Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Summers on Wheels: part two

When I had my own family, summer car vacations were more about the journey than the destination. We stopped often along the way and discovered all sorts of surprises. But another reason for long meandering car trips was the many lemon cars we owned. The kids will never forget our “Fred Flintstone” VW 411 – they had to keep their legs up on the seat in the back because there was a hole in the floor, where they watched the road roll by.

Once my husband and I visited the Montreal Worlds Fair in a car that barely did 20 mph on hills – and we had to drive through the Adirondacks! On the way home on a Sunday night, we couldn’t find an open gas station. We ran out of gas on the Northway near midnight as huge tractor-trailers whizzed by. A kindly truck driver stopped and drove us to a small town gas station he knew, then proceeded to wake up the proprietor to pump us gas, which was probably under $1/gallon back then.

But our most memorable adventure was spending a night sleeping in one of our junkier cars in an upstate New York gas station. After the mechanic got it running and we were on the way home, the car conked out for good and we hitched hiked on Route 17 with the three little ones. A man who was moving from Binghamton to Poughkeepsie – his car packed with possessions – picked us up. Enroute we witnessed a nasty motorcycle accident and just avoided running over the victims. After stopping to help, we barely made it to Poughkeepsie in time to catch the last train to NYC. We arrived in Harlem at midnight and walked across 125th Street to get the subway home.

Still later, I took many trips on wheels with my daughter Lisa. We traveled back from the Florida Keys along Route 1 - stopping at Cape Kennedy; driving through rice paddies, sometimes via ferries, in the Carolinas; and discovering the outerbanks and Kitty Hawk along the way. When we explored the back roads of Maine, we came across a Mama moose and her baby. Lisa and I had many wonderful California adventures on wheels. Each road presents a more magnificent vista - earthquake tortured rock formations; Dr. Seuss-like Joshua Trees in the desert; breathtaking mountain views; tarantulas crossing the road on a back route out of Death Valley; and of course, the Pacific Coast Highway PCH 1, with its unobstructed view of the Pacific.

For us, it’s all about the journey.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Summers on Wheels: part one

Many of our summer vacations were spent in the family car. My Dad always had a well-planned itinerary in mind. He would pack my Mom and the 3, 4, and then 5 kids in the car – no seat belts or A/C in those days – and off we’d go for two weeks of adventure. It’s funny the memories that stick. Like the accident we had in Erie, PA when a car’s brakes failed and plowed into us at an intersection. Or the trip to Cleveland, OH that resulted in a pen pal relationship with one of my distant Hungarian cousins. Or meeting another Hungarian cousin, Tibi, a gifted commercial artist in Ottawa, Canada.

We took a long trip one year to St. Petersburg, FL to visit my Aunt Helen; I can still taste those Hungarian crepes she made. On the way, we stopped at cabins or the early version of motels. I remember one evening in the 1950’s on the lawn of a South Carolina motel. I was listening to a conversation about segregation that my Dad and the motel owner were having. His argument for “white only” motels was that integrated motels would lead to interracial marriage. He pointed at me – “You wouldn’t want your little girl to marry a colored boy!” And at my tender age, I just couldn’t understand how a motel that welcomed all races could lead to my marriage; I couldn’t even imagine getting married! Later I noticed the separate hospital entrances and water fountains – “Whites only”. It made an impression and seemed strange, sad to me.

Those trips were so educational. Geography comes alive when you actually set foot in a capital city. My love of maps began on those trips. Having grown up in New York City, the other “big” cities of states paled in comparison. “This is a city?” was my reaction. But I discovered that each city was unique – like Charleston, SC so beautiful and clean, and Lexington, KY with its wonderful horse farms. When we finally made it to Florida, after several nights in sweltering cabins, I was so looking forward to a swim in the Gulf of Mexico. To my disappointment, it was not refreshing at all – more like soaking in a hot tub! Another disappointment – I so wanted to see the legendary Fountain of Youth that led Ponce de Leon to St. Augustine, FL. When we arrived, it cost too much money for the whole family to visit, so we just stared at the gates. I made up for this with my credit cards when I took my grown up vacations many years later.

At some point during every summer car vacation, we kids would get on Dad’s nerves (how many games of license plates can you play!) and he would scream at us, threaten beatings when he stopped the car, and vow “No more vacations!” Lucky for us, it never came to pass. And the next year, we’d be off on another adventure.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Summer in the Country

Just got back from a week in the New Jersey countryside at the home of my son and his family. Walking along the rural roads with my grandson Sam took me back to my long ago summers in the country, starting when I was about five or six. My grandparents and great aunt Kiki treated me – and later my younger sister Kathy – to a few weeks at a farm in Ellenville and a resort in Calicoon, New York. Many years later, one of our lemon cars actually broke down on the Route 17 exit for Ellenville. That was the time that we hitched a ride with the three kids and had many adventures along the way – but that’s another story.

At the farm, we played with the young farm kids, William and Francis. One of the games was leaping over the trap door in the hayloft; of course I fell through and was knocked out momentarily. Another great game was chasing the pigs when they got loose. Although there was no TV in those days, we never lacked for entertainment. We took daily walks along the road, where we would find lizards and wild flowers. In the evenings we played rolls of melodies on the player piano and had sing-a-longs. We even spent many hours writing and performing little plays. Kids haven’t changed all that much. Just last week, my grandkids, Marina, Chase and Sierra performed in 3 plays, written by their home school friends. I am happy to report that talent has grown remarkably in our family since the plays of my youth.

While I was in New Jersey last week we went to the Warren County Fair. It was great fun, especially the Demolition Derby. And I realize that part of my childhood country summers must have included a trip to the fair. I remember clearly wanting a special prize at a festival in the country – a Bambi stuffed animal, perched atop all the other prizes. My grandfather tried all evening to win it for me. Checking to see if it was still there, I discovered that it was gone. I was heartbroken until my grandfather came along with my Bambi tucked under his arm; he did it! Again, grandkids have not changed over the years - at every fair or theme park, they are lured by the games that promise stuffed animal prizes.

Home cooked country dinners were part of the farm vacation experience, a big draw for my grandmother and aunt. I guess Grandmas haven’t changed all that much either. One evening, the dinner menu was hot dogs and potato chips. Well, we kids were delighted. Needless to say, my grandmother was not amused and that ended our summer stays at Ellenville.