It is nearing that time of year when, years ago, my parents would load their children in a vehicle and head south. Well, not always south, but more often than not, and usually during our Easter break from school. The usual destination was the Tampa, Florida area, and if that is where we were headed, it was always on Easter break.
For a time in the 1950s my Dad attended a small school called Florida College. It is in Temple Terrace, near Tampa, and I suppose that when he had about as much of winter as he could take, the sunny south called to him.
Maybe that’s why I’m thinking about it now — because a trip anywhere that shorts a T-shirt would feel comfortable outdoors sounds really good.
I’m sure it didn’t hurt that my parents had friends in Tampa. The friends had kids around the same age as my siblings and I, and our whole family sometimes stayed at their home, especially in the early years of our trips to Florida.
Those early years are kind of a blur because I was not very old. Mostly what I remember of those times are fun weeks spent with my family away from the rigors of everyday life. And, of course, nice, sunny days at the beach after a long winter. But I remember other things, too.
I remember that wherever we were come Sunday or Wednesday evening, we found a church — the non-instrumental Church of Christ kind that I was brought up in — and they were not always easy to find. On the rare occasion that we did not find a church, we held our own little service in the car or wherever.
It was an Easter Day in Florida that I learned the meaning of the word persistent. The lesson came during an Easter egg hunt. I must have been a competitive little egg hunter because one time as the egg hunt was winding down, one of my Dad’s friends made a comment that went something like, “He sure is a persistent little guy.” I did not know what he was talking about, so I asked. I have known the definition since.
Trips to Florida also meant visits to Busch Gardens, Silver Springs, Six Gun Territory, and later on Walt Disney World. On my first trip to Disney World, no one could convince me that the characters at the Hall of Presidents were wax figures. I saw them get up, sit down, speak, and even smoke a cigar. So no matter what anyone told me, they could not convince me that those characters were fake.
But Six Gun Territory was my favorite. It was a Western-themed park with live shootouts, stagecoaches, a train ride and such. Probably influenced by my TV choices at the time, I loved anything Western. On one trip to Six Gun one of my brothers and I got our picture taken with Darby Hinton, who played Daniel Boone’s son, Israel, on the TV show “Daniel Boone.” It was my favorite TV show at the time and Darby was my favorite character. Somewhere my parents still have the picture.
One time our first stop in Florida was Six Gun Territory. I was of driving age by then, and drove the last hour or so to the destination. When we got to Six Gun Territory my left arm felt hot and a bit itchy. I looked down and it was red, because I had it hanging out the window as I drove. I should have learned then, or maybe from another Florida trip when I got sun poisoning in a foot, what the Florida sun can do.
I remember another time when we were staying at the friends’ home and I was sleeping on the couch. My mother and her friend were talking late into the night and thought I was asleep. But I was not. I don’t remember them discusing anything especially shocking, but it was interesting listening for a little kid.
Then there was the last vacation we took as an entire family during my freshman year in college. We were staying in a nice place on the beach (in a somewhat secluded area, as usual, because the church frowned upon people of opposite sexes lounging around together in sun bathing outfits), like maybe 20 yards from the water. I remember that trip a little too well.
As soon as we unloaded our stuff, one brother and I took off for a nearby basketball court. Wanting to catch some sun rays, I went shirtless while we played. Then it was back to the temporary residence to throw on swimming trunks and head to the beach. Later, when we went out for supper my skin felt rather warm and was tight, but it was nothing to what my Dad was experiencing.
He was laying in the back of our extra-long van, an area my mother had turned into a bed. He had his feet proped against one side of the van and he was shaking so hard from sun burn that the entire van was shaking.
We ate, returned to our place, and while I was feeling sun burnt, I did not feel bad. Then I rubbed Solarcaine on my stomach. I have no idea why, but it felt like someone put a match to my stomach. I dashed outside and started running back and forth across a balcony. It was the only way I could lessen the burning sensation.
Eventually, I started itching. But the itching was not on my skin. It was from somewhere inside. Then it started traveling through different parts of my body, and I will admit I was more than a little scared, besides suffering miserably. My Mom was tying tourniquets and such around my legs and doing whatever she could to help. And there I was, the guy who thought he was a grown-up college kid, whimpering like a child.
We found out the next day that I had sun poisoning and should have been in the hospital.
My mom got burnt on her legs pretty bad, too. So despite staying right on the beach, we did not visit it much the rest of the week.
I have only been back to Florida a few times since that trip more than four decades ago. But my wife, our kids and their families have reserved a large house near the beach this summer at a place called Tybee Island at the southern tip of Georgia.
In many ways, it is a memorable extension of a tradition my parents started many years ago. But this year, you can bet that I will have at least a partial tan before we go, and lots of sunscreen will travel with us.
Jeff Gilliland is the editor of The Times-Gazette. He can be reached at [email protected] or 937-402-2522.