By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 2/23/2020
Topics/Keywords: #Florida #JoeMcGrath #Travel Page Views: 1584
Photos and story about the time my friend Joe McGrath and I went on our first vacation without parents.

The title slide for the home movies. "POL" was the three-letter acronym for the TV network I planned to establish (a la NBC, CBS and ABC). The bird was a parody of NBC's peacock.

The original NBC Peacock

The summer of 1968, I had left high school a junior and would return a senior. We had moved from St. Augustine Beach to St. Augustine itself, into a house on Sevilla Street that, coincidentally, had previously belonged to my classmate Joe Oliveros and his family. (To further illustrate the coincidental nature of this relationship, the Oliveros family moved into a house two doors down from my girlfriend and future wife, Mary Steinberg. It is, as they say, a small world.)

Back at the beach was my sister Mary Joan's boyfriend, Joe McGrath. He was also my best friend for the year or so his family lived there. He and I thought it would be fun to make a summer trip for a few days, and to my amazement, Joe's parents made their Volkswagen microbus available for the purpose. I would have to drive, as Joe was a year younger than I and didn't yet have his license. But that was no problem; and we put our summer job money together and began pouring over maps.

I had not yet been to many places in Florida. And the map was so enticing! Disney World was not yet built, so Florida was packed with all kinds of odd and unlikely tourist attractions: Six Gun Territory, Silver Springs, Marineland. We couldn't visit all of them; but I marked a route that would include as many as possible. My mom kept warning us that, although it was "only this far on the map!" actual distances would be far greater than they appeared. However, as I eventually learned, Mom never really understood that each map had its own scale; and while a couple of inches might span a state on a United States map, they might not cover a single county in a Florida map. Our trip would be busy, but not impossible.

Many of these places no longer exist, making our photos a snapshot of the time as well as the places we visited.

Joe at Marineland

I spent the night before we left at Joe's, where we packed the VW. We left early in the morning, heading south on US A1A, passing St. Augustine Beach—familiar territory. At the southern tip of Anastasia Island was Marineland, the Sea World of its day, and our first stop, since Joe had never been there. We managed to catch a dolphin show and tour the big tank in the two hours alloted to our visit there.

Marineland diver

We then continued southward to Cape Canaveral, which had recently been renamed "Cape Kennedy" (not just the space center, but the entire geographic feature), and stopped at the beach to have lunch, our first meal, in the microbus. I was very taken with the idea of eating in one's own mobile home. (Remember, this was before Winnebagos and similar motor homes became popular.)

Joe enjoys lunch at Cape Kenndy beach. The Vertical Assembly Building The interior of the VAB was so vast, it had it's own weather!

Of course, name change or not, no teenage boys visiting Cape Kennedy could miss seeing the Space Center. Joe and I devoted some of our cash to a bus tour on which we completely absorbed every detail. Especially fascinating was the giant Vertical Assembly Building in which rocket ships were actually constructed—a building so large it had its own weather, occasionally raining on the people working within. (It was later renamed the Vehicle Assembly Building.)

Inside they were working on something that, months later, I would return to see: The first manned rocket to go to (but not land on) the moon.

That night we stayed in a small commercial campground somewhat south of Cape Kennedy. This would be the first meal we would actually cook. Joe had appointed himself chef, and purchased frozen cube steaks for this meal. He built a fire in the campsite's grill—a really hot fire—and held the frozen steaks in the flames with a pair of tongs. They burned on the outside, while remaining frozen solid within. I don't want to say that I was scarred by the experience; but it is almost forty years later and I still remember how burnt steaksicles taste as if it were yesterday.

Joe cooking burnt steaksicles.

The next day, our second on the road, we turned westward, leaving the ocean behind us. This brought us into the heart of Florida citrus country.

Me in Central Florida. Have camera, will travel!

We reached Silver Springs shortly before lunch. I had been there before, once or twice with my Boy Scout troop, and at least once with my parents. Joe, a newcomer to Florida, had not.

The old Silver Springs sign, for years a Central Florida landmark.

Silver Springs was both the name of a town and its theme park, based on the crystal clear water that named both. When I was in high school, when someone said "Silver Springs" he or she meant the park, as the sleepy little town had nothing to recommend it to an outsider. (That has since, of course, changed.) Although, to me, the park was excessively commercialized—with rows of T-shirt shops, gift shops and eateries—its primary focus was on the gardens and beautiful natural setting; and that I enjoyed.

So, we rode the glass bottom boats and took the Jungle Cruise. We also enjoyed a swim, as the afternoon was quite hot. I still remember how cold the water was! There was a diving board suspended a good two meters over the crystal clear water,. I had not yet learned to dive, so I had to jump off the board. Joe could dive; and since he was a year younger than me that was somewhat embarrassing, especially since, at home, my summer job was as a lifeguard at the beach. I determined at that point that I would learn to dive before the summer was over.

The swimming area at Silver Springs.

Almost across the street (US 40) from Silver Springs was Six Gun Territory, another theme park, this one devoted to life in the Old West (which, of course, had never happened in Florida). The place no longer exists; this visit took place before they had tried to bolster its popularity with carnival rides.

The buildings were all built to style; yet the place was actually less blatantly commercial than Silver Springs. (I'd hate to think that's why Silver Springs is still around and Six Gun Territory is not..!) In addition to the buildings, they had Genuine Indians who performed tribal dances and sometimes (but, mercifully, seldom) participated in staged shoot-outs.

The central building at Six Gun Territory, where we met Flipper's Tommy Norden.

The central building at Six Gun Territory, where we met Flipper's Tommy Norden.

As advertized: "Authentic" Indian dances.

As advertized: "Authentic" Indian dances.

Dead gunslingers: the best kind.

Dead gunslingers: the best kind.

Tommy Norden of 'Flipper' signs autographs.

A special treat for us was a guest appearance by Tommy Norden, who played the younger brother on the TV show Flipper. He signed autographs for visitors; Joe and I didn't collect autographs and had nothing for him to sign. We did manage to corner the kid inside after his "appearance". It was cool to meet in person someone we'd seen every week in our homes; but the fact was we didn't really have anything to say to each other and our awkward meeting was mercifully short-lived.

We left Six Gun around closing time—5 pm, if you can imagine that!—and headed north, determined to make as many miles as we could before nightfall. That included catching the sunset over the recently-begun (but never completed) Cross Florida Barge Canal.

Cross Florida Barge Canal sunset Time exposure of our microbus by the light of a dozen campfires.

The campground in the Ocala National Forest at which we stayed was much larger than the previous night's campground. Larger, and noisier. And brighter. That's where I saw my first motor home (a new development in 1968), as well as a number of travel trailers and, of course, tents. Ours was the only microbus, as far as I could tell.

We slept until almost noon, our tourist-intensive days having caught up with us. But after breakfast (brunch?) we continued on through the Ocala National forest.

Ocala National Forest

After that, we passed acre-after-acre of farmland.

Florida farmland

Our destination on this, our final full day, was Camp St. John, a retreat owned by the Catholic Church (now known as Marywood) where, as a student of St. Joseph Academy, I had visited for school picnics and the like. It was located on the bank of the St. Johns River and, I hoped, would provide a quieter evening than had the noisy campground of the night before.

The peaceful grounds of Camp St. John (now called Marywood).

The sunset, seen across the St. Johns River, was spectacular.

Sunset on the St. Johns River. Sunset on the St. Johns River.

We weren't disappointed. The place was not in use (we arrived on a Friday) and Father Julien, who was running the place, was a friend of mine. He allowed us to set up camp right behind the main building.

Our last night in the VW microbus.

Once the sun had set, the night grew profoundly dark. There were no streetlights or lighted buildings for many, many miles and even the stars, bright as they were, were softened by the moist Florida air and didn't penetrate the windows of the microbus. I remember that Joe and I talked there, in the darkness, for a long time though I can't remember what we talked about. No doubt it involved flying saucers and girls and games—the usual things teenage boys talk about.

In the morning, we had the view of the St. Johns River right outside our windows.

Morning on the river. Kathy McGrath (no relation to Joe)

We were surprised by Father Julien, who had made us breakfast. Afterwards, we went for a swim in the camp pool and met some of the camp counselors who had just arrived that morning, including my friend Kathy McGrath, who I had dated as a freshman and who was in my class at school. In spite of their last names, Kathy and Joe were not related—another coincidence.

After lunch we said goodbye and began the relatively short trip home.

These first trips boys make are rites of passage. They provide an opportunity for a young man to learn vital things about himself: That he can read a map and make travel decisions; that he can simply survive without the constant supervision of his parents. Boy Scout camping trips, under the guidance of a scoutmaster, do not serve the same purpose. Somewhere along the line, a young man needs to make that first journey.

I'll always be grateful to my mom and Joe's parents, who let us go; especially to Joe's dad for providing the vehicle, and to Joe for accompanying me.

That's why, after almost forty years, I still remember.