Karen Borrell is a world traveler who has visited and lived in many other countries. But in 1947, she was a school girl in a town of less than three hundred people when she won a once-in-a-lifetime trip to St. Petersburg, Florida. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns When I was twelve years old, I traveled with my mother during spring break in 1947 from the Adirondack Mountains to Florida. I had won a radio show essay contest about “My Dream Vacation,” and we drove the eighty or so miles out of the snow-laden mountains where we lived, traveling on sanded roads framed by high snow banks, to Schenectady, New York, where we would meet “Uncle Burrel,” the star of the morning “Tillie Lou” radio program.
Speculator, New York, is a very small town on the edge of Lake Pleasant – at that time there were less than three hundred residents. Every morning my brother Richard and I would stand on the metal grate register that conducted welcome heat up from the basement furnace. Mother rose early to stack the furnace with fresh wood and start a fire so that we could bear to get dressed and ready for school in our frigid house.
We would stand on the warm grate sipping hot cocoa or spooning our warm oatmeal while we listened to the silly antics of “Tillie Lou” on our large floor-cabinet radio. The contest had been announced for weeks. The grand prize was a ten-day trip to Florida for Easter. My mother pushed me relentlessly to enter it and even gave me help, which I later felt very guilty about.
The memory is forever etched in my mind of us huddled on that register and hearing my name announced on the radio: “Karen Olsen from Speculator, New York, is the winner!!!” We jumped up and down and screamed with delight. I was dumbfounded, but life had to return to normal. I grabbed my heavy coat and ran down the long driveway to the main road and caught the school bus.
No one on the bus knew yet, but upon arriving at school, I was an instant celebrity. Most of my classmates were also listening to that moronic fifteen-minute kids’ show because there were so few listening choices at that time.
The trip to Florida was still about two months away. Meanwhile, the school was inundated with films and literature about Florida, the fish life, the tropical parks, the zoo, ocean sailing, must-see tourist sights, and more. We were also given our full itinerary.
It was very exciting and there were assemblies set up in our school gym for all to see the latest films as they arrived. This was just before any of us had television, and we were very easy to entertain in those days. The whole town felt like it had been “put on the map.” Everyone was delighted for us.
Then the reality of our circumstances occurred to my mother – it had not occurred to me. How could we go? We did not have appropriate clothing or shoes, and we had no suitcases.
One day I was invited to skip school with my friend Lois and her sister. Her parents owned the only local tavern, and were financially quite solvent by our standards. They were going to the city to buy supplies and get a few other things.
After completing the necessary chores we had an enjoyable lunch together and Mrs. Graham said we should pick up a few pieces of clothing for her daughters. We went to a lovely store and the girls began to try on different blouses and dresses.
Mrs. Graham invited me to try on some also for the fun of it. I had never tried on store-bought clothing before. Mother always cut down the dresses from my cousin Eleda that my aunt sent to us, and I had very few. It was so much fun!
Finally, Mrs. Graham asked me which pieces were my favorites, and suggested other ones that she also liked. When it was over, I ended up leaving that store with dresses, skirts, blouses, slacks, underwear, shoes, and even a bathing suit!!
I was so happy, but thoroughly embarrassed. How could she do such a generous thing? Soon I learned that even the school principal knew what was going to happen. People were aware of our situation, and the Grahams had started a clothing fund for me. Every lumberjack who went in for a drink, or any other customer who came in to eat or drink, put money in the kitty. I even had a pretty coat and hat for my traveling.
My mother was a registered nurse and earned a small income from nursing some of the people with summer homes. One well-to-do lady called her and ended up lending Mother the nice clothing and other items that she would need for the trip. To this day, all those acts of kindness still amaze me and I feel unending gratitude.
On a chilly day in March, my sixteen year old brother Phillip drove us to Schenectady. I was full of anticipation. I was really going to meet Uncle Burrel at the broadcasting station! He turned out to be a fatherly, dark-haired man with a mustache. There were pictures taken and he showed us around the studios. Then he took us all to lunch and gave us a bundle of tickets and spending money. He acompanied us to the railroad station, and our journey began.
When we arrived at Grand Central Station in New York City we briefly met some dear friends who were also excited for us. Next, we were whisked off to the Hotel New Yorker where we would append the night.
We dined and were taken to see “Sitting Pretty” with Clifton Webb, which was a big deal for us. A real movie theater was a treat in itself. New York City was a celebration to be in. I don’t remember how, but I even managed to find and buy a long-wished for item, a pair of ballet slippers for my imaginary dream of being a ballerina.
In the morning, after a lovely breakfast in the dining room, we were driven back to Grand Central Station where we boarded the train for Florida. I enjoyed seeing the change of scenery with the snow disappearing and the increasingly rich green expanses of land that separated the homes and businesses.
I was keenly interested, but at the same time lulled and comforted by the soft swaying and clacking of the train as it sped along the tracks. I was still very unsophisticated and held on to my favorite doll on my lap.
We ate in the big dining car, then settled down in our reclining seats. We traveled through Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C. North and South Carolina, and slept through Georgia, waking with excitement to know that we were now in Florida! I slept well, but remember Mother having great difficulty getting her shoes back on her feet, as they were terribly swollen.
Arriving in St. Petersburg, we were surprised to be stopped by photographers taking many pictures. They even took me up to the engine room to lean out of the window and wave. I remember being so afraid that I would get my new coat dirty. We were welcomed by the Mayor and taken in his chauffeur-driven car to the posh Vinoy Park Hotel.
Mother and I were overwhelmed by such attention and really not very comfortable with such an unusual change from the life we knew. It was unspoken, but each of us was hoping not to embarrass ourselves in any way.
What followed was a week of great diversity and bewildering attention. I still don’t know why so many people and organizations would care about a twelve-year-old child with no particular talent. I couldn’t really dance or sing, but I did try to act. I had to act all the time to look like I was taking all the attention in my stride.
The week was a jumble of activities pre-planned for us, with time allowed for my own choices. My choices included going to the zoo. Its main attraction for me was that I got to hold and feed a monkey. We also went to see an amazing exhibition of an extensive, old-fashioned miniature doll-house that was on display.
A boy my age who was staying at the hotel with his father invited me to attend a Yankees-Red Sox baseball game. He bought me an ice cream cone that I was holding when Joe DiMaggio strode by our front-row seats, pleased with the hit he had just made. He asked me if I was enjoying my ice cream. I didn’t even now who he was.
One of the arranged activities was a dinner with the Mayor and his wife at their home. They were very gracious and made us feel at ease. The Audubon Bird Society made us honored guests, but I remember no other details as I fell asleep from lack of interest and fatigue.
I have no recollection of the whole trip home. It must have been due to exhaustion. So much had happened to a very ordinary and shy young girl.
For months afterwards, we still heard from some of the people we had met there. We were sent a huge carton of a variety of bubble gum, more movies, and a crate of Florida oranges, all of which gave me a continued celebrity in school for a while. I graduated from eighth grade that summer. There were only fourteen people in my class. My family moved in the fall to Amsterdam, New York, to city life, bigger schools, and new possibilities.
Published: March 20, 2014 - Volume 12 - Issue 49