Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Road trips steer us down memory lane

     “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet.” Those words were sung by bubbly Dinah Shore on her TV show in the late 50s and prompted folks to take her advice. 
     They hit the road in Desoto Fireflite station wagons – “There’s room for the whole tribe”- Ford Fairlanes and Airstream campers like never before.

     The war was over (World War II), prosperity abounded and there was a housing boom across the country. Life was looking bright for the average young American family, and they took advantage of a two-week paid vacation.
     The 50s, 60s and 70s were the decades of the great American driving vacations with two-lane highways, local diners, shameless billboard advertising, along with amusement parks and national parks as destinations. 
     Cruise back with me in time and connect the dots to your own personal memories.
     Haul out the photo album and browse through all those faded snapshots and share the stories with your grandkids about their parents when they were young, those snippets which can come only from you.
     Imagine a trip in a nutshell, and depending upon your age, you were either in the front seat, back seat or in the third seat way to the rear of the wood paneled wagon.

     After months of pouring over maps free for the asking at the neighborhood gas station, the decision was made now that junior was out of diapers and the big kids were self-sufficient. The final stop might be bunking in with rarely seen cousins living in a faraway state. Perhaps, it was the vacation crossing the country out to the Pacific coast, or to the national capitol in Washington for a glimpse into how our government runs.
     Dad did most of the driving in the four-door sedan – if you were in luck as a kid, it was a station wagon – and he was in charge of timeouts for bathroom breaks and ice cream at Dairy Queen. Kids were often at dad’s mercy, and with his permission, rolling down the back windows brought breezes like natural air-conditioning.
     In fact, watch an early TV show, “Father’s Knows Best,” about a family in the Midwest, and you’ll see who’s in charge in a civilized way, too, not at all like Archie Bunker.
     Mom planned the food and snack menu along with making sure the kids were kept entertained in the car. She appeased dad when he got lost and got him turned around on the right road. The family budget was strict and each child was allotted a small amount of money to spend on souvenirs. Felt pennants, miniature statues and wooden boxes were carried home to become dust collectors.
     Leave it to Beaver’s mom, June Cleaver, made terrific sandwiches while the car was in motion with slices of white bread, peanut butter and jelly slapped on with a knife. A thermos of iced tea or chilled milk in a bottle stored in the Scotch plaid cooler would wash the crumbs down.

     Back then there was a whole different purpose to the slow drive and family togetherness that was a natural occurrence like Sunday dinners after church. Gas prices were so low you could “fill er up” for a five- dollar bill, and you would expect to get change back, too. Imagine having an attendant come smiling out of the station, clean your windshield and check your oil, too, all for the single price of a tank of gas.
     Brothers and sisters were annoying creatures, but kids learned to tolerate each other in tight quarters.  Coloring books, novels and road games were the staples for entertainment. Everyone participated together spotting license plates from other states, and one of the older kids would mark the results on paper. Counting cows, blue cars and the alphabet game were hours of amusement.  
      After a few hours of driving mom and dad might relax enough to begin singing some of their favorite songs from when they first met and fell in love. Parents became real people, too, in the eyes of their children.

     The car was loaded with suitcases, and often they were strapped to the rooftop, too. There was that sense of curiosity out beyond the tree lined streets of home in anticipation of viewing the ocean or the red rocks for the first time.
     A Kodak camera recorded the trip for posterity. After returning home safely, rolls of film were sent to Rochester be processed and the family waited for the envelope or two to arrive in the mail with the photos. Mom would organize them in the album using gummed black stickers at the edges.
    Part of the travel highlights would be roadside picnic meals, and a stop at a campsite for the night, or perhaps, a Howard Johnson motel –the chain with the green weathervane on top of the orange roof and fried clams on the restaurant menu. Ah, the kids could stretch their legs if there was an outdoor swimming pool and get rid of excess energy.        
     Except for the brother or sister who insisted on getting carsick every half hour or so, the car kept rolling. A flat tire or the engine heating up required a stop along the edge of the highway, and they always managed to happen in scorching late afternoon temperatures. Those were the few discomforts that became the stories to laugh over months later.
     There are plenty of people that continue the driving vacation of days gone by, and it suits them well.