Early in 1954, a 1948 Mercury took us to Chicago. Traveling along those rutted roads bordered with tall Georgia pines left us with a kind of melancholy deep within our souls. Sun-dried red clay, churned by the tires, rose up, billowed and drifted behind the car in sienna colored clouds, settling on everything in our wake. Very slowly the pine forests of Georgia made way to the mountains of Tennessee, tall and foreboding. Daddy carefully wound his way along those roads and around the mountain. One of my sisters would roll down a window and we’d look out, seeing forever below us. We’d pray that a tire wouldn’t leave the road. No matter how many times we sang “She’ll be Comin’ Round the Mountain,” none of us could ever envision anyone riding six white horses around this one and surviving to sing about it.
The trip took the better part of a week. The five of us girls sat in the back seat while Buddy sat between Mama and Daddy in front. We’d stop in small towns to shop at a local grocer for bread and cold-cuts or at gas stations (then referred to as “filling stations”). Daddy would tell the uniformed attendant to check the oil and top off the tank as each of us piled out of the car to head for the ice-filled drink chest that stood just outside the squeeky rust covered screen door at the front of the station. One by one we’d choose our favorite soft drink and Daddy would had each of us a bag of salty peanuts so we could dump them into the bottles of sweet soda. Daddy made sure that each of us had our own bottle of soda and told us we had to finish it before before we hit the road again. I can still remember the look on Daddy’s face as he drank the remains of our salty-sweet peanut soda — mixtures of Royal Crown Cola and Orange Crush. I really don’t think he realized that eight ounces of any carbonated beverage is just a bit much for three-, four-, six-, seven-, and nine -year old kids.
Mama made sure she always had a pack of Juicy Fruit gum in her purse just in case we got too restless. Midway between stops she’d break a stick of gum in half and piece by piece she’d pass the halves to the backseat so that each of us got a piece. Bobbie was so excited about getting that half stick of gum that she carefully unwrapped it, threw the gum out the window and popped the wrapper in her mouth.
The one thing I remember most vividly about that trip is the rest stops (or lack of them). A rest stop on a two-lane road in the early 50s consisted of an outhouse next to a “U” shaped drive off the main road. Some were fancier than others, but they were still outhouses. Mama would take all of the girls into the outhouse with her. Regardless of how the holes were covered, these wooden buildings reeked from years of use by thousands of travelers. We’d cover our noses as we entered and kept them covered until we thought we could handle the stench and breathe at the same time. After Mama took care of her business, she made sure that each of us took care of ours. She had to hold Harriette and me over the hole to be sure that our tiny rumps didn’t slip through to the other side. My preference of rest stops were the ones that had more than one hole (you know, “two-holers” or “three-holers,” etc.) that were separated by walls and had doors on them. At least these provided some sort of privacy. You couldn’t call them “stalls” exactly because the base for the holes was built from the same plank of wood that ran the entire length of the room, and all the holes went to the same place. The really fancy rest stops even had running water — a faucet mounted outside the structure where we could wash our hands. None of them, however, provided either tissue or towels, so we brought our own. In the absence of rest stops, there was always the side of the road/make your own porta-potty method. To create your own stall on the open road, you need only open both the car’s front door and back door and position yourself between the two. Sqatting, but not too low so that your backside shows below the bottom of the door — well, you can take it from there. Daddy never used the between the car door method. He always headed for the nearest brush or into the woods. He found out early on during that trip that it’s not a good idea to squat in vegetation after dark unless you know exactly what type of vegetation your squatting in. His lesson to us is never, EVER, get too close to a plant with only three leaves and never squat in the woods after dark!
We made our way north out of Tennessee through the narrow western tip of Kentucky and its beautiful horse stables, deep blue-green grass, bordered as far as the eye could see with pristine white fences holding muscular steeds. Southern Illinois showed us a combination of all of the lower states, roads bordered with high ridges of stone, lined with pines, and dotted with farms. As we drove on toward northern Illinois, resembling Wisconsin, the weather cooled and we knew we were getting closer to our next home. Throughout that whole trip, we ate in the car, slept in the car, got bathed in the car and fussed in the car, but somehow we all survived.
Our first home in the city of Chicago was on South May Street, upstairs from Daddy’s brother, Walter and his family. We didn’t have much to start with. Buddy had a crib in the living room and the five of us girls shared a bed in the only bedroom, sleeping sideways so that we all had plenty of sleeping room. If one of us rolled over, the rest would follow, almost in unison. Mama and Daddy slept on a pallet consisting only of a stack of old blankets spread out on the living room floor next to Buddy’s crib. That apartment was more like camping with a roof over our heads and certainly not like anything even resembling a real home.
The only real furniture we had other than Buddy’s crib, was a kitchen table. It was uncomfortable eating meals standing up (or sitting on the floor if you weren’t tall enough to reach the table). Early one morning Mama took Harriette, Buddy and me down to the corner fruit market to ask the man for fruit crates to use as kitchen chairs so that we could all eat our meals together. He probably thought she was crazy, but we left with enough crates in our arms so that we could have our first meal as a family seated around the table.
I can still see the broken windowpane in the front window that let cold air blow through the apartment. On blustery days the wind would whistle through that pane as a warning to anyone who wanted to venture outside not to forget to dress warmly. Most afternoons I would stretch out in the middle of the living room floor with Harriette and try to catch the dust motes that danced in the sunlight through that broken pane. We’d lie next to each other, moving our arms around and round, fluttering our hands and making those motes swirl and spin until they lulled us to sleep.
Harriette and I continued to be inseparable. We slept next to each other in bed (my spot was between her and the headboard). We continued to bathe together and play together. She never allowed me to be out of her sight and she had all the makings of a very powerful and protective big sister.
Uncle Walter was a quiet man, but I really didn’t care much for our aunt. She used to offer to let us watch her television if we would play in the street instead of the yard (as if the thought of being in the same room with her just to watch television was appealing). There was a glider swing in the back yard, the kind with two swings facing each other. It looked like it might have been nice to sit on, but it was reserved for their kids and none of us were ever allowed to occupy it when our aunt was home (which was all the time). I don’t know what caused Mama and Daddy to move on, but thankfully we didn’t live there very long. We were headed for better times and a better place, the top floor of a three story cold-water tenement building on the North side.