Miami Beach. I was dizzy with excitement. My family was taking an actual vacation. We were going on an airplane for the first time.
It was the best of times that March of 1961. Jackie Kennedy was First Lady. I had just turned seven. Most important of all, my father’s struggling linen business in New York’s Garment District was doing well enough that he could afford to take us all to Florida for a week, where it would be warm and sunny.
Before we left, my father made me practice a drill. “How old are you?” he barked, pretending he worked for the airline. The right answer, a slight lie, was six. We rehearsed until I responded “six” like Pavlov’s dog. (The airline charged a lower rate for children six and under.) Already we were flying cut-rate on a turboprop plane, but the child discount mattered. We arrived at LaGuardia for our charter flight dressed up.
My sister, Jane, six years older, told me we were staying where our favorite television show, Surfside 6, starring Troy Donahue, was filmed. It was true that the houseboat in the show was moored across from the ritzy Fontainebleau Miami Beach hotel. But we were staying in North Miami Beach, much higher up on Collins Avenue, at the very un-ritzy Sahara Motel.
This didn’t matter to a young first grader, either six or seven.
I loved the place from the moment my eyes caught sight of the three huge plaster camels outside. To my astonishment, my parents had booked two rooms, one for them and another, with its own key, for us. My sister and I had our own television, which was on from the second we arrived to the moment we left. (At home the family black-and-white was sequestered in our parents’ bedroom.) Best yet, there was a machine where we could buy ice-cold Cokes. I can still remember the joy of watching The Twilight Zone unsupervised, a show that was off-limits to me back home.
The Sahara had a big pool, which we preferred to the beach. I had never seen a high diving board before, and I never tired of watching the bigger kids attempt their swan dives. There were swimming races for my age group, which were a huge amount of fun. I was desperately jealous of the off-white, bell-shaped straw hat festooned with bright pom-poms that my sister bought, although I now realize it was hideous.
Besides hanging out at the Sahara’s pool and watching TV, I don’t remember much about the vacation except that I found everything about Miami divine. We went on a glass-bottom boat. We saw some pelicans and flamingos. We visited a distant, older cousin of my father’s. We drove past the Fontainebleau a lot, but I never felt envious, because it didn’t have camels.
Before we left, my sister and I posed for a picture atop one of the camels. Then I went back to the cold and being seven.
In the ’80s my husband and I visited Miami and decided to see if the Sahara had maintained its tacky splendor. On our drive we passed by the Fontainebleau, whose glam had begun to fade with Miami’s during that mean decade. The Sahara had gone downhill, too. The signage and camels were still there, but it looked sad and had become some kind of time-share.
Frankly, the trip down memory lane was depressing. My husband couldn’t envision my family, now financially comfortable, living it up in these surroundings.
Still, as we pulled away, in the rearview mirror of my mind’s eye I could see two deliriously happy sisters sitting on those camels.