As I have continually mentioned, I grew up in the 1950s and early 60s, and unlike what so many of my students believed – and perhaps what so many adults still believe – the 1950s were not The Good Old Days.
For the purposes of this blog, I will forego the rampant racism and acceptable discrimination of the era; I will also forego the acceptability of smoking anywhere and everywhere, including hospitals, and the use of ether as an anesthesia. Instead, for the purposes of this blog, I will focus on what’s truly important:
Cars and by extension roads and road trips.
First, my kids, who were born in 1982 and 1986, both have a fondness for the Muscle Cars of the 1970s. When I think Muscle Cars, I think of the Charger, the Challenger, the GTO not the Chevy Chevelle and certainly not the Chevy Nova. Growing up – and I would have been in my late teens at that point – the Nova was only one step up from the Vega, which was Chevy’s answer to Ford’s Pinto, except, unlike the Pinto, it didn’t blow up on impact.
Forgive me, I’ve digressed for a minute. I was discussing the cars from the late 50s and early 60s; more precisely, the use of those cars for road trips.
I am not sure when the Interstate system that connects Michigan to Illinois was completed. For all I know, there were modern highways crisscrossing both states in 1958; however, we never used them. If we traveled anywhere with my Great Aunt Moni, who would have been born in the 1890s, we couldn’t go any faster than 35mph, or she’d scream that we were all going to die and if God had meant for anyone to travel so fast, He’d have given us wings. And if we had my Grandpa Foley in the car, and should it be summer – and we only took summer road trips because otherwise the roads would be icy, we’d spin off the road, land in a ditch, where we’d stay undiscovered until Spring, at which time we’d all be dead – but if Grandpa Foley would be in the car and not sound asleep because of all the whiskey and beer he liked to drink, then he would start screaming that the wind was making his hair move (he had very little hair and required a constant, unmoving comb-over to give him even the illusion of hair), and we would all have to roll up the windows, so his hair wouldn’t move.
Growing up, death was a constant companion. There were the shards of glass that could enter your bloodstream, travel through your capillaries to your veins to your heart and kill you dead. There were the fish bones that you might swallow that would pierce, what my family called your voice box, travel through to the other side where the bloodstream was, enter the capillaries, and bingo, before you knew it, that fish bone would pierce your heart, and you’d be dead as a doornail. And as dangerous as glass and fishbones could be, cars were even worse.
Cars were little more than death traps. As I’ve already mentioned, they went much too fast, meaning they would somehow fly off the road, flip in the air, land on the roof, and we’d all die. And the radiators were always about to go bad, causing steam to rise from the hood, which meant the cars were about to explode, and we’d all die. Same with the tires. Back in the 50s and early 60s, there were no steel-belted radials, at least not that my family had. We had tube tires, which meant to my family, that blowouts were inevitable, which meant to my family, that whoever was driving would instantly lose control of the car – especially if it was traveling anywhere over 35mph – and it would run off the road, which would cause it to flip again and again and again, land on its roof, and if that didn’t kill us all dead, then the car exploding, which cars in the 50s were wont to do, at least according to my family, would do us in.
Because, in my family, cars and traveling posed such danger and because we may or may not have had the Interstate system connecting Michigan and Illinois, traveling between those two states was always quite the event. Starting the night before.
In 1963 the year my sister Peggy was born – when travel was still fraught with danger – my mother sent my sister Anne and I, by train, from the Chicago area to Bay City for the summer and sent my stepsisters Irene and Mary Jean and my stepbrother Bob to Pennsylvania, so she and my stepfather could bond with Peggy. My cousin Barb, who was a year older than I was and a year younger than Anne and who was the daughter of my Uncle Roy and Aunt Mary, came to Bay City, as well.
And the plan was for my Uncle Roy and Aunt Mary to pick all of us up at the end of the summer – in a 1958 Ford station wagon, complete with fake wood and a “way back,” where all of us wanted to sit – and drive us back to Illinois.
In 1963, in my family, only the men drove because only the men could be expected to deal the dangers of driving – those tires that were going to blow and the shoddy radiators about to erupt. It took a man to keep the car on the road, to keep it from flying through the air should we go too fast, to keep it from flipping end over end, then exploding, killing us all.
So, of course, it was my Uncle Roy, who would drive, and it was my Aunt Mary, who would prepare us all for the dangers of driving. Starting the night before. Because we had such a big day ahead of us and because we were living no later than 7am, Anne, Barb, and I were required to go to bed when it was still light out – we were 13, 12, and 11, at the time. The next morning, when it was still dark, Uncle Roy woke us up, told us breakfast was waiting.
We went downstairs to my Grandma’s kitchen, found toast and cereal left out for us. But no Aunt Mary. She was still sleeping. My grandma, on the other hand, stood off towards the sink, wringing her hands, watching the three of us eat. No doubt there was some danger with the toast. Perhaps she worried that we might swallow the wrong, inhale a crumb into our lungs, where it would somehow enter that magical bloodstream, and pierce our heart. Killing us dead.
In the meantime, Uncle Roy came into the kitchen, announcing the car was packed, then barked at us to finish our breakfast – we didn’t have all day – use the bathroom, and get in the car.
Still no Aunt Mary.
Yet, my Uncle Roy – to me – was kind of scary, so I did exactly what he said. Got dressed in record time, used the bathroom, then got into the car, and waited.
The sun came up.
Anne and Barb got in the car. No Aunt Mary. No Uncle Roy.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” I said.
“You should have gone before,” my sister said.
“You better not go again. Uncle Roy’ll leave without you.”
“Where is he?”
“Getting my mom up,” my cousin said.
“Well, I have to go to the bathroom and if Aunt Mary’s not even up.”
My sister gave me a huge, dramatic sigh. “Then you better run.”
So I got out of the car, ran into the house, up the stairs, and used the bathroom. Then I ran out of the room, down the stairs, out of the house, and back into the car.
Still no Aunt Mary.
Finally, out came my Uncle Roy, who opened the door, let us know that Aunt Mary was packing our lunches, and did any of need to use the bathroom again.
This time, Anne, Barb, and I all used the bathroom again, all got back into the car together, fighting who got the window seat. Being the littlest, I always lost.
And then we waited. And waited. And waited.
Finally, my Grandma Foley came out of the house, still wringing her hands, and this time crying. She told us all to get out of the car, one last time, so she could hug us. She hugged each of crying about how big we are all getting, told us Mary was just about ready.
“Do any of you need to use the bathroom one last time?” she asked.
All three of us said, “No.”
It was a ‘no,’ that would haunt every last one of us.
My grandma left; Anne, Barb, and I sat in the car, talking about the summer, and finally – a little before 10:00 – out came my Aunt Mary carrying a paper bag filled with sandwiches, potato chips, and a thermos of water. My Uncle Roy, scowling and mumbling at her, was right behind. And bringing up the rear were my Grandma and Grandpa Foley. My grandma was still crying, still wringing her hands, and my grandpa was giving Uncle Roy advice on the best route, the fastest way to get out of Michigan and into Illinois.
My Uncle Roy ignored him and got in the car. My Aunt Mary, now also crying, got in the car, promising “Mother” and “Daddy” that she’d be safe, that she’d see them at Christmas.
And finally, three hours late, we were on the road: my Uncle Roy furious that he’d had to wait, my Aunt Mary weepy that he was so furious.
An hour later, I announced I needed to pee; Anne announced she was hungry, and my cousin Barb announced she had a bloody nose.
To me, my Uncle Roy said I should have thought about that before we left; to Anne, he said she’d have to wait until we stopped, and to Barb, he said, “Tilt your head back and pinch your nose.”
Well, Barb kept bleeding; Anne stayed hungry, and I still needed to pee.
Around noon, my Aunt Mary told us all to look for a picnic stop, where we could eat. I found one – complete with outhouse. My Uncle Roy said it was in the sun. Then Anne found one, my uncle said there were too many Mexicans. Barb said nothing, she was still trying to get her nose to stop bleeding.
“I really have to go to the bathroom,” I said.
“Roy,” my aunt said, “why don’t we stop at a gas station?”
“We don’t need gas.”
“Then a picnic spot?”
“Find one,” he snapped.
My aunt, artificially cheery, told us all to keep looking. By now, it was close to 1. Even Barb with her bloody nose was hungry.
We passed picnic spots with outhouses, picnic spots in the shade, picnic spots devoid of any people, let alone Mexicans. Uncle Roy just kept driving.
“Roy,” my aunt said. “I’m sure the girls are hungry.”
“I want to at least get out of Michigan, Mary.”
Bay City is on the east side of Michigan at the south end of Lake Huron. We’d been driving three hours and maybe – maybe – managed to go 100 miles. There was no way any of us would make it to Illinois without stopping first.
Barb started to cry – blood now pouring out her nose, down her shirt. Anne, who rarely argued with adults, said nothing, and I, who had a tendency to get car sick, announced I was going to throw up.
My uncle told me to roll down the window, but I, being the youngest, had lost ‘dibbies on the window seat’ and couldn’t roll down a window. Barb’s nose was bleeding so badly, she refused to move, and Anne, probably with displaced anger at my uncle, told me I wasn’t carsick, that I hadn’t gotten carsick since I was 4, and I was nothing but a liar.
My Aunt Mary told Anne not to call me names, and then, just to prove that I was so carsick, I threw up, and although I tried throwing up on the floor, it splashed on Barb and the back of Uncle Roy’s seat.
Now Barb was screaming that she had throw-up on her; Uncle Roy was yelling for us to roll down the windows, that the smell was nauseating, and my aunt was screaming that she’d told Roy to stop and what was wrong with him anyway.
To which he screamed that if she were ever ready on time, none of this would have happened.
I threw up again.
“For God’s sake, Roy,” my aunt screamed.
He pulled the car onto the shoulder. In the sun. No outhouse. No table. But no Mexicans.
I scrambled out of the car, still throwing up and still needing to pee. My aunt told Anne to go with me and find some bushes and told Barb to get her out of the car, so she could clean the blood and vomit off her clothes.
Behind some scraggly, little bush, I peed, all the while Anne telling me how I made the car stink.
“You aren’t supposed to say ‘stink,'” I reminded her. (My mother had an entire list of words we weren’t supposed to say, including stink and poo and fart or blew one or anything that referred to farting at all.
Anne rolled her eyes at me, “Okay. You made the car smell really bad.”
Barb, in the same blood-stained shirt but which was now wet, came looking for us to let us know that there was a picnic table just up the road, and we were stopping for lunch.
It was now somewhere close to 3.
We ate our lunch – baloney sandwiches with ketchup on white bread – in record time, my uncle yelling at us not to drink the water, he didn’t want to have to stop again.
Well, the universe has a way of not always giving people what they want.
We did have to stop. On the western edge of Michigan because it was now past 10. Barb and Anne were snoring; I was still sick, but thankfully not throwing up, and my Aunt Mary, who had started in on my uncle at 8, wouldn’t let up on him that it wasn’t safe to drive at night, that we’d hit a deer, and didn’t he know how the Connelly’s hit a deer last year and how their daughter, that sweet sweet girl, died?
“She died of pneumonia, Mary.”
“I’m still saying, Roy. They hit a deer. Is that what you want? To hit a deer with Pat’s girls in the car? How are you going to explain that?”
And, so finally after two hours of that kind of logic, my uncle found a motel. We spent the night, and the whole thing started over in the morning with two exceptions: 1) Barb got a clean, blood-free shirt, and 2) I got a window seat.
Total time to go approximately 450 miles? 24 hours.
But – and this probably only because there was a man driving – the Ford’s tires didn’t blow; the radiator held, and the car didn’t once flip, and none of us died.
Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the photo.