Chasing the Solana

Chasing the Solana

Online extra: See the "Chasing the Solana" slide show.

Zumbyes audio coming soon!

Illustration: Rick Peterson 

Gas money: $340.
Drinks in an old haunt: $40.
Reliving a Spring Break road trip: priceless.

By Peter Bellows ’62, Jeffrey Gutcheon ’62, William Slights ’61 and Roger Tarpy ’63

Back then, we would drive to Florida in one shot—30 hours straight through, sometimes changing drivers in mid-flight on a pitch-black stretch of Georgia’s Route 301. The drill on arrival was always the same: check into the seedy Solana Hotel in Coral Gables, head for the beach, return badly sunburned. We’d shower, don our blue seersucker jackets and assemble on the off-limits hotel roof, where we’d consume dozens of 15-cent White Tower hamburgers, drink too many gins and tonic, rehearse our latest musical arrangement and scheme to meet some girls.

This was in the late ’50s and early ’60s, when the Zumbyes took a road trip to Florida every Spring Break. Now, in 2007, four of us were chasing the Solana once again, this time not even knowing whether the stucco-ugly scene of our past glories had been demolished in the name of progress (read, a parking lot or condo).

Rog had incubated the idea of this Paleo-Zumbye trip for two years before he phoned the rest of us. He was possessed by the idea that we’d find a 1959 Ford Fairlane convertible and drive down the old roads, avoiding Interstate 95, from Amherst to the Solana, as we’d done so long ago. Along the way we’d sing those tight six-part harmonies (with four voices?), swipe oranges from fragrant groves as we’d done in the past and, for 10 days, search out the old stages, the old girlfriends, the old beaches. Then we’d write a book that would land us all on Oprah. Think Jack Kerouac meets A Mighty Wind and you’ll be close to the wacky idea that we all came to share.

Of course, the adventure would pose real risks. What were the chances that four guys who’d barely spoken in 45 years could bear one another’s peculiarities while recreating an adolescent road trip? Back then we certainly didn’t agree about who was cool or smart or musically talented. What would we think of one another now? And compared to the soft-edged 1950s version of the trip, did the 2007 reality stand a chance of measuring up?

On a startlingly bright early-spring day, we met at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City. Rog had made his way from Virginia, Jeff from Texas, Bill from Nova Scotia and Pete from Brazil. We instantly recognized one another—the bounce in Rog’s step, Bill’s bald pate, Jeff’s serious demeanor, Pete’s wide shoulders and blond hair. While we waited to get our rental car (a new Cadillac, not an old Ford), Pete told astounding stories about running Citibank’s operations in Africa and South America amid innumerable revolutions. Rog spun out arcane bits of learning theory and tales of directing a championship women’s a cappella chorus. Bill elevated the tone with references to Shakespeare and Ben Jonson and, later, did unpredictable things such as locking our only set of car keys inside the Caddy. Jeff spoke about his work in the music industry. He’d arranged a lot of the music for the Broadway hit Ain’t Misbehavin’, played keyboards for the likes of Willy Nelson and written a book on rock ’n’ roll.

We talked our way from New York to Amherst and, once comfortably installed in the Lord Jeffery Amherst Inn, turned our attention to plotting our journey and sipping malt whisky. We knew that our first task was to work up some music for the next day’s pre-arranged meeting with the 2007 Zumbyes. We figured they’d ask us to sing, and frankly, we were terrified of looking like four old guys who had wandered into Amherst from another era, trying too hard to relate and be relevant. As Pete wryly asked, “How would we have responded, back in 1960, if several members of the Class of 1913 had suddenly shown up at one of our rehearsals?” Their music—indeed, their entire connection to the Zumbyes—would have seemed to us incomprehensibly remote, what with aviation, TV, two wars, the Great Depression and Sputnik all conspiring to widen the cultural gulf.

But remoteness had nothing to do with our meeting with the young Zumbyes. They seemed fascinated by the concept of a bond that would bring us together after more than four decades. They genuinely wanted to impress us with their sound, bypassing songs that they didn’t feel were sufficiently challenging or finely honed. We talked, they sang. Finally, we sang along with them, and the feeling of musical connection was probably the most intense one we would experience on the entire trip.

The current Zumbyes knew and admired Jeff’s old Zumbye arrangements, with all their rhythmic and harmonic innovations. They even asked him to write some new ones based on the material he’s been working on with a country-and-western band in Fort Worth, Tex. The students told us about their upcoming Japanese tour, sounding a lot like we did 50 years ago when we spoke of our trips to Miami. None of us wanted this odd moment of connection across the years to end.

But end it did, giving us an opportunity to explore the campus and the town after a long absence. A few new buildings had popped up but, really, little had changed. Or had it? Climbing the steps to Johnson Chapel, we met a young African-American woman, a cheerful reminder that the gender and ethnic homogeneity of our day is long gone. Rog asked if she was a student (“I will be, in the fall”) and what she would think of being required to attend chapel twice a week, as we had been. She could muster no answer to this rather far-fetched question, and, with eyebrows slightly elevated and a charming smile, she bounded up the steps ahead of us.

As we made our way back to the Lord Jeff, we passed fraternities that had tied some of us closer together and forced others of us to the margins of the 1950s and 1960s social system. The buildings looked much like they did in our day, but now we viewed them more as comfortable dorms than as secret sanctuaries. As one of us remarked, “The Zumbyes were the fraternity that really counted the most.”

We found ourselves trying to decide whether the town and the college looked the same or different. Certainly the town common felt unchanged, except for the evening’s Israel Independence celebration, complete with knishes and a rock band. In our day, a handful of students boarded a bus outside Memorial Library to join the Freedom Riders in Alabama. No band, no snacks.

More than the buildings and the politics, we focused on a few of the salient personalities of our time: Calvin Plimpton ’39, who was the college president, and former professors Bucky Salmon and Robert Frost. Each of us shared vivid memories of meeting Frost in his later years. One of us remembered being appalled at the rampant Frostolatry on campus; another was astounded by the poet’s ability to recite Latin verse and to imagine himself as President Kennedy’s secretary for the arts. It was, in so many ways, a gentler time. But not in every way. The disruptions surrounding civil rights, the women’s movement and the Vietnam War were beginning to stir. It wasn’t an easy time for ethnic minorities on campus, and women got to go to the college only on weekends. We were cut off from a good deal of the world in this small New England town.

Back at the Lord Jeff, we spent a second night and then headed south. We were well and truly launched.

One of the things that came up, even in our earliest discussions, was the idea of change in America. Surely we would see plenty of it on the drive, and, just as surely, the theme of change would loom large as we revisited our old haunts. But could we write anything interesting about it? Would our commentary sound, at best, wholly inadequate and, at worst, pompous?

Spotting change was easy—there were Wal-Marts, interstate highways, ATMs, glass and steel skylines and cell phones, as well as more threatening shifts in our culture. Global warming, terrorism and the war in Iraq have replaced the Cold War as sources of anxiety. Indeed, we could have generated a seemingly endless list of changes before ever turning the ignition key in our rented Caddy.

But the real issue was the tricks of the memory, not change in America. The places and landscape we visited 50 years later not only conjured up dim images of trips past—they also stimulated fanciful reconstructions, full of contradictions and embellished detail. Our memories were accounts of what we believed we had seen and experienced as unobservant and self-absorbed college kids.

Consider the dubiously wonderful and campy South of the Border, a massive and gaudy trinket mart just across the state line into South Carolina. South of the Border was always the first distinctly Southern experience on the southbound Zumbye trips of yore. Less than a day away from a chilly New England spring, it conveyed a sense of the exotic. It had a trashy and vaguely forbidden feel compared to the staid grandeur of Johnson Chapel. Stopping at South of the Border signaled a transition from the serious world of exams and Mount Holyoke mixers to the unsupervised spree up ahead.

This time, however, the exotic simply wasn’t there. What we saw instead was a vast space jammed full of tacky come-ons, corrugated steel buildings and lots strewn with signs asking RVs to park to the left. We were virtually alone in the huge parking lot. South of the Border was all dolled up for the prom but had chosen a pretty shabby dress.

Consider, too, the annual orange-stealing escapade. Fifty years ago, this always took place in the middle of the night on a lonely Florida road. We’d scale the high, chain-link fence and dash through wet grass, breathless with a sense of committing a crime. We’d lug a pillowcase full of oranges through the blackness to the solitary headlights in the distance and, laughing uproariously, tell our anxious getaway-car driver to “step on it.”

This time? Well, the trees at Harvey’s (“pick-your-own”) Orange Grove were only a few yards from the busy highway, and they were mostly barren save the few half-moldy pieces of fruit within reach. The hazy afternoon sun beat down uncomfortably, and trash littered the roadside. We had intended to drive 100 yards up the road to the kiosk and pay for our loot, but the shop was closed on Sunday. Alas, when it comes to thrills, where is the Highway Patrol when you need it?

After four days of driving and sightseeing, we arrived at our hotel in the stylish and sun-splashed city of Coral Gables, Fla. Early the next morning, after breakfast, we set off to accomplish our prime mission, namely finding the Solana.

Our quest was about much more than scratching an itch—satisfying a vague curiosity about a building. The Solana, in some ways, symbolized the lighthearted days of our youth. The hotel embodied a freedom that we haven’t experienced in decades. If Amherst, and the Zumbyes, had been a powerful and beloved part of our lives, then the Solana Hotel surely is as much a reminder of that as is Johnson Chapel. Like the infamous Sabrina, it deserved to be found.

Our hotel was only a few blocks away from the old Solana, so we decided to walk. As we rounded the final corner, the suspense built. We wanted to find the Solana, but we worried that it wouldn’t measure up to our expectations.

But there it stood. Not only did the Solana still exist, but, to our delight, it looked exactly the same as it did in the late ’50s. We didn’t need to search our memory for a wisp of an image to compare with what loomed before us; we were looking at the real thing, in all its tangible splendor.

How could we have been so fortunate? It’s pretty simple, really: In the early ’80s, although the city condemned the building (forcing its owners to close the doors to the public), the town fathers also declared the Solana a historical landmark. As we would learn, the hotel had enjoyed a glorious run in the ’20s as a speakeasy and brothel, and it’s now considered to be a fine example of the early-20th-century Spanish style of architecture common to southern Florida. The important thing for us, of course, was that the greedy developers hadn’t touched a flake of the Solana’s aging stucco. Entering the courtyard felt like walking into another era.

The inside, however, didn’t measure up quite as well. The newly painted roof (scene of gin-and-tonic parties) seemed tiny and unromantic, crammed as it was with modern air conditioning equipment. The restaurant that now occupies most of the interior is chic and has a bright European flair, rather than the noir feel of the room in the ’50s. The architect’s office and branch bank that occupy the other part of the interior are Danish-modern and efficient, unlike the dimly lit staircase of our memory. In 1960, the Solana was tucked away in the shadows of coconut palms. Now it’s a reclamation project, pastel yellow and stuck, without shame, among the gleaming steel-and-glass office buildings of downtown Coral Gables.

Our celebration at the Solana, amid the floodlit trees in the courtyard, was magnificent: wholly unrushed, full of good will, generous to every idea or comment proffered, warm and expansive and flowing with champagne and hilarity. We felt personally connected to our past as we viewed old photos and read aloud well-wishing letters from Zumbye friends. We even called to leave a rambling, laughter-filled message on the answering machine of Dave Roll ’62.

Thrilled to be at the font of our youth, we felt a sense of reverence for the friends who could be with us in spirit only. We remembered fondly the carefree but serious kids we used to be. Most of all, we felt grateful, not only that we had captured the past by chasing our Solana dream but also that we had been able to make the trip in the first place, given the challenges of gathering four active people together from distant corners of the globe.

Our feast at the Solana (we can’t bear to refer to its restaurant name, La Palma) was the heart and soul of our journey. But not far behind was our visit to Coral Gables High School, scene of many a Zumbye concert and home to the gorgeous, honey-haired girls with whom we annually fell in love.

Since it was a Saturday, no one was in the hallway except a janitor, who brought us to the very auditorium where we had performed 50 years ago. Inside the auditorium, we saw a few young dance students who, as they rehearsed their routine, paid no attention whatsoever to four former, now wizened, idols. We stood awkwardly on the stage, imagining the time we had triggered a Beatles-like reaction among adoring fans. None of us could remember the details.

It was probably fitting that we sang “Lord Jeffery Amherst” not on stage, but rather surreptitiously, almost as an afterthought, in the hallway as we were about to leave the school. No one heard us but the janitor. The cheering and swooning that had followed us as college students remained safely tucked away in our imaginations. We had managed to link up with our youth without being rebuked in the least.

Zumbyes of our generation sang each year at the venerable Bath Club, an understated but exclusive Miami Beach hideaway of the wealthy and privileged. Probably no other venue symbolized more clearly than this institution the charmed life we led during Amherst spring breaks. This time around, however, we were given a reprieve from the task of reconciling the modern facility with our faulty memories. Just as we had feared, the gracious club had been razed in favor of expensive condominiums. But there was one thing left standing: the heavy oak door and brass plaque that graced the original entranceway. The door looked strangely out of place, off to the side of the main entrance, like an architectural experiment that the contractor had forgotten to complete.

Finally, we paid a visit to the legendary Fontainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach. All four of us remembered wandering around the opulent lobby, gawking at the rich guests and hoping to snitch hors d’oeuvres. On one trip, we had been set abuzz by a chance meeting with the ’60s teen idol Paul Anka, for whom we sang a song. None of us could recall the details of the encounter, but we did summon up the number we’d performed: “Blue World.” After we sang for Anka, a member of his entourage had whispered in his ear: “Four Freshmen.” We had obviously not impressed this big-name singer.

It was tough to recreate the Fontainebleau experience fully, however, because, as we discovered, the hotel was undergoing major surgery. The building was wrapped in Tyvex, piles of rubble dotted a moonscape-like terrace, and hotel room walls were smashed out, leaving wires and pipes hanging in mid-air. All we could do was peer, with considerable difficulty, over the construction fence at the remnants of a lifestyle that had fascinated us when we were young but had never tempted us as adults.

The Fontainebleau had lost its glitz; the Bath Club retained only a symbolic remnant of its past. But we all realized on our last day in Coral Gables that the most radical changes and enduring continuities had happened in each of us. On this very special road trip, we’d seen how the Amherst College experience continues to resonate long after the strains of “Paige’s Horse” have become a faint echo. We’d managed to rejuvenate friendships rooted not only in the harmonics of the Zumbyes but in the day-to-day, and incredibly precious, experience of Amherst. Hit hard by the diseases of age, we flourished nonetheless in these two weeks of joking, remembering and singing.

Our education at Amherst and the friendships we’d nurtured in college all came together for us on this trip. The much-revered and equally maligned New Curriculum—which had made us think simultaneously about physics, calculus, history, writing, literature and foreign languages—had created an atmosphere in which we had to share strategies for learning with our friends. And if we had not listened to one another so carefully inside those wild six-part Zumbye chords, we would have simply made noise, not music.

When the four of us left Amherst, we specialized in very different fields, but almost 50 years later we could still talk together about English history, American politics, religious conversion and WAN technology (though when it came to sports, some of us had to fake it). As Jeff put it on our last day together, Amherst gave us a vision and a vocabulary. We refined the vision and sharpened the vocabulary over the intervening half century in ways that felt extraordinarily compatible. A deep sense of mutual respect—and fun—had brought us through this offbeat adventure brilliantly.

The four of us weren’t alone on this trip, of course. We talked daily about Zumbye friends who had taught us songs (that were never written down) and given us invaluable lessons in how to write final exams, get cool dates and spend 30 hours at a stretch in a car without driving one another insane. Our antics this time were undertaken in no small measure to honor all the guys who had ever traveled with us and to commemorate the powerful effect they continue to have on our lives.

But the four of us were the lucky ones. We actually got to drive past 1,500 miles of strip malls, tidy bungalows and roadside souvenir shops chasing the Solana dream. And, by God, we found it.

Peter Bellows, who retired after postings with Citibank in the Philippines, Brazil, Nigeria and England, now divides his time between London and São Paulo, Brazil. Jeffery Gutcheon continues to make music with the Fort Worth, Tex., rock group Lost Country and is hoping to finish his retirement home in Deer Isle, Maine. William Slights has been a professor of English at New York University, the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the University of Saskatchewan. He lives in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, where he is writing a book on Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Roger Tarpy, the author of eight books on psychology, spent his teaching career at Williams College and Bucknell University; he lives in Charles City, Va.