Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Roller Coaster Time!

Sometimes the simplest things could amuse us while driving along, how some of these activities or traditions got started are often more interesting than the events themselves, becoming more legend than actual history. With the passage of time past events are mostly forgotten or exaggerated changing the original event into something that can never be found again and repeated.

It was the first year of the trip, with me, Mom and Dad. We were driving through the desert on a beautiful Summer day through what I believe to be Nevada, or somewhere like that, all I can really be sure of was that it was the scenic route, a favorite path of travel for Dad in any circumstance. So the road itself was narrow, winding and hilly, it was also desolate and I barely remember seeing another car during this part of the trip. Now when I say hilly, I mean that the road had many small peaks and dips, which made for a roller coaster ride in the car. Dad took full advantage of this and would accelerate at certain points in the dips to get maximum roller coaster effect. I was delighted with this and this roller coaster time became one of my favorite parts of the trip.

I would sit up in the back seat ready and anticipating the next roller coaster section of the road, Dad would announce "roller coaster time!" and maneuver the car to get the best performance, coming up to the first apex and accelerating just at the right moment at the dip which would send the car flying off the second apex. Sitting up and leaning forward to get a good position and look out the front windshield I would ready myself and at the right moment and would let myself go free, letting the car perform physics on my body. The sensation that occurred was pleasurable and exciting, giving the body a brief moment of weightlessness that could be felt most noticeably in the crotch. This sensation was the closest a 4 year old boy could come to experiencing sexual pleasure and I announced to Mom and Dad that it made a "tickle in my tail". This amused Mom and Dad thoroughly but I think they didn't quite understand exactly what I meant. They laughed for days about this and it further encouraged the roller coaster time activity.

This particular roller coaster time was the longest and most intense on any of the trips, in fact it made all the other roller coaster times pale in comparison. This stretch of road offered miles of roller coaster opportunities, some of them a bit too extreme for the car causing us to bottom out, or the speed required to travel to achieve roller coaster meant that the off chance that we might encounter another car going the other way would probably result in collision. Dad seemed to ignore this possibility and focused his energies on driving with the most roller coaster efficiency.

Most of the roller coaster times that we encountered after this were merely one or maybe two dips in the road. Dad would still announce "Roller coaster time!" giving us a chance to position ourselves and he would attempt to get the car slightly airborne. Most of the time the results were disappointing, but every so often Dad would be able to get just the right momentum and that pretty sensation between my legs would occur. That first roller coaster time became legendary and was the point of comparison for all other roller coaster times. A few years later Dad attempted to find that stretch of road again, he had always thought it was a certain "out of the way" scenic route that there was no real reason to take except for the superior roller coaster time, but on one of the trips Dad purposely went out of the way to drive this stretch of road again and experience the roller coaster time from the past. We got on what we thought was the road and found it to be not like we remembered. If I didn't know better I would think we were on the wrong road, (in fact I think we were) but given my Dad's superior map navigation skills and his meticulous way of recording the past routes we took, Dad was certain this was the road. However, this road wasn't nearly as roller coaster-like as I remembered and the experience was totally disappointing. Dad thought that over the years the road had been re-paved and straightened, which might be true since many of the roads of days gone by have been replaced or eliminated in favor of the big Interstate highways, Roads like the famous "Route 66" are now history and no longer exist the way it did when times were simpler and more patient. There's a good chance this is what happened to this road.

It's almost like that roller coaster time was only a dream and only happened in my imagination, that this particular road never existed and that we somehow stumbled upon some supernatural event, a ghost road, a one time event and a road that will never be traveled again.

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Happy Wanderer

We used to have a bumper sticker on the station wagon, it was one of those customized bumper stickers you send away for where you can put anything you want on it, Dad sent away for about ten of these and they said, "Happy Wanderer". They were day-glow orange with plain black lettering and had a road construction quality to them. We had one of these on our car for about five years and Dad put a fresh one on every start of the trip, along with a new American flag for the car antenna, the trip couldn't be started without the antenna flag. Dad claimed the antenna flag was so he could find and identify our car in a crowded parking lot, but we never seemed to park in lots so the flag was more decoration and political statement than anything else. Dad also used to put an orange Styrofoam "76" ball (from the Union 76 gas stations) on the antenna, but those always seemed to get stolen, which was ironic since Dad had a whole box of "76" balls which he and his friend John one night got drunk and went out and stole as many of them as they could, I think Dad still has a dozen or so of them still in the garage. But the antenna flag never got stolen, they would fly off occasionally or deteriorate over time, but there was always a flag on Dad's antenna.

Driving for hours there really wasn't much to do or see, so I would look at whatever was outside and daydream.




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Monday, April 28, 2008

Polaroid - part 1.

This is probably the most amazing part about the whole trip. Not only did we travel thousands of miles covering practically every road West of the Mississippi, but the whole thing was documented on Polaroid film. Dad thought Polaroid was the greatest invention ever conceived and stubbornly remains loyal to the product to this day. Even now since they haven't made the cameras and film anymore Dad has hoarded all the Polaroid film he can get his hands on, keeps it frozen in storage and rations it during his trip for all the traditional photos he needs to take. He owns and collects every model of Polaroid camera and uses all of them according to which photographic situation suits him best, but the main camera of the trip is the "95", Dad's first camera and the first model Polaroid camera ever sold. Dad still takes pictures with it to this day.

The story goes; Dad was given the camera as a gift by his father when he graduated from grammar school sometime back in the 1940's, he was so intrigued and fascinated by the instant developed pictures, that he became almost religiously devoted to Polaroid and refused to accept any other form of film. The camera he takes on the trip, the "95" is the same camera he was given 60 years ago and has since been repaired and jury rigged to keep it functional, but it still works.

The main function of the "95" seems banal and boring, but given the uninterrupted years of use and sheer number of photos it has taken, gathered up and put into context the pictures this single camera has taken is extraordinary and borders on genius. Every motel Dad and we have ever stayed at on the trip, has a picture taken of the view outside the room. Without fail Dad has taken a Polaroid snapshot with the "95" outside the room of every motel, whether the view is a pastoral landscape on a perfect Summers day, or a brick wall, it doesn't matter, the picture is taken no matter what. Usually the picture is of the motel parking lot, often using our own car as the centerpiece of the photo, but sometimes magic seems to happen and a deceptively simple picture outside a Motel 6 can say a thousand words. It is also typical for Dad to stay at the same motel multiple times over the series of many years, each picture outside the rooms will reveal the passage of time in a small town, noting either growth or depression. On the back of each Polaroid photo Dad will note the details of the setting, the room number, the town, date and any other thought that might occur to Dad as he was taking the picture. Often the sayings are silly, but in a strange way they always make sense.

Polaroid photos take a minute to develop, but sometimes art takes decades to develop.
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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Motels - part 2. "Sneaking in"




Like I mentioned before, Dad had a knack for making cheap motels even cheaper. Basically the only way we could've spent the night less expensively was to sleep in the car, which thankfully we never had to do. Wherever we went, no matter how small or remote the town, we were always able to find a suitable motel and regardless of the town it seemed like most motels were created from the same mold.

The first few years of the trip the road offered mostly the "mom and pop" independent type motels, and most of those were nice, even superior at times. The big chain motels were the Holiday Inns, which we stayed at occasionally but was always considered a treat since they tended to be slightly more expensive. The Holiday Inns were consistently clean and full of amenities like big Coke machines and pools with diving boards, slides and adequate deep ends. I think Mom liked the Holiday Inns the best because they represented the height of luxury for our trips. Other chains included Best Western, which we only stayed at out of desperation since Dad considered them outrageously expensive and pretentious. Another was Imperial 400, they were kind of a hybrid of the chain and mom and pop motels since they didn't have a unique brand or design architecture, but were typical "big town" motels. They've since gone out of business, but we were always pleased to stay at an Imperial 400. Another early kind of chain motel was the Friendship Inn, basically these motels were mom and pop but belonged to an association or some kind of franchise that united them in reputation. Dad, and Mom loved the Friendship Inns since they were both cheap and promised consistent quality. Friendship Inns also had this neat little policy in which they gave you a token when you checked out and if you presented the token at another Friendship Inn you got a discount. This became a fun little game seeking out the Friendship Inns in new towns or planning some of our destinations because a Friendship Inn was in that town. We were all sad when we started the trip one year and found that Friendship Inns were gone, Dad was irritated at this fact noting that anything that is good or he likes always goes away.

But getting back to making cheap motels cheaper, these were the days before most motels had the "kids under 12 stay free" policies, and motels at the time had certain rules of charging that was both by number of persons and the number of beds to accommodate those persons, essentially you couldn't get a room with one queen size bed (or 2 single beds) and stuff 3 people in it. Dad found these rules to be completely unjust and couldn't understand why he was charged more for a room with the same amount of beds only because we had 2 adults and a kid, while the couple with no kid got the same room for less, we never heard the end of this all during the trips. Dad always stated that he was perfectly happy sleeping on the floor, or more the case was he was perfectly happy having me sleep on the floor... sleeping on the floor of cheap motels became an art for me and Dad, and sometimes sleeping on the floor was preferable, but more on that later. Dad's solution to this unfair policy was simple, he would sneak me in to many of these motels. Mom reluctantly went along with this, and I was completely uncomfortable with this obvious dishonest act, I actually dreaded it every time Dad would come to a motel and tell me to "duck down". The whole ritual was always nerve-wracking since I had to stay hidden in the back seat on the floor, next to the ice chests, while dad registered, a process that could take up to 30 minutes and was full of risks. Often the manager wanted to come out and see the car, check the licence plate or something, or I even thought they were suspicious of people like us sneaking in and wanted to check the back seat, but whatever the case I needed to stay hidden until we were registered and Dad announced it was all clear to sit up. However... that didn't mean the risk was over, many times after being snuck in the situation called for evasive action on my part during the whole stay, For instance, if we got a room right next to the managers office, or dad sensed the manager was a mean, nasty and a suspicious control freak and somehow suspected Dad was up to something (which he was). This became a problem for me when it meant I couldn't use the pool or swing set for fear of being seen and caught trying to get out of paying for the room. This is why I always loved Holiday Inns and Imperial 400's, since the office was always tucked away from most of the rooms, and even so, the atmosphere of these chain motels was so anonymous that the managers probably didn't know who's kid belonged to who, and even then they probably didn't care if a few kids got snuck in. I would guess that is why nowadays most big motel chains have kids stay free, they couldn't stop everyone sneaking kids in, so they just gave up and made them free. Mom and pop motels were different, they were intimate, old-fashioned and the managers most likely were the owners, they cared if you cheated them out of $5.

A couple of times we were actually caught sneaking-in, I think it because we acted somewhat suspicious (we learned how to be non-chalant later with practice) but sometimes it was just impossible to hide the fact I existed, even dad would have to make concessions and not sneak me in when it seemed impossible, or denying me the use of the pool outweighed the extra cost. But the plan did backfire a couple of times, and the manager did call our bluff, often threatening to throw us out and call the police. Dad however had an ingenious excuse and was very good at acting innocent, he would apologize and explain that we were accustomed to staying at Holiday Inns, and kids usually stayed free at these motels (which at the time wasn't exactly true) and he was just in the habit of registering for only 2 adults and forgot that this motel charged for kids. The managers always reluctantly believed the excuse and took the additional payment, letting us stay the night and not alerting the authorities. When this happened it always embarrassed Dad and he would forgo sneaking-in for a few days, Mom usually gave dad the "I told you so" look. But after a few days of paying premium Dad would go back to the "sneaking-in" and I would protest in vain to this petty criminal activity.

I never liked the sneaking-in.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Way Back


It was finally decided that we should have a new car, not just for the trips but in general, and mom really wanted a station wagon, in fact she insisted upon it. We looked around for what seemed like forever and finally got a Ford Falcon station wagon. It wasn't at all like Uncle Bob's Country Squire with wood paneling on the outside and seats in the way back, our car was about as plain as it got, a car reserved for military bases or factory businesses carting stuff around. The car was an olive green and a black plastic interior, no carpet just plastic matting, manual crank windows, no AC, AM radio only, it didn't have a roof rack (which would've been useful) and the way back was a bare metal surface, which with instead of folding seats like Uncle Bob's wagon had a locked compartment underneath that acted as a trunk. This was certainly the most inexpensive station wagon available in the world, but it was new and it was ours. Thinking back it probably was a really good car, very practical. That car went on about a dozen of the trips and always ran like a top (for the most part). As far as my mom was concerned she was resigned but happy to have it, always wanting a Country Squire with wood paneling and seats in the way back for the kids, but dad just wasn't going to afford a car like that.


The car was intended for my mom, but immediately my dad took it over and it became his car. He called it the "F-Con" short for Falcon, which was reminiscent of the "T-Bird" short for his '55 Thunderbird. He even went as far as to try and call the Mustang the "M-Stang" which was kind of a stretch and never caught on. But as far as the "F-Con" was concerned, the original idea was that my mom would have the station wagon and my dad would have his '55 Thunderbird, the only problem with that plan was that the '55 T-bird didn't run, I remember it running only a handful of times in my life, and even then it was a tad sketchy. So the theory of my dad having his own vehicle amounted to it sitting in the garage deteriorating with lofty plans of getting it going again and having it win drag races like it did in the old days. But dad required a car for his activities and now we had a new one. The first thing dad did was to remove the dashboard, the reason was that he had bought from the JC Whitney catalog a set of racing gauges and dials, never intended for this station wagon but was thought every car should have (since the '55 T-Bird had them). He always complained about the "idiot lights" and thought it was a better idea to have dial gauges like an rpm tachometer, a temperature gauge and some other gadgets. But these instruments were no way going to fit into the existing dashboard arrangement, and to integrate these into the car system, the dashboard needed to be removed completely, and all the gauges, even the pre-existing factory installed speedometer and gas gauge, just layed out on the empty interior beneath where the dashboard once covered. It was incredibly ugly and immediately made the car look 30 years older, and for the most part unnecessary since the gauges were overly complicated and never really worked anyway. The exposed interior was made of a light colored particle board which caused an annoying reflective glare on the inside of the windshield, which if the sun was just right, glare caused the driver not to be able to see out the front of the windshield. To solve this, dad found an old navy blue t-shirt of mine and draped it over the offending parts, covering a patch of the reflecting parts and making a section of dark on the window letting the driver see without distraction. This dashboard arrangement stayed with the car for many years, and everyone became used to it and eventually took it for granted. Even when reasoned with or threatened, dad refused to put the dashboard back on and even got angry at the suggestion.


But the best part of that car, the thing that make all the other annoyances insignificant, was the way back. The way back was the whole reason for getting a station wagon in the first place, and for us kids was a privilege tailor made for us. As far as the trip was concerned the way back was more than a luxury, it was a necessity that made the trips all those years with multiple kids possible, the trips would've been impractical and miserable without the way back. Now, I mentioned before that the way back was nothing more than bare industrial black metal, in fact everything in the interior of the car (except for what was underneath the dashboard) was black and hard, which made things uncomfortable and hot, hot because the black plastic and metal absorbed outside light like a solar panel causing any surface in the car exposed to direct sunlight to become hot enough to inflict serious burns. So to provide comfort in the way back we dedicated a special sleeping bag, unzipped and spread out to allow some cushion, and shield from the sun. The sleeping bag was adequate but difficult to keep under control, constantly sliding and bunching up in corners of the back, but we all fell into a way back routine and adjusted to the difficulties, making the best out of this compromised situation.
There was also a back window that could be rolled down, but because of the lack of modern conveniences on the car had to be rolled down manually from the outside. This meant during the driving we had two choices, either the window was up, which meant the way back ran the risk of becoming a greenhouse, or it was down, which provided ventilation in the form of a noisy and sometime fume filled wind. So we had to choose carefully the status of the window because dad was always reluctant to stop and roll the window up or down according to our whims. The window being down could be a source of amusement, waving to truckers and making them blow their horns, or we often threw stuff out the back and joyfully watched the items bounce and break on the speeding pavement. I think we even attempted to fly a kite out of the way back window once with disappointing results, accomplishing a lesson in aerodynamics showing us that the wind created by the wake of the car actually blew in, not out like we suspected. Throwing the kite out to catch the wake a few feet behind the car resulted in the kite slamming onto the pavement and dragging it back at 60 mph, ripping the string through our hands and causing a nasty friction burn. Dad was either unaware of our potentially dangerous experiments or glad we were suitable occupied. More than likely he enjoyed watching us struggle with these vain attempts at amusement.


The way back served many purposes, it was a place to nap during the long days driving, it was a refuge and escape from the other occupants of the car when they inevitably got on your nerves, it was a place to play and keep busy with projects meant to fight constant boredom, and it was a holding cell used as punishment and confinement when discipline was deemed necessary.
The way back was a home away from home in the car.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Bags

Dad had a unique way of packing. Space in the car was severely limited and to top it off, was deemed that most of our personal belongings was considered unnecessary, things like clothes only took up room for more important stuff like a huge collection of maps and foot massagers. A good portion of the trunk was set aside for emergency equipment, in case the car broke down, which actually was a good idea but I doubt any of the tools and gadgets were actually used. A mechanics tool box with a full set of tools was taken along and the tool box itself served as a bank lock-box, containing a large wad of cash to be used for specific purposes on the trip, but more on that later... So, to save room all of our clothes were packed in plastic garbage bags instead of suitcases, to utilize every square inch of space, filling the compartment with our clothes like liquid. At first we all protested at this idea, depriving us of a personal privilege of being able to contain and control our own clothes in one packed unit, like the civilized world expects, but we soon found out that this inconvenience didn't really matter, that having handy access to our clothes was basically irrelevant, and that we adjusted by only changing our clothes every few days, or more.

But that didn't mean we couldn't keep a personal stash of necessities, toys, souvenirs and other important items. And dad was the first to make sure he had a personal goody bag of important and irreplaceable stuff. The most important luggage of the trip was "the bag", a World War II era canvas tote bag with handles and a zipper, probably intended as a carry-on bag when flying on a DC3, like in an old movie or something. Dad has owned this bag since he was quite young, taking it to college, a few colleges in fact, and on his travels with his father. He most likely took it on his first car trip across the country in the '55 Thunderbird (the trip that started it all...) back in the '50's, and it has become a traditional travelling companion ever since. Despite the physical condition of the bag and the practicality of it's usefulness, dad continues to keep this as his main article of luggage.. This bag containers all the trinkets of comforts and survival to be used anytime during the trip. If the care broke down, we were stranded and had to walk a hundred miles to civilization, dad would probably take the cash out of the tool box, put it in "the bag" and be able to cope for weeks without worry.

Some of the items contained in "the bag"
- A fly swatter (one of many free swatters provided by Holiday Inn)
- An old plastic ziplock baggie containing a collection of little motel soaps (also free with most motels)
- Swiss Army Knife
- A few plastic straws in different varieties (some with the "splayed end" like a spoon, best to eat 7-11 Slurpies
- A package of Kool Ade
- A little all-in-one salt and pepper shaker (with potassium salt instead of sodium)
- Shaving kit (specific to the trip, with the old pink electric rotary razor)
- The map (see first post)
- The book; "The Umpire Strikes Back"
- A guide to Rocky Mountain wildlife
- An assortment of plastic cutlery (including the "spork")
- Postcards and postage stamps (stamps usually out of date and requires additional postage)
- A yellow plastic Polaroid print holder
- Scotch tape (very important, never to be used without permission, more about that later)
- Old prescription containers for uses that God only knows what for
- One of those keychain puzzles (move the number squares to get them in order)
- Pine incense
- Tire pressure gauge
- Batteries
- Toothpicks
- Rubber bands (usually old and will break when stretched)
- Feathers
- An assortment of different clips (paper, spring, etc...)
- An assortment of lids
- Can of Planters mixed nuts

I can go on, but I really can't remember the best stuff


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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Rain


Another extreme, and sometimes dangerous aspect of the trip was rain… lots of it. You wouldn't think the weather could get so wet and dreary during the Summer, especially in the desert, but there were Summers I can remember nothing but rainy weather, day in and day out, the trips were lessons in extremes. The first encounter with torrential rain came on the first year of the trip when we were traveling through Nevada on out way to Ely. During this time the Interstate highway system was still in development and most highways were small, winding and desolate. My dad was also fascinated and compelled to take dirt roads whenever possible, taking advantage of a little known shortcut or unseen part of the country. This was cause for concern from my mom who wasn't really excited about the adventure aspect of the trip, she just wanted to get there and get it over with. And, there was an unmistakable element of danger involved taking dirt roads, you were usually alone on the road, very seldom would you see another car on these side trips, and the roads themselves were not of the best quality, rough and treacherous. If something were to happen to the car on one of these dirt roads it would be a long walk back to any sort of services. However dad assured us through his experience that there was nothing to worry about and insisted that taking dirt roads were not only safe, but had a great and untold advantage over paved roads.
It had been raining a lot on the regular paved highway, which was bad enough, but dad was hell bent on taking this dirt road through the desert and shaving off a dozen or so miles. Mom of course protested but Dad had the final say (like the heater) and we turned onto this dirt road, which by now was mostly muddy gravel. Progress was slow on dirt roads, even when dry, but now the downpour was more torrential by the moment. To make matters even more exciting, lightening would tend to strike every few minutes and sometimes only a few yards from our car, resounding in a horrific clash of thunder. Dad re-assured us that lightening wouldn’t strike our car and gave some convoluted scientific reason why, that our tires insulated us from electrocution, which I took for granted was correct, but didn’t relieve anybody’s concern. The ground kept getting wetter and the puddles were getting bigger. We hit a water filled pot hole and bottomed out briefly, which resulted in a rare nervous reaction my dad, now slightly concerned for our situation for the first time since we entered the dirt road. We eventually came upon a puddle that not even Moses would chance to cross. Stopping the car dad got out to check the depth of the puddle, taking off his shoes and rolling up his pants he tested the puddle and discovered it nearly went up to his knee. The decision to turn around and go back was unanimous, but turning around was a bit of a problem for the time being, the road barely being wide enough for the car. Dad had to travel in reverse for about a mile to a section of the road wide enough to turn around. It then it took about 15 shifts back and forth the turn the vehicle in the other direction, like maneuvering in or out of a tight parking spot, and at one point the car was perpendicular to the road with a mere foot in either direction to nudge the car. A note: from that time on, Dad always took notice of available turn-around spots every half-mile or so, and announced them, whenever he took a dirt road after that.

Finally with great relief we made it back to the paved highway, mom was obviously seething with anger and had an "I told you so" look on her face, dad, as always took it in stride. The weather didn’t get any better and now it was starting to get dark, but the danger of being stranded in the middle of Nevada not being discovered for weeks was behind us and I looked forward to getting to the motel, and even thinking given this traumatic experience dad would be nice and spring for premium nights stay in a Holiday Inn instead of a cheap dump with no soda pop machine. We made it to Ely only to discover that this has been the worst storm in centuries and the flooding has contaminated all the clean water in the area, which meant no drinking water, no ice, no showers, and curiously, (which I never got a convincing reason) no Coca Cola. This deprived me and my mom of one of the few luxuries of the trips and mom became even more burning with resentment, which she displayed by being cooly silent. However, this disappointment seemed to delight my dad and he took advantage of our misfortune by reminding us that it was basically our fault and responsibility that we were dependent on such comforts as Coca Cola and decent food, while he was perfectly content sacrificing these luxuries. Dad communicated this with a subtle smile and self-satisfied attitude that can only be described as mean. Strangely, the flood didn't affect the beer supply in Ely and he teased us further by flagrantly ordering cold beer while we were forced to drink milk or canned juice. The beer intensified this sadistic behavior for the rest of the evening, and the next day was tense and quiet between my mom and dad. But dad always seemed to be completely clueless to the gravity of the situation and the minor misery it caused, never realizing that excitement and adventure for him was not necessarily enjoyable for the rest of the human race. Dad always looked back at this whole experience as being fun.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Romper Room


Besides the swimming pools and the occasional swing sets, there really wasn't much to do once we got to a motel and settled in for the rest of the day. Dad, having sat behind the wheel all day usually laid down on the bed, put a couple of quarters in the "Magic Fingers" bed vibrator and took a nap with the TV on. Usually there was nothing on TV anyway - remember; these were the days before cable and even in large cities you were lucky to get 3 or 4 channels on a motel TV, but for the most part we stayed in very small towns and had a choice of 1 or 2 channels offering re-runs of Hee Haw or Spanish speaking religious shows. The early days of Motel 6 the TV watching wasn't even free, you had to put quarters in and pay by the hour, much like the vibrating beds. This was kind of annoying for us kids, and my mom too, because it represented the ultimate in "cheap" for a motel, having to pay for right of TV watching seemed like punishment and forced us to budget the viewing time carefully, it was also ammunition for dad to exercise his power trips and teach us lessons about how nothing is free, not even TV, so if we wanted to watch cartoons it'll have to come out of our own allowances. However, we survived and more often than not found something else to do.


So out of sheer boredom us kids invented a few activities to keep us occupied and kept our muscles from being atrophied from hours sitting in a car packed with four other people and 3 ice chests. We came up with a game we called "Romper Room", which was a hybrid version of tag, and for the most part didn't have any rules except running around the motel and avoiding each other. This game was best played at Motel 6's because the building layouts were somewhat maze-like, usually with multiple complexes, double storied with various stairs, and surrounded by parking lot (which was considered off limits) So for hours at a time we would run around the terraces and walkways with no particular object or goal in mind other than to not be in close proximity to the others that were playing. On a few occasions we would encounter other stranger kids in the motel and engage them in a session of romper room, but usually they didn't understand the motive and lack of rules and quickly lost interest, leaving each group of kids to play their separate games in parallel.


Actually, we tended to avoid other stranger kids, there was no point in pursuing a friendship that was going to last only an hour or two, and it was safe to say we had nothing in common with the other kids, other than we happened to be staying the night in the same motel, then we were off the next morning to our next destination never to see each other again... but more on that later

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Hot

Of the many things we had to contend with on the journeys, weather seemed to be a reoccurring event, and we encountered the various extremes the summer weather had to offer. One obvious extreme that made the car travel rather unpleasant almost every trip, was heat, especially in the southwest desert mid-July. It could literally get up to 110 degrees inside the car if you dared look at a thermometer. Driving with the windows down only resulted in a blowing furnace-like 106 degrees, which wasn’t much better, unless you were wet from water gathered from the ice chests. We had come up with various survival tricks to mimic air conditioning, the most effective being rubbing yourself down with a Wash ‘n Dri and letting the wind from the open windows react with the cooling alcohol of the wet nap. This had only a temporary effect and needed to be repeated more often than practical, and I suspect now probably made us even hotter in the long-run. We also had a little battery operated fan, which was originally part of a toy – a cheap plastic hovercraft vehicle powered by the fan at the end of a 3 foot cable connected by a motor and 4 D cell batteries. The actual hovercraft vehicle part had been broken off leaving this nifty little fan that could be pointed directly at ones face for a refreshing breeze, which could be accentuated by the alcoholic reaction of a Wash ‘n Dri. The fan also became a useful torture device on my sister by letting the fan snap on sensitive parts of the skin, or better, sticking the moving fan in her hair causing a painful tangle that required force and surgery to remove.

Often to make matters worse, (believe it or not), my dad would blast the car heater in these situations. The justification was that it helped the car from over-heating, but everyone else in the car was convinced it was to be mean, especially since dad always wore a dark windbreaker, long sleeves and one of those gray plastic sauna-suits under all those clothes while he drove, everyone thought he actually liked being uncomfortably hot and on the brink of stroke. Whatever the case, it always pissed everyone off when we discovered the heat was on while the outside temperature was well over a hundred and five. The reaction we always got from him was a smirkish and illogical excuse that was bordering on conspiracy, and an ultimate assertion of authority over the car and the control of the heater.


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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Motels - part 1.


Dad was an expert at finding cheap motels, and even better at making them cheaper. The thing was is that outside appearances were often misleading, a fancy looking motel with a pool with a slide and swing set could turn out to be a dump, while a crummy looking mom-and pop motel in the middle of nowhere charging $5 a night could turn out to be one of the best motel experiences on the whole trip. The thing was you could never tell, but Dad, and the rest of us got to be pretty good at spotting a good motel or not.

One important criteria was: did it have a pool. That alone could be a deal-breaker and was usually not negotiable when a choice had to be made. Seldom did we have to sacrifice the pool privilege, and it was usually because there was nothing else, and it was Summer, hot, and even dad saw the advantages of full immersion in water after spending 5 hours in a car traveling through the desert. If it had a pool with a slide, one those turquoise fiberglass water slides that endlessly dumped kids into the deep end that was a bonus, but not fully required. The pool slides took a little getting used to, the had to be smooth, not weather-beaten with a powdery look, and they had to be wet, usually aided by a little sprinkler system embedded in the fiberglass to keep the slide moist and slippery. If one attempted to descend down a dry slide, or even a partially dry slide, you risked getting a nasty rash the first time down accompanied by a tell tale friction squeak of skin passing over the dry spot, and every kid in the country who has ever used a motel pool slide knew this. If you came to use the pool and nobody has obviously been swimming, you had to check the status of the slide wetness, see if the manager has turned the sprinkler on. Even if there was a group of kids already swimming it was customary and polite to inform newcomers the status of the slide so not to injure new swimmers with a nasty friction burn comparable to a bad belly flop off the high dive board. If the slide was indeed neglected and dry, a brave volunteer needed to trail blaze the slide and descend it with wet swim trunks to adequately moisten the slide so future trips down were fast and painless. Even so one had to be careful since even a small unnoticed dry patch could catch flesh and inflict a stinging burn with a familiar and dreaded squeak. But when the slide has taken a few passengers and everyone involved is convinced to the safety, small, frenzied but organized lines would form up the ladder and kids would joyfully plunge into the pool, going down on their butts, on their stomachs, backwards… the joy would last for hours and hardly ever turned nasty by bullies or rude behavior.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Lightning

I’ve always wanted to see a real tornado, but never got the chance to see the actual funnel cloud I’ve only seen in pictures. So the possible opportunity to witness a tornado during one of the violent storms we often encountered on the trips excited me. The failure to see a tornado touch down was always a disappointment I carry to this day. The closest I ever got was in Guymon, Oklahoma. The clouds were black and the storm sirens were heard everywhere. We had checked in to a Holiday Inn and we were told to stay indoors for the time being. Well, the sky got darker and the wind picked up. We were watching the event from a lobby door with access to the pool, the wind was making tiny tidal waves in the pool and would actually splash over the sides. In front of us was a flag pole flying the American flag, the wind picked up and I saw no tornadoes, but the flag was flapping violently, so much that within less than a minute the entire flag had literally dissolved away from the force of the wind right before my eyes. As soon as it had come, the storm ended. The storm warnings continued through the night as well as the constant lightning that visibly struck every 5 or 10 minutes. In the 2nd floor room of the Holiday Inn I slept on the floor next to the window so I could fall asleep watching the lightning flash in the distance throughout the night.

The year my friend Ted came with us on the trip (more about that later), as well as my sisters Trisha and Katrina, and the surprising involvement of my Mom on the trip again that year. Mom had disavowed the trip years before, but I found out later that she felt compelled to go and keep a protective eye on Ted. The trip for her that year was miserable and she quite understandably drank her way across the country to keep from going insane - needless to say things were tense at times. By the time we got to Guymon, Oklahoma (the same place where we had the flag-ripping tornado a few years before) we had caught up with a spectacular storm that gave us a beautiful but frightening light show one evening. As a challenge my dad and us kids were determined to get a picture of lightning on the Polaroid, which was a test of patience not only from the weather cooperating, but the obsessive insistence that we all participate long after the thrill of the challenge had gone from us kids. Again my mom had nothing to do with this potential fiasco. We started out setting up the cameras out in a field next to the Motel, which became obviously dangerous when the storm approached toward us and lightning seemed to strike in a taunting manner mere yards away. Mom, almost hysterical at the lack of good judgment, screamed for us to return to the safety of the motel enclosure. Dad stubbornly refused to admit any danger but complied with the demand. From that new vantage point we spent what seemed like hours waiting for an appropriate burst of lightning worthy of wasting a chance at printing an instant photo. Given the primitive equipment capabilities (even for that time) we determined, with my dad that in order to get a picture of lightning one had to anticipate the flash. That meant waiting with full attention for the occasional but rare multiple and lingering bolts that only happened when you least expected. The whole event became extremely frustrating, except for dad who seemed to enjoy the irritation in us kids and cultivated the frustration further by suggesting irrational demands and punishment for wasting film on a failed try. The weather itself seemed to enjoy teasing us as well by providing sporadic bursts of activity when we were least prepared and suddenly relinquishing activity as soon as we were ready, Dad somehow had the ability to make us feel responsible for the lack of cooperation in the weather and responded with an ultimatum that we wouldn’t sleep until an image of lightning appeared on Polaroid film. Finally! We got one. And thankfully it was a group effort, if one could imagine that a group of kids with a 1940’s Polaroid camera could help matters, a blurry ambiguous blob of light appears on a black & white photo. We could all go to bed now.

The picture still exists and is proudly deemed the only picture of lightening my dad has been able to get.



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Sunday, April 6, 2008

Ice

Being on the road most of the time, food was a reality that couldn't be ignored even though my dad would’ve liked to make eating more akin to his odd whims and tastes. It was always apparent that eating was a fact that mostly annoyed my dad because the rest of us generally had normal eating habits and tastes. My dad on the other hand preferred food that wasn’t necessarily orthodox, impulsive, but structured around life long routines and habits – for example: mayonnaise needed to be stored in a cupboard at room temperature for more than a few days, and eaten with such delicacies as canned mackerel with a quality slightly above cat food, and accompanied with a dill pickle sold in a plastic bag. Sandwiches bought at a restaurant and taken home as leftovers can last literally for days and eaten in stages for different daily meals. I’m always amazed that dad hasn’t died yet from food poisoning, but the riper the food, the better with him. That didn’t mean he wasn’t opposed to good food as well, as long as it had an occasion or was free. Dad was able to put down hundreds of pounds of gourmet items if it was provided, or if he was feeling generous and wanted to celebrate at an expensive restaurant, the eating of good food go into the extreme and turn into an embarrassing and frustrating production that could take hours and finish only when the management of the restaurant asked us to leave because they have closed an hour ago. But usually, and out on the trip, price was the deciding factor on what to eat.

Out on the road our refusal to bend to my dads eating habits clearly irritated him and was a source of anger when he was feeling antagonistic. Buying food in a local small town market would often result in bad choices, like jars of baby food. I don’t know why dad thought baby food was a good idea, I think he just liked the little jars, but he insisted that we keep a supply in the car. You could have a full meal; meat, vegetable, fruit, all in a convenient single serving container, it was kind of like being an astronaut. We would keep a selection in the ice chests, and along with a cup of freshly mixed up Kool Ade or Tang, we got a square meal without having to chew. I remember especially liking the berry deserts and the beef dinner, they were like little portions of pudding. I realize later that baby food was not the most economical way to eat, but it was easy before the days of modern packaging. Gerbers was the brand of choice, over Beechnut, I felt Gerbers had the best selection and flavor, and dad abandoned his thrifty habits and forked over the few extra cents to buy the premium Gerbers brand. Dad must’ve had some infantile fascination now that I think of it. He always had a baby bottle full of water with him on the trip, a habit he picked up from one of my cousins, who when she was 13 or so, liked to carry a baby bottle and drink from it. A habit that probably lasted not more than a month with her, and was highly discouraged for a 13 year old. But none the less, my dad thought the baby bottle was a great idea. Now, I never actually saw him suck on it like a baby, he claimed that he always had a dry mouth and constantly needed to "hydrate", so he would use the baby bottle like a squirt bottle, squeezing it and sending a stream of water out the nipple into his mouth, over his teeth. He kept the bottle next to him in bed, watching TV in the Motels and next to him in the car. This brilliant innovation alleviated the need to have a cup of water next to him constantly, or having to constantly have an ice cube to suck on out of the chests. I still think he liked having a baby bottle. The bottle served other purposes as well. Filling it with ice water, it became a useful tool to wake us up in the morning, pulling off the covers and squirting us with icy water. I can still remember the whistling sound the bottle made as it was squirting us, dad would sadistically laugh at our discomfort, and it was maddening. Once someone tried to take the baby bottle away to avoid the morning ritual, this only resulted in panic and severe punishment. It was then best thought to endure the morning squirtings.

But the ice chests. They did more than hold our baby food; they were the kitchen of the car. The first year of the trip, we started out light on the in-car supplies. The first ice cooler container was a bag, it looked like a bigger bowling ball bag, red plaid fabric on the outside and lined with white plastic on the inside. We filled it with ice and drinks but soon found out its limitations. One was size, the other was it leaked. I recall halfway through the trip the ice bag wasn’t working so dad went and found two Styrofoam ice chests. The plan was that one would be for drinks and the other for food, and for the next 35 years this was the arrangement. I need to point out that dad still uses these same original ice chests, they are practically dissolving, being held together with various types of tape and are kept waterproof with plastic sacks. Dad claims that the newer ice chests aren’t made as well as these and he refuses to replace them, even though these chests are practically unusable. The other reason is he can’t find the correct dimensions for replacement ice chests, being annoyed at the way modern designed chests taper toward the bottom and use back seat space inefficiently. The beloved ice chests we have miraculously took up exactly one side of the back seat foot space, always right behind the passenger seat. This always meant that the person sitting on that side had to either be small, or uncomfortable. Having the chests there allowed dad to reach over and grab a drink, sometimes even a beer, which was one of those cute, small cans of Olympia.

As the ice chests aged over time and use, the ice began to take on a particular flavor, we knew this because of the constant crunching during hot drives. You could actually taste the history of each ice chest, the food chest being the most distinctive. I actually remember the distinctive taste of dill pickle, the flavor being imparted by those pickle in a bags my dad always got, but never ate all in one time. Half eaten baby foods would also leak into the ice and permeate into the Styrofoam for years, leaving a singular flavor in the ice that never changed and can be recalled from my memory to this day.

Getting the ice for the chests was another daily production that took on irritating proportions, and was carried out with military accuracy. Pretty much every motel we stayed at had an ice machine next to the coke machines, not having an ice machine was reason not to stay at a particular motel. The intention of providing ice for guests was most likely to fill one bucket to use for your soft drinks, and to fill maybe one ice chest. Early on in the trips it was taken for granted that ice was free and there was always plenty for everybody, the ice machines were always pretty much the same, a freezer with a horizontal door that constantly made ice for all the guests, the ice themselves were usually little cubes, but sometimes there were odd shaped ice like tubes, the tube kind was not preferred and melted faster, but probably was more cost effective for the motel. But in any case the free ice was a valued commodity and dad took full advantage of the service at every motel. Although ice was free, it was generally thought to be uncool to fill the chest right at the ice maker, we found this out early when the motel manager laid into my dad one morning after he was caught taking what looked like 30 gallons of ice. So one had to be nonchalant about getting ice for the chests, making multiple trips with the provided motel bucket at various intervals so not to arise suspicion, sending us kids on ice errands was also a good tactic that ensured a good supply, but even then one had to be careful about getting ice, especially if the machine was next to the office (getting ice tended to be a noisy task) or the manager was constantly lurking and milling around the motel grounds. Holiday Inns were the best for getting ice since the managers didn’t really care how much ice you took and there was generally 2 or 3 machines in a motel. But the ice getting was a major important chore and sometimes took a couple of hours to complete. Later on in the trips the managers either got wise to the ice taking, or it started to become expensive, so different methods were used by the different motels to curtail free ice taking for ice chests. The first was obviously stating that ice was for room use only, not for filling ice chests. This only angered my dad and was generally ignored; various excuses were used to justify him taking ice for his chests, and only made the ice-getting tasks more complicated and secretive. The worst though was when you actually had to buy ice; this was deemed unjust and ludicrous by dad and only motivated him to look for creative ways to obtain free ice. Over the years the ice procurement continually got more and more difficult, but continues to be a vital necessity for the daily trips.


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Saturday, April 5, 2008

Balloon time!

Dad always considered himself a superior driver, far above everyone else on the road. Rarely would he admit some other car in front of us a good driver, usually they were idiots, or most often ignorant to the finer subtleties and skills of driving the streets and highways. So when we were on the road, dad, and our car in particular, was special and stood out among the other ordinary drivers, some who had no business at all being on the road.

Another skill dad claimed to have superior knowledge about was navigating, and he had a vast collection of various road maps to guide and direct us on our journeys. We found on the first year of the trip that all maps and map companies were not equal. Most everybody in the world used Rand McNally maps, but according to dad, these maps were ordinary and superficial, they didn't include the little known dirt roads and by-ways not considered by the regular travelers. Much to my dad's annoyance most cross country travelers were not interested in scenery and interesting back-roads, they just wanted "to get there" as fast as they could without regard to the beauty of getting there. Dad considered this a major character flaw of everyone in the world and it angered him that everyone seemed to care more about the destination and not about the "getting there". So the maps were extremely important, but the Rand McNally maps didn't cut it. The map company of choice was Gousha (I think that is the name) I'm not exactly sure the actual name of the company because to this day dad always pronounced it "Geeshee". So that's what those maps were called, "Geeshee maps" and that's what I'm going to call them here because I've never known them named any differently from their correct name - they're "Geeshee maps". The advantage of Geeshee maps was that they were up to date (so my dad claimed) indicating the current new roads, and they indicated the little used dirt roads, meant for the locals. The maps themselves were also rare and difficult to find, which was evidence for dad that they must me good. Many a times dad claimed a Geeshee map saved his life and pointed him in the right direction, avoiding disaster or road construction, giving him the advantage over the other sorry highway travelers who were unfortunate enough to have to rely on Rand McNally maps. The Geeshee maps and the occasional discovery of the dirt road was a privilege my dad held over all others.

Now I need to mention that part of our Summer trips to Estes Park was to gather our entire family, Aunt, Uncle, Cousins... to vacation at Wind River Ranch, and Uncle Bob was likewise responsible for driving his family in the Country Squire station wagon to Estes Park. I remember that station wagon well, I wished we had one. It had wood paneling on the sides, the way back windows were covered with stickers showing the interesting roadside attractions my Aunt, Uncle and cousins visited, and because there was 4 kids to contend with in their family, the way back of the station wagon had fold-up seats that was way cool and really fun to sit in, it seemed to me a great privilege to be able to sit in the way back.

But according to my dad there was a couple of fatal flaws in my Uncle Bob's traveling style. For one, he usually wanted to get to the destination as fast as possible, taking only 2 or 3 days to reach Estes Park - LA to Salt Lake first day, Salt Lake to Estes Park second day, done. This always perplexed my dad, not understanding why Uncle Bob didn't enjoy the drive there, or didn't have the time to enjoy the journey. Uncle Bob's schedule was something my dad would never understand. The second flaw was that Uncle Bob used a Rand McNally map to navigate, and not only that, it was one of those convenient road atlas type of maps combining the whole country in one book, not the superior fold out maps specific to a region. For my dad, using a Rand McNally road atlas was for amateurs and potentially dangerous. To really be prepared one had to use a Geeshee map and know how to read it properly. You not only were required to know the proper map reading skills, (more about that later) but almost as important was the unfolding and folding of these type maps, a procedure that was as frustrating as it was treacherous, dad often showed off his superior skill of opening, reading and re-folding a geeshee map while driving. But Uncle Bob's using the Rand McNally was cause for ridicule and insult by my dad, expressing disbelief about how Uncle Bob could ever get anywhere using a Rand McNally.

Dad in all his infinite wisdom came up with a solution to help Uncle Bob find his way 500 miles using an inferior map. Dad came up with "Balloon Time", a ritual we performed 3 or 4 times a day in the car. Whenever we would change a highway, make a turn-off, pass a landmark or cross state lines, mom would blow up a balloon and I would let it go out the window of our speeding car. Often without warning dad would yell out, "balloon time!" and the ritual began, my mom patiently putting up with the silliness since it kept me occupied and interested for 5 minutes. To me this was a task of great importance, crucial to Uncle Bob reaching Estes Park successfully. I would stick the balloon out the window and let it flap in the wind a few seconds before letting it go. We would watch as it was carried by the wake of the car and drifted, ideally by the left side of the road so Uncle Bob could see it. By leaving this symbolic breadcrumb trail for Uncle Bob this was reassurance that following the roadside markers of balloons they would make it to Estes Park without getting lost.

However, I never understood why Uncle Bob and my cousins always got to the ranch before we did.


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Friday, April 4, 2008

Tradition

One day, I found out we were all going to drive to Estes Park, Colorado, wherever that is. We were going to take my grandmothers car, an Oldsmobile Delta 88, because for some reason our red Mustang wasn't good enough, and my Gammy was going to be in Estes Park when we got there and she wanted to use the car, so we would drive it there, let her use it and drive it back. So me, my mom and dad were going to take a "Big Bye Bye" to Colorado.

We were going to a ranch and be cowboys, live like the real cowboys did in a cabin and ride horses. We were going to some place called a "dude ranch" and the name of it was Wind River Ranch, high in the Rocky Mountains. But to get there we were going to drive, it would take a long time since up to now my frame of reference for driving distance was going to the market with mom, or "little bye byes" to visit with my cousins in Hollywood, or a day trip in Palm Springs. But this was a BIG bye bye and would take a long time spending many days in the car going hundreds of miles. We were going to eat in the car and stay in motels along the way and we were going to see many wonderful things along the way that I had no concept at the time were interesting or not, in fact I had no idea what we were getting into for the next 40 years.

I was too young to have any responsibility of packing and preparing for the trip, I was just coming along. The packing and planning was up to my mom and dad, and it seemed like mom was a little unhappy about the whole thing. But dad was all into it. The day before the trip, when things were probably the most hectic, it became an annual tradition before the trip for many years to come, to take out a selected collection of 45's (the little vinyl records with the big hole) and play them for hours, and dance to a couple of the favorite songs. The main song of the collection was "A Summers Place" by Percy Faith and his Orchestra. This was the theme song for the trip since we started the 'big bye byes" during the Summer and Estes Park became our Summers place. On the flip side of "Summers Place" was a happy little instrumental song called "Go Go a Pogo" Which was really fun to hop around and dance to. Dad and I would dance so vigorously that we would shake the house and sometimes break things. Another important theme song vital to the musical tradition was "Baby the Rain Must Fall" by Glenn Yarborough, a very masculine and inspirational song that expressed the true spirit of the big bye bye and was the official theme song for my dad and all he stood for and believed in. This song more than others was the personality of the big bye bye. Some of the other songs we would play was "Transfusion" by Nervous Norvous, a cheap 50's novelty song about crazy drivers getting into accidents and needing blood transfusions due to injuries caused by reckless driving habits. I guess this was a cautionary tale meant to set the tone for expert driving talents my dad claimed to have above all the other drivers on the road, and we were sure to encounter all of them. There was "Downtown" and "I Know a Place" by Petula Clark, and the theme from "Mondo Cane" which was fun to pretend you were riding a horse to. "Walk on the Wild Side" was a cool movie theme song that had 2 versions on each flip side of the 45, I can remember the label artwork for each specific record and since I couldn't read that was how I kept track and knew which record I wanted to play.
Mom was always annoyed at this ritual and stayed far away, probably because it was a way for my dad to avoid work and also motivated him to act a little crazy. This was my dads tradition, this was his "big bye bye" and this was the official start of our Summer vacations.




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