I was listening to Car Talk on Saturday and a call came into the show from Waconia, MN. Oh my, it was as if someone had snapped his fingers and I’d suddenly been wrapped in a warm blanket of nostalgia and fallen back in time. That town and Norwood and Young America were my childhood equivalent of Disneyland. These towns that lie about 40 miles southwest of the twin cities were the hometowns of my parents, and their parents and a whole bunch of other relatives. So, as with most families that disperse far from home, there were at least a couple of, I suppose in my parent’s view, obligatory trips back to visit each year. But to my brothers and me a trip to Minnesota was the start of an adventure. You never knew what would be going on at Grampa and Gramma’s.
But of course, first you had to get there. In the mid to late 1950’s this meant an excruciatingly long car ride, usually in the back seat of a Buick with my brothers Jim and Phil. We were all so “amped-up” that for pretty much the entire day-long trip there was squirming and fussing and teasing and “Mom, he’s pickin’ on me.” Alternately one of us brothers would be placed in protective custody in the front seat between Mom and Dad to take the poor victim out of harms way. It could be something as simple as one kid gives the other a “woyon,” and another and another and another until the kid in receipt of the unending woyons would start to cry.
The woyon was an amazingly simple and effective tease. I don’t know how it started, but my view at the time was that all evil started with my older brother, Jim. The woyon was often employed in church when our parents had us under such close supervision (prior experience) that pinching and poking were out of the question. Out of view of the parents, the kid giving the woyon would open his hand palm up, curl the fingers in slightly, and then move his thumb in and out of the fingers.
To this day I cannot explain it, but I guess it was something like the “little kids” version of flipping someone off. The receiver of the woyon would be infuriated, retaliate with a woyon of his own and after all kinds of back and forth, finally the poking and pinching would set in. This eventually led to an early exit from church, or as I said, a trip to the front seat. By the way, Spell Check gives a couple of suggested alternatives for woyon, those being Noyon and Doyon. Man, I wish I’d known about those when I was about 7. And Jim, are you seething right now… I know you saw my woyon.
Our Route 66 was Route 12. I remember the signs for the towns along the way as if it was yesterday: Baraboo, Portage, Tomah, Black River Falls and on and on. And Burma Shave signs…SAID FARMER BROWN…WHO’S BALD ON TOP…SURE WISH I COULD…ROTATE THE CROP. Ironic that I should remember that one. All those towns were potty stops and chances to spend the little vacation money we had on junk food. We never ate at restaurants. We were not poor people, but I guess thrifty, and no money was wasted. Mom would have made sandwiches, something like leftover pot roast with Miracle Whip and lettuce on Wonder Bread and wrap them in waxed paper for the trip. Milk from Thermos bottles washed it all down. Do you remember, you’d unscrew the Thermos and inside there’d be a series of nested cups to pass around and drink from?
No video games then, no lap tops or DVD players. But there were some games designed for car travel. The one I remember was car bingo. You got to put an X in the box if you saw a certain thing, say a cow, along the road. That didn’t keep us distracted for too long though, so pretty quickly it was back to fussing and “How much longer, Dad?”
When we got to Eau Claire we always felt the end was in sight, one of the last big towns before crossing into Minnesota. By this time it was invariably dark and with darkness there was the issue of heat. We’d try to scrunch down on the floor under blankets to get closer to the heater under the front seat. The windows would fog up and we’d ride on, occasionally nodding off, in a cocoon of damp warmth.
Grampa and Gramma lived in Young America and our approach to it always looked the same. You’d swing off the main highway onto a smaller road which would then curve slightly uphill into town. On one summer trip as we drove that last dark stretch we first smelled something fishy and then felt the car squishing through something that sounded like mud. We peered out the windshield to see thousands of frogs hopping across the road. My dad, his knuckles white on the steering wheel now for hours guided the car through the frog armada and finally into town.
That first night it was all we could do to climb the narrow wooden stairs up to the second floor and tumble into one of the big iron beds. Protecting ones share of the bed and covers from sibling interloping and much tossing and turning would eventually lead to a fitful sleep full of anticipation about the days ahead.
Route 12, like route 66 is superfluous now, supplanted by Interstate 94. The Burma Shave signs are long gone too. And though the old towns remain, they all look the same.
Their joy shouts!
It whispers now,
In asphalt memories.
Don’t fret tractor lovers; there’ll be more tractor news next post.
Thanks for reading.