Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Great Big American Road Trip

February 18, 2014
   We made the same road trip every summer for over two decades. From Kingman to the Bell family farm north of Thompson, Iowa that was my dad's idea of fun. Allen P. had a deep need to go home. My mother told the story about when they were just newlyweds, he got so homesick for his mother's cooking he put her in the car and drove straight through to the farm. He only stopped to get gas. The guy was a stubborn Norwegian and he could get obsessive on certain things. Going home was one of them.

   So there we were on Route 66 in the heyday of Road.

  We made the trip every summer, usually in August, from 1947 to about 1967. That's 20 trips, which doesn't sound like that much, or, it doesn't sound as all inclusive as it seemed at the time. Only in the last couple of years of that record setting stretch did we go somewhere else beside Iowa. We didn't even take Route 66 west to California until 1963 and that was only because my dad's younger brother Glenn moved to Long Beach to teach school and Carl and Minnie came out to see their new baby, who they named in honor of Carl.

   The trip never got old to me. The night before we left was like Christmas Eve to me. We were going to hit the road and see some sights, eat some great food and have adventures. My mother packed and my dad loaded the car so we could get an early start. We didn't leave Kingman, we escaped! Nobody was out at four in the morning and we slipped right out of town and onto the open road!

  I loved trying to find local radio stations, especially in the outlying areas. In the Winslow corridor they actually had a radio station with Navajo announcers and they would talk in long, loping syllables and every once in a while you would hear the words "Canyon Ford," or "Levis on sale." That was fun, but it did get old quick. In the bigger towns like Albuquerque you would get flashier shows, but even then there were no "Rock stations" or "Country stations," or "The BIG" anything. There simply wasn't enough musical product to fill out an entire play list. Top Forty was in its infancy, or, had yet to make it's way into Route 66 country. That doesn't mean you wouldn't hear hits. We must have heard "Little Jimmie Brown" in five states on station after station.

   The signal for most stations petered out quickly and static on the airways was the majority of the sound I could get on the dial (by the way, Kathy and I borrowed our neighbors pickup last weekend and it took us five minutes to figure out how to turn OFF the radio). My mother would tire of the static and ask me to turn off the radio for awhile. I remember Leslie Gore's "It's My Party And I'll Cry If I Want to" getting big play and I was struck with how the song spoke to people my age. That was a marvel in its time. The next song would be something by Jimmie Dean or Farron Young. I don't remember any formats, but I do remember smart-assed announcers. That is something that has never gone out of style.

   Elvis was a big deal, but the DJs invariably made fun of him, "Here's Elvis The Pelvis. . ." and more than  once I heard early rock described as "jungle music," in a man-I-can't-believe-we're-playing-this-crap-again way.

   But my absolute favorite find on the radio dial on road trips was the farm and ranch report. You'd get some hayseed guy talking about corn futures and it just always made me smile. Someone would sing happy birthday to some kid in town and it was just a slice of small town Americana. That is the radio I miss, when it had distinct, regional personality. it wasn't slick and it wasn't all that funny or even entertaining in the Big City Market way, but it was hilarious in a wonderful way.

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