(Editor’s Note: We are posting this story in two parts. Part 2 will be our feature post on Wednesday, October 30)
My Dad’s service in WWII ended with the surrender of Japan in August of 1945. After four years of war in Europe his return to civilian life was something less than successful, and he re-enlisted in the Army Air Corp in 1946. With family in tow, he was stationed at Lowry Air Force base in Denver. Our next stop was Fort Wright in Spokane, and then in the summer of 1947, we were sent to Fort Gulick in the Panama Canal Zone. I was in the fourth grade and the Canal Zone was a great place to be nine years old; I loved it. The jungle that started just outside our back door extended all the way to Columbia, and we were allowed to roam at will.
When school ended in June of 1948 we all hit the base swimming pool at about seven one summer morning and we stayed in the pool all day. Panama is very close to the equator, and with my red hair and fair skin, –think Pillsbury Dough boy– my little butt burned to a crisp. By nine that night I was in the base hospital with 2nd degree burns all over my body.
During the years that Dad was overseas, Mother worked in a defense plant in New Orleans while I lived with my maternal grandparents in Ruleville, Mississippi. My grandmother thought I hung the moon, and when she found out I was in the hospital with severe burns, she came running. But getting to Panama from Ruleville, Ms in 1948 was no easy trick. First, she was on the City of New Orleans, then the Pan American Clipper, with stops in Mexico, Costa Rica and Honduras, before finally arriving in Panama City following an all-day flight. This little grandmother, who might go to Memphis once a year, didn’t hesitate to go to such lengths, as her baby was sick and she was coming to get him.
As soon as I was released by the Army doctors, we prepared to go home to Ruleville. On the day of our departure my parents drove us across the Isthmus to Panama City and thus began an adventure that I remember in vivid detail to this very day. My grandmother was decked in her Sunday go-to-meeting outfit, severely cut wool suit, sensible shoes and nylon stockings, with the seam perfectly lined up and pill box hat. Armed with her wicker “grandma basket” containing enough food to feed the entire crew and all of the passengers of the Queen Mary, we set out for home.
My grandmother was absolutely terrified of flying and I suspect that I was the only person on earth who could have gotten her anywhere near an airplane. She assumed a firm grip on the armrest and gritted her teeth, as she personally held the plane in the sky. The first leg of our journey took us to Kingston, Jamaica for a re-fueling stop, where we deplaned and spent an hour or so listening to a calypso band while drinking the punch provided by Pan Am. No one mentioned that the punch was laced with rum, and we both got snockered. Once we were airborne and on our way to Havana, demon rum sent us to la-la land,and we were snoring away when the big four engine Boeing hit a massive air pocket and the whole business dropped about five hundred feet. It scared the hell out of me, but my grandmother woke up and said,
“Now that was fun; I wonder if they can do it again.”
(It was probably a good thing that she was a teetotaler. There may have been a party girl hidden under that prim exterior.) We were still a little tipsy when we landed in Havana, but we stayed on the plane during re-fueling and were soon on our way to Miami International. After clearing customs, we were met at the baggage area by my grandmother’s niece, and hence my distant cousin, Julia Belle.
Julia Belle was in her early thirties, and to my nine year old eyes she seemed like an old lady. She wore tailored shorts with a halter top and sandals, very Florida and her hair was tied up and hidden under a bright orange turban, very Carmen Miranda. Julia Belle helped us with our bags as we made our way to the long-term parking lot and her 1939 Plymouth Coupe. The back seat had been removed at some point in the past, though I can’t imagine why, and the trunk was the size of Carlsbad Caverns. Our plan, as I understood it, was to spend a day or two at Julia Belle’s apartment, then the three of us would drive the Plymouth to Mississippi. This would give Julia Belle a chance to visit relatives while getting grandmother and me home, all of which sounded like a workable plan to me.
As we stowed the luggage in the humongous trunk, I realized that with no back seat, the three of us would have to share the front bench seat. Since I was the smallest, I sat in the middle, accepting my place in the pecking order. Things were going just fine until Julia Belle threw her right arm over the seat-back to look as she backed up. This left me at eye level with Julia Belle’s right armpit and I immediately knew something was terribly wrong. I was engulfed in a stench akin to a stack of dead dogs smoldering in the Delta sun, and as I gasped for clean air, I discovered there was none to be found. Finally Julia Belle managed to back out of the parking place and resumed her normal position. This was long before the blessed advent of auto air conditioning, but thankfully the windows were down and as the air cleared, I thought to myself,
She must have been working in the yard before she came to pick us up, but I sure hope she takes a bath as soon as we get home. A small amount of body odor lingered in the air, but nothing like the full shot I received at the airport.
The drive home from the Airport took about forty five minutes but I didn’t think much about it at the time. Traffic was heavy and I assumed we were making standard time. Subsequent events would disprove this theory.
That night my grandmother changed the bandages that covered blisters the size of fried eggs across my back and shoulders, and as she re-bandaged me, Julia Belle attended to a much needed shower. We spent the next day seeing the sights in Miami, which included Miami Beach, where we gawked at the beautiful hotels and had lunch at a beachfront hot dog stand. I thought Miami was okay, but I really wanted to get started on our drive to Mississippi.
In 1948 there were no interstate highways, but Florida had built several very modern four-lane roads to promote tourism. These were a great improvement over the old two-lanes which went through the heart of every little burg in their path. I had asked that we stop and get one of the free maps that every service station gave away so that I could follow our progress. I proceeded to map out the optimum route, and as we were about to leave I offered to share this information with Julia Belle. She promptly let me know that she had no plans to get on one of those four lane race tracks; too many cars going way to fast, she said. Instead we were going to take US 1 all the way to Jacksonville. After consulting my map, I concluded that at 50 MPH, we could easily be there before dark on the first day. The traffic in Miami was bumper to bumper, but I felt certain things would loosen up as we left town. Eventually, Miami gave way to Hialeah, then to Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale. It was nearly noon when we finally made it to Fort Lauderdale where we stopped for a hamburger at a roadside café. We had been on the road for close to three hours and had gone less than 50 miles. I re-calculated my flight plan as I munched on my burger. Jacksonville was totally out of the picture for this evening, so I settled on Daytona Beach as our likely overnight destination. The traffic remained heavy until we cleared Fort Pierce around three that afternoon, and finally we hit the open highway. I expected we would accelerate and at least drive with the flow of traffic, but Julia Belle maintained a steady 40 MPH. As the cars and trucks began to stack up behind us, I decided to mention the increase in the speed limit.
“You know it’s really great to finally get on the open road and we should make up for lost time with the speed limit at 60 MPH.”
“I never drive at the top of the limit; it’s just too dangerous. I try to find a happy medium that’s safe.”
I looked behind us at the ever growing line of vehicles and thought,
Talk about dangerous, wait til these guys behind us get desperate to pass, then you’ll see dangerous.
Soon my prediction was coming true and every time there was the slightest opening, a car or truck would gun it and fly out in the passing lane. It was usually a game of inches and often the oncoming car would have to slow down and, in one case, pull over on the shoulder. Julia Belle kept a steady 40 MPH, not noticing the mayhem all around us. She also started to get a little ripe and even with the windows down I could smell her armpit just beyond the tip of my nose. We drove until 7:00 when, even in the dead of summer, the sun started it’s decent in the west. I was hoping we might drive until it was pitch black dark, but it seemed that Julia Belle would not drive even in the twilight, let alone the dark of night. We were still a little south of Titusville when we pulled into the parking lot of The Cape Canaveral Cabins.
This was long before the advent of the Space Psrogram, and Cape Canaveral‘s main claim to fame centered on Spanish shipwrecks and Patrick Air Force base. The Cape Canaveral Cabins were what were then known as a Tourist Court. It would be years before Kemmons Wilson brought consistency to the motel business, and quality varied all over the place. These little cabins fell somewhere near the bottom of the spectrum.
After Julia Belle checked in and pulled the car over to one of the little units, we grabbed our gear and entered the front door. Let’s start at the screen door, a necessity if you didn’t want to be carried off by mosquitoes. There was no screen door. There was a front door that appeared to be one layer of plywood with a long faded coat of what might once have been white paint. The rusty hinges had bled down the edge of the door, giving it a weathered appearance. If the door seemed a little shoddy, it gleamed in comparison to the room. Our little cabin was a symphony of worn and torn linoleum, flaking veneer and threadbare chenille. The rust stains on the door were complimented by those in the bathroom. It was pretty clear that $8.00 per night didn’t get you the Grand Hotel. Since there was only one bed and the adults were going to share it, I was relegated to the vinyl sofa that sat sagging in the corner. I did not protest. I figured that the likelihood of bed bugs and other vermin abounding among the chenille would be less likely on the vinyl. We dug into my grandmother’s travel basket and made a light supper, then took a walk on the beach until the mosquitoes got so bad we had to get indoors to escape them.
Unfortunately, the theory that one could escape the mosquitoes by being inside the cabin proved to be totally erroneous. There were probably more inside than out. Talk about a long night. My sunburn blisters were starting to become infected and were painful. The sofa was lumpy and uneven, and the only way to escape the room full of mosquitoes involved pulling the sheet and spread over my head and hunkering down. This would have been a viable plan with air conditioning, but without it, you were left to choose between suffocating or expiring from terminal mosquito bites.
Mercifully morning finally came. We made a quick breakfast from the wicker basket, my bandages were changed and we hit the road for another day of 40 MPH travel, leaving The Cape Canaveral Cabins in our rear view mirror. As things turned out, the CCC was the best of our overnight accommodations for the entire agonizing trip. On day two we traveled over 130 miles in just less than seven hours. We managed to find an even rattier motel than the CCC, and spent another miserable night in the stifling summer heat.
The next morning my back was starting to show definite signs of a serious staph infection, and my grandmother had Julia Belle stop in Jacksonville where she bought additional medical supplies. As she was shopping in the Katz and Besthoff Drug store, we enjoyed a brief respite from the unrelenting heat and humidity and we sat at the soda fountain soaking up cherry coke and air conditioning. While we were there my grandmother sprung for an oscillating fan which proved to be a lifesaver and that night, another 135 miles closer to home, the fan finally made sleep possible.