In the summer of 1955, shortly before I turned nine years old, I was invited to take a cross-country trip with my Aunt and Uncle and my two cousins who lived in Florida. My father and I had been in Jacksonville visiting my grandmother and it was agreed upon that we would rendezvous in Port Saint Jo, in the Florida panhandle and I would join my cousins and their parents as they headed north through Florida and westward toward California.
It wasn’t exactly a journey in a covered wagon. It was a journey in a station wagon. A new white 1955 Ford station wagon with a red interior.
My Dad and I met them at a picnic area outside Port Saint Jo and I transferred myself and my few belongings to their car. I was equipped with a new sleeping bag, an old camera and a roll of film, a small suitcase with a change of clothes and 8 silver half dollars for spending money. My father wisely suggested that I turn over the coins to my uncle for safekeeping, which I reluctantly did. I gave my Dad a hug and we went our separate ways.
My uncle, who was somewhat high-strung, for want of a better term, drove– while my aunt, who was very supportive, although somewhat inept, navigated with the help of some folding maps they had brought along. I was elated to be making such a long journey with my two cousins, who were as near to brothers as I would ever have being an only child– and a somewhat lonely one at that.
“Rusty” was my age and very adventurous– and I actually idolized his older brother, “Robin” whose arm was in a sling from a football injury. We drove along for an hour or so and before it got dark, decided to stop and have something to eat. We found a nice spot near a beach and my aunt prepared some hot dogs she had brought along, on a gas-operated Coleman camp stove.
After eating, my cousin Rusty and I went down to the beach and skipped stones across the water while my aunt tidied up and my uncle and my older cousin put things back in the car and prepared to continue the trip. We hadn’t gone more than a few yards when the back wheels of the station wagon became stuck in the sand.
We all got out to push and as my uncle gunned the engine, which only succeeded in getting the car more deeply mired in the sand. Someone, probably my older cousin, thought to place something under the back wheels to give the car some traction. We looked around and all we could find were some palm fronds, so we gathered up a few armloads of those and placed them in front on the spinning back wheels. Three boys got behind the vehicle and pushed while my aunt encouraged us from alongside.
This worked pretty well except that it resulted in my younger cousin being stung by several wasps who had made a nest in the palm fronds. My older cousin, who did not seem so excited to be part of the group, laughed as my aunt attended to him and then we all piled back into the car and drove away.
We drifted west through the Florida panhandle, and as it was now dark and we had had enough adventure for one day, it was decided that we would stop at a motel for the night. The plan was to camp out every other night, alternately staying in motels, hopefully one with a pool and a TV in every room.
As we drove along, seemingly lost in the darkness, eventually we came to a little motel in the middle of nowhere with a green neon VACANCY light. While we waited in the car, my uncle went in to get us a room. In a minute or two he came back and said we couldn’t stay there. When we protested that there had been a sign proclaiming VACANCY, my uncle proclaimed that it was a motel for “colored” only. My feeling at the time was that it was probably not a very nice place anyway. We continued along the highway and eventually found another place that looked pretty-much like the first one. This one was for white people.
The room had twin beds and my uncle and aunt took one and it was determined that my cousin Rusty and I would take the other while my older cousin, Robin slept in a sleeping bag on the floor. We were all so tired at that point we went to sleep without too much fanfare.
In the middle of the night I woke up and had to go to the bathroom.
Not wanting to wake anyone, and slightly embarrassed about having to go to the bathroom, I cautiously arose from the bed in the darkness and started feeling my way slowly along the wall in search of the bathroom. I must have bumped into something which perhaps made some kind of sound as my uncle, who was probably a light sleeper, challenged me in a whisper.
“Ricky—is that you….?”
I didn’t want to say anything, since it was obviously me.
He continued, “Ricky—what are you doing…?” I didn’t feel comfortable explaining that I had to go to the bathroom, as that was somewhat embarrassing—so I remained silent. Apparently this was enough to convince my uncle that I was a “sleepwalker”. He carefully got out of bed in the darkness– and, so as not to awaken any of the others, helped me back to my bed.
I didn’t say a word.
Early the next morning– as it was now light, I slowly got up, before any of the others, and easily found the bathroom.
My uncle was snoring loudly– and to my horror, I noticed that he had an immense erection poking out from the slit in his boxer shorts as he lay there sleeping. It seemed immense to me, anyway. My uncle was a very proper “Victorian” gentleman of the old school, very conservative in manner and dress– and this was a part of him I had never seen before and never wanted to see again.
The next night we camped out in a remote, but picturesque wooded location near a fast-flowing stream– but before we all turned in for the night, my uncle took a length of rope and tied it around the army cot I was sleeping on and the other end around one of my ankles, just to make sure I didn’t wander off in the middle of the night.
From then on– and for the next month, until they drove me back home after a trip back and forth to California, I was tied to something every time we slept outside.