The tendrils of Prince Albert smoke gently curling up from my father’s pipe were an apt metaphor for his driving style. Contemplative and smooth with gently acceleration up on the downslope and feathering the throttle on the upslope to keep the old Pontiac Bonneville station wagon from downshifting. In contrast, my mother burned brighter. She dashed cigarettes into her lipsticked mouth drawing fiercely to glow the ember then exhaled a turbulent cloud of blue smoke in an impatient sigh. I am not saying she would have whipped a plow mule but her right foot jabbed impatiently on every rise causing the laboring Pontiac’s primitive 3-speed automatic to jerk into second and roar up each hill. Her impatience may well be how she ended up with seven children in the first place, the last six being boys who well-mimicked sub-human primates.
We took our behavioral queues from the parent at the wheel and with patriarchal steerage we played calm games involving license plates or historic landmarks, calculated gasoline mileage and talking about church sermons, forestry topics or word riddles. When Mom was pilot, we channeled our inner simian and there was ape-like mayhem. Because there were no child seats or booster seats and seat belts were sneered at, the rear of the car was our domain of down-folded flatness where we could wrestle, try to bounce the car’s suspension or anything else to get a rise from our mother waaaay up in the front and out of reach. It was not beyond her to pull over and wreak havoc on our bottoms with a slipper or anything else handy. But she was not without her own cleverness and guile.
From the driver’s seat my mother would be first to spy the occasional roadside attraction — a buffalo paddock, an ice cream stand, or the Snake Farm near Laplace, Louisiana. For my dad, these would be worthwhile stops since he enjoyed a good snake farm, air show or horse pull contest as much as any ADHD nine-year old. He would assuredly wheel in with a “OK, just a few minutes . . .” After assigning the toddlers to older children, he would tell us when to be back at the car and would stroll about smoking and carrying an infant or maybe arm in arm with my mom.
However, if Mom was at the wheel, roadside treasures were exasperating distractions and delays. She knew there would be a hue and cry to stop, a delay in travel, or even tears for blasting on by, so she invoked high level distraction tactics. One trick she had was to loft a handful of hard candy over her shoulder just before we approached the meccas of byway entertainment. Tootsie rolls, sour apple hard candy, or flat and sticky Bit-O-Honey. It was as if God’s own piñata had erupted and we were no better than the seething zoo carp at feeding time. Up became down and down took on new meanings as we mined beneath seats, fought with each other and relished our booty. We learned that the world is not fair because one older brother always got twice as much as the younger ones. We also learned lessons in sharing as post-piñata re-allocations were carried out in a fair[er] redistribution of goods. This was all argued with mouths full of candy because spit-covered inventory was off the reallocation block. With our world temporarily focused on sugar, the mud show circus or the air show slid past our windows undetected.
Longer trips required more planning. What my mom lacked in patience she made up for in military-style planning of stops, speed, and the knowledge that a bunch of boys aged three to 14 required some level of engagement. On the long trips she would reach into her travel bag at strategic moments to pull out puzzles, crossword books, and magazines. She knew our individual idiosyncrasies too, for example, who would get carsick (middle left window where she could reach over but ejecta would not enter an aft window), who loved to ride in the rear-facing monkey seat at the rear (pets and those over eight years old who could climb out the back but knew not to get their neck in the power up window . . . again); and separating brothers prone to bickering and fighting.
Of course, parents needed breaks too for meals, toddler diaper changes, and coffee. The cracked and curling plastic dashboard was not adorned with cup holders; those would not appear until 13 years later. Interestingly, cigarettes were just smoked while underway with curling smoke the smell of road trips. Drive-through windows were not yet available and coffee required a stop-and-drink approach, sometimes with a car hop curbside service. Coffee shops were waitress-serviced cafes or truck stops located strategically between cities. Our favorite coffee stop was in LeBeau, Louisiana at Stelly’s, a truck stop half way between Alexandria and Baton Rouge. It was on a truck-clogged bend in the two-lane Highway 71. With all the logging trucks, tractors, livestock, wildlife, drunks, and rural drivers, LA 71 was affectionately called “The Ho Chi Minh trail).
Stelly’s was a must-stophalf way location full of allure. Grease monkeys in the bays on one side; gas attendants at the pumps out front; and sassy waitresses slinging grits, eggs and Community Coffee across Formica table tops. The gravel lot smelling of diesel and oil, mosquitoes whinning and the oppressive Louisiana heat bearing down on the march to the washrooms The wood-paneled bathrooms had the first ever observed condom dispensers on the walls, worthy of pointing and snickering by teens and some awkward parental conversations with youngsters “Daddy, that gum they sell in the bathroom costs 25 cents!”.
It was also at Stelly’s that I first saw the dancing chickens. For one silver dime the music would blare 15 seconds of Turkey in the Straw while the chicken did indeed do a rapid high step dance on his wire floor before being rewarded with a couple of corn kernels. It was only later that I learned the wires were electrified and the “dance” was in response to the zaps to the chicken’s feet. Sigh . . . a different era.
Stelly’s offered a great mix of north Louisiana redneck food like ribs and beans but also great Cajun food such as jambalaya, crawfish and oyster poboys. The décor was predictably rural with abundant deer heads, rattlesnake skins, corny posters, goofy license plates, and an impressive big alligator snapping turtle (the largest North American freshwater turtle) whose massive jaw muscles and sharp hooked beak gave pause about ever letting your toes touch the bottom while swimming in the bayou.
Getting our whole family loaded back in the car was akin to a pre-flight check list, however, there were occasional events of accidental abandonment: Von Ray the Dachshund once got left and was recovered making strenuous but ineffectual time hoofing it down the highway chasing us on his 8 cm legs. Another time, the second youngest, Hale, was unaccounted for a few miles down the road after a fast bathroom break, and I got left at church twice which may have been their deliberate attempt at forced salvation. Come to think of it, maybe they weren’t so accidental after all. Even better was stashing someone under the back seat or in the luggage gap between seats and claiming they were missing a half hour after a stop. Always good for an expletive from Mom. In some ways, the roadside pee-in-the-ditch tactic was better because there were nothing to do but pee. My mom would give us all a quick zipper check, deftly zipping up the forgetful with all the dangers of a catastrophic and dreaded zipper pinch!
If there was only one parent along, a yell for FRONTSEATSHOTGUNWINDOW!! would predictably sound. The haggling that followed would do justice to a pawn shop salesman or a Supreme Court Justice. We invoked every imaginable plea, recollection, threat, bribe, or vote, and sometimes tears and surreptitious punches. Is it any surprise that three of the brothers ended up as lawyers? There were front seat downsides though. Under the blazing Louisiana sun, the tuck and roll plastic of the front seats reached lava-like temperatures through the front window. Bare sweaty legs would sear on contact and require sitting on one’s hands for the first minute before the luscious air conditioner could take over, sometimes even blowing condensation smoke from the vents.
Some child psychologists claim that mediators, negotiators and moderators are not born but are made at the family breakfast table, however, I would nominate road trips as the great crucible of personality and negotiation. We were out of our usual element, confined in a loose democracy led by parental oversight, and jacked up on sugar and boredom. What could go wrong? Well, in the short term a lot went wrong, however, in the long term, we have the cross country road trips to thank for some of the most enduring memories and close family ties that we carry though our lives.
In recent years, with both our parents deceased, several of us have conjured up family road trips for reasons as flimsy as delivering a car, in this case, a giant Oldsmobile Town car dubbed “The Blue Cloud” for its bosomy suspension, giant premium-swilling V8, and the occasional state-legal cloud of blue smoke rolling out of the rear windows. It traversed the continent twice in round about ways. Now there is even talk of a shared motorhome rental with a built in bathroom, beds and sound system. However, there is still only one front seat shotgun window so let the haggling begin.
And last month, I took both of my daughters on a Louisiana road trip from Alexandria down through Cajun country. They were a little wide-eyed at the “privilege” of being able to shoot pellet guns off our friend’s back porch.
When they walked into the Blue Door Cajun dance hall in Lafayette, an old friend of mine instantly recognized me and because they are musicians, he conscripted them to play with the band between turns out on the dance floor.
On our way home, I deviated to run up the gravel road paralleling the Atchafalaya River swamp (the largest river swamp in North America). Yes, we stopped at LeBeau for a cup of Community Coffee and the dusty Alligator Snapper was still holding court. Some things were different though. The nicotine-stain was still on the walls but the air was now clear of smokers. An effigy to the recently outlawed horse and hound pursuit of swamp-dwelling deer was mounted on the wall just above the five-foot-long skin of a canebrake rattlesnake, a New Orleans Saints fleur de lis, and an old crosscut saw blade. The tiny deer antlers tell a biological story — most bucks were being killed in their first 18 months of life suggesting that maybe dog pursuit is letting hunters trim the population a little too efficiently and allowing too little escape. Just saying from one hunter to some others.
hough a lot of the tourist kitsch memorabilia was lost on the girls, it held some regional nostalgia for me. Things like a shellacked alligator skull from a 10 footer, similar size to the largest alligator I ever harvested.
My daughters got a big kick out of the coffee server who, though barely intelligible to them, leapt into an unbidden conversation that rocked their reserved Canadian demeanors. Everything else aside, it is the people of South Louisiana that make the place special.
I enjoyed the memories and am glad I once lived down there.