I grew up in Wolcott, CT, where my parents spent their entire married life. They had moved into the house that they had purchased in 1946 and both died in that same house in 2006 and 2012 respectively. With five children – born in 1948, 1949, 1954, 1956, and 1958 – there was never a lot of money for somewhat frivolous things like vacations in the earlier years. And with 23 acres of woods and a pond behind the house, we already lived in a place that others would have liked to vacation. It was not until I was older that we began having a regular summer vacation and went camping – first with a tent, then a pop-up camper. Our vacation for many years was to Cape Cod, but that was a “working vacation” (more on that in a later blog).
In the early summer of 1956, we took a short vacation to New York City. My brother Chuck was only a year-and-a-half old, and my mother would have been 5 months pregnant with my sister Dawn. So Chuck was left, probably with my grandmother, for a few days while my parents, I and my sister Beth, took a short vacation to New York City. This was in the days before the interstate highways had been built, so we traveled down Route 8 from Waterbury to Bridgeport, then took the Merritt Parkway along the coast to New York. It’s a two-hour drive these days, but back then would have been three hours or more depending on traffic.
This was not a long vacation, as we only stayed over two nights. So that would have given us the afternoon of the first day (probably a Friday), all day Saturday, and a partial day on Sunday before we returned. Since we wanted to put several activities into a relatively short amount of time, my father had arranged a hotel stay right in the heart of things – Times Square. From there we could walk to anywhere else we wanted. I don’t remember all the places we visited – after all, since we were “country folk”, just being in the “Big Apple” was exciting enough, but I still have a few vivid memories of that weekend.
The first was the hotel that we stayed at. I don’t remember the name of it, and it has long since been torn down and a larger, taller building is now there, but I know where it was. As you looked out the window, we were on the back side of a New York City landmark of the day – the neon Little Lulu sign. You can see it here in this old picture of Times Square (http://michelesworld.net/dmm/lulu/pc2.jpg). The picture is of Broadway between 43rd and 44th streets looking north. We were in one of the rooms just behind the red neon lights in Lulu’s dress. I remember that after we went to bed that the neon lights were still visible even with the shades drawn in the room. It wasn’t easy to sleep with the flashing lights, especially that first night when everything was so exciting.
The second memory was from the following afternoon. We walked over to the docks on the Hudson River, about five blocks west of the hotel. We hadn’t planned on anything but looking at the dock area, but discovered that the Queen Elizabeth was docked there that day. These were the days before transatlantic jet travel, so the premier way of crossing the Atlantic was on the sister ships the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth – both owned then by the Cunard Line (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cunard_Line).
The ship had docked the previous day and would be leaving the next day, so this day it was being cleaned and prepared for its next voyage. We were not passengers and the ship was not open to the public, so we just walked along the dock, looking up at this massive ship which took the entire length of the dock (the ship is over 1000’ long)! As the four of us stood there looking, we noticed an older gentleman, very dapper in a three-piece suit and hat, on the dock. He approached and in a voice with a distinct British accent asked if we were planning on touring the ship. My father responded that we were not passengers so we couldn’t, but the man said, “I’m one of the owners, I’ll arrange a tour.” It appeared that he was someone of high rank in the Cunard Line, as he was true to his word. Our lone picture of that day, taken by my father on his black-and-white camera, is of my mother, my sister and I, the older gentleman and another man – standing at the railing of the ship with one of the iconic Queen Elizabeth life preservers between us.
At any rate, we had one of the crew assigned to give our family a personally guided tour of the ship for the next couple of hours. We toured the outside, walked through one of the dining halls, down the interior corridors, peering into the engine room, etc. One thing I particularly remember was seeing a swimming pool somewhere in the interior of the ship (this was before cruises were to the Caribbean and the ship was retrofitted with an outdoor pool in the 1960s). Our chance encounter that afternoon turned into something quite memorable.
My next memory is of the Empire State Building. Not only did we go up to the 86th floor observation deck, but also to the 102nd floor observatory. While it’s not outside like the 86th floor, the chance to be in that small area with a 360-degree view is quite something. Not only could we see New York and New Jersey just across the river, but looking back to the northeast you could see some of the hills of Connecticut where we had come from. We also took the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and walked up to the crown where you could look out. That is also historic, but to my 8-year-old eyes, being up over 100 stories was much more exciting.
I’ve never been a city person and I avoid places like New York City if I can – preferring the rolling hills of Connecticut and Pennsylvania where I’ve lived for the past 40+ years. I’m still only a few hours from NYC, but I’d much rather stay away. However, that short trip back in 1956 was quite memorable and 60 years later is still that way.