There weren’t many free recreational opportunities for Florence families in the 1950’s. In the summer we might drive down to the Black Creek swimming hole or walk to the Timrod Park pool. Once a summer or so we’d make that long drive to Myrtle Beach, if mama packed a picnic basket and cooler. Occasionally there were community concerts at the high school and once in a while somebody put on a talent show at the Colonial Theater.
One big entertainment complex for cost-conscious families was the airport. Saturday afternoons you’d find a few cars parked up against the chain link fence or under the tall pine trees growing alongside the terminal tarmac. Dads would point out to assorted children those tiny specks in the sky as they came in for a landing. “See way up there? That’s the airplane, see?”
And we’d squint against the glare, following the speck until it was discernible as a plane, then disappeared from view on a far-side runway. “Listen for it, listen!” And soon we would hear the roar of those big engines as the plane taxied into sight. We’d wave and yell as though the passengers, maybe even the plane itself could hear us cheering it on. We’d wait until the engines finally stopped, the tall steps were rolled into place and all those fortunate people began disembarking. Satisfied, we’d prepare to pile back into the car, excitement over.
Sometimes instead of heading home daddy would drive us over to general aviation to look at an airplane up close. Two seaters or four seaters, single wing or biplane, many shapes and sizes of planes were parked inside the hanger and out. Sometimes daddy would find somebody to talk to about engine size, airspeed, all that technical stuff. Nobody ever tried to run us off in those days as we walked around, letting our imaginations put us into those cockpits. Sky King! Red Baron!
The whole property was a community asset and not just for airplane watchers, riders or flyers. On the Cemetery Road side were large, leafy pecan trees growing near one of the narrow paved roads. When the pecans were prolific, moms brought their children and their paper sacks, parked on the grassy shoulder and picked up enough nuts for Thanksgiving and Christmas pies and fruit cakes.
Those back roads were also good places for novice drivers. That’s where my cousin David Allen tried to teach me to drive daddy’s straight-shift Ford. A slipping clutch got the best of me and the car choked off every time I went from first to second gear. Exasperated, we finally gave up on the lesson. But in mama’s punch-button drive Plymouth later on, I practiced driving, turning around and parallel parking, every maneuver that might be called for on my driver’s test, all out there on those airport roads. The light traffic made the airport the safest, yet most realistic place to learn driving for me and most of my friends.
On East Palmetto near the main entrance was the Airport Drive-in Restaurant popular with teenagers. It was a good place to go before a movie, or instead. Hamburgers, soft drinks, and a dimly lighted parking lot made it a convenient and more-or-less private place to talk. I don’t recall if the food was good or bad, but I spent a summer evening or two there with dates listening to the car radio and eating with the windows down to catch a breeze. (No car air conditioners.)
We’d drive through the airport over to Cemetery Road, stretching the minutes before going home. We’d pass Marlowe Manufacturing along the way and occasionally another car, making several circuits and passing the ends of unused runways. If it was still daylight, we’d look for the hulk of an old abandoned plane, parked and forgotten on one of those old runways.
The annual Agricultural Fair set up on the town end of the airport for many years, with a family-friendly admission charge. Mama and daddy insisted we tour the exhibition buildings before us kids could ride any of the rides. They stopped too often to suit me; they knew too many people in those exhibit booths! Pyramids of home-preserved jelly and jams sat next to quart jars of cucumber pickles. There were gigantic pumpkins and gourds and hand-pieced quilts, blue ribbons pinned on everything imaginable.
We’d meander through tractors and disc harrows, finally arriving at our last stop – the baby animals. Trying to pet the piglets or catch a baby chick, we’d lean over the fence rails as mama and daddy congratulated the proud 4H’ers who had raised these adorable creatures.
Well, the fairgrounds were eventually relocated down the highway and the old terminal building, hangers and all have evolved into a shiny, new regional complex. Still, I enjoy reminiscing about our old 1950’s airport, especially these days when I have to pay for parking out there.