The Trip

When we left Alaska, our eventual destination was the East Coast.  Allowing for visits to relatives elsewhere, our entire trip took approximately four centuries.  The century is the measurement of time I used while being cooped up in a station wagon with three younger siblings and an entire camping kit suitable for an expedition into darkest Africa.  Wiggle-room was at a premium.

The first part, down the Alcan Highway, was relatively benign.  We stopped several times during the day and had picnics or fished for a bit to provide dinner. This gave us kids a chance to stretch our legs and run around a lot.

On one memorable nighttime stop, my brother and I reasoned that if you tore off bits of hot dog and threw them into the brush it was a defense against bears, mountain lions, and mooses (meece?) which may want to savage our camp.  By the time we were done, my father had discovered that our entire supply of hot dogs (some six packages) had been dismembered and flung into the woods.  As the saying goes – he was not a happy camper.

As we neared civilization, and only if you call Southern California civilization, my dad reverted to his usual ‘penny saved, penny earned’ mode.  This usually meant driving up and down city streets making note of gas prices so that he could buy gas at the cheapest rate to be found in the county.  Today, I would have screamed something like “you’re not saving a thing by blowing all that gas out the tailpipe to save a penny” but back then, that sort of thing would have brought swift retribution.  Gas prices, as I recall, ran about twenty-seven to thirty-one cents a gallon so what was the big deal anyway?

Visiting various relatives on our trip eastward consumed quite a bit of time and began wearing on our young nerves.  Bill Cosby was right on when arguments such as “stop touching me!” and the like began to appear.  Sitting hip to hip in the back seat the two of us (the third was still in a basket the lucky kid) really learned the fine art of fidgeting.  We could have given lessons in fidgeting.  We each held Doctorate of Fidgeting degrees.  There was no time during the day where at least two of us were actively making the third miserable.  The attitude would spread like a blanket of doom until the car suddenly dove for the side of the road and ‘The Paddle’ came out.

Let me digress a moment.  The Paddle was a stave of wood about two feet long and about four inches wide with a tapered handle.  It was called into play for any infraction of parentally stated rules.  Sometimes these rules were only know to them, which left us kids at a disadvantage, but with several whacks of The Paddle we were soon enlightened.  In later years, my dad bored several holes in The Paddle, either to let air through and give it a nasty whistling sound before the WHACK, or to inflict some really spectacular knots on our ass.  Either way I had to wonder if they took a page out of my Alaskan school principal’s SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) which was to intimidate the hell out of them before trouble started.

Suffice it to say that when The Paddle came out we knew we were really in trouble.  It must have seemed a rather bizarre sight to passersby on the busy highway as the two of us were alternately whacked with The Paddle and sent back into the car.  Man, that thing really stung hard!  Nowadays, using The Paddle would bring swift litigation in the form of child abuse.  Holy cow, you can’t just hit your kids with a piece of wood.  What were you thinking?  Back then it served a purpose.  A little application of The Paddle could definitely be used on some modern kids I’ve known.

This managed to calm us down for approximately three hundred and fifty-seven milliseconds until the next round of fidgeting began.  Had my dad stopped each and every time we grated on his nerves we would never have made it to our goal.

Camp grounds were always fun for us kids.  We had a chance to run amuck and generally get away from each other.  This also offered many an opportunity to tease each other too.  One time, my sister had wandered into a field nearby and brought my brother and I running to her in a panic.  She was screaming at the top of her lungs holding her hand out in front of her.  From a distance, it looked as if nothing was amiss, but as we got closer we saw that she was holding a large leaf in her hand.  When we arrived, we found that she had picked up a leaf with a large snail on it.  When she did, it apparently pulled in its antennas and went dormant.  Sensing she wasn’t a threat, the snail began waggling it feelers and moving sedately along the leaf – directly towards her hand.  Now, normally, it would have taken a snail about twenty-five minutes to complete the journey, but she was frozen in fear that it was attacking her. (Go, snail, go!)

My brother and I entertained ourselves by alternately asking her if she wanted us to help but making no move to do so.  This went on until our mom arrived.  She smacked us both on the back of our heads and grabbed the leaf from my sister.  Rats.  I found that all good things must come to an end.

We would have a flat tire about every two or three hundred miles.  My dad was convinced that recap tires were just as good as new tires.  He didn’t take into account that our Olds 88 Station Wagon was a very heavy car to begin with, but we had loaded it down with approximately twenty tons of camping and personal gear.  Plus, there was the added weight of my parents and us four kids (and our framed copies of the Doctorate of Fidgeting).  In order to compensate for the added weight, he would pump each tire up to around four hundred pounds per square inch.  We would be humming down the road when – BLOOEY – a tire would go flat.  Sometimes it didn’t actually go flat, but would send out fragments like so many pieces of rubber shrapnel.  This was long before steel-belted radials.

In later years I saw a movie made from one of Jean Shepherd’s books called “A Christmas Story” in which Peter (“Ralphie”) Billingsley’s dad (Darren McGavin – a closet swearer) asked his son to help him change a tire.  My mom asked me to help my dad, so I got out and we proceeded to: a) dig out the spare under all the baggage; 2) go even deeper into Jurassic structures to find the jack and handle; 3) find a flat stone hard enough to keep the base of the jack from sinking into the desert sand; and, 4) jump up and down on the jack handle to raise the car high enough to get the tire off the ground.  We accomplished all this with an escalating litany of some really neat swear words.  Some, I filed away for a later time to find out what they meant.  I mean, what the heck was a ‘firblisher’ or a ‘danghedder’ (not the real words as spoken by the Master).

Finally, all the lug nuts were off and, since I had carefully put them into the hub cap, safe.

I maintain to this day that it was HE and not ME that stepped on the edge of the hub cap and spun them away into the sand.  We broke out the camp shovel and began sifting through roadside sand to find them.  Not surprisingly, passersby would slow as they went by to see what we were doing.  I am sure that more than one wife remarked to her husband: “look, dear, they’re trying to find gold right on the road – what tourists”.

Gas stations were few and far between when we started east from California.  Future President Eisenhower was just beginning to start his campaign in 1950.  One of the things he started when elected was a system of high-speed roads called “Interstates”.  Back then, all we had were two-lane blacktop roads.  Across the desert gas stations were completely non-existent.  We had four surplus ‘Jeri cans’ of gas tied on top of the station wagon.  When the engine would begin to sputter, my dad would pull over and stop.  The first thing he did was to check and see if, for sure, we were out of gas.  The gas gauge was very unreliable so we couldn’t count on it for anything.  If the carburetor settling bowl (whatever that was) had sand in it, then it would first have to be cleaned.  This meant that we would be sitting in the hot sun for around a year or so waiting for the engine to cool enough to pull the bowl without melting the tools.

It only took about ten minutes to actually remove, clean and reinstall it, but it took a long time for the engine to cool.  Air conditioning, you say?  What was that?  No car we ever owned had it until I was old enough to drive.  We did have something called a swamp cooler.  This contraption sat clamped into a partially-closed back window and relied on passing air to be cooled by the evaporation of a water-saturated core.  We had to add water about every twenty miles or so.  It seemed to me (back in the fidgeting gallery) that the air was no cooler than that coming out of a blast furnace.

Onward and ever eastward we sputtered.  Eventually the scenery changed from drab (the desert) to just plain boring (everywhere else).  The really big event was crossing the Mississippi River.  Back then, there were a few spindly bridges over it even for a major US highway.  The one we ended up on was about ten feet wide and had, for some strange reason, a yellow line down the middle.  As we rose over the hump in the bridge, my dad was the first to remark on the two tall smokestacks ahead of us.  This was followed by my mom’s frenzied scream “It’s a TRUCK!” as the rest hove into view.  My dad knew just what to do – he had driven up and down the Alcan Highway while it was being built – so his finely tuned instincts kicked in.  He had noticed that about a hundred feet in front of us was a small slot next to the road suitable for use as a turnout.  Apparently, my mom hadn’t seen this as she turned towards my dad and screamed in his ear “what the hell are you doing by speeding up?”

He smirked at her foolish fears and pointed to the tiny, foot-wide, turnout.  He said he was going over there to pull over and let the truck by.  He got up to about ninety (I am only guessing here), swerved pretty close to the guardrail (my mom started climbing into the back seat), and locked his brakes as we executed a perfect slide into the slot (stunned silence).

The truck, meanwhile, had added to the slight confusion about right-of-way by booping mightily on his air horn.  My mom screamed “he’s too close!” but my dad responded that “air horn’s sound closer than they are”.

With a roar, the truck blew by us.  I figure there was at least an inch or two between us as it passed.  It was several moment before we could continue over the rest of the bridge.

Somewhere in West Virginia (I think) we managed to miss a turn.  My dad was a true believer in the theory that if you just kept going you would end up where you wanted to be, just not by the same route.  Even at my young age I could read a map pretty well.  The map of the area where we were looked like somebody had spilled a plate of angel hair pasta on it.  Little red roads ran in every direction.  I daringly piped up that we had missed the turn.  There was no response.  My mom reached for my map, glanced at it, and repeated the statement.  After a bit more nagging, my dad responded “yeah, but we’ll get there this way too.”

Now, I’m not really sure when my dad finally gave up, stopped, and read the map but in later years I came to remember this particular incident as the “Deliverance” incident right down to the tune of a guitar and banjo.  There were about five buildings in this town – three of which were falling down.  A stereotypical dusty grocery store was the most modern building and it was complete with a front porch and three bushy-haired guys whittling. This is definitely where Mr. Boorman would make his film.

Having spent enough time parked beside the road for the three guys to notify their kin that strangers were ‘acomin’, I began to get a bit nervous.  Suddenly, a voice hailed us from the side of the car “Hep ya?”  My dad explained that he was trying to get to highway 18 and admitted he ‘might have’ taken a wrong turn.  The guy guffawed and repeated ‘might have’ with another laugh, and added “Yep – ya surely did.”

Between pauses for translations, my dad found that the only way to highway 18 was to go back the same exact way we took to get here.  When asked if this road would continue to where we wanted to go, the guy pointed and said “nah, it storps at the lake over thet ridge and into the holler.”  My dad gave his thanks and we turned around and went back.  Unfortunately, I have inherited my dad’s gene that makes me just want to forge ahead no matter what.  I rarely like to go back the same way I came.  Somehow that isn’t really ‘traveling’.

Finally, after the six or seven thousand miles traveled inside the sardine can, we arrived at the outskirts of Washington, D.C.  We slowed while riding up and down historic avenues and byways.  We visited Rock Creek Park where we stopped for a brief lunch and continued down into town.  We swept southward along Connecticut Avenue until we hit Dupont Circle.  Dupont Circle was designed, probably in jest, with two counterclockwise rings one inside the other.  You were supposed to use the outer ring to circle and peel off into side roads while the inner circle was used solely to get from one side to the other.  We spun around the circle, first on the outside, and then on the inside for approximately a tank and half of gas.  Finally, having had enough, my dad slapped the turn signal viciously, torqued the steering wheel over, and dove through traffic towards the exit for the southern end of Connecticut Avenue.  I am sure that our Alaskan tags branded us with “damn Eskimos should stick to sleds”.

The Washington Monument was our first glimpse of the Mall followed by several other blurry buildings as we whizzed by.  Our immediate goal was the Suitland Parkway which, we were told, would lead us to our new home near Andrews, Air Force Base.  We kids couldn’t have been happier at this news.

T.O.M

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