“Music radio WABC!” the speaker blared. And there was much rejoicing.
Somewhere along Interstate 95 during a North Carolina sunset, three kids, age 9 to too-cool-to-be-stuck-in-a-car-with-family, had just experienced a miracle: A tiny remnant of their familiar, New York-area world was actually coming through on the car radio.
Peace suddenly reigned. Two minutes earlier, my brothers and I had been fighting. We were bored. Every station we’d found was playing country or religious music, it was too dark to look for the next cheesy “South of the Border” sign, and we were all tired of breathing each other’s air.
In short: It was another road trip to Florida.
Between 1969 and 1981, my parents, my brothers, sometimes my intrepid aunt and I regularly made the roughly 26-hour drive from our Jersey Shore home town to my grandparents’ apartment on the beach in Hollywood, Fla. We nearly always went down during our winter break (a.k.a. Portuguese Man-of-War Season, so no beach) and often spring break (a.k.a. the Season of Finding the Passover Afikomen — hidden matzoh — Amidst Grandma’s Breakables) as well. Although we loved to see our grandparents and great-aunts, that road trip was a killer.
For starters, not all the highways we traveled were actually completed. My dad had to contend with local byways across the Jersey Pine Barrens, an unfinished Interstate 295 and an unfinished I-95 in Florida, among others. The detours were not usually entertaining and sometimes ended poorly (like the time my dad got caught in a speed trap in Brunswick, Ga.). Most of the time, we ended up driving down local streets where the weathered old houses presented a very different picture than the well-manicured suburb we’d left behind.
Sometimes, our detours were self-inflicted. I’m sure the drive was dull for my dad, but that’s no excuse for his occasional desire to “follow the gull” over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, an engineering marvel I failed to appreciate as a child. Inevitably, I would have to pee just after we passed the one little island with a rest stop on it. (On the plus side, I once amazed a teacher by being able to properly spell and pronounce Kiptopeke, which lay just beyond the terminus, back in the land of bathrooms.)
The best bypass, around a piece of unfinished I-95, somehow led us to Hale Groves, where there were free samples of impossibly fresh orange juice. Two experiences tie for worst: 1. One Easter Sunday, our car broke down in Titusville, Fla., where no garages were open. For days. 2. We had to drive through the middle of a wildfire in central Florida. Nowhere to go but forward.
Oh, Florida, you traumatized me.
No matter the circumvention, we’d eventually meander back to old I-95. Rocky Mount, N.C., which I erroneously believed to be the start of the eponymous range, was a sort of dividing line. Once past there, we could no longer count on getting radio stations playing anything remotely current until we hit Florida. Listen, you modern families with your DVD players in your minivans and books on CD: You stand on the shoulders of generations who drove down miles of endless roadways with nothing but an AM/FM car radio, some books and some barf bags. What can you possibly know about being the youngest child, forced by her siblings to sit on the hump in the back seat of a Plymouth Fury III (perhaps the ugliest car known to man) so she was uncomfortable as well as spiritless? And then, to be left without a decent music station?
I don’t have actual scientific evidence, but I believe that arguments between my brothers and me skyrocketed as soon as we lost our radio pacifier.
We kids did attempt to entertain ourselves (turns out you can never really be that bored when you’re bored together). North Carolina and South Carolina highways were and are still dotted with billboards advertising the kitschy roadside attraction called South of the Border. Are the punny signs clever? Groan-worthy? Your call. We fought over who was the first to see “Chili Today . . . Hot Tamale!” and, once we’d passed the tourist trap, looked backward in order to read the signs from the other direction. (We only actually stopped there once. Surprise: I had to pee.) We also looked forward to our frequent stops at Stuckey’s, which introduced me to my two gateway drugs of choice, peanut brittle and coconut patties. I never did find a license plate key chain with my name there, though.
On weekend travel days, we prayed to find a station playing Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40.” Our old friend Casey’s voice reminded us that, one day, we’d be back home and out of each other’s pockets. Of course, whatever songs were topping the charts played incessantly, becoming the trip’s soundtrack. To this day, when I hear Jose Feliciano croon “Feliz Navidad,” I’m immediately stuck on a high bridge in northern Florida. My mother, Queen of the Malaprop, often misheard a song and renamed it forevermore. (That one about truckers and Rubber Duck, so popular in the mid-’70s? In my family, it’s called “Condor.” Don’t ask.)
My years-long travel hell ended with the advent of the People Express cheapo flight in the early 1980s. After about two hours in the air, I’d see my Gramps waiting at the Fort Lauderdale airport gate, and off we’d go. Miraculous, it seemed. Decades later, my kids, my husband and I flew into Fort Lauderdale, missing out on 26 hours of detours and at least 24 hours of children squabbling. But People Express and my grandfather were both gone at that point.
And my brothers and I, once bitter captive travelers, now fondly reminisce about our battles over who controlled the radio and who sat on the hump.
Stein is a freelance writer in Arlington. She blogs at wrekehavoc.com. Follow her on Twitter: @wrekehavoc.