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.
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.
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.
Rained at 6AM. Miserable morning but we got to Ithaca at 5PM. Gran just beat us. Talked and washed. Mike pretty sick. Took a bath!
Marge Binder, August 6, 1969
More travel woes: rain, “miserable morning,” “Mike pretty sick.” But that was the last morning Mom would be waking up in a tent with three boys — at least for a week or so.
An arrival of sorts.
We’re far from home yet, but today we arrive at Gran’s home in Ithaca. For the next few days we’ll be hanging in this little town smack-dab in the middle of the mitten. It’s a place we visited every summer of my youth, as far as I know.
Mom went to high school here; she and Dad got married at the Methodist Church down on Center Street. Gran is buried a few miles away in the North Star Cemetery, along with a few of our relatives who helped to settle this part of the state in the 1800s.
Over the next week, please indulge me to unload years of memories of this place, most of them watercolored by five decades of romanticizing.
I remember the wide streets and lumpy sidewalks, the stately courthouse with its tolling clock tower across the street, the candy store with the girlie mags over by the firehouse, the A&W Drive-In out by the highway, the house on West North Street where my Aunt Margaret and Uncle Dale lived, days riding my bike everywhere and nights in the front yard chasing fireflies.
I remember how Gran’s house smelled (sweet and calm). Mom references here that she took a bath the day we arrived, likely the first in months. I can tell you this: the whole place must have smelled like sulfur when she ran the water. And later that night, it probably smelled like Swiss steak.
When it’s your Gran’s house, though, all of the senses just surrender and you are overcome by the embrace of acceptance and love. Welcome to Gran’s.
Got a good start but had to stop 2 hours to get Tim a shot of cortisone. Camped at the free campsite in Atlantic, Iowa. Had another town pool plus a fair to visit.
Marge Binder, August 4, 1969
Looks like Tim was still battling “something poison,” so we stopped for two hours to get him some cortisone. But hey, free campsite. And a fair! (Note: exclamation is mine, not Mom’s.)
A Fair to Remember, or not.
I had a nice post planned: I figured I’d research this fair in Atlantic, Iowa and paint a nice picture of community, tradition and middle America. Early on in my (internet) research, I learned that Atlantic is the seat of Cass County, so the fair Mom references must have been the Cass County Fair.
The Cass County Fair looks spectacular on the internet. Its site has lots of historical depth and artifacts dating back to the 1850s. I learned that over the years the fair had been touched by the Civil War (there were loyalists on both sides), the construction of the Pacific Railroad through town (the fair had to relocate a few blocks away), as well as local politics and public taste.
What a lovely all-American story and event…200 miles away in Cass County, Missouri. Check it out.
The next Cass County Fair I fell in love with I soon discovered occurs in Cassopolis, Michigan — celebrating 168 years! Check out this neat program.
Turns out there is also a Cass County Fair in Weeping Water, Nebraska; Pine River, Minnesota; and Logansport, Indiana. (There are nine counties in the country named Cass, all of them after Lewis Cass, the losing candidate for president in 1848.)
But I digress.
Finally I found my virtual way to the Cass County Fair in Atlantic, Iowa. Once I confirmed I was in the right place, I felt a pang of disappointed that the Iowa version doesn’t match the scale and significance of the others. Here’s the Facebook page for Iowa’s version of the Cass County Fair. Claim to fame: “largest free fair in all of Iowa.”
According to the Atlantic News Telegraph website, this Cass County Fair includes an early morning Beef Show, followed “one hour later” by the “beef fitting contest.” Color me curious.
Fairs vs Carnivals
Growing up in Vienna, Virginia we had an annual summer carnival — not a fair — housed in the parking lot of the Giant and Peoples Drug stores. When Bob’s Big Boy got built (where the Outback Steakhouse is now), the carnies moved to a plot of scrubby land off Church Street (now a proper park). Vienna’s carnival had a midway of food and games and the latest rides like the Scrambler, Tilt-a-Whirl, a Ferris wheel, swings. Here’s a wiki of some of those wicked carny rides through history.
My wife knows the difference between a carnival and a fair. The woman I believed to be a Chardonnay-sipping sophisticate was a closet county fair fan all along. She grew up in Missouri (but never heard of Cass County) and was involved with the 4H Club. I’ve learned that a proper fair might have a carnival component, but the heart and soul are the animals. I’ve spent more time around pigs and cows in the past 10 years than I did in my first 44. Quality fairs also celebrate local lore and culture, like food, art and photo competitions, tractor pulls and demolition derbies, and campy (and big name) entertainment of all kinds.
We have at least two county fairs to visit this summer — here in California and in Michigan.
And someday, maybe, we’ll roadtrip to all those Cass County Fairs throughout the midwest, starting in Missouri.
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.