Greg Kerr shares with the readers of Military Brat Life something we all have in common—long road trips we took as families, moving from place to place, and visiting family along the way.
As military brats we all have plenty of stories regarding travel. That’s what the life entailed…travel. I recently watched an A&E program titled “America..the Story of Us”. There was a segment in it, which told of the development and construction of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System.
I thought maybe the program would give some credit for the idea to Nazi Germany but I guess that wouldn’t have been too patriotic. Actually a large portion of the inspiration for our freeway system was in fact the German Autobahns which Eisenhower and other Americans witnessed first hand during World War Two. Of course our system is built to a much larger scale than those of much smaller countries. And it has changed us forever.
When I was ten we were living in Fort Leonard Wood Missouri. Ft. Wood lay along the fabled Route 66. Route 66 was one of the main east-west highways in the country. In 1964 the freeway had already come through and ran parallel to old Route 66. I was introduced to this highway through school. When we arrived in Fort Wood my parents found out there was access to a Catholic elementary school in Rolla Missouri about 25 miles up the highway from the base. As a service to Catholic family, the Army provided a bus for those dependents who chose to attend school in Rolla.
Our previous posting had been in Germany, so I was not new to the idea of freeways, and when my parents decided to send me to the Catholic school, the idea of a long bus trip did not excite me. Regardless of how good the highway was. It would just take more time out of my day, and I also figured it would set me apart from the other kids. It did indeed make for a long school day but quite a few of my neighbors also attended that school.
When I think back to those days traveling down that new expressway to Rolla, a certain image comes to mind. Remember “The Highway Of Death” during the Gulf War?…Well the new Route 66 was sort of like that, but the dead were animals, not Iraqis escaping Kuwait. I’ve never seen so many dead animals along a freeway in my entire life. But that expressway was not the norm and I would soon be going on a trip that more closely reflected travel in the fifties and sixties.
I had an Uncle and Aunt and two cousins who lived in Biloxi Mississippi. My Aunt had died suddenly when we were overseas. My Dad had not gotten to return to the States for the funeral for reasons unknown to me. Probably just the distance and logistics of such a trip in those days. It was decided that summer of 1964, to use a portion of Dad’s annual leave to go down to Biloxi and visit my Uncle and cousins.
When the day dawned for our trip to begin, Dad had the car packed and ready to go. Did I say day had dawned?…..sorry..I meant the predawn darkness. This was de rigeur in our family. Dad always left early in order to get a full day’s travel in. The five of us piled into the family car. The Beast was a 1958 or 9 Studebaker Lark station wagon. It was black with an ox-blood colored naugahyde interior. It did not have air conditioning. When we’d got that car I spent some thought wondering just what type of animal a Nauga was. My brother soon set me straight and of course he began with the usual “You Idiot!” When it was hot outside you could receive 1st degree burns on any spot of exposed flesh which came into contact with that skin of the Nauga. I mean black with a dark red interior is not exactly a cool summer color.
Dad’s route would have us proceed down to Memphis and from there catch a highway down to Jackson and from Jackson to Hattiesburg and then on down to Gulfport and Biloxi. The entire route would be two lane roads. Not by choice I might add. So off we went with the car loaded up, looking like the Beverley Hillbillys. The first leg of the trip comprised a rather grueling journey down through the Ozarks Mountains. I think our speed was around “the speed of bus”. You know…winding roads..switchbacks…sharp curves…and stop and go through every little dogwater town on the way.
As we neared Memphis we had the radio tuned to a local station. The weather break reported it was 104 degrees in Memphis. Before we got to town the music was interrupted for a special bulletin. The news announcer came on and informed citizens that in the last hour,.three separate robberies of motorists had occurred in urban Memphis. These robberies had occurred while drivers were stopped for traffic lights. It was obviously the work of a single deranged perpetrator who was considered armed and dangerous. The police were advising motorists to keep their car doors locked and their windows rolled up. Now Dad was not worried at all…heck for all I know he had a .45 under the dash..but Mom insisted, so up the windows went and down the lock buttons.
It took forever to get through Memphis, like driving through Atlanta on Peachtree Road instead of the freeway. I was way past burning up and believe I was quite possibly out of sweat as well, but at least we were allowed to roll our windows down again.
Finally we cleared town and headed down a highway which closely follows the current route of interstate 55. It was not much faster than the trip through Memphis. Once traffic had thinned out and civilization more or less gave way to a heat hazed countryside, Dad decided to stop for gas.
The station was a dinky Mom and Pop affair with a close resemblance to Goobers place on Mayberry RFD. Two gas pumps, which as God is my witness, may have even been the ancient style where the gas was first pumped up into the glass case up above, and then you released it into your tank. Out front of the little building was one of those Coke logo drink chests. I begged and pleaded for something to drink as I was close to heat exhaustion. Mom relented and I went over to the drink box and opened it.
Peering inside I saw maybe six lonely green bottles sitting on the floor of an otherwise empty chest. I picked one up and looked at the label. It said Mountain Dew. I was unfamiliar with that brand but it was all they had .It was also luke warm. I popped the cap on the bottle opener attached to the box and raised it to my lips and drank it down in one long swallow. Before we left the station I puked up that luke warm Mountain Dew. I was allowed to go to the bathroom where I sipped some water from the faucet and washed up some. Mountain Dew has never once crossed my lips since that day.
After a long day of slow traffic down to Jackson, and short of Hattiesburg, Mom talked Dad into stopping for the night. Of course Dad didn’t want to but he reluctantly agreed.
It was after dark when he found a cheap enough looking motor court in some small southern Mississippi town. It was kind of a ratty place but lo and behold it had a pool, and the pool had underwater lights! Us three kids immediately began negotiations to be allowed to go night swimming. We were told it was too late and besides we hadn’t eaten. We moped into the room and Dad set out on a mission to find food for the clan.
He returned saying the only place he found open was a greasy spoon diner. He had brought hamburgers and cartons of milk for us kids. Well the burgers were like rotten Horse meat..I mean uneatable…and I am not a picky eater. I think that meat had turned. The Milk definitely had turned sour. So there my parents were with three unhappy and hungry kids, wondering what they could do to turn the situation around. ” I know” they said..let’s tell the kids they can swim!” So they did.
Mom came out to the pool while Dad went to return the slop and find some crackers and cheese or something. Us kids were ecstatic. My brother said the water was so nice and warm the pool must be heated. It really wasn’t..it was just hot like those Mississippi summers. That night turned out to be one of my favorite travel memories ever. We had the pool all to ourselves and I’ve always gotten a thrill swimming in a pool whose waters are lit up blue by underwater lights.
There were a lot of those skimmer type water bugs in the pool gliding across the top, but rather than bother us we thought they were cool. There was a low diving board and my brother and sister spent time trying to teach me to dive properly. A truly wonderful time was had by all. The next day we slept in a little later than usual and then drove on down to Biloxi. Today you can look at a map of where we went and think..”gees..what took so long!”..Well that is what it was like to travel back in those days when all the freeways were yet to be built. You never knew what kind of slowdowns you’d encounter.
Today with freeways, you don’t have to worry about getting stuck behind a tractor towing a flat bed of hay down the road. Or stop for all the stop signs and traffic lights. Today it’s generally just go go go until you get there. Yeah it’s a lot quicker traveling on freeways..less interesting too I think. Looking back on trips like our journey to Biloxi…or getting held up for hours in rural France because of sheep drives, I can’t believe how much travel has changed. I wonder if it was really so bad back then? If so, how can I explain me being the type that opts for the scenic route or the one who can’t pass up a dirt road. Sure, I like being able to get somewhere quick, but give me the time and just sit back and watch me slow down!