Pop pulled the sky-blue 1963 Chevy Impala out of the driveway in Wayne, Michigan. With Mom and three kids along for what our family would call our 9,000-mile trip, he jogged a block to Michigan Avenue, which, as US 12, always beckoned West to Chicago and, beyond that, to California. The kids: Johnny, nine; Caroline, eight; Eddie, six. At Ypsilanti we entered the new Interstate 94, one of the gleaming “freeways” Ike built based on the autobahns he saw in prostrate Germany, but which would slice apart American cities like a column of Sherman tanks.
In June 1964, travel still was cheap for a middle-class family whose parents learned to save in the Great Depression and live off U.S. Army rations in France or ration coupons on the home front. The Impala cost $2,000, stock with no air conditioning. Even poor people drove American-made “gas-guzzling dinosaurs,” as our governor, George Romney, had called them when he was drumming up business for the small cars made by his previous employer, American Motors. Except for the occasional Mercedes, the only foreign cars seen were VW bugs or buses. Gas was 30 cents per gallon.
The first impressive sites along the way were the huge factories and steel mills of Gary, Indiana, and South Chicago. Being from Detroit, we were used to smokestacks spewing out prosperity, especially at Ford’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn. My parents always remembered the days in the 1930’s when nothing billowed from the smokestacks, and the Great Depression struck. Smoke and smog weren’t an environmental blight, but the skywriting of jobs.
For us kids, seeing the prosperity of Indiana and Illinois for the first time was more evidence that we lived in the richest, greatest country ever in the world, the one our parents had saved for us in World War II and rebuilt with a bounty so great that it spread around the world. Although my parents later recounted some tough times after they got married in 1954 and were living on a new lawyer’s salary, soon with a brood of kids, by 1964 things in America were about as materially good as they got anywhere.
Pop was our city’s first municipal judge. His salary, $6,000 per year, was generous, and actually about what a factory worker made in a good overtime year. Anybody, black or white—those were about the only flavors in prediversified America—could join the middle class by getting a factory job. In our middle-class neighborhood, wives hadn’t been liberated for dull office jobs. They didn’t think of themselves as “stay-at-home moms” but proud “housewives.” They worked for the home, the family—taking care of the house and kids, or doing the books for a small family business. In our neighborhood, one father was a plumber and another drove a home-oil truck, the moms penciling the accounting.
Our first night on the road was 416 miles down the pike in a small motel in Davenport, Iowa, where I was convinced they made sofas. We avoided pricey Holiday Inns, and didn’t even think about Hiltons. Small motels really were independent, run by American families. Mom usually would haggle with the owner of two or three motels until she got a good price, about four bucks per night. We never used credit cards, although Pop kept a Diner’s Club just in case. The only requirement: a pool, preferably with a slide, in which the kids could cool off while Mom and Pop relaxed with cocktails and Mom puffed her two daily cigarettes. Two years earlier, Pop had quit a three-pack-a-day habit cold turkey. No poolside buttinskies griped about adults smoking or drinking.
Pop had painted beer-bottle cases, which had flip-up tops, a light brown color. Inside, Mom kept a 12-inch electric skillet with a lid and a coffee pot that were removed once the boxes were safely behind the room’s closed door. Technically, you weren’t supposed to cook in rooms without kitchenettes. But Pop’s legal opinion was, “They didn’t say positively.” Every fifth motel, the skillet would blow a fuse, and the lights would go out throughout the complex. Mom and Pop would emerge from the room and ask, “What’s going on? What happened?”
That’s the way we really saved money: We never ate out. And with Mom’s cooking, we never wanted to. Nowadays, such covert actions might bring a SWAT raid.
We drove through the endless corn and wheat fields of the Midwest and next stayed at Cozad, Nebraska. In pre-iPod and -iPhone days, entertainment was the family singing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” “Oh! Susanna,” and other classic American songs. My brother, sister, and I played games in the back seat. One was Traffic Safety Bingo, made up of 25 traffic signs, such as a railroad or a speed-limit sign. When you saw one sign, you pushed a transparent plastic cover to reveal the sign beneath. When you got five in a row, or diagonally, you won.
Another game was who would be the first to see the majestic Rocky Mountains. In Wyoming, I first screamed, “Rockies!” We also were amazed to see small herds of American buffalo, which then were enjoying a resurgence after almost going extinct early in the century.
We drove down into Utah and swam in the Great Salt Lake, so thick with salt you could float without an inner tube. To make sure we understood what not to do, Pop recalled how, as a young man of 20 in 1938, he had driven out with some pals and “dove into the Great Salt Lake with my eyes open,” coming up screaming from the salt peeling his eyes.
Our eyes sure were open when we got to Cedar Breaks National Monument and Bryce Canyon, whose striated brown-black-gold rock formations, speckled with green fir and white aspen, define America the Beautiful. We snuck under a natural rock bridge over the road. At Zion National Park, we stayed at a small motel and froze at an unheated pool as we gazed up at the natural wonders around us.
Las Vegas in 1964 offered the humane vice of the Chicago Outfit, instead of the gargantuan rip-offs of the conglomerates that now run the place. Slot machines were everywhere. At a restaurant, I walked up to a slot to get a closer look, until the manager complained to my parents—the deference to parental authority was notable—who shooed me away. The slots were the old mechanical kind, where you might hope for a machine malfunction to beat the odds, instead of the new digital kind that are algorithmically rigged for you always to lose.
We swung over to Death Valley, the lowest and hottest place in North America, where the Impala’s lack of air conditioning became critical at 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Mom fished ice cubes out of the cooler and passed them around. That evening, the descent into the Los Angeles Basin brought welcome cool breezes.
A great way to save money traveling is to stay with relatives. Uncle Fred and Aunt Mary, a Chattanooga girl, put us up in Orange, California. Imagine an enlisted man today retiring to a California home he owned. From Mom’s side, Uncle Fred Streip left Port Huron in 1917 when he was drafted into the Army and fought in World War I. After the war, he joined the Navy to see the world. He retired in 1937. “The Japs were thumbing their noses at us from their ships,” he remembered of the mid-1930’s. “The scrap metal we were selling them soon was fired back at us as shells.”
As things were heating up in 1940, Uncle Fred was “recalled,” according to just-released official records I found on the web, and served for the duration. He trained the young draftees on how to run a ship. On October 31, 1941, he was a machinist’s mate on the USS Aldebaran, a stores ship that made a run to Pearl Harbor just before the attack. Names just below and above his on the roster: Pritchett, Rydgren, Scribner, Soots, Wicker. According to one article, in 1944 “Aldebaran spent the next nine months carrying provisions to ships at forward bases in the Marshalls and Carolines.”
I loved the war stories. But even better were the fireworks. California then allowed much more powerful pyrotechnics than those in Michigan, where we could get only sparklers. The adults were amused as Eddie and I blew up Uncle Fred’s and Aunt Mary’s front lawn. Pop bought us a box of fireworks to haul back to Michigan as contraband, making us the coolest kids around. Aunt Mary died in 1984, and Uncle Fred a year later. When I’m in the area, I visit their graves at Riverside National Cemetery.
Before the Beatles arrived in 1964, my soundtrack was the Beach Boys. Throw in Disneyland and Hollywood, and California was the Golden State. The Pacific was the first ocean I saw, and I was surprised at how cold it was. Michigan lakes heat up in the summer.
Disneyland was only nine years old, same as me, and cost just $2.50 per day for eight attractions. Today, it’s $80 with unlimited attractions, but the lines are so long that you’re lucky to make four. In 1964, Walt Disney was still in charge and wanted to entertain families, not gouge them. The best area was Tomorrowland, with the bumper cars, Monorail, and my favorite, the Submarine Voyage, where we dove 20,000 leagues under the sea, spotted mermaids and a sea serpent, then made a run under the North Pole. (The attraction was closed in 1998 but repurposed in 2005 as the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage.) The sub we rode on was the Nautilus, same as the U.S. Navy’s first nuclear sub, which went under the North Pole and was featured on my school lunchbox.
Watching our family’s old home movies, I recall that, in 1964, Americans on vacation still dressed nicely—women in summer dresses, men in leisure slacks with shirts tucked in. Only kids ran around in shorts. Teenage girls didn’t dress like streetwalkers.
In those days before Disney went global, Disneyland was the only Magic Kingdom around. So people flew or drove there from all over the country. As Clyde Wilson wrote around 15 years ago in Chronicles, because of the 1924-64 immigration moratorium, after four decades Americans finally had grown together as one people, toughened by the Great Depression, steeled by World War II, and buoyed by prosperity.
North and South together were celebrating the centenary of heroes on both sides of the Civil War. Catholics and Protestants had elected the first Catholic president. The biggest division, black and white, seemed to be getting better without coercion. Even peace seemed to be at hand after the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. It had been only two weeks since President Johnson—in his University of Michigan commencement address, given in Ann Arbor 15 miles west of our home—had detailed his blueprint for America’s destruction, calling it his “Great Society.” Happy, happy America, not knowing what was coming next.
We visited the other California amusement parks: Knotts Berry Farm gave a taste of the Old West before the park erected tasteless roller-coaster rides. A ride on burros was 35¢ for kids, $1.05 for the three of us. And the old Marineland of the Pacific featured trained seals.
Los Angeles was smoggy, but the traffic flowed. My father was the president of the Wayne Kiwanis and attended a convention at which the main speaker was Ronald Reagan, gearing up for his 1966 gubernatorial bid. We stayed at the only hotel of the trip, the old Clark Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. It had a stairwell where you could look down from our floor—around the 15th—all the way to the bottom. My brother and I giggled as we spit down to the bottom floor. My father shooed us away and later said he had nightmares of us pitching over the edge and splatting on the marble.
Skipping Yosemite, we hugged the coast and sailed across the Golden Gate Bridge. Access to the Pacific Coast was free almost everywhere, a big money saver. It was our coast. Since then, although federal and state laws supposedly grant the public access to the coasts, large sections have been cordoned off by parks officials and environmental activists. I don’t know what the California state parks cost in 1964, but today it’s $15 per day, or $195 for a yearly pass. We didn’t do it, but I know folks who used to sleep on park beaches; now the curfew is 10 p.m.
Passing underneath the Redwoods, Pop inched the car through the middle of the Shrine Tree: 5,000 years old, 64 feet in circumference, 200 feet high, 21 feet in diameter. Then on to Klamath and the Paul Bunyan Trees of Mystery, with giant statues of American legends Paul and his blue ox, Babe. In Oregon, we explored the coast for free, including an old beached wooden ship. The Pacific was even colder than in California.
In 1954, Mom was working as a registered nurse in a hospital in Everett, Washington, which offered to make her the head of nursing obstetrics. She declined because just then Pop flew out from Detroit, married her, and carried her back home. On our trip a decade later, we went to the Faith Lutheran Church where they were married, called the “Chapel in the Firs.” Home movies show Mom and Pop leaving the church, hand in hand, followed by us three kids spilling out and playing. That’s the order in which you’re supposed to do it.
We stayed at the home of Mom’s second cousins, Ruth and Luther, overlooking lush Puget Sound. We kids thought it fun sleeping on a bed of blankets in the airy attic. Luther’s cancer operation placed a pipe in his esophagus, through which he wheezed out words, nine of ten of which you could understand. It rained.
The big Seattle attraction was zooming 520 feet to the observation deck of the Space Needle, which had first opened two years before during the World’s Fair. We looked around—north, south, east, west—at our magnificent America. Tickets were $1 for adults, 75¢ for children, compared with $19 and $12 today.
Turning back east, we drove to Grand Coulee Dam, one of our country’s man-made wonders, erected back when Americans weren’t afraid to build great things. It still provides cheap power to the Northwest.
At Glacier National Park in Montana, the roads were so steep and narrow that, at one high elevation, I peered over my father’s shoulder as he was driving, looked at the speedometer, and said, “Pop, we’re only going seven miles per hour.” He kept driving and gripped the steering wheel harder. When we stopped, we threw snowballs in July.
Quake Lake was created by the 1959 Yellowstone Earthquake. At Madison River Canyon, according to the plaque we filmed, a 3,000-pound boulder “literally floated across the canyon on top of the slide” and squashed 19 tourists just like us on a picnic.
Yellowstone Park is the crown jewel of the National Park System. A sign with Smokey Bear greeted us at the entrance, providing the kindly reminder, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” Today, on a poster at a bus stop next to my apartment in Huntington Beach, Smokey points an accusing right finger at us while holding a threatening shovel in his left hand and barks, “Only YOU can prevent wildfires.” That says a lot about the 48 years of change in the relationship between the U.S. government and the American people. Then as now, Old Faithful erupted every 91 minutes. As we drove through the park, some people in a car ahead of us stopped and threw food to a bear; they were fortunate to avoid getting mauled.
At Craig, Colorado, I was entranced by a rodeo with real cowboys roping real cows. In Denver, Pop attended a judges’ convention at the Law Center of the University of Denver. On reflection, I realize that this signaled the trend, also involving police conventions and centralizing U.S. Supreme Court decisions, of the plague of nationalizing jurisprudence and policing.
We jogged on down to Colorado Springs and toured the shiny new Air Force Academy and the Garden of the Gods. Then on to Kansas City, where for some reason I remember sitting in a motel watching the mid-July Republican National Convention at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. I wondered where they put the cows. My parents were natural conservatives who backed Barry Goldwater, the last major-party nominee to call for eliminating the entire Welfare State, against liberals Nelson Rockefeller and our Michigan governor, George Romney. It was the start of my misguided interest in politics.
We then headed back to Wayne.
Now living in Southern California, where there’s no winter road salting to erode the cars, I sometimes see a sky-blue ’63 Impala and want to hop in and ride back home.