I spent a lot of time in the 1950s in the 1980s. My first decades were traveled in an ersatz time machine: a two-tone, two door, 1955 Chevrolet Bel-Air. My father’s favorite child, that Bel-Air symbolized his past and future. For his family, the 50s meant mobility – literal and figurative – when they, like so many, imagined themselves en route to the “good life” promoted in the advertising images they slavishly emulated. It was a picture postcard time – especially if one avoided critical analysis – and many were taken in by Dinah Shore’s cloying exhortation to “see the USA in your Chevrolet.” Even today as I watch her, perfect in her “New Look” strapless gown and motionless coif, she epitomizes wholesome earnestness, assured that the American automobile will deliver, without fail, a transcendent experience for any traveler patriotic enough to embark. Her commercialized paraphrase of Emerson’s sentiment about journeys and destinations falls melodically as a siren’s call, daring consumers to defy her Whitman-esque democratic challenge.
My grandmother bought Shore’s pitch wholesale at first sight. Harriet she’d never be, nor was she any Margaret Anderson (except for the helmet hair), but she identified with Shore’s wanderlust. A dropout at thirteen, a wife at sixteen, and a mother at seventeen, she must have daydreamed incessantly about escape routes. She worked hard, determined to achieve the 50’s version of the American Dream which she understood as amassing enough cash to purchase a new Chevy every six or seven years. What’s more, it meant wantonly picking (and flaunting) an absurdly colored automobile because she knew when she tired of it, she’d replace it.
As a result, for most of the 50s she subjected her family to seeing the USA in an apricot-pink convertible. If this sounds clichéd beyond belief, photographic evidence exists, though it sadly lacks color. Ever susceptible to the grandiose promises of advertising, she believed her purchases would transform the poorly educated little girl from the ironically named Biggsville, IL into someone formidable. She was an early adopter of Tupperware everything, including the smoke gray stemware in which she always served tapioca pudding; her aluminum Christmas tree was the first to appear in the neighborhood as well as to depart; she still sits on the cocoa brown boucle Danish Modern sofa purchased in 1963 that resembles as spaceship designed by a drunk, despondent, dysphoric Chanel. Unfailingly, she felt transformed and, pardon the pun, transported by her new cars and I doubt she ever sensed that the automobile industry might be manipulating her ego and sense of self-worth with pretty advertising. She just saw herself going places, in every way possible.
Ironically, however, she cared remarkably little about the destination. Hers was a mania for the progress of perpetual motion, and while I suspect most of us appreciate Emerson’s mantra that” life is a journey, not a destination,” I submit that had he journeyed with her as pilot old Ralph W. would only have survived a few hours before extinguishing a cigarette in her eye and demanding to be liberated at the nearest rest stop. This is partly because of her personality, but also because Dinah might have misled us about those glamorous road trips during the heyday of interstate travel in gloriously oversized cars, free of pesky impediments like air bags, seat belts, or even air conditioning. I learned as much traveling in a vehicle designed thirty years earlier, as I repeatedly forfeited the skin on the back of my thighs as it adhered to leather-ish seats in 90 degree weather as I squirmed about trying to wipe off the hot air-propelled dirt coming in the batwing windows that clung to my every sweaty crevice. Worst of all, though, were the rapid turns that toppled one or both of my siblings onto me, inadvertently stacking us up like rancid Vienna sausages in the cavernous expanse of the back seat. I traveled the 1950s every time we hit the road and I swear they’re not nearly as sunny as Shore would have us believe.
As a result, I have a keen sensitivity toward the U.S. Travel Bureau’s (not to mention General Motors’) version of the 1950s, however plastic we now consider it. It’s captured by those ubiquitous postcards encouraging drivers to “get your kicks on Route 66,” while visiting motels and roadside diners. Many of them feature highway-centric greetings from places like Reno or The Blue Swallow Motel. They’re colorful, tacky, and gleefully misleading.
It’s a life of driving an incongruously pink or turquoise land yacht with unreliable brakes and a steering wheel big as a saucer sled, accessorized with cat-eye sunglasses and synthetic silk headscarves. Everything reeks sunshine and friendliness; car ownership obliterates social class.
A magical world, that, of drive-in theaters and restaurants, with fries, burgers, and milkshakes harmlessly dotting the landscape, with cheaply snazzy motels every few miles. It’s those, the motels, that always disrupt these fantasies for me, though, because they catapult me into 1960 with Psycho.
The Bates Motel’s oppressiveness always reminds me that as grandmother was seeing the USA in her Chevrolet, she did so with a carful of hostages. Despite loving to plan and execute trips, she was no fan of stopping for a motel or a meal – not even a toilet if she could help it. This may have been financial; she paid for her car obsession by working in a Formfit bra factory, which transformed countless American women’s breasts into those iconic and seemingly treacherous cones, and there was likely little left to cover what others deemed travel necessities.
Money aside, I still see her as a deranged 50s update of General Sherman without the magnitude of purpose. She considered travel an event predicated upon filling the car with food and people and driving as far as possible – often to a sea – in the allotted time, pointing the destination out and leaving immediately.
If this sounds unbelievable, I say that it is, though not in the sense you probably mean. Grandmother’s travelers were expected to keep every surface covered with sheets to protect the car. Men and young girls were expected to pee in a coffee can because bathroom breaks hindered progress. Meals were, without fail, hard salami sandwiches on Wonder Bread slathered with Miracle Whip and topped with Velveeta to be washed down with a Dr. Pepper because she loved name brand food. Water was available only when the cooler’s ice melted. Showers were arranged every 3-4 days, usually at a cold water campground. Mileage was her raison d’etre and she wouldn’t be deterred. Along the way, grandfather became a nicotine- and caffeine-fueled robot capable of filling the ashtray in a few hours.
Dad visited most of the continental U.S. during these years. I teasingly ask him now how many of those states he actually set foot in, but he never answers. Even though she refused to let him out at Disneyland in July, 1956 (one case of many) he manifested what I diagnose as Stockholm Syndrome, which he later inflicted on us. He didn’t care that they had been dehydrated, delerious, and disfigured from contorted car-sleeping. He ignored that they smelled like smoke – not to mention regret, even despair – because they had arrived. Grandma pointed and said, “Look, Donald, there’s XXXX!” with the excitement of a parent doing right by her child, even as she squealed away. She didn’t care about content, she wanted form. She demanded proof that she’d done better than her parents, which travel represented in the form of miles logged, of sites glimpsed and fled.
By the time we arrived, dad had been attempting to condition mom into life on the road for nearly a decade. It seemed possible when they were a young couple traversing the country in Corvettes. She loved his ’61 fawn Stingray, but frustratingly still demanded a motel room and drinking water. When kids arrived, though, the sportscars were sold and replaced with 50s sedans. To his surprise, we didn’t feel special when he identified a landmark and drove off, and we were happiest when the thirty-year-old cars rebelled and stranded us not-too-far from home. Brakes failed, distributor caps cracked, tires exploded, and we complained endlessly about the heat, dirt, and wind ad nauseum. Ultimately, the Chevrolet dream of mobility, upward and otherwise, failed to enchant our family as it had his a generation before. At age sixteen, I brought the fifties literally to a crashing halt by slamming that souped-up ’55 Bel-Air into an improbably colored baby blue ’88 Dodge Aries, totaling it. Dad didn’t speak to me for the year following and holds it against me still; I demobilized his 50s dream and he mourns it yet. Occasionally, when he’s feeling nostalgic, he and grandma, who at 89 gave up driving this year, recount their highway adventures, clearly remembering a future through the lens of the past that we never quite glimpsed. We all concur on a single point; their spokesperson was dynamite.