A Carload of Innocents

by Elaine Greene Weisburg

Rummaging recently through an overstuffed file drawer, I found a packet of snapshots taken on a cross-country motor trip from Forest Hills, Queens, to Los Angeles, California. The year was 1946; the month was June. The travelers were my mother, the excellent and only licensed driver aboard, her mother, my kid sister, and I, holder of a learner’s permit. The plan was for me to drive a little to relieve my mother. It was legal and I really knew how.

One of the rediscovered black-and-white snapshots showed me in a printed cotton dress posing beside a shield-shaped road sign saying Route 66, which, as the popular song said, “winds from Chicago to L.A.” A mildly interesting fact is that I remember the colors of the dress. A more interesting and actually astonishing fact is that Route 66, a major highway between the middle west and far west of our country—in other words, an interstate— was two lanes wide, one in each direction! Some of the cities and towns we went through were St. Louis, Joplin, Oklahoma City, Amarillo, Gallup, Flagstaff, and San Bernardino—place names I recall easily through the words of the song.

We were traveling to see the country and to visit my mother’s kid sister, Sylvia, who with her husband, Irving, and her in-laws, was operating a chicken farm in the San Fernando Valley. The four adults, native New Yorkers, had moved there during the Depression and were assisted in becoming farmers by California’s department of agriculture. My cousin Joan, thirteen at the time of our visit, was a toddler when they moved. Tall and lanky Uncle Irving was my only low-key uncle and my favorite out of four. He took us to the track at Santa Anita during our visit and taught me how to read the Daily Racing Form. I was prouder of that than of reading poetry in French. None of us bet more than four dollars for the day; breaking even was considered a win, although Uncle Irving, as usual, came out ahead. I haven’t been to a track since, but I keep up with racehorse movies and they always remind me of him.

When my aunt, a trained light-opera singer, wasn’t cleaning, sizing, and packing eggs, she took us sightseeing. One destination was Knott’s Berry Farm, a farmers’ market and souvenir shop; another was a museum of ancient natural prehistory, La Brea Tar Pits. We also attended a fashion show luncheon at Bullock’s Wilshire department store, which I remember vividly because a fat, inch-long leaf-green caterpillar was creeping through my salad. I considered myself a hero when I did not mention this to my companions. Or scream.

My mother had planned the trip with the help of the travel department at the American Automobile Association, the Triple A. She had pages of maps with the route marked in pale purple ink plus confirmed room reservations for every night. The cross-country drive, which my husband and son made in five days a few years ago, took us twice as long because my mother limited us to 250-300 miles a day. She gave driving her full attention, only asking me to spell her now and then, and she wanted to be in the shower by four every afternoon. She felt this was all Grandma could take, but Grandma proved to be a good road traveler.

My sister and I complained more than our grandmother did and what we complained about was the heat. I don’t know who chose the southern route for driving in June when there was a northern route in existence. Cars were not air-conditioned then, nor were most accommodations. I picked up athlete’s foot along the way and cured it in one day by sticking the afflicted bare foot out the car window in the hot sun. Toward the end of our trip we began to notice that numerous other cars had damp-looking canvas bags hanging on their front bumpers. At the next gas station we asked the attendant what they were. He said they carried a gallon of water in case the radiator boiled over. “Oh, we should have one,” Mother told him, “for when we get to the desert.” He peered into the car to see who else was there. Nobody smart, obviously. “Ladies,” he said, “where did you come from?” Mother told him. “Ladies,” he said, “You have been in the desert for two days.”

We bought a water bag, although we never had to use it. You can’t blame us Easterners for not recognizing a desert terrain: we all thought the desert would look like an endless sandy beach and there were lots of plants growing here.

Our accommodations matched our car–this was the first post-war year after all, the first year civilians were permitted to buy unrationed gas and resume such travel. You might even say we were traveling to celebrate peace. Our car was a pre-war second-hand black Plymouth with a temperamental fuel pump. Every hotel and motel along the way was pre-war and patched up, which didn’t bother us. I don’t remember most of them, other than one in the Southwest consisting of individual teepee-shaped, teepee-decorated units sleeping two. My sister and I addressed each other in Lone Ranger-Indian style during our overnight stay: “How, sister. Got-um toothpaste?”

It was out in this barren country–maybe the next day–that the stuttering fuel pump finally gave out at the top of a steep rise. We had no choice but to let gravity take us downhill where there stood a gas station in the middle of nowhere. The well-spoken Indian mechanic on duty happened to have a new fuel pump that would work in the Plymouth and he fixed us up with minimal delay. Thinking about this trip now and the problems and even dangers we might have faced, I feel a guardian angel was watching over this carload of innocents. I sometimes wonder how my father let us go. Another innocent, I guess.

Along the way we made a few major tourist detours to see Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon, and Las Vegas. I recognize in pictures of today’s Las Vegas the place I saw in 1946 when it was far, far smaller but just as glitzy. What really showed us our country’s vast complexity was the day-to-day panorama we drove through, revealing remarkable geographical and cultural differences.

When we got to L.A., Grandma was a guest on the farm while Mother, my sister, and I stayed at the Hotel Miramar overlooking the Pacific in Santa Monica. It is a luxurious place now, compete with bungalows; during our stay it was modest and pleasant. I learned an important lesson about California one day sunbathing at the nearby beach. The locals bragged so much about their state that I didn’t believe them when they said the sun was stronger there than in New York. I was wearing a two-piece swimsuit and my midriff got so burned that it looked like raw meat. I had to lie in bed on my back for two days, thinking the locals were right about one thing anyway.

We were all glad to be seeing the West Coast, but none of us wanted to move there. Just the slow-motion tempo of simple transactions like buying shampoo drove me crazy. The original idea had been to drive back but we all agreed that crossing the country once was glorious and crossing the country once was enough. At the end of her stay, Mother put the car on a ship that took it back east through the Panama Canal and my sister and I left two weeks early on the train. A letter from my boyfriend about going to Jones Beach with a former Chief Petty Officer (a girl) and about how she awarded him her Good Conduct ribbon had the desired effect on my peace of mind. Back I went.

From L.A. to Chicago we were on El Capitan, famous for its beautiful “Big Dome” lounge car from which you could watch the scenery going by. Here in a few sessions a college boy taught us how to play poker. We loved going to the dining car with its little lamps on each table and far better food than we’d found on the road. Late one night we stopped for a long time in a station—Omaha I think—and I looked through the window in my berth at a mysterious scene devoid of any people or color until we pulled out.

I believe every American should drive across the country once and not just on major highways. I am grateful we traveled on the song-worthy Route 66. And I was thrilled to discover only recently that John Steinbeck, who knew it as the Dust Bowl farmers’ escape route to California, called this highway the Mother Road.

Elaine Greene Weisburg spent about twenty years each at House & Garden (Conde Nast) and House Beautiful (Hearst) as design reporter and features editor, eventually editing a memoir column and two memoir anthologies.