Sunburned and squinty, or How I Spent My 1963 Vacation


RECENTLY, my little brother Phil (he's only 50) gave me a box that wound up with him some years ago, when our mother died and a bunch of family flotsam drifted down one generation.

The box contains slides. For you young, digital readers, I should explain that slides are transparencies made from photographs. They used to be very popular. When you wanted to look at big, bright images of your vacation, you'd get out your slides, spend a few seconds thinking about what a pain it was to set up the projector and screen, then put your slides back away, unviewed. This saved a lot of time.

I'd forgotten about these slides. I took them 40 years ago, in March of 1963, when I was 15, a sophomore at Pleasantville (N.Y.) High School. The slides are of a trip I took with a friend, Evan Thompson. Somehow, we persuaded our parents to let us spend our spring break, on our own, in West Palm Beach, Fla.

You may be surprised that my parents -- who were not insane -- agreed to this plan. I mean, today, many parents are nervous about letting 15-year-olds go to school, let alone on unchaperoned trips to a place 1,200 miles away. But that was an innocent era. Nobody had heard of Lee Harvey Oswald, or Vietnam, or Celebrity Mole Hawaii. On TV, married people slept in separate beds and reproduced via mitosis.

I'm not saying we lived without worry. A singing group called the Angels -- three women sporting beehive hairdos the height of Clint Eastwood -- had an alarming hit record called "My Boyfriend's Back," about what their boyfriend was going to do to a guy who had been besmirching their virtue ("Hey, he knows I wasn't cheating! NOW you're gonna get a beating!"). There were girls at Pleasantville High who looked exactly like the Angels, and I steered clear of them.

But generally, 1963 felt safer than today. And so my parents let me go to Florida, as long as I paid for the trip from my paper-route savings, which amounted to around $160. If you're wondering how I managed to afford a Florida trip on so little money, I can answer in three words: Greyhound Bus Lines (motto: "We Stop for Some Damn Thing About Every 200 Yards").

We boarded our bus in New York City and were on it for about two days -- or, in Bus Time, 17 months. But we were not bored, because we had eager, inquisitive minds, plus a copy of Playboy magazine. It had some fascinating articles. In the case of the smaller states we passed through, such as Delaware, we could spend the entire state looking at a single set of articles. That's how inquisitive we were.

Finally, we crossed the Florida state line, and the bus, in keeping with tradition, stopped. I got out and took a picture of a palm tree. Most of my slides from this trip feature palm trees. If any botanists out there want to know what palm trees looked like in 1963, I have photographic proof that they looked remarkably alike.

Evan and I knew nothing about our destination, West Palm Beach; we chose it solely because of the word "Palm." We stayed, for something like $10 a day, in a space that some guy had made by converting his garage into, basically, a garage with beds in it. We lived on peanut butter and fresh oranges, which cost like a dollar per million. We rented bicycles ($3 a day) and rode them across the bridge to Palm Beach, to the ocean (free), where we lay on the sand until we were the color of traffic cones.

I'm looking at a slide: It shows me, standing on the beach in my bathing suit, displaying a degree of musculature rarely found outside the asparagus family. My face has an expression that conveys the emotion: "I cannot see a thing." I had removed my thick, Soviet-style eyeglasses, in the foolish hope that this would make me attractive to girls, which it did not, and even if it had, I would have been unable, without sonar, to locate them.

For souvenirs, we each bought a tiny potted palm tree (50 cents). On the bus ride home, at a stop, somebody stole Evan's wallet, and we had to make it the rest of the way on my two or three remaining dollars, eating exclusively from the Tootsie Roll food group. When we got home, we were hungry and tired, and our skin was peeling off in vast sheets. Pretty soon our palm trees died.

That was a great time.

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