"Ka-chunk! Ka-chunk!" echoed in Dad's 2-door black Oldsmobile Toronado V-8 as he and I slammed our doors shut on a dark December 25th morning. It was the early 1970s, and our family of four was bundled in our winter coats. Dad and I were sitting in the front seat while my brother and Mom were crowded into the back. Though I was bundled in my wool winter coat, hat and gloves, I could not stop shivering inside our just awoken auto.
Dad, dressed in his grey flannel slacks and flannel coat, pressed the garage remote under his visor. The paneled door rose until we heard the familiar "click." He looked into the rear-view mirror to check that his black hair, combed straight back, was not disturbed by his efforts at car packing. He had a lit cigarette in his mouth, his second of the morning. He breathed in its warm glow and calming fumes, though I disliked the smell of its dirty smoke. As he put the car in reverse, he twisted his 5'8" frame, rounded shoulders, thick arms and growing midriff (that nearly touched the steering wheel) to look back through the partially ice-fogged rear window. He let his foot off the brake and gently tapped the car's accelerator. The rest of us sat silently as the car exited from our lit garage into the streetlight-lit, bitter-cold Canadian winter.
We waited a moment on our short suburban driveway, which was long enough for our car and maybe a couple of bicycles parked sideways, until the garage door completely closed to seal our frozen brick igloo from the elements. Dad cracked open his side window a few inches to flick away his finished cigarette into the shimmering snow bank next to the driveway. Except for the low rumbling of Dad's car, the short-lived grinding noise of the rising and falling garage door, and the soft squeaking of the newly-fallen snow under the car's tires, the outside air was quiet and still. Small snowflakes were gently falling, looking like a shower of silver flecks in our beaming headlights. The city's plows had not yet cleared the inches of fresh fall on our street where one-story brick homes (ours was the only 3-story split level) were packed on small lots that were hardly three times the size of the house's footprint. We were the first to make tire tracks this morning. Not another soul could be seen in either direction at this God forsaken hour of Christmas Day. Santa's work had been done, and all the elves and their beneficiaries were asleep, except for us.
It was the morning we had been anticipating for weeks, one that put my brother and me to bed at 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve. We had feasted on Mom's dinner of turkey and stuffing, ripped through our holiday cards and presents, and squeezed in an hour of Christmas Eve specials on TV I looked forward to a warm sojourn, a trip that would take us far from what my immigrant Eastern-European parents aptly called "our cold country."
Up with Mom since 3:30 a.m., Dad had dressed quickly and rushed downstairs for his usual strong instant black coffee and slice of buttered, garlic-rubbed rye toast, which Mom had prepared for him while still in her flannel nightgown and with curlers in her hair. He probably ate standing up, as he did when he went to work each day, and then hurried to our upstairs guest bedroom to grab the suitcases and extra bags that Mom had finished preparing late into the night before. Two by two, he dragged the cases into the garage and arranged them in his car's trunk as if he were solving a jigsaw puzzle.
Precisely at 4:00 a.m., dressed, but without her hair and face fully done, Mom walked into the bedroom I shared with my brother through our door that was always open. She turned on the ceiling light, and then caressed both our shoulders while standing between our beds. "Wake up my son-shines, it's time to get up and get ready to go. Your travel clothes are out and ready for you. Leave your pajamas here; I packed some fresh ones for you." She looked around the room to ensure nothing had been forgotten. "Come down right away for some breakfast. We're leaving in half an hour."
It took little prodding to get me out of bed, for rising excitement banished sleepiness from my eyes. I grabbed my dark corduroys, black turtleneck and wool sweater Mom had lain out at the foot of my bed, and I put them on as quickly as my tired body could. I glanced behind the shade of our top-floor bedroom. Frost was coating the edges of our aluminum-framed double window. Outside, the snow was falling gently but steadily, creating an eerie, almost hypnotizing halo around the street lamp behind our house. I could not gauge the depth of the fresh snow. "Oh shoot! It's frig'in freezing outside; and the driving will be slow going today." I turned to rush out of our smallish bedroom, almost knocking my barefoot brother over as he stood up to zip his pants.
It was 4:08 a.m. on the kitchen clock when I sat down to breakfast. I grabbed the Corn Flakes and cold milk Mom had already put out for us. My 5'4", full-figured mother now had her hair neatly combed. Her face was made up with light powder and rose lipstick, and she was dressed in her car clothes: long grey-flannel slacks with a loose grey tunic held together in the center with a wide, reddish plastic belt. The belt matched her lips and went well with the blond hair she had spent hours bleaching the previous day.
The house was cold, and my mother had the kitchen stove's door cracked open with the elements on low. My father had turned down the main thermostat, and Mom knew he would become riled if she touched it. My brother, just thirteen-and-a-half-months older than me, walked in as I started to eat. "Ah! Corn Flakes and orange juice; my favorites for four in the morning, especially on Christmas," he said.
I said nothing and kept on downing my cereal.
Mom moved us along, "Hurry up and eat; then use the bathroom quickly. Your father wants to get going." She grabbed some groceries off the kitchen counter as she talked, and packed them into already bulging brown-paper shopping bags on the floor. She had made it into bed (who knows when) the night before, after having worked in the spare bedroom to complete her chore of neatly stuffing our suitcases for the next fourteen days. She probably had only a few hours of sleep, yet she performed her work without a single complaint.
My mother had our pre-departure packing ritual down pat. The previous weekend (with Dad reminding her, "Don't take more than one suitcase for each of us") she began laying out our bags and summer clothes on the guest bedroom floor. Over the next few days, she called in her three men-one at a time after supper-to show us what she thought we should pack. (When it became Dad's turn, he told her what she should bring for him.)
Between our favorite evening TV shows, Mom had us try on our warm-weather shirts and slacks. She was a trained seamstress, and had our clothing sizes logged into her memory. She brought things home from the department store for us to try on; later returning what we did not like or what did not fit.
I did not mind my mother's shopping for me, for she had a good eye for style. Not being fashion conscious, I rarely disagreed with her about what to include for our journey. However, if we needed an extra shirt or shorts, last minute trips were in store for us to the cruise-wear department of the local Hudson Bay Company Department Store. The one thing I, as an older adolescent, hated more than packing was going shopping with my mother.
My Slovak-Hungarian mother wanted to be sure we had everything we needed for our sojourn to a southern climate, so she had a tendency to over-pack. The night before our trip, Dad walked into the guest bedroom and spied unpacked things lying on the floor and on the futon. "Anna," he said with frustration, "why do we need all this baloney?"
"Johnny, we need these things down there, and we just have one suitcase each," she reminded him. She made no mention of the extra things she had stashed in the closet that were biding their time for our Montreal exodus. Despite Dad's chiding, my undeterred Mom snuck in several handbags filled with extra beach and going-out shoes, a soccer ball and volleyball, a couple of umbrellas, beach paddles with balls, suntan lotion, beach towels for each of us, an extra beach bag to carry the beach things, her Kodak Brownie camera and film, decks of playing cards, and a few small pillows for the car trip. The more time we could spend relaxing by our hotel pool, walking on the sandy beach, breathing in the salty air, and not shopping at an air-conditioned mall, the happier my mother would be.
Tiredness still stung my eyes when, at 4:25 a.m., I heard my father's gruff voice yelling up from downstairs, "Okay everybody! Let's go!" He wanted to make it through and past the city limits and onto the border before the road became crowded with cars during this family-visiting day.
My brother and I rushed to put on our shoes and coats. Mom followed us after she checked the stove, light switches and lamp timer for the second time. She looked around to collect any straggling items. My coat was unbuckled and laces loose as I flew down the narrow staircase that led to the garage, holding my rucksack over one shoulder. I jumped two and three steps at a time to reach the garage door while grabbing onto the wood banister for balance with my other hand. I wanted to get to Dad's car before my brother, whom I had left sitting in the upstairs hallway while he was neatly tying his shoes.
I threw my pack, full of Superman magazines and a new science fiction book, into the car's front seat before my brother had his chance. I looked to see if I could help with any stray luggage. In a minute or two I would tell my one year older (yet one inch shorter) brother, "Steve, since you are probably going to be driving more than me on this trip, how about letting me sit up front first?" and I wanted Dad to be on my side.
I could tell my father was angry about my mother packing too many extras. He had bought his new two-door Toronado in the spring, and it had a smaller trunk than the usual current-model Olds 98 he purchased every three years. With a cigarette hanging down from the corner of his mouth, his face showed exasperation. He voiced his displeasure with some choice Hungarian swear words having to do with Baby Jesus and Mother Mary. This almost seemed appropriate for Christmas Day. He slammed down the car's big trunk lid with both his hands, pleading "Hesus-Maria!" But the trunk did not stay shut.
"Dad, what if we put a couple of the small bags between Mom and Steve in the back seat? And we can put another one between you and me in the front. You can use it for an arm rest."
"Okay, take these." He lobbed me a couple of bags, and I caught them with my secure goalie grip (I was a varsity soccer player at high school) and placed them neatly into the car.
I said my prepared line when Steve entered the garage a moment later. A pained look formed on his face. He glanced at Dad then looked back at me. "Okay, Harvey; you can have the front seat."
My brother squeezed himself through the passenger-side door and into the car's compact backseat. My mother followed right behind him with a grocery bag in each hand. They sat in their seats, surrounded by luggage and groceries between them and at their feet. Mom worked to become comfortable in the now crowded back. My brother shifted things around at his feet. I said to myself, "They probably now know what it feels like to be in a Gemini space capsule."
My father started his Toronado's engine and backed out of the garage as he looked through the partially fogged rear window. Still mad about our luggage, he energetically delivered some choice Slovak phrases in Mom's direction. (My parents used their school-acquired Slovak when they did not want my brother and me to understand.)
My mother's make-up compact was already out to check the blond coif she had spent hours washing and setting. She immediately parried Dad's thrust, snapping at him because her hairdo was altered by squeezing through the front door and forward-slanted front seat to get into the back. I did not understand what she said. Given her tone, she might have told Dad to buy himself a car with a bigger trunk, and maybe a bigger back seat too. She might even have said, "If you give me more money, I'll be happy to buy what we need when we get there, and then leave it so your trunk won't get so crowded." Dad said nothing more about Mom's packing, yet from his stern face and tight lips I could tell he was still peeved.
Squished like herrings, with barely enough room for their arms and legs, Mom and Steve sat quietly as Dad shifted his laden Toronado into forward gear. The car's analog clock read 4:37 a.m. as Dad turned onto the adjacent street, heading for the highway. I kept my eyes looking forward. "What a way to start a family vacation! I can't believe we made it this far."
Mom at 48, in our living room when she was dressed up in her mink coat, a gown she made herself, her hair done up, ready for a night out with Dad; c.1968.
Dad clicked on the radio. "Let's check the weather report," he said.
Within a moment or two the weatherman came on, "It's cold outside this Christmas day [as if we did not know], 13 o Fahrenheit at Dorval airport [near to where we lived], and the snow will continue to fall lightly for the rest of the morning. We're expecting a couple more inches on top of the 2-4 already on the ground." [Measures in Canada were still in British units until 1975.]
"I bet the going will be slow for a while today." Dad said. "Good we are out early."
I sat quietly with my whole body shivering. My thick black-rimmed prescription glasses were partially fogged up. My legs were firmly pressed together; my gloved hands were tightly closed in my coat pockets; and I could see my breath in front of me. "I sure as heck hope the car's heater gets going and put an end to my shaking." Dad had put the car's heater on full. It was blowing towards the windshield to keep it from frosting, yet it was still blasting cool air. Behind me, Mom yelled in Hungarian, " A futés az, Jani? ( Is the heater on, Johnny?)"
My father growled back in their first language, "Wait a minute, will you. The car's not warmed up yet."
I told myself the cold was temporary. In thirty-some hours, we would be sitting by the pool in the warm southern breeze, soaking up the sun, and wearing nothing but our bathing suits and a good dose of Coppertone Oil. And, for most of the car ride there, I would have my dad within an arm's distance of me.
"Can you believe it!?" Dad said. "This is our eleventh time in twelve years we are going south like the Snow-Birds."
"Yea Dad," I responded, "but they were a lot smarter to leave a month or two earlier."
"Did you know that Snow-Birds only migrate at night?" my brother chirped, "It's just like we are doing."
"Don't worry, boys; we'll be in Florida in no time, faster than those little pipsqueaks could ever get there."
I could not stop myself from shivering, and wished I could be as optimistic as my father.
Dad at 47, with his pipe and black GM Olds '98 in front of our Montreal suburban house, 1967
My parents were born and raised in Kosice, Czechoslovakia, the second largest city in its eastern Slovakia province. Winters were milder there than in Canada. Dad often commented, "Canada has only two seasons: July and winter." After I turned five, Dad felt my brother and I were old enough to travel long distances in his car. So he drove us down to The Sunshine State for two weeks during our Christmas and New Year's school break. Warm oceans and fine sandy beaches are nonexistent in Canada, so there was no better way for us Canadians to get some hot sand between our frostbitten toes than to take a winter vacation in southern Florida. And the cheapest way was to drive all the way.
Mom never learned how to drive. She said it was Dad's fault because "He never took me practicing to the shopping center on Sunday afternoons [when the parking lots were empty]." Having recently gone out with her myself and experienced her form-a big cushion under her behind so she could see above the steering wheel, her head protruding out over the wheel like a stork reaching out for its prey, and her stopping and looking both ways several times before making a turn or crossing an intersection-I could see why Dad had little patience for her driving.
Dad entered the highway, heading towards the city. Mom said in Hungarian, "Are you sure you want the boys to be driving during our trip? The roads could be dangerous. Wouldn't it be better if we stop for a night somewhere so you can drive most of the way yourself, Johnny, like we used to do?"
My father used to be the solo driver taking us south when my brother and I were young kids. Behind the wheel for 12 hours a day during the 1750-mile ride, Dad made the trip to our ocean-front hotel in Miami Beach or Hollywood, FL, in less than three days. He stopped the car for gas and bathroom breaks every four hours. He drove until dusk when we stopped for dinner at a roadside restaurant, and to check into a non-descript motel before their "no vacancy" sign was lit due to other southerly car travelers who were hunkering down for the night.
Dad assured Mom in English, "I want to get there and not waste time stopping on the road. I'm going to drive past New York City myself. There the roads are all highways and should be clear from any snow. Steve can then takeover, and drive for eight hours into the evening. I'll get some sleep when he's driving, and then take over again through the night. Harvey can then drive the next morning after breakfast until we get to the hotel around lunchtime."
"Yes!" I said to myself with my newly minted driver's license in my pocket. I had turned seventeen a couple of months earlier, and could not wait for my turn on the open road. And, the speed limit on Florida's Sunshine State Parkway was 70. "Awesome!"
"Are you sure it will be okay?" Mom asked.
"I'll be watching them all the time," Dad replied, though I don't know how he could accomplish that while snoozing when my brother or I would drive.
Mom continued to look out the window at the still falling snow. "It's too bad we don't have Needer or Edo with us anymore."
After our first few years of multi-day Florida migrations, Dad no longer wanted to waste nearly six days in the car during our two-week vacation. He arranged with a business colleague and friend, George Needermyer (a professional road salesman, and who had already been driving to Florida for some years for the winter holidays) to be a second driver. He and Dad switched-off every 250 miles as they maneuvered us to a more appealing climate.
George and his wife, Mimi, had emigrated from Romania to Canada via Israel in 1951 with their new baby. However, George left them in cold Montreal when he drove south with us. Mimi may have stayed home because my mother did not care much for her company. My father may have flirted one too many times with his good friend's spouse. Dad liked to be the big shot, taking everyone out for steak and prime rib dinners, buying the booze for pool- and ocean-side happy hours (which often started at lunch), and saying things like, "Shake it but don't break it," as Mimi made the gin and tonics. Mom, who was not a drinker like Dad and his friends, always seemed a bit on edge when Mimi was around.
The two drivers, and an American interstate highway system that provided us more highways each year along the US East Coast, allowed us to make the trip in 33-34 hours to the Lauderdale-by-the-Sea beach hotel where we all stayed. Being the smaller kid in those years, I sat between Dad and George on the front bench seat of Dad's Olds 98. George was a ten-year-older, shorter-than-Dad, slightly rotund, round-faced, almost-bald, hooked-nose, heavy-accented, Jewish fellow. I felt a bit squished between the two grown and paunch-growing men. But it was good to be up front with the guys, and to listen to them talk about politics and business.
Once, Dad said to George, "Can you believe how much money the Canadian government is spending on Expo 67. It's nice to celebrate Canada's 100-year birthday, but they are going crazy with the money they are pissing away."
George (who learned to speak fluent French and regularly traveled across Quebec for business and pleasure) raised his finger and responded, "The federal government wants to spend money in Quebec to placate the French. Quebecois nationalism is growing, and the French are rising up against the Catholic Church and Anglophone businessmen that have controlled Quebec politics for decades. Pearson's Liberal government is finally allowing French to become an official language of Canada."
"Yes, and placating the French will just lead to Quebec separating from Canada and every Montreal business and English Quebecer moving to Toronto," Dad retorted.
George jumped back in, "Maybe a new francophone Prime Minister will help keep Canada together. It's time for our English Pearson to step down and make way for a younger and bilingual PM, like that Justice Minister, Pierre Eliot Trudeau."
"He's a good dresser, that Trudeau," Mom piped in from the back seat. Having been a professional seamstress before having kids, she knew about these things.
"Yah!" Dad cut Mom off, hitting the steering wheel with his hand. "Our Pearson was an idiot to let France's De Galle into Canada and allow him to give that 'Vive le Quebec libre' speech. Pearson's no Diefenbaker [the previous, long-standing conservative PM] and it's time for him to go."
Mom leaned forward from the back, "And can you believe how stupid the new Canadian flag looks with its big, communist-red maple leaf?"
"Yes, Anna," George politely responded, "Pearson knows Canada has to get rid of that old Union Jack and our British ties, otherwise the French will stay resentful of the English." He turned his head to smile and wink back at my mother, "And Canada does have a lot of beautiful sugar maple trees."
Dad switched back, "I like that Trudeau guy [Pierre Eliot was known as a flamboyant bachelor playboy] but he has some spooky ideas. He's for homosexuals, and for easy contraception, divorce and abortions."
"That stuff happens anyway, so why not legalize it?" George said with a manly laugh as he slapped his hand on his thigh.
Given a chance, George could go on and on about the latest and upcoming car upgrades: the new ABS breaking systems and front-wheel drives that "will change the way everyone drives;" the turbo diesel engines that will offer more engine power and gas savings; and the catalytic (I first thought he said "Catholic") converters that will make cars more expensive, though they created less emissions.
George came with us to the Monkey Jungle, Flamingo Gardens and Miami Seaquarium during our sojourn in Flor-I-da (as he put it), with his various still and movie cameras hanging around his neck. At every opportunity he took shots of us and the animals from different angles. He also loved French tongue twisters, which he had me repeat. I parroted his:
Bonjour madam de les saucisses. Combien coûts les saucisson ici?
Les saucisson ici cout soixante six sous.
Si les saucisse ici cout soixante six sous, c'est trop madam, merci madam.
George liked to watch Big Time Wrestling on TV. "You should see what they do to each other," he said when Dad brought it up, covering his face with both hands as if he were the schmuck being lifted high into the air and thrown on the matt by one of those ugly, sweaty, massive wrestlers.
My father and George sometimes complained about each other's driving. They sounded like two cowboys trying to ride one horse. Once while Dad was maneuvering the car on a congested primary road, sweat poured down George's face. "Pleeeze, Jonny!" he pleaded, "Drive more smoothly with the accelerator." Dad was jerking his foot on and off the pedal rather than applying gradual pressure. His poor technique prevented George from sleeping on his off shift.
"There's nothing wrong with my driving!" Dad retorted.
"Johnny; the accelerator is not a switch you turn on and off with your foot," George screamed. "Driving is my business; I drive over 25,000 miles a year, and it's a problem for your passengers when you drive this way."
Nobody else said anything as these two Eastern-European men duked it out. Dad grumbled something and continued on with his driving style. George threw up his hands, "Johnny, this is not a good way to drive!" and did his best to get some rest.
After a number of years of traveling south with us, George no longer came with us as our second driver. (Perhaps this incident was a factor; or perhaps my father's smoking in the car bothered him.) Instead, George headed to Florida separately with his wife and son some days before Christmas. They were probably thinking about us right now as they sat outside their apartment by the beach while we were still in ice-and-snow country.
Edo bácsi with his nephews, Stephen and Harvey, in 1968, soon after he immigrated to Canada.
After George departed, Edo bácsi [Hungarian for Uncle Edo, Edo being short for Edouard] became Dad's alternate for the next couple of years. Dad's half-brother was a quiet, late-thirties bachelor who immigrated to Canada from Czechoslovakia in 1968 during the time of the Prague Spring, when more lenient emigration rules allowed Czechoslovaks to leave their country legally.
We had visited Edo, along with Mom's family, several times in Czechoslovakia when I was a small kid. He called me the "pick-me-up boy" for the innumerable times I asked him to exercise his strong arms by lifting and carrying me. Edo was a handsome, svelte Slovak who was physically fit and athletically agile. He always brought a soccer ball or volleyball with him to kick or throw around with us in the Florida sunshine. Edo could keep the ball in the air almost indefinitely, bouncing it off of his feet, chest, knees and head. He also liked to work on deepening his skin to such a bronze tan that his friends and relatives called him "Brazil."
Edo was a fun guy to be around, yet his driving sometimes scared me. Once, we were traveling on a two-lane North Carolina road, heading south on a dark rainy night. What showed the way were only the car tail lights ahead of us and the headlights coming towards us. A tired Edo was behind the wheel, and I was sitting between him and my snoring father. Edo's eyes glazed over several times, and he drifted into the oncoming traffic lane. I kept my eyes on him, with my hand ready to grab the steering wheel in case he dozed off. Mom and Steve were sleeping in the back, so I felt like I was the only one who could protect us from a head-on collision or landing in a ditch. There were a couple of scary moments when an oncoming car blinked its lights, and I came close to grabbing the wheel as Edo drifted once more into the north-bound lane. But he always guided the car back into the south lane in time.
When we reached our next gas stop, I said nothing to my father about Edo. I did not want to get my uncle in trouble (Dad yelling at my "pick-me-up" uncle would have made me feel awful.) Yet I was relieved when Dad returned behind the wheel so I could now get some of my own rest after my hard work of watching Edo bácsi.
“Brazil” on the beach in FL, 1960s
As we passed close to downtown Montreal, the city's lights glowed diffusely through the blowing snow. The car's clock read a few minutes past 5 a.m. Mom said from her capsule seat, "It's too bad your schmuck brother had that big accident." She was referring to a major fender-bender Edo had in Montreal. He totaled Dad's company station wagon, put a pedestrian into the hospital, and was arrested for driving drunk.
"Yes, and it cost me dearly," my father grumbled, referring to bailing out Edo from lock up on the night of the accident, paying for a pricey lawyer to keep him out of jail, and dealing with his company's rising auto insurance rates as a result of Edo's offense. "Edo was lucky to keep out of jail. By pleading guilty, he only lost his license for a year."
I did not say a word, but I felt thankful that Edo stayed home this Christmas. We had no place to put him or George in my dad's Toronado. Their presence would have robbed me of taking my turn at the wheel.
"Did you give the keys to the Brissons?" my father asked Mom.
Mr. and Mrs. Brisson were our next door neighbors. Mom took our house keys to them before we left town so they could check our house every day or two. During our second trip to Florida in 1961, before my parents started this procedure, our heating system had given out. The water pipes froze and then broke. The basement accumulated 6" of water by the time we got home. We had to vacate our house for a couple of days, staying with friends while the heating people got our furnace running again. It took a few of more weeks of wall opening and pipe replacement for the plumbers and carpenters to repair busted water pipes all over the house. During that time, it felt like we were living in a constructions site. Contractors ran around the house, clogging our house passageways with tools and materials, and banging away all day.
Though Mom and Dad hated to have strangers (even friendly neighbours) come into our home while we away, the cold Canadian winter and the risk of a malfunctioning furnace made it a necessity. "Don't worry; I did that yesterday," Mom replied.
"Good," Dad said.