Family Car Trips Were Always Hot, Cramped, Smelly - And Doomed
A version of this originally appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on June 30, 2001
Last Sunday morning my husband and I found ourselves at the airport, bidding farewell to our daughter as she boarded a flight to New England and summer camp.
As we waited for the jet to take off, we ran into another set of parents whose daughters were on the same flight. Also bound for camp.``Whatever happened to family vacations in the car?' wondered the husband wistfully.
Which proves that over time, even the most odious experiences in life are scented with the sweet perfume of remembrance.
And you need a whiff of perfume when recalling 1950s car trips, since there was no air conditioning in those cramped family station wagons. As a character in a National Lampoon movie once said when remembering one of those road shows: ``Oh, the smell!'
Although the destination of our annual summer vacation changed from year to year during the 1950s and '60s, the lecture before we backed out of the driveway never did.
My father always took a moment to remind us that the two weeks we were about to enjoy together did not come through the munificence of John A. Roebling's Sons Co., where he was employed, but through the unions that had fought to give the working man a break. Left to their own, my father always said, robber baron industrialists would work the men until they simply died of exhaustion.
(This from someone who would go on to vote for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.)
Then my dad would switch on the engine and intone the words that officially signaled the start of every Dougherty car trip:
`We're off like a dirty shirt.'
With that, we would weave our way out of Allentown, N.J., my father gingerly making left-hand turns on narrow streets with a fat little camper hitched to the bumper of the station wagon, my mother chain-smoking Pall Malls in the passenger seat, nervously studying road maps.
Sitting cheek to cheek in the back seat and already bathed in sweat were my brother, my grandmother, my mentally handicapped aunt, our Irish setter, the cat and me.
Each July we optimistically struck out for someplace new, someplace with clean air and low humidity that would provide an ``educational experience' for us kids. Each year we endured a host of mishaps that left us either hospitalized, detained by the police or waiting impatiently for our car to be repaired.
Niagara Falls one year. New York's Finger Lakes the next. Once we drove to the summit of Mount Washington in New Hampshire (where the transmission of the Dodge burned up). Another time we lingered for three days at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown while the brakes were replaced.
And one unforgettable summer, we headed to Yellowstone National Park, in a LeMans-style race to get to Wyoming in time to throw a few vanilla wafers to the bears before heading home.
Wherever we went, our route always took us by a racetrack, where we would spend an exciting day in a tutorial on trifectas, tip sheets and the downfall of so many Irish families: the gambling technique known as ``double up to catch up.'
But I digress.
Our jaunt to Niagara Falls encapsulated everything wrong with family road trips of the past century.
We were scarcely an hour away from home before the first in a relentless series of catastrophes struck.
It turned out that my grandmother had taken too literally my father's stern warning against overpacking. She had brought along just one dress - a drip-dry navy number with white polka dots, which she was wearing. Her plan was to wash the dress at the campground each night and wear it every day.
But these were the days before cup holders. Fifty miles into our trip my grandmother sloshed an entire cup of hot coffee down the front of her dress, scalding her midriff and turning a full third of her polka dots dark brown.
She was distraught at the thought that the stain might set before she could wash it that night.
My mother then begged my father to return home and allow his mother to fetch another frock.
But there was no turning back on a Dougherty family vacation.
Instead, my father suggested that his mother remove her dress and that my mother dash into a gas station restroom to wash it.
The women agreed.
Which is how we came to be driving north on the New York Thruway on a hot July day in 1959 with a blue polka dot dress tied to the antenna and my grandmother huddled in the back seat in her slip.
``Refugees,' my mother muttered, as she lit another cigarette. ``We look like a bunch of refugees.'
In a sense, we were. Refugees from working-class America, desperately escaping to a change of scenery.
Before that memorable fortnight ended, I would be hospitalized for food poisoning. My grandmother would be threatened with incarceration for wondering aloud why New York state police always ``pick on New Jersey boys' while my father was getting a speeding ticket. My aunt would have a dizzying attack of vertigo on a catwalk near the Canadian side of the falls and the family cat would disappear.
My parents thought the cat got lost. I always assumed she fled.
Which is precisely what I would do if anyone ever suggested I spend two weeks trapped in a hot car with my nearest and dearest.