Mike snorting and snuffling. Ran into rain in Omaha (yesterday). Crossed the Mississippi. Camped near Utica, Illinois. Tim fished. Mike swam. Had to take him to St. Mary’s LaSalle emergency room for his ears.
Marge Binder, August 5, 1969
We are officially back east, now that we’ve crossed the Mississippi into Illinois. Even with the typical daily activities of Tim fishing and Mike swimming (where was I? Knitting?), Mike also found time to snort, snuffle and eventually visit the ER. I would agree that this post’s headline is a little sensational for an ear ache, but this is — shockingly — the only ER visit cited on the entire trip.
Below is a postcard of the hospital in La Salle, Illinois back when people sent postcards of hospitals they visited. Actually, my brother Mike would have been a prolific mailer (sorry, Miko!).
Packed up and drove across Colorado and Nebraska. Stopped at Gothenburg and Mike swam in the municipal pool. Tim fished. He is breaking out with poison something again. Watched men practicing bull dogging.
Marge Binder, August 3, 1969
Mike swam. Tim fished and got “poison something” again. I’m not accounted for, so I’ll assume I was sold to the rodeo to become a bulldogging master. I guess that didn’t work out.
Roadtrip Movies, Part 4
The bulldogging got me thinking about roadtrip movies again. Both are very American institutions. This correlation reminded me of the rodeo scene from “Borat…” but I’m not making that part of the official record. It is one funny movie though.
Let’s consider a few of the most fun roadtrip films out there. Sure, movies like “The Blues Brothers” and “Smokey…” are really fun, but I cited them for (auto) body count a few days ago. I also considered “Beavis and Butthead Do America” and “Harold and Kumar go to White Castle.” Both fun, in their way, but…
Honorable Mentions: Fun Roadtrip Films
Do yourself a favor: Watch the accompanying trailers and clips.
“It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World” 1963
Screwball comedy meets American greed meets the splendor of the open road as an ensemble cast from the 50s and 60s races to find hidden treasure (350 large!) in the desert. Spencer Tracy surrounds himself with the likes of Jonathan Winters, Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Ethel Merman and so many other legends; that alone is worth your time. (Speaking of time, the original cut was three and a half hours long!)
“Cannonball Run” 1981
It’s an homage to the classic ensemble road films like the one above, with an all-star, odd-ball cast including Roger Moore, Farrah Fawcett, Mel Tillis, Dean Martin and of course, Burt Reynolds and Dom D. What makes it extra-special: it opened on June 19, 1981 — the same day as “Superman II” – at Roth’s Tysons Corner 5 Theaters in Virginia. I was one proud usher/concessionaire whose 16th summer – armed with a shiny new driver’s license and the keys to the family’s green Buick station wagon — was about to go epic.
“The Hangover” 2009
The premise is shaky: four guys gin up a bachelor party in Vegas just two days before the wedding – instead of, say, three months out. Once you accept that, the rest of this movie falls right into place. Is this a roadtrip film? I say yes, because the drive to and from Vegas makes it so. And during their escapades in and around Vegas, cars of all kinds figure prominently. Leave that aside. This film is so incredibly clever, profane and unpredictable, you could stretch these gags out over 5,000 miles.
“Flirting with Disaster” 1996
With a cast including Ben Stiller, Tea Leoni, Patricia Arquette, Marty Tyler Moore and Alan Alda, and directed by David O. Russell, this has got to be good. It’s chock full of surprises, mistakes, misunderstandings and bad choices, but it doesn’t feel like a screwball comedy. It’s smart, and it just keeps going relentlessly to the heart of the story: finding one’s home. The fun never, ever stops.
“Dumb and Dumber” 1994
No matter how hard I try, I cannot deny that this is a roadtrip classic. Sometimes it’s okay to have no redeeming social value. Fun is fun.
Was going sightseeing but discovered a hunk of the trailer tire tread missing when I washed it so had to get a new one. Doug getting his head under water. Tim killed a scarlet king snake.
Marge Binder, August 2, 1969
In a place like this, I know Mom got us out and about on the adventure trail, especially on a Saturday. On this day, thought, it appears she had to first deal with a missing “hunk of trailer tire tread.” That sounds bad and I’m positive that I was of absolutely no use in righting the matter.
Maw also writes about me getting my head under water. I don’t know if she meant that this was the first time. My memory is that it happened much earlier in this trip, hence all the subsequent swimming. But I didn’t memorialize it in writing, so I guess I lose in the history books.
Here’s my take, corroborated (and much embellished) by Tim over the years: There was a boat ramp covered to turtle poop. We three were cavorting about in the shallow, as we did, and I was strutting along, chattering some smack. And then I stepped off the side of the ramp and “PLOOP!” I was under water. Tim recalled that when I went silent he turned to see only a little tuft of dark hair bobbing on the surface. Then I emerged, lungs gasping at full born-again vigor.
No matter when it actually occurred, I can still feel the sensation: frigid and foreign immersion. Because we glasses-wearing Binders were practically blind when we swam, all I saw was darkness and little bubbles. I wasn’t scared; I think I was more stunned by my atmosphere changing so completely and abruptly. At some point, probably about a second in, I chose to go back to the life I had above the surface, and so I flailed about in whatever madness might hasten my return.
Got Mike’s shot, washed the car, the washing and picked up money from Jim at Western Union. Ate steak for lunch. Shopped at a shopping center—got Doug new camping shorts. Letting him wear his summer “peaches.” The boys swam. Called Dort but couldn’t get her.
Marge Binder, August 1, 1969
There’s a lot to unpack here, no pun attended.
My Aunt “Dort” Dorothy was the oldest of my Dad’s siblings. She was a judge in the Denver area and a revered character in our Family. She was a protector and champion of Dad since childhood, and Tim greatly respected. She passed away just last year. Sadly, I never met her.
Not a clue what this means. Mom claims not to recall. It’s probably best we leave it at that.
A Different Time
How much the world changed since 1969, some of which we’ve explored on this scroll. One detail of today’s diary entry references calling [Aunt] Dort but “couldn’t get her.” That’s what happened back then, before even simple technologies like answering machines. You call someone, they don’t answer, you move on. In this case, you drive on home another 2,500 miles and don’t see them for decades.
And Western Union is a blast from the past. I’d practically forgotten about them.
Money Handling in 1969
This is the first time Maw cites a means of finances — a stop at Western Union to pick up a money wire from Dad. Western Union (or WU, as it calls itself in its umpteenth rebranding since then) was the world’s largest provider of telegraphic services — telegrams. In doing some cursory research for this blog, I was surprised they’re still thriving in niche but modern markets.
As for how Mom managed money on this long trip, she offered some insights recently. Credit cards were not so in vogue yet. Debit cards were still 25 years away. I was surprised that Maw didn’t use travelers’ checks on this trip. She traveled with a checkbook but few banks would cash them; the big chains didn’t cover the whole country yet, or were few and far between, or were open only during “banking hours.”
Maw tells me she kept a few hundred dollars in cash to cover things, from gas and food to lodging and doctors. I suppose that’s a pretty straightforward way of doing things, but it certainly doesn’t feel secure by today’s standards — as ironic as that sounds.
Also, note in Mom’s diary what happened right after fetching the cash: “Ate steak for lunch.” That’s just how she rolls!
ATMs and Beyond
Can you imagine living without ATMs? This Gen-Xer cannot. 25% of Boomers, though, don’t use them at all.
A Chemical Bank on Long Island brought America’s first ATM on-line in 1969, advertising the occasion thusly: “On September 2, our bank will open at 9:00 and never close again.” (Get ready for the 50th anniversary of that next month!) The machines were first called Docutellers after the company that innovated the technology, Docutel. Today, there are more than half a million ATMs in the US, one for about every 650 people.
These days, of course, lots of people can live without ATMs, thanks to mobile apps, blockchain and even cryptocurrencies. I’m sure their recollections of these innovations 50 years from now will sound as stale as my defense of the ATM.
You can see (kind of) that much of the interstate construction was not complete in this area of the country.
Also, I spoke with Mom today, and she recalled that the “mountain stream” she describes here made her uneasy. She’d seen flooding before and she worried that, because we were perched on a bend, just a bit of a rise might wipe away our tent.
More Wyoming then Colorado—short day for a change. Set up on rocky ground next to a mountain stream at Eldorado Springs. Mike & Doug swam in a big pool there and saw a drowning.
Marge Binder, July 31, 1969
This episode I (think I) remember. Great pool, lots of kids, lots of activity, Mike and me splashing about. And then everything stopped. Silence. Something weird was going on.
It’s one of those memories, like the Redwoods and “Bomb Cambodia” a few weeks back, where I might be melding it with others. As I recall, this sad occasion is when Mom offered the advice: Don’t swim for an hour after eating. If it did happen like this, it was brilliant of her, because I still subscribe to that advice today.
Mom picked a great place to spend a few days (note the three Ws in the ad below; that’s Woodall’s highest rating!). I don’t remember anything else, but her diary lists out Mike’s allergy shots, shopping and some car maintenance. I have to think there was also plenty of hiking, playing and other things that make childhood childhood in a place like Colorado.
Sorry for that kid though.
I love that the ad for the campground welcomes “wagons.” I’m picturing a wagon train emerging Brigadoon-style from a dust storm on the prairie and finding this place most welcoming. Act II: Everyone is strung out on “modern restrooms” and “sanitary.” Act III: We’re staying.
Also, as I mentioned above, the place had a “nationally known pool.” Gotta say, the only other that can boast that is the Reflecting Pool in DC. I don’t recommend diving.
Doug kicked over a full [pee] can. Packed and drove across Oregon all day. Camped at Farewell Bend State Park on the Snake River. Kids swam and fished but it was a miserable site—slept in the car because of wind.
Marge Binder, July 28, 1969
‘Twould appear from Mom’s musings that I might have caused the toppling of a full jar of urine in the tent. I don’t remember that, and I’m not copping to it. When you’re the youngest, a lot of bad stuff gets pinned on you. It’s a real burden, it is.
If Mom’s account is true, I’m sure I had a reason.
“Es mejor que nada, baby!” Part 2 (or more likely Part 54)
Mom is not one to complain. Especially after six weeks on the road with three boys, one of whom recently tipped over the pee jar (or was unjustly implicated). So for Mom to call this campground a “miserable site” makes it clear: It must have been a new low.
Camping in a tent is typically not that comfortable. I haven’t done it in a while so I don’t know what tent innovations have been made. Back then, our tent’s floor, made of some sort of thin poly-something (cancerous? we’ll see), took on the contours of what was directly underneath. If it was jagged rocks, so was the floor. Concrete begat concrete. We had cotton/flannel sleeping bags that provided warmth, but not much in the way of support, aeration or water resistance.
I don’t remember this, but Mom recently assured me that we also employed air mattresses, inflated using the Chevy’s engine. She conceded, though, by morning the mattresses had deflated.
In the case of Farewell Bend, turns out we slept in the car anyway, due to the weather. For Maw, sleeping in the car with three boys must have been a whole ‘nother level of restful bliss.
The above photo is likely NOT the Farewell Bend misery that Mom describes. I think she’d actually consider this a better-than-many situation — flat concrete slab, a garden bed, and there was an outhouse right there!
I know I’ve gone soft, but every time I look at this photo, my mind conjures up the lobby bar at any W or JW.
Waited for Tim & Doug to return from fishing. Drove to Jo’s and we went to the beach for a picnic—2 hours plus drive but it was beautiful. Saw 2 accidents on the way home. Tim stayed at camp and caught several more large bass.
Marge Binder, July 27, 1969
This is the first time Mom mentions car accidents along the way. The data in the chart below shows that Americans are driving almost 3-times the miles we were in 1969, and traffic deaths are less than half of what they were. Some of the other numbers aren’t as encouraging. For more happiness, check out the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s website.
Some other fun facts: When it comes to the deadliest states for highway travel, you might want to avoid South Carolina and Mississippi. But I probably didn’t have to tell you to avoid those places. You’ll drive more miles without dying in a fiery collision in Minnesota and Massachusetts.
For cocktail chatter, mention Henry Bliss, the first person killed by a motor vehicle in the US. There is a plaque at 74th and CPW in New York City to commemorate the fateful moment when he stepped off a street car and into the path of a taxi in 1899.
Roadtrip Movies: Part 2
In the post two days ago, I introduced the first in a series recounting the best films about roadtrips. Scroll back to check out some of my Siskel & Ebert psycho babble, the definition of a roadtrip film and some pointers from Aaron Sorkin. You can also review my list of five movies in which the roadtrip leads nowhere.
Given today’s blog topic “Drive Safely,” I thought it’d be fitting to take a look at roadtrip films with a body count — auto bodies and otherwise. Herewith…
Honorable Mentions: Movies with a Body Count — Automotive and Otherwise
“The Blues Brothers” 1980
It didn’t even occur to me to include this when I jotted down a list of roadtrip films a few months back. That might be for two reasons: 1) Is this a roadtrip or a musical? Or both? Are there any other roadtrip musicals? …and 2) the forward momentum of this film is interrupted every few minutes by a car crash of epic proportions. It’s like a Greek tragedy on wheels in Chicagoland: their journey starts at the gates of a Joliet jail and careens through a shopping mall, diners, churches and orphanages, a Nazi rally, Bob’s Country Bunker, Chicago’s North Side and more. Ultimately, in good Greek roadtrip form, the Brothers get themselves to the Cook County Assessor’s Office (near that new Picasso) to pay the back taxes for the Penguin’s orphanage. Mission (from God) accomplished. And then they go back to jail. Along the way, we meet Aretha, Ray Charles, James Brown, Cab Calloway, John Candy, an armed and dangerous Carrie Fisher, Twiggy, as well as cameos by Steven Spielberg and Frank Oz. Next time you see me, ask me this: “Orange whip? Orange whip?” Do it.
It can’t be easy to make a full-length feature about a truck chasing a car, especially when neither of them is a Transformer. But if you can make it really suspenseful and scary though, you deserve a long and storied Hollywood career. This was Steven Spielberg’s directorial debut, and the rest is history.
“The Great Race” 1965
I had this one filed under Screwball, but I will play it here. Jack Lemmon, Peter Falk, Natalie Wood and an ensemble of greats race from New York to Paris — the long way — and encounter a slew of smoky sabotage and relentless silliness, icy peril and epic pie fights. It has no reason to exist except for pure fun and good old fashioned vengeance. Professor Fate’s “Push the button, Max!” became one of the family’s random references in my youth.
“The Hitcher” 1986
What happens when C. Thomas Howell stops to give Rutger Hauer a lift in the middle of nowhere in the dead of night? Answer: I redouble my resolve to never pick up a hitchhiker. This one had an such an exquisite sinister appeal and a shocking body count, but I don’t remember how many of them were cars. RIP Rutger.
“Smokey & the Bandit” 1977
To a nerdy 7th grader with horn-rim glasses, braces, acne and b.o., the Bandit was the idol of escapist idols. This film has everything: Burt Reynolds, a Trans-Am, CB radios, bootleg beer, a ride-along basset hound and lots of good-natured traffic violations and non-life-threatening vehicular pile-ups. It’s actually a pretty tight film – go fetch beer and come back — but it somehow has room for Sally Field, Jackie Gleason, Paul Williams and a gratuitous romp in the woods set to a Jerry Reed country ballad. I watched it again recently and damn if it doesn’t hold up after 40 years, if you can forgive some wince-inducing reminders of 70s culture.
And now, let’s drop this morbidity at the next exit and get on with our life-affirming adventure. Eastword ho!
Must have been a dreadful way to start the day: 4AM alarm so that Mom could drive Dad to the airport. And, just like that, he was gone, leaving Maw with her three boys to navigate 3000+ miles back east.
Oh, and Tim fished.
Jim and I got up at 4 AM and took him to catch the 6:10 plane for Seattle. Got Mike’s shot, did the laundry, washed my hair, bought groceries etc. Tim caught some nice fish in the Lewis River.
Marge Binder, July 25, 1969
Open Road. Big Screen: Roadtrip Movies
A few weeks ago we looked at books about roadtrips. There weren’t a lot to include, best, worst or otherwise. But movies? Oh yeah, the movies were invented for the roadtrip.
There’s a great chapter in Aaron Sorkin’s Masterclass program that uses the roadtrip as a means to explain intention and obstacle — the basics of story. It’s simple but brilliant. You can’t just go from point A to B, you’ve got to want to get there so bad — money, love, freedom, salvation. You have to be willing to put your life on the line for it. And, of course, obstacles arise that must be overcome.
Intention and obstacle make for great stories (especially movies), but for this series of posts, I’m going to veer into other roadtrip films that are merely good or special to this scribe.
As with the post about books, we need to define what is a true roadtrip film. Because film is a modern invention, compared with the written word, most tales of travel tend to rely on a motorized vehicle and a surface on which to operate it. Unlike, say, The Odyssey or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I also considered films like “The Wizard of Oz” but called a DQ. So basically, I consider a roadtrip movie to be any movie where the plot centers on people who quest to go somewhere in a motorized vehicle that follows a road or surface. Nuance: it’s not about the car, it’s about the journey, so no “Herbie the Lovebug” or James Bond.
And, as with any list based on personal opinion, this list will rile critics and detractors. I don’t care. Make you own list if you feel the need.
Herewith, the first of a few lists of roadtrip films, starting with the five honorable mentions for films about roadtrips without destination.
Honorable Mentions: Roadtrips that Lead Nowhere
With great writing and direction by Alexander Payne, it’s a buddy film set against the lush wine country of SoCal. Mix in a little mid-life crisis-times-two, lots of drinking and a star turn by Virginia Madsen, and there’s a lot to love about this movie.
A silly frat boy pic that involves a lot of driving with no destination. Good gags and great chemistry — Chris Farley is a one-man chemistry set; David Spade is a beaker. If only Brian Dennehy’s Big Tom had survived the inciting event, that would have been a great movie.
Another Alexander Payne film and one that got me hooked when I saw the trailer. Unfortunately, Jack Nicholson’s Schmidt is a miserable wretch, and in the end, he finds peace not on the road but in a letter from his adopted “pen pal” child in Africa. He didn’t need to leave the house for that.
“Thelma & Louise”
You can tell early on that T&L need more than a girls’ weekend. To me, what keeps this from being a top-tier roadtrip film is probably its most memorable scene. (Spoiler) Great roadtrips and films find a way to avoid the cliff. I suppose, though, that if you can’t find an alternative, gunning the gas into fiery oblivion makes for a spectacular send-off.
The “Tiny Dancer” scene epitomizes the joy of a true roadtrip: rolling together, warbling harmonious with conviction, even though everyone is royally hung over and the bus reeks of stale beer, old bathroom and bruised testosterone. Or, as I like to call it: my college days.
Tim rented a boat and fished all day. He took Doug out too and we all took a ride and a hike and collected pine cones. Cooked spaghetti and brownies. Battened down and had a rain storm.
Marge Binder, July 23, 1969
Mom’s diary clocks 30+ times that Tim fished on this 62-day trip. I wouldn’t be surprised if she omitted 10 or 20 other times. Tim loved to fish. All his life, that was his catharsis, his place to be alone, to captain his own ship and leave the rest of the world back on shore.
As an adult, when he visited our Lake Michigan home each summer with his own family, he’d set out on the big lake from Pentwater pretty much every single morning and return well after dark (which could be after 11 o’clock). Dad bought a real fishing boat — the Pequod — back in the 90s to encourage even more fishing. Tim rewarded him with dozens of huge Coho salmon and some other kinds too.
Dad would sometimes accompany Tim for one of their marathon conversations. (More often, Dad would beg to be released after a few hours.)
In the minutes after learning that Tim had died unexpectedly, I pictured him and Dad being reunited aboard the Pequod in the sky. This is the image that resulted, in time for what would have been his 61st birthday.
ADDENDUM: After I published this I realized this installment takes place in Oregon. Another eerie coincidence with this blog: When I got news of Tim’s death in 2015, I was on a business trip in Portland. As I wandered the downtown streets in a daze, this scene first began forming in my mind’s eye.
Got up and drove to Howard Prairie Lake near Ashland, stopping at a good store & bakery at Medford. The kids swam.
Marge Binder, July 22, 1969
Mom must have submitted her diary entry before the drama that unfolded later that night. My brother Tim, a gifted raconteur, was holding forth around the campfire after dinner, doing impressions, mimicking the Borscht Belt greats, “owning the room.”
At some point, he slung around and — phwoosh — off flung his glasses into the fire. While we all reacted in horror (and a bit of “what an showman!”), Tim went about trying to retrieve them. But they were already literally toast.
To a Binder boy, lost or broken glasses meant humiliation, like getting a C+ on a test (Tim was the exception to this analogy). Lost glasses was just one more piece of tinder to stoke our raging insecurities. Our childhoods were littered with such spectacles (pun intended), some involving snowball fights, scrapes at school or simple stupidity.
On top of the initial sting of loss, Tim would be blind for a while, until we were someplace long enough for lenses and glasses to be made — pretty much the remainder of the trip.
No matter, it was really funny. Mission accomplished, Timbo! You owned it!
Fun story: When I finally got contact lenses in 1978, I lost one before I even got out of the office. Must have been a sight (puns abound!) for arriving patients to see a half dozen nurses and admins crawling around on the floor.
Note the address: Dead Indian Road. Well certainly they’ve changed the name of that by now. Nope. It’s actually got a pretty significant history. You can learn about it here.