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.”
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!
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.
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!).
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.
Mike has a friend next door named Mark—6 ½ yrs old, several inches taller than Mike and over 100 lbs. Took them on a hike with the ranger. Went to town to buy groceries and have a doctor look at Tim’s rash. Swam and went to the camp fire. 100° by the river but nice & cool at night.
Marge Binder, July 19, 1969
Okay, I’ll admit the headline “Tim Sees a Doctor” seems a little unexceptional. Thing is, it’s huge. Tim avoided doctors his whole life, so I don’t think he went willingly back in 1969, especially for a measly rash.
In his life, Tim experienced several injuries that would require anything from stitches to not-simple surgery. The ones I can remember from the last 20 years or so: he got bit by a copperhead snake and watched his hand swell and turn black, waiting several days to seek treatment; he dropped a fish-cleaning knife into his foot, severing a major tendon and was goaded by Dad into finally seeing a doctor, only to forego the kind of therapy he needed to heal; a few years before he passed, he twisted his knee in an unfortunate encounter with his car on an icy driveway, so he used a cane from then on rather than get help.
That was Tim, and he was proud of it.
In the book we made for our parents’ 60th anniversary, Tim contributed an essay about one of these doctor-avoidance episodes, something I called “Medical Attention Deficit Disorder.” Here is an excerpt:
Until the last few years, fish-cleaning was done on a makeshift table in the garage. In 2002, I was butchering a bountiful day’s catch with a murderous and electric fish-fillet knife. Between salmon, this implement fell — while switched on — off the table and onto my right instep, slicing a tendon neatly in two, and causing blood to gush. It also caused a vocal argument between Boss, who advised a trip to the emergency room, and I, who wanted to wrap it in gauze and duct-tape and go fishing the next morning. As Captain of the ship, Boss’s will prevailed. Besides sutures, the local doctor advised surgical splicing of the tendon, which I declined when told this would keep me off the water for several precious days.
Dad took the photo of Mom on Pismo Beach 50 years ago. It is my favorite and a family treasure. It captures what Mom must have been feeling after four weeks in the car with three boys and a tent. When I think about her looking at Dad behind his camera, she was definitely having a real moment: funny, exasperated, resigned, authentic. And, of course, she’s beautiful!
Every Christmas Eve almost ’til his passing, Dad would put together a slide show, usually four or five carousels full of his latest photos and the classics. When this one hit the screen — which it did every single year — the room would light up. Oohs and aahs and hoots and whistles. Even now, it lights up my day
More normal—cold. Rented a spot at the deluxe campground and they swam in the pool and we all took showers. Jim and I walked up the beach.
Foggy ‘till late. Bought groceries. We all went to San Luis Obispo and visited the mission. The boys swam and then took a long walk up the beach. Doug and I cooked supper. Mike shut his finger in the car door.
Marge Binder, July 11, 1969
When I first read this entry from Maw’s diary and saw, “Mike shut his finger in the door,” my reaction was, “Yep, that’s Mike.”
I felt bad, for sure, but things like this were always happening to my brother Mike. I think he’d agree today: thus has been his existence. Mike is the middle child, and he possesses much of the pseudo-psycho baggage that goes with that (along with the virtues like leadership and modesty). But that’s just the beginning.
If you’ve been following this blog, you’ve seen that we stopped every seven days in one little town or another to get Mike an allergy shot. Later on in the trip, he’ll get poison ivy and visit a hospital in Illinois for an ear situation. In the years to come, Mike will suffer bouts with more allergies and god-awful plantar warts. Being in the room when he was having one of those things removed was terrifying for me; I can’t imagine what it was like for him.
(Mike and I share a few bum knees too, but I am grateful that our family didn’t suffer anything more nefarious. Very grateful.)
In her diary, Mom seems to cluster Mike and me together in many situations. Even though he was eight and I was four, Mom referred to us as “the little guys” in one entry. We swam while Tim fished. While Tim fished we swam. And on and on.
But Mike and I were very different kids. He excelled in math and science. I relished the liberal arts and sports. He was obsessed with “Star Trek.” I made appointment TV with “Wide World of Sports.” He studied his ass off. I did what I needed to get by. Mike became an Eagle Scout. He put himself through the University of Virginia (which he didn’t have to do) by driving buses around Charlottesville. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa, got several advanced degrees, researched at CERN in Switzerland and then got another degree in architecture.
I have a BA in English.
We are no longer the little guys. For 50 years we’ve charted different courses, chased different dreams, and we’ve somehow got more in common now than ever. We are both creative and artistic, curious, considerate and compassionate. All traits we no doubt learned from Mom.
Yet, differences remain. I consider my big brother Mike to be one of the most honest, modest, sincere and hard working persons I have known in my life. Something I can only aspire to.