Summertime is when all sensible parents take long car trips with their children. At least they should. Yes, there is fighting and screaming and boredom, but it is absolutely worth it. The best trips I ever took with my own kids were car trips, the sort of journey that is underrated in this day of easy airline travel. You remember car trips. They stick with you because you are locked into a tight space with your family—for better or worse—for extended periods of time. My kids made me crazy when we were driving our white Suburban throughout America. The four of them, stuck for hours within inches of each other, would find anything and everything to fight about. But my kids will remember these trips for the rest of their lives.
In 1964, when I was a small child, we drove our sparkling white, aptly-named Chrysler New Yorker station wagon from Amarillo, Texas, to the New York World’s Fair. Spiffy for its time, the car had three rows of seats, with the back one facing outward. My parents sat up front and in the back were my brother Danny, five years my senior, and my sister Shelley, a couple of years older than Danny. As well, since my sister was a reluctant participant in this venture, our father allowed her to bring her best friend, Malee Miller. Olive skin, very pretty, 15 years old. And that was just fine with Danny and me.
We all wanted to sit in the far back since, horribly, our parents smoked in the closed car with the air conditioning going. Hard to imagine today, but what did we know? We just suffered through it and pleaded with them to open the windows now and then. I loved sitting in that third row in my private space, although I hated making eye contact with the drivers behind us. One day I found a box of large cotton pads and pulled one out and rubbed it all over my face. When Shelley saw me, she burst out laughing and soon the whole car was laughing uncontrollably. It was only years later that I found out that I had been rubbing a Kotex pad all over myself.
Nothing much about our drive was planned, so when our dad was tired of driving, he would pull over at the first decent-looking motel. About half the time, we would get lucky and there would be an orange-roofed Howard Johnson’s, my favorite. The restaurants had good hamburgers and great ice cream. Near the front registers were machines with prizes in circular plastic containers. I would beg for a couple of dimes and quarters to see what I could win.
Danny and I were excited when we pulled into the Mickey Mantle Motel in Joplin, Missouri, but were let down when the only tie to the great hitter were some rather bland paraphernalia in the lobby. So much for hype. They did have a nice pool and as boys there was distraction enough watching Malee walk about in her two-piece swimsuit.
I remember exactly two things about being in New York. First, we went to see the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall, which was the first live show I had seen and was quite a dazzling event. Next, the World’s Fair was generally a let-down, but they did have some cool machines. In one, you inserted a penny and a quarter, and it smashed the penny around until it had an imprint of the World’s Fair logo on it. The other machine took a square of colored plastic and right before your eyes turned it into a toy dinosaur. I still remember the smell of melting plastic as it was transformed.
Driving back home was not as fun as starting out, since the excitement of heading to a destination is always the better half of a trip. Our dad, an impatient man, had driven us to New York in a leisurely way, but coming home he was all business. I wanted that trip to last forever. It was perfect having my mom and dad together along with my much-loved sister and brother. And traveling with the exquisite Malee Miller was something that I would remember with sweet nostalgia for the rest of my life. Certainly much more than all those educational exhibits at the World’s Fair.