Florida Summer, 1963
I spent the summer of my twenty-first year holed up in a rented beach cottage on Manasota Key, a narrow island off the Gulf coast of Florida near the small city of Englewood, a few miles south of Venice.
The year was 1963. Half a century ago. Now absorbed into the crowded urban sprawl that extends from Naples all the way up past Tampa, back then Manasota Key was isolated, quiet, and rather sparsely settled, somewhere you could escape to. I chose it as a place to decompress after four intense years of college. I was due to start graduate school in the fall and needed a break.
Most of my days I spent alternating between lying out on the beach reading novels by authors like John D. Macdonald and working at the kitchen table of my little hideaway, where I was assembling a stereo amplifier from a kit I’d purchased at an audio store up in St. Petersburg. The amplifier was a 70-watt Eico, one of those pre-solid-state vacuum tube jobs that weighed a ton and generated enough heat to warm Grand Central Station in January. With kits like this you had to install every vacuum tube, connect up every wire, solder every connection. It took me weeks to finish it.
Building stereo amplifiers was a popular pastime among audiophiles in those days, affording rich opportunities to develop and refine one’s soldering skills. I wasn’t into cooking at home, so it was no inconvenience to dedicate the kitchen table as a workbench. As a calming influence and concentration aid, I’d be puffing away constantly on a Pall Mall brand cigarette while at work on this project.
In the evening I’d stroll to a little greasy spoon seafood restaurant just down the road for dinner and a few rounds of pinball. Fried shrimp or deep-fried clams were my usual entree choices, with a side order of french fries. Not exactly heart-smart, but I was young and cholesterol hadn’t been invented yet, so it was okay.
On days when I was feeling extravagant I’d have a martini or two before dinner, and two or three cigarettes to go with, of course. After dinner I’d sit out on the restaurant’s seaside balcony, sipping a beer, smoking, watching the surf, listening to the waves hitting the shore.
I still remember vividly the day I finished my Eico amplifier and fired it up for the first time. The other components of my stereo system were an Acoustic Research turntable and a pair of large Jensen TR-3 speakers, which were considered pretty hot stuff in those days but by comparison with modern speakers sounded like the entire orchestra was covered in thick gauze padding. For the premiere recording chose to to play my favorite Sibelius work, his Second Symphony - at full volume. Although the neigboring cottages weren’t particularly close, the residents complained anyway, so I turned it down.
To the young folks of the 21st century who are reading this I am sure that it sounds like a tale told by a demented, dissolute hermit well on the road to self-destruction through consumption of noxious substances. But I assure you that the summer of my twenty-first year was one of the most invigorating, renewing periods of my entire life. It was a time when I was in full control of my choices; there was nobody to tell me I should be doing this and I shouldn’t be doing that. I did what I wanted, without guilt. The best of times.
During my subsequent sojourn in Ann Arbor I got a lot of use and enjoyment out of that Eico, but around the mid-1970s decided it was time to scale up a bit and purchased a more modern receiver to replace it. Being the packrat that I am, I didn’t throw out the Eico, though. It spent the next decade and a half neglected, buried at the bottom of a basement closet. At the time of a house move around 1990, I decided it really was time to get rid of the thing, but before putting the amplifier out for the junkman I opened it up to have a last look at all those obsolete vacuum tubes, rheostats, and condensers. I’d never taken the top off in all the years since I finished building it. Much to my amazement, I found amidst the complex wiring an empty, crumpled Pall Mall pack. I must have absent-mindedly dropped it there back in Englewood, all those years ago.
Such a singular relic from one of the more treasured parts of my past needed to be preserved. I had the cigarette pack framed; now it hangs on my study wall.