August 16, 1969: Home.

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.”

That’s Mom.

August 15, 1969: Homeward Bound

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.

Fronz

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.

“…Then swam.”

Wait, have we learned nothing on this trip? I hope we waited an hour after the ice cream to take this swim.

Homestretch

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!

August 14, 1969. Ithaca, Part 3. Time to say goodbye.

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).

This sure looks like the “gravel pit,” a swimming and fishing destination outside of Ithaca.

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.

August 12, 1969: The Zeitgeist, Then and Now.

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!

August 11, 1969: “Sick and…cross”…

…So let’s go to the Movies!

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:

  • About Schmidt
  • Almost Famous
  • Beavis and Butthead Do America
  • The Blues Brothers
  • Cannonball Run
  • Duel
  • Dumb and Dumber
  • Flirting with Disaster
  • The Great Race
  • The Hangover
  • Harold and Kumar go to White Castle
  • The Hitcher
  • It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World
  • Little Miss Sunshine
  • Motorcycle Diaries
  • O Brother Where art Thou?
  • The Roadtrip
  • Sideways
  • Smokey & the Bandit
  • The Sure Thing
  • Thelma & Louise
  • Tommy Boy
  • 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.

Watch this trailer. Just do it.

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’!”

How they made a 2-minute trailer without an expletive is beyond me.

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.

August 7, 1969: Pure Michigan

Rained. Washed hair, wrote bills, etc.

Marge Binder, August 7, 1969

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

Looking north towards Silver Lake and the miles of sand dunes. The three houses on the lower right constitute the “Family compound.”

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.

August 4, 1969: A Fair!

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.

Image result for cass county fair, iowa

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.

Cows at a 1960s Cass County Fair — in Missouri

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.