(This is another special posting by Suzy. I hope you enjoy it.)
We recently returned from a wonderful vacation. We left on a Thursday morning from our home just north of Valley Forge Park in Pennsylvania and travelled to Lexington, Massachusetts. A couple of days later we were chasing down covered bridges in Vermont on our way to Ballroom Vermont, A Dance Camp for Grownups. That’s how they style themselves and that’s just what they are. We are happy campers. Then visits to our sons, which took us to small towns near Akron, Ohio, and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, back to Ohio, then home. The legs between the dance camp and each of our sons were eleven to twelve hour days in the car on, mostly, Interstate Highways. It provided a lot of time to remember earlier, long distance trips.
Moves always meant trimming our household weight. Uncle Sam will pay for a certain amount of weight for household goods depending on rank and family status of service personnel; and, though you may go over the allowance, you pay for any additional weight. So whenever Daddy got orders it was time to sort through all of our belongings in an attempt to keep within his allowance. That was the primary reason I was told I could not take piano lessons. This time we were to move to Bremerton, Washington where the USS Shangri-La was in dry dock having her deck canted. The advent of jets and the need for catapults to launch them was causing the Navy to modernize their fleet of aircraft carriers from WWII straight decks. The USS Shangri-La was the first to be refitted. We were to travel in early September 1954 when I was not quite seven years, my brother was 6 months, and my sister was still in the future. Daddy had gotten orders that transferred us to different cities before, but they had all been east of the Mississippi. This time we were to drive all of the way across the country.
I was thrilled to learn that Bremerton was all the way West. This was the era of Cowboy shows, Oaters, both in films and television. My favorite dress up outfit was of Annie Oakley with a fringed skirt and vest, a cowgirl hat with a chinstrap, and two cap pistols for my double holster belt. The only thing that would have made it better was a pair of boots. I could barely wait to go West with cowboys and horses and cattle drives and all that excitement.
Anyone who has ever traveled with children knows, regardless of distance that can be a daunting task. My mother approached it like a field marshal and began the preparations as soon as Daddy told us when we would be leaving. My first assignment was to sort through my toys for anything I thought I might have outgrown or worn out so that we really didn’t need to move it. It took me multiple days to sort things. After all, I still needed to play with my friends, and every time I began to look through the toys in my closet one would catch my attention and I would spend time with it. Moma had written my “To Do” list on the back of an envelope. I had to spend time peeling the stamp from the paper. It took time to do this without tearing either the stamp or the envelope. Then I felt compelled to see if I could un-fold the envelope. Each coloring book had to be leafed through to see how many pages were left to color. If it were only one or two I set to finishing the book. I checked every paper-doll and all of their outfits. I found some of their wardrobes sparse, so I drew a few new outfits. When it came time to go through my clothing Moma supervised more closely, though I suspect that she also reviewed my sorting of toys. First, we looked for the summer clothes that I would outgrow before the next spring, then through winter things. We wouldn’t need the super heavy stuff in the Seattle area, so we wouldn’t take it.
All too soon the packers were there, then the moving van. When movers come today they have a roll of neat little stickers like post-its to put on each item to identify it as yours. Then crayon was used on the bottom side of furniture and sides of boxes. I wasn’t a strong reader, but I knew my letters and I knew that the one mover was making his “N”s backwards. I attempted to get his attention so as to show him his error while Moma tried to scoop me into the background to avoid embarrassing the man. Seems he could neither read nor write. Though I knew adults with limited educations, this was the first time I remember meeting one who was truly illiterate. Each move was an education, though not always in direct ways. When the van had been loaded, it was late in the day so we drove to my grandparent’s house for the night.
The following morning Daddy wanted an early start. My grandparents wanted just a little more time. It was the mid 50s and “regular” people didn’t just hop a plane for a quick visit, nor even just pick up the phone to make a long distance call. Ma Bell, The Phone Company, charged by distance for the first three minutes and each additional minute, more for calls during early evening, or worse, during business hours. The adults knew it would be at least three years until we would see each other again. I was less phased as I still had difficulty seeing from the start of school to Hallowe’en. Eventually we were all in the car and waving our good-byes. We then had a dark, boxy, 1952 Buick with two doors and the neutral-colored short napped upholstery that seemed to be the only option in cars then. It had an AM radio and a huge shelf behind the back seat. Mom had gotten an infant car bed for my brother which was wedged along the passenger side with one end at the back of the rear seat and the other the back of the front seat which had been pushed back to hold it securely. It was similar to a small bassinet without legs or rockers and had dark green plaid canvas sides. Somewhere Moma had found what passed for disposable diapers, and their box was in the space under the car bed in front of the backbench seat. The rest of the back seat area was mine and as there were no seat belts I had some freedom of movement, which meant that as Moma had difficulty turning to the backseat I learned to change diapers. There was no air conditioning so all the windows were open allowing us to fully sense the areas we were passing. That was sometimes less than pleasant. At Moma’s feet was the gee-dunk bag full of rolls of Life Savers, Wrigley’s Chewing gum in the green wrapper, some Hershey’s Kisses and a box of graham crackers. Grandmom had packed sandwiches for our first lunch. Moma had gotten a gallon thermos, which she’d filled, with lemonade and had Daddy put in the trunk. As soon as we cleared the Philadelphia metropolitan area she gave me a brand new coloring book and a box of sixteen Crayola colors. Our first lunch out Daddy found a wide spot where he could pull off the road and we could eat our picnic under trees. This was a great trip.
Mid afternoon Moma and Daddy began looking for a place to stay. The government had only just begun the Interstate road system so we were on US highways that were mostly one lane in each direction. Motels were more than a few miles apart and many were less than reputable. Daddy was always very careful to protect us from many of the realities of life, and he had a limited budget. When he found a possible candidate he would park the car a bit away from the office door, leaving us in the car while he went in and talked with whoever was at the desk. Often that would mean he would walk back to look at the room under consideration before he would sign us in and we would stop for the night. Clean linens and towels were required. Carpets didn’t always feel clean so Moma had us wear our shoes or slippers all the time. Some motels had TV sets, black and white only, others didn’t. Most motels were a single row of single story rooms. Each one was a new environment to be explored. I had to open all of the drawers and closets to see what they held. One of the first nights out I crawled down to check under the bed and was rewarded by finding a fancy pen. Well, I thought it was fancy. At least, I had found where it had rolled and I made sure to check under every bed after that.
This was the trip during which I really learned to read. Those of you who are old enough might just remember Burma Shave serial ads along the side of the road like this one courtesy of Burma Shave:
The safest rule
No ifs or buts
Like every one else
Moma and Daddy read the first one or two. Then I was encouraged to read them for us. This was the era of Dick and Jane readers, which had been devised to help hearing-impaired children learn to read. Moma was trying to shift me over to phonetic reading and I was still at the stage of sounding out every syllable. Daddy wouldn’t stop the car nor go back so that I could try again. It didn’t take long for me to come up to speed. By the end of our trip I was reading all of the signs along the road, all the menus, and any short thing I could find.
I also learned to read maps and begin my appreciation of geography. Each evening Daddy would take out the maps we would need for the following day’s leg of the trip. He would look at the roads heading in the direction we wanted to go. The goal was to go from town to town like a real life game of Chinese checkers. Road signs between cities existed, but weren’t encouraging unless you knew every town in about thirty miles of where you were and where you wanted to go. The US highway system took you through the middle of towns. Beltways didn’t yet exist. In the sparsely settled areas that was okay, but in large cities you really had to pay attention. Moma had no sense of direction and had difficulty reading whether to turn right or left unless she turned the map every time Daddy turned the car. They would talk about the most efficient route and Daddy would mark it with a yellow crayon so Moma would be able to follow it the next day in the car. I would squeeze between them to see where we were going to go. It seemed like fun to run my finger over the lines to find the best way to get from one place to another and it didn’t seem that difficult. Our maps weren’t all the same. As we would enter a new state we would get one given to us by the first service station where we stopped. The attendant would come out and fill the gas tank, wash the windows and Daddy would ask if he had a map of the state. Some of the US Highways went for great distances across multiple states, but there were discontinuities. In metropolitan areas they often took, what to visitors, seemed to be strange turns. Daddy had decided to start out on US 30, the Lincoln Highway. Unlike the famed Route 66, large portions of this one are still extant in the same bucolic settings cherished in my memories. We crossed the Allegheny Mountains in Pennsylvania coming down onto the flat lands that are Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa.
About this time, middle of the country, we needed to restock our provisions. We found a grocery store where Moma choose more geedunk and looked for the fillers for the “disposable” diapers. They came with a plastic cover that one filled with the disposable part. Not every store carried them. Not all fillers fit the same cover. Moma also needed to wash in the motel room sink, as we couldn’t pack enough for everyone. Most of the time, after rolling things in a towel, they would dry overnight. On those times that they didn’t, damp things would be hung over window handles in the car to finish drying.
Gradually the land began to roll and feel, though not visually obvious, that we were climbing. By the time we reached Nebraska it was like a gentle sea where the swells were increasing in size. We entered Nebraska after lunch and by mid afternoon I was whining to stop. I wanted a motel with a swimming pool and time to use it. My parents eventually gave in to my cajoling. Or maybe they feared that the next motel would be too far down the road. At any rate, we stopped and I skinnied into my swimsuit as quickly as I could and pranced around until at least one parent could come to the pool with me. While Daddy called, “Walk!” I ran to the edge and jumped into the deep end. I swam to the edge, bounced out, grabbed my towel and went back to the room as rapidly as I could. The water was cold. There was nothing to do in the room and Daddy was unhappy we had had to stop so early. The next morning the dew on the grass was frosted. Our sweaters weren’t warm enough as we walked to the car and then into the cafe for breakfast. That became unimportant when I saw my first real cowboy. At least, many of the men in the cafe looked like cowboys to me, and it made my morning. Now I remember the crisp air and the beauty of the rolling hills that early fall morning as we continued on and northward through Montana and across the neck of Idaho.
My first real Western town was in Idaho’s Rocky Mountains. We rolled into a small town that still had raised wooden sidewalks with stairs down to the road. The cafe had half curtains and was fairly small, even to my way of thinking. We were seated at a table toward the rear with me in the back corner, and Moma and Daddy on either side passing my brother back and forth as each took a turn eating when to my amazement and joy in walked Annie Oakley! She was a tall, slender woman with long hair pulled back from her face, a western styled shirt, and she was wearing a gun on her hip. I gulped and stared. How absolutely marvelous. I remember the waitress being in a hurry for us to finish. That afternoon they were boarding things up as they were expecting the first large storm of the winter. So we left and continued on our way to Washington State.
Much of the time my parents talked about the places we were passing. We sang quite a bit, mostly folk songs and standards from the big band era. I filled a couple of coloring books. I got to feel my first really big mountains. I learned to appreciate the beautiful scenery our country has and its vastness. Everywhere we went we met warm hearted, helpful people.
We arrived in the Bremerton area just ahead of the Mayflower moving van that we had played leapfrog with on our way westward. It had taken us ten days at a bit over 300 miles a day. In the 70s, as Interstate 80 was finished, Walt and I covered similar distances in three and a half days driving two hour shifts changing drivers at fast food restaurants found at most interchanges or at rest areas with restrooms and travel information. Sleeping nights at conveniently placed motels with color TV, and often, on premises or at least nearby places to eat dinner and breakfast. Routes were well marked and the country could be crossed without a map if you had a minimal knowledge of geography. This last trip we noted that most families entertained their children with video or hand held devices rather than encouraging them to look around. And even more surprising to me, there were more trucks than cars outside the metropolitan areas on the Interstates.
The last word:
Suzy and I have moved nine times, with four of those moves of more than 2,000 miles. Each one was an adventure and a reason to explore another part of the United States. We have made more than a dozen round trips by car across the US from along the Gulf Coast and Mexico to across the Trans Canadian highway. Some of these have been quick, but many have been extended with lots of opportunity to wander. The US is vast, and huge, with different scenery and lifestyles. Even when we are “in a hurry” we often will drive just a few miles off the Interstate to find a place to eat or stay that is not part of a chain. There is wonder everywhere, especially in the “fly-over” states.
Keep your sense of humor.