I remember Sunday drives with my family. Every week, after church services, we’d all pile into my father’s car and go for a drive. It started as an effort to avoid free-loading relatives who would arrive just as Mom was making Sunday dinner, but it became a ritual we all enjoyed. Dad loved to drive and as soon as we were out of slow-moving town traffic, he’d let out the engine full blast—to blow out the carbon, he said. But we knew it was because he liked the speed—and so did we. Only my mother complained, afraid of traffic tickets or a car wreck. “Dick,” she’d say, “slow down.” Dad would smile and say,“We’re not going THAT fast.” My brother and I would giggle, knowing that my father had no intention of slowing down unless he spotted something of interest along the way, knowing, too, that my mother would become hyper-vigilant until the car slowed. In those carefree days, open windows were our air conditioners, so the faster we drove, the more cool air came in. Even today, I prefer driving with the windows down and the moon roof open—fresh air is, I think, far superior to canned.
Those drives were always an adventure and sometimes even a learning experience. No laptops, smart phones, or DVD players then—just real life hitting us full blast, sharpening all of our senses. As we drove past cattle and horse farms, the smell of new-mown hay would beguile us as the acrid smell of manure assaulted our noses. The snorts of the horses played counterpoint to the lowing of the cows. On bright, sunny days, views of the green, rolling hills enchanted us. Brilliant splashes of color as we passed blooming flower beds and corn fields drew our eyes from the mirages of the hot roads. Sometimes, we’d spot rusty, rotting corpses of once-essential farm equipment made redundant by gas-powered tractors and pickups. Mom and Dad would talk of adult nonsense while my brother and I tried to spot “dead-eyes”–cars driving with only one headlight—or compete to see who could spot the largest number of out-of-state license plates.
We always got lost. Mom would fret, always, and Dad would just keep driving. As long as we had a full tank of gas, it was fun; sometimes, though, with the needle too far past “Empty,” Mom’s anxiety would reach fever-pitch and Dad would become deadly serious, searching for a service station. We usually made it. For my Dad, it was a sort of contest between his belief in his estimate of our fuel situation and the car’s stubborn “misuse” of said fuel. There was no “Self Serve” in those days; all the service stations lived up to their names by offering Full Service, usually with a smile. As we pulled up to the pump, a uniformed man would appear, wiping grimy hands with a cotton handkerchief, asking “Fill ‘er up?” He would wash and squeegee windshields and windows, check our oil and water levels and fill tanks when necessary (usually for free). Cash only and we often got S&H Green Stamps with our purchase.
Then we’d be off again, rolling down the road with a full tank and eager occupants. We never had a destination, but we always had a purpose. Before meandering until we were no longer lost and everyone could relax in the knowledge that my Dad could drive his way out of any difficulty, he would search for a place to stop for a treat. They didn’t have fast-food joints on every corner then, but sometimes we could find an old general store offering grilled hamburgers and fries and orange Nehi. We never found the same place twice, and I learned early to appreciate happenstance, to embrace good things that happened to us by accident.
If Mom had a pot roast planned, though, burgers were out. Dad instead would focus on an ice cream stand. No 50 million flavors, no Chunky Monkey or bubblegum; we had 3 flavors of ice cream—vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. Mom always opted for vanilla (boring!) and my Dad and I always chose chocolate (heaven in a cone!). My brother was not so predictable. By the time I was in Junior High, they had begun to sell many other flavors—black walnut, pistachio, butter pecan, rocky road. These days, though, my sweet tooth is very particular—if I am to eat empty calories, they’d better be attached to chocolate—the darker the better—or I’ll pass. Imagine how awful life must have been before Europeans came to the New World and stole the Aztecs’ favorite beverage. No wonder all those marvelous empires destroyed themselves! If we didn’t find a usual ice cream stand along the way, Dad would instead pull into a Soft-Serve stand. They had a magical machine that created cold, soft, smooth heaven, topped with a twirl. Soft-Serve boasted only two flavors—no mixing—vanilla and chocolate, and I can still remember the dry crunch of the plain cones in sharp contrast to the heavenly silent soft-serves. Even Mom finished her cone.
Then, we’d get back on the road, speeding much more than when we set out, as if Dad had somewhere else to be on those lazy Sunday afternoons. No football games on TV then, nothing more than test patterns for most of the day, really. But we all knew that we were heading home where Mom’s old-fashioned home cooking would complete our day. I close my eyes and I can smell, see, and taste her pot roast, with potatoes, carrots, onions, and celery covered with pot liquor from the roast. On lucky days, we also had her home-made bread, slathered in butter.
The educational part of our lengthy drive often came from roadside Burma Shave signs (samples below). Filled with corny humor, rough rhymes, and even warnings about drinking and driving, these boards were credited with keeping drivers alert during road trips. Even when we got so lost we missed our snack shack, we at least got a good laugh from the Burma Shave ads. I miss those old ads, as I miss lazy Sunday afternoons driving to nowhere in particular. We always found something wonderful, by accident.
The trip was everything. Just like real life I suppose.
Down the hatch
But coughed him up
Because he scratched
As fast train neared
Death didn’t draft him
Violets are blue
Roses are pink
Who drive and drink
On curves ahead
That rabbit’s foot