Have you ever seen an elephant dance? An elephant in a pink tutu? An elephant with eyeliner?
I did. At the St. Louis Zoo. It’s a sight that stays with you forever. This is #7 on my list of the seven wonders of my summer vacation.
After school let out last summer, my family took a trip across the U.S. to meet our relatives scattered around in the South and Midwest. We crisscrossed through 22 states, some more than once, touching Florida for a minute and turning right around.
On the way there, to Florida, which momma hated for various reasons, we took the southern route. Then we drove the northern route- well, really the middle route- on the way back to California. All in all, it took just under three months.
There we were, Dad, Mom, us three kids and our dog, Rusty, with a Coleman stove, an old red Igloo ice chest and a folding cot all packed into our 1955 two-toned blue Chevy Nomad two-door station wagon. The beige and blue interior vinyl got so hot that our bare legs stuck to it all the way across the nation.
Daddy drove for two nights and a day at a time until coffee and cigarettes were not enough to keep him awake. Then we stopped at a motel, always named something that ended in Court or Inn, never Plaza or View. We didn’t ever even see the word, “Hotel”.
We picked our motels for their swimming pools. They all looked pretty much the same, the motels and the pools. The rooms had a tiny bathroom and a kitchenette with a half fridge and a two-burner electric stove. We always got two beds and a roll-away cot. Mamma slept with Daddy on one with the cot pushed up against it for the baby. Sister and I had the other bed, usually next to the swamp cooler in the window.
The swimming pools were cement rectangles with rickety ladders to climb in and out. We kids would swim all day while Daddy slept. Then, after two days and one night, we’d leave again in the twilight when it was cool. Daddy drove all night while we slept in the back, blankets over the stove and ice chest to make up a big ol’ double bed. I liked falling asleep to the sound of Momma and Daddy talking low or singing softly along with the radio.
When we came up short on cash, Daddy, he’s a jack-of- all- trades, he would get us set up in a motel, search the ads in the local paper and find work for a week. That left us to swim and check out whatever little highway town we found ourselves in.
And that brings me to the countdown – the 6th wonder – when we stopped in Oklahoma City. We stayed for a week while Daddy got a job as a plumber’s helper. We played in the red dirt all day, then swam at the local plunge until the red stains on our knees and hands faded. Our clothes stayed stained red for the rest of the trip – no matter how many laundromats we visited in Kentucky or Kansas, Alabama or Arkansas. The wonder is that red dirt. That dirt is like tattoo ink, like the indelible mark upon your soul (us Catholics learned about that mark in Catechism). That dirt made us look like locals for the whole week.
When we stayed at the motels, depending on the thickness of Daddy’s wallet and the strength of Momma’s hankering, we sometimes ate supper in roadside diners named for their owners like Tiny’s or Margie’s or Leroy’s. But mostly every day we ate Cheerios for breakfast and baloney sandwiches on white bread spread thick with mayonnaise for lunch. Momma bought the little jars so they wouldn’t spoil before we could use them up. Mom was scared of food poisoning but said the baloney could probably last on the shelf for years. She stored the mayonnaise closest to the ice in the Igloo. The label always peeled off in one day from the wet but we knew what it was from the shape of the jar. We never used Kraft’s Sandwich Spread. Always Best Foods, or Hellman’s the farther East we went.
One of the little grocery stores we went in to buy stuff to fill our Igloo was in the South, a little town just outside of Macon, Georgia, I can’t recall its name. Anyway, while Momma shopped and Daddy swapped lies with the men standing around, Lolly and I spotted the drinking fountain – well – drinking fountains. There were signs hanging from each of the two, one said White and the other said Colored. I walked right up to the colored one and turned it on. I was sure it would look like the Dancing Waters from the L.A. County Fair, all the colors of the rainbow in beautiful arches that danced to music while you watched. Instead, just plain ol’ water came out, so I bowed my head to take a drink. Before I knew it, one of those good ol’ boys snatched me up and set me down by my Daddy, telling him that I wasn’t to drink from the Negro fountain. My Momma put everything she was gonna’ buy right down and we left in a huff, not getting one single thing that we needed. Lolly tried to explain it to me, but I’m not sure I understand to this day what that was all about.
There were little miracles that happened all along the way and I am going to call them all, the whole bunch of them, my 5th wonder. First was the seedless watermelon we found in Missouri. It only had only 7 black seeds in the whole melon, a miracle, so we saved them to plant when we got home. Unfortunately, they got lost somewhere in a flurry of backseat housecleaning after an ant invasion near Topeka, Kansas. We threw out Daddy’s false teeth, too, by mistake, but we found them folded up in the cot the next night. We had prayed hard to St. Anthony, so I think that was a miracle, too. But the biggest miracle was how we barely escaped the tornado.
I had heard Momma and Daddy talking, well, arguing, really about whether to stay the night at the Blue Swallow Motel in Witchita, Kansas. We had already been there for our usual two days, but I heard Daddy say that the town was “dry”, and he wanted a “taste”. I guess he was thirsty but I don’t know why that made my momma so mad. Anyway, we packed up and headed out just as the sky was turning really dark, darker than night usually started there. And it smelled kinda swampy, more like Louisiana. We were just snuggling in on our blanket bed when Daddy turned on the radio and started swearing. The man on the radio kept tellin’ us to take cover because a fast moving tornado was coming to town. Well, Daddy just stepped on it and we stayed right ahead of that thing until we lost it somewhere in the Rockies.
But before that, in the South, between visits to our relatives, we stopped at so many confederate army graveyards that Momma said the next time we went into one they would all stand up from their graves and salute us. The best one of those cemeteries was up on top of Lookout Mountain in Tennessee. We had seen the signs for hundreds of miles and could hardly wait to see three states from the look-out point. They also had a Fairy Land with elves and gnomes that looked better ‘n Disneyland. But when we got there, Daddy decided the price of admissions was too high. Somethin’ like $15 per car, five times a drive-in theatre.
Despite our whines and wails, he tried to turn the car around on the mountain road, but couldn’t on the narrow road. So he went on up further to look for a turn-out. Right beyond the toll-gate we came to another confederate graveyard. We piled out and walked to the far edge of the graveyard and up a hill. There below us we saw the look-out point everyone had paid so much to enter. We could see the Fairy Land and everything. They were just stupid little Plaster of Paris statues sitting in trees and on the ground. But best of all, we could look through Daddy’s binoculars and see not 3 but 7 state lines, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. The last two were the birth states of my momma’s dead momma and her long-lost daddy, so we stared at those places the longest. That free look-out is my 4th wonder.
Graveyards weren’t the only thing our station wagon seemed to drive itself to. Alongside the road, we saw giant teepees and wigwams galore, totem poles, a house built from beer bottles. And huge foods: the giant orange where we bought burgers and curly fries, a humongous acorn that sat in a playground, an ear of corn store where they sold ears of corn and other corny things. There were many types of gigantic containers: coke bottles, coffee pots, barrels and tea cups. But the best of the roadside attractions, and my vote for Wonder #3 were all the Burma Shave signs. Such smart ideas. And they way they rhyme…
Along with spotting Burma Shave signs, another game we played was the license game. We tried to collect as many states as we could, never counting the ones that were from the state we were driving through. I was the winner of that one – I collected 40 different state license plates, the farthest was from Maine. Lolly won the other game we played the most – finding letters of the alphabet in the roadside signs. For some reason she always found the tough ones, X’s and Z’s, when I was sleeping.
Having a California license plate meant that everybody stared at us when they passed us. After a while, Daddy told us to drop our jaws and look stupid at them as they drove by lookin’. Daddy would slow down, put his Dodger cap on backwards, push out his false teeth to make himself as bucktoothed as a Sunday Funny, and grin at them as they passed. For some reason, this made us laugh like fools every time. Even Momma who is not easy to make laugh, laughed until she had to pull a Kleenex out of her pocketbook to wipe her eyes. People back there probably think Californians are a bunch of retards now.
Now, you may be asking did we see any of the sights that people always are talking about, like the Alamo and the Grand Canyon? Well, yes, we did, but they didn’t make my list. The Alamo looked so little, compared to Disneyland, and the Canyon was too hot to stay. But Carlsbad Caverns, it was a favorite, everything the signs said it would be. It was so dark and cool down there, with stalactites and stalagmites named things like Witch’s Finger and Devil’s Den. I loved it –never wanted to leave- and so I name it #2.
In fact, I liked all the dark, cool places we went. Another one of my favorites, an honorable mention, I guess, was the Snake House that we saw next to a Texaco gas station somewhere in Mississippi. The owner had carved a room into the rocks and filled it with glass cages of snakes, rattlers, water moccasins and one big python. Florescent lights burned like the sun in each little cage. The snakes lolled on the stacked up rocks. It was so dark on the narrow walkway that we kept bumpin’ into each other.
Now, my momma hates snakes and tried to stay outside, but it was so hot out there and we took so long that she finally came inside. The owner’s little girl was in there with us telling us this and that. Then her long ponytail brushed the top of my momma’s hand. Momma thought it was a loose snake out to bite her and started yelling at the top of her lungs. We all ran out screaming, even the owner’s little girl. Daddy tried to get our money back, but the owner just told us to take a hike. We didn’t go to any dark, cool places after that.
I bet you are wondering what could beat all of these things as the #1 wonder of my world? Well, I’ll tell you. Better than swimming in the Great Salt Lake, better than sitting in the stands watching the Detroit Tigers beat the Kansas City A’s, better than watching lightning strike a tree during our family picnic in Indianapolis, Indiana, better than all the rides in Elitch’s Gardens in Denver, Colorado, better than all of these things is my very own home and my very own bed right here in my very own town – La Quinta, California.