Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Roadside Gems


Roadside Gems
by Gregory E. Larson

           The air in the car was stuffy and smelly. I was bored, and already tired of the family vacation trip to Minnesota. All I could see was Iowa corn in every direction, and I was getting a headache from smelling my brothers and the diesel fumes from the trucks on the highway. We were shoulder to shoulder in the back seat, where our arms and hands were always moving . . . a shove here, a pinch or a poke there. We had to learn to take it like a man and be quiet, lest we alert Mom and Dad to a problem. If that happened, Dad would reach his arm to the back, grab one of us without taking his eyes off the road, and shout “Hey, let’s cut it out back there! Do you want me to stop?”

          At least there was a two-out-of-three chance to get a window seat. The best seat was the rear right side. Although it was still within Dad’s reach, I liked it because the signs and the billboards along the roadside were a relief to the boredom. In the ’50s and early ’60s there were no Interstate highways. I-35 did not exist. The signs and the farms were closer to the road, and the 60 mile-per-hour speed limit was much slower than today. Iowa seemed prettier than the dusty-brown Kansas countryside. The barns were red, the corn was green and the trees were lush along the rivers and creeks.

          There was something that sparked my interest in the colorful metal signs tacked to the fences and the barns . . . Chief Paints . . . DeKalb . . . United Hybrids . . . Mail Pouch Tobacco. They were cheery-looking and colorful, even when it rained. The billboards were a detective’s exercise. I always tried to guess the size of the town or city just by reading the signs. Was it a business town or a tourist town? Big or small? If there were more than two farm implement dealers, I knew it was a big town. All I had to do was read the billboards . . . International Harvester . . . John Deere . . . McCormick-Farmall . . . Case. All types of signs were fascinating to me.
          “Here come the Burma-Shave signs!” I shouted. Everyone, including Mom and Dad in the front seat, focused on the series of small signs next to the corn field. We all read them in unison – kind of a family bonding experience.
          At a quiz
          Pa ain’t
          No whiz
          But he knows how
          To keep Ma his

          After laughs and snickers, my little brother, Tim, blurted out, “I don’t get it.” More laughs and snickers.

           Dad tried to make him feel better. “Tim, I think we have another state on the car tag ahead. Can you make it out? What is it?”

           Tim had the best seat from the rear to see between Mom and Dad and spy the tag on the car ahead. “I-L-L-I-N-O-I-S . . . Illinoise!” More laughs and snickers.
          Mom correctly pronounced the state for Tim, "Ill-i-noy. Land of Lincoln."

          Tim whined, “I’m thirsty.”

          Dad responded, “I need to stop for gas soon. We’ll see what we can find.”

          We all chimed in: “Can I get a bottle a pop? How about a Baby Ruth or a Pay Day? Do they have bathrooms? Let’s look for an A&W!”

          “We’ll see what’s in town,” said Mom, “We’ll find a restroom, but there’s not a prayer it'll be clean.” She pulled out some towelette packets from the glove box. “Here, use these when you are finished."

          Dad browsed the gas stations as we rolled into town, always looking for a place selling discount gas. If he didn’t find the cheap station, he would grudgingly pull into a Standard station. Stopping for a break was pure excitement for me. It was a chance to see new things, new places. My brothers and I would latch ourselves inside the tiny gas station bathrooms. We’d try every faucet handle and flush lever, just to see what worked. The faucets dripped and the porcelain lavatories were most always stained. The most fun was pulling on the cloth that “sanitized” itself as it looped through the box on the wall.

          If we were lucky, Mom would give each of us a dime for a bottle of pop. She was the keeper of the purse on our road trips. After every stop, she pulled out a small pad and pencil from the glove box and recorded every expenditure, no matter how large or small.

          The variety of soda-pop machines was interesting. Some were chest coolers that required the buyer to slide the bottle to the corner and pull it through a release mechanism. Others had a narrow vertical glass door, behind which the bottle caps were visible on the first bottle of each row. The buyer had to pull the bottle through the hole. Cans didn’t exist. I always looked for my favorite flavors: Nu-Grape or Mission Orange. My brothers and I made sure to put our fingers in all of the coin-return slots on all the vending machines. Free coins were like gold nuggets. When Mom and Dad weren't looking, we'd pull the chrome knobs on the cigarette machine, just for the fun of it.

          If we were really lucky, we might see a mechanic raise a car on the lift or watch him remove a wheel and tire from a truck.  The smell of grease and gasoline along with the taste of the candy and pop was close to sensory overload. It was rare to get a whole bottle of pop to myself. That fact alone created a vacation atmosphere. All around the gas station were more colorful signs for tires, batteries, oil additives, soda pop, cigarettes . . .Good-year . . . Bardahl . . . Royal Crown Cola . . . Seven-UP . . . Camel.


          All too soon, Dad would make us put our empty bottles in the slots in the wooden cases stacked next to the pop machine and herd us back to the car. I’d look at the nearby neighborhood bungalows and wonder what it would be like to live so close to a gas station. That would be cool, only if there were playgrounds and swimming pools nearby.

          Mom made us select a different location in the back seat just for change’s sake, and off we’d go down the road. I kept looking for colorful signs in northern Iowa. As we approached the border, I would look for the Leaving Iowa sign as we passed a perpendicular fence or dirt road, then we’d see the Welcome to Minnesota sign. I thought of the state lines shown on the maps at school, and I imagined a big black line painted on the ground or in the middle of the road we passed.

          Once we were in Minnesota, the anticipation began to build to see my cousins at White Bear Lake. I looked out the car window, but it still looked like Iowa. I didn’t see any lakes or forests, yet. I always looked for the first sign in Minnesota that had Larson on it. Sometimes it was an advertisement for Larson Outboard Motors. Other times a billboard would have the name of Larson Insurance or Larson Hardware.

          We kept getting closer to our destination and I was bursting with excitement. I wanted to run barefoot through the clover all the way to the dock and the beach at the lake, and ride the sailboat or splash in the water, but first we had to drive through Minneapolis and St. Paul.

          “Look over there, kids,” Mom pointed to a funny small building on a street in Minneapolis. “That was the first White Castle burger stand.”   The white castle-like building attracted the attention of passersby. It was a symbol, or a sign of sorts.

Original Minneapolis White Castle
Image on Wikipedia
          There was plenty to look at in the city, but I didn’t care by that time on the trip. I was locked in to the destination. I wanted to run free, to get some space between me and my brothers. Besides, there would be plenty of time to look at signs on the return trip home.