Monday, April 2, 2012

From the Back Seat

When Jon and I first met in 1980, we uncovered some uncanny childhood coincidences—in spite of the fact that his father was a Philadelphia lawyer raising his family 25 miles north of the city and my father was a doctor delivering babies in the Altoona Hospital halfway between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh and raising his family in Hollidaysburg. Perhaps most astonishing, Jon and I figured out that we could have crossed paths at the Grand Canyon in the summer of 1962. How many East Coast fathers decided that the summer of ’62 was the time to take a family trip across the country?

There were differences. Leaving the older sisters at home, Jon’s mother drove Jon and his brother in the family station wagon to Taos, NM, where his father met them after taking the train. (The Broadway Limited to Chicago before changing trains.) They spent most of their extended trip at campsites or rustic ranches. They even walked down into the Grand Canyon and the next morning rode mules back up.

Not for us the “roughing it” version. My parents packed all four kids and four weeks of suitcases for hotels and motels into our white four-door Sedan de Ville. My brothers were 17 and 14; I was nine and my sister was seven.  Since brother #1 was practically a grown-up, he shared the driving with my mother and father. To have any chance at extended peace, it would not work to have the 14-year-old brother in the back seat with his two elementary school sisters. So through complicated calculations that kept some configuration of grown-ups and brother#2 in the front seat as much as possible, my sister and I saw the U.S.A. not in a Chevrolet but from the back seat of a Cadillac.

And what do I remember from that trip? The first morning we left very early, driving to Bedford to get on the Pennsylvania Turnpike heading west. Our goal was a motel on the outskirts of Chicago. My dad, an avid golfer, talked about a PGA tournament due to start that same morning. Not long after the comment, we could see in front and above us a walkway over the turnpike. Sure enough, overhead and through the mist appeared a number of men in pastel pants on that walkway, followed by lackeys lugging golf clubs. It was almost too good to be true.  (Jon tells me that it must have been the U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club near Pittsburgh, Jack Nicklaus’ first win.)

The car clocked mile after mile, every AM radio station in the country playing Ray Charles’ “I Can’t Stop Loving You” or the spooky space music of “Telstar.” Through the back windows we saw abattoirs, buffalo, and twisters, things as alien to us as pagodas, volcanoes, and windmills. Billboards were our reading material. (We never visited anything that started with “World’s Largest…” nor did our pleas result in a stop anywhere that ended with “Caverns.”) But we did hit more highlights than I can list. In addition to the Grand Canyon (where I may have passed my future husband in a gift shop?), we saw the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest. We stayed overnight in Las Vegas, where the temperature was 107° and we went to a grand hotel to see Victor Borge, who made us laugh while he played the piano. We toured Beverly Hills and Fisherman’s Wharf.  We visited Knots Berry Farm, and at Disney Land I was allowed to go on the scary rides with my brothers, as long as I could keep up with them. (To this day, I walk very, very fast.) We saw Lincoln’s home in Springfield, IL, and Route 66’s home in Springfield, MO. We gazed in awe at the Hoover Dam and we crossed Lake Michigan on a ferry. (The trip was so rough I still avoid ferries— and as a result have never set foot on Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket.)

Over the course of four weeks surprisingly few things went wrong, although we each had our difficult moments. My dad found a Rotary Club lunch to go to in San Francisco, where the president of the club mispronounced my dad’s name when introducing visitors. (No mean feat that, mispronouncing “Taylor.”) When we were in Jackson Hole, WY, my mother had an unhappy time on a trail ride when she would kick her horse as she also pulled back on the reins, saying “Whoa!” (The horse probably had an unhappy time as well.) At the same stop, brother #1 went to a “hoe-down” at the Lodge and the girl he had his eye on danced with someone else. Brother #2 left his prescription sunglasses on the roof of the car when we stopped to take pictures in the Badlands and for the remainder of the trip had to wear clip-ons over his regular glasses. (Not cool.)  Because my mother liked to buy us matching outfits, on several occasions I had to put up with people mistaking me for my sister’s twin. (Also not cool: I was 21 months older!) And my sister was never allowed to pick the radio station.

Nevertheless, we arrived back home without much incident in mid July, and summer settled back to normal, with swimming during the day and catching fireflies in a glass jar after dinner. The trip out West became a collection of photographs.

That was 50 years ago. Impossible.


  1. OMG! A surprise ending: it is impossible that "50 years ago" and "vacation" could exist in our personal histories.

  2. Loved this piece! You make 4 weeks with 4 kids in a big car (4 door?) sound like so much fun when I would have predicted a nightmare!