Transformative Travel- Kids’ Greatest Education Family Road Trip 1962

My parents and grandparents, all teachers, believed in education, but the best schooling I received was from the smudged windowpanes of our used 1962 Rambler station wagon when we left our Midwestern flatlands for the summer trips across the Wild West and sun-baked south. The best book I ever read was the one I wrote in my mind, as we crisscrossed the endless blue highways of America.

Most families would never attempt to take four children five years apart anywhere in the car, but my parents loved to travel and my grandparents, having survived the Depression, developed a habit of saving money only to indulge their grandchildren.

“Turn left at the next intersection,” Dad would say.

“Reckon it’s right,” Grandpa would argue.

“I’d go straight,” my nine-year-old brother said, studying the map as navigator. My sisters and I thought he was spoiled because he got the front seat.

We turned left. Then hung a U and turned right. Finally we followed my brother’s suggestion and got back on track. While my brother resolved arguments in the front seat, my sisters and I  bickered in the back seat that faced backwards until dad yelled, “Stop that squabbling or I’ll make you walk home.”

Four thousand miles forced us to be creative. We smoked candy cigarettes behind our plastic sunglasses and waved at truck drivers. We invented names for the inhabitants of the houses we passed, told knock-knock jokes and made up songs.

We learned to survive without air conditioning by sucking ice cubes and sticking our bare feet out the back window and how to hold our needs by crossing our legs.

Like all children we had an innate curiosity until an adult interfered. Whenever we passed a famous site, Dad would command, “Sit up and look girls, we are passing Mt. Everest (Lake Tahoe or whatever.)” That is how I missed seeing most of America’s greatest wonders. Out of simple rebellion at authority, I refused to look up from my Archie comic books.

After we completed our 300-mile daily quota, Dad let us study the Mobile Guide Book and find the cheapest motel with a swimming pool. The next day, like little tin soldiers, we were dressed, packed and in the car by the 8:00 hour departure time. Lunch was a soggy baloney and cheese sandwich from the big, red ice chest. Dinner, a hamburger and fries, in a family diner.

Later as adults, we would forget the impact of seeing the Grand Canyon or the Great Sequoias, but we remembered the color of the underwear that flew across the highway when our luggage fell off the rack and the name of the town where we accidentally left Susie in the gas station restroom.

My grandparents instilled a wanderlust and though I missed the significance of Mt. Rushmore and Cape Canaveral, I understood more about my country than the textbooks divulged. Our trip to the Deep South left a far greater lasting impression than Disneyland or the Hollywood Studios.

“How come the Negroes live in shacks?” I asked with the innocence of a seven-year-old.

“Because they are so poor.”

“Why are they so poor?”

“Because they don’t have any land.”

“Hey, I see lots of land,” I said pointing towards a sprawling plantation with stately white pillars. “The whole town could fit in that house; it’s bigger than a hotel!”

At Piney Woods School, where my grandparents volunteered to teach after their retirement, my brother and I played basketball with the black boys on a dirt court in a sun-baked paradise surrounded by pine and honey-scented pink and white magnolias. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

“Isn’t it great how well they get along?” my dad asked.

“If only we could remain children in our hearts,” my grandma replied.

As we piled suitcases on top of the Rambler to head back North, a young girl peeked behind her big sister’s cotton skirt to stare at the first white family she’d ever seen.

sisters-at-Piney-Woods

sisters and new friends at Piney-Woods

“Schootch together,” Grandma said, “so I can take your picture.”

I stood by my new friend and beamed as the camera clicked.  Then I reached over and took her soft, brown hand in mine. It fit just perfect.

Photographs of my childhood remain etched in my soul forever.  Just as my grandma had hoped, I remained a child in my heart, befriending people from all four corners of the globe in my international community in Switzerland where I now teach.

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47 Comments

  1. How marvelous, to continue having the purity of a child, even today. You make your grandmother proud, and I am honored to have been on your journey with you. Wonderful post.

    P.S. My mom had a Rambler, too! It seemed “cool” at the time that the seats went all the way back!

  2. Patty, this is so touching.I love how you held your new friend’s hand. In just a few words you have captured a time gone by and made it come to life– the people, the scenes, the injustices, and the heart of a child, which I know you still have. I always feel so uplifted and entertained when I read your stories!

  3. Pat, I felt as if I was right there in the back seat with you and your siblings! My sis and I used to draw an imaginary line down the middle of the seat, and woe to her who crossed it. My poor dad usually drove while mama played navigator (and referee!). Fun times, huh? Sometimes I wonder how we ever got grown, ha! Thanks for the memories.

  4. What a great post, Pat. Enjoyed your journey – your internal one and the one with your family. I remember those soggy baloney and cheese sandwiches, too.

    • Thanks, Pam. Do you think with all the fast food places available that families still bring along the big red cooler and picnic lunches when they travel?

  5. Oh yes those wonderful family trips in the station wagon. I thought that seat facing backwards was so cool until I rode in it for an entire day! And then there’s my oldest brother who somehow had motion sickness so he got to ride in the front seat much of the time. Hmmm!! But I would never trade those memories. The driving trips with my husband and children (without DVD players or Gameboys) have resulted in some of our favorite vacation moments. I still prefer that over just hopping on a plane and reaching our destination.

    • Oh yes, Jean, you remember the days. How long do think kids today would survive on a road trip without DVD, electronic gadgets, AC and fastfood?

  6. Lovely story Pat! Thanks for reminding me of our long trips to see our maternal grandparents – a 300 mile journey from SW to SE England. I remember being woken at 4am and then rolling around in the back area of a huge Volkswagon with my twin and older sister, whilst my two older brothers had proper seats. I lay on my back and counted the dots on the roof for hours, and if we crossed our eyes the dots came off the roof and became 3D. A real gadget-free, yogic visualisation time! Ha ha… those long travel days have given me the wanderlust too – here I am in Australia! Miss you fellow writer and educator, love Rach xx

    • What a brilliant memory you have Rachael. Dots on the roof of the car that turned 3D when you crossed you eyes. You do have an eye for detail. No wonder you are a writer,too, and no wonder we felt on the same wave length, even though when it came to dancing I had 2 left feet. Hope they are treating you & the girls right Down Under.Bisou dear long distance buddy.

  7. I lived in Jackson, Miss. for 5 years and never heard of the Piney Woods School. How wonderful of your grandparents to have taught there and for you to have shared the experience with them. Great story, thanks for sharing.

    • Connie, how old were you when you lived in Jackson? Piney Woods was started in 1909 and is about 20 miles south of Jackson and the school has 125 students.

  8. I lived in Jackson, Miss. for 5 years and never heard of the Piney Woods School. How wonderful of your grandparents to have taught there and for you to have shared the experience with them. Great story, thanks for sharing.

  9. Very descriptive and lovely piece about a different time and place! We also had a Rambler but I got car sick sitting backwards in the “way back” as we called it!

    I’m glad you reminded me that we were looking at Archie comics instead of “the vantage” as my dad said when we made our cross-country trip. It makes me feel better about my kids sometimes buried in their text messages when we travel.

    • Oh yes, Judy, traveling today is a whole different ball games with electronics to replace the comic books. But no matter we may think at the time, travel always helps families bond and creates memories that last forever. We just may not remember the same thing as the kids.

  10. I loved your post, Pat! I would have been that same girl grumbling about riding in a car with my brother and refusing to look at a landmark just to spite my parents. And oh yes, we also had that invisible line down the center of the seat. And I would have had Archie comics with me. I love the lessons your parents and grandparents taught you, which you in turn have passed on to your daughter. Your family is good people, Pat.

    • Thanks, Helene. I bet that just like me, you were making up stories in your head on those long, family road trips. At what age did you start writing?

  11. I loved your post, Pat! I would have been that same girl grumbling about riding in a car with my brother and refusing to look at a landmark just to spite my parents. And oh yes, we also had that invisible line down the center of the seat. And I would have had Archie comics with me. I love the lessons your parents and grandparents taught you, which you in turn have passed on to your daughter. Your family is good people, Pat.

    • Thanks, Helene. I bet that just like me, you were making up stories in your head on those long, family road trips. At what age did you start writing?

  12. Once a year, we drove from Cypress, CA to Lehi, UT to visit my mom’s family. We did this before interstate 15 was finished, and it took two days. We stopped in St. George. We obviously did not have portable DVD players, Kindles, Game Boys, iPods, etc. We played games like “look for licence plates from other states” or “I spy with my little eye.” And when we got rowdy, mom would give a nickel to the winner of the “quiet game.” (I always was the first one out.) So when my kids tell me they are bored in the car, I start telling stories akin to “walking to school uphill in the snow…both ways!” Thanks for the retro post about travel!

    • Too funny! We played the same car games and I, too, have told many stories “akin to walking to school uphill in the snow…both ways!” I like to think that all my storytelling made them more creative.

  13. Wonderful memories, and you’ve made me not feel quite so bad that my daughter often refuses to look up from her book or movie when we point out the sights.

  14. All children, all the differences in people – skin color, freckles, leg braces – all a cause for innocent curiosity. So sad that later it can be turned to hate/fear.

    Funny about you missing the national landmarks because you were going to spite your dad. Oh, those Ramblers, I always wished we’d had one.

    • Yes, so true that innocent curiosity of children turns into hatred in adulthood because we often fear what we do not understand. I have been blessed with the friendships of people of all colors and nationalities. Ah yes, Beverly, the Rambler was quite the ride back in the day.

  15. All children, all the differences in people – skin color, freckles, leg braces – all a cause for innocent curiosity. So sad that later it can be turned to hate/fear.

    Funny about you missing the national landmarks because you were going to spite your dad. Oh, those Ramblers, I always wished we’d had one.

    • Yes, so true that innocent curiosity of children turns into hatred in adulthood because we often fear what we do not understand. I have been blessed with the friendships of people of all colors and nationalities. Ah yes, Beverly, the Rambler was quite the ride back in the day.

  16. Sue’s story of being left at the gas station has always been one of my favorites! 🙂
    Sheila

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