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.
“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.