In 1967, the world seemed like a much larger place.
It was late August when Nick’s dad pulled me aside one Sunday afternoon to ask me if I would do him a favor.
“Nick’s headed back to university in Miami next week and is taking his car. I really don’t like the idea of him driving that far alone. I don’t think he’s ever driven more than about 100 miles in a single day, and he thinks he can drive to Miami in two. Would you go along to share the driving if I paid all your expenses?”
“How would I get home? I have to start school the second week of September.”
“You’d fly. First class ticket on me…”
I’d never flown coach on a commercial airliner, much less first class. I just needed to be back in New England in three weeks. Taking the train would have been okay by me. The thought of a few days in Florida after working as a grunt all summer sounded pretty good. The thought of sunny beaches, blue waters, and pretty girls in bikinis sounded even better.
I was able to take early leave of my summer dream job of doing absolutely anything that nobody else higher up the food chain wanted to do at the Chrysler dealership I was working at in Waterbury. I was also able to convince my parents that I could find my way to Miami and back in the two weeks I had left before school started.
We decided to leave on the last Monday in August. The plan was to take three days to get to Coral Gables where Nick and our other Easton friend, Ralphie, had rented an off-campus apartment for the upcoming year. Ralphie had worked all summer to pay for a slightly used VW convertible. He would drive by himself while Nick and I would take turns co-piloting Nick’s now two-year-old GTO convertible. The plan was to travel together for the first day, but Ralphie was all gung-ho about driving straight through to Miami without stopping for anything other than refueling and using the restroom.
Nick’s car was fully loaded – which in the 1960’s lingo meant that it had an AM radio, a heater, power steering and power brakes. Safety features consisted of lap belts and a padded dash board. There was no A/C, and you cranked the windows up and down by hand. Speed control meant you learned how to position your right leg so that your foot sat firmly on the gas pedal and didn’t move for hours at a time. There was no such thing as GPS.
There were no cell phones or iPads. Credit cards were virtually unheard of for the average person and a couple of 19-year-old kids certainly wouldn’t have one. ATM’s – no way! EZ pass for tolls – hardly! We would need to travel with the aid of a map and have enough cash in our pockets to handle fuel, food, lodging, tolls, and any traffic tickets that might land us in jail if we didn’t have enough money to pay them the same day.
Like everything else I had ever done with Nick, he had done zero planning before we were scheduled to leave. When I asked what route we would be taking to get to Florida, he tossed me a road atlas, “My dad gave me this. It has a map of all the states. Ralphie says he’s taking the interstate to D.C. and then picking up another road that goes all the way to Florida.”
“I’m pretty sure there are a few roads that go all the way to Florida,” I told Nick, “But it would be nice to find one that doesn’t go through every town along the way. U.S. 1 goes all the way from northern Maine to Key West, but on a good day it takes two hours to go from New Haven to Stamford if you stay on it through southern Connecticut. I don’t want to spend an entire day getting through each and every state.”
I’d never been further south than the Jersey Shore, so I was going to need to study the maps while Nick was figuring out how many of his belongings were going to fit in the trunk and back seat of his GTO. Nick was already in the early “Hoarding” stages of his life, and he didn’t want to leave anything in Easton he may want to use in Florida.
Bright and early on Monday morning, we were ready to go. We swung by Ralphie’s house, and he was already sitting in his VW with the top down. As we pulled up behind him, he reached over into the passenger’s seat and pulled out what appeared to be two army surplus walkie-talkies.
“The guy I bought these from said they were good up to about three or four miles apart,” he told us he handed me one. As it would soon turn out, it was more like a mile if we were lucky.
We were able to stay in contact with each other until we crossed the Hudson on the George Washington Bridge and entered the New Jersey Turnpike. Nick either never looked at speed limit signs or didn’t care what some bureaucrat had thought was a safe speed to travel on any given highway. At a constant eighty, Ralphie’s VW was soon only a distant blur in the rearview mirror. As we sped past the Meadowlands, we were soon out range of poor Ralphie.
When we stopped to refuel in Wilmington, Delaware, Nick handed me the keys to his beast. I’d driven nothing but stick shift cars since I learned to drive three years earlier. I knew how they worked. What I didn’t know was how stiff a spring was attached to the clutch pedal of that 389 CID tri-carb monster I was about to drive. It was like some professional wrestler grabbed your left leg and tried to shove it back towards your groin in a single motion. After a couple of awkward lurches and stalls, I had it up on the highway headed towards Baltimore and Washington and the most traffic I had ever seen.
Nick had but one job as navigator. Telling me which lane to be in to get onto the beltway around Baltimore so that we could avoid the traffic through the tunnel that passed under the harbor.
He never said a word. Same thing when we passed the exit onto the Washington Beltway about thirty minutes later. Stop and go traffic while driving that monster about wore out the muscles in my left leg trying to depress and hold that clutch pedal to the floor.
Virginia was better until we reached Richmond and encountered the most toll booths I had ever seen. They were like traffic lights on the interstate. Every mile or two, stop and pay a quarter for the privilege of going on to the next toll booth to repeat the process.
Shortly south of Richmond, Interstate 95 ceased to exist. It was then on to U.S. 301. Three and a half states worth. Obviously, this was Ralphie’s “road that goes all the way to Florida.” It also went through every town, big or small, between Richmond and Wildwood. Florida; a distance of over eight hundred miles. If there was any saving grace to this road it was that many towns had built a “301 By-Pass” road that went around most downtown areas. Unable to rely on Nick to tell me of upcoming opportunities to take these time savers, my eyes were as focused on finding them as they were in looking out for local cops with a penchant for pulling over a GTO convertible with Connecticut license plates.
Almost as soon as we were on U.S. 301, the signs began. “Pedro sez…”. A different quote about every four or five miles increasing to one about every mile the closer you came to the North and South Carolina border. Pedro was the mascot of the now infamous South of the Border motel/restaurant/amusement park/fireworks stand/go-kart track/ad infinitum 350-acre tourist stop. Almost exactly halfway between New York and Florida, South of the Border was the brainchild of Alan Schafer who came up with Mexican stereotype Pedro as his spokesperson. Pedro resembled a Mexican bandito who was tasked with convincing every car bound for Florida or New York to stop at South of the Border. Most did. Including Nick and me.
I don’t know how many rooms Pedro had, but that number was high. After being checked in by a young man wearing a nametag that read, “Pedro,” another young man wearing a similar tag with the same moniker took our keys and told us to follow him to the building we would be in as he drove a golf cart topped with a yellow and red striped canopy.
Finished in a tacky, faux Mexican motif, the room smelled like most motel rooms of the day. A cross between disinfectant and stale cigarette smoke with just a hint of mold. Each bed had a grey metal coin box attached to the headboard that took dimes and quarters. Five minutes of “massage” for a dime and fifteen for a quarter. The massage felt more like the rumblings of a 6.0 magnitude earthquake, and I was glad I had only blown a dime to experience that “sensuous feeling” described on the decal on the coin box.
Dinner was halfway between the haute cuisine of an aging Howard Johnson’s and the re-heated, previously frozen food once found at many failed chain restaurants along America’s highways and byways. I opted for something bland while Nick thought that the “Mexican” dishes found on page 31 of the seemingly endless menu sounded good. I reminded him about the hype of the vibrating bed, but he ordered the enchiladas with refried beans anyway.
Nick’s stomach complained most of the night and he was finally sleeping peacefully by the time I rose and showered and was ready to go down to the restaurant to try breakfast. When I asked Nick if he was going to join me, I got a sneaker bounced off the left side of my head. I took that as a “no” answer.
At breakfast, I sat at the counter next to two truckers. They asked me where I was headed and I replied, “Miami.”
I could tell by the stupid grins on their unshaven faces that we might be facing a problem.
“You ever hear of a little burg named Ludowici, Georgia, boy?”
Suddenly, I thought that I had. It had been recently written up in the Reader’s Digest – the closest thing to today’s undisputed, fact filled Huffington Post.
“Speed trap?” I asked.
“How much money you got on you, son?”
“Two hundred, give or take a little. But it has to last me a week or more…”
“They might leave you enough to buy gas to get you to the Florida line.”
I spent the next twenty minutes listening to their instructions on how to get through the great metropolis of Ludowici without losing all my money and half my clothes.
After another kid named Pedro filled up the gas tank while an older Pedro scraped the bugs off of the windshield, we were off. The first billboard we saw read, “Turn around! You missed zee place!” Pedro was certainly one persistent little dude.
Nick drove across all of South Carolina. Only a couple of times did the speedometer read under eighty. Just like the day before, we travelled with the top down and the wind whistling through our hair. There must have been a law in the south. Ever since we crossed the Mason Dixon Line on Monday, every radio station played nothing but country music. Except the ones that talked about it and the upcoming Waylon Jennings concert at the Dixie Lynn Raceway. I never heard so many songs about cheating spouses and down on their luck rodeo riders in my life.
Nick was finally hungry enough to eat around 11:30. We stopped and filled up with 24.9 cents a gallon gasoline and then went into the diner next door. More country music playing on the juke box and some waitress, wearing a “Bobby-Jo” name tag and the tallest pile of hair you had ever seen, asking us if we wanted grits with everything we ordered.
I knew that Ludowici was coming up pretty soon, so I decided to be the sacrificial lamb… Well, at least I knew what we’d be facing and that if Nick was driving his usual eighty-plus when we hit the town limit that we would have likely been fleeced of every penny we had between us, and Nick would have still been hauled off to jail to serve on the prison’s road gang for a couple of months.
The speed limit was sixty on U.S. 301 right up until the sign that read “Welcome to Ludowici.” The sign directly behind that sign – the smaller one that you couldn’t see until you were past the first one, read “25 MPH – Strictly Enforced.” The road leading into town suddenly went from two lanes to four and 25 mph felt like you were parked. But I was already down to that speed as soon as I had spied the “welcome” one. Breakfast with those truckers had been a learning experience.
Fifteen seconds later, a silver Dodge Charger with dark tinted windows pulled out behind us from a side road. Ten seconds after that, he was no more than twenty feet off our rear bumper.
“Why doesn’t that idiot just go by us?” asked Nick as we could both hear the air being sucked into the grill in front of what was obviously a 426 Hemi.
“He wants me to go faster,” I replied.
“So, why don’t you? You’re barely moving right now.”
“I am doing 24. I don’t want to get a ticket.”
“We haven’t seen a cop all day!”
“Don’t turn around, but take my word for it, the guy trying to crawl up our tailpipes is definitely a cop.”
As we approached the only traffic light in town, I slowed even more as it went from red to green.
“It just turned green, go!” said Nick.
“It’ll be red again before we get to it,” I told him. “No orange in between either.”
Before he could respond, the light changed directly from green to red and we stopped. Since the Charger didn’t hit us, I knew my suspicions that he was a cop were true and that he knew full well that light would change before we reached it.
When it turned green again, I turned right on 301 and brought the speed back up to 24 mph. Two miles later, another sign read “Leaving Ludowici. Y’all Come Again, Real Soon!” The Charger suddenly spun around, and a siren could be heard as a northbound Cadillac with Florida plates was obviously doing well in excess of the 25-mph limit that was hidden behind the ‘Welcome” sign on the other side of the road.
Nick was scratching his head, “How did know about all that?”
“It pays to get up early and eat a good breakfast.”
That afternoon, we stopped in Folkston, Georgia at a tired looking motel that was named “The Last Chance Motel,” as it was the last place to stay before crossing over the Florida state line. I half expected to see Norman Bates behind the counter with a collection of stuffed birds mounted on the office walls, but instead the counter was manned by a guy who was probably named Bubba.
Dinner was at a really sad looking barbeque shack just up the road. Nick was insistent that the best barbeque was always served at the lousiest looking places. If he was correct, dinner that night at Arlene’s Bar-B-Q was going to be out of this world. Boston Butt was one of Arlene’s specialties – and yes, there is a cut of pork called Boston Butt. It is actually from the shoulder and when slow cooked, it makes for great pulled pork. Not knowing this at the time, I ordered the ribs. The dish was certainly attracting enough flies, so it was bound to be good.
The following morning, we stopped at the Last Chance Filling Station where a skinny little man wearing a set of greasy coveralls that had last been cleaned when they were new, popped the hood before I could stop him. He soon came up grinning, “Y’all need a new fan belt, boy. You want I should put one on? Got ‘em in stock…”
The odometer still read under 11,000 miles at that point, so I politely passed saying that we were down to our last twenty bucks and still had a couple of hundred miles left to go.
It was five miles when I saw it. “Welcome to the Sunshine State.”
Florida at last! I asked Nick how long it would take us to reach Miami almost as soon as we crossed the state line.
“Eight, maybe nine more hours…”
I was instantly deflated. Another full day of driving.
It took another hour or so before we reached the Sunshine State Parkway, the toll road that would take us all the way to Miami. The speed limit was 70 mph, meaning that Nick could easily eclipse ninety without giving it a second thought. I let him drive most of the day.
The third day was mostly uneventful except for the blistering heat. We arrived in Coral Gables shortly after 7 PM on Wednesday. Ralphie had arrived midday on Tuesday and was still sleeping when we got there. I spent the next three days nursing a severe case of sunburn from having driven nearly 1,500 miles with the top down in the late summer sun, something I wouldn’t do anytime again soon. Thirty-three hours of driving and some new adventures that I would remember for a lifetime. The trip home took 3 hours and 12 minutes, and it came with food that I could recognize and easily digest.
Ah, to only be young again!