Daytona

Fri, 05/14/2021 - 1:00pm

Erik popped out of his yellow Ford Econoline van after he rolled up next to me on the beach. With the exception of his long curly black hair he looked like a businessman in his burnt-orange, wide-lapelled suit jacket and tie, with bell-bottoms and platform shoes. He was the first guy I met when I ended up on Daytona Beach in 1975. Erik’s get-up made no sense, because he basically lived in a bathing suit, t-shirt and running shoes. Erik gestured for me to follow him to an open grill on the beach at the end of Silver Beach Avenue. When we got there he introduced me to a few guys who looked like they’d been expecting him. Erik emptied a bag onto a blanket. The grill was lit and we ate the prime steaks that he just boosted from the Winn Dixie on Atlantic Avenue. We ate in silence while watching the parade of pretty girls, and colorful traffic driving on the beach called A1A. Erik introduced me to Floyd, Terry, and a guy named Franny who were some of the wacky denizens of Daytona Beach that I would end up hanging with during the cold and crazy winter. I also met other characters; however, they were just standard issue folks, just hanging out in town and living in their vans like me. Some had cool rigs, and some were weird looking—like mine.
Daytona was an outlaw kind of town in ’75, and through the aforementioned beach guys, I’d met some bikers who hung in a place called the Boot Hill Saloon. This was and still is, a notorious biker bar bad-ass. My first time in the saloon, I felt out of place because almost everybody wore Colors. One time I was looking at a bunch of old tattered Polaroid pictures of bikers on a wall near the bar. These guys and gals in the black and white pictures had serious expressions as they looked directly into the camera. I sensed I was looking at ghosts in these photos. I paid close attention to this place and took notes in my journal so I’d never forget the vibe I sensed in there. In those days there was lots of down low activity in the sunny beach town of Daytona, and I learned to keep my mouth shut, play dumb and keep my distance from trouble.
On the other hand, besides the outliers I hung with, I met many other travelers who were also living in their respective vans during a recession economy and were just passing through town while heading south - mostly to Key West. (I felt my van wouldn’t make it to Key West because of my tires and glitching starter. And, Seven Mile Bridge looked daunting on my map.) That winter I met an eccentric solo motorcyclist from Wisconsin. His name was Terry and he loved the ladies and his Yamaha, which he was planning to drive through every one of the continental United States. I showed Terry how to surf - he’d never seen the ocean - and he taught me to drive a powerful motorcycle on the hard-packed sands of Daytona Beach. He was a total eccentric who studied engineering and just decided to see the country after his girlfriend gave him the boot. He hung with me for several days and then headed south to the Keys.

The most memorable character I met that cold winter while living in my van on the beach of Daytona and points south to Sebastian Inlet, was a guy named Rick McMarlin. He was a 22-year-old guy who was studying to be a commercial airline pilot at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona. Rick had wanted to be a fighter pilot for the military but was refused because of having high arched feet, and that’s how he ended up at Riddle. I first met Rick one day when he pulled into the Union 76 gas station on Silver Beach and Atlantic Avenue where Erik pumped gas and hustled unsuspecting customers in quick games of chess with three-move checkmates. That day while hanging at the gas station, I got to checking out Rick’s bashed up 1968 Triumph Spitfire, and then I showed him my eyesore of a van. We got along right from the rip. Hey, two shanty Irish wise-asses driving beat-up cars, what could possibly go wrong? We’d meet girls in the bars, and we’d fly with Rick in a Cessna Skyhawk owned by Embry-Riddle. The girls paid because Rick was on a tight budget. He taught me some important things about flying, and was one of the brightest and funniest guys I’ve ever met. We’d work on our junked-out machines at the gas station when Erik was on duty and could use the lift. Our rides were beyond sketchy and would never be allowed on the road today.
Rick had to leave school after that winter; he ran out of money. Back in Johnstown, PA, he drove a truck for Goodyear, sold tires, and bought an old single-engine Piper Tri-Pacer on a truck for a thousand dollars. An old gruff Scotsman at a local airfield helped him put the plane together. Rick then flew the plane and gave private five-dollar lessons. One day a guy moved his plane and forgot to tie it down and a freak storm ripped through the airfield and flipped his plane and broke its back. The Tri-Pacer was totaled. Rick had to think quickly and took his insurance money, and moved to North Carolina with a guy he knew from Embry-Riddle and gave lessons, stacked time, and acquired his instrument ratings. He went on to fly corporate gigs, and recently retired as a Captain for American Airlines. This driven guy I met at Daytona has owned a few airplanes, one of which was a World War II Stinson Gullwing, in which he survived a mid-air collision out in New Mexico. Today he and his wife fly a Beechcraft Bonanza V-Tail airplane. He’s dialing into retirement, but really misses flying. “I miss being on final coming into San Francisco with two hundred people on my plane,” he recently said.
Finally, my dad told me several times as a kid, that I should write a book of my wacky adventures and the people I’ve met. And, I did. Today is my dad’s anniversary as write of these wild memories. This column is a salute to my dad. Nota Bene: For more about the Green Van, check out my book “The Monkey’s Fist, and other Stories of the Block Island Ferry,” available at Island Bound Bookstore, The Block Island Trading Company, and the Block Island Historical Society.