We have put some miles on our car over the past 12 months. Last October Julie and I drove to Florida and came back to Iowa through Louisiana, Arkansas and Missouri. In March we drove to Arizona and back. In the past few months we have driven to Wisconsin twice and over Labor Day weekend we drove to Orange City.
While driving home from northwest Iowa last week I got to thinking about the days of traveling with my children and how much quieter our trips are today.
That led to memories of traveling with my parents and siblings in the ’50s and ’60s. We didn’t travel as far or as frequently as many families do today, but we did make regular visits to family and friends including relatives in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Once a year we even drove to Des Moines for a day at Riverview Park.
Ultimately there were six of us kids ̶ four boys and two girls, in that order. As time went on we could fill up a Ford real well. We boys piled into the back seat of the family sedan while our sisters sat up front with Mom and Dad. We had the traditional 4-60 air conditioning system (four open windows at 60 miles an hour) so summer travel could be a breezy, if not a sticky, affair.
Dad was the best one-armed driver we knew. He gripped the steering wheel with his left hand while keeping his right arm across the back of the front seat, ready to administer corporal punishment to the ornery back seat passengers.
A trip to our maternal grandparents who lived near Wellsburg usually took us right past the Iowa Boys’ Training School at Eldora. Dad often warned us boys if we didn’t stop fighting he would drop us off at the training school. I was confident he really wouldn’t do that.
On one trip our exasperated father actually pulled into a parking lot at the training school and stopped the car. “Okay,” he said angrily, “get out. I warned you boys. Now get out!”
We became statues. Dad barked another command to leave the car but we remained motionless and silent. We figured Dad was just putting on an act but couldn’t be sure. I was the family smart aleck and considered stepping outside just to see what would happen but my confidence waned at the moment.
Finally, Dad preached a mini-sermon about obeying our parents and not fighting. Then he put the car in gear and drove away.
A dam in the Iowa River at Alden, Iowa, often caused problems for us boys. The town’s welcome sign along U.S. Highway 20 bragged, “Alden ̶ the best town by a dam site.” Swearing was verboten in our family (especially the d-word) but this sign gave us boys a chance to toy with it. One of us read the sign aloud and then another. After two readings Dad barked, “That’s enough.”
“But, Dad,” we argued, “that’s what the sign says!”
“I said, that’s enough!” he would snap. If he was red in the face we knew that was indeed enough and we’d drop it. Sometimes, however, one of us had to repeat it just one more time. That’s when Dad would scold us in German and we could expect that strong right arm stretched across the back of the front seat to spring into action.
Traveling through a city usually brought out our better behavior. We country boys were always amazed at the sight of tall buildings, factories, large stores, police cars and other things we didn’t have back home. We were so absorbed in the exotic surroundings we forgot to fight and argue.
It was our trips home that bring back the fondest memories of family travel. It was usually later in the evening, of course, and in the dim glow of the dashboard lights Mom and Dad chatted quietly, their conversation usually made unintelligible by the drone of road noise and, in the summer, wind noise.
The mere sound of their voices was comforting, though, and one by one the six Huisman kids wore out and yielded to slumber, using each other for pillows. I was the oldest of the kids and from my corner of the back seat this was a scene of comfort, security, peace and love.
These are my precious memories from the highway.