American Pie Memories in Florida

Among the many memories, I cherish from growing up in the 1970s was the annual winter trips to Florida to stay with my grandparents who had a winter residence there. 

 I took this picture of my family in front of the Florida Welcome Station in the early 1970s.  Photo:  Newvine Personal Collection

 I took this picture of my family in front of the Florida Welcome Station in the early 1970s.  Photo:  Newvine Personal Collection

Those trips were novelties in my teen years as my family discovered a whole new part of the country. 

The drive itself was an adventure.  It started with a very early wake-up call as we climbed into a car that had been packed the night before.   

When the weather cooperated, we'd zip through the Eastern Seaboard states.  It felt just a little bit warmer at each rest stop.  Our day ended at a motel where the whole family of five shared one room with two double beds and a roll-away bed.

 The next morning there would be another early start.

When we crossed the Florida line, we'd stop for orange juice at the state visitor center.

The days in Florida were filled with trips to the tourist venues, including Cypress Gardens or the newly opened Disney World. 

There were also many activities that were less travel-intensive.  Some days included a visit to a distant relative or a trip to the nearest shopping center to pick up souvenirs.  

Every year, my grandmother would treat us to the novelty of Kentucky Fried Chicken.  

Back in the 1970s, KFC wasn’t known by its initials. It was Kentucky Fried Chicken, it was indeed finger lickin’ good, and whoever was staying with Grandma and Grandpa that week was getting a real treat.

Just about every night, we could count on a game of cards.

 The family dressed up for Sunday dinner at a buffet-style restaurant during one of our trips to visit my grandparents in Florida.  Photo:  Newvine Personal Collection

 The family dressed up for Sunday dinner at a buffet-style restaurant during one of our trips to visit my grandparents in Florida.  Photo:  Newvine Personal Collection

I remember a warm Central Florida winter night in 1972.  Six kids between the ages of twelve and seventeen were enjoying the spring break by playing cards and listening to one particular song on the radio.

The kids were my siblings and the similarly-aged kids of my parents’ friends. The card game was racehorse pitch, the preferred card game of that era. 

The song on the radio was American Pie.

 Bye bye

 Miss American Pie

 Drove my Chevy to the levy,

 But the levy was dry

 And good ole boys drinking whiskey and rye

 Singing, this will be the day that I die

 This will be the day that I die.

That song was the big rock-and-roll hit in early 1972.  It seemed like it was being played every half-hour on the Tampa rock-and-roll station.

I was fifteen years old.  The symbolism did not yet resonate with me.  It was the way the words worked together that caught my attention.  I had little or no appreciation of poetry, but these lyrics were beyond catchy.

 Did you write the book of love

 Or do you have faith in God above

Stanza after stanza, the poem of American Pie fascinated me.  It would be years before I fully understood what singer/writer Don McLean was trying to say.   

To this day McLean doesn't talk much about the deeper meaning of the words he composed. 

He doesn't have to.  This is a work of art that stands just as that.

 I can't remember if I cried
 When I read about his widowed bride

Madonna recorded a cover version several years ago, and it's an interesting interpretation.  The Brady Bunch kids recorded a version that isn't interesting or even an interpretation. It's just bad.

In American Pie, Don McLean is recalling a specific point in his lifetime. Whenever I hear that song, I think of a specific point in time too.  I zero in on the opening words:

 A long long time ago
 I can still remember how
 That music used to make me smile

While McLean was referring to the day Buddy Holly was killed in an airplane crash, I go back to a much happier time.  

I return to a warm Florida evening in February 1972, surrounded by family and friends.

We were creating a memory that has lasted nearly five decades.

Steve Newvine lives in Merced.  

His first book, Growing Up, Upstate is now available for a reduced price at Lulu.com