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TRAVELING IN STYLE : SPRING BREAK! : Sex, Beer, Sun, Stupid Pool Tricks--It's an All-American Tradition

March 07, 1993|KAREN KARBO | Karbo , a former resident of Newport Beach, is the author of two novels, "Trespassers Welcome Here" and "The Diamond Lane," both published by G.P. Putnam's Sons.

FOR THE AMERICAN COLLEGE STUDENT there's nothing quite like that annual week of vernal vacation intemperance called Spring Break. No subsequent European backpacking adventure or eight-day, seven-night Hawaiian package tour is ever as good, as liberating. For most of us, Spring Break is the first time we travel anywhere on our own. We make our own plane reservations, or map out our own route to drive. We decide where to stay and for how long. We figure out how much we have to spend and daydream endlessly about how to spend it. Going away to college doesn't count. At college, there are people who can call your parents. On Spring Break, it's unlikely that anyone will call your parents, unless it's the police--in which case you will probably be glad to hear from them, or at least their bail bondsman.

I always looked forward to Spring Break myself, but I never enjoyed it. I looked forward to a suntan and the possibility of falling in love. Also, to buying a cool T-shirt with which to impress my classmates. I have trouble remembering exactly why I always had a lousy time. What I do remember, whether I was sunning in Palm Springs (1976) or Mazatlan (1978) or trying to pretend that I knew how to ski in Alta, Utah (1977), was this: I drank more than I wanted to, suffered bouts of excruciating boredom and was always left with the Friend of the Cute Guy when the Cute Guy sidled up to one of my sorority sisters, thereby casting me in the ignoble role of the Friend of the Cute Girl. Nonetheless, every spring I dutifully blew the money I'd earned waitressing during the rest of the year for the privilege of being miserable, not to mention growing one step closer to melanoma.

Although it's been 15 years since my lips last touched a beer bong, the rituals of Spring Break apparently remain for the most part unchanged. Get a bunch of friends and drive/fly to some far-flung destination (let's say Panama Beach, Fla.,--one of the newest hot spots) for a week of unchaperoned shenanigans--which include, but are not limited to, chugging beers until you can't stand up, dropping your shorts in front of a crowd of slobbering strangers, engaging in what I'll euphemistically call a romantic interlude with one of the aforementioned strangers and stealing or tossing off the balcony everything in your hotel room that is not nailed down.

I'm embarrassed to say that, apart from some occasional excessive beer-chugging, I never actually did any of those things. Had I, I'm sure, I would have had a better time. One year (Mazatlan, 1978), I did watch a guy from UCLA down a pint of tequila, then dive headfirst into the shallow end of the pool. He cracked his head on the bottom, but, like a cartoon character, he was back on the beach the next day with his head bandaged, a bottle of Corona in his hand.

THE COMPULSION TO CUT LOOSE IN THE SPRING IS BUILT INTO THE species. For the ancients, spring meant having survived another winter. Traditionally celebrated in May, the Roman festival of Floralia, called by St. Augustine "a licentious orgy of nude dancing and promiscuous behavior," honored Flora, the Goddess of Spring. For the Celts, similar behavior marked Beltane, during which an effigy of winter was burned over the May fires. Until the 16th Century, the young of Central Europe spent their Spring Break fornicating openly in the plowed fields to motivate the crops. The Maypole itself was a phallic symbol, and the Puritans tried unsuccessfully to ban it in England in the 17th Century.

Even Easter, a more elevated celebration of the resurrection and rebirth of the human spirit, has its roots in pagan tradition. The Easter egg is a modern variation of the World Egg, from which all life was thought by the ancient Egyptians to proceed. The Easter bunny, sometimes mistaken for an invention of Hallmark, harks back to pre-Christian fertility lore. Rabbits were the most fertile animals around, even then, and represented the long-awaited abundance of spring.

Spring Break in its present form apparently originated after World War II. As a modern college institution, however, it owes its existence to a movie called "Where the Boys Are." This morality play under the palms was released in 1960 and starred a lot of really great actors who never made it really big, among them Paula Prentiss, Jim Hutton, Frank Gorshin--and Yvette Mimieux as the doomed sex kitten who confuses lust with love. The multi-talented Connie Francis sang the theme song and starred as the Friend of the Cute Girl--played by Dolores Hart, who wooed the ascoted but curiously un-suntanned George Hamilton.

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