; the satchel between me and Dad had been moved to the back seat; and our winter coats were miraculously stuffed or into our swollen trunk when we left South of the Border. Moods lifted as we all awoke from restless car sleep, peeled off our sweaters, put down the car's visors to block the sun's bright rays, and donned cheap plastic sun glasses that Mom had brought for each of us.
My father kept his promise. I took over the driving after another round of hard-boiled eggs and our next gas stop. Dad asked me to adjust the car's speedometer beeper to 75 (5 mph over the limit) so that I stayed under that speed. He grumbled when I surpassed it one too many times, the beeping keeping him from nodding off. I worked to keep my speed in the low 70s, which, considering Florida's flatness, became easier each passing mile. Soon Dad was snoozing, snoring like a hyena in heat. He had driven through the night, and was awake the whole previous day keeping his eyes on Steve while my brother was taking us through the busy east-coast sections of I-95. My father was dead tired. It felt good to know he trusted my driving enough to fall asleep. Every hour or so, Mom leaned forward from her back seat and quietly asked, "How are you doing son? Not too tired?' She took a breath, "Should Daddy drive?"
I kept my attention forward, both hands on the wheel, and told her, "I'm fine, Mom. I'm doing just fine."
Rumble, rumble, rumble, cha-chunk; Rumble, rumble, rumble, cha-chunk. The Florida turnpike and its concrete road panels and expansion joints raced below our Toronado's winter tires. Oak and cypress trees were lush along the highway. Short palm trees were planted at the exits. The only time I could see past the forest was at the occasional overpass that crossed a water canal or a perpendicular road. In any easterly or westerly direction, dark green treetops, brownish bogs and light blue sky were the colours of the day.
After hours of snorts and groans as his head moved up and down on his pillow against the window, Dad woke up. It was noon. He immediately asked, "Okay, where are we?"
With the Florida map on his lap, my brother chimed in from the back, "We just passed Palm Beach. We probably have about 45 minutes before we hit the Lauderdale exit."
Dad rubbed his eyes and looked through the mirror on the back of his visor. He put his fingers through his straight-back hair to get it in place. "How are we doing on gas, Harvey?" he asked as he shook the sleep from his head.
"We are down to a quarter of a tank."
"That should be enough to get us there. Gas is more expensive on the turnpike, so we'll fill up after we get to the hotel."
Turning around to look at Mom, he said, " Cica, van valami maradt enni ? ( Kitten, do you have anything left to eat?)" Dad could be affectionate when his stomach was growling. Thank goodness his belly noises were not as loud as his snoring.
My mother had anticipated the question. "The kids have eaten already, but I saved you a couple of fa-sirt and some rye bread. And I still have some Vichy left." She pulled out the last bottle to show him.
"Ah! Warm square bubbles," Dad said. "Bet it tastes like piss."
After eating a fa-sirt-on-rye and taking a few swigs from the bottle, Dad let out a big belch. "Yoy! That was good piss."
We all knew it was futile to fight again Dad's crudeness. If we did, he might say, "Excuse me," and immediately forget we said anything.
My father had his fill. Mom asked, "So what are some of the things we want to do during our days here?"
"First, I want to get some more rest," Dad retorted.
My brother chimed in, "Can we go to Miami Seaquarium again, and go fishing on the Lauderdale ocean pier next to our place?"
There was something about fish that Steve enjoyed, but I never liked the dead fish and live worm bait smells on that pier. I preferred to hang around the pool or beach with my comics, work on my tan to impress folks back home, play shuffle board and paddle ball, or kick around the soccer ball with Dad and Steve.
Mom leaned forward and touched Dad lightly on the shoulder. "And let's go to Black Angus steakhouse; you and George always like that place. And maybe we can go out for New Years again. What do you think the Mogils are doing this year?"
Gilbert Mogil was Dad's company accountant who first convinced Dad to come to Florida in 1960 over the Christmas holidays. Mogil also drove down with his wife and older kids. They stayed at the Attaché Motel in Hollywood, a hangout for the Montreal and New York Jewish crowd. We had stayed there with them for a couple of years. Dad found that place crowded and expensive, especially since he sprung for pool-side happy hours and occasional dinners for his friends. He continued to take Mom to the New Year's parties there with the Mogils.
After Attaché, George found us a cheaper place, "Petit's ['Small's' in French] Riviera" in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. George had been attracted there by the French name. The owner, Mr. Petit, was a retired French Quebecer. George liked the idea that he could pratiquer son Français en Floride . The local corner store carried Quebec newspapers, for we were not the only snowbirds about this time of year. Early every morning, before the rest of us got up, George had a coffee with Mr. Petit and talked about les nouvelles du Québec.
Petit's Riviera had small apartments instead of hotel rooms, with a kitchenette in the living room. Dad liked the idea that Mom could make us breakfast and lunch every day during our stay, thereby saving money. To give Mom a break from cooking, we went out to dinner every night to a different restaurant, and to Black Angus at least twice during our stay.
Dad jumped back in, "We can talk about all that tonight during dinner. Right now, let's just get there, get unpacked, and get to the pool where I can get some rest from all this traveling."
It was curious how we never tired of doing the same Florida things year after year. In a couple of hours, after we arrived, we would put on our bathing suits and suntan oil, and be baking in the sun until we were medium rare-like one of Black Angus' tender, bloody, mouth-watering, plank steaks that always hung over the edge of the long, flat wooden plate on which it was served. (Every time I thought about it, I could feel its tender meat between my teeth and taste its succulent juices and steak spices in my mouth.) Suntans were cheap souvenirs of our time in Florida that we could take home to show everyone in cold, sun-deprived Canada what great tanning weather we had enjoyed.
Mom, Dad and nagymama at the Attaché
Resort Motel in Hollywood, FL. 1964.
We exited the turnpike near Lauderdale-by-the-Sea before 1 p.m., entering familiar town streets. Mom and Dad looked out to see what changes had occurred from the year before.
"Look at the new sandwich shop over there, "Mom said. "Maybe we can try that place for lunch one day." Perhaps Mom did not want to prepare all our mid-day meals; or maybe it was the new women's clothing store next to the sandwich shop that interested her.
"And I see at the new tobacco shop there too," Dad said.
That store might be enough to have him take us out for lunch as Mom suggested.
"They have milkshakes at that lunch place," Steve added. "Look! Double-chocolate malted Oreo shakes," he read off a window poster.
"Yum," I said. "I'll have two."
An obese man with a paunch many times bigger than my father's was walking down the street. As the guy entered the sandwich shop, Dad said with a smile, "I feel much better when I see a fat guy like that."
"I bet you can outdo any guy like that with your elephant snores, Dad," I thought to myself.
As we drove into our hotel's parking lot, everyone shouted "Hurrah! We made it," with our arms up, touching the car's ceiling-yet I kept one hand on the steering wheel. Dad would get angry if he saw me driving with my knee as he sometimes did.
"Good driving, son," Dad said. "Now you and Steve get the luggage out of the trunk, but leave all the winter coats and my rubbers there. I'll check in while Mom gets all the junk out of the car. We'll then go look for George and Mimi, who are probably sitting by their beach apartment waiting for us."
"And don't rush off to the pool too fast, Mom said. "I have to make a shopping list. I need to know what all of you want for breakfast and lunch."
"Okay, Mom," Steve and I said as I opened my driver's door and looked at the tall palm trees that were waiving in the warm Florida breeze to our arrival. I stepped out of our car, stretched my stiff legs, and gazed up to our hotel's moniker half-way up the building in front of me. "Petit's Riviera" it said in big cursive letters. I stood next to the car for a moment, taking in our not so petit travel accomplishment as my brother squeezed himself out of our Toronado's back seat through my front door. "Here we are, Lauderdale; the Simkovits snowbirds have arrived! Dad and I (with a little help from Steve and Mom) did it! So now, sunny, sandy and surf-y Florida, what have you got in store for us?"
. . . .
Dad and Mom stayed awake most of the time when my brother and I were driving during our journey to Florida and our return trip to Montreal. It took them days to recover their energy each way. After this Florida car-travel vacation, Dad never drove us south again for the Christmas and New Year's holidays. Instead, we flew on package deals for a solo week away right after Christmas and into the New Year. We went to Freeport, Bahamas (besides sitting on the beach, there was little else to do there other than go to the casino or shop at the International Bazaar); and Havana, Cuba (where the tour busses broke down and we hardly got out of the hotel); and St. Ann's Bay, Jamaica (then a three-hour hot bus ride from Montego Bay's airport); and Cancun, Mexico (where we stayed at a cheap hotel in town and everyday took the local bus to crash at different beach hotels.)
For most of those trips, Dad brought an entourage of his and Mom's relatives or friends. (Dad never liked traveling south with just the four of us, and he could wrangled a free trip for himself when he signed up ten people on a package.) Those Caribbean vacation spots were an acceptable tradeoff to our long southerly drives. The weather was warmer and sunnier than Florida, and the gulf a light blue. Nevertheless, I did miss those hours sitting by Dad's side as his trusty driving lookout, assistant, confidant, calculator, navigator and son.