Jewish World Review July 8, 2004 / 19 Tamuz, 5764

Rheta Grimsley Johnson

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You simply didn't strike out on family vacation in a dirty Buick | Before heading hundreds of miles south into the land of love bugs and sandy roads, Daddy always washed the car. You simply didn't strike out on family vacation in a dirty Buick.

Mother washed and pin-curled our hair. Our curls and clothes would be limp and disheveled before 10 a.m. the next day, what with the car windows rolled all the way down and hot Alabama air blowing through the green back seat like a blast furnace.

But we left home clean, pressed and respectable. Did I mention excited?

I wonder if children nowadays feel the same thrill we did as kids the night before family vacation. Maybe they do. I doubt it.

Children these days eat pizza in video arcades, see movies every day of the week, swim in big inflated pools in their own back yards and take numerous school field trips that rival any pre-1960 vacation. Today's families have their own private lake houses and stay in motels with regularity.

This was a different time. Families stayed home. They ate at home. A school field trip happened once a year and was, in my case, a visit to the Montgomery pickle factory.

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But every summer, if the fates smiled, we packed coolers and mismatched Samsonite and one toy apiece. We turned off the stove and locked the front door and threw water on the plants and went together on vacation.

That meant, for us, bottom line, that Daddy was going fishing. He worked like a Trojan all year and thus took no vote about a holiday destination. That much was understood: Central Florida. We'd have voted with him anyway given the chance.

For while Daddy fished the prolific lakes, Mother entertained us. And Florida before Disney World was a wild and wonderful place.

Every year we went to the Citrus Tower at Clermont. The view from the top of the 22-story tower on U.S. 27 was pretty much the same view you got from your car window: miles and miles of orange groves.

It was the gift shop we loved. One of us might buy a packet of View-Master slides that showed, yet again, a view of the miles and miles of orange groves. Someone else might buy a coin purse shaped like an orange.

But, every year, I got a small, brightly colored orb of Orange Blossom Perfume with a tiny black screw lid. Inevitably that impossibly small lid got lost, and I spilled perfume on the rubber floor mats of the hot car. We smelled like a rolling produce stand.

My favorite Florida tower was in Lake Wales. We saw it every year, too. The Bok Tower came with a lush garden, and its carillon bells rang with such regal music that you suddenly felt small and grateful. As if the heavens were singing to you.

Dutch immigrant Edward W. Bok built the tower, giving back to the country that had allowed him to amass a fortune through the Ladies' Home Journal. He used Georgia marble, a particular point of pride with my family, since we hailed from that state.

The best Florida attraction of all, for my money, was Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven. Southern belles in hoop skirts greeted you at the entrance, and, once inside, you could see the Esther Williams swimming pool or, best of all, the water-ski show.

Expert skiers built pyramids on one another's shoulders and did other amazing tricks, all without getting their hair wet. And the gift shop was the region's best. You could buy postcards that proved you had been there, done that, unfolding in pleats of adventure and exotica.

We never made it to the famous Weeki Wachee — I was old and fading and so was that attraction before I saw it in person — but you can't do everything.

Homecoming was always a letdown. The grass in our yard was high, the house was hot, and the neighborhood looked just as it had when we left it. Mother and Daddy always needed a nap.

But we had our souvenirs — the accordion-style postcards, the View-Master memories and, for weeks, the sticky sweet smell of overripe oranges wafting from the floorboard of the back seat.

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07/02/04: I fuss and cuss but know where my heart is

© 2004, Rheta Grimsley Johnson Distributed by King Features Syndicate