by Dick Miller
October 1, 2014. We were sad to learn of the recent death of Dick Miller. May his stories live on.
2013 Travel Nonfiction Winner
Photo by R.D. Smith on Unsplash
spring break in
1956, I took my first road trip with my dad in his 1951 MG TD
roadster from New York to Florida. It turned out to be quite an
adventure, and one I will never forget.
all started when my
mother and sister decided to take a cruise to Bermuda during spring
break and dad and I took our road trip at the same time. Dad was a
fireman, and was able to apply for vacation early in the year due to
his seniority. Spring break fell in April that year, so the weather
was very pleasant.
those of you who
are unfamiliar with the MG TD roadster, it is a quite small British
sports car, designed for sporting about town. It is not
designed for long road trips. The slab attached to the back of the
car is the gas tank, not a trunk. There is
Therefore, we would be traveling very light. We would be allowed one
small suitcase each. There was a space behind the two seats into
which the suitcases could fit with a bit of maneuvering: the seats
would be slid forward, the suitcases installed, and the seats
repositioned for travel.
car is Spartan in
other ways as well. There is no glove compartment. There are small
pockets inside the doors for holding maps and such. There are no door
handles. One opens the doors by pulling down on a cord suspended
across the inside of the door at the top of the pocket. There are no
windows. Instead, there are side curtains, seemingly cobbled together
from canvas, plastic, metal, and nightmares. These are bolted in
place onto the doors and attempt with limited success to keep the
wind and rain from entering the cockpit in inclement weather. Opening
the door while the side curtains are attached is tricky: one must
slide the rear portion of the plastic forward, reach through the
opening, grope inside the door, find the door opening cord, pull down
on it, and swing the door open with one's arm still sticking through
the side curtain opening. It sounds like a contortionist’s
maneuver, but you get the hang of it after a while.
into the car is
different from most other cars. Since it is so low to the ground, and
both dad and I are tall (although I was not very tall at age 12), the
accepted technique is to insert the inboard foot while seating
oneself and then fold up the other leg into the cockpit as you pivot
into position. The process is reversed to exit. This is definitely a
young, limber person’s vehicle.
engineers have some very creative ideas about how things should be
done. At least this was true in the 1950s when this car was designed.
For example, the windshield wiper consisted of a motor mounted
directly on the windshield. To start the wipers, the driver reached
across to the passenger side where the motor resided and switched it
on. The horn button was not on the steering wheel; it was on the
dashboard, just a hand span’s reach from the steering wheel.
Once you got used to this strange position, it was easy to reach
across and tap the horn button while keeping a thumb on the wheel.
Turn signals were not mounted on a stalk on the steering column; they
were on a ring surrounding the horn button. There was a tab that hung
down under the horn button: twist to the left to turn left, twist to
the right to turn right. The big difference is that these were not
self-canceling signals. After you made your turn they did not
automatically turn off. You had to remember to turn them off.
However, there was a timer that shut them off automatically after a
period of time no matter what. So if you were sitting at a very long
left turn light, you had to remember to keep turning the turn signal
light on again and again as the timer kept shutting it off.
that gives you
some idea of the idiosyncrasies of the vehicle in which we set off on
our great adventure. And what a great adventure it was!
off with a burn
sunny and clear. Mom and sister Marilyn had made arrangements with
friends for a ride to their cruise ship departure in Manhattan, so
dad and I said our goodbyes and hit the road. Of course, since the
weather was so great, and we were “true
term known to those in early sports car circles), we had the top down
and were enjoying the sunshine and breeze. We drove through familiar
territory on Staten Island, across the Outerbridge Crossing to New
Jersey, and headed for the New Jersey Turnpike. Dad had taught me how
to read maps, so he put me in charge of all the map reading. He was
constantly asking me questions about how many miles until this or
that or when the next rest stop would be. Now that I look back on it,
I suspect he knew all the answers, but was just keeping me busy and
giving me practice in my map reading skills.
soon got into
unexplored territory as we entered states I had never experienced:
Delaware, Maryland, Virginia. After a long but exciting day, we found
a cheap, clean motel and pulled in for the night. As I was getting
ready for bed, I washed my face and cried out in pain! My right ear
was red as a beet and sore as the devil. Apparently, all that sun and
wind had done a number on my fair complexion after a winter spent
indoors. We found a drugstore open late and discovered the miracle
drug called Solarcaine. Liberal applications of this lotion soothed
my ravaged ear, and I was able to continue with the trip, being a lot
more careful about how much sun and wind I exposed myself to.
Remember, this is the 1950s, before anyone knew what the letters SPF
we began our trip,
Congress had yet to enact the interstate highway system law, which
occurred in June of that year. As a result, we traveled on the old US
highways, where there were no restrictions on billboards, roadside
attractions, and speed traps. This was much more interesting. Here
are a few of my remembrances.
of the proliferation of Stuckey's roadside stands in the South and of
the treat known as a pecan praline. I also discovered that they sold
useful reference material, such as “How to Speak
From this document I learned the proper pronunciation of pecan, which
does not rhyme with man, and the difference between y'all and all
y'all. This stood me in good stead when I attended graduate school at
the University of Texas at Austin some years later.
of the Border
it has a
Mexican theme, this motel complex is not South of the US border, but
just south of the North Carolina border, barely in the state of South
Carolina. You would never know it from the advertising signs one sees
along the highway, however. They announce, “South of the
Border—just 217 miles!” or some such outrageous
actually stopped there on a subsequent trip when I needed a motel
room at 3 AM and everything was booked. They were big enough to have
one where the previous occupant was just leaving, so they made it up
and I was able to get some sleep.
is a bit of
Americana with which most people are familiar. Since I had not
traveled very far outside New York City at the age of 12, I had not
seen them. I made up for that deficit on this trip. Both dad and I
looked forward to these signs as we approached them on the highway.
One of my favorites was this one from 1955:
toil and sin
head grows bald
not your chin
squeezed orange juice
knew we had arrived
in Florida when we encountered roadside stands next to groves of
orange trees where freshly squeezed orange juice was sold. After
driving for hours in the warm Florida sun, we welcomed an opportunity
to stretch our legs, watch them squeeze the juice before our eyes,
and down the golden elixir to quench our thirst. It's amazing how a
simple pleasure like this can be so enjoyable.
main point of our
trip was to see some sights in Florida, and there was a lot to see in
the short time we had. Including travel time, there were only eight
days, so we had to choose carefully. We planned to drive south down
the Gulf Coast, cross over at Miami, and drive north up the Atlantic
Coast to home.
first stop was at
these crystal-clear fresh water springs, famous for their live
underwater mermaid shows. We were there on a weekday in April, when
the Florida schools when not on spring break, so the park was pretty
empty. We arrived early in the morning and had the swimming area to
ourselves. I used my snorkeling gear and was awed by the clarity of
the water: it felt like I could see hundreds of yards across the boat
basin. We had to wait a while for the mermaid show and the glass
bottom boat tours to open. It was quite impressive to look down
through the glass of the boat 100 feet to see giant channel catfish
feeding on the bottom.
next stop was at
Tarpon Springs, famous for its sponge diving industry. For a few
dollars we were able to go on board a working sponge boat after they
were done for the day and they demonstrated to us how the sponges
were gathered. Dad and I were the only two tourists on the trip. We
sat and waited on the boat until we heard a loud clump, clump, clump
approaching. It was the diver in his diving suit and boots walking
down the pier to the boat. We cast off, motored out a short distance,
the diver put on his helmet, the air pumps were started, and over the
side he went. He returned a few minutes later with a fresh sponge,
which was our souvenir of the trip.
positioned in the Gulf of Mexico in such a way that the current drops
a wide variety of shells on its beaches. It is known around the world
as a prime place for shell hunting. Dad and I found a cheap, clean
motel on the beach and, bright and early the next morning, headed out
for some shelling. The motel owner’s dog, a friendly
wanted to tag along. We were a little concerned because we thought
the owner might miss him. The owner replied, “Oh no, it's
he goes walking with all the guests. He loves it and he always comes
home when it's time to eat.” So off we went: dad and I and
dog. We found all sorts of wonderful shells: kinds we had seen only
in books. We like to gather shells on the beaches of our home in
Staten Island, New York, but there was nowhere near the variety there
that we saw this day.
our walk along the beach we had to cross a small creek at one point
to continue up the beach. After another hour or so, it was time to
turn around and head home for lunch. When we reached the small creek,
it wasn't so small any more. The tide had come in and water that was
up to our ankles in the morning was at least up to our waists at
noon. Thank goodness the dog knew his way home: he knew exactly where
the sandbar was in the river so that we could cross it without having
to swim. We came away from this experience with a wonderful
collection of shells and a new respect for the wisdom of animals.
Everglades, the Tamiami Trail, and Miami
was now time to cut
across the state of Florida to the Atlantic Coast and head for home.
As I said, the interstate highway system was not in place, so we took
a rather narrow, heavily traveled highway called the Tamiami Trail,
which cut through the Everglades and wound up in the vicinity of
Miami. We made a stop along the way in a rest area for lunch and had
a chance to see what the Everglades looked like at something less
than 50 mph. When we reached Miami, we headed across the causeway to
Miami Beach and ogled the expensive hotels lined up along the beach.
Looking is about all we could afford, so we kept on driving and
headed north towards home.
in the boondocks
I have pointed out
several times, we were not traveling on the interstate highways
because they had not yet been built. We traveled mostly on US 301
through the southern states. One of the features of this highway that
is absent from interstate highways is railroad grade crossings. You
can't tell until you're right on top of them just how bumpy they are,
so we developed the habit of slowing before we hit them because many
of them were pretty bumpy.
were not just uncomfortable; they were hard on the car as well. As I
pointed out earlier, British auto engineers have some rather creative
ways of designing cars. In the case of the MG TD, this includes an
oil filter in a brass container with brass fittings to which rubber
tubing is attached. Apparently, the repeated encounters with rough
grade crossings cracked one of the brass fittings where it attached
to the brass cylinder containing the oil filter. Of course, this
happened 13 miles from nowhere. I will give the British auto
engineers credit for including a fairly complete set of gauges on the
instrument panel: dad noticed the oil pressure dropping to zero as
soon as it happened. We pulled over, he analyzed the problem, he put
in the spare quart of oil we carried, he taped the fractured joint as
much as possible, and we limped to the next gas station.
next gas station
was in a very small town. They had someone who could weld, but was
not able to braze bronze. That mechanic was in a town 25 miles
farther away. So we taped up the fractured joint again, filled the
crankcase with oil, lined up oilcans on the floor between my legs,
crossed our fingers, and headed north. We had to make a couple of
stops to refill the crankcase with oil, but we made it and the repair
that was quite an
adventure for a 12-year-old kid. I saw a lot of new things, met some
interesting people, saw new places, and spent a week of quality time
with my dad. What more could a kid want?
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