Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Florida Memories -- Part III (Where we Stayed)

Over the last few weeks, I've written a few stories that my parents had told me about their time in Florida and discussed traveling to and from Florida. This concluding article discussed where we've stayed over the years.

Where we stayed

The Venetian Causeway, Miami, FLorida

My Dad's parents rented a house on the San Marco Island on the Venetian Causeway (just a few islands west of where my Mom lived when she was in high school.) We often stayed there. It was on Biscayne Bay, had multiple bedrooms, and a great Florida room. I'd often sit in the Florida room reading comic books purchased at Alfies on Alton Road, one of my favorite places to visit.

My sister, Kay, with some of the fish my Dad caught
One year my Dad set up a "automagic" fishing contraption attached to a bell and managed to catch a pretty large lady fish in the middle of the night. During the time we stayed at that house the Goodyear people offered rides on the Goodyear blimp which was based on an island off the MacArthur Causeway. To this day I regret turning down the opportunity to do so when it was offered to me.

The King Cole pool area
In early visits we'd head over to the King Cole (where Kay and I learned to swim) and the Roney Plaza...both long gone. But by the late 1950s my grandparents had rented a cabana at the new (1954) Fontainebleau Hotel. Their cabana was number 315...which was just a few down from the cabana used by James Bond when he played his famous game of gin with Auric Goldfinger. At the Fontainebleau we learned to scuba dive and starred in a movie.

Goldfinger at the Cabanas

One day about 1957, Kay and I were playing with some other kids at the kiddy pool (shaped like a pussy cat) when some adults asked all of us if we wanted to be in a movie. This was in the 1950s so this was still pretty innocuous. Of course we all said yes (no parental releases required apparently--did I mention that this was in the 1950s), and before long we were seated in temporary bleachers set up along one side of the main pool. The director told us to laugh and clap when he said action. We did, and that was it. I need to stress here that we were looking at absolutely nothing but size 16 (or larger) Jewish ladies in size 8 (or smaller) bathing suits -- which come to think of it was worthy of a laugh but perhaps not the clapping. Fast forward many months and the phone at home rang. It was my classmate Bill Mahru saying "hey, we were at the Glencoe Theater and saw you and Kay in a movie!" It turned out that we had been filmed for a short subject that was showing along with, I believe, the Glen Ford movie, "Don't Go Near the Water." Of course we had to go to the theater the next evening to see ourselves on the big screen. When we got there Dad found out that they were not showing that particular short that evening, but he talked the manager into changing the lineup for us. To this day I have no idea how Bill noticed us. We had about a millisecond of screen time as we were shown applauding a championship diving competition that had taken place at some other time and that we had never actually seen.
The Americana Hotel, Bal Harbour

For several years we stayed at the Americana Hotel in Bal Harbour on Collins near 97th Street...a pretty long way from my grandparents. We stayed in the same two rooms multiple times (I'm thinking 1065 and 1066 but who knows?) and were there with my parents' good friends the Hirshmans (Jerry, Doris, and kids Rick, Louis and Susan). We kids would be pretty much left alone except at dinner time where we'd go out to one of the restaurants we liked (see below) or ate at the hotel. One memorable dinner was at the hotel's fancy restaurant, The Gaucho Room, where we were happily eating our salads and all of a sudden Kay shrieked "There's a spider in my salad!" The waiter quickly took the salad away and shortly the Maitre'D came back holding something in his hand. He showed it to Kay and said "don't worry little girl, it was only a feather." My folks were about to chime in "see it wasn't a spider" when they realized that a feather was only marginally better.

In spite of dining well, most every night at the Americana would find us (the kids, not the adults) in the coffee shop for a late evening snack. They had a dynamite orange freeze and a great chopped chicken liver sandwich. Often, Louis would be magnanimous and pick up the check (meaning that he'd sign it to his parents' room instead of ours.)
The Eden Roc and the Fontainebleau

Eventually my grandparents moved into a rented apartment in the Executive Apartments (now Condominiums) a half a mile north of the Fontainebleau. We would walk between the two stopping at the Eden Roc (where one evening I stood in the back of the showroom and saw Johnny Mathis perform) and (later) the Doral multiple times a day. My grandfather would spend most mornings and afternoons at the Fontainebleau playing cards with his friends. He'd have the same thing for lunch every day of the week except Sunday, at a table served by his favorite waitress in the Fontainebleau coffee shop: a bowl of strawberries, a bowl of cottage cheese, and a bowl of sour cream.

My grandfather kept that apartment for years after my grandmother passed away in 1963 (a week before the JFK assassination). We'd stay there often. In the years before he moved to a retirement community in the mid-1970s (Leisureville!) in Boyton Beach, I'd occasionally walk out of the apartment at the same time as the kindly old man in the apartment next door would be take his dog on a walk. We had a nodding acquaintance on the elevator and I am sure I petted his dog, but it was sometime later that I found out that the man's name was Meyer Lansky (yes, that Meyer Lansky.)


Joe's Stone Crab restaurant in South Beach
This section will be necessarily short as there are only a handful of specific restaurants I remember eating at during our Miami Beach visits. The king of these was Joe's Stone Crab Restaurant in the South Beach. Once each trip we'd go with my grandfather and order plates of stone crabs, a steak, hash browns, sliced tomatoes, coleslaw, salad with real Roquefort dressing, and their wonderful key lime pie served family-style. It was a feast that I remembered so well that when, in 2004, I missed a connection in Miami and had eight hours to kill, I rented a car and went to Joe's for a lunch of stone crabs, salad and pie. (I also used the car to explore old haunts in Miami Beach before turning it in.) I wrote about that visit in more detail here.

Gatti's restaurant
Other restaurants that we were particularly fond of include the marvelous Gatti Restaurant near the south beach, and the Forge on Arthur Godfrey Blvd. There were many other regular restaurants, but I am drawing a blank on names.

Speaking of The Forge, one year while I was still a graduate student, my Dad's cousin Phyllis fixed me up with a gorgeous woman who worked as a salesperson at Saks Fifth Ave on Lincoln Road (before it became an open-aired mall.) I took her to the Forge and we seemed to hit it off well. When I came down again sometime later we went to a party hosted by one of her friends and she proceeded to ignore me all evening.

One treat for many years was Sunday dinner at cousin Phyllis's club, Westview Country Club. On Sunday nights after dinner they'd play a game called MUSIC (because BINGO was illegal) and we always had a good time. On one occasion the TV in the bar was showing people escaping from Cuba just as the Cuban revolution ended. I was old enough to understand what was going on, so this dates this particular visit to be in January 1959. (Postscript: in September 1974, Phyllis was found murdered by her housekeeper's son in her Miami Beach home.)

Getting my SCUBA diving certification

In 1971 I decided to get serious about SCUBA diving and took a series of lessons at the local YMCA. I did well and had purchased all the necessary equipment except a tank. The certification required two check-out dives. In the Pittsburgh area both dives would be in a quarry, but I decided to take one of them in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park off of Key Largo, not too far south of Miami.

The day I did the dive, my Grandfather's housekeeper packed me a lunch that included a couple of brisket sandwiches, and I drove down early in the morning. The ocean was glass smooth. I went out on the boat and did the dive with no problem at all and received the check-out credit. But while I was waiting to get back into the boat, the view of the boat bouncing up and down in the very calm ocean gave me severe motion sickness. I was miserable for the rest of the time on the boat. But strangely enough I was just fine as soon as I got off. I took my second check-out dive in a quarry in 40 degree water being able to see maybe six inches ahead of my face. I had no problem because I could see nothing. I received my card, but almost immediately sold the brand new equipment because I could not imagine being able to use it in an environment that I wanted to actually dive in.

When the Transderm patch was developed, I tried diving again off the shore of Maui. As soon as I saw reeds, etc. swaying in the surf I got ill. I know it is probably psychological....but I just can't do it. Too bad, because I really loved it.

Disney World

I've been to Disney World three times. The first time was when I was still a graduate student and my Dad asked me to help him and Mom drive a car down the Florida. They were spending the winter in an apartment in West Palm Beach. I agreed on two conditions (of course if there had been any resistance to the two conditions I would have done it anyway.) The first was that we spend a night at the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel in Chattanooga. The second was that we visit Disney World.

This was in 1973 and the national speed limit had been lowered to 55mph. No problem, my Dad bought a CB radio and really got into the "breaker 1-9" culture. In any event, thanks to the Interstate Highway System we were able to make it from Chicago's North Shore to Chattanooga the first day out. The hotel had special rooms in railroad cars...each room took up half a railroad car and was much like a regular hotel room (albeit decorated in a over-the-top Victorian style) with a full bath. The only difference between in and a regular hotel room is that we could hear the rain beating against the metal roof all night.

The second day on the road was somewhat shorter and we made it to the Disney World area by late afternoon. My Mom hadn't been feeling very well, but after a nap and something to eat she was ready to go. It happened to be New Years Eve. We got to the park after dinner and were having a good time. Around 11pm, my Dad started to wear out and said that he was going back to the car and that we should be back by midnight (or he would presumably leave without us.) Mom and I went through the World of Tomorrow (GE) exhibit and as we came out we realized that it was almost midnight. I can still picture Mom and I running through the crowds along Main Street as the clock counted down to midnight and Mom turning to me and saying "I feel just like Cinderella". We made it to the car (that was still there) about 12:30am. (And made it to West Palm Beach my early afternoon on January 1.)

I made the second trip with my now-wife Barbara in 1990. I've already written about it here.

The third trip was in March of 2002 when we took Barb's son and his family to Disney World followed by a Disney Cruise. We visited EPCOT and the Magic Kingdom By this point I'd seen enough of Disney to last me a life-time so while the others spent time in line to go on the various rides, I went ahead to other rides to obtain the available line-skipping passes. As I recall we again pooped out by 3pm and returned to our hotel.

The family at the Magic Kingdom
After a few days at Disney World we were bused to Port Everglades where caught the Disney Magic for the cruise to the Bahamas. Upon return Barb's son and his family went to Orlando to fly home and Barb, Lizzy, and I drove a rental car down to the Palm Beach area to visit Mom and Dad for a few days before flying home from there.

Later visits to Florida

Most of the above covers visits from my childhood or young adulthood (the exception being the visit to my Mom's childhood home in 2011.) Of course I continued to visit Florida regularly in my adult years.

In February 1993, Mom and Dad were spending a couple of weeks at the Breakers in Palm Beach. Unbeknownst to him (but known to Mom) Barb and I flew down to celebrate his 75th birthday. We got to the hotel around lunch time and walked into the coffee shop and totally surprised him. But the thing I remember most about that lunch was his friend, Stan Katz, saying "David, I hope you live to be as old as you look!" To be fair, Dad was not looking well around then, but he went on to live more than 17 years and played golf until he was 90.

This concludes my series on family Florida memories. I hope you've enjoyed it.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Florida Memories - Part II (How we got there)

Last week I wrote a few stories that my parents had told me about their time in Florida prior to me appearing on the scene. The story picks up here with traveling to and from Florida. Part 3 will deal with where we stayed.


Traveling to Florida by Plane or Train

Apparently my Dad had an awful flight back to the US mainland from the Aleutians because for years after he would not get on an airplane. This meant that when he and Mom went to Europe (for instance) it was via a transatlantic ship such as the Queen Mary. It also meant that when the family went to Florida, if we wanted to travel together, we would drive or take the train. Mostly Mom, Kay, and I would fly down, and he arrive later by train. On a typical trip (before the jet age) the three of us would fly out of Chicago's Midway airport on a Delta DC-6 or DC-7. I hated those flights. I almost invariably got air sick.

A Delta DC-6
There were a few times when we'd break that pattern. On the last day of January in 1958 I was nearly 10 years old and in my bed when Mom and Dad came home from Friday night dinner at my Grandmother's. They woke me up and asked if I'd like to go with them on the train to Florida the next morning. I jumped up and down on my bed yelling "yes"! Early the next morning we were driven to Central Station in Chicago in time for the 8:40am departure of the City of Miami. I can be certain of the date because of the headlines of the paper that morning...the US had successfully launched its first satellite, Explorer I, the day before.
The City of Miami from years before I rode it
The City of Miami had both first class and coach accommodations. My parents had reserved a "compartment" (a private room with an upper and lower berth and with more room than a "bedroom"). When the conductor came by to collect our tickets we were moved to a "bedroom suite" (two adjoining bedrooms with a folding door between them and two upper and two lower berths.) This was my longest train ride to date and I had the run of the train. Somewhere before Carbondale, one of the two diners on the train had a "hotbox" (axle seized up) and had to be set out. The next morning I woke up to see trees full of Spanish Moss for the first time and to stretch my legs at Jacksonville Union Terminal during a crew change.

A City of Miami closer to what I actually rode
By the way, the reason for the trip to Miami was that my Dad's mother was in the hospital with a heart problem. She would ultimately succumb to it almost six years later.

The South Wind (also from years before I rode it)
We took the train to Miami one more time a few years later. My Mom, Kay, and I boarded the South Wind on the Pennsylvania Railroad at Chicago Union Station. This time we had a bedroom suite reserved. Dad wasn't with us because he was on a business trip. He joined us that night at Birmingham. The ride, as we left Birmingham was quite rough. Watching my Dad trying to get into his upper berth with the train bouncing around was quite a sight!

Traveling to Florida by Automobile

We also drove to Florida twice. Or rather Dad and Kay drove twice. Mom and I only drove one and a half times due to my school schedule. Both times were before the Interstate highway system existed. For the first trip, in 1958, we left our house north of Chicago on a very cold and snowy day. We made terrible time but still managed to make it to Terre Haute Indiana via US 41 by around 3pm while enduring countless playings of the Little Drummer Boy. (Google maps says that the same trip would take less than 5 hours today.) Because it was so early Dad decided to push on to Evansville, Indiana which was about 2 hours away...except that we encountered very icy roads and it probably took more like 4 hours.

Similar to what I probably saw in Evansville
The next morning when we gassed up in Evansville I encountered my first "White Only" and "Coloreds Only" water fountains. We had hoped to make good time as we got further south, but the snow on the roads was somewhat worse and we got stuck for over an hour behind big rigs having trouble getting up a hill just outside of Hopkinsville, Kentucky. (Hopkinsville is memorialized in The Hopkinsville and Southern because of this day.) We eventually made it through Hopkinsville and into less snow covered regions. We passed through some smallish towns where the traffic lights were upside down (red on the bottom) which gave my color blind Dad problems and where they had speed limits like 27mph. I wonder what the main source of income for such towns was? The further we went the more signs for Stuckeys, Mail Pouch, and Burma Shave we saw. We stopped at a Big Boy along the road in Huntsville, Alabama for some pie, and then traveled on to a motel in Sylacauga, Alabama for the night.

Harder Hall, a golf resort in Sebring, Florida
Our destination this trip was a golf resort called Harder Hall in Sebring, Florida. I think we did Sylacauga to Sebring in one day, but it's a long trip and we may have stopped overnight. On the return to Chicago we stopped at Silver Springs, Florida. We took a boat tour through the springs and saw signs next to downed trees saying "Donna did it!" (Donna was a huge hurricane that came through in 1960.) We stayed at the Albert Pick Motel in Terre Haute the last night out before we arrived home.

The Albert Pick Motel in Terre Haute, Indiana
The second trip to Miami by car was to the Americana Hotel in Bal Harbour (Miami Beach.) Kay and Dad drove and Mom and I caught a Delta DC-8 out of O'Hare. The flight was memorable because as we were taxing to our runway the plane came to a very sudden stop and I saw another plane land across our path. The day before our trip home I managed to come down with a flu. We must have left very early in the morning because we had lunch at a restaurant in Perry, FL where I had an "accident" and Dad had to get a change of clothes for me out of the luggage. That night we stayed at the Hotel Reich in Gadsden, AL. We had dinner in the hotel restaurant served by uniformed black waiters (another sign of the old south.)

The Hotel Reich in Gasden, Alabama
By the way, I mention both Harder Hall and the Reich. As a child I hated the idea of staying in old hotels. As an adult I relish the opportunity ... if they are well maintained.

During my college years I would sometimes meet the family in Florida. Usually I took a United Airlines flight from Pittsburgh to Miami (an old Capital Airlines route) but one year my girl friend Jeanne needed to get home to Boston for some emergency and was distraught. I had a youth fare (standby) ticket to Florida and she had one to Boston. Both flights were delayed so we spent sometime in the movie theater inside the old Pittsburgh airport while we waited. Eventually her flight was canceled due to fog in Boston. It looked like it would be difficult for her to get out the next morning. I did not want to leave her alone and so we both flew to La Guardia and ended up spending the night sleeping at one of the gates. The next morning I saw her off on the first flight to Boston and then I worked on getting myself to Miami a day late. There were lots of flights on multiple airlines at that time (National and Eastern at the very least) but all of them were leaving La Guardia full. An Eastern agent suggested I go to JFK as there were seats on an afternoon flight. I did that and managed to snag a first class seat. First class passengers were offered a choice of steak or lobster for lunch/dinner.  After enjoying (probably the lobster) the stewardess (not flight attendant in those days) asked me "would you like another steak or lobster, sir?"

In 1968, Mom, Kay, and I were in Florida at Christmas time, staying in my Grandfather's apartment and waiting for my Dad to arrive. By 1968 passenger rail in the US had really started to deteriorate. Dad boarded the train feeling a bit under the weather and holed up in his bedroom out of Chicago. By the time the train got to Chattanooga it was running so late that he got off the train and rented a car to drive the rest of the way. As he was passing the Atlanta airport and facing a really long drive he, on the spur of the moment, turned the car in and bought a ticket on the first flight to Miami. It turned out that the fight he had booked made a stop in Jacksonville, but he eventually got to Miami intact and only flew after that.

In 1978 I went to work for SRI International in Menlo Park, California. I'd occasionally make trips to the east coast for a project I was working on and would take advantage of a $10 add-on fare that allowed a stopover in Florida. Those visits to my grandfather were my last. He passed away in January 1982 just days after I had moved back to Pittsburgh to start a new job.

I'll conclude this series on Florida memories with a discussion of the various places we stayed over the years including an encounter with the mafia!