Despite the high price of gasoline the summer vacation lives on. A lot of families will vacation at the beach this summer. Over here, across the Savannah, that usually means a trip to Myrtle Beach, Pawley’s Island, Charleston, or Edisto. When I was a boy, it meant a trip to Florida. I recall Silver Springs, Daytona, and much later tours of Cape Canaveral and days at a house near the sea in Ormond Beach.
It took a few calls to my Mom to resurrect some memories of our long-ago family vacations in the Sunshine State. In today’s era of high-speed interstates and clogs of cars everywhere, trips back then were simpler and a big part of the vacation itself.
Interstates didn’t exist quite yet. We traveled a lovely seaside lane, a highway with an alphanumeric yet poetic name, A1A.
Known also as the Indian River Lagoon Highway what a magical route this coastal highway was. It’s been said no stretch of highway reaches further into America’s history than A1A. It reaches back into my memory as well. Back in the 1950s we traveled that highway. Near Amelia Island state road A1A was waiting.
Along its route we encountered odd little red-and-white road signs, America’s oldest city, St. Augustine and its old fort, an alligator farm, and more. The main thing we kids longed for, of course, was the ocean. When you grow up landlocked every time you gaze out on the sea it’s as if it’s the first time you see it. Nothing beats the sight of the sprawling Atlantic Ocean. “Are we there yet” excitement consumed us.
Henry The Eighth, Sure Had Trouble, Short-Term Wives Long-Term Stubble, Burma-Shave
What we didn’t know or couldn’t know back then was that we were trendsetters. My family took part in the early years of vacationing when it was not yet a full-blown tradition. It was building momentum though. The American tradition of taking a summer vacation would begin not long after World War II ended.
Three things combined to sear the summer vacation into American’s consciousness. Servicemen returning from the war began to marry and new couples would have babies that would be called babyboomers. Post-war prosperity gave families a few extra coins to spend. Some of that money went into shiny new cars. Soon, a blossoming romance with the automobile gave people a way to make road trips. After too many years of doing without so much thanks to shortages resulting from the Depression and World War II, families thronged to Atlantic beaches in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
The summer vacation fulfilled families’ dreams and ascended to iconic status. Cheaper than water gas was a dream too although no one realized it. We joined the throngs heading south.
Dad drove us to Florida in a 1955 chrome-trimmed aqua-white Plymouth Belvedere. The car had no air conditioning and we would leave in predawn darkness to avoid as much heat as we could. As the day heated up we drove down old tarry roads. Traveling through tar puddles sounded like duct tape being ripped up. Segmented highways gave the sound of a travel a rhythm akin to riding the rails.
With great excitement we’d spot a dead armadillo in the road, a sure sign we were in Florida. Mom recalls seeing turpentine cups affixed to big pines in northern Florida too.
Generally we headed to St. Augustine, Ormond Beach, and Daytona. Sunny beaches and cresting waves waited at the end of the trip. Along the way the trip itself built memories of two icons: A1A, Florida’s beautiful seaside highway and those odd little rhyming road signs promoting brushless shaving cream, Burma-Shave.
Does Your Husband Misbehave, Grunt And Grumble, Rant And Rave, Shoot The Brute Some Burma-Shave
A1A was like no other highway I’d seen. It is the seashore’s version of the Blue Ridge Parkway. A1A flirted with the Atlantic winding through lush tropical vegetation and serving up beautiful ocean vistas.
She Put A Bullet Through His Hat, But He’s Had Closer Shaves Than That, With Burma-Shave
A deep history runs along A1A, all of which escaped me as a beach-bound boy. During the Civil War Confederates used beach areas there as a salt works. The Southern boys extracted salt from seawater. With that salt they cured beef jerky from cattle raised in Florida and shipped the jerky north to feed Confederate troops.
The only salt that concerned us was twofold: the Morton Salt on the tomato sandwiches Mom had packed and the salt that would cling to our skin after long swims in the Atlantic Ocean. Fast food joints had yet to blight the land everywhere you look and we packed our own picnic-style lunches. Mom would fry chicken and bake a ham for the journey. We took watermelons too. We ate like kings.
We often stopped at a park in Swainsboro as we worked our way south. Elsewhere, we’d look for a good place to pull over and home-cooked food took care of any need we might have had for a McDonald’s, Wendy’s, or Bojangles’ had they existed. It was better eating and better for us. Progress isn’t always progress is it. We looked with great excitement to the fresh seafood we’d get in Florida.
The Monkey Took One Look At Jim, And Threw The Peanuts, Back At Him, He Needed Burma-Shave
We’d stay in little concrete block motels with crank-out windows. Utilitarian with no frills they served their purpose: provide a place to sleep. Perhaps they served others another purpose with the windows cracked tightly shut.
Dinah Doesn’t Treat Him Right, But If He’d Shave, Dyna-Mite! Burma-Shave
Come morning we set out exploring. We toured the old Spanish fort in St. Augustine, a place that impressed me with its star-shaped layout and stout walls. The fort, built from coquina, small seashells naturally bonded together, was soft but durable. Absorbing the impact from cannonballs, the coquina spared the fort’s walls damage. That old fort has gone by various names over the centuries but it’s known today as Castillo de San Marcos National Monument. I loved walking in its large square and checking out its garrisons.
Between St. Augustine and Ormond Beach sat an iconic place called Marineland. It was a big part of the trip, almost as big as playing in the waves. Going to breakfast at Marineland’s Dolphin Restaurant was memorable. Outside stood a large three-dimensional dolphin. Inside glasses of fresh-squeezed orange juice stood on crisp, white linen tablecloths. After breakfast we’d watch porpoises do tricks much as they do in SeaWorld. Florida has long been a ballyhooed land of celebrity dolphins, celebrities who feast on hand-held mullet. What a life.
Another great stop along A1A was the Alligator Farm. The St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park began in the late nineteenth century as a small exhibition of Florida reptiles and became a quintessential Florida attraction. You had to see it! Ostriches, crocodiles, Galapagos tortoises, monkeys and birds, and many examples of Florida’s native wildlife were there. As we watched men rope and wrestle big gators Mom went into its gift shop and looked over pottery the Cash family hand painted.
If the journey was part of our destination then the red-and-white Burma-Shave signs we saw circa 1955 surely made the trip more entertaining.
The Big Blue Tube’s, Just Like Louise, You Get A Thrill, From Every Squeeze, Burma-Shave
These signs with their offbeat humor were as much a part of the trip as stopping for gas. Not long after we made our Florida trips in the late 1950s change began to work against the quaint little signs. Faster cars rolling down superhighways gave us the monstrous unsightly billboards we’re cursed with today.
1963 marked the last year new Burma-Shave signs blessed roadsides with wit and wisdom. Things changed in other ways too. In researching A1A and Marineland I found a website where people who had gone to Marineland as children returned hoping to recapture their youth. They didn’t. Instead they experienced major disappointment.
Said one, “If you were here in the past and enjoyed it, this is not the same place. Why it’s here now is a mystery. Nothing is here. I took my family and it was miserable. You can either pay a lot of money to watch one (!) tank of people swimming with a dolphin, or pay way too much to be one of those people. That’s all. Everything else is gone.
Said another, “If you visit Marineland today and expect to relive past visits, forget it! The motel, Dolphin Restaurant, ticket office, circular oceanarium, rectangular oceanarium, porpoise stadium and Whitney Park, have been demolished by the owner who assured northeast Florida residents that he would preserve the ‘world’s original marine attraction.’
“Today all you get is a high-priced opportunity to experience a swim with a porpoise and outrageously priced photos of your visit. My recommendation: enjoy what little of the ocean you’ll see along AlA at Matanzas Inlet skipping Marineland altogether.”
Another person said one can easily see the park’s former glory. “The pathways are cracked, the tanks are rusted, and there are more weeds than flowers.” I suppose I-95, that Yankee Flyway, and nearby Orlando killed the Marineland I remember, but in my mind the old park lives on. It’s on A1A. Just follow the Burma-Shave signs.
We made good family trips back then. We saw new sights and built great memories. We ate well. We didn’t rush in and out of fast-food joints. We didn’t buzz through drive-thru windows. We picnicked at roadside parks.
Back then we traveled. There’s a huge difference between driving and traveling. People today drive along interstates from Point A to Point B. In Dad’s two-tone Plymouth we traveled. I don’t recall that Dad drove fast but Burma-Shave had a sign for those who did.
Slow Down, Pa, Sakes Alive, Ma Missed Signs Four And Five, Burma-Shave
Of course Burma-Shave signs blessed many other highways with their amusing presence but for me and my family A1A was the road to Burma-Shave and great memories. What I wouldn’t give to travel it one more time as it was when those engaging, teasing little red-and-white signs kept us looking to see what was around the bend.