Back to the Bahamas, the week of Labor Day 1980.
I was 17 on my first trip out of the United States, which included my first time on an airplane, and traveling with a group which included friends and soon-to-be friends.
Some of my most vivid memories (sorry, Mom said I can’t share them all):
Many of the locals referred to us U.S. tourists as “my cousin,” as in “John, my cousin, let me show you where to find the best deal,” or “Lahn, my cousin, you are beautiful lady and you honor us by being in daily poolside fashion show.” “Lahn,” is how our Bahamian “cousins” pronounced my partner in shenanigans “Lamb’s” name. She and Rosa Whitten did indeed participate in a fashion show, featuring the loveliest Bahamian attire available in the Holiday Inn Freeport’s gift shops. But it wasn’t poolside. It was indoors in the lobby, where those of us who were willing to take a break from the sunshine that day sat in wicker and rattan furniture and clapped.
One of my only souvenirs from the trip was a pullover V-neck shirt I can best now describe as “Bohemian” rather than “Bahamian.” I wore it on the trip home. A picture of me wearing it, in the hotel parking lot, appeared in the 1981 Dobyns-Bennett annual. Believe it or not, I wore it for several years. I’m sure I still have it, in storage, somewhere. Many of my friends came home with “It’s Better in the Bahamas” T-shirts.
Another day it rained. A lot. Most of us sat it out in our rooms. Some gathered for impromptu parties in this or that room, taking turns darting through the rain to the poolside bar for trays of drinks.
The elevator frequently stopped between floors. This did not stop us from using it, however, even though it was only one floor from the lobby to most of our rooms. I remember being stuck several times, once with the elevator quite crowded. I was standing face-to-face with Mitzi Johnson Hurd, who’d been my older sister Pam’s friend since I was in grade school. Mitzi assured me it was fine and all would be OK. I might have slipped a grasshopper from a tray she or someone else was carrying from the bar back to the room, filled with nothing but a dozen or so small glasses of that sweet, mint and chocolate cocktail. I think that was during the rainy spell. My only previous experience with minty alcohol was when this or that Skoby’s waiter would make my order of fried ice cream extra special by drizzling a teaspoon or so of creme de menthe on top. Whenever I eat grasshopper pie I think of rain-swept beaches, old friends, and ... taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
One day several of us signed up for a snorkeling trip. We walked into the surf from the hotel’s beach side and waded out about chest deep, where we climbed up a ladder and into a good sized boat. I was excited to try to snorkel but I hate going underwater at all. So once we reached the spot and dropped anchor, I basically dog paddled around on top of the water just looking through my mask toward the ocean’s floor. I still had fun. Until the sky suddenly turned dark and the boat operators rushed us all back on board to try to beat a storm to shore. It was just like the opening credits of “Gilligan’s Island,” that storm and how it came up so quickly.
Swimming to shore
As we got close to shore, the captain was saying something I didn’t quite catch, but most everyone was nodding “OK” and started diving overboard. He’d said due to the waves caused by the storm he couldn’t get as close to shore as when he’d picked us up ... could we swim for it?
I really didn’t fathom how deep the water was, and had only “dived” into water one time since Judy Brookshire and Marty Brotherton (more friends of sister Pam) gave me swimming lessons when I was about 10. I looked around on that boat deck, but neither Judy nor Marty were anywhere to be seen. Neither was the D-B gym teacher who’d made me take that one required swimming-class dive into the deep end of the school’s pool.
Everyone else was diving and swimming toward shore in the choppy water. I stalled for time. Finally, a couple not with my group walked over to me and asked if I was going to have trouble. I said I could swim, but not underwater. The man told me to go ahead and he’d be right behind me ... and was calm enough to tell me that if I did have trouble and he tried to help, not to panic and drag him down. I jumped (not dived) into the water. I went under. I swallowed some saltwater. I surfaced, and began to swim best I could toward shore. I wasn’t making much progress. True to his word, the man appeared next to me as suddenly as the storm had arrived at our snorkeling spot.
“I thought you said you could swim,” he shouted over the rain and waves.
“No, I don’t think you can.”
“I just keep getting water in my mouth.”
“Shut your mouth!”
His wife was soon beside us as well. He basically towed me ashore, or at least to the point I could stand up and walk, while she followed a few feet behind.
I thanked them for saving my life. He said he thought the praying helped. I asked when he’d prayed. “I said a silent prayer before you jumped off the boat ... and you were screaming for Jesus the rest of the way.”
I haven’t been snorkeling since. But I did take another swimming class. I still can’t dive and can’t stand to go underwater.
Phone call home
One night, late, one of us wanted to make a telephone call home (remember traveling before cell phones?) and no one was answering at the front desk. Rosa, who worked at the Holiday Inn here in Kingsport, wanted to know just what was going on at the front desk. We went up to the lobby and found the front desk completely unmanned. Rosa climbed over the counter and began running the switchboard. She didn’t get to stay long, but she did get the call put through to Tennessee. And she gave the hotel employee who finally showed up (and demanded she get back across the counter) such a dressing down I’m sure they were convinced she was a corporate “mystery guest.”
Bikini contest winner
Two new friends I made on the trip were Lori Kloempken and her bestie Iva Clark. Lori won the trip, for two, in a bikini contest. If I remember correctly, the contest was at the Nite Life. That was a nightclub on the “old” road to Johnson City. Being only 17 at the time, I will admit only to having been in the Nite Life (legitimately) one time at that point: I was a model in a fashion show at the club one Sunday afternoon, featuring clothes from stores in the Fort Henry Mall. I modeled in that show for, I think, the County Seat (if that’s the store that was near Record Bar, and uniquely had a staircase in its center that led to a balcony that ran the perimeter of the store). I think the clothes I modeled included the blue shirt I was wearing in the photo that ran with last week’s column.
The trip (or the contest) was also the first time our tour director, Doug East, met Lori. I’m still friends with both. Both live in Myrtle Beach (for years now) and have been friends these 40 years.
Mitzi worked at Skoby’s at the time and was among several of the waitstaff there who went on the trip. I can’t remember exactly who all went. Donna Wheelock. Steve Ayers. Don Moore?
There was an older couple (compared to me at 17 and most everyone else in my group in their 20s) whose full names I can’t remember. Dottie and “Big E.” Doug said he doesn’t remember if they were on this particular trip. Maybe I’m mistaken. But whatever trip I met them on, they watched out for me like I was their own.
I feel in love with air travel on the way down. On the way home, I learned it’s not always friendly in the skies. For some reason we were routed through Roanoke. Doug thinks it was due to bad weather in Charlotte. Well, guess what, bad weather moves around (maybe it was that storm from snorkeling day, following me) and when we landed at Roanoke it was in a terrible thunderstorm. I’d now know that was the type conditions that lead to downdraft wind bursts and crash landings. In all my years of travel since, I think that was the worst landing I’ve ever experienced.
I’ve rambled on a lot now about my first trip to the Bahamas. If you’ve made it this far, you’ve maybe noticed I didn’t say much about the Bahamas, the beach, the food, or the shopping. That’s because the best memories are always about the people (even when you can’t remember their names).