California Here We Come December 29, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in Autobiographical Essays (Roger), California Here We Come.
(My family’s move by automobile – which contained four human beings, one parakeet, a bottle of whisky, and everything we owned – from New Jersey to California in December 1954 had an immeasurable impact on all our lives. The trip itself was also unforgettable. This essay emerged – I would say it almost wrote itself – when I rediscovered, some fifty years after the fact, the original of the notebook diary I had kept during the trip)
When it came time to pack up the old ’51 Kaiser and move out to California, there was no way we were going to leave Colonel behind. A vet advised us to carry a bottle of whisky with us in the car and put a little bit in his water every day to keep him tranquilized. If there was ever a happier parakeet on the face of this earth, I doubt it. He made the entire trip chirping away in his cage in the back seat with Neil and me. At night, he would ask us for one more for the road (if you believe that, I have a bridge that crosses the East River in New York that I can let you have at half price).
Let me tell you about that eight day, thirty five hundred mile trip from 165 Augusta Street in Irvington New Jersey to 1745 North Buena Vista in Burbank California. Besides Colonel in the Kaiser were my mother and father (who at some point in our early adolescence his sons began to call him by his first name, Charlie), by brother Neil (15 years old at the time) and myself (aged 13).
I kept a Notebook that accounted for every expenditure we made (gas, oil, repairs, food, drinks, motels, etc.); a detailed itinerary with dates and times; the mileage accumulated; and a gallery of pencil drawings (which surely will one day be priceless, if they are not already; critics of my artwork will note that I used the word “priceless,” not “worthless). The Notebook, of the spiral steno variety, with lined pages, was apparently left over from usage as my “English Assignment PAD,” and it bears the following identifying data: “Roger Hollander; Period 3; 02; HR -314.” I still have that Notebook. As you historians know, it is what is considered a primary document. Be assured that I have kept it well preserved in a temperature and humidity controlled environment (when I could find one).
All our worldly belongings were packed into the trunk and on top of that Kaiser sedan, including a crystal vase, which is the only remaining memento we have from my Hollander grandparents. It’s not that I have a specific memory of that vase being packed, rather that the vase, later converted into a lamp, lived with us in California all these years, and I cannot think of any other way it could have got there.
We departed on Sunday, December 5, 1954 at 1:00 PM, the odometer on the Kaiser reading 40,270 miles. We arrived in Burbank the following Sunday, December 12 at 7:36 PM, the odometer at 43,817. We had traversed a total of 3547 miles in eight days, and according to my carefully kept records, we purchased 189 gallons of gasoline at a total cost of $53.04 (an average of 28.06 cents per gallon), and achieved a gas economy of approximately 18.77 miles per gallon. For what it cost us in fuel to travel across the entire country in 1954, you could spend to fill one tank of gas today. The Notebook documents the purchase of six quarts of oil at a total cost of $2.55.
However, a loose slip of paper (approximately the size of one half page) found inside the Notebook and apparently torn from the Notebook, contains a different set of figures. It shows a total of 177.9 gallons of gasoline purchased at a cost of $50.08 (an average of 28.56 cents per gallon) that would improve the average gas mileage to 19.94 miles per gallon. This same fragment lists five quarts of oil purchased at a total of $2.15. It appears to be in Charlie’s handwriting, whereas all other entries in the Notebook are in Roger’s (which we will refer to as the “R Document,” while the fragment will be referred to as the C Document). Virtually none of the detailed entries in the R Document correspond with those of the C Document. This is most strange and your author cannot account for them. Surely it will be the subject for endless debate amongst future historians. The C Document’s authenticity is supported by the fact that its backside contains a drawing of Colonel, unmistakably executed by Roger, entitled “Guess Who? Roger’s Friend.”
Other car related travel expenses documented in the R Document are a total of $2.45 for tolls, $1.90 for car lubrication ($1.50 for the service, $ .40 for the grease), and $20.50 for a new radiator. Entry to the Petrified Forest cost $ .50.
The Notebook also notes the car mileage traversed each day. The first day, being a half day, we covered only 287 miles. The second day we jumped that up to 424 miles. From thereon in we stepped up our pace, and for the following six days we averaged exactly 472 2/3 miles per day. There was a part of a day lost near the end of the trip due to car trouble. A log contained in the Notebook documents each morning’s departure time and the date and time each state border was crossed (always indicating the time zone). For example, given the heavy academic weight of such a reliable primary document, I can say with an enormous degree of confidence that it is a historical fact that the Hollander family, Charles, Anne, Neil and Roger crossed the South Carolina border and entered the State of Georgia at precisely 10:10 AM, Eastern Standard Time, on Tuesday, December 7, 1954. A handful of historians consider that date more significant because of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, but what do they know?
I entered an expense of $20.50 for a Radiator on December 12, the final day of our trip, the largest single expense of the entire trip (and presumably it includes the labor to install said radiator). This suggests that the car trouble I remember involved the replacement of its radiator, and that this would have occurred in the afternoon of the 11th or the morning of the 12th. On that final day, we left Williams, Arizona at 10 AM (Mountain Standard Time) and covered 502 miles, arriving in Burbank at 7:36 PM (Pacific Standard Time), and averaging 47.36 miles per hour, including whatever stops we would have made (the Notebook only shows a breakfast expenditure on that final day, so it is possible we drove straight through without stopping for a meal; gas was purchased twice, although, since the times of purchase are not documented, it is quite possible that the first purchase occurred prior to our setting off in the morning).
Our party stayed each of the seven nights of the journey in a motel. This was a first for Neil and me (as was eating in a real restaurant, as opposed to a hot dog stand or a diner). The cost of motels ranged from $5.50 to $7.14 per night for the entire family. The total amount spent on motels was $45.64. Apparently we ate only two meals a day, as the Notebook only shows entries for breakfasts and suppers. We may have snacked mid-day, but the Notebook doesn’t suggest that we did. It only shows entries for cokes (cost ranging between five and ten cents apiece, and the first ones weren’t purchased until Wednesday afternoon), thirty cents spent for three ice creams on Tuesday (I wonder who got left out) and sixty cents spent at a “market” on Wednesday. The total cost for drinks, snacks and meals for the eight days totals $52.85 (that’s two adults and two teen-agers for eight days, an average of $6.61 per day, $1.65 per person per day). Of that total, $50.94 was for regular meals. Breakfasts ranged from $1.12 to $2.86; suppers from $3.23 to $6.67. We always left a tip and recorded it faithfully in the notebook. The total for tips comes to $5.65, or 11.1%. Ten percent was the standard at the time (whoever said my Charlie was a cheapskate will kindly recant).
During the course of those eight days we also spent $1.15 for post cards. Being that the Notebook shows no expenditure for stamps, if we accept its authority, we can only assume that the cards were either never sent (perhaps kept for souvenirs) or sent once we had arrived in California. On Thursday, the sum of one dollar was spent on “firecrackers.” That most likely would have been in Texas, and research will have to be done to determine whether firecrackers were legal at that time in Texas, and, if not, whether there is a statute of limitations on laying charges. Otherwise, one of us may have to end up spending jail time in Texas; and I am not sure if purchasing firecrackers is a capital offense, but the last place you want to be in jail for a capital offense is Texas.
An expenditure of $3.20 (in the car expense category) is unreadable.
Total Trip Expenditures (according to the R Document):
Other car expenses 27.50
Total $187.07 ($183.71 if you believe Charlie on the gas and oil)
There is a title page in the Notebook, creating a discreet space for the artist’s (my) illustrations. The text of that page is as follows:
R &H Studios Inc. 12/5/54 to 12/12/54
ALL ILLUSTRATIONS BY Roger Hollander (signature)
(Comical & Otherwise)
Neil’s a poet,
And he don’t know it.
But his legs show it.
He’s a LongFellow
The Notebook contains eleven original drawings in pencil on lined Notebook paper by Roger Hollander (the earliest Hollander drawings in existence), including the drawing found on the back of the C Document fragment:
1. “Neil (the Stupidest Devil Around) (This One Ain’t Comical)”
2. “Charlie (Comical Illustration, Driving Car)”
4. “Uncle Ludwig (Comical)”
5. “To Colonel From Roger”
6. “Sunset on the Rockies”
7. “Colonel Hollander”
8. “Charlie in a Grouchy Mood”
9. “(Stefana) Mother (Comical Ill.)”
11. “Guess Who? Roger’s Friend”
It will be left to art historians to investigate and interpret these first formal original works by an artist (myself) who experienced a forty-one year period of latency before picking up where he (I) left off in 1954 with the 1995 drawing “Crucigrama Crucificada” (Crucified Crossword). What, on the surface does seem revealing, is the fact that three of the ten portraits (there was one landscape) decided upon the parakeet, Colonel, as its subject. The only homo sapiens who merited the artist’s attention for more than a single drawing were Neil and Charlie, and in both instances the thematic interpretation was hardly flattering (to wit: Neil, the Devil in No. 1; Charlie, Grouchy in No. 8). The Anne Hollander drawing likewise was satiric in nature and its title used her Birth Certificate appellation, “Stefana,” which we boys were known to apply in the diminutive sense. The “Roger” self portrait shows the subject, in profile, uncannily suggestive of Elvis Presley, sporting a pompadour hair style, smoking a cigarette, wearing a turtle next sweater out of which emerges a muscular bicep with a tattoo of the word “Mom” surrounded by a circular wreath.
Apart from some random scribbles and numerical figuring, the Notebook contains three other elements.
The inside back cover shows my ninth grade course schedule at Irvington High School, and it includes the room number, class time and teacher’s name. The courses I was taking (which I never completed, having only completed three months out of the school year before heading out west) were: Latin, History, English, Gym, Study, Algebra, and Printing.
The Notebook contains the names and addresses of my six closest friends, with whom I presumably intended to keep in touch, but, to my recollection, I never did. They are listed in an order that has no particular significance, as far as I remember (all address are in Irvington):
327 Coit Street
169 Berkshire Pl.
74 Chestnut Ave
123 Allen Street
(The first four were friends from Mt. Vernon School, at which I completed the seventh and eighth grades. Louis was my best friend. Arnie Willner was perhaps the shortest male in our class, but he was a better pitcher than I was on the Irvington Little League All-Star team, and he was deadly accurate with a basketball from what today we call the three point range. I believe I made Daniel Watkins’ friendship at Irvington High.)
The only other entry in the Notebook must have been a leftover from its “English Assignment PAD” days. It was presumably for a spelling or vocabulary assignment. It simply lists the following words as follows:
I cannot resist, today, May 26, 2005, using these words in a paragraph (in the order in which they appear; I love a challenge). Bear with me.
She was lackadaisical about the attention I paid to her but ferocious if I went too far and made a fool of myself in public. I would rise early in the morning to reconnoiter the house where she lived (I accede the fact that this behavior was not acceptable), which was contiguous with that of my best friend, Louie, and follow her to school. Louie collaborated with me in this, for like me, he was a renegade, but without my egotistical streak. My peculiarities probably would seem humorous today, even to her; but at that time they only served to gain her enmity. This whole thing was characteristic of my entire adolescence.
Just a random paragraph. Nothing whatsoever autobiographical about it.
O.K. That takes care of the Notebook, which undoubtedly the family will want to donate one day to the Smithsonian Institute. What about the trip from a non-statistical perspective? You are in luck (and I hope you feel that way too) because I have distinct memories.
We must have spent the entire morning of Sunday, December 5, loading up the Kaiser. At 1:00 PM sharp we said our last good-byes to l65 Augusta. I cannot remember if there was anyone there to see us off in ceremonial style (I do remember a going away party given for us at a restaurant, the Ivanhoe, I believe, but this may very well have been before that first, abortive attempt to move). Neil and my mother do, however, remember that there was a neighborly send-off.
At one point, probably somewhere in Delaware or Maryland, we passed a car with New York license plates, and either Neil or I said to the other, “they must have left early this morning.” From then on whenever we saw a car with a N.Y. license plate, one of us would say to the other, “They must have left early this morning.” To this day.
As a child, my family had visited Washington, D.C., where I left my initials on the Capital dome. This was as far south as I had ever traveled, and hitting the real South made quite an impression on me. What knocked me over were the dilapidated, unpainted, falling apart houses (shacks) that were dotted along the highways throughout the Deep South. It wouldn’t have been in my consciousness at the time, but perhaps it was this first direct encounter with abject poverty that sowed the first seeds of a social conscience. These houses inevitably had broken down front porches around which were strewn varieties of junk and poorly clothed Black children. I had had no idea that such living conditions existed, at least not in the United States of America. It stirred my thirteen year old soul.
As well, all through the Deep South we encountered segregated facilities. At the time I had only a vague idea of what the racial situation was in our country, but this gave it a concrete reality that one didn’t get living in the North (and in all-White Irvington, to boot). At gas stations and restaurants there would be rest rooms and drinking fountains labeled “white” and “colored.” Now, I participated on the fringes of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and I have vivid memories of the dramatic scenes where brave “Negroes” sat in at all-White lunch counters (I once attended a speech given by the comedian and activist, Dick Gregory, where he told the story of going into a restaurant in the South to be told that “we don’t serve Niggers.” Gregory replied, “I don’t want a Nigger, I want a hamburger.” The upshot was that he bought the restaurant and fired the racist staff). On the one hand it is hard to believe in the year 2005 that segregation was once so blatantly out in the open as it was to my thirteen year old eyes in 1954 traveling through the Deep South (as far west as Texas). On the other, I am well aware of both the fact that this nation was founded on the backs of African slave labor, and that racism is alive and well in the country today (discrimination in education, housing, jobs, health care and the criminalization of Blacks and other minorities have continued to grow as one Republican administration after another – including the Republicrat Clinton – has worked to roll back the gains of the Civil Rights Movement).
I don’t remember exactly where it was, but I committed the first of what was to become a long line of acts of civil disobedience by joining Neil in drinking from a “colored only” drinking fountain (it may be wishful thinking, but I seem to remember that it might have been in Texas). Neil doesn’t remember this as an act of political rebellion, and he is probably correct, although it was at least adolescent rebellion. But as Neil recently reminded me, despite the fact that this happened too long ago for either of our memories to be crystal clear about it, our parents had brought us up with an ethic that would have been consistent with our making a conscious decision to snub our noses (actually, wet them) as Southern racial bigotry.
Then there was the cotton. Endless acres of cotton, as eye as the far could see. Neil and I took it upon ourselves, I cannot remember why, probably the novelty of it, to insist that my parents stop at least once in each cotton belt state so that we could pick cotton. We carried this along with us in the car, long stems of cotton bolls, with the intention of arriving in California with a complete Southern State cotton collection. Alas, the agricultural authorities at the California border confiscated our entire cache, thereby rendering useless all that work done by our cotton pickin’ hands.
Neil tells me that he has a memory that amazed him at the time and remains with him to this day, the forests of Spanish moss that we encountered in Louisiana and East Texas. I have no recollection of this whatsoever. I guess Neil has always been more the naturalist than me. His respect for the civil rights of fish to be free from being hooked is legendary.
The next unbelievable phenomenon was Texas. We thought it would never end. Heading south, we would tick off a couple, three of states a day. However, we crossed the Louisiana border with Texas at 8:20PM, Central Standard Time, on Wednesday, December 8, and left the Lone Star State to cross into New Mexico at 12:20 PM, Central Standard Time, on Friday, December 10. It thereby took us at total of forty of perhaps the boringest hours of the entire trip to get from one end of the state to the other. As far as we were concerned, Mexico should have kept it (many of us still feel that way, if for other reasons).
What lies ahead, though, was well worth the time invested passing through the Texas barrens. Our objective was California, so we didn’t have a lot of time for sight seeing, but my parents must have had enough of a sense of history and geography to make sure that we spent at least some time in the Painted Desert, the Petrified Forest, and – the grandest of them all – The Grand Canyon. To my naïve thirteen year old mind, the Painted Desert was somewhat of a disappointment, I actually expected to see the desert as a giant canvass, somehow covered with colorful art work. At the Petrified Forest, despite the plethora of signs warning against it, we smuggled out a couple of samples of petrified wood (my parents should have known better, but Neil and I were so insistent, and perhaps they were feeling guilty toward us, having uprooted us from our friends and not having the money to even afford afternoon meals – I just now remembered, they had had to borrow Neil’s and my life savings to finance the trip, that’s how poor we were). There is no question that this was illegal, and since Neil was the older and should have known better, he is the one I will be reporting to the proper authorities as soon as I finish writing this essay.
We only got to the rim of the Grand Canyon, but that was enough. We would have loved to have rented a mule and made the trek to the bottom, but it was for too many reasons an impractical idea. If I can remember today, just over fifty years later, just what it felt like standing at that observation point and looking out over that amazing expanse, then it must have made some impression on me then.
And where did we get our kicks? You guessed it. Route 66! Were there Stucky’s then? I think so, but I am not sure. But there is no forgetting the gas stations, the Art Deco restaurants; the Indian souvenir shops; the motels that ranged from seedy to elegant, from plain to all gussied up; and, most of all – the Burma Shave signs. Although these are an indelible part of Americana of that period, I suppose I need to explain. There would be a series of red and white signs along the highway, rectangular and horizontal and not very big. They were spaced apart, I don’t know, maybe at intervals of a half mile or so. In any case, you would read one, and then there would be highway to eat up and time to pass before the next one. They were an institution in their day, found on highways and byways all over America. In their heyday I believe there were some 70,000 of them.
Here is one that I remember. To get the feeling of it, each line needs to be put on a separate page. Here goes:
That’s like a cactus
Takes more nerve
Than it does practice
Reader, if you are paying attention you have to be skeptical about my claim to have remembered this Burma Shave ditty after all these years. True confession: I got it off of Google.
Back to Beverly Hill Billies on their way to California. Route 66 did more than give us kicks. It tried to kill us. There is no question that this was the most dramatic and unforgettable experience of that journey and one of the most traumatic and potentially tragic experiences of my entire lifetime.
We left Snyder, New Mexico at 8:00 AM (CST) on Friday, December 10. As I recall, evening was about to fall when we started our climb into the Rocky Mountains. We passed a small town, well you wouldn’t even call it that, a blip in the road with a motel and a gas station, by the name of Grant (this information I am gleaning from the Notebook). Shortly after we passed Grant, it began to snow. At first it was a light snow, and we proceeded onwards with no worries. Then, all of a sudden, it turned into a monster of a blizzard. We later came to refer to it as a “freak storm.” This was a narrow winding mountain road with steep declivities on the non-mountain side of the road. The snow began to come at us with such a flurry that the windshield wipers ceased to be able to clear the windshield of the thick, moist snow. My father, who was driving at the time, had to stick his head out of the driver’s side window to see the road. Within minutes the visibility dropped to zero.
We all began to realize that we were in a difficult situation (I think that only after it was finished and we were safe and sound, did we realize how dangerous it had been, although my parents might have realized it at the time without communicating it to us). A decision had to be made, and I remember distinctly we were all four involved in discussing it. To push ahead or turn back? We didn’t know how far it would be to the next motel, and we were only vague on how far back we had passed the last one (that turned out to be in Grant). This far in time from the incident, I couldn’t tell you if Grant was five or ten or twenty miles behind us. I would guess something close to ten. We made the decision to go back.
This involved both turning the car around and negotiating the roadway for several miles with no visibility. Turning the car around on that narrow road with no shoulder turned out to be the more difficult of the two. My father and Neil and I got out, we certainly would not have been dressed for a blizzard, while my mother took the steering wheel. It was up to my mother to accomplish the turn, while it was our task outside to make sure that our Kaiser along with our beloved wife and mother, did not go sliding down into a mountain valley that very well could have been hundreds or thousands of feet deep. Also, because of the total lack of visibility, we were terrified that, as we were turning the car around, we might be plowed into by a vehicle coming from either direction.
My recollection is that it was touch and go. As my mother engineered the three-point turn, the car slipped and slid, and there were the three of us behind that part of the car that hovered over the decline, exerting every ounce of strength both not to slide down ourselves and to keep the Kaiser on the road.
We successfully accomplished the turn, just barely, and then we headed back eastward. All four of us (Colonel was exempted) had our heads out the window, shouting out latitude and longitude to Charlie, who was back in the driver’s seat. At first he attempted to stay on the road by following in the tracks of a truck that had preceded us. However, after a while, those disappeared. We crept along at a minimal speed, probably no more than five or ten miles per hour. So it must have taken somewhere in the vicinity of an hour, perhaps even longer, of this nerve wracking and dangerous driving before we finally reached the refuge of a motel in Grant, New Mexico.
We arrived in our motel room, cold and wet, exhausted and with our nerves shot. We brought Colonel inside with us, we always did, and it must have been a miracle that this powder blue parakeet, a species bred in the tropics, survived the cold temperature in a car with four windows open for that long a time. He got an extra dollop of Five Roses that night, but he wasn’t the only one. My parents clearly were in dire need of “a drink,” and they were both wise and flexible enough to realize that such was the case as well for Neil and me. We all hit the bottle, and though I can only speak with certainly for myself, I suspect that we all slept soundly that night.
The Notebook shows us leaving Grant at 8:15 the next morning, Saturday, the 11th. We had gladly spent $7.14 for our motel room, and breakfasted at the cost of $1.12 plus a fifteen cents tip. That same day we spent sixty five cents on post cards, eighteen cents on three cokes, and visited the Petrified Forest. We landed that evening in Williams, Arizona, where the radiator of the Kaiser gave out. We dined in a restaurant that none of us has ever forgotten. It was a steak house and had a sculptured likeness of a huge bull on its roof. We ordered sirloin tip (a glorified term for hamburger) that was served in the shape of a bull. We were duly charmed. They also served hot rolls with honey, something that also was a novelty to the still wet behind the ears (but soon to dry off in hot and arid Los Angeles) Hollander family.
We arrived at my Uncle Walter and Aunt Bertha’s home in Burbank (where we bunked down for the weeks that it took us to find our own place) at 7:36 PM. It was Sunday evening, and we had really pushed it that last day. We were received with the warm hospitality that is characteristic of both sides of my family. Bertha, a Mexican American, and Uncle Walter’s second wife, had two sons the same ages as Neil and I, and we got along famously. They also had a short haired terrier, Romeo, with whom I fell in love. There was a third son, “Junior,” whom we were told was away at college (the other two sons couldn’t wait to tell Neil and me in confidence that the “college” was Folsom Prison). Aunt Bertha introduced us to Mexican food, and I can still see her standing over a stove actually re-frying the beans for refried beans in a frying pan.
Th th th th th tha at’s all Folks. End of trip.
This was the first of many a cross-country by car trip for me, but it was not only the most memorable, but a defining event in my life, as it was for our entire nuclear family. Who knows what life would have held for us had we remained in New Jersey?