The late 1960’s were transitional years for the nation’s youth. In the early part of the decade, we all started out looking and dressing like Wally Cleaver and Ricky Nelson, or Betty Anderson and Mary Stone. By 1967, we more resembled Bob Dylan or Janice Joplin. The early baby boomers were sprouting as the seedlings of the counterculture that would take over most of the country’s under-thirty population by the mid-1970’s.

Darker music by the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and the Grateful Dead began to earn more radio airtime and began making the happier tunes played by groups like the Turtles, the Mamas & Papas, and the Beach Boys seem less relevant, although both genres flourished among many of the same listeners.

1967’s blockbuster movies such as The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, and Bonnie & Clyde were edgier than their predecessors. Both Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and the aforementioned In the Heat of the Night tackled race relations head-on.

The times, they were a-changing, but for some of us there was one last hurrah left in the celebration of the carefree lives we had grown up enjoying in the 1950’s and ‘60’s.

The summer of 1967 had been the first where I hadn’t been able to go on our annual summer vacation to the family farm in Maine. It was also the first summer where I was a full-time employee with a real job, making real money, and paying real taxes. Two out of three wasn’t bad. The minimum hourly wage that year was $1.65. I was making a whopping $1.85 doing absolutely anything I was told to do at the Chrysler dealership where I was working as a porter for the summer.

I hadn’t seen my grandparents or cousins in nearly two years, so when my parents announced that they planned on driving up to the Maine farm to have an old-style family reunion Christmas, I was all in.

My dad had always been an aficionado of fast and fun cars. An Austin Healey, a Jaguar, a couple of T-Birds, and finally, a funky looking silver 1966 Dodge Charger fastback coupe with a 426 Hemi, had all been parked in our yard at different times over the previous ten years.

So now that my parent’s had joined the empty-nest club, what would dad choose as his next ride? Amazingly, in early December, he bought himself a behemoth 1968 Chrysler Town & Country station wagon. That heap was as big as a full-blown motorhome and just about as thirsty. Mom and dad were still in their early forties. I wasn’t sure if they were planning on having six more kids, adopting three or four Saint Bernard’s, or buying a horse farm that required a car capable of holding a dozen bales of hay and towing a four-horse trailer at the same time. If any of those scenarios were in their future, that Town & Country would be the perfect fit.

The perfect size car for two empty nesters. Dad’s 1968 Hindenberg Town & Country wagon looked identical to this monster.

The plan was to leave early on Friday morning on December 22nd to beat the late afternoon rush of families headed to grandma’s for the extended Christmas holiday weekend.

My mom had been talking with her two sisters over the days leading up to the trip. Nana was only seventy-one but had broken her hip a couple of years earlier and wasn’t very spry. The “girls” figured on making both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinner so that Nana wouldn’t have to do any of the work. Just how they reckoned that was going to happen in Nana’s house was anybody’s guess. Nana wasn’t the “sit around and watch” type when someone else was in her kitchen.

I have no idea how much food mom’s sisters were hauling to this event, but my mother had purchased enough groceries to feed about fifty people. Lucky for her, dad had purchased a car capable of holding enough grub to feed one hundred. Two coolers and four boxes that weighed about fifty pounds apiece. I tossed my duffel bag in, my parents added a couple of suitcases, and four or five more bags and boxes loaded with Christmas gifts. We still had enough room behind the middle row seats for a couple of kayaks and 3 or 4 mountain bikes, but we were ready to go.

I insisted on driving. Not that I wanted to pilot the Queen Mary, but my father had of late become a NASCAR drafter. To get the car up to 13 MPG from 12, he would follow close enough to the car in front so that the vacuum behind the lead car could pull his. To make matters worse, he complained loudly when the guy driving the lead car wouldn’t maintain dad’s preferred 75 MPH pace. I was only twenty, but I wanted to see twenty-one, so I drove. My mom was ecstatic.

Things went well for those first five miles until we entered the Merritt Parkway. Wall to wall cars all going about 15 MPH. Maybe a few other folks had figured on an early Friday getaway as well.  

It took in nearly three hours to reach the Massachusetts border that morning. As I picked up the toll ticket entering the Mass Pike, I wondered if we would be charged the standard passenger car fare or that of a tractor-trailer truck. We couldn’t have been much shorter in length or less in weight.

Things went smoothly up on the Pike. Dad had ordered his new tank in a cold steel blue color that very closely resembled the color of the Massachusetts’s State Police cruisers. The fact that they also drove gigantic Chrysler’s made our car appear to be a state police unit when seen in the car-in-front’s rearview mirror. Everyone in front of us moved right over and out of the way as we cruised the length of the highway at about 10 MPH over the limit.

After crossing into Maine and refueling the “Big Blue Beast” as I was now referring to it, the clouds became thicker, and it began to snow. Great! Just what we needed to make our journey across the river and into the woods a little bit more interesting. Luckily, having a car that weighed in at somewhere around eleven tons made forward traction in the snow a breeze. We trudged along with no issues other than the greatly reduced speed.

We pulled into the farmyard shortly after dark. What should have been a six-hour drive had taken nearly nine. Nana had turned on every light in the house so that we wouldn’t miss it. We’d only been there twenty or thirty times before, but she wasn’t chancing us driving by and into Canada.

The rear of the family farmhouse and connected barns in East Madison, Maine

Despite my mother and her sisters’ assurance that they were bringing all the food necessary for the long holiday weekend, Nana had a full dinner cooking in the kitchen upon our arrival. Nana didn’t want anyone to go hungry – ever.

Dinner was light by “Nana” standards. Just one beef roast, mashed potatoes, two vegetable dishes and a loaf of bread with two pounds of real butter on the table. In addition, there were a couple of large dishes loaded with condiments, my least favorite being those pimento stuffed green olives that should never be seen outside of a martini glass filled with gin. For dessert, there was a single, freshly made chocolate cake and a half gallon of ice cream.

My parents would have the first-floor guestroom. My mom’s middle sister and her husband were spending the weekend with their son and new daughter-in-law in Waterville, and her oldest sister lived about a mile away. They would all be there by Sunday morning to help restrain Nana and prepare for the next two days’ meals.

I was assigned one of the upstairs bedrooms just like always.

There was one difference this time. It was winter. Late December meant nighttime outside temperatures of about five degrees. The upstairs of that 1890’s farmhouse had no heat. That meant nighttime inside temperatures of about twenty degrees. No insulation, no storm windows.

When I pulled down the covers of the first twin bed, I discovered I probably wasn’t the only one using that room. The assortment of nuts and pine cones suggested at least one tenant squirrel. I opted for the other bed that hadn’t yet been chosen as a food pantry for the resident rodents.

I kept myself warm by shivering. All that movement under the weight of four woolen covers actually heated the bed enough to allow me to sleep. Either that or hypothermia was making me comatose, and someone would find my frozen carcass in the morning. Whatever it was, I drifted off after about an hour of frozen misery.

I awoke the next morning to the smell of coffee, bacon, and an odd mixture of pipe and cigarette smoke. My mom’s oldest sister was there with her Lucky Strikes and Gramps was clouding up the kitchen with his cherry bowled pipe stuffed with his Half & Half brand of tobacco. I managed to make it from under the covers and into my jeans in a record two and a half seconds. I was downstairs where it was warm in less than three more.

I could see that the kitchen counters were no longer visible as there was a mountain of ingredients for the upcoming holiday meals covering every square inch of available space. I sat patiently for the five minutes Nana took to offer me every item in her pantry for breakfast. I opted for bacon and eggs and hoped she could find them somewhere in that morass of groceries that were littering her kitchen space.

By the time I was finished with my breakfast, the infighting amongst two of the three loving siblings over who was doing what, when, and where was becoming a bit heated. Surely, by the time the third aunt would arrive, things were going to go from bad to worse.

By 10:30 AM, there was me and my dad, my grandfather, my uncle Ray and his oldest son Dick in the male contingency at the farm. With nothing else to do while we waited for the war in the kitchen to be resolved and some sort of truce to be negotiated, we gathered in the living room and switched-on Gramps’ ancient television.

As I remember Gramps’ old television, it probably sported an eighteen to twenty inch black and white picture tube that was anything but crisp and clear in its depiction of the images being broadcast. With five people sitting in Gramps’ living room, we might as well have been watching a radio as trying to make out what those fuzzy little images on the screen represented.

There were only two stations that my grandparents were able to receive. One was an NBC affiliate out of Poland Springs and the other a CBS broadcast from Bangor. As luck would have it, both stations had already begun to run the same compulsory Christmas tale, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” We had all seen Frank Capra’s sappy classic so many times that we could quote the next line before Jimmy Stewart could even open his mouth; but it was that or nothing.

“George, most people hate me, but I don’t like them either, so that makes it all even.”

At lunch, we were informed by Nana that the men were expected to gather on the porch to initiate an expedition to find a perfect Christmas tree as soon as they finished their coffee. It was all of twelve degrees outside, so traipsing through the snow looking to murder a perfectly healthy spruce didn’t particularly pique my interest. Like I had a choice…

Gramps handed me an orange vest as soon as I was outside.

“Will this make it easier for the bears to see me?” I inquired.

“It’s to keep the idiot hunters from mistaking you for a deer.”

Five grown men headed off into the forest in search of a single, lonely, unwitting fir that would be cut off below the knee to become a Christmas tree. Gramps didn’t particularly want a dead tree shedding needles in his living room, so he was just along as a guide. Evidently his wife of the past 45 years knew that her sons-in-law and grandsons would follow her wishes despite her husband’s grumbling objections.

We walked past about two hundred perfect candidates before dad and Ray both decided they had traipsed far enough into the woods and that by then one tree looked just like any other. They whacked down an eight-footer and then gave Dick and me the privilege of taking turns dragging it two miles back to the house. Christmas trees have a very strange way of gaining weight the farther you drag them. What started out as a forty pounder as it fell away from its stump, must have weighed between three hundred and three twenty-five by the time we got it back to the house.

With all three sisters now on deck, the tree was trimmed in practically no time. In between bickering about what decoration went where on the perfect tree they all remembered from their distant childhood, all three took time to wipe away their happy tears when they found their favorite ornament in Nana’s vast collection of Christmas Past.

Meanwhile, the men played cards and filled the dining room with enough cigar smoke to choke a reindeer.

Christmas Eve day had the women battling for space in the kitchen as they baked enough pies to feed a Salvation Army crowd at a Christmas dinner for the entire homeless population of Boston. Had there not been so much cigarette smoke in the air, the house would have likely smelled quite pleasant.

The men were tasked with driving into town to pick up enough fresh seafood for Christmas Eve dinner. Who knew that the small metropolis of Skowhegan, Maine didn’t have a fish store? Oh, the local IGA supermarket had frozen fish – mostly cod, but nothing that had been caught in the calendar year of 1967. Another 30 minutes south to Waterville and we found a lobster shack that had enough live lobsters to fit the bill. Not wanting to chance the women of the house being unwilling to provide us with enough space and pots to steam a dozen small lobsters, we had them boiled and bagged in Waterville.

Throughout Christmas Eve dinner there was a discussion of attending church for a midnight service… Well, amongst the women at the table, anyway. The men mostly ignored the conversation – a typical male way of saying “Thanks, but no thanks,” without saying anything that might lead to an argument. With any luck, the idea of going to church would simply fade away.

Lady Luck decided to side with the women.

One of my female cousins mentioned there was an 1842 meeting house in South Solon that was hosting a local high school chorus and that a minister from one of the area churches would be there to give a short candlelight sermon at midnight. What she neglected to mention was that the candlelight would be the only illumination since the place had no electricity and no heat.

We all knew that Nana wasn’t going to be up to going out that evening, but the other seven females in the room were unanimous in their decision to attend. Dick was going to go because his new bride told him he was going to go. I was chosen after my father tossed me the keys to the Big Blue Beast and informed my mother that everyone who wanted to go could easily fit in his car and that I would be happy to drive.

It was already snowing by the time everyone was bundled up and ready to go. A 40-minute drive on unplowed and untreated country roads in blowing snow with visibility that ended at the hood ornament. “Oh, what fun it is to ride…”

It turned out the South Solon Meeting House must have been visited by the disciples of Timothy Leary long before LSD had become a popular recreational drug. The entire interior was a psychedelic wonderland of colorful images on all the walls and the ceiling that probably depicted religious events – if you were stoned enough to conjure them up in your fuzzy state of mind. The Sistine Chapel it wasn’t.

Stanley Kubrick’s idea of a perfect country church. The interior of the South Solon Meeting House in rural Maine.

My teeth were chattering so loudly it was difficult to hear the minister, but like Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey, I was pretty certain I knew most of the lines in the padre’s speech about the baby Jesus. Luckily, the entire event was over before frostbite set into my tush from sitting in that cold wooden pew. Everyone was pretty quiet for the ride home; I think most of them were still in shock from what seemed like Stanley Kubrick’s idea of a perfect little country church. By the time we were back at the farm the snow was half-way up the hubcaps of the car.

I slept in on Christmas morning. Not because I was all that tired. I was just too darn cold to get out of bed and make a mad dash for the stairs. I could hear the commotion downstairs as mom and her siblings were preparing the meal of the century.

Everyone was present and accounted for by noon on Christmas Day. Even my uncle Ollie whom I had seldom seen during our summer visits to the family farm. Ollie worked for the U.S. Forest Service as a firewatcher, spending the entire summer sitting atop a fire tower waiting to be the first to report a forest fire. A necessary, but not exactly exciting occupation. Ollie had previously worked for the Farm Bureau as an artificial insemination technician, servicing the local area’s cattle, not exactly a conversation starter at cocktail parties.

Soon, the spiked eggnog was flowing. There was a low hanging cloud of cigarette smoke obscuring the star atop the Christmas tree, overloaded with ornaments that the three sisters had insisted on displaying from their youth, and presents were being passed around the room like buckets in a fire brigade. Gaudy sweaters, too many woolen socks, cartons of Lucky Strikes, Camels, and Winston cigarettes were just a few of the myriad of the mandatory gifts opened that day. Uncle Ollie, whom I had never seen without suspenders holding up his britches, scored four new sets, all with a holiday theme; proving that originality in gift selection amongst members in our family wasn’t of paramount importance.

It was almost 4 PM by the time the twenty-seven-pound turkey was deemed ready to serve. East Madison Maine didn’t have a homeless population in 1967. But if it had, there would have easily been enough food to satisfy the hunger of at least triple the fifteen people we had crammed around Nana and Gramps’ dining room table that afternoon.

For those who needed an additional protein, there was seven-pound ham smothered with pineapple slices and cherries. Candied yams with a marshmallow topping – a dish invented by the American Yam Growers Association to make their tasteless root vegetable appear palatable – was also on the sideboard alongside the mashed potatoes, the mandatory green bean casserole, a bowl of homemade cranberry sauce, four pounds of extra stuffing, and a basket of piping hot popovers.

After dinner, the kitchen looked like a war zone. It was the job of the menfolk to clean it up after all the leftovers were put away. Seven mostly adult males made quick work of it. Especially when perfection took a back seat to expediency. By 8 PM we were ready for another slice of pie and a good game of poker. Gramps was MIA, fast asleep in his recliner in the living room.

We’d be heading back to Connecticut the next day, and while the Christmas experience with the entire family had been interesting, it hadn’t been quite the fun adventure it would have been had I still been a little kid. Maybe that’s why we all relish in the nostalgia of remembering our youth.

It was really cold that night. My feet went numb, and I wasn’t ruling out frostbite. By the time morning came, the windows all had a heavy coating of frost on the inside. I was all but certain that my skin was every bit as blue as that land yacht sitting in the driveway.

Nana wanted to pack us a lunch for the long drive home. More turkey would mean a nap, and a nap at 70 MPH didn’t seem like a good idea. All I wanted was a thermos full of coffee. Hot, black coffee.

The ride home went much faster. Traffic was light and there were no large trucks to contend with. There were more than a few cars headed south with a dead deer or two strapped to either the roof or trunk lid. Trophies for the brave hunters who had ambushed them in the forest and were then hauling them home to do whatever brave hunters do with their vanquished prey.

The feeling slowly returned to my feet by the time we were halfway through Massachusetts. That was the first and last trip we took a trip to Maine to celebrate Christmas, and I was fine with that.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all, no matter where you travel or with whom you celebrate. We’ll return in early 2023 with more historical features, so until then, enjoy your family and friends and remain healthy!

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By Bruce Nelson

Director of Research for the Historical Society of Easton Town Co-Historian for the Town of Redding, Connecticut Author/Publisher at Sport Hill Books