51 years ago, my Mom loaded her three sons into our brand-new Chevy station wagon and lit out from Virginia to California to Michigan and back. Maw called it 62 days under canvas.
Last summer I put together this blog to mark the 50th anniversary. I’d intended it to be nostalgic. Now that the world is where it is, this has taken on all-new significance — the great outdoors, exploring new cultures, lots of personal interaction. Nostalgic indeed.
It’s is a day-by-day recounting of the nine week trip, including excerpts from Maw’s diary (with permission), old-timey paper maps and AAA tour books, as well as photos and impressions of those who were transported and transformed.
Note: This is NOT a new road trip. It is a recounting of the one that happened 50 years ago.
No rain ‘til we’re loaded! Then it poured on the Pa turnpike. Had pancakes in Youngstown. Got home at 4:15. Great place and Jim had it all cleaned up and lots of goodies to eat.
Marge Binder, August 16, 1969
This passage reads like a movie climax: a race towards home, battling every mile against the Family’s travel nemesis — the Pennsylvania Turnpike (though there’s always time for pancakes!) — resolving in the warm glow of Dad’s tidy largesse. We are home at last with “goodies to eat.”
It was a fun and fulfilling 62+ days, both back in 1969 and here in 2019, constructing this blog.
A Few Words with Mom
Mom and I talked a lot about the trip when I visited her last week at our place on Lake Michigan. Here’s a bit of that, shot with the SHAKIEST selfie stick I could find.
There’s one question I forgot to ask Mom in this interview: “We’re you worried about anything on this trip?” So I just asked her on the phone. She thought about it just a few seconds and said, “Nope.” She talked about the new car and her skills with the tent. When I probed a bit, she didn’t back down. “Nope, I knew we’d be fine.”
Loaded up and got started about 9:30. Ate cheese sandwiches on the way and reached Youngstown about 5. Set up and “built ourselves a tommy ache” of ice cream. Then swam.
Marge Binder, August 15, 1969
We camped at the same place every summer, right off exit 16 of the Ohio Turnpike: The Ohio Motel near the Pennseyvania border. It was mostly a campground, with a small and stately structure for those incapable of fending for their own shelter under canvas. Sad.
It had an arcade with the latest (and oldest) pinball machines, and we’d squander the spare change we’d earned for keeping quiet during that day’s drive.
The “‘tummy ache’ of ice cream” could be gotten at Fronz (sp?), a place that made its own ice cream and candy. It was in a strip mall a few miles down the road from the Turnpike. We stopped there pretty much every summer. The owner was a friendly guy, a stocky Wonka type, sans top hat and libretto, who remembered us and gave us tours of his operation. Impressive!
A rite of passage (that I’m sure I never even attempted) was to wolf down a Belly Buster, a massive sundae of some 10 or 20 scoops. Heck, it could have been 31, I can’t say. I’m sure Tim tried, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he succeeded one day.
In constructing this blog, I’ve not been able to unearth a single shred of evidence that Fronz ever existed. That is really sad.
Wait, have we learned nothing on this trip? I hope we waited an hour after the ice cream to take this swim.
We arrive home tomorrow, after 62 days away. Come back for an interview with the Marge Binder of MargeBindersEpicAdventure fame, as well as to share in some of the excellent feedback and accolades her trip received via this blog. Thank you for that!
Gran treated us to a big A&W lunch. Washed, washed my hair and packed some. Took Tim to the west gravel pit to fish and Mike and Doug to Crystal to swim.
Marge Binder, August 14, 1969
Mom prepares to head home to Virginia, but not without making it a full, fun day for us kids. Gran treated us to a “big A&W lunch” at the drive-in outside of town, now the site of a big gas station and travel center (check the video for more).
Ithaca: Then and Now
Mary and I visited Ithaca two days ago (August 12, 2019). We had hoped to bring Mom along for a first-person narrative of her history there, but time wasn’t on our side. Instead you get me, wandering about the streets, making the locals leery, and reliving my own stints of childhood there.
Check out the video below for one final look at some of Ithaca’s most treasured places, in my memory, including the A&W that no longer exists and the last time I saw Gran’s place.
As I was planning this brief tour of Ithaca, a few things aligned in my memory of the day of Gran’s funeral. As I observe in the video and earlier writings, Gran’s house was close by the funeral home, and it played a role in our summers there: she often walked over to say goodbye to friends.
As we carried Gran’s casket to the hearse in 1984, I looked over at her place one last time; it was already a ghost of what it had been. By now, I had spent days trying to keep it together, watching how Mom was conducting herself during this time. Now I could feel myself slipping. A few minutes later, as I rode with Tim and Mike in the procession to the gravesite, down Center Street towards the North Star Cemetery. As we passed the already-shuttered A&W just past the highway, that’s when I finally lost it. I had a good cry, stifled at first but then an all-out sob the rest of the way.
This feels like a nice way to say goodbye and move on towards home.
Went to Allen’s restaurant for pancakes. After lunch took the little guys to Jean Trask’s to swim. They loved it.
Marge Binder, August 13, 1969
Like most of the restaurants and small businesses Mom cites in her diary, Allen’s appears to have been forgotten like a rogue hashbrown slipping between the griddle and the fryer. But there is hope!
A few days ago we were visited here at the Lake by cousins Pam and Jen Trask, and Joan Zemmin. They had some serious intel on the fate of a very special place…
…The Polka Dot
Originally housed in a pre-fab shell just north of Ithaca proper, I went to the Polka Dot with Mom and Gran a number of times. We’d meet up with a tableful of ladies for a full-on coffee klatch that could drain a few urns and burn a full morning. What I remember most was the hard-earned dime one of them would leave on the table for the excellent service.
Thanks to the cousins’ insight we learned that the Polka Dot is now living its third incarnation, at least, now as an all-day restaurant with full bar going by the name of JJ Rubys. When Mary and I visited Ithaca yesterday (August 12, 2019) for an upcoming blog post, we stopped there for lunch. We were happy to learn that the Pure Michigan niceness is real at JJ Rubys, as is the sodium. Not a bad thing.
Aunt Margaret’s Place
Aunt Margaret made these chocolate cookies with a sweet, sour creamy dollop that were just the bomb.
She was married to Gran’s brother Dale. Uncle Dale passed away when I was very young, and Margaret and Gran remained like sisters forever after, truly. I would ride my bike over to her place on West North street to hang out on her back porch, especially if one of the cousins was passing through.
Among them were members of the Trask tribe I mentioned above. We had a nice reminisce about Aunt Margaret (aka Nonnie) and a few others, like Kim Trask. In Mom’s diary today, she references Kim’s mom, Jean, who did indeed have an awesome. Even in this socially mediated world. I’ve lost connection to Kim.
At the same time, I’ve reconnected with Mark Zemmin, a cousin for life and a best friend for a few days when we were kids tripping about Ithaca. Props to Facebook for that!
West Center Street & Hanners
West of the main drag are the stately Ithaca Fire House and what is now the Gratiot County Historical Society. The latter is housed in a home built in the 1880s. Back in my day, this home featured a little store called Hanners.
I remember a few times my brothers and I walked down to Hanners after dinner for penny candies and soda pop. It was a dark, tiny place — in my mind’s eye there is candlelight, but I doubt that. No question: it smelled like wood and sugar. There was also a rack of magazines, comic books down low, girlie mags up top.
We stopped by this area yesterday, during our visit to Ithaca; I’ll share some video in a later post — don’t wait up though.
Want to learn more about the area (and you should), Visit the Gratiot County Historical Society website. It’s a nice site with lots to dig into.
Ready to call Ithaca home?
Check out this nifty guide to everything you need to know about life in the seat of Gratiot County, Michigan.
Went to Alma. Took Tim and Mike to Dr. Williams. Mike is okay. Tim has a bad throat and had to have a shot. Caught up on Momma’s magazines.
Marge Binder, August 12, 1969
We took a drive up Highway 127 for a doctor’s appointment in Alma, the next town north. Old joke: “What do you do in Ithaca on a Saturday night? You go to Alma.” Yeah, that’s right. Tim sounds pretty bad, Mike is okay. And once again with this post, I am wondering why my presence has not been accounted for in a while. Hmm.
Since Mom is catching up on Gran’s magazines today, minus 50 years, I thought it’d be a good time to share some other relevant journalism and essays which have come to my attention in the past few weeks.
Ever heard of Garden & Gun magazine? You should, for so many reasons. Here’s their take on the perfect roadtrip soundtrack. A few spot on, a few curious, a few others. Enjoy!
Below, two guys traced every citation from a dozen or so books about travel (they’re not all roadtrips.) The level of OCB meticulousness puts my own 62-days obsession to shame. Fascinating!
Here’s another 50th anniversary story, this one about Elvis’s big comeback in Vegas. Amazing to look back at how much Las Vegas has changed in 50 years. It’s actually amazing to see how much that place changes in five weeks.
And finally, for today’s reading, here is The New York Times finally catching up with the crazy woke trend of celebrating anniversaries. Welcome to the game!
We are on Day 57 of Mom and her boys spending nearly every waking moment together. This the first time she cites any hint of acrimony (besides her ongoing trials with Sears). I hope it didn’t take too much of a toll.
Mike bought a “power sub” and we got back to Ithaca in the afternoon. Tim sick and the others cross.
With folks out of sorts, perhaps this is a good time to escape into an afternoon of movie watching.
Roadtripping Movies, Part 5: The Best
In the past few weeks I’ve revisited a few favorite films about roadtrips. You can click on the Movies & Books link to the left to find those posts. To catch you up, here are ones that have been covered:
Beavis and Butthead Do America
The Blues Brothers
Dumb and Dumber
Flirting with Disaster
The Great Race
Harold and Kumar go to White Castle
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World
Little Miss Sunshine
O Brother Where art Thou?
Smokey & the Bandit
The Sure Thing
Thelma & Louise
Y Tu Mama Tambien
Choosing my favorites was pretty easy, once I laid out a list of the 25-30 to be included. The Top 3 were there all along.
5. “Easy Rider” 1969
This is a no-brainer, like listing out the best presidents: George Washington just shows up there. I get that he was a statesman, a brilliant politician and a war hero. But he was also a bit of a pretentious bore, even by that era’s standards. It’s only when he meets up with Jack Nicholson do things get interesting. That applies to pretty much everything. Extra credit for this film’s release coinciding with our roadtrip. As you might remember from our July escapades, we too communed with some hippies.
4. “Rain Man” 1988
This one was late to the list, and I had a hard time writing commentary about it. It’s a good movie, maybe a little too sentimental in places. For sure, the road, car and destination are all central to the plot. So why doesn’t this feel like a roadtrip? Maybe this one looks great through the windshield, but you don’t smell the fuel or feel the pavement.
Or perhaps the Oscar-winning performances overshadow the simple romance of a roadtrip. It won four of the biggies (best picture, actor, director, screenplay). I don’t think the other 20 or so movies listed in this blog have four Oscar between them. For sure: “Kmart sucks.”
Wild Card: “The Shawshank Redemption” 1994
Wait, what? But they were in prison the whole time! Hear me out. The lure of the road is often born of routine and boredom, of feeling confined and trapped. In the case of Andy and Red, they had been hobbled for 30 years. Great quote from Red, riffing on Andy’s love of rocks: “Geology is the study of pressure and time. That’s all it really takes. Pressure and time.” What happens once that pressure escapes?
Andy “squares” his accounts and hits the great, wide open road — with the top down and the wind in his hair — and beelines to the Pacific coast of Mexico. Red follows a few years behind him, going Greyhound with the windows open and the sun in his face. They are delivered to Eden, and we want it to last forever.
“You get busy living, or you getting busy dying. That’s goddamn right.”
Shawshank might be the most perfect of roadtrip films.
3. “Midnight Run” 1988
In addition to this being among the best roadtrip movies ever, it’s also one of the best buddy pics as well. The chemistry between DeNiro and Grodin is surprisingly rich; thank God they didn’t try to reprise. Instead this is a one-off piece of pure fun, great storytelling and brilliant roadtripping from coast to coast. Final scene: Deniro stands on the curb at LAX, newly rich but unable to get a ride, “Looks like I’m walkin’!”
2. “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” 1987
Another buddy pic as the foundation of a roadtrip, this time with two legendary comedy acting who didn’t need to stretch to make this work. Five or six unforgettable sequences and lines (e.g., “Those aren’t pillows!”), as well as direction by John Hughes, helps this films stand up to time. In fact, we screened it last Thanksgiving for a multi-generational audience to rapt attention — until the last scene. In its Hughes-ian way of blending warm light, longing looks and an alt-80s ballad, it always felt a bit much. The youngsters agreed, groaning “that’s pretty cheesy.” Okay, but Neal and Del deserved some cheese.
1. “National Lampoon’s Vacation” 1983
Two reasons for calling this the #1 roadtrip film: It’s about a family, as opposed to a buddy film, and it aspires to be no more than a silly roadtrip film — no lessons, no mission, no purpose. Clark & Co. just want to ride rides at their favorite amusement park. Along the way they encounter a series of unpredictable but mostly familiar tropes: urban crime, crazy extended families, an empty dog leash on the bumper, a mad aunt’s corpse tied to the roof of the car, urine-soaked cheese sandwiches, hot blondes in convertibles, and so on.
Written by John Hughes and directed by Harold Ramis, the film colors generations of family roadtrips with the legacy of the Griswolds, the magical allure of Walley World, and the trusty and reliable Family Truckster.
Harold cooked us a big breakfast and fancy dinner. Mike visited the store a lot. Left about 5 and stopped at Dee’s. Talked till 4 AM.
Marge Binder, August 10, 1969
Dad and Harry Reed were newspapermen together at The Pontiac Press in the 60s. They became lifelong friends, even after Dad moved to The Detroit News. And the spouses did too. Mom and Dee Reed became creative and business partners, as well as friends. They staged puppet shows around southeast Michigan until we moved to Virginia.
It’s no surprise that Mom and Dee would have talked until the wee hours on this visit. They did this every time they got together in the decades that followed, along with Dad and Harry, playing bridge and hitting the Jack Daniels (I’ve been told). Sadly, Dee passed away a few months ago, and Harry several years ago.
Washed, packed and Mike and I drove down to Harold’s. His apartment looked very nice—new rugs, etc. He took us to dinner, gave the boys $30 in change and we watched TV and drank champale.
Marge Binder, August 9, 1969
I got my middle name from my Grandfather and my Uncle Harold. Turns out that “Unc” and I shared a few other things in common: dark complexion, unibrow, a droll sense of humor and a bit of a rogue demeanor. But he was also tall, with a full head of hair and a great smile.
I visited his home a few times in my youth (though not on this occasion). He was a bachelor for life, a drinker and a smoker and a slob. In my 20s and 30s: Check, check and check. I won’t dwell further on his traits because some readers might misunderstand these comments as insults. They are quite the opposite; they are aspirational even.
Aside from Mom’s own observation about the condition of Unc’s house (“very nice”), she notes in her diary that he “gave the boys $30 in change.” Unc was famous for that. As a gift, he’d dump his loose change on us to sort, roll and cash in (and keep). We’d think he was Mr. Uncle Vanderbilt.
In Mom’s diary, this is the first reference to champale. As described in an earlier post, Mom assured me that she had a champale most nights on this trip. Deservedly so!
Got new glasses for Tim and new shoes for Mike and me. Dried out the tent and sleeping bags.
Tim’s been effectively blind since his glasses flew into a campfire back on July 22 in Oregon. Now that we’re staying put in Ithaca, Mom can take care of some other business as well.
I’m going to continue my romanticization of this idyllic little town in the middle of Michigan. In previous posts I covered the circumstances for Gran settling down here with Mom and Uncle Harold in the 1940s. The kids went off to college and then stayed within a few hours’ drive of here, while Gran retired into a cottage across the street from the stately county courthouse. Ithaca, you see, is the seat of Gratiot County, something that I was raised to be quite proud of.
We visited Gran every summer after we moved to Virginia. For a few years in the mid-70s I got to spend a couple of weeks here, just me and Gran. I had a bike and free reign to pedal about wherever the day might take me. Gran’s Ithaca was a kid’s paradise, at least through my eyes.
Gran’s Place on Newark Street
This is Gran’s home, current day. Looks like it’s been barely maintained for the last few decades. Back in the day, I can assure you, it was a magical little place full of warmth, love and ice cream. There was nary a weed in the entire yard — Gran paid a dime for pulling a full weed, a nickel for just the above-ground part. That made for me having some serious walking-around change to blow downtown.
Gratiot County Courthouse
The courthouse was across the street from Gran’s place. This photo is not taken from that POV — that view is now impeded by unsightly county offices (and the jail). As I write this, I realize that I never once stepped foot into this building, but I sure did revere it.
The stoplight in this Google-grab, I think, is new — at least, since 1980. There was one at the intersection a block behind the camera. One is enough for Ithaca, if you ask me.
Ithaca’s main drag was two blocks from Gran’s place. As I recall, it had a couple of grocery stores, a movie theater, a few small restaurants, and various other businesses that a kid had no use for.
The Downtown Dime, on the left side of this photo, occupies the same space as the 5&10 back in the day. Back then, it had a little soda counter where we got sundaes and milkshakes. Our visit in 1969 might have been the time when, after I had inadvertently ingested a red-hot candy and started screaming my head off, Mike hustled me here for a cherry pop. Epic big brother move!
Center Street had back-out parking, as it does today. Gran piloted a big rolling barge made of solid lead (not really), and she was notorious for leaving impressions on passing cars that failed to yield her backward-moving intentions.
The Funeral Home
Here’s the view from Gran’s place to the Beebe-Dewey funeral home on the corner. I remember a few occasions when, after reading the morning paper, Gran would get dressed up and walk across the way to say goodbye to an old friend. No drama, all very normal, I suppose.
The funeral home was bought by a chain who closed it down a few years back, according the the internet. They built a new place out near the highway where they boast better parking and three chapels, including one designed for big groups. Seems like the death business is recession-proof.
This is where Mom and Dad got married in 1950. It’s a few blocks from Gran’s house but walkable. I attended services with Gran a few times over the summers I was there. She loved to sing and did so with grand, unbridled, way-off-key enthusiasm. You go, Gran!
In a later post, we’ll visit some of the happening places on the west side of Ithaca, including stops at Aunt Margaret’s house and Hanners.
A pretty chill day for Mom, especially after almost eight weeks of rigorous, daily roadtripping.
Seems like a good time to get the lay of the land. Here are some of the places we’ll be talking about in the next wee — our Family’s footprint in Michigan. (Or, as true fans of the Mitten might say: our Family’s handprint. That’s the kind of side-splitter that’ll score you an extra slice of pie!)
Mom is Pure Michigan
She was born in Grand Rapids at the height of the Great Depression. She and the Family spent her first ten years moving about the area, including a stint in Muskegon Heights. Her Dad (my Grandfather) was a civil engineer who designed bridges and only occasionally found himself without a job, even in those tough times. Whenever the topic came up later in life, Mom had no complaints about surviving the Depression. Neither did my Dad, for that matter (though his was a very different story).
After her Dad’s untimely death at only 41, Mom moved with her Mother (Gran) and brother Harold (“Unc”) to California. We explored some of that journey in this blog back in early July; I think that was really the impetus for the roadtrip we’re on now.
When they returned two years later, Gran settled in Ithaca and took a job as a teacher and later principal of the elementary school. Mom graduated from Ithaca High School as Valedictorian (duh) and went on to Central Michigan University (nee College) in Mount Pleasant. That’s where she and Dad first met and courted. They married while still in school and became BCOC — the Big Couple on Campus.
After graduation, they headed to the Detroit area in southeast Michigan where Dad worked for Goodyear and then as a reporter and editor for the Pontiac Press. They started a family: Tim in 1954, Mike in 1961. Eventually, they bought a home in Northville, in the burgeoning suburbs west of the city.
This is where I come in. I was born in ’65 in Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan, where Mom earned her Masters Degree in History. As a result, we are a Go Blue! Family.
We are All Pure Michigan
In 1954, Dad’s Mom — my Gramma Essie — purchased land on Lake Michigan just north of the lighthouse at Little Sable Point and built the first house there. Today, the land she bought features three houses, seasonally full of cousins. It will continue as the family “compound” for generations to come.
Back in 1969, we didn’t visit the Lake as part of this trip, but it became an annual pilgrimage starting in the early 70s.
Cosmic coincidence: we’re arriving there tonight, August 7, 2019.