I Want A Detour by
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I’ve known families who would pile into the car every summer for a back and forth, like it was the greatest thing.  But that ain’t my gig.  It’s like once I ate a bad scallop, and no more scallops after that, wrapped in bacon or otherwise.

            The Mass Pike (aka the “Pike”) runs east-west across the breadth of Massachusetts, from the New York line to the Atlantic Coast.  It’s the central artery of Massachusetts.  It’s Massachusetts’[s] pearl in the I-90 necklace, which continues cross country to Seattle.  When it opened in 1957 its easterly end was its intersection with state Route 128 in Boston’s western suburbs (Route 128, a beltway around Boston, dubbed “America’s Technology Highway” by local boosters, was later subsumed by I-95, the north-south interstate which runs from Miami to New Brunswick, Canada; although locals still call it Route 128). 

            The Pike was extended from the burbs into the heart of Boston in 1965 (in a broad swarth of cutting, pasting, and exercise of eminent domain) (like a Robert Moses Special), and then via the Ted Williams Tunnel (and the Big Dig) to Logan Airport in 2003.  The whole progress of Boston’s vigorous (and fabulously over-budget) development of new structures over old backwaters and cow paths during my lifetime is quite satisfying, except when I get stuck on a new-fangled off ramp and end up in Everett.  The time tested ditty, “Here’s to dear old Boston, home of the bean and the cod, where Cabots speak only to Lowells, and Lowells speak only to God,” still applies (in an understated, tweedy, Harvardian way), but I am agog at the whole new cities that have arisen in the Seaport District, in the armpits of MIT, along the old gasoline alley which used to offer cheap parking for Red Sox games, to say nothing of the miracle of the teardown of the old, ugly and permanently jammed Southeast Expressway of my youth.  I didn’t see any of this world-class modernism coming, this pleasing blend of the old and the new.  In general, I oppose all change, and distrust those arrivistes who promulgate it. But in the words of Baby’s father (Jerry Orbach), when confronted with the facts of Patrick Swayze’s honor and Robbie’s sleaze: “When I’m wrong, I say I’m wrong” (more on “Dirty Dancing”, below).

            The Pike’s original logo graphic was of a Pilgrim’s hat with an arrow piercing it (an indigenous people’s hunting arrow—see pic above).  There was humor in this logo, the oblivious Pilgrim not caring or willing to adapt to the hat (and other) criteria and vicissitudes of his new world environment (foppish Eustace Tilley comes to mind); there was also tension in this logo as it dramatized resentment and reaction among the indigenous population to the usurpation perpetrated by the colonizers.  And of course there was triumphalism in this logo, as we know who won the continent.  

            The story goes that in 1989 a second-grade class in the Town of Amherst began a successful campaign to extract the arrow from the logo, arguing it was disrespectful to indigenous people.   Coincidence or not, that reminds me of the ignoble story of Lord Jeffrey Amherst—after whom the Town of Amherst and the college in the town were named—who delivered gifts of smallpox-infected blankets to indigenous peoples, intending to commit biological warfare and genocide.      

            I was born in 1948, in Brookline, a Boston suburb within the Route 128 beltway.  I don’t remember ever going anywhere.  I used to tell a joke (sort of a self-deprecating, chip-on-my-shoulder joke) (I still tell it as a matter of fact) that “I’ve never been outside of Route 128…”  Close to true, except in June 1964, close to age 16, my family (which included myself, my three sisters, and my parents) decided to load the station wagon (see replica pic below), hit the Mass Pike, and continue across the country.  There was a family wedding in Muncie, Indiana, a dear uncle in Tucson, Arizona, maybe some other people in other places, maybe Niagara Falls, a whole country to see and experience is how they hyped it. 

            The trip was hell for me.  I celebrated my 16th birthday in Green River, Utah, by threatening to leave our motel compound and walk into the oblivion of the surrounding desert.  I was relegated to the third row of the station wagon, facing backwards, with no foot space because of the Big Goof at the beginning.

            There was a rack, maybe it was a faux rack, for decorative purposes only, on the roof of the station wagon, which also had a clunky aftermarket air conditioner installed in the middle of the front seat so that no one could sit in the middle of the front seat, leaving two in front, three in the middle row, one in the back row, which was generally me.  We started with the prospect of more space, with two suitcases roped to the roof rack.  But just as we wheeled onto the Pike and picked up speed, the ropes blew off and the suitcases started leaking underwear and shoes across the road.  The Big Goof.

Whether you covet a Chrysler station wagon or not, you have to respect an original survivor.

            Obviously a firmly-affixed stuff container, like a modern day Thule, would have been a wise investment.  Which reminds me of the critiques of Mitt Romney driving with his dog in a dog crate on the roof:  how simple were our lives back then!!!   The dog was not going to fuck democracy!!!  But we didn’t have a Thule, we had magical thinking about the stability of roped suitcases.  The recovered stuff was stuffed into the back row, squeezing me in.  The miles went slowly.  The hours went slowly.  The seconds went slowly.  The space tightened. By Iowa, the family dynamics shredded the ropes that bound them.  If offered, I would have happily accepted a ride in a dog cage on the roof.

            Some emissions from the AM Radio in the front console reached me.  Network daytime entertainment radio, on its last legs.  I remember the folksy Arthur Godfrey Hour.  I also remember the news story that Freedom Riders James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were abducted and murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi.  I remember hearing Mary Wells singing “My Guy.” I remember my mother hitting 100 mph over one stretch of Texas nothingness.  I remember a canyon or two.

            I’ve always felt that “Dirty Dancing,” referenced above, set in Summer 1963, was a compelling snapshot of America on the brink, the generations stretching apart, the culture’s tectonic plates shifting; and that was before the unthinkable assassination of John F. Kennedy a few months later.  As Bob prophesied (in 1961):

“Come mothers and fathers

Throughout the land

And don’t criticize

What you can’t understand

Your sons and your daughters

Are beyond your command

Your old road is rapidly agin’…”The Times They Are a-Changin' (Bob Dylan album) - Wikipedia

            As I think back, and try to figure out what happened and when did it happen, to America and to myself, I dwell on the context and timeframe of Baby’s coming of age, of the PTSD that befell America after JFK died, of incipient political activism met by the evil of old hatred, of the arrival of the Beatles (first appeared on Ed Sullivan on February 9, 1964), of the public start of the Vietnam War (the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passed on August 7, 1964), and other resonating moments and things that occurred on and around my family road trip in June 1964, on and around my 16th birthday, that signaled and evidenced Bob’s truth that the times were a-changin’. 

            In much of road literature, the road sets you free.  Jack Kerouac.  Huck Finn.  Humbert Humbert.  And I’ve known families who would pile into the car every summer for a back and forth, like it was the greatest thing.  But that ain’t my gig.  It’s like once I ate a bad scallop, and no more scallops after that, wrapped in bacon or otherwise.  It’s closer to my story to say that the road revealed.  I returned home (yes, we made it home) (yes, I did not give myself up to the desert outside of Green River, Utah) to a world folded over (like a road map), filed (like a report card), and darkening (like an end of day).

 

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Characterizations: funny, moving, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Jon, your references are thoughtful, informative and spot on. I sit here on the border of Brookline (in Chestnut Hill, where we’ve lived for 35 years), knowing all the references to the Big Dig, Rt 128, Lord Jeffrey Amherst, etc. and the growth of the Seaport since the Central Artery came down. But you’ve written a smart narrative around the whole evolution.

    And given us your mournful road trip story, squeezed in the back of the family station wagon during which you turned 16 (love the reference to Dirty Dancing, we even found it on our hotel room TV in London last month and watched it again. I would never put Baby in a corner). Dylan did express it well; the times were a’changing. Now it’s hard to keep pace with the change.

    • I wonder what’s become of Baby. Did she ever top the thrill of jumping off the stage into Johnnie’s arms? Hard to top that. I put her in a comfortable house in Westchester, retired attorney, twice divorced, periodically estranged from her kids, sponsoring a wine-and-cheese (hold the cheese)reading of her friend Hillary’s new book (Hillary will bring Joan Allen to do the actual reading (Joan does Hillary better than Hillary). To Baby’s surprise the wine pourer for the event turns out to be Johnnie—he is gaunt, and sad-faced, like life kicked him around. “Baby,” he sort of said back in the day, “the system is fixed against me; after my looks go, I’m just a character actor.”
      They recognize each other, a tear comes to Baby’s eye, a sigh to her lips. “Hey Johnnie,” she says, “you’re looking good…Give me a top off please…”

      • Suzy says:

        Oh, I love this story about what became of Baby and Johnny! Maybe we should do a prompt about what happens after classic movies end. . . .

      • Betsy Pfau says:

        You’ve said a mouthful. I think your cynicism is probably spot on. So much for the romantic idealism of the movie.

        • Betsy,
          Please write your own happy ending. Maybe they eloped and invested early in Apple Stock? Maybe they opened a dance studio in Brooklyn? Maybe Baby morphed into Hillary. The idea of a dissolute Baby, stars no longer twinkling in her eyes, all done w watermelons and pachenkos, breaks my heart too.
          Jon

          • Betsy Pfau says:

            I have not dismissed your entreaty, but am giving it some thought. Then word comes of Ronnie Spector’s death – her song “Be My Baby” opens the movie. It somehow brought it all back. I can’t believe that Baby turns into a Long Island “babe”. She still has too much righteousness about her. She will not work for the Peace Corps (not after JFK’s assassination). She will go to law school and become a champion of the Woman’s Movement and reproductive rights, perhaps work to pass Roe v Wade. She never sees Johnnie again.

          • Betsy, I have re-thought my initial take on the afterlife of Baby and Johnnie. It now appears that they married, he converted to Judaism (at the behest of Baby’s grandparents) and went into the auto glass repair business where he made a good living (and franchised), while Baby nurtured her inner Zen, and decorated and re-decorated her large backyard with pleasing, spiritually-significant rocks. They had three kids, one of whom became a real estate developer who bought the old Kellerman’s Resort and converted it into a hotel-casino. Baby’s memoir, titled “Dirty Watermelons” is available on Audible and in paperback.

          • Betsy Pfau says:

            I’ll take your ending, Jon. I like that they wind up together and one of their kids buys and redevelops Kellerman’s. Karma, right?

  2. Thank you Jonathan for this coming of age memoir as you made some uncomfortable realizations about life and country on that long ago family trip. Beautifully wrtitten!

  3. Dana Susan,
    I worked to get a handle on what is left in me from that trip. For better or worse, the picking and poking opened up some forgotten veins. I like the way the story started with a matter of fact Highway recitation (respectful of the prompt), but then—without warning me—detoured me onto an old road, with a lot of overgrowth, and thorns..
    Glad you thought it was ok.
    Jon

  4. J, As the poet said, There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in!

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    This is a wonderful coming of age (on the road, but not the romanticized one) story, Jon. I could picture that big station wagon with what we called the way-back. We took many road trips with our kids to national parks in such a vehicle. Once, when we jammed two families into one of those wagons for a brief (and thus safe?) journey, my husband and I sat in the way-back. It was terrifying. Can’t believe we ever put our kids there.

  6. Marian says:

    Intricately written balance of the facts of the road and your inner life, Jon. The station wagon has become ubiquitous in the stories for this prompt. You had an air conditioner? Amazing! As the oldest child, I refused to sit backwards, thank goodness–hate it to this day. Thanks for the Boston details as well.

  7. I hope among Arthur Godfrey and the other emissions floating to you in the back, you got to catch Paul Harvey at least one or two times saying, “Good Day!” and maybe even telling you and your family “the rest of the story.”
    Your piece brought back the physical, visceral, and not always comfortable feelings of riding in a station wagon for a really long time. Really engaging descriptions of the topographical and the psychological elements of the road trip.
    BTW, my brother and his daughter and her family were traveling during Thanksgiving weekend with their bags in a Thule overhead contraption, and guess what! My nephew-in-law had been careless in how he did the straps, and some bags popped out on the Verrazano Bridge! They stopped but it appeared they were gone, into the water!

    • That is one exciting Verrazano Bridge story.

    • Years ago friends of ours were coming to
      meet us on Betsy’s wonderful Martha’s Vineyard – we coming from New York, they from Philly.

      We arrived first and happened to see their car pull up. The two of them were in the front seat, their two kids were in the back seat, but their Thule bike rack and their four bikes were no where to be seen. Somewhere along the way, as they were rushing to make the ferry, the rack and the bikes flew off the roof!

  8. Suzy says:

    Wonderful story, Jon! One third gives us the history of the Mass Pike, one third the saga of your hellish trip in 1964, and one third cultural reflections. A perfect trifecta – or should I say hat trick?

  9. Susan Bennet says:

    Jon, you had me laughing at “I don’t remember ever going anywhere.” Same here. It must be a regional thing; my friends from the Midwest and West cannot fathom it. Our family’s “long” trips were just a few hours’ length to New Hampshire lakes and Maine’s coast, and–similar your station wagon–ours was stuffed with two parents, three kids, one grandmother, our big dog Skippy and a bird in a cage. And the suitcases. I congratulate you on completing the trip you so vividly recollect. Thank you.

  10. Khati Hendry says:

    I still remember 128, route 2, and the pre-Big Dig Boston area–was astounded at the changes when I visited a few years ago. Much does seem a lot better, though I’m sure gentrification issues are plentiful. A long drive for days stuffed into a cramped seat without any control is a recipe for a bad trip at any age, let alone in those teen/world-turning-upside-down years you described so well. May you experience the pleasures of a journey at your own pace someday (or just enjoy where you are–that works too).

  11. Dave Ventre says:

    Great story. We lived in Quincy, MA for six years one century (sorry; when bad times happen in a place, it tends to color your memory of that place) so your tale brought back some memories. Boston has an amazing downtown and waterfront!

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