I think movies like Christmas Vacation or Vegas Vacation are so popular, not because they are some of the greatest comedies of all time, but because they are relatable to so many people on so many levels. It was a time in history when taking the family road trip was the only way to travel. As a kid, none of us ever got on an airplane — I was 18 when I got on my first flight to see my brother at college when he was going to the Catholic University in DC. But taking that two- or four- hour road trip was part of the family vacation experience.
I was reminiscing about this just this week as people are getting their vacations onto the schedule at work. Their vacations are much different than the family vacations I remember. We didn’t travel to the Outer Banks or Myrtle Beach, because the thought of an eight- or nine- or more- hour road trip with us kids would have been a nightmare for my parents. There were no CD players to pop in a two-hour movie and keep the kids quiet or asleep. I remember playing checkers on magnetic boards so you wouldn’t lose the checker pieces or playing “padiddle” for hours, looking for those cars or trucks with only one headlight. We used to count the number of “piggy-backs” or trailer trucks with an extra trailer. We even kept track of what states other cars were traveling from by their license plates. Or how about “punch-buggy” — looking for a Volkswagon Beetle bug and wacking your brother or sister in the arm — whoever saw one first. Anything to keep us busy. Oh, and bathroom breaks — they didn’t exist. My Dad would tell us, “I’m stopping now, you’d better pee, because we’re not stopping again until we get there!” — that’s where I get my strong bladder from. And you always traveled with a cooler containing pre-made cold-cut sandwiches and cans of pop. There was no bottled water or drink juice boxes back then. Do you ever wonder who eats at those picnic tables at the rest areas on the turnpike? Yea, the Miller family did that.
I think today’s family road trip probably looks a lot different. Besides the CD player or total entertainment system available in many vehicles, and various car seats jammed in based on the age of your kids, I think you’d probably find the kids with earphones and their iPods, or maybe even playing games on their iPads — maybe someone reading a book on their Kindle (if that didn’t make them car sick). What would we do without technology? Times have surely changed — in only a matter of 20 years. But that’s another story for another time.
My Mom used to tell me that she never used car seats for us kids. We didn’t like them — so there you have it — she didn’t put us in them! She said it was easier to hold the baby in the front seat. Well, I guess there was less road-rage, cars didn’t go 100 miles per hour, people weren’t distracted by technology or in a major rush — they actually went the speed limit and took their time, enjoying the ride — that was part of the vacation — not to mention those 1970-something vehicles were steel tanks!!! So maybe safety wasn’t the issue it is today in our “beam me up, I wish I was already there yesterday” world of today.
And, think back to the days when nobody had a major credit card and certainly not a debit card. You had an old-fashioned checkbook and you traveled with cash in your wallet. Or maybe you got traveler’s cheques if you were worried that your cash could be stolen. Seriously, do traveler’s cheques even exist today?
Lake Erie 1971. The water was always a bit chilly, even in August — but we loved it anyways.
We took a family vacation every year. It was usually in August, because we went to Lake Erie, PA in the early years and the water didn’t get so warm until then. And even then, it was pretty cold for swimming. And Mom and Dad, they loved packing us all up — each of us had our own hard-case suitcase with these flippy kind of buttons that were spring-loaded. I can still hear the sound they would make as you pushed the button to open your suitcase! Dad would literally be whistling while he loaded the car, laughing and joking — leaving all the stress of his work behind him, and Mom would be loading up the cooler. When we hit the road — everything was behind us for an entire week! Can you imagine that today? No cell phones, no gps, no computers, no way to contact anyone until you stopped at a pay phone somewhere along your route. There was no email, no checking voicemail or calling in to see if everything was okay. You were on vacation! Ah… we need to find that peace in our lives again!
As kids, there was no better place on this earth than Lake Erie. I still love it to this day. Tom and I go at least once a year to Presque Isle and hang out on the beach. Lake Erie was the beach for me. I didn’t see the ocean until we started going to Martha’s Vineyard for vacation — and I was in high school then. Those road trips were even longer — at least nine hours, but we rode in style in the back of the truck camper. So, our whining wasn’t heard by Mom or Dad in the cab of the truck — and they didn’t really care what was happening. Dad even welded a custom bike rack and had five bikes bouncing along with us. We were the epitome of the American family, living the American dream.
And if you think back to those “Vacation” movies with Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo and Randy Quaid, you laugh, because you had similar situations on your own family vacations. And, I love how they bring in the extended family with cousin Eddie — we all have extended family who only add to the memories of these days. And the crazy things that happened, yes, they happened to the best of us.
Gosh, I remember the year we went to Lake Erie in August 1977. We used to rent these little cottages where six or eight of them had their own private beach front. The cottages usually had two bedrooms and a small kitchen. You never ate out at a restaurant in those days! Mom would cook in this tiny kitchen or we’d cook on the outdoor grills. Maybe we’d go out for ice cream. But, I seriously cannot recall ever eating at a restaurant when I was little. I remember one morning, Mom had on the radio — one of those old-fashioned kinds with the big dial on the front — and it came across the radio that Elvis Presley had died. I would have been nine, almost 10 years old on that vacation — and I can remember asking my Mom who that was and she told me a singer. I don’t know why that stuck in my brain.
That was the same year that Dad took the boat to Lake Erie and on his way back to the cottage, caught the trailer hitch on some railroad tracks — ripping the underneath of the car or something bad. That’s how I know there weren’t major credits cards back then or the garages didn’t accept them. I don’t know, but they used all their cash to fix it. Another Griswold family vacation. And if you can imagine this scenario — back then, we had the station wagon, yeah, right out of the Brady Bunch, complete with the wood grain siding! Oh, and I can verify, it did have a third row seat — called a rumble seat, except when you rode there, you faced the traffic behind you. Oh, and AC — what was that?
Vacations today are more extravagant. Tom and I look for what Caribbean island we’re hitting this year, but we still love that road trip. So we plan a couple of those — less than five hours to our destination. Besides our trip to St. Lucia, we have several road trips planned. A couple to the Finger Lakes, NY, an Erie trip and a long weekend planned to Niagara Falls, NY. And, we’ll probably go to the cabin at least once. And this year to our trip to Lake Erie, I think I’ll pack a cooler for the day and plan a picnic on Presque Isle. I’m sure I’ll check my email while I’m sitting at that table — after all, I can’t live without it. But, I’ll fondly think back to all those Miller family vacations, remembering a simpler time.
I wonder if my nieces can read an old-fashioned map. Those were the days.