By Avis A Townsend
The year was 1961 and I was fourteen. My parents announced that we would drive to Tampa over Easter vacation. We could stay at cousin Melva's motel and visit the Wolfe's, retired friends of my parents who wintered there each year in a travel trailer that they hauled back and forth.
My mother said I could get all new summer clothes "down there," as they would be cheaper than up north. I needed new shorts and tops, not to mention a bathing suit. I was as excited about the clothes as I was about seeing Florida . The farthest I had ever been was to Alexandria Bay and the Thousand Islands , about six hours from my home in Western New York . This trip would be twelve hundred miles, with lots of stops along the way.
Most of the stops going down were at gas stations for bathroom breaks and small restaurants along the side of the road. I don't know if there were major highways back then, but we stopped for signal lights all the way to Florida and back, in every tiny town along the way. My father was not a fan of speeding, and he said the "scenic route" would be slow and beautiful. Fortunately, he let me have my pick of radio stations, and I learned the words quickly to Del Shannon's "Runaway" by the time I got to the motel.
One of the major stops was in Brunswick, Georgia , where my father got a new set of false teeth at a dental clinic there. While he was being fitted for the dentures, my mother and I went shopping. It was there where I found the most beautiful bathing suit I'd ever seen in my life. On a mannequin in the window of an expensive women's store, the suit was white and featured a swath of oranges snaking down the front. I stood there in awe, telling my mother if I didn't get anything else on that trip, I wanted that bathing suit. We went inside the store, where we were met by a very snobbish sales clerk who looked down her nose at us when telling my mother the suit was twenty dollars.
"Oh, that's way too much!" my mother exclaimed, and we hurried out of the store. I stomped my feet, I begged, and I carried on, but still I got no orange-decorated bathing suit. Instead, we found a discount store where I got a black, skirted number with white piping. At three dollars, it was a more sensible deal, my mother explained.
After my father got his teeth, we went to a seafood restaurant and all ordered fried shrimp, and for the next forty years my father told a story about the biggest shrimp he ever ate at a restaurant in Brunswick . For the next forty years I lamented the fact that I never got that bathing suit, and I've never seen another one like it, either.
Eventually we got to Florida, and after we were settled in our motel room, we looked up the Wolfe's. Their trailer was on the beach, and the ocean was their back yard. Mrs. Wolfe asked me if I'd like to dip a toe in the ocean, and I agreed. We each went in tiny rooms to put on our bathing suits, and when we walked out I was shocked to see Mrs. Wolfe wearing the exact same suit my mother had bought me for three dollars. I was not amused, but my mother and Mrs. Wolfe thought it was a riot.
After splashing around in the Atlantic, Mrs. Wolfe asked me to help her catch our supper. With pails and shovels, we began digging in the sand for tiny shelled things she called coquinas. They had lovely shells, many of them plaid, in various shades of green, tan and blue, and after we'd gathered quite a few of them we went back to her trailer to begin cooking them. We washed them first, then plunged the poor things in boiling water. Eventually, the animal popped to the top, and Mrs. Wolfe skimmed off the shells and saved the meat for the Coquina Soup. She mixed in milk, butter and some spices, and she set the table with large soup bowls.
My parents and Mr. Wolfe were full of compliments for the soup, while I did everything I could to gag it down. In addition to picturing the poor clam-like things being boiled alive, the taste was disgusting. I held my breath and ate the soup quickly, not breathing after swallowing so I couldn't taste the foul broth. Fortunately, she had bread, so after each serving I'd cleanse my palate with a piece of bread and butter.
I finished the soup quickly, and Mrs. Wolfe was pleased that I was happy with my soup – so pleased that she poured me another bowlful before I could say I was full. I was sure I'd lose it all, but it stayed down. The empty shells came back to New York with me, and I kept them for years, gluing them on mirrors and picture frames, enjoying their colors. But I never ate another bowl of Coquina Soup in my life - never saw one either.
Because we were in Florida on Easter Sunday, my parents arranged to go to Church with the Wolfe's. We stopped at their trailer and picked them up, and they instructed my father where to drive to attend services. Of course we were dressed to the nines, complete with Easter hats and finery, and Mrs. Wolfe made my mother and me corsages. After church we found a buffet restaurant that had a long line of hungry people waiting to eat. The human line wrapped around the building, but we stood with the crowd, and after forty-five minutes we were seated and had a lovely ham smorgasbord with all the trimmings.
When we drove home my parents announced they had money left over, so we stopped at many roadside stands along the way. I discovered Stuckey's, a wonderful store stocked with souvenirs from all the southern states. It also featured huge swirling vats of ice cold juices – orange, grapefruit and papaya. As I'd never had papaya juice, I ordered a glass, and I was immediately hooked. Not only did it have a sweet, milky fruit taste, but it was so cold it gave me an ice headache. As it was only a quarter a glass, I begged my parents to stop at other Stuckey's we saw on the way. As the juice was healthy as well as inexpensive, they obliged. We also bought some chocolate covered coconut squares there, which were excellent as well.
My most vivid memories of that trip involved food. I found that I loved papaya, and that I hated Coquina Soup.
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