I was watching a guy load his two kids in his SUV the other day at the mall. He helped them into the back seat and made sure they buckled up. He watched as one pulled down the video screen from the ceiling, put on his Wi-fi enabled noise-canceling headphones, and started watching a movie. The other one took out a tablet and began playing a video game. Dad smiled at his children and carefully closed the back door. He hopped in front, buckled up, started the engine, cranked up the air, and off they went.
This reminded me so much of the car trips we took when I was a kid. It was exactly the same for me and my brother. Except for the back seat, the seat belts, the video monitor, the headphones, and the tablet. That’s not entirely true. When my dad traded in his ’57 Belair for a ’63 VW Beetle, one of us had to sit in the back seat.
We didn’t have those huge bench seats you could lie down on. This was one of the few things my brother and I didn’t argue about. He enjoyed sitting upfront. I liked sitting in the back. Unless Mom was with us. Then my brother was in the back seat with me. Which was okay going to the grocery store, but on luxurious family vacations, not so much.
Oh yeah, and the air conditioner. Our air conditioner was all four windows rolled all the way down. This created a 70mph crosswind that could suck a small puppy out the window. It also occasionally sucked a cigarette butt back in the window when one of my parents tossed it out the front window and it came right back in the rear. Fun times.
I didn’t miss air conditioners because, mostly, I didn’t know what they were. We didn’t have one in our home. It could get into triple digits in the summer in Georgia. I love listening to people whine today about the seven-second walk from their home to their cars in the summer. The only place there was air conditioning was at the grocery store, where a sticker in the window promised it was Kool Inside!
And the uproar when they leave a child in the car at the store. My dad had a tough choice. Take us in the grocery with him, so we could run up and down the aisles rampaging the locals and dump produce on the floor. Or leave us in the car where we would change every button, dial, and crank in the car. Did we get hot? Yes, it was summer in Georgia. Did we live?
I mentioned the luxurious vacations. When my wife and I were younger and poorer, a vacation was driving to Panama City in Florida. But within a few years, we were flying across the country or taking cruises. When our daughter was 16, we took her on our first Caribbean cruise. When I was 16, we drove to Jekyll Island. I was eight before we took our first real vacation, staying in a motel. I remember someone asking was there a difference between a hotel and a motel. Trust me. There’s a difference.
I know we were eight (we were twins) because that was the last trip we took in the old Chevy. This was a vacation to Lookout Mountain. About 150 miles away, practically another country. I’m sure you’ve done the math. 150 miles at interstate speeds in 1963, about two hours. Well, that would be on the interstate. My dad liked to take the ‘scenic route.’ We lived in the suburbs of Atlanta. There were woods all around us. I had seen pine trees before. There was nothing scenic about this trip. Except for the endless See Rock City signs. That’s where we were going.
You know road trips today. Plenty of bottled water (what the hell’s that?) and snacks, in addition to the games and videos. We had no food, no water, and some comic books. You couldn’t eat or drink in the car. You might make a mess or spill something. I would hate to think about dropping potato chip crumbs onto the ratty floor mats already coated with cigarette ash. Anyway, they loaded us up in the back with our comic books, warned us to never ask how long until we get there and off we went.
I’m glad we had the Chevy. Because you didn’t get a bathroom break until we had to stop for gas. If we were in the VW, I’d still be holding it. But stop we did, somewhere near Ringgold, Georgia. My dad at the back, watching the attendant pump gas in the tank behind the license plate, smoking a cigarette. Apparently no one had put together the fumes and ignition source algorithm, much less thought to put stickers on the pumps warning you not to drink the gas.
My brother and I discovered this magical place called Stuckey’s. If you don’t know or remember Stuckey’s, they were a chain of stores that were all over the southeast in the sixties. They were unique at the time in that they also sold gas. Back then, you couldn’t buy anything in a gas station but a quart of oil.
Stuckey’s originated as a pecan stand and that was the mainstay of their business. You can still find their pecan logs in grocery stores occasionally. A roll of crushed pecans over a center of nougat. I’m 65 years old, and I still don’t know what the hell nougat is. Anyway, think of the lobby of a Cracker Barrel and you’ve pretty much got Stuckey’s.
We finally piled back in the Chevy with candy and our new toys. A wooden pop gun for my brother and an actual leather bullwhip for me. I don’t know what my parents were thinking. An hour later, my dad pointed and announced, there it is Lookout Mountain. We both looked but saw nothing.
We grew up less than ten miles from Stone Mountain and went there frequently as kids. It cost nothing to get in and there were no rides or attractions. Just a big chunk of granite rising out of the ground. In our minds, that’s what a mountain looked like. What my dad was pointing to was just a big hill covered in pine trees.
Miffed at our indifference, he drove on to our motel, parked in front of our door, and dragged all our crap inside. Two twin beds for the four of us. Fun times. But it had air conditioning! This big box under the window that sounded like a freight train and blew cold air and cigarette smoke all around the tiny room. The next morning, we had breakfast at the hotel diner and drove the few miles to Lookout Mountain and Rock City.
Disneyland, in California, opened a month or two before we were born. By the time we were in our early teens, Six Flags had sprouted all over the country. But we had Rock City and later Stone Mountain. Instead of building a park full of rides and amusements, back then they just took some natural resource and hung crap all over it. There was the Enchanted Trail, which was a path through the woods. There was Lover’s Leap, where we were disappointed that no one actually lept. There was Lookout Point where you could see seven states. All we saw were pine trees. But finally, there was the swinging bridge.
This was a rope and wood slat bridge that spanned a deep canyon between two hills. And believe me, two eight-year-olds could make that thing swing. I don’t think we lost anybody that day, be we tried.
I remember little of the rest of that trip or the drive home. Maybe we were too exhausted or maybe the prospect of more pine trees just didn’t get my attention. But that was a road trip back in the day. No seat belts, no food or water, no air conditioning. And we lived to tell about it.
I wonder whatever happened to my bullwhip.