Without a doubt, attending college is one of the defining moments in a young person’s life; going away to college makes it even more monumental. In my case, it marked the severing of the metaphorical umbilical cord that bound me to my parents. I was free as a bird, to either soar like an eagle or crash to earth like a week-old sparrow. My inaugural flight was neither spectacular nor mundane. Instead, it was more of a dipsy-doodle, up-and-down, starting-and-stopping, helicopter ride, filled with events I’ll always remember. One such “happening” was my second spring break—and it was a doozy! The setting was Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and the year was 1967. It was also the year of the famous Fort Lauderdale riots.
In the words of the late, great, Walter Cronkite, “You are there.”
It’s the middle of the afternoon, and some friends and I are on the beach, along with half the college population of the eastern portion of America. The other half is in Daytona Beach. I’ve driven down from New Jersey, and after spending several days sleeping in a bathtub in Miami Beach in an apartment rented by some girls I know from back home, I’m now shacked up in Lauderdale with a girl from Philadelphia, and pretending to be a foreign exchange student from Liverpool . . . . but I digress.
The beach is littered with thousands of boys and girls in various stages of undress. All of them are at least slightly intoxicated, and all are absorbing the hot rays of the April sun without the slightest concern for modesty—or potential skin cancer. I don’t know which is hotter, the sand or the water.
Suddenly, there is a commotion over in the direction of the Elbo Room, a bar located at the corner of Las Olas and Highway A1A, and I hurry over to see what’s happening. First, a bakery truck is overtaken, and bread and cakes are taken from it and tossed to a gathering crowd. Next to be attacked is a small city bus, which is rocked side-to-side, forcing its occupants to flee. Finally, an open-bodied truck carrying wooden cases filled with glass bottles of Canada Dry soda comes down the street, attempting to maneuver its way through the intersection, but a sea of drunken students has now blocked the road. Several boys jump up on the truck and begin tossing bottles of soda into the sea of students surrounding it; some of the bottles are caught, and some of them aren’t. Before long, the asphalt is littered with soda and broken glass, and dozens of young men are rocking the truck side-to-side in attempt to turn it over. Why? God only knows. The truck driver jumps out of the cab and the crowd roars its approval.
Soon, police cars approach with lights flashing and sirens screaming. Someone’s called the cops! First, there are just a couple, but soon there are more and more—until at last, there must be at least a dozen vehicles. Then, several paddy wagons approach. Cops pour out of the panel trucks with wooden batons in their hands and helmets on their heads. The looks on their faces indicate they mean business. There are German Shepherd dogs, too—lots of them. Insults and even bottles are hurled from the crowd toward the cops, who don’t hesitate to swing their sticks at the nearest young person. Before long, fights break out. There are students fighting with one another, and police fighting with students. Many arrests are made, some warranted, some not. In all over 500 students are dragged off to jail.
Gradually, the huge crowd is surgically divided by the police, with one half forced out of the street and onto the sidewalk, and the other half systematically herded down the beach to the edge of the water. Anyone resisting is immediately hammered with a wooden baton. I see one poor girl with nowhere to go slammed viciously across the head by a pockmarked-faced officer who seems to delight in the confrontation.
After some time has elapsed, calm is restored, but the police don’t leave. Instead, a perimeter is established with police cars and saw horses. Police with bullhorns march up and down the street, announcing that there is a curfew. The barking of the police dogs serves as a caution to anyone foolish enough to think about breaking it.
After several days, order was restored and the police finally left. Business in the bars resumed as though nothing had ever happened, and on the beach, all was mostly forgotten—but not by me. To this day, that riot remains something I’ll never forget. Oh, yeah, and that girl from Philadelphia . . . what was her name?
Got a spring break story of your own? Or a different unforgettable experience about coming of age? Tell us about it in the comments section below. We’d love to hear about it.
NOTE: Joe Perrone Jr is the author of the Matt Davis Mystery Series: As the Twig is Bent, Opening Day (a 2012 Indie B.R.A.G. medallion winner), Twice Bitten, and Broken Promises. All four are available in paperback and E-book from Amazon.com. As the Twig is Bent and Opening Day are also in audiobook from Audible.com, with Twice Bitten and Broken Promises currently in production. If humor is your cup of tea, consider Joe’s rip-roaring, coming-of-age novel, Escaping Innocence: A Story of Awakening, set in the tumultuous Sixties, or A “Real” Man’s Guide to Divorce (First, you bend over and . . . ). Both are available in print, E-book, and audio book editions.
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