Travels With Bob
November 1965, When It All Began!
This is my first trip outside of the states of Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Missouri. My sister Barbara has just returned from Stuttgart, Germany where her husband has been stationed in the US army. My mother arranged for me to get out of school to travel with Barbara to Baltimore to pick up her Volkswagen Bug. Even though I’ve traveled to Chicago many times by train, this time is different. I’m sure this is the beginning of a lifetime of travel! As I watch the farmhouses and cities pass by outside the window of the train, I am able to imagine the people inside those houses multiplied billions of times over, around the world. Suddenly the prospect of traveling further than I ever traveled before makes me aware of the immense possibilities this vast planet holds for anyone brave enough to search them out.
The trip by train from Chicago to Washington, D.C. now seems like a continuous dream. My nose is pressed to the window much of the time. Every mile of track is uncharted territory. I am so afraid I will miss something if I turned away at the wrong moment. We ate sandwiches made with leftover turkey from Thanksgiving. We wove our way through small farm towns lightly dusted with snow, then turned slightly south to encounter freezing rain. Pittsburgh made the biggest impression, although not a good one. It was wrapped in a cold winter darkness that was broken by the glaring lights of steel mills and silhouettes of smokestacks. I became depressed and decided to try to sleep.
I was occasionally awakened by the screeching of the wheels as we wound our way through cold snowy mountains. I was sad that my first time on a mountain was in total darkness. When we arrived in Washington D.C. we had to change trains to Baltimore. I had just enough time to walk outside the entrance of Union Station where I could see the Capitol Building. Something wonderful happened to me in that brief encounter with the majestic architecture of the nation’s capital. My metaphorical umbilical cord was severed forever. I was released into a life that was of my own choosing.
Miami Beach, June 10, 1966
It’s exciting to be on my second trip outside of the midwest in seven months. We had to leave the Interstate highway in several parts of the South because the Interstate is still not finished. I never knew there were still so many poor black people in America! There were moments when I was really ashamed to be an American. I couldn’t believe we still have this kind of poverty in our country. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen in Illinois!
As we were driving onto Miami beach I could see the ocean from the street. It seemed to rise above the horizon as if held back by some magical force. The next morning I was anxious to lie on the beach to start a tan. I overheard a hurricane warning on the radio of a fellow sunbather. They said it would be one of the earliest hurricanes to hit Southern Florida. Her name was Alma.
In Miss Wolf’s a cappella class at DHS in 1966, we sang a song made famous by the Kingston Trio, called Bay of Mexico. One line caught my attention. “When I leave the sea, I’ll settle down with a big, fat mama from Bimini town.” Every time we got to the line “big fat mama” for some reason I just wanted to belt it out. But I restrained myself. In June of 1966, I drove to Miami Beach with my new boyfriend who would become my first husband. Larry and I arrived just in time for the earliest hurricane in Florida’s history, Hurricane Alma.
On the third day as everyone else was running around frantically preparing for the hurricane, I was talking to Mother in Danville, from a pay phone near the beach. I wanted her to hear the full force of the wind. I think it was a mistake. I think it only made her more worried about my safety. I stood talking to her while workmen were removing all of the traffic lights suspended from cables in the middle of the intersections. The supermarkets were swamped with people buying bread, water and other necessities. Many of the shelves were empty already. People were boarding up their windows with plywood and removing everything that wasn’t tied down.
On the night of our third day the full force of the storm hit Miami Beach. The center of the hurricane passed somewhere south of Key West, so we were lucky. It was impossible to sleep because of the shrill whistling sound coming through the cracks in the doorway. We stuffed newspapers in the cracks to lessen the sound. The next morning the sun was shinning and everything was calm again. The road to the south was covered with sand and there were many trees and power lines down. We were lucky that Alma was just a few miles per hour above the force that separates a hurricane from a tropical storm. I was grateful for the experience. I couldn’t remember too many times in my life then, that provided that kind of drama! For me it was very exciting!
After the hurricane passed, we booked passage to a small island in the Bahamas called Bimini. Yes! Bimini of big fat mama fame. The boat was the only way to get there, without a private yacht. We would get to stay overnight and return the next day. I was really excited that we were going to Bimini.
We were on the boat waiting for departure when I noticed one of the cars in the parking lot was also from Illinois. I pointed it out to Larry and the man beside us overheard. “What part of Illinois are you from,” he asked. When I told him we were from Danville, he said so was he. It turned out that he and my dad worked at General Motors together. This is where we always throw in the phrase “small world!”
I was hypnotized on the trip to Bimini. It was the first time I was on a body of water where land was not visible in any direction. I remember wondering how it was ever possible for any sailor to have believed the earth was flat! As the ship parted the water there were flying fish that seemed to be hurled out across the surface in both directions. It was like something from a fairy tale. As we approached Bimini the ocean was unbelievably beautiful because of the reefs below the surface of the crystal clear water.
The island was very narrow and long. The widest part of the island is 700 yards and it’s about 7 miles from one end to the other. There was one road down the middle called King’s Highway with very few cars. At the point where we stayed it was possible to stand in the middle and yell to be heard on both sides of the island. There was a small bakery that made fresh bread several times a week. The only way you knew there was bread was when you smelled it baking! Asking a local about schedules only made them laugh as they tell you they are on Bimini time!
When I returned to DHS classes in the fall, I shared the pictures with Miss Wolf. My friend Toni Sempsrott told me that Miss Wolf would tell classes in later years, about Bob Starkey who would belt out the words, big fat mama from Bimini town because he had traveled there in the summer of 1966. Did I really do that? Okay, I probably did.
I first met Mary Miller when I was a small child living in my grandmother’s house on Collett Street. She often visited a good neighbor and friend of my grandmother, Mrs. Anderson, who lived across the street. When I started school at Danville Junior College in 1967, it was Mary Miller, the new president, who suggested I should apply for a Work/Study grant. This was the first year the college opened on the VA campus. I took a position in the library. Then, during the summer of 1968, I was given the position of student librarian for the summer term. My husband Larry and I decided to take a vacation at the end of the term. We booked two flights to Honolulu at the end of August. I saved every penny I earned over the summer. I also read James Michener’s Hawaii twice. That was no easy task considering it resembled a telephone book.
Everyone who knew us knew we were going to Hawaii that summer. So when a neighbor married a native Hawaiian girl, she was anxious to meet us. We were immediately cast under her Aloha spell. Maggie gave us her Honolulu telephone number, offering a personal Hawaiian tour when we arrived.
Our flight schedule was Chicago — San Francisco — Honolulu. This was the first airline flight for Larry and myself. I was excited and Larry was terrified. On the way to O’hare in Chicago, Larry was a nervous wreck. After we were finally seated and the plane was in the air, Larry ordered one drink after another, while flirting with the flight attendant. I had become used to his constant efforts to hide his sexuality. The women who were the subjects of his flirting never seemed to get it. They really thought he was straight. None of his friends who were invested in his being straight ever seemed to notice that he never followed up on his advances. So I just put up with his little charades, hoping for a better day in the future when they would no longer be necessary. The difference between Larry and myself was that I believed it would be possible one day and he didn’t.
As we strolled down the stairs from the plane, into the Hawaiian sunshine, we were greeted by two Hawaiian women with leis, offering kisses on the cheeks. They had been arranged by our personal guide Maggie. We had landed in paradise, everyone’s dream vacation or dream honeymoon. Having studied Michener’s book in great detail, I was interested in the historic sights while Larry was more interested in the touristy things. So we did both. We visited a pineapple plantation where we were treated to a fresh cut pineapple from the field. We stood under magnificent waterfalls picking passion fruit from the vines. We took the tour of the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor. We shopped in Chinatown. We stood on the cliff above Hālona Blowhole. We laid in the sun on Waikiki. Under flaming torches, we ate delicious seafood as the sun set upon Diamond Head.
Our best time though, was with Maggie. She brought the island alive with stories from her family. Everything revolved around the water that surrounded the islands. There were stories of the elderly walking into the ocean, never to be seen again. Boys diving into the sea to deceive sharks or play with dolphins. Everything was based on magic, something I believed in. I took it all in and carried it with me throughout my life. There were two Hawaiis, one for tourists and another for the Hawaiians. I was privileged to see and experience both. On a boat trip with Maggie, she explained the Hawaiian legend about throwing one’s lei into the water. If it returns to the shore, it means you will return to the islands someday. She carefully removed the leis she had provided at the airport. My lei floated to the shore. Larry’s lei just floated unmoved.
Honolulu was experiencing a boom in 1968. Jack Lord was there filming the first episodes of Hawaii Five-0. When shopping in the Ala Moana open air shopping center, the constant sound of pile drivers could be heard in the background until five P.M. Ala Moana offered a cheap buffet of all the exotic foods of the East. Most foods were offered to go, making it easy to walk across the street to sit under a palm tree to dine. This began my fascination and love of Asian food.
We had a room about half way up in one of the towers of the Ilikai Hotel. At the time, we had no idea the hotel would become known around the world because of the intro to Hawaii Five-0. While sunning on the beach beside the Ilikai lagoon, we met the gay piano player for Frankie Avalon who was performing at the hotel. That got us a personal introduction to the star as well as a photo beside the lagoon. That was two days before we returned to Danville. It was the hardest coming back to reality adjustment from any previous holiday. September brought uncommonly cold nights. Cloudy days were more depressing than ever. The thought of suffering another Illinois winter took on a totally new perspective. As the next few years passed, both Larry and I got the idea that perhaps it was not written in stone that we must stay in our hometown for the rest of our lives. After all, these places we visited had people who were born there, people who worked there, people who had moved there. It took a little more than three years to get it together. In the end I compromised and we moved to Larry’s choice for our new home, Fort Lauderdale. Fifty years later, Larry Stevens is still living in Fort Lauderdale. He says if I hadn’t rescued him he’d still be in Danville. Over many decades I have returned to Hawaii more times than I can count. I even moved to Maui for a short time in 2005. Larry has never returned. Is the myth of the leis returning to shore real? Just saying!
Honolulu, March 13, 2004
One of the things I love about being an early riser is the peace and solitude at sunrise. Most people are either still in bed or in the bathroom preparing for work. Not so in Honolulu! The streets are filled with joggers or retired persons enjoying an early morning walk before the sun becomes too intense. As I walked over the bridge on Kalakaua Avenue, I caught a glimpse of a dark slender man in a kayak sliding quietly through the still water in the canal. I turned to the right to watch him emerge on the other side of the bridge. Dark clouds were clinging to the mountains, feeding the rain forests with their gentle warm showers. The streets glistened with the reminder of their passage through Waikiki a few hours before. The fresh scent of negative ions, the lush green landscape accentuated by the sunrise reflected upon the dark clouds assault the senses with positive uplifting energy.
I was in search of a supermarket outside of Waikiki. The evening before I had paid tourists prices for a few necessities. At the end of Kalakaua Avenue, a 25 minute walk from my apartment, I found a Foodland. There I requested a Maika’i card which allows me to buy at discounted local resident prices. For one item I paid $3.89 in Waikiki . The same item with the Maika’i card was $1.69. After traveling for so many years I’ve learned how to take advantage of being a “temporary local” instead of a tourist.
On the way back with my groceries I walked into a flood of people with name tags and briefcases on the journey from their Waikiki hotels to the convention center. In passing I heard Dutch, Japanese, German, French, English and Italian. I was happy to play my role as a temporary local walking home with my groceries. While they are sitting through boring meetings, I will take a casual stroll down Waikiki beach toward Diamond Head.
I can’t help but reflect on my first trip to Hawaii in 1968, at the age of 19, on my first flight in an airplane. After Arthur Godfrey had broadcast his TV show from Waikiki in 1959, everyone dreamed of going to Hawaii to see Don Ho sing Tiny Bubbles live on stage. Just nine years later, there I was living the American dream. Little did I know it would be the catalyst to a lifetime of travel.