Sunday, November 28, 2004

The ’57 Nomad and Mom’s New Straw Hat

Our family once owned a ’57 Chevy Nomad.

“Oh yeah. What’s that?” you say.

Well it was just about the coolest car in America—that is back when I was a kid in 1961.

The Chevy Nomad was the Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) of its day. Today, SUVs are everywhere. And everyone makes them. Ford, Chevrolet, Chrysler—all the American car makers produce them. But so do Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Kia, Mitsubishi—so many different varieties. There’s not that much special out there anymore. Back then we didn’t have SUVs. We had station wagons. And the Chevy Nomad was the snazziest station wagon around. It would be kind of like (though not exacty like) driving a Hummer today—a real standout vehicle.

Our Nomad looked a lot like the picture at the right—same color and everything. Except ours had a luggage rack on top.

And we used that luggage rack when we moved, in August of 1961, from Cincinnati, Ohio to San Antonio, Texas. Dad was 34, Mom 31. I was nine, Ellen was seven, and Tim was two.

My Dad had spent most of his working life up until then at the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Established by Congress in 1947, the AEC performed the role of oversight of atomic energy development until its abolition in 1975. Dad had worked there for several years in the field of security. But in 1961, his job was phased out and he had to look for work.

Well he finally landed a job in Texas with Mason Hanger, a private, government defense contractor. And we had to move.

I’m sure for Mom and Dad it was a major trauma. It was the first time either of them had ever been far away from family. But for us kids—WOW—what an adventure!

We struck out in August of 1961, heading west on US 50. Back then there were very few Interstate Highways. And we had to travel often on two-lane roads. We trekked across southern Indiana and then southern Illinois, Dad at the wheel, Mom beside him, wearing her new straw hat with a baby-blue ribbon tied around it. Us three kids occupied the back seat, our luggage stuffed in the rear of our station wagon, and even more luggage strapped to the top of the Nomad. We pressed onward, filled with purpose and excitement.

Mom had packed us some sandwiches—probably baloney and cheese or perhaps her favorite, oliveloaf. We ate in the car as we motored down the highway—a typical, happy American family of the ‘60’s.

Back in those days we didn’t have CD players in our cars. We didn’t have cassette decks or even 8-Tracks. Why even the radio coverage was poor—just AM stations, and most of those very weak and scratchy. So, we had to entertain ourselves.

And we did. We played games, counted cows, made up all kinds of stuff to keep us occupied. And we often sang in the car. In fact Mom and Dad would often harmonize together on tunes. Their voices blended very well.

The bells are ringing for me and my gal.
The birds are singing for me and my gal.
Ev'rybody's been knowing, to a wedding they're going.
And for weeks they've been sewing,
For me and my gal

And sometimes we’d make up our own songs. We had fun traveling together—just one big happy family.

But I remember that first night—that first frustrating night. We had difficulty finding a motel near St. Louis. Us kids were tired, zonked out. And Mom was nervous, afraid we would have to sleep in the car. But Dad—Dad the steady one of the family—he was cool as a cucumber.

Well, we finally found an old “flea bag” hotel on the seedy side of town about 2:00 in the morning—a dump really. I think it was in East St. Louis, just on the Illinois side of the Mississippi, across from St. Louis, Missouri.

After a restless night, we got up, ate breakfast, piled back into our Nomad, and headed out again. The first thing I remember that morning was crossing the Mississippi River.

Now I had grown up near the Ohio River, and had seen it numerous times. Several of my uncles were boaters and fishermen, and sometimes took us kids down to the river to go waterskiing. But this river, this mighty Mississippi, was something else altogether. It was like a whole mile or maybe more, just getting across that bridge. And when we got to the other side, I felt like we had really entered into a new phase of our lives. We had had a full day’s drive behind us, a night away from home, and now, still heading west into Missouri, the mighty Mississippi behind us.

Just out of St. Louis, we picked up US 67 heading south. We drove through Missouri and Arkansas, through Little Rock, actually—the capital—and continued south.

Dad was tired. He had been driving until very late the night before. And even though we had slept in a little bit, and gotten a late start that day, Dad was tired. And I think he felt bad that our accommodations the night before were so poor. So he decided to start early and look for a nice place to stay that second night.

We found one alright—a Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge in Texarkana, right on the border between Arkansas and Texas. And what a contrast it was—in every way—with our “flea bag” the night before.

Even though we had not yet crossed the border into Texas, it seemed as if we were already in the Wild, Wild West. This motel enjoyed rich, open, wood-beamed architecture, cathedral ceilings, and spacious rooms. It was clean and beautiful—fairly new I think.

The night before we had all been crammed like sardines into a tiny space—all five of us. But tonight, tonight we were going to be in luxury. Mom and Dad took one suite, and us three kids got an adjoining room all to ourselves. So cool!

And there was a pool. So as soon as we got settled in—it was late afternoon—we slid into our bathing suits (yeah I could “slide” into one back then), jumped into the refreshing blue water, and splashed around. Now things were beginning to feel like a vacation.

Mom and Dad seemed content, apprehensive no doubt about the uncertainties ahead, but restful that evening. We enjoyed a relaxing supper, retired to our rooms, and watched television until we finally conked out.

One long day of driving still awaited us. We got up early, polished off breakfast, and piled once again into the Nomad. Heading southwest on US 67 again, Dad pointed that wonderful Chevy wagon towards San Antone!

If my memory serves me correctly, the two-lane soon opened up into a four-lane highway. That morning the sun shone brightly. Only clear skies up ahead. Wide open spaces. Everything was wonderful. Everything except one, that is.

For you see, back in those days, cars did not have air conditioning. At least most of them didn’t. And ours was no exception. Let’s face it—here we were in late August, in Texas. It was hot. So we had all four windows rolled down—4-55 air-conditioning as they say.

Dad was smiling, his hands on the wheel. Mom sat beside him, her straw hat flapping in the breeze from the wind through the Nomad’s open windows, the blue ribbon fluttering out like the tail of a kite.

In the back, my brother Tim, only two, was feeling playful. Standing up on the back seat (no seat belts in those days either) he pulled Mom’s hat off of her head. She turned around but it was too late. Tim had scampered to the other side of the car.

And then, without warning, it slipped from his little fingers.

As if sucked up by a giant vacuum cleaner, Mom’s straw hat vanished out the window. We all gasped, looking back to see it bounce across the four-lane’s grass median strip.

It was gone, lost forever on a Texas Highway.

And we too sensed that something had gone from our lives. A season had ended. And a new one awaited, up ahead, just down that four-lane strip of Texas asphalt.


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