It was dark out when we piled into the car. The early morning air was still cold even though it was mid-June. I was shivering in my shorts, which I wore because I knew it would get warm and stuffy as the day wore on. I had to coordinate my legwear with my brothers so that our skin didn’t touch while we sat next to each other because that would be too icky for words.
We were in for a long day ahead. We were driving from our house in Canarsie to the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. This was the third and final time that we would spend the summer there while my father got his Masters degree in Economics.
It was a tight squeeze in the car. But at least that year we had a roof rack so we weren’t carrying stuff on our laps. The first year we went, I had a laundry basket with pots and pans sitting with me.
My dad was so intent on getting on the road before the morning rush (even though it was Saturday) that we were ready to pull away from the house at 4:30 am, just as Uncle Terry was arriving back home from his Friday night (or Saturday morning) out. We said our goodbyes, amused that our paths crossed at that hour.
As was our tradition, as Dad drove down our street, Mom began singing, ”We’re off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz!” We joined in. One of the things that we were excited to be off to was McDonald’s. Brooklyn didn’t have one yet, but Champaign-Urbana did!
We got on the Belt Parkway and headed toward the Verrazano Bridge. My parents had a plan for the trip and it was the same each of the three years. We would get on the road before dawn, make it to Pennsylvania for breakfast at a Howard Johnsons. Breakfast out was a treat – in 1970 eating breakfast out was rare for our family. Actually eating out at all was rare. After pancakes we got back in the car and drove the length of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Pennsylvania is a very wide state to drive across, it felt like it lasted forever!
Then there was a small strip of West Virginia to pass through before getting to Ohio. Many years later, not long after I met Gary, I told him about the trips to Illinois and mentioned driving through West Virginia. He was incredulous. “No way! West Virginia isn’t there!” he claimed, he prided himself on his knowledge of geography. “Really! You are arguing with me when I drove through it!” I was even more incredulous. We pulled out one of those Rand McNally atlases and settled it. I didn’t imagine it, we did drive through a small piece of West Virginia.
Actually it would be hard for me to forget that because one year we got stuck in horrible traffic just outside Wheeling, of all places. We were practically at a standstill and we didn’t know why. Cars were overheating. This was before the interstate highway had been completed so we were on a small two-lane road that went through the town. I think we eventually came to some construction that narrowed the road to one lane, so traffic had to stop and each way took turns. When you are taking an 800-mile road trip that kind of delay is particularly irritating. Fortunately we didn’t overheat because my father, who wasn’t the most patient man or knowledgeable about cars, would’ve totally blown a gasket.
We continued on into Ohio where we stopped at a Holiday Inn in the late afternoon. We went swimming in the motel pool, then had dinner and went to sleep. We’d get up early the next morning, but not as crazy early, and drive to a truck stop just over the border in Indiana for breakfast.
Each year the trip posed a unique challenge. One time, when I went to get my book out of the car after we checked into the motel, I locked the keys in the car. That led to some frantic time trying to break back in. Eventually, after some choice words and advice from some fellow travelers, my father was able to successfully manipulate a coat hanger to pop the lock. Crisis averted.
One year (before getting the roof rack that included a cover) we had duffel bags strapped to the roof of the car and it poured. It was a miserable time unpacking all the damp clothes when we finally arrived.
Another year we had a much more serious problem. My mom, who had arthritis, had a flare up and was in terrible back pain. I remember her begging my father to leave her in Indiana. “Just leave me here,” she cried. My father wouldn’t, of course. “Okay, take me to a motel and leave me there! Then you can come back and get me.” That wasn’t an option either, so we just kept going; my mom in agony, and the rest of us not knowing what to do.
We spent three summers in Champaign-Urbana. Two summers we lived on campus in graduate student housing and one summer in a sublet house. We spent most of the time at the huge outdoor pool, swimming and playing in the water with a whole lot of other kids whose dads were also attending summer school. Sweet Caroline and In the Year 2525 played again and again over the PA system – the soundtrack for that time of my life.
You know what’s funny? I don’t remember much about any of the trips back home – not where we ate, not where we stayed overnight. The only thing that stands out is recognizing we were getting close when we smelled the sulfur and chemicals – quite a difference from the smell of manure that greeted our arrival in the Midwest. We knew we were coming to our exit of the New Jersey Turnpike when the pungent, unpleasant smell of the refineries welcomed us back home.