In 1965 my friend John Mckibbin and I decided to hitchhike the fifteen hundred miles south to Daytona Beach, Florida.
Fifty years later, I can only guess as to why we picked Daytona Beach. I imagine we saw it as some sort of youth mecca with cool to spare, and any amount of cool was something both John and I could have used.
Although this was not a common activity for the summer vacations of teenage boys in Southern Ontario, I can remember no discouragement from our parents. President Kennedy had been assassinated less than two years before, and the Selma march was only four months previous, but our quiet town was a safe place, and it was hard to believe the rest of the world was not the same. Had we waited a few years, the southern States would seem too dangerous to thumb through, convulsed with riots, more racial unrest, marches, more assassinations, mass murder and the controversies of the counter-culture and Vietnam War .
Our trip was, however, a first encounter with racism. In our town of Whitby, one Chinese family was the extent of our diversity. I don't know if I'd even talked to a black person, which may explain why the strongest visual memory I have of any of the drivers who picked us up was of a soft-spoken, well-muscled black man in denim overalls who said he was a wrestler.
And so, in possession of a letter on church stationary signed by John's father, the Reverend McKibbin, assuring everyone that we were youth of character, we faced south-bound cars and stuck out our thumbs.
We became acquainted with the proud, desolate landscape of the US Interstate. I remember the trip in details only.
The first night had us winding through the Pennsylvania Allegheny mountains, while the headlights of our host's car kept going out, leaving us momentarily in high speed blackness.
Attempting to get out of Washington, we were informed by a pedestrian that we were not likely to get picked up at our location, (in her drawl) “On accounta r crime”.
A driver who, on seeing hitchhiking blacks, muttered, “Put your thumb back in your pocket, nigger.”
A few rides with the sort of guy who asks if you have girlfriends, and on negative answers, then hints by saying, “Guys can always help each other out, right”.
Signs indicating that many people thought someone called Earl Warren should be impeached, whatever that meant.
One white man explained to us why the Nigra were physiologically different for whites and so should be kept separate.
Signs for unheard-of products like Dr. Pepper, Mountain Dew, Marlboro, Budweiser and South of the Border.
When one of our drivers stopped at a gas station, I found three toilets marked Men, Women, Colored.
Getting picked up by the cops one night on a lonely Georgia main street, sitting on the bench in the station until we were finally told to go (maybe the letter did help, or maybe we were obviously just what we were, a pair of hopelessly harmless Canuck boys).
Rebel flags on front bumpers.
During this time I was excited, unaware that I was not sleeping at all. Everything began looked too American, and too strange.
The first appearance of spanish moss, and then a palm tree, seemed like a dream. This was the tropics. People were playing something called Jai Alai.
Finally we were dropped off in Daytona Beach and I saw the ocean for the first time in my life. It had taken us three days. I no doubt would have been disappointed by the wide, flat endless beach and steady surge of small waves but for the crowds of young, tanned, white Americans playing on the beach, with the women in bikinis, and the guys drinking beer and leaning on their cars. I remember being intrigued by how casually one lounging couple kept their pelvises pressed together.
We lay on the sand and got out our bottles of Coppertone, trying to look like it was something we did, until I began to feel really ill. John got a taxi, we headed to emergency, and I remember losing consciousness going up the steps. The diagnosis: sleepless exhaustion.
I remember nothing of our short time in the city except the name of a black and white B movie we took in, called I Saw What You Did and I Know Who You Are, about two teenage girls who prank-call the wrong person.
Leaving Daytona Beach, we visited two nearby tourist attractions, Weeki Wachee (a spring with an underwater auditorium looking out on choreographed mermaids) and Silver Springs, where I did a little snorkeling in the crystal-clear water.
Then the return trip. I think we were just into Georgia when we spent a night of drizzle sleeping in a wrecked car lying in a yard. The morning revealed the cracked windscreen still laced with blood.
We got a ride in an old car (I like to think a 56 Chevy) with a young fellow called Tom. He was heading for Baltimore, was that good for us?
It seems in the State of Maryland fireworks could not be sold, so Tom was stocking up enroute. Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, I don't remember which states sold them, but there was no lack of stores right on the interstate. Soon Tom dumped the contents of his small suitcase into the trunk and began, while driving, unbraiding and otherwise separating his various new packages into the suitcase in his lap. Once and a while, to amuse us, he would light a Cherry Bomb or M-18 from the cigarette he had going and throw it out the window. Even fleeing them at highway speed, these things had such power that we always heard the explosion behind us.
At some point we picked up a young soldier on leave, since neither John or I could drive, this gave Tom a chance to sleep in the back, and for some reason also curtailed his fun-loving attempt to blow us all up.
Later Tom bought some cough syrup and drove through Virginia one night sipping the bottle casually, then nodding at the wheel, while I tried to keep him in conversation. It came out that I still had not “had a girl” and he promised to rectify that when we got to Baltimore.
And so we got to sleep early next morning at his mother's place in Baltimore. Tom had disappeared when I awoke (his promise forgotten), and we stuck our thumbs out for the uneventful last leg back to Whitby.
To face the question, How was Daytona Beach?