|Road Trip: 1950
Evelyn McAmis Bales
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Bales is a writer living in Kingsport, Tennessee. Her poems and
stories have been published in Appalachian
Southern Poetry Anthology: Tennessee Edition,
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
is available at Finishing Line Press as Number 18 in the New Women’s Voices Series.
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