On most days there is an unnerving sense that I have stumbled into the middle of a French film with Japanese subtitles and that there will be a test afterwards. With the exception of the number of stars on the flag, the address for the White House, and the fact that the sun still rises in the east, there is little I recognize from my childhood.
|Jim Hinckley on Route 66|
Before you write me off as the old coot that is not quite as old as dirt but that is just a bit older than rope, let me tell you a bit about the magic summer of 1967. That was the first year we drove east after our relocation to the vast wilderness of Arizona the previous summer.
My dad wasn’t a big fan of the military even though he devoted almost twenty years to service, first with a stint in the Navy during World War II, and later with the Coast Guard. Still, the structured life instilled in boot camp had stayed with him and one manifestation was the insistence that each day begin at 05:00.
The exception to the rule was in regards to day one of a trip. Then the day began at 04:30.
Most of our adventures were taken in vehicles that looked as though they might be used in a remake of the Grapes of Wrath. For this trip we enjoyed the relative luxury of dad’s 1964 Ford Fairlane sedan, a car he had purchased in late 1965.
As I was only a kid, I didn’t pay much attention to time but based on later experiences am quite sure we were on the road by 06:00. As stop one for this adventure was to visit family in Pisgah on Sand Mountain in Alabama, we rolled east on US 66.
In retrospect, I now see with clarity that summer was one of those rare moments in time when a change in direction, like 9-11 or December 7, 1941, for the nation, the world, and my family was blindingly evident and we were right smack dab in the middle of it.
This was the first time we had traveled without my older sister as she had married a Marine that summer. It was also the first summer I remember, with clarity, seeing men that looked as though they were trying to imitate Jesus with long hair and beards, and that wore costumes rather than clothes. It was the first trip where we stayed in motels more often than we camped along the road, and the first time I sensed an unease in dad.
Our earlier road trips were not the sepia toned images that illicit sighs of longing for the good old days. They were always an odd blending of travel circa 1935 and the modern era. We camped along the road, ate meals from cans or made sandwiches, washed the sweat from our faces in streams or at road side pumps, fixed inner tubes along the highway, and drank warm water.
Most of all, we had fun. In spite of long hours in the car, suffering through the long hot days without air conditioning, the mosquito’s, and the melted crayons, we had fun. We splashed in creeks while dad fixed a tire, and sometimes dad would surprise us with a cold coke, or peach soda in Georgia, at a gas station where the smell of tires, grease, gear oil, and hot engines filled the air. We climbed on rocks and in trees, and made friends on the road as we met the same families at different roadside parks.
This trip was different. We stayed in motels more than we camped out. We ate in restaurants more than had picnics. We had fun as these new found luxuries added a never before experienced dimension to the cross country adventure, but there was an emptiness, a loneliness.
We didn’t play in a park with kids in Amarillo and with the same kids in a park in Oklahoma. We might see them at the same motel but with the luxury of color television, the evening was spent indoors instead of rolling around in the grass, laying under the stars, or chasing fireflies.
Perhaps all of this is why that summer at the farm on Sand Point is so memorable. There, in that little corner of the world, the waves of change were pounding a beach far removed from Pisgah.
On Sand Mountain they still cooked sorghum, share cropped the land, and played checkers in front of the dry goods store in Dunton. My uncle still ran the grist mill on Pisgah Creek and, rumor had it, ran shine north to Monteagle in Tennessee with a few stops along the way.
It wasn’t a perfect world on Sand Mountain. Dirt poor were more than words there, it was a way of life. The men often died young. In spite of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, on the mountain the only color seen in the faces of the people was weathered leather brown with a shading of red, at least from the wrist down and between the rim of the hat and collar.
Company from as far away as Arizona was a big thing on the mountain and was always cause for a celebration. There would be a big spread under the willow come sunset when a soft, honeysuckle scented breeze began to chase the sticky heat away – fried chicken and turnip greens, poke salad and home made biscuits, fresh tomatoes and melons, pork chops and corn on the cob, corn bread with butter and sorghum, string beans and sugar peas.
Desert was always a treat. Apple and peach cobbler topped with ice cream the kids earned by sweating over a crank, preserves and biscuits, all washed down with sweet tea, for the younger folks, and something a bit harder for the older set.
When Burton pulled his fiddle from the truck, Troy dusted off the guitar, and German gathered up his Jews harp and banjo, it was time to swat at mosquitoes, watch the fire flies dance in the night sky, and listen to Donald in his deep Baritone voice tinged with a drawl sing ballads about forlorn tales of lost loves, of runaway trains, of the evils of corn liquor and of the saving grace of the Lord. My day always ended with reluctance as the kids were herded off to bed, but not before Burton pulled a shiny dime from our ears.
Our time on the mountain was short that year. We still had family to see in Chattanooga and Jackson in Michigan before making the long drive home.
So, with sadness we said our goodbyes, I returned the speckled hen that in my mind was going to make a better traveling companion than my sister, and the folks standing in the farm yard were were soon swept from sight by the pink tinged dust that swirled behind dad’s Ford.
It was two years before we returned to Sand Mountain. In that time our cities burned as more than two hundred years of prejudices ignited a firestorm fueled by a few who saw an opportunity to prosper from misery by appointing themselves the Messiah. We had put a man on the moon, filled our living rooms with battlefield carnage every evening, and sent many of the nations finest young men to die in a foreign land for causes that never seemed to be quite clear.
A new generation swept through our institutions of higher learning wholly convinced they were the first in history to be enlightened but never realizing their zeal and passion was merely the misguided ignorance of youth. In their quest to transform the world and cleanse the nation by fire, they burned and plowed under the best along with the worst.
The gap between those with the wisdom only garnered with age and the passionate vision reserved for the idealistic and naive youth, widened as never before. We became a nation divided with no sense of purpose or direction.
Route 66 was almost gone, buried by the rush to nowhere it had spawned. Gnawing at the rotted pillars of a megalithic industry were the upstarts such as Honda and Datsun.
And on Sand Mountain the waves of change had finally reached its summit. Lung cancer had silenced Don’s voice. His boy had left the mountain, forsaken the good things learned there, and traded them for the hollow, empty veneer of good times in the big city. Now he was paying the price with a twenty year sentence in Hunstville.
Troy, was gone. A heart attack had dropped him in a corn row on a hot summers day. The land owner had decided there was more money in housing than in shared crops. The old Fordson had went to the junk man in Scottsboro.
On the mountain, only the shadow of what had made it special, and the bad remained. Burton still banked in Scottsboro where he made his mark on checks to cash but the mill was closed and ignorance made manifest in prejudice held sway for another decade or so. The mosquito’s still swarmed thick but the juicy cantaloupe, the reward for braving their hordes, was no more.
Our trips to the mountain came further apart and the drives east and west were made on the four lane more often than on the two lane. Camping by the roadside, splashing in roadside creeks, and fixing a tire along the road became dust covered memories.
Ice cream came from the store, not earned by the sweat of the brow. The hamburger we ate in Flagstaff had the same taste and came in the same wrapper as the one we ate in Missouri, and the family at the table next to ours was black or white.
Yes, there is little in this grand old nation that I recognize from my youth and for that I am grateful, and for that, I am deeply saddened. I remember when …