On occasions when my three brothers and I are together, we almost always reminisce about our family vacations. Although we enjoyed the destinations—such as the beach, Yellowstone Park, conference centers in Texas and North Carolina, the homes of relatives—our clearest memories are of the journeys themselves—the trips in one or another of our family’s series of station wagons. The time period was the 1950s and early 1960s, before the interstate highway system, before seat belt rules, before hand-held entertainment devices.
The expedition would begin when we assembled our bags and the camping equipment—three tents, air mattresses and sleeping bags, a bicycle pump, a cooler, a picnic basket, a camp cookware set, and a Coleman camp stove—for my father to arrange in the “way back” section of the station wagon and a carrier on top of the car. Inevitably, he would declare that our stuff would never fit and that the trip would have to be canceled—until our mother cheered him up and rearranged a few items, and we settled ourselves in the car—three children in the back seat and one between our parents in the front, as he drove and she navigated, following the route he had marked on the map.
The four of us children—myself, my brother James who came along sixteen months later, and the twins, Bruce and Rannie, who were born three months before I turned five–were a highly verbal, rambunctious group, who needed to be kept occupied. Of course, we argued about whose turn it was to sit where and about who had put a hand or a knee over the invisible dividing lines, and participated in other variations of that age-old game of picking fights with one another in order to annoy our parents. But they did a good job of keeping us engaged in various activities on the old four-lane and two-lane highways that wound through rural areas and the centers of small and large towns.
We counted the “See Rock City” signs on barn roofs and read aloud the Burma Shave doggerel. We tried to break our previous records for the number of different state license tags. We played the alphabet game, trying to find the letters of the alphabet in order on the billboards we passed. (We welcomed the Quality Oil or Texaco signs that gave us the long-sought Q or X.) Later, when we’d had more advanced math courses, we tried to form equations from the numbers on the license plates of the cars ahead of us (for example, 6202 yielded 6=22+0+2). We divided into two teams (right side and left side) to play “cow poker,” with its complex rules. Points were gained by counting cows, horses, sheep, goats, or chickens visible on our own team’s side of the road. A junkyard on one team’s side would cut the points in half and a graveyard would wipe them out entirely—but only if spotted by the other team. We learned to tune in to held breath on the other side of the car so that we could crush the other team. None of us ever spotted the red-headed girl on a white mule that would have signaled a game-ending victory.
My brother James would be given one hour each day to lead us in singing to his ukulele. Then there would be the brief rest stops at filling stations, where our parents would fill the car with gas, we would all visit the restroom, and if we had been good, our parents would buy a pack of chewing gum and give each of us one stick. Around noon, we all had to watch for the signs identifying roadside picnic tables, where we could stop, unpack the picnic basket, and eat lunch.
As the day wore on, my father would give the wheel to my mother and demand silence as he composed the narrative for the next chapter in his chronicle of the adventures of the pirate captain, Tidmore C. Jones (named for a convenience store near our Tuscaloosa home) and his crew. We cooperated because the stories were the highlight of the road trips. Each of us had what would today be called an avatar in the story, based on a characteristic or an occurrence on one of the trips—Grace G. Gorgeous, James J. Bigmouth, Bruce J. Nuts and Bolts, and Randolph J. Swollen Eye. The stories incorporated events and sights from the day’s journey. For example, the president of Dahlonega State Teachers’ College, which we had recently passed, kidnapped Tidmore C. Jones’s gum-chewing secretary, Yolanda Yvonne Smackjaws, by sticking her to his office chair with a wad of her chewing gum. In each episode, the bumbling pirate crew would get themselves into some kind of terrible jam. Finally, a solution would be suggested by the first mate, J. Rockingham Smith, who always began his intervention with the words, “Begging your pardon, Sir.” Once, my mother became so entranced by the stories that she drove off the route completely, taking what my father later assured her had been a shortcut to our destination.
At the end of each day’s journey, there was the pause for grocery shopping, and then the work of pitching camp in a state park while our mother cooked supper. We fell asleep to the sound of the frogs and crickets, and in the morning we deflated the air mattresses, took down the tents, and after breakfast at the picnic table, re-packed the car and took off again.
Only much later, when we were all adults, did we realize that the reason for our tedious method of traversing the country was that our parents were providing us with a vacation on the cheap. They had to watch every dime they spent. When we reached our destinations, our father often had to work in exchange for the cabin, dorm, or house where we stayed. But here’s the thing. Not only did we never feel deprived; these hardscrabble summer road trips provided us with what are now, hands down, the most precious memories of our childhood.