Along the Way
My father hated freeways. Back roads allowed him to gawk and talk. So, in August of 1953, the seven people crammed into our 1949 Wayfarer Dodge sedan rode hundreds of extra miles between Vancouver, Washington and New York City.
Small for an eight-year-old, I perched on sweaty laps or scrunched on the floor next to relatives’ smelly feet. A broiler on wheels, our car didn’t have air conditioning. The open windows welcomed unwelcome odors, “eau de barnyard” and exhaust fumes. Invading swarms of man-eating mosquitoes breezed in for blood donations.
Another factor lengthened our trip, Dad loved to talk to strangers. Every time we stopped at a restaurant or a gas station, he engaged whoever he could in conversation. We heard about cutworms and potato aphids from a farmer in Idaho. An Arapaho Indian from the Wind River reservation in Wyoming told us Sacajawea was buried on their land. A woman shared how she had sold garden produce last summer to make this last trip to visit her relatives in Nebraska. She was dying of cancer. We all gave her a hug good-bye. By the time we got to Wisconsin, Mama began to wonder aloud, “Will we ever get to New York?”
However, did I even once say, “Are we there yet?” No. Despite the inconveniences, this was my first big excursion into the world beyond our community. The passengers were all people I loved, Daddy, Mama, my sisters, Clystia and Claudia, my sister-in-law, Ana Maria and her small son, Michael. Dad was the tour guide, commenting on agriculture, architecture and animals. Mama was the navigator, consulting an open map to prevent my father from going even farther afield.
Claudia organized games; Clystia suggested songs and Ana Maria sharpened her English skills by asking the names and pronunciation of things along the way. Coddled by all, Michael crawled from lap to lap unrestrained by a seatbelt.
My parents saved for months to make this epic trip, but to economize we stopped at grocery stores for lunch supplies and splurged in the morning and evenings at Mom and Pop eateries.
At home, my dad grew an organic garden and my mom canned everything in sight. Going to New York, all insistence on healthy eating was trashed. I sipped chocolate milkshakes made with real ice cream and ate greasy hamburgers all the way. However, one gourmet eating experience stands out. Somewhere in Nebraska, heat waves danced across the pavement as Dad mopped his brow and Mama fanned her face.
“Stop!” my mother yelled. Dad was used to my mother’s exclamations. When he was apprising us of what type of soil made “those sumacs grow so well” or pointing out fields of some exotic plants called “rutabagas,” he tended to wander across the middle line or veer toward ditches. How we escaped serious crashes, I don’t know. This time though, she pointed at a sign, “Ice Cold Watermelon.”
Dad thumped each round, green beauty with his thumb and forefinger and pronounced one “perfect.” His jackknife split the center with a satisfying crack. I’d never met a watermelon I didn’t like. I could spit without sanctions from Mama since she didn’t want me eating the black seeds, because “Who knows what they might do to your stomach.”
I pressed the frothy, red flesh up against the roof of my mouth, as sweet juices burst out on my tongue and bathed my taste buds in sweetness. Bite after bite, I could not suppress my appreciation-“um-m.”
With no eating utensils, our hands were sticky, but Mama got out the water jug and some clean pocket hankies for everyone. She washed a missed spot on my cheek and smiled at me.
We had the opposite reaction to the water in a small Ohio town.
“This agua is terr-i-ble,” my Spanish sister-in-law said, after her first swallow.
The proprietor of the motel overheard her complaint, drew his scarecrow self up to his full height and sniffed. “Wal, it may not taste no good, but we don’t have no dentist in town ‘cause that there water is full-a minerals.” He smiled, displaying his sparkling horse teeth.
In Michigan, the magnificent five-mile-long bridge across the Straits of Mackinac had not been erected yet. Dad carefully maneuvered our car into the gaping maw of the ferry. Mama changed before my eyes. Instead of the practical, take charge person of the home front, white faced, she clung to Dad’s arm as they climbed the stairs to the interior deck.
She’d never learned to swim and was terrified of deep water, really anything deeper than our claw foot tub. She insisted on tending to Michael. “So, he won’t fall overboard,” she said. He fell asleep on her lap. Wide awake, Mama stared straight ahead. Dad alternated between examining the workings of the vessel and checking on Mama.
I stood back watching my sophisticated eighteen-year-old twin sisters and Ana Maria leaning on the upper deck rail, their long hair whipping in the breeze. I was a curious combination of Pocahontas and Mama. Charting new waters like a brave women explorer, I had never been on a boat. On the other hand, the first blast of the ferry’s horn made me jump and clap my hand over my heart. Hanging back from the edge and gazing out over the vast channel, I saw myself as small and insignificant.
Nearing our destination, all happy conversations ceased. Dad had been forced to abandon the weaving country roads and exit onto a six-lane freeway. Traffic whizzed by us as Dad uttered his version of a swear word over and over, “Rats and few more rats.” I had been taught to pray, so I pleaded in Dad’s behalf that no one would run into us. When we arrived in New York, other drivers honked at us as Dad attempted to maneuver through the snarled traffic.
The “rats” became bigger and more numerous. When we finally found the address where we were going to stay, he parked our car for the whole week, and we rode the bus.
My memories of this big city visit are indelibly fixed in my mind. However, the saying, “Half the fun was getting there,” certainly proved true.
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I relate to the stuffy car filled with relatives and the hot summer hanging in the air, the discomfort balanced by the novelty of travel and hamburgers. It seems like a moment where the author's world is expanding, widened by experiencing the distance and the unfolding miles on the road.
This is a fun little story, with memory-evoking scenes throughout. This could easily be developed into a longer story.
I like the writer's eight-year-old perspectives during this very long trip. It also called up memories of my family's trip from Wisconsin to New York when I was nine!
Didn't have to make up anything. Strange how details stick in your mind after all these years.