The Stupid 365 Project, Day 77: Going South

December 18th, 2010

When we lived in Washington, D.C., my mother and father would load us into a car for two weeks every summer and head South.

My father loved Cadillacs.  He’d been brought up dirt poor — lace-curtain Irish, he liked to say — and now that he could afford a living room on wheels, he bought one.  One after another, actually.  So my brothers and I — let’s say aged ten, eight and eight (twins), would be plunked down in the back seat and told, in essence, that good behavior was our contribution to the trip.

(My mother later told me that she and my dad had a private pool about how many miles we’d cover before one of us said, “Are we there yet?”)

And we always headed South.

My father would spend as many hours as we’d give him, sitting on the living room floor with a huge map of the South, plotting the journey.  He always wanted to hit at least two Civil War battlefields, a prospect that made our eyes glaze over, and once the general route had been set, my brothers and I were allowed to choose a side-trip.  The average trip, with the five of us rattling around in some behemoth of a Cadillac, would take us down the middle of the South to, say, New Orleans, where we’d turn left and go to St. Augustine, Florida, the first settled town in the United States, and stay for 3-4 days in a little cottage motel on a wide, flat beach.

We were, as children trapped in a car usually are, little beasts.  But the trips were magic anyway.

This was before The Great Pasteurization, back when the South was different from, for example, Van Nuys.  Instead of Denny’s and Motel Sixes, there were places with names like Bubba’s Catfish Fry and Chat ‘n Chew and Bide-A-While and Dewdrop Inn.  Antique stores were everywhere, selling actual antiques.  (If I could go back in time and take about $1,000 with me, I could return from almost any little southern town with enough good stuff to make me rich.)

I remember some things very vividly.  A little restaurant in Alabama.  We were eating mountains of food at a booth when an old truck pulled in and a truly ragged family got out.  They sat at the counter, and the father ordered one plate of bacon and eggs, and a Coke each for the two kids, who used it to take aspirin before eating their share of the breakfast.  One of the kids poured ketchup into his glass of water and drank it.

Afterward, my father didn’t say a word for miles.

In Houston, at a steak house, a guy who was either an oil millionaire or did a superb imitation of one — Stetson, snakeskin boots, big belt buckle, lines engraved at the corner of his eyes – ambled over to out table and offered to buy me.  (I was a ridiculously cute kid.  When I was about four, in Los Angeles, people kept telling my mother to put me in movies.)  My father, ever the businessman, said, “How much?” and the man in the Stetson said, “A million five.”  My mother said, quite firmly, “Give us a few days to think about it.”

Down in St. Augustine, there was a stubby little pier at one end of what we thought of as our beach, and when my brothers and I had managed to acquire third-degree sunburns, my mother would swath us in loose clothes and stick hats on our heads, and we’d go fishing.  One day, a little wide man with a cigar, wearing, for some reason, hip-high wading boots, stomped out onto the pier carrying a short thick pole and a bucket of fish cut in half.  He absolutely exuded importance.  He claimed some territory, stuck half a fish on a big hook, and shouted, “Stand back, everybody, stand back.  I’m casting for shark.”  And then he brought the pole way back over his shoulder and did a mighty cast, except that his sinker got wedged between two boards on the pier and stopped dead, while his pole flipped end over end into the water, and the line broke, and it sank.

The pier was dead silent until my father started to laugh. Then everybody began to laugh, and the man in the hip boots went home.  For years afterwards, “I’m casting for shark,” in my family, was one of those punch lines that didn’t need a joke to set it up.

Maybe more tomorrow.

18 Responses to “The Stupid 365 Project, Day 77: Going South”

  1. Beth Says:

    In the northeast, the term “lace curtain Irish” is not a term anyone would apply to themselves. It is a pejorative term applied by others to indicate that these people have notions that they are above everyone else. Those applying the term are using code to cover up basic jealousy.

    You must have been very cute at four to command that kind of money. The pediatrician offered me less for my infant daughter and infants usually command the highest prices.

    My kids can commiserate about the civil war battlefields although now that they are too old for me to drag them places they admit they liked them.

    Why is it that the poor in the south are always seem more poor than those in the north?

  2. Laren Bright Says:

    My folks & brother & I stopped in St. Augustine a few times on the way down to Miami from Detroit when I was a kid. (Went to the Fountain of Youth, too. I want my money back.)

    Then, when I was older & had moved to Coconut Grove, I used to drive up to St. Augustine to stay with friends & work with them in the Health Food distributor business.

    I always liked the town, however you wouldn’t recognize it any more, I bet. It’s no longer the sleepy little place it once was and has fallen, to some extent, into the pasteurizer you describe.

  3. Larissa Says:

    I remember one random day of the week-let’s say Wednesday-my dad called me and my mom at home and said “I’m takin’ Larissa out of school and we’re going to go on a trip.” This was my dad’s general M.O…not really around in any tangible way but when he was, it was always interesting. My mom gave in and my dad came and picked me up the next day. We spent the rest of the week driving in his Jeep Grand Cherokee “the long way” as he put it, down through Durango and out to the Grand Canyon.

    I’m still not entirely sure what possessed him to do it but we had fun and I got to see the Grand Canyon and acquire my own version of a third degree sunburn.

    We would take more sane “family” trips to the mountains and the such when I was little but that random bright and sunny trip to the Grand Canyon is one that I’ll never forget.

    His Jeep always smelled like Wrigley’s spearmint gum (the big pack with the blue wrapper), sun and aftershave. And sometimes mud if he’d been out to survey one of his job sites during the week.

    I’m jealous-I’ve never had anyone try to buy me…my mom tried to sell me a few times but that’s a little different. (c:

  4. greg smith Says:

    The family vacation that sticks in my mind was a trip from our home in Santa Rosa, California to Twain Harte in the foothills of the Sierras.

    It wasn’t a particularly long distance but the remarkable part was that we made the trip in dad’s 50’s vintage Simca. Our family of 6 plus my cousin all piled into a car the size of a dumpster and about as attractive, provisioned for a week in a mountain cabin.

    Seat belts? Lucky for us it was way before their time, because the car would have had seating for 4. It seems to me, to make room, the kids next to the back seat doors had to stick one leg out the windows so we would all fit.

    The car was equipped with a a roof rack that was so full it looked like another car that was trying to make love to the Simca.

    As we climbed the hills into the Sierras’ we were topped out at about 25mph on the steepest parts and with 5 kids in the car, we kept up a constant litany of ‘are we there yet?’ and a refrain of ‘I have to pee’.

    And how about those logging roads? The thrill of approaching blind curves and hearing the blast from a truck’s air horn as it bore down on us. Dad would slide the Simca into a shallow culvert and hope for the best.

    Horseback riding, fishing for brook trout, diving into snow driven streams, exploring forest trails lined with giant redwoods and carpeted with ferns.
    Good times!

  5. Sylvia Says:

    I love this post – and the comments. You’ve clearly hit a vein. More please?

  6. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Wow, memories all over the place.

    Hi, Beth –Yup, it was a pejorative, and my father intended it as such. He loathed his own father, a Christian Science Practitioner who abandoned his wife and (four) children to marry his secretary, thus demonstrating his commitment to the world of the spirit and simultaneously sentencing his original family to really grinding poverty. My father was completely unsentimental about the circumstances of his childhood — he’d hated it and he didn’t pretend otherwise. (I have to use all that sometime. I used tons of my father’s story in THE FOURTH WATCHER, but none of that.) And to get an offer of a million five, I was obviously uniquely adorable.

    The battlefields were a drag, and I made them even worse. I may write about that tomorrow. And the thing about the poor of the South — well, they’re urban rural, or many of them were then, and different from, if not poorer than, urban poor.

    Hi, Laren — Yes, I’m afraid the St. Augustine I knew can now be numbered among America’s tens of thousands of lost paradises, paved over, crammed with hideous buildings, and built with an eye on nothing but money. Beauty? Charm? Forget it. Gimme the jack, Jack.

    There are times I think we really didn’t deserve this continent. We’ve fucked it up royally.

    Riss, I would have bought you in a minute. How great that you have those memories of your father. That trip, by the way, or another like it, is a great beginning for a novel written from the young girl’s point of view. On one level it’s sort of unfair — your mom is there day in and day out, taking care of business, and your dad swoops in and takes you into the mystic, so to speak. Good, resonant material that could spread outward like ripples to take in a whole life, a whole summer.

    And it’s great that you remember what the Jeep smelled like.

    That’s really funny, Greg. Of course, these days you’d have been ticketed and your father would probably have been jailed for child endangerment. I liked the world better when it was more dangerous and more fun. When you could jam a bunch of people inside a weensy little car and stack a bunch of junk on top of it and take off. And when you pulled over to Doris’s Burgers or whatever non-chain restaurant you happened upon, the goddamn food nazis wouldn’t have plastered the menu with calorie counts and carb counts and grams of fiber. If I want fiber, I’ll eat wicker furniture. Your vacation sounds like another lost paradise.

    Thanks, Sylvia. If I can think of a little more tomorrow morning, I’ll continue this.

  7. Debbi Says:

    Interesting. My dad was from Boston, also from a “lace-curtain Irish” family. Apparently, his childhood wasn’t terribly happy.

    His father also divorced his mother (even though they were Catholic), and he ended up going to Texas (of all places), becoming an osteopath and remarrying.

    And, no–I’m not making a word of this up. 🙂

  8. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Debbie, what generation was your dad? Mine was first, by which I mean his father was born in Ireland but the kids were born here.

    My grandfather bought himself an elegant Craftsman house in Pasadena that’s probably worth $10 million by now and lived in genteel comfort while my father quit school at 15 to support his mother and brothers and sister.

    Ah, well. I met the old jerk only once and disliked him although, in retrospect, I believe he was nervous. He actually sat down at the grand piano and played me something — I think it was an old, old Roy Rogers song about tumbleweeds. I think.

  9. Gary Says:

    Lovely memories, Tim. Thanks for sharing them.

    My ex was an O’Brien. Her parents talked about an ancestor who kept reminding the family: “Now, remember – we’re Limerick Lace Irish, not pigs-under-the-bed Irish.” But I don’t think that was pejorative.

  10. kathleen lockhart Says:

    Memories of family vacations are always fraught. We used to visit relatives in North Carolina (my Dad’s home),driving from Ohio, and I believe my brother and I were relegated to sleeping in the foot well of the back seat of our Black Oldsmobile. The seat was claimed by my sister–the oldest child. This was the only vacation I ever experienced until I was at least 16. Weren’t those road trips fun. . . .

  11. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Gary — Of course, I’m deleting all the fights in the back seat, all the throwing up, etc. “Limerick Lace Irish” has a beautiful sound to it. I think, although I may very well be wrong, that we were originally from Limerick.

    Hey, Kathleen — Amazing you weren’t carsick the whole time. I got hopelessly carsick if I couldn’t see the countryside going by — without that as a referent, the motion of the can made me absolutely nauseated. And your sister sounds like a hand-milled nightmare. What was she doing, lying down on the seat?

  12. Bonnie Says:

    I wonder if those long family roadtrips are unique to Americans, with our weird relationship to the automobile and our vast spaces? Most of my memories involve long trips between Tucson, AZ, and Delhi, CA, to visit both sets of grandparents. Reading, fighting with my brothers (the younger of whom was a real worrywart about running out of gas), playing “the license plate game,” the treat we were only allowed on the road of drinking soda (mom thought drinking tap water in unfamiliar parts would give us diarhhea), and glory of fried stuff served in a red plastic lattice basket lined with wax paper, sleeping 3-across in a double bed in “motor court” style motels…ah, you’ve brought a lot back to me, Tim. Do you remember Orange Julius?

    A writer who takes me back to a nostalgic time (that I probably barely experienced myself) is Bailey White. The best was to read her is via an audiobook she narrates herself.

    My favorites were stories about living with her mother, but every year she tells a new story for Thanksgiving on NPR:

    http://www.npr.org/2010/11/25/131594725/bailey-white-s-thanksgiving-story-a-kind-of-love

    (If you don’t live in the US you might not be able to listen–if you can’t and you want to, let me know and I can maybe download the mp3 and email.)

  13. Suzanna Says:

    Hi, Everyone

    Great stories.

    Our family had ten children and two adults so our trips in the car were similar to Kathleen’s, infrequent and crowded.

    Our car was completely crammed with kids squished into footwells, or uncomfortably poised on each other’s laps for long distances with no air conditioning.

    But the nausea and discomfort were a small price to pay for the fun we had once we got to where we were going.

    The trips I remember most were ones we took from the San Fernando Valley to one of the many crowded, sandy beaches in the Los Angeles area.

    A day spent on the beach was a great relief from the soaring heat of the valley, and the thrill of jumping over the surging ocean water, squishing our toes in the cool wet sand, and gathering wriggly sand crabs in our tiny hands was enormous fun.

    One trip I remember that I had the pathetic but sweet idea of capturing some foam from the ocean in a jar with the hope that I could bring some part of that happy experience home with me.

    It was pointless to bring that sea foam back home with me of course since in a short while the foam disappeared, but I’ll never forgot those precious days on the beach. Still one of my favorite places to be.

  14. Debbi Says:

    Tim, my dad was second generation by that definition. My great-grandfather on my father’s side came from Ireland and was a performer. His name was Andrew MacAloon, but he changed it for the stage to Mack. He performed on Broadway in “Abie’s Irish Rose.” He also wrote the original song “Heart of My Heart.” The one that’s referred to in the more famous song of that title. True story. Verified by my genealogist friend.

    When he died, about 300 people attended his funeral.

  15. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Debbi — as cool a name as Mack is, I grieve the loss of MacAloon. “Andrew MacAloon” is one of the most euphonious names I ever heard in my life. And he wrote “Heart of My Heart” and performed in “Abie’s Irish Rose.” The New York those titles conjure up fascinates me almost as much as the Los Angeles of DeMille and the other pioneers. “Abie” ran for FIVE YEARS on Broadway in the Twenties, long the record-holder for longest run.

    Suzanna, the attempt to capture the foam in a jar and take it home just melts me. And every writer who reads this should immediately send you $100 for Metaphor of the Month. I can only think of 37 ways to use this, off the top of my head. All twelve of you in a car, and one of them Bill. Mmm-Mmmm.

    Bonnie, I was also absolutely fixated on the idea that we were going to run out of gas. I remember leaning forward, over the back of the front seat, so I could see the fuel gauge and asking perhaps 400-500 times over the course of a mobile childhood whether we had enough gas. That was a reasonable question back when we were driving coast-to-coast, which we did at least six times to move from LA to NY or Washington, DC –at that time, there really were long stretches of unsettled land, and the LAST GAS FOR 200 MILES signs were plentiful. (And sometimes untrue.) Gos bless my parents — it almost never occurred to them to take a vacation without us, no matter what pains in the ass we were.

  16. Larissa Says:

    Bonnie-hehe..I used to live for an Orange Julius from the mall. My mom and I would go and be out until literally closing time and then we would rush over and get these huge Orange Julius’ and I would drink mine until my brain froze. It was great hehe.

    MMmm….Now I want one of those!

    And one of their totally gross hot dogs!

    And, if any of you had a Mrs. Field’s in the same mall that was a whole ‘nother kind of heaven.

    Double chocolate chip brownie with an Orange Julius…brilliant.

  17. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    OMG, as they say on Tumblr, an Orange Julius!!!!! And Brain Freeze!!! I want to be that age again, with an Orange Julius right around the corner.

    But only for about two days.

    One of the things I miss most about the South are the little independent restaurants — Miss Edie’s Grits ‘nStuff or the widely-used Chat ‘n Chew. Places where you could literally sit there and feel your arteries clog, where the waitresses called you, “Honey” and the honey on the table wasn’t in those shitty tear-and-get-it-all-over-you packets. For Christ’s sake, what’re you gonna catch from honey? The only reason in the world to eat at IHOP any more is that they’ve still got the pitchers of syrup. When they change to tear-and-squeeze packets or a vending station where you push a button beneath the flavor of your choice I will personally begin a national Bomb IHOP campaign.

    My new political platform: Vote Ixnaycrat. Don’t eat at any chains that don’t have syrup and/or honey in pitchers. And ABJURE reality television.

    Maybe I should blog about the Kardashians’ Kristmas Kard.

  18. Larissa Says:

    lol. Hehe. Being that age again is fairly simple…just go find something super tasty and eat it ’til your sick. 😀 Or your brains freeze. Slurpees from 7-11 work great. It’s a requirement that you make that awful noise too when it’s almost empty and chase the last bits of frozen corn syrup and sugar around the bottom of the cup until your neighbor throws something at you.

    hehe.

    Yup. Being 8 is easy…

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