My parents and I spent much of the summer of 1973 in Colorado. My dad had applied for and received a grant to study for his administrative certificate in education at the University of Colorado in Boulder. So we took another road trip. My brothers weren’t with us. Steven was working at Ackerman’s Hotel (which contrary to what I thought at the time was NOT in the Poconos, but was in the hills of Morristown, New Jersey) and Mark was working at a summer camp in upstate New York. I wasn’t usually in the habit of missing my brothers, but I did that trip.
The three of us left Brooklyn in our Chevy Impala, the huge backseat all to myself. I had books and a transistor radio to entertain me. For some reason my parents were not getting along. There was a lot of arguing about directions, among other things. My mom navigated using the AAA triptik while my dad drove. This was obviously long before GPS and my father was basically dyslexic when it came to directions – more on that later.
I wasn’t enjoying this road trip. I fiddled endlessly with my radio, trying to tune in to music stations that reminded me of home. Whenever Bad, Bad Leroy Brown or Kodachrome came on, it lifted my spirits. My dad, a high school social studies teacher, didn’t appreciate the latter song, something about ‘when I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all’ offended him. Other than the music, I felt kind of lonely. The bleak Midwest landscape didn’t help.
The AAA book about Nebraska and Colorado said that when we left Nebraska and entered Colorado we would soon see the Rocky Mountains in the distance. I looked hard, but all I could see was the gray sky and drab prairie. We made it all the way to Denver and we still didn’t see the mountains!
We were staying on the University of Colorado campus and I had a single room in a high rise dormitory. My parents were next door in a suite. It was a relief that we each had our own space. We arrived in the evening and got settled in.
The next day miraculously the mountains appeared! They looked like a painted backdrop just like I had seen in so many John Wayne westerns. It was shocking since the day before the fog and cloud cover had been so thick that I would’ve sworn they weren’t there. I learned that they called the foothills the ‘flat irons,’ and it was an apt description. Things were starting to look up – literally. At that point I had only ever seen the Catskill Mountains, and I quickly understood that while they may have been pretty, they weren’t real mountains.
I was 13 years old and my view of the world broadened immensely that summer. From appreciating nature much more, seeing the continental divide in Rocky Mountain National Park and watching a thunderstorm below us on Pike’s Peak were awesome to behold, to seeing that people lived very different kinds of lives – my eyes were opened.
While we were in Colorado, Uncle Terry and Aunt Barbara, who were also teachers like my parents and had the summer off, took their Toyota Celica and yorkie, TJ, on their own road trip. They drove from Brooklyn to Alaska! Though not exactly on their way back, they came by and visited us in Boulder. We went horseback riding, played volleyball and generally had more fun – a theme in my young life. Things were more fun with Uncle Terry and Aunt Barbara around. In addition, Uncle Terry and my parents mapped out a sightseeing trip for us before we went back to Brooklyn.
While we were in Boulder we went to a rodeo. I can thank that rodeo for opening my eyes to two other issues I was only vaguely aware of – sexism and animal cruelty. I was horrified by the rodeo on so many levels. I learned how they got the bulls to buck – strapping their testicles back or by using some kind of electric prod (that may not be how they do it today, though it still doesn’t seem like a humane activity for either the bull or rider). Not to mention finding the prospect of a cowboy being trampled by the bull sickening. Part of the entertainment involved a pretty young woman dressed up in a gingham dress who acted dumb. We were supposed to laugh – I wasn’t laughing. As far as I knew, Brooklyn had never hosted a rodeo, which to my mind made it infinitely more civilized, even if the streets were more violent. I haven’t gone to a rodeo since.
Dad successfully completed his program and we left Colorado and started the road trip that would eventually take us home. We headed to Salt Lake City, then to the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore and last, the Badlands.
While I had heard of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, I didn’t know anything about the religion. Another eye-opening experience. Coming from an academic family that was only culturally Jewish, the story of the Mormons struck me as other worldly. With my natural skepticism, I found it hard to believe that others put faith in the story of John Smith, all the more preposterous to me because it started in, of all places, Western New York.
As I noted before, my Dad had a terrible sense of direction. That ‘disability’ was on full display as we tried to navigate around Salt Lake City. We headed to the Great Salt Lake, only to be thwarted by confusing signs (at least to my Dad) and we kept missing the turn, heading toward Provo (the opposite direction) three times before we finally got it right. When we finally did make it to the lake, there was some kind of fly infestation there. We took one quick look and got back in the car and drove back to our motel in Salt Lake City, or at least tried to. Whenever we went out to see the sights we would have great difficulty finding our way back to the motel. I think we finally had it figured out when it was time to leave. Next stop the Grand Tetons.
We drove through long stretches of desolation in Wyoming getting to Grand Teton National Park and then again when we were leaving Yellowstone. We passed towns named Ten Sleep and Emblem where the population would be 10 or 30! I wondered if they changed the sign for each birth or death. I noticed a truck stop with a trailer next to it, and nothing else, I mean nothing else, for as far as the eye could see. It appeared that whoever ran the truck stop lived in the trailer and that was his world. I couldn’t imagine the isolation, though I tried. My father remarked, only half joking “Maybe we could bring half the population of Brooklyn here. It would be better for everybody.”
Yellowstone was another revelation. The weather was not cooperating, a persistent cold rain threatened to ruin the sightseeing. My dad, in his frustration, complained, “I didn’t come all this way to get pissed on!” I tried not to laugh from my spot in the back seat but couldn’t help it. All of us started laughing, defusing the tension. Fortunately the rain did stop and we got to see the incredible geological anomalies that dot Yellowstone while staying dry. The Mammoth Hot Springs, the geysers, paint pots, mud volcanos, there was so much to see.
Despite all the wonders or maybe because there was so much, we managed to get on each other’s nerves. This time my mother was making me crazy. As we walked through the Mammoth Hot Springs, which looked like giant, steaming wax candles, I complained to my dad, “I can’t stand Mom’s attitude. She marches through each site and commands us when it’s time to move on. It takes all the fun out of it.” Dad tried to explain that she just wanted to fit as much as we could into each day. He reminded me that I was old enough to wander the sites on my own.
Another lesson from Yellowstone: I learned how stupid people could be. Despite all kinds of warning signs about staying away from bears, naturally someone had to test the premise. We were driving along the main park road when traffic came to a stop. Looking ahead, my dad started jumping up and down in his seat, his hand thumping the steering wheel with each jump. “Feige, Feige, look!” he was so excited, like a little boy, I had to smile. There was a bear a couple of cars ahead of us. We stayed in our car, windows rolled up, watching. A person in a small camper ahead of us got out of their vehicle with a camera to get a closer picture. The bear noticed and moved toward her. She hurried back into the camper and safely got in, to my great relief, (though a small part of me was rooting for the bear). The bear, spotting a red round object at the end the camper’s radio antennae, must have thought it was food, grabbed for it. Frustrated when it wouldn’t come off, the bear pounded on the hood. We watched the vehicle rocking under the weight of the bear. Finally he ripped the antennae off, angry that it wasn’t food, threw it down and slunk off back into the forest. “How could anyone be so stupid?” I asked. My parents had no answer.
Seeing the Grand Tetons, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore left indelible images in my mind. I had a much better understanding of the grandeur and power of nature. I also had a much greater appreciation for John Denver’s song Rocky Mountain High, which was ubiquitous on the radio.
There came a point, after seeing Mount Rushmore, where I had had enough. I don’t remember how long we had been on that road trip, but I had spent more than a month where it was just me and my parents. Riding in the car and staying in a single motel room made for tight quarters. Enough was enough. I made my stand at the Badlands. I wouldn’t get out of the car to look. I wanted to just go home.
Now who was stupid? I didn’t really see the Badlands and I’m pretty sure I ruined it for my parents. We headed home.
Aside from my new appreciation for the beauty in nature, my broader view of life in America, I came back to Brooklyn looking forward to seeing my brothers!
Another letter from Zada:
Road trips were something of a theme in my family. The following is a letter I received from Zada detailing a trip he took with two of his siblings. When he wrote this letter, it was just over a year after my trip out west and he had moved to West Palm Beach. Oddly enough the letter is written on stationary from the Holiday Inn of Kankakee (Illinois).
My Darling Linda,
I sometimes wonder, what kind of gift can a grandparent (if it is not money), delight a granddaughter with. In my case I presume telling her a tale of his interesting past would please her and give her something viable to remember him by. Therefore I have chosen this occurrence, that I shall call the “West Point Story” with the hope that she will not find it a boring one.
The time is the summer of 1930. I had just purchased a Model A Ford limousine, which I subsequently christened “Ramona.” The eight years in the life of Ramona (the car) were very exciting. Many a glad tale revolved about and around her existence. This tale is only one of the experiences in which she was involved.
I was a carefree soul in those days, and I decided on a picnic in the country. I invited my sister, Lily, and my brother, Sidney, to be my guests. My plan was to ride to Bear Mountain and view the picturesque scenery of Upper New York State. Remember we were city people, surrounded by tenements, and the hubbub of city life with all its noises, etc.
How refreshing was the clear air, the balmy breezes, as we rode with open windows, scanning the beautiful scenery. We arrived and had lunch at the Bear Mountain Inn, and then knowing that the West Point Academy was nearby, why not visit and watch the cadets parade?
From May to September it was the custom that after classes at precisely 4 p.m. the cadets, under supervision, would march as part of their training. We arrived in time to find a parking place, and we, in the company of about 3000 more spectators, wended our way to the parade grounds.
The parade begins, it is one of the most spectacular sights to see. The colors are born by 4 cadets followed by the Army band blaring for the “Stars and Stripes Forever.” You get goose pimply and possessed with pride that you are an “American,” and that these young men will be our protectors in times of strife. (Ask Uncle Jack and Uncle Morris and they will verbally describe to you the glow that permeates your whole being.) Have you ever heard how Albie Booth used to run through the Harvard Line, or how Bob Cousy would dribble down a basketball court, or how the Roxy Rockettes would dance in unison? Then you have a very good idea of how thrilled we were watching such symmetry in motion. The parade is over after the playing of the Star Spangled Banner. The bugles play taps and we are ready to make the trip home.
But I am not satisfied. I decide to do the whole bit. I will tour the area, show Lily and Sidney the new gym being built, the library, the auditorium, the classrooms, etc. I purposely underlined new gym because this is exactly where this unique happening took place. Now picture me driving and pointing out the various sites, not realizing that I was driving past a dead end sign. When all of sudden Ramona seems to fall, and we find ourselves, in what I thought was a ditch. But lo, no such luck. It was a square pit about 20 feet on each side, naturally it stands to reason, if it was square each side would be 20 feet. To my chagrin it was also 2 feet high. Now as good as Ramona was, her wheels were not built to climb walls. What to do? I am in a quandary. The sun is beginning to set and soon it will be dark. I tell my brother and sister to stay in the car, while I go to seek help.
I walk toward the main road and fortunately I see a squadron composed of 16 cadets, and I assume that the one in charge must be the leader. They are in formation, and probably as was their wont, marching back to their quarters. I step in front, put up my hand, like a traffic cop. On command they halt. I approach the leader, and in the most sorrowful tone, I exclaim, “Captain,” (I really did not know his rank, but I thought it would be complimentary to address him in that manner.) “I did the most stupid thing imaginable.” I explain that my sister and brother are marooned in the car, that I had foolishly driven into a hole and that I could not extricate the vehicle. He asked where the car was, and this is when it all happened.
Now he really became a squad commander, it was “squad left, squad right,” and when we arrived at the place it was “squad halt!” I forgot “squad, forward march.” Now he surveys the scene, then like a drill he orders by name 4 cadets on each side of Ramona. Then the order comes out in a stentorian voice, “Squad, heave to, and lift the car off the ground!” Then turning to me, in the same tone, “which way do you want to face the car?” I said, meekly, “Toward the main road so that I can be on my way.” Meanwhile the squadron was holding Ramona aloft. And then in the same manner, he ordered the four cadets in front of the car to take positions in the rear and then what seemed like a super human effort, his voice rang out, “Men, propel the car onto level ground!” and with all their might, they did just that.
We thanked him profusely and he answered. “It is all in a day’s work. We were glad to be of service.”
Then the orders began again “Squad, fall in formation! Squad, forward march!” They marched away like true American soldiers that had followed orders and helped people in distress.
I’ve heard so many contradictory stories about our men in the armed services, but I can never forget the sterling qualities of our West Point Cadets.
Darling Linda, like most of the things that happened to me, I end this letter with the old cliché, “You had to be there to appreciate the incident.”
As ever devotedly,
P.S. I am making a copy of this letter and sending it to Laurie. I wish for both of my lovelies to be amused. – CS