July is usually the peak time when families get in their cars and hit the road. I remember the first time my family took a long-distance car trip.
We lived in Ohio, but my mother’s family was in Alabama, so on Dad’s vacation we drove south. Now this was the era before interstate highways, air-conditioned cars or GPS. Let me take you along as I try to reconstruct the trip.
Carl Good’s gas station had road maps of Ohio only, so we couldn’t plot our route very far ahead. We’d have to wait until we crossed a state line to get another map. We knew we needed to go through Kentucky and Tennessee before coming to Alabama. We also knew that we would have to drive through several large cities, like Columbus, Cincinnati, Louisville and Nashville, before coming to Birmingham. We three kids were excited, but Dad, who had to do all the driving for 10 or 11 straight hours, was hoping we wouldn’t get lost.
The roads were paved, but they were nearly all two-lane highways. When we came upon a slow-moving truck, we’d just settle in behind it until the road became safe for passing. We discovered just how many trucks there actually were. Their industry today reminds us that nearly everything we have comes at least partway by truck.
Of course our old Plymouth wasn’t air-conditioned — none of the cars were back then — so we traveled with the windows down. This made consulting the map tricky. We were whizzing along at the speed limit of 50 miles per hour, and this generated quite a breeze. We also smelled the exhaust of the big trucks that were usually in front of us.
Going through the cities proved confusing, because we had to look carefully for the route signs, which often pointed to a right or left turn at the last minute. If we missed the turn, we had to guess how to get back on the right track. When we stopped to inquire of pedestrians, they were usually quite helpful.
Another feature of our trip was the dreaded detour. From time to time the main route was being repaired, and we were shunted off onto gravel or dirt roads, which made following those trucks even more tedious.
There weren’t any McDonalds back then, so we usually looked for a small, inexpensive restaurant in one of the towns we passed through. The only money we had was the cash from Dad’s vacation check, and he hoped he could stretch it for the whole trip. So we pretty much ate hot dogs for lunch and supper. After we used the restroom, he rewarded us with a candy bar.
While we were on the road we looked forward to discovering the occasional Burma Shave signs. Do you remember them? There were maybe eight or 10 small signs spaced 10 or 15 yards apart, each with just a few words. When you read them all they became a poem. One I remember said, “Wild men pulled their whiskers out; that’s what made them wild, no doubt.”
Dad, who shaved with Gillette, said he didn’t know anybody who used Burma Shave. I don’t think it’s still around today.
By the time we reached Cincinnati, we were asking, “Are we there yet?” Actually we were only about 125 miles into a 600-mile trip. Mother kept busy creating games for us, like seeing how many different state license plates we could count, or competing to see who could keep quiet the longest. We caught onto that one pretty quick!
When we finally saw the big sign that welcomed us to Alabama, we knew we were not there yet, but we still had more than a hundred miles to go. It had been a tiring day, and when we finally arrived at our grandparents’ home, all three of us kids were asleep. But we had made it, the Plymouth hadn’t broken down, and Dad had driven us safely over the long trip.
After about a week enjoying our grandparents’ hospitality, we turned around and headed back north. And we still found ourselves following those big trucks for much of the way.
Harry Bronkar is a retired Baptist minister living in Seven Lakes. Contact him at hbronkar @gmail.com.