Road Trip: 1950

Evelyn McAmis Bales 


Copyright 2002 by Evelyn McAmis Bales

The events in this story took place the summer I was 8 years old. My father had owned 2 or 3 used cars, but during World War II we did not have a car. For years prior to 1950, only one family on our road owned a car.  Owning a car was a life-changing event for us as it opened up a whole new set of experiences  that we had not had before..   This story tells of one such experience of our family going a vacation to Florida. in 1950.

In 1950 World War II had been over long enough for consumer goods to become more readily available after their scarcity during the war. Early in the morning on a wintry day in January 1950, my father and twelve-year-old brother went to the local Chevrolet dealer to buy my father’s first new car. He had owned two or three used cars briefly before the war, but it had been years since he owned a car. Mother and the other four of us children stayed home to await their return. It seemed one of the longest days of my eight-year-year old life. Mother was cooking pork tenderloin for dinner and had to reheat it several times thinking each time they would return soon. She had biscuits ready for the oven but was not about to bake them until she saw the whites of their eyes.

Finally, in the late afternoon, a new Chevrolet with my father at the wheel arrived at the end of our long unpaved driveway. My siblings and I raced down the driveway to see this new wonder.
Oh, the smell of the new car; its white paint glistening like new snow in sunlight! Oh, the dreams it evoked. Why, anything was possible in this bright chariot. We each sat at the wheel turning it as if driving ourselves, dreaming of all the places we would go.

Mama asked Daddy why it took all day to buy a car. Daddy began to tell in great detail how he finally got the dealer down to $1750, the price he was willing to pay. We were fascinated with Daddy’s story of arguing with the salesman until he got the price down just where he wanted it. He explained that the car was a Chevrolet Fleetline Special, six-cylinder, straight drive.

Soon after, we all loaded up in the car for a drive. Daddy drove to East Tennessee State College as it was called then, and said, "One of these days all of you are going to go to college." Imagine that! Nobody in our family had ever gone to college. Our grandfather was a public school teacher, but he was trained by other school teachers in Greene County, Tennessee, where he grew up. That campus looked a mystical place; we had never seen such large buildings with names like Administration Building and Dormitory. Daddy claimed college for us that day.

Spring came and went that year without my remembering anything specific about it. I know I finished third grade that May, because I have the report card to prove it. But something new was about to happen that we would measure the years of our childhood from for a lifetime. Mama and Daddy announced that we were going to Florida on a vacation. We had never been on a vacation before, especially one that involved going anywhere other than visiting relatives. We got the World Book Encyclopedia out and looked up Florida. We would see the Atlantic Ocean and Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth at St. Augustine!

Mama was busy the whole month of June making shorts and sun-backed dresses for us to wear to Florida. Of course, we all had to have bathing suits. We bought those at J.C. Penney’s. Mine was red and tied at the back of my neck. It was a shapeless thing that accentuated my pot belly but was very stylish for the time. I think that was the year we got pajamas, too. Soon we were all outfitted—no small feat as there were two parents and five children to be fitted and clothed.

Finally, everything was packed for the trip. Our two-year-old sister rode in the front between Mama and Daddy. The other four of us rode in the back wearing our new shorts Mama had made. We were in fine fettle for perhaps half an hour. Then the trouble started. "Mama, make him quit leaning on me. Mama, his leg is touching mine. Mama, she’s rolling her eyes to make me mad." In retrospect, we should have known better. Mama was always prepared for any eventuality. This day was no exception. She whipped her little keen peach tree switch out from somewhere, leaned over the back of her seat and swiped across eight legs below where the new shorts stopped. Mama was going to enjoy this vacation come hell or disgruntled kids. Mama didn’t ask who started the ruckus. She didn’t care who started it. "Let that be a lesson to you," she said. "Any time one of you feels like starting trouble, that’s what is going to happen. All of you are going to get a whipping." She had us right where she wanted us—all in one place so one flick of the switch would get us all at once. After that keen reminder, we began to settle arguments among ourselves.

Once we got through the mountains of western North Carolina, Daddy started driving 60 miles an hour. My older sister says she sang My Faith Looks Up to Thee all the way because she knew Daddy was going to get us all killed driving at such a pace. We younger siblings were totally oblivious to any danger as we were still young enough to trust our father completely. I do remember Mama biting her nails some.

The first day we made it almost to Jacksonville. We spent the night in a motel which was another new experience for us along with sleeping in pajamas. All I remember about Jacksonville was waiting in line for the drawbridge to come back down so we could cross the St. Johns River...and being afraid the thing would open up and swallow us while our car was on top of it.

Driving down Highway A1-A, we got our first glimpse of the ocean. Daddy pulled the car onto the shoulder of the road, and we all ran up a sand dune to look. My older brother ran right down to touch the sea, but I was terrified of all that water and noise. At the same stop we were also introduced to the sulphur water flowing from fountains along the highway. Having seen one too many western movies, we decided if we drank that poison water we would surely die before we got back to Tennessee.

We climbed back in the car to resume our drive to Daytona. Unfortunately, the car got stuck in the sand as we tried to get back on the highway. We learned later that pulling off the pavement was a common tourist mistake. Before long some kindly natives pushed our car out of the sand, and we were on our way again.

At Daytona we put on our bathing suits first thing. I was embarrassed to see Mama in a bathing suit. I had never seen her in anything as skimpy. What was she thinking? Looking back, I suppose no one saw her as a sex symbol with five kids in tow. Perhaps a dominatrix, though, with that peach tree switch in her hand. Our first time in the surf a wave knocked us over. I thought my little sister had drowned. Enough of that water that hits back for me. I’ve seen the ocean, swallowed its briny elixir and felt its bottom on mine. I decided that would be fine for me in this life.

My sisters and I were enamored with the beautiful senoritas dressed in long gowns, each with a lace mantilla on her head, who guided us through the fort at St. Augustine and gave us our very own drink from the Fountain of Youth. For years afterward, we dressed in long gowns and lace window-curtain mantillas and played Fountain of Youth in the smokehouse.

Daddy’s intention was to take us all the way to Key West, but the threat of hurricanes have caused many Florida vacations to be cut short. Mother, being terrified of natural disasters, was immediately ready to turn back when she heard there was a possibility of a hurricane. Our last night was spent in a motel somewhere along the Indian River with my older brother begging to go home.

Once the car was headed north, Daddy became a homing pigeon. The backseat passengers were in a sunburn-induced stupor. I don’t know what happened to my little sister. I have no memory of her after the wave upended her at Daytona. The sun does weird things to your head. Mama and Daddy’s legs were sunburned. They weren’t speaking. Our Chevy Fleetline did not have air conditioning. I have blocked out every memory of that return trip except for an overnight stay at a crab orchard stone motel off Highway 19E in Burnsville, North Carolina. Perhaps the brain goes into preservation mode when reality becomes too difficult to bear. I do remember feeling very important in fourth grade that fall when the teacher asked us to tell the class what we did on our summer vacation. Like a seasoned traveler, I put the best possible slant on the story; but it would be twenty years before any of us thought about going to Florida again.

But I have not told the whole story. The trip to Florida was a benchmark in our young lives opening our eyes and perhaps our parents eyes to the possibilities in this world. Geography took on a new significance for us. We were able to find ourselves in the world. Mother taught us to read the road maps. She pointed out where each river began and where it emptied into a larger body of water.Mother was a voracious reader who knew about drawbridges and sulphur water although she had never experienced either one. She knew pelicans and flamingoes and many of the shore birds. Daddy knew the trees and vegetation of the states we drove through, knew the gray stuff hanging in the trees was Spanish moss. We soaked up this new information like sponges, dreamed of all the places we would go and all the things we would see. Our childhood voyage was education at its best with parents embracing the teachable moment and children eagerly taking it in. Knowing Mother had that keen peach tree switch sure helped to keep us focused.

Evelyn McAmis Bales is a writer living in Kingsport, Tennessee.  Her poems and stories have been published in Appalachian Heritage, The Southern Poetry Anthology: Tennessee Edition, Bloodroot, Kudzu and other journals and magazines throughout the Appalachian region and beyond. Her poems were performed in Florida as part of Tapestry, a play by the West Palm Beach Repertory Company. Her chapbook Kinkeeper is available at Finishing Line Press as Number 18 in the New Women’s Voices Series.

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