By nature I am a bit of a homebody. Left to myself I’d never leave home. Well, except for trips to the grocery store, Starbucks or any number of lumberyards, hardware stores and quilt shops. But generally, I like being home.
My mother was the opposite and had a wanderlust that was unquenchable. I doubt there is a place in the United States she hasn’t seen. She also traveled in Europe, Mexico, and parts of Africa. She had this ability to get behind the wheel of a car and drive for 12 or 14 hours without getting tired.
When I was a child my parent’s marriage had problems. Father drank a lot and the pair of them argued all the time – well, anytime Father came home. By the time I was six Father had stopped taking us on family vacations. Mother couldn’t just give up traveling so she’d save up money and just after school was out she’d pack up me and my two brothers and off we’d go in an old beat-up 1963 Chevy station-wagon.
I suspect we looked more like a family out of the pages of Grapes of Wrath than a middle class family out for a bit of summer fun. Mostly we camped as hotels and motels were too expensive for our limited budget. We had clean clothes and plenty to eat, but our equipment was mostly army surplus. The tent was a heavy canvas thing that would look more at home in a World War I army camp. Cooking pots were mostly from the Goodwill and even the stove was at least 20 years old. It was hard to light and once lit, hard to turn off and had a tendency to flare up from time to time.
In that old car, we’d set out around four in the morning for an adventure with mother. Over the years she had us boys in every state west of the Mississippi River and we’d camped in almost all the National Parks, a fair number of State Parks and lots of KOA camps. Her favorite though, was the great south-west and I’ve been in more desert country than forest.
There is nothing like the view of Monument Valley, The Badlands, or Bryce and Zion Canyons. Such memories always come back to me as the weather turns from Spring to Summer.
Try to imagine the scene. It’s 1968 and you’re camped with your regulation family of Mom, Dad and 2.5 kids in your newish car with modern camping gear. Perhaps you have a nice camera, some toys for the kids, and a new bag of marshmallows for the campfire. Then just about sunset this old wreak of a car pulls into the campsite next to you and out steps an overweight woman in her late thirties. She starts surveying the site as a boy about fifteen opens the back of the station wagon and begins hauling out old cardboard boxes, and canvas bags.
From the top of the pile of a boy about eight jumps out and starts carrying things to the table. The last person out is a handicapped boy who doesn’t look very stable on his feet, shuffling rather than walking and only having the use of one arm. As the scene unfolds you can’t be sure if the woman is brave or crazy.
The older boy in this scene is my brother Bill. He has cerebral palsy and has little control over the right side of his body. He can walk and loves camping. He’s the mechanic of the outfit and has fixed the car on more than one occasion. The fifteen year-old is my brother Rick. He’s on the track team in high school, excels in math and has an active imagination. I was the eight year-old. When we would pack the car, we’d roll out a sleeping bag on top of all the camping gear and I’d crawl up into my little nest to watch the world out the back window.
We rarely stayed in the same place for more than one or two nights and we had a well rehearsed routine for camping. Mother did the cooking and dish washing. Rick and I setup the camp – unloading the car, pitching the tent, setting up bedding and getting the temperamental stove working. We’d fetch water, forage for wood for the campfire and I’d climb over every rock or small boulder I could find.
It wasn’t uncommon for one of the nearby campers seeing us to come over and offer help. Often a husband in the next camp sent by a concerned wife. Sometimes they’d share food, firewood or a bag of marshmallows. Just as often these Good Samaritans realized that we boys knew how to light that lantern or stove they’d been struggling with and either Rick, or I, would be dispatched to help.
In the morning, usually early, we’d reverse the process and Rick and I would breakdown camp while mother cooked, and Bill checked the oil, radiator and tires before we hit the road looking for the next adventure.
One adventure I remember was in Northern California. I don’t remember exactly where, but we were traveling from Mount Lassen to Mount Shasta. We were driving down this winding road just above a small river when I heard Mother and Bill exchange worried words.
Soon we were parked in a little turn out and Bill had his head in the engine. Even at eight I knew it was a hole in the radiator hose and the engine was overheating. We were some 60 or 70 miles from the nearest town – I know that because I was sent to read the maps and check the AAA guide books. Yes, I could read a map before I could balance a check book. You had to, if you were driving with mother and her natural ability to get lost.
There were no phones and we hadn’t seen another car since daylight. We weren’t certain that the highway patrol ever drove this way so we came up with a little plan. It was weird, because I don’t remember any of us discussing it – we just did it. Bill found a roll of electrical tape and got an old rag and sealed up the leak best he could. Then Rick and I gathered up all the canteens we had, and made our way down to the river. We refilled the radiator and canteens.
After the engine was cooled, we all piled back in the car. I kept checking the map, Rick kept an eye out for good places to get to the river and mother drove with two hands locked in a death grip on the steering wheel. Bill would watch the dashboard and would call out, “Too hot,” when the temp gage went into the red.
Then the emergency drill would start. Rick would point out a good place to turn out, I’d try to figure out how much further we had to go and mother remained quiet and stoic. When we’d pulled off the road, we’d have to wait awhile for the engine to cool enough to open the radiator cap before we could start to refill it. Rick and I would make two trips to fill canteens while Bill did what he could to shore up his patch.
It took hours, but just about four in the afternoon, we came to a small town with a gas station. You know, one of those 1960’s stations that did everything for a car – gas, tires, repairs and wash your windows for 30 cents a gallon. The man who came out to check on us, must have been the owner and he was clearly taken aback by what he saw.
Mother explained the problem as the man looked in the engine. He asked who had done the patch and was more than surprised when Bill shuffled around and claimed responsibility. Rick and I were always the foragers (and always hungry) and naturally asked in there was coke or candy machine nearby. The man pointed towards the back of the station where the pair of us soon head off to, counting our spare change and calculating how many Cokes we could get.
The coke machine turn out to be an antique one from the 40’s and at first we weren’t sure how to get the bottles out. Yup, Coke from a machine back then came in bottles, not cans. I don’t know how long we stood there, but the man appeared, took out a key and opened up the machine saying, “Here ya boys, get one for everybody.”
We didn’t need much encouragement, we grabbed four bottles and were off back to the car. I recall going back to the man later and offering him a handful of coins which he refused saying something like, “You get a free Coke with every tank of gas.”
It didn’t take too long and we had a brand new radiator hose. The man gave Bill a lesson in repairing radiator hoses and lectured Rick and I on how long we should let the engine cool before trying to put water in it. He suggested we stay at the local motel for the night and told us that the diner had great food.
Mother thanked him, paid the bill in cash and we all piled back in the car. We boys knew there wasn’t going to be a motel night or a meal in a diner. We all knew the campground, was fifteen miles down the road and AAA book said it had a small camp store.
And I still had 45 cents in my pocket. Coke, or a candy bar, or what if they have ice cream?
Till next week,