Rites of Spring Break

UPDATED 04/08/1985 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 04/08/1985 at 01:00 AM EST

Call it Animal House by the sea. Each March, swarming masses of college and high school kids spew out of stuffy classrooms and race madly toward America's mecca for wild and crazy youth: Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Whooping and hollering, they cram by fives and tens into vans, pickup trucks and souped-up sports cars that funnel in toward one special strip of sun-soaked beach. There, far from the boring old Midwest or Northeast, they forget teachers, parents, politics and most taboos. Until the last college calls back its students around Easter, the hormone-driven hordes live by only one rule: Have fun or go home.

Parents who remember the chaste Fort Lauderdale romance Where the Boys Are of 1961 might not recognize the scene today. In the '50s and early '60s, only about 20,000 swingers a year drove Daddy's car to Florida for spring break. This year, more than 350,000 students will squeeze into the sunny city to snooze haunch to haunch by the sea and dance hip to hip in the bars as they soak up an ocean of beer. The numbers alone make the scene wilder. Already there have been more than 100 student-related arrests. More than 400 people have gone to the local hospital with broken arms, cuts and sprains or sunburns even their best beach pals couldn't touch.

But some things haven't changed all that much. This year's beach boys and bunnies look as clean cut as a 1950s pep squad. They arrive with short hair, trim aerobics-class bodies and skin already bronzed in tanning salons. And they still have age-old issues on their minds: booze, sex and...well, that's about it.

The bars open early in Fort Lauderdale. Before 7 a.m. a line forms outside the Elbo Room, one of the most popular dives in town. To attract early morning imbibers, the Elbo offers a 75¢ draft beer special. Down the road Penrod's advertises a special Bloody Mary Madness from 10 a.m. to noon. All-day drinking definitely brings out the flashers among the collegiates. Four boys at the Elbo Room drop their pants and moon the passersby. As one spring breaker explains, "These aren't bars. These are insane asylums."

Beer is by far the biggest beverage in town, but drinkers with savoir faire order a Blue Ocean Wave (rum, Curacao, pineapple juice) or the Screaming Orgasm (a blend of Amaretto, ice cream, vodka, Kahlua and whipped cream). Mark Shriner, a Western Kentucky University student, says the name of the drink took him by surprise: "I'm in a car with three girls and this guy comes up and asks me if I'd ever had a Screaming Orgasm. I about wigged."

Later in the day hundreds of college kids, kept in line by police, queue up to get into their notion of heaven, the Button. The most popular afternoon spot on the strip offers college competitions that pit schools against each other in various games such as basketball, chugalug and wet T-shirt contests. Inside the Button, a dark, airless barnyard of a room, the thermometer soars into the high 90s. During the two-hour show, the raucous but friendly crowd consists mainly of University of Connecticut and Marquette University students. Some scream at the top of their lungs, "We are Marquette. We are Marquette." Girls on their boyfriends' shoulders sway with the throng, their ecstatic faces splashed with light from swirling strobes.

Deejay John Terry controls the mayhem from his steamy booth. He was arrested briefly one day this season, when a male student appeared in the Wet Willy T-shirt contest wearing nothing but his shirt. (Since then Terry reluctantly banned the Wet Willy and erotic banana eating contests.) Terry primes the crowd with Prince's wild tune Let's Go Crazy and then whips the students into a frenzy with a rousing disco version of Kate Smith singing God Bless America. Foam from beer cans spouts into the air. Arms wave madly. The kids love it. "This is the land of the free," yells Terry, "the home of the brave. God bless America and God bless the Wet Willy T-shirt contest." Periodically burly referees spray the overheated troops with a hose. Then at 5 p.m., blinking in the late afternoon glare, the crowd pours into the street. Beer and sweat stained, they chase each other into the ocean.

Crazy Gregg, manager of the Button, explains, "Basically, we've had three different generations here. In the '50s, the kids were more mellow and conservative, not blatant. In the late '60s and early '70s, they weren't gung ho or rah-rah. They didn't seem to want to have fun. When we played God Bless America, they booed us. But now the pendulum has swung completely around. They enjoy themselves to the hilt. The morality is looser. Golly, I saw a guy walk through the hotel stark naked. They wouldn't have done that 15 or 20 years ago."

On the beach below the Button drinking is illegal, so sunbathers discreetly camouflage their brew. No one brings a book. They're too busy reading between the tan lines. Most bathing beauties leave little to the imagination. Whether one-piece or bikini, their swimsuits are French cut: high on the thigh and minimal all over. Leopard and graffiti prints are everywhere, as are white lace and Sheena of the Jungle bikinis, which boast an extra front flap that flickers in the sea breeze. "The reason everyone is wearing French cuts," says one blond beauty, "is that they make you look less fat." Black rubber bracelets are also in. Girls wear them as anklets, boys loop them around their wrists. And both sexes parade in oversize T's with such informative messages as "Party Naked," "University of Heineken" and "Sun Your Buns in Fort Lauderdale."

Missy Watwood, 19: "It's hard to meet a guy here and enjoy him much or hold on to him because he gets lost in the crowd." Bill Burke, 21, of Central Connecticut State College: "The girls are a lot colder this year. They turn away at my wisecracks. If I was a girl, I would be a lot warmer."

Before nightfall, the crowds rush back to their hotels to wash up and grab a snack. Since rooms at the popular Holiday Inn Oceanside cost $125 a day during high season, kids take drastic measures to stick to their student budgets. As many as 15 people—of both sexes—bunk together. The jam-packed lairs also become mess halls. Sharon Regan, a senior at Indiana University who has done the scene before, figured out what she calls the ultimate budget. In the van she rented with 11 other girls, she hauled along all the essentials: one case of gin, one case of vodka, 15 cases of beer, six jars of Spaghettios, 15 boxes of Kraft's macaroni, oranges, cheese and saltines. From such supplies, she made dinner in their digs at the Wish You Were Here Inn.

In certain cases the crowded quarters can speed up intimate relations between boarders. "Morals are thrown out the window somewhere north of Chattanooga," says Purdue sophomore Erik Hume. However, some still hold fast. One senior West Point cadet says, "I've heard of people turning on the shower so they can do it without noise. But not me. I'd be too embarrassed. That's too intimate to do with other people there and it's crass. I'd kiss my girlfriend's belly button but that's about it."

The stench of rancid beer drifts over the Strip at night. The Strip, a sleazy mile-and-a-half-long stretch of shops, bars and hotels that parallels the shorefront, is the place to be, dead center in the salty armpit of Fort Lauderdale. It swarms with a pullulating mass of young tanned bodies in full narcissistic bloom. Nursing their Tall Boys (16-oz. beers) and cups that say "I survived Spring Break," packs of kids check each other out as they cruise. Like mating calls, shrill squeals and shouts cut through the humid night. Males lounge in plastic garden chairs in the back of pickup trucks, swilling beer. One gallant yells a mildly obscene compliment to a girl strutting in red fig-leaf bottoms and a tight T-shirt. The object of his lust tosses her locks and smirks. Cars move slowly past the crowd, and when the passengers get restless they van surf (dance on roofs). One fancy yuppie couple in their beach buggy drives by sipping beer from tulip-shaped wineglasses.

2 a.m. The beach is littered with the day's garbage. Here and there couples stretched out in the sand press silently against each other. Two policemen on horseback ride by. The horses' hooves wrapped in reflector tape flash in the dark. Moments later two kids scurry down to the water. Backs to the Strip, they pee into the sea.

Conversation overheard in the Holiday Inn phone booth: A cool beauty wearing Reebok sneakers, skintight Guess? jeans and a visor says, "Hi, Mom. I'm calling from school."

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