Part one of two.
It was mid-June and everyone in my fourth-grade class was ready to leave those little wooden “duck & cover” desks behind to get outside and enjoy the fresh air. Should Khrushchev suddenly decide to nuke us during the summer, we’d simply take our chances by not having a sturdy school desk to hide under for protection.
For some reason, our school year never ended on a Friday. School was always kept in session until about the middle of the third week in June. There was no learning during those last few of days, so we were tasked with cleaning out our desks. Lockers weren’t part of the school landscape in the 1950’s. Everything you brought to school was jammed into your desk. Some of the older desks had hinged writing surfaces that opened to allow full access to the contents below. The less expensive, mass-produced newer ones simply had a cubby hole with a 6-inch-high opening the width of the desk. Whatever was stored at the rear could have been there since September, although a forgotten banana or a leftover tuna fish sandwich would have surely been noticed long before that final day in June.
In the mid-1950’s, elementary school students didn’t use pens. Although the ball-point pen was slowly gaining in popularity, ink couldn’t be erased, and everyone in my class usually wore out his or her eraser long before the number-two lead pencil it was attached to became a tiny yellow stub. Leftover pencil remnants too short to save, along with a couple of handfuls of lead and wood shavings from our hand-held pencil sharpeners were usually in abundance as we dragged them out of the dark confines of the back of our desks. After removing the homemade book covers (cut-up, old brown paper grocery bags) from our textbooks, we turned them in to our teacher. We then stared in anticipation at the loudspeaker that hung in the corner and waited for the announcement that school was dismissed.
The traditional “No more pencils; no more books,” was heard being sung from every bus as it left the parking lot for the final journey home.
The first Saturday after the end of school was always a travel day for our family. We would always spend the next three weeks in Maine, a state that in the mid-1950’s was seemingly twice as far from Connecticut as it is today.
Friday was spent packing and then gathering up the family dog for her annual trip to the Step-A-Side Kennel on Stepney Road. Our beloved Boxer-mix liked to stage a hunger strike for the first week or so during our absence. Perhaps she thought we would think she had been mistreated while in the care of someone else and that next year she could travel to Maine with us. It never worked.
Two days before we left for vacation, dad drove home in a spiffy new red and white Dodge Coronet Custom Royal Lancer pillarless coupe. The name of the car was almost as long as the fins that adorned the rear quarter panels.
Saturday morning began at 4:20 AM. Dad liked to beat the weekend traffic. We were on the road by 4:45 AM. Just in time to see the first rays of the rising sun illuminate Sport Hill Road as the vacuum operated wipers were still removing the remaining dew from the windshield. After getting on the Merritt and crossing Housatonic, we pulled up to the rustic looking Milford toll plaza that would have undoubtedly impressed John Muir. Dad handed the man in the tiny log cabin a quarter for the privilege of continuing on for another fifteen minutes. Driving east, the name of the road changed to the Wilber Cross Parkway. Just the other side of New Haven, the limited access road suddenly became a free-for-all. It was called the Berlin Turnpike. The speed limit was about the same as it had been on the Wilber Cross. But added to the driving experience was a mixture of 10,000 gas stations, diners, ice cream stands, and furniture stores. To regulate traffic and allow left hand turns, the state had installed what seemed like a hundred or more traffic lights – all of which were sadistically timed, so that traveling at exactly the prescribed speed limit would result in stopping at virtually every light.
You could almost see the wheels turning in my father’s head as he began calculating precisely how fast he would need to drive to avoid stopping at every single traffic signal. His conclusion was likely somewhere around 75 mph. Evidently, every other dad on that highway that morning had reached the exact same conclusion, as nearly everyone was soon screaming down the road at the same speed. It was the Daytona 500, only in a straight line.
After escaping the Berlin International Drag Strip, it cost another quarter to traverse the Charter Oak Bridge that spanned the Connecticut River. By this time, it was just past 6:00 AM and the rising sun completely obscured everything beyond the hood of the car as the bridge surface rose high enough to allow boat traffic to pass beneath the span above.
By 6:30, it was getting warm. As fancy as dad’s new Dodge was, it wasn’t air conditioned, so that meant the windows were lowered to allow natural ventilation. It also meant that the next seven hours were going to be extremely noisy and exceedingly windblown.
Entering the Massachusetts Turnpike at Sturbridge meant stopping to pick up a ticket from the man in one of the half-dozen phone-booth sized enclosures at the bottom of the entrance ramp. The Mass Pike had just opened as part of the U.S. government’s new interstate highway system. The fee to use the road from Sturbridge to Boston was a whopping $.90. Unless, of course, you were unfortunate enough to have one of those two-tone blue Buick Police Cruisers pull you over and issue you a $20 speeding ticket. Five miles-per-hour over on the Mass Pike was all those pesky troopers would allow!
Breakfast was had at the first rest-stop after dad filled his new chariot with a fresh tank of premium grade fuel. High-test ran about $.35 a gallon. In a tradition unheard of today, the gasoline was pumped by a man wearing a white uniform while another man cleaned the windshield, checked your oil, and tried to sell you a new fan belt and wiper blades. Cars in the 1950’s began leaking or burning oil about two days after their 90-day factory warranty expired. There were 87 days left on dad’s warranty, so we were good to go.
Exiting the Mass Pike just outside of Boston put us on the most annoying section of road in all of New England. Massachusetts Route 128. This was the road that ran around the outskirts of the greater Boston area. It has since been mostly replaced with Interstate 95, but in 1957 it was a heavily traveled four-lane highway that was nearly always under construction, usually limited to one travel lane in each direction for much of its length during the official Massachusetts summer road building season. Which is every day of every month between March and November. Before the invention of orange rubber cones, lane closures were marked with kerosene burning road torches. Those closely resembled the little black bombs aimed at eliminating Inspector Clouseau depicted in all those Pink Panther movies. With all the windows lowered and a forward speed of about eleven miles per hour, the smell from all those torches would have been overwhelming had it not been for dad’s trusty Camel cigarettes’ ability to counteract all that black kerosene smoke.
When the traffic was allowed to use both lanes, impatient drivers looking to make up time lost in the construction zones often crashed, instantly backing up traffic again. Again, shades of a late-race restart at Daytona.
So much for beating the weekend traffic.
The distance from the end of the Mass Pike to Kittery, Maine was about 70 miles. On any given Saturday morning during summer, that might take upwards to two hours to traverse it. The roundabout on U.S. Route 1 at Portsmouth, New Hampshire would generally have about a five-mile backup by 11:00 AM. Once through the sadistic maze of circling traffic at Portsmouth, we were able to wait our turn to cross the Piscataqua River that separates New Hampshire from Maine. The river was then spanned by a thirty-year-old, narrow bridge that had been designed to accommodate an occasional Model T. The cost to cross was all of $.10, which meant that in another 237 years the two states would collect enough in tolls to replace the structure with a new bridge. One that would be built high enough to allow something larger than a birchbark canoe to pass beneath it without first stopping all the traffic above and then raising the center section between the two massive towers like an elevator until the road deck was far enough into the sky to allow a ship to pass beneath it. Raising and lowering the middle span could be a full fifteen-to-twenty-minute process depending on the size and speed of the watercraft that required passage on the river below.
Once into Maine, the traffic flow was noticeably better. The new Maine Turnpike had opened in 1947 between Kittery and Portland. Traffic could sail along for those 47 miles at the unheard of speed of 60 mph! The Maine Turnpike was known as “The Mile a Minute Highway.”
By 12:30, we needed more food and more gasoline. Sure, that car had a 25-gallon tank, but in 1957, any V8 powerhouse worth its salt got no more than 12 miles per gallon. The Kennebunk rest area had gasoline available on both sides of the super speedway, but the lone, Howard Johnson’s Restaurant sat on the southbound side. No problem however, as there was a pedestrian tunnel underneath the highway – definitely the highlight of the day for the nine-year-old kid in the backseat!
For at least the first fourteen years of my existence, any and all meals at Howard Johnson’s were exactly the same – hot roast beef piled on cold white bread and swimming in gravy! Plus, a scoop of occasionally warm mashed potatoes covered with a half-pound of butter and a glass of ice-cold whole milk. At least the milk probably offered some nutritional value along with its high-fat content.
Exiting the highway – only because it abruptly ended a few miles after lunch – meant driving on surface streets through Portland before then proceeding north for the next eighty or so miserable miles on state roads littered with farm tractors towing various pieces of equipment. It was Saturday afternoon and none of these farmers needed to be hauling anything down the highway, but the sport of seeing how many cars they could get lined up behind them was just too tempting to resist. Dad consumed about half a pack of camels while he tapped his fingers atop the steering wheel in frustration.
Our final destination was the Middle-of-Nowhere, Maine where my Easton born grandfather had purchased a 155-acre farm sometime around 1940. My grandfather had been a 4th generation Easton farmer well into the Great Depression before Sam Senior offered him a job working for the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company in 1939. My dear grandmother had branded the tiny town of East Madison, the “Middle-of-Nowhere” as a show of displeasure when her dear husband suddenly gave up his good paying job as the superintendent of the Saugatuck Watershed Basin and decided to move to Maine in 1956. Gramp yearned to become a full-time dairy farmer for the second time in his life at the age of sixty. Everyone in the family had been vacationing at that farm for several years, but this would be the first year it would be a functioning dairy farm.
Our arrival at the farm came only about eleven hours after departing Connecticut. 365 miles, half of them traversed on local roads. All of them hot and breezy.
Nana was pleased to see her youngest daughter, and Gramp was almost giddy when he saw another one of his healthy young sons-in-law arrive just in time to help bring in his hay during his first summer as a reincarnated dairy farmer. Uncle Ray and my dad would reluctantly trade in their suits for blue jeans on what should have been their time to relax on vacation.
Since a farmer eats his dinner at noon and his supper after the cows are milked, we had arrived in plenty of time for supper. My grandmother always assumed you were hungry when mealtime rolled around. Really hungry! The six-pound rib roast was accompanied by a seven-pound baked ham sitting on the buffet. Nearby potatoes came both mashed and baked. Fresh green beans and snow peas sat on either end of the masterful lineup. There was fresh corn on the cob – at least a dozen ears of it piled high in a huge bowl sitting in the middle the dining room table with another eight or ten waiting in the kitchen as re-enforcements when needed.
I was full before we began.
After supper came the choice of strawberry-rhubarb pie or chocolate layer cake, along with a plate of Nana’s daily baked molasses cookies. Also sitting on the buffet was a giant block of frozen vanilla ice cream that wouldn’t be soft enough to stick a spoon into until sometime around 11:00 PM. Nana’s giant Kelvinator freezer was set to “Ice Age.” She evidently figured her frozen food would stay that way even if the electric power would be out for a week or more.
After supper, the menfolk headed outside to the covered porch where they lit an odd combination of cigarettes, cigars, and pipes – all creating a giant cloud of smoke that kept the mosquitos confused enough to leave them alone. When the men were done polluting the clear Maine air for the evening, they returned inside to the front parlor.
Gramp warmed up his prize Emerson console television. Televisions in the 1950’s required a delicate start-up process that began with about 5 minutes of tube warming before the actual viewing began. In the Middle-of-Nowhere, Maine, the choice of channels was singular. Bangor’s DuMont Broadcasting affiliate. The Red Sox had played a day game that Saturday, so we were actually able to view a regularly scheduled network show. In Maine, if the Red Sox were playing, you watched that game or nothing at all. I’m pretty sure that was a state law.
It was Saturday night, so we got to watch “Jackie Gleason and the Cavalcade of Stars.” Gramp’s television antenna wasn’t the best, and the signal wasn’t the strongest. The picture was ghosting – think of having double vision after a heavy night of drinking – for most of the broadcast, and a few times Gramp had to swear, get up, and walk over to the set to turn a knob or two to stop the picture from rolling. He finally got everything just about perfect as that week’s “Honeymooners” skit wound down and the June Taylor dancers began their intricate dance routine.
My cousin Dick and I were assigned one of the upstairs bedrooms. The three windows provided enough air to lower the temperature from unbearable to just plain hot. All three windows had screens to keep the insects at bay. All three screens also had holes in them that were big enough to allow barn swallows unfettered access to the room. The swallows would have actually been a welcome sight, since they could have eaten the 300-plus mosquitos that were buzzing around sizing up their intended victims. Luckily, my mother had packed a large economy size can of industrial strength DEET, and after bathing ourselves with enough of it, we were able to get to sleep. Thankfully, this only went on for the first two weeks of our three-week stay. By the third week the daytime highs were in the upper fifties and open windows were a thing of the past.
Breakfast at the farm saw more options thrown at you than any of the largest IHop’s on the planet. I was easy. Bacon & eggs, some toast, and a glass of orange juice. It didn’t matter that I knew what I wanted and stated so almost before my little keister hit the chair. Nana gave a list of everything and anything in her pantry, kitchen cabinets, refrigerator, and freezer that might even be considered food for breakfast. I was ready for lunch before she was done offering all the choices for breakfast.
After my morning meal, I was all set for the fun to begin. I had politely turned down Nana’s offer of nice glass of prune juice to go along the oatmeal, hard boiled eggs, potatoes, ham, sausage and pancakes I had also nixed.
No such luck. My grandfather had other plans for his only two grandsons. Dick and I were going to learn how to be farmers!
Part Two next Saturday – Same time – same place!