In the Good Ol’ Summertime – by Janie DeVos



The Biltmore Hotel as it is today in Coral Gables, FL

     Ahhh, summer.  Who doesn’t love it?  Summertime heralds in that certain carefree, easy-going feeling that the other three seasons just don’t have.  Because the days are longer, there’s more time to play, which makes those sunlit hours even more important if one is still caught up in the corporate spider's web for eight to ten hours a day.  Livin’ is easier, as the old song goes—at least it used to be. 

When I was a kid growing up in Coral Gables, in the ‘60’s, summertime meant having to be creative to come up with ways to keep ourselves occupied.  My family was middle-classed, and though we didn’t have a ton of disposable money, my father (and later my mother, too, once the kids were old enough to drive), made a decent living, however, our summers did not include trips to exotic places, or stays at fancy hotels.  Instead, we spent two weeks in a rented cabin in the mountains of North Carolina.  To get there, we took Daddy’s company-issued car and we’d stay on the road for one night at the halfway point in a typical southern motel, with some such name as the Thunderbird, or the Dixieland.  As long as the place had a pool, we couldn’t have cared less if the television was a black and white model, or if the lobby had nothing more grand in it than a rack of brochures touting the local attractions, which were usually something like, “Wally’s Alligator Farm,” or “Big Bob’s Fruit and Nut Hut”.   Other than going to North Carolina in the summer, we’d head down to the Florida Keys every now and then, specifically, Islamorada, for a couple days of fishing, but that was about the extent of our travels.  The majority of our summer days were spent at home, which was just fine with us kids. 

From early in the morning until the mosquitoes started their nightly dive-bombing missions, my sister, Kathy, and I would be outside playing with the neighborhood kids.  Usually, we’d have our portable record player and game boards set up under the thick fichus tree in our front yard, where we’d wear out our 45’s, playing the Supremes, Rolling Stones and the Turtles.  When the weather was really hot, we’d climb up into the tree, competing with neon lime-green iguanas for space on the limbs.  Cool breezes blew through, stirring the leaves into mini fans that would dry the sheen of perspiration from our skin.  Once we’d had enough of that, it was time to take off on our bikes (complete with banana seats) for places of great adventure.  

One such place was our local 7-11, where a large man with white-blonde hair named Bill would sell us Coke-flavored Icees, and Nutty Buddy Bars.  When we were thoroughly refreshed, we’d hit the sidewalks again and ride over to the old Biltmore Hotel, which was about a mile from our house.  The creepy old place was vastly different way back then than the completely renovated version that it is today. 

The Biltmore’s history is long and varied since its completion in the 1920’s.  The hotel was a grand-dame, and the shining capstone of the beautiful Mediterranean architecture of the Gables, and, in those early days of opulence and elegance, my grandparents danced in its finely furnished ballroom, while golfers dressed in their knickers and flat caps took up the challenge of the hotel’s perfectly manicured 18-hole course.   After WWII, the hotel became a veteran’s hospital, as well as a medical research lab, until finally, the building was deserted and fell into great disrepair, allowing it to be reclaimed by nature and neglect.  Over the years, veils of vines crept up and over the fountains and walls in the Spanish tiled courtyard (which today serves a pricey brunch), and multiple doors with broken locks allowed entry for those who were brave enough to explore the purportedly haunted innards of the gigantic building.  Where once lively alcohol-fueled voices rang out over the sounds of Cab Calloway or Glenn Miller, only echoes of emptiness were left as a soft undertone to better days gone by.  

My sister and I would ride our bikes through the overgrown courtyard, and anywhere inside where we could maneuver our bikes, all while trying to avoid the one security guard left to watch over the vacant place.  The young man’s name was John, and we’d stop by to say hi to him outside once we'd completed our undercover indoor exploration.  Obviously, bored of guarding ghosts, John seemed glad to talk to someone who was still among the living, and would offer up the latest goings on of the strange occurrences in the building.  In truth, he probably embellished his tales to the fullest, but that was fine with us.  True or not, they scared the pee-wally out of us, and once we’d had our fill of being deliciously terrified, we’d bid John farewell and head on back home to see what Mama was cooking for supper. 

Religiously, at 6:15, food was on the table, and though my parents were lenient about letting us head out to hither and yon for a good part of the day, come hell or high water, we had better be at that supper table by 6:15, or have a real good excuse as to why we weren’t.  That was family time for the four of us, and during those forty-five minutes or so, we caught up on each other’s daily news.  No phone calls were allowed to be answered on our rotary phone during that time, and if some caller dared to interrupt our supper, Mama would say the same thing: “If it’s important enough, they’ll call back.”  We had no answering machines in those good ol’ days, and the thought never occurred to us that having such a contraption might be a handy thing, indeed.  Most nights, after dinner, Daddy would take us to Carvel’s for a soft-serve ice cream cone, or, back to 7-11, (oddly enough, my preference) where I would get a beef jerky.  Then, we’d home for baths, an hour or so of TV, and finally, bed.  Then wash, rinse, repeat again the next day, and the day after that, until the school bell called us back in September.  

As we venture back out into the world of possibilities post the pandemic, I keep hearing people say that they have the travel bug nipping at their heels.  I get it; we’re all ready to get involved in new adventures, a whole lot of them, in fact, and perhaps extravagantly so.  Some folks I know are planning trips to exotic places, while some are planning to travel to states they’ve yet to see in our big, beautiful country.  For me, however, I’d be happy to revisit, if just for a moment, those days that so easily slipped through my hands with each movement of the hands on a clock.  To my way of thinking, those simpler summer days was when the livin’ was easy, when the livin’ was good, and, in some ways, when livin’ was the best, because those were the days of that magical innocence.

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