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Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Journey Begins

The Havilah Babcock House circa 1908, Neenah, Wisconsin.


In 1962 when I was eight years old, my family set out on a cross country road trip from our home north of San Francisco to the East Coast and back. Mom, Dad, me, three older brothers and a yellow Pontiac station wagon. Bill, a sophomore in college, sat up in front and took turns driving with Dad, while Dave and Steve, both in their teens, divvied up the window seats in back with Mom. As the smallest and least significant, I rode behind everyone else with the luggage, where the only unobstructed view was out the rear hatch. From this position in the family hierarchy I seldom had any idea where we were going but always had plenty of time to think about where we had been and what we were leaving behind.

Dad’s original idea in taking this trip was for us to see the country, only once we were out on the road making good time became more important than having one. “We can always see that kind of thing on the way back,” he said about Yellowstone and the Badlands, both of which had been vaguely promised but were no where near the route we were on. Driving each day until the dead of night, we stopped only at greasy caf├ęs and dusty gas stations until finally, pushed to the brink of exhaustion, Dad would turn in at some dimly lit roadside motel where the neon vacancy sign flickered ominously. As he walked over to the office to register, Mom would call out, “Make sure it’s clean.” Minutes later, following what could only have been a cursory inspection of the premises, Dad would return to make his report.

“Well,” he’d say, “it’s not flossy."

While the best of these places smelled of moth balls and disinfectant, and had white chenille bedspreads and sanitary paper tapes across the toilet seats, the majority were part of what must have been a vast Bates Motel franchise, complete with worn-out linoleum rugs, rusty bathroom fixtures and bare exposed light bulbs dangling from the ceilings. No TV, no pool, no air conditioning, no nothing. Except once there was an oil derrick that groaned all night outside the only window that opened. That was the motel where there weren't enough rollaways for all of us and Dave volunteered to sleep in the bath tub because Dad didn't want to pay for two rooms.

Years later I learned that a road trip like ours had been one of the few happy memories Dad had growing up. His was in 1931 when he was fifteen years old, two years after his father had died of Alzheimer’s disease, the same year his mother had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer. His mother had promised that when his older sister Mary graduated from high school the three of them would go to Europe, only when the time came it was the middle of the Depression, and his mother felt such an extravagance would be in very poor taste. So instead she bought a touring car, hired a driver and took them all on a three-month circumnavigation of the continental United States, revisiting all the places that had been important in her life.

The bird bath in Aunt Nell's formal gardens, being fished by Dad's Louisville cousins George, Harry and Blandina Babcock, circa 1935.

Like us they started out from California, only the first part was by train, arranging for the driver to follow along in the car and meet them in Chicago after they had spent a week or so with Dad’s aunts in Wisconsin. For Dad this first stop was the high point of the entire three months. His aunts had no children and the three of them were devoted to their nieces and nephews, making Wisconsin the only place Dad ever thought of as home - not his mother's house in the foothills of Berkeley, nor any place he ever lived with us for that matter. Even as an adult Dad visited these aunts every chance he got, taking side trips to Wisconsin whenever he passed through Chicago. Our own trip was no exception.

I don’t remember driving up into Wisconsin out of Illinois or continuing north from Milwaukee to Neenah, but what does come back clearly begins on the edge of town, where Dad pulled into a drive-in on Main Street, bought us all milkshakes and announced that for the next three days we were to be on our best behavior. No discussion, no debate, and no threatened consequences because there was no alternative to full compliance with whatever Dad expected of us. His fury, when unleashed, could be volcanic. Only Dave, with whom Dad never uttered a harsh word and therefore enjoyed certain liberties the rest did not, ventured to voice his opinion.

“Looks like we're spending the weekend in church.”

From the drive-in we continued on into town over railroad tracks, past old mills, and through a handful of commercial blocks that made up a rather ordinary Midwestern downtown, emerging finally at the other end on a wide, elm-shaded avenue of houses that quite suddenly became spectacularly grand and impressive. The street then came up along side a little marina of boats formed out of a bend in a river, and there, without fanfare or warning, Dad turned in at one of the largest and most impressive of the houses - a brick Victorian mansion that looked something like a Tudor castle, complete with an imposing tower, sprawling stone verandah, formal gardens and a carriage house that was bigger than our home in California.

This, it was safe to say, was flossy.

CHAPTER I continues HERE