Three hours on a dark, lonely highway, six people in a Chevrolet. A few hours at my grandparents’ house was fun, but the time passed quickly and before we knew it, the journey home was at hand. Three hours on a Sunday night feels forever.
Staying late into the evening only made things worse. Sometimes there was a movie on television, “The Wizard of Oz” and we begged to watch it, which meant we would get home around 11 pm. And there was school the next morning.
Sleeping on the drive home was an option, but I found it difficult to sleep in the car. In the backseat there were three of us and it was crowded with no room to be comfortable. The seats were vinyl, cold during the winter and sticky hot during the summer. The car had no air conditioning for the summer drives. In the mid 1960s when A/C was still a luxury. This was a winter visit and the heater never seemed to put enough warmth into the backseat so I huddled in my coat. Being a small kid I could almost curl up comfortably on the floor. The space between the hump of the driveshaft and the door was my cave. I could disappear into it. The steady vibration of the pavement below provided a since of almost being rocked to sleep, but it was just bumpy enough to keep me from being too comfortable. Sometimes I drifted into twilight sleep but it never lasted.
We pulled out from my grandparents’ house and began the journey home. The small town was dead on a Sunday night. The downtown streets were empty; the November gray had turned into winter blackness. Stores were closed; they had been since Saturday afternoon. In the 1960’s and Sundays was a day for rest and worship, not for commerce. The dull yellowish streetlights felt cold and lonely as we drove under them.
Soon, onto the highway, across the bridge, and back on the road that brought us in. The arrival drive filled me with excitement, we couldn’t get there fast enough. My grandparents’ house was special to me, a world where life felt possible. It helped that they gave me attention; what kid didn’t like that. Despite attempts to delay it, the time to depart always arrived.
In the 1960’s, for entertainment choices, you had the AM radio, or you read a book. That was it. The radio choices in rural Kansas were limited and many AM stations went off the air or were impossible to pick up at night. The radio also kept my dad awake as he settled in for the three hour drive. On the half hour, the network news identifier came on, signaling five minutes of headlines. The tone was a short sequence of notes, not music but a series of tones like from some piece of industrial equipment. The male voice was all business, impersonal and direct, reading the top news stories of the day. Sports and weather were rarely included. The voice originated from a big city, probably New York, or maybe Chicago for the Midwest. I wondered what the man behind that voice looked like. I imagined an older man, a crumpled newsman, sitting behind a big microphone in a deserted studio with just the clock on the wall. He probably wondered why he was reading the news to a bunch of in cars on dark roads on a Sunday night. Where had his career gone wrong?
When he was done with the news facts, the local station started up music again, a mixture of country and western, and easy listening pop or orchestra backed songs. No rock and roll, just songs for adults up later than they wanted to be. Another 25 minutes and those tones would signal the news and we’d hear essentially the same news headlines again. By the time you were about halfway home, you could recite the news yourself from memory.
Looking out the window, which sometimes had condensation on it, the view was black. Occasionally, there was a light in the distance, a farm, with people who were most likely asleep. All around you was emptiness.
The highway was narrow and curved, vehicles hurling toward each other separated by only inches. Two-lane highways were the norm, and they connected each small patch of a towns along the way. This was before the collapse of small town USA, and before highways detoured around towns. Highways took you from one edge to the other, where you slowed to 30 miles an hour and stopped at each city traffic light. Just when you thought you were making progress, another small town, and you crept along deserted Sunday night streets.
We had taken this trip so many times that you didn’t have to be in daylight to know where you were; the sequence of little towns and the curves in the highway were familiar in your sleep. During the day you’d notice certain houses or buildings, sometimes abandoned, and wonder what the story was. Life left. In small towns or rural America in the 1960’s, time stood still, but nature didn’t. From trip to trip you could see decay set in as trees grew up around structures, paint faded and wood warped, weeds grew through cracks in pavement.
There was a factory in one of the towns along the way. It was a bustling, large building, and then it wasn’t. Jobs the town depended on. It sat vacant for years. Then part of it got a reuse, then that too ended. Years later the entire area was razed, but nothing replaced it. Erased from memory. I drove past it years later and I remembered. It was not even my town; I had no connection to it. The years that it provided jobs for families and money to drive the local economy, it was a hub of many lives. I suspect those people are all gone, moved on or dispersed to the winds.
I recall a line of small cabins, part of a motel that went out of business along a curve of highway, a few miles from any town. For years, they sat with growing decay, sinking further from when life surrounded them. Then one trip I noticed the highway was shifted and the cabins were gone, no reminder that they were even there. For years, people stopped along their journeys to stay a night. Hundreds, thousands of overnight stays. Families traveling from coast to coast, or north to south. On business travels, vacations, or trips to grandma’s house.
Memories are funny things. A simple thread of a remembrance can unfold into long-held tangle of memories. This thread is like the line we hold that reaches far into the sky above, to a group of colorful balloons that drift in the wind currents above the mortal earth below. Maybe one of these currents will carry us back to grandma’s house.