Route 66 and a Secondhand Hearse

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Although my childhood had its odd moments, there were also wonderful moments. I grew up in the era when mothers stayed home with the children and fathers went to work; my parents raised five children on my dad’s salary. As a child, I never really had any clear idea what my father actually did for a living. He did what the dads on television did: every morning, he picked up his briefcase and drove away, and every evening he came home, put down the briefcase, and fixed himself a drink. When I was in kindergarten, Mrs. Eisely started some sort of project that involved knowing what our fathers did for a living, and we were told to find out what our dads did and report back the next day. I dutifully went home that day and asked my mother what my father’s job was, exactly. She told me that he was the President of the Milwaukee office of Kemper Insurance. The only word I recognized in that whole answer was “President,” and so the next day I reported to Mrs. Eisely that my father was the President. She told me to come back the next day with better information.

The second time I asked my mother about my father’s job, I decided to skip the whole “He’s the president of something unclear” and go for something more exciting. I knew that my father had been in World War II and that he had served in Tokyo and Guam; there were pictures of him in uniform, and he still had his navigator’s jacket and binoculars. (Note to the United States Air Force: we know nothing about those binoculars. The statute of limitations has run. My father gave his country several years of his life. The least you can do now is look the other way about those binoculars.) When I pressed my mother for the details of my father’s time in the Air Force, she told me that he had served as a navigator on a B-29, and had been stationed in the Pacific. Now this was more like it; I mentally rubbed my hands together over this exciting vision and asked my mother if my father had killed anyone. To my intense disappointment, my mother said that no, he wasn’t in any actual battles. No battles? What, then, was he doing in that B-29, I wondered? My mother speculated that he might have been dropping supplies on POW camps, and seeing how crestfallen I was that my father had not killed anyone, she offered, “Maybe when he dropped some canned goods on the camps, one of the prisoners got hit with one and died.” That was not the sort of heroic story I wanted to report to Mrs. Eisely. I let the whole matter drop, and I think Mrs. Eisely did, too. I have no memory what the project was, but I think it involved making a bird feeder. How a bird feeder intersected with my father’s career choice is a mystery Mrs. Eisely no doubt took to her grave.

I did know that my father went to work every day, and managed to put five children through Catholic elementary school, high school, and college. He put three of those children through law school. Looking back fifty years after I left Mrs. Eisely’s class, I can see that he was pretty heroic after all. Not only did he support his family, he made sure that we went on several family vacations even though we never had much money.  Those vacations may not have been opulent, but they were certainly memorable.

The summer before I started second grade, my father decided to take the whole family to California. Some of his old buddies from the War lived there, and he thought it would be fun to drive across the country, see the sights along the way, visit his friends, and then drive home. It could not have been cheap to get seven people to California and back, but he found a way.

hearseSeeing the U.S.A. was going to be part of the charm of this trip, so my father needed a car that would seat all seven of us. He bought a secondhand hearse at a used car lot; it had lots of room—a wide bench-type front seat and back seat, plus two jumpseats that opened up between front and back. He piled all seven of us into that car and we headed out on Route 66 to California. Early on, we discovered why the hearse had been sold at a bargain price. The engine overheated regularly; before we crossed our first state line and several times after that, I would find myself sitting in the very warm hearse while my father and brothers stood dolefully at the side of the road, watching steam pour out of the hood of the hearse and dousing the radiator with water.

Cars were rarely air conditioned in those days, and even if the hearse had been air conditioned, I doubt that my dad would have used it, as it would have adversely affected our mileage, a big no-no in Jack Maloney’s universe.  My dad was a big fan of Getting Good Mileage, and in every glove compartment of every car he ever owned he kept a notebook, where he meticulously recorded exactly how many miles per gallon he got on each tank of gas purchased. Air conditioning would have wreaked havoc with Getting Good Mileage, so we kids just rolled down the windows to cool off in the summer heat; of course, there were no “breezes” on Route 66. There was a great deal of hot air blowing into the car, and since both of my parents smoked, their ashes would blow back through the windows of the backseat. For us kids back there, it was Ash Wednesday every day.

Despite the heat and the temperamental hearse, we were excited to be going on this great old-route-662adventure. Every day, my dad would drive for hours and hours, until nighttime when we would stop at a hotel to get some sleep. Simply being in a hotel was a Big Deal for us, and we loved it. To this day, I get a thrill when I walk into a hotel and see an ice machine and a swimming pool. Free Ice! Free Pool! To us, this was heaven.

Staying at a hotel gave us all a chance to rest, eat and clean up; it could be a challenge, though, to accomplish all three things, because my father would drop us at the hotel and go find a grocery store. Rather than feed all seven of us in a restaurant, where the money can add up fast, he would buy baloney, mayonnaise, milk and bread and bring it back to the room. The ice was free, so he would send us on multiple trips to the ice machine so that he could fill the bathtub with ice and keep the food fresh. Anyone who hadn’t showered by the time the bathtub had been turned into a Giant Baloney Cooler was out of luck.

As exciting as staying in hotels was, there were challenges. Every now and then, one of us would have to leave the room and step outside to get the feeling back in our extremities. Air conditioning was free with the price of our room; so were the lights and the television. Since it was a Very Important Maloney Value to get our money’s worth at all times, my dad would turn the air conditioning on full blast the moment we arrived, and leave it there for the duration of our stay. We also kept all the lights on and the television blared until bedtime. (Note to Our Mother the Earth: He didn’t mean to hurt you. He just wanted full value for his dollar.)

We also stopped sometimes on the road to eat a meal, and that was always a very big deal. Because my father was always looking to save money, we would travel long distances between stops to eat, and no one was ever allowed to suggest that we might stop or that we might be hungry. We just waited and waited; as the ribbon of highway unspooled beneath our wheels, we would read signs advertising restaurants and hope against hope that we might stop at one of them. When we eventually did stop to eat, we knew that we were absolutely forbidden to order anything to drink besides water, which was free. We never ordered dessert, of course, or appetizers. I didn’t even know what an appetizer was until I was in college.

We would all scan the restaurant’s menu looking for whatever option included the most food and order that, knowing that it might be a long while before we ate again. At one restaurant we stopped at for breakfast (which would also, we knew, be lunch), the meals came with toast on the side. I ordered French toast and when the waitress brought it I asked about my toast on the side. She glared at me and said, “You want toast with your French toast?” You bet I did.

3-coinsOne of our planned stops enroute to the Golden State was Las Vegas. This was 1964, the era of the “Rat Pack” and the beginning of “The Strip” with its glitz and glamor, not to mention legal gambling. My dad really wanted to be part of this Important Cultural Experience. He never liked to miss anything, and Las Vegas was An Experience for sure. We stayed at The 3 Coins Motel; it was a ramshackle place, but it had the required Ice Machine and Pool, and so we kids adored it. Las Vegas was a more contained city in 1964, and the desert was visible right there on the edge of town. On our first night at the 3 Coins Motel, there was an impressive sand storm, and the next day the pool was carpeted in a good six inches of sand. We shrugged it off and enjoyed ourselves anyway.

No one paid much attention to what we were doing at the 3 Coins Motel. The pool had a diving board, and my siblings, my dad and I enjoyed jumping off the diving board in all manner of different poses. Eventually, we tired of that, so we dragged the lounge chairs that were set up around the pool up onto the diving board and jumped off the board while sitting in the lounge chairs. My mother stood by, watching us and fretting, amazed yet again that none of us broke our necks. (Now that we are adults, our spouses have a theory called The Four Missing Maloneys. Having heard the stories of3-coins-2 our collective childhood and its hazards, they have announced that there were, once upon a time, NINE Maloney children and only the five of us made it to adulthood intact. It’s the only explanation that makes sense to them, because they can’t believe that we all actually survived things like jumping off of diving boards into swimming pools while seated on lawn chairs.) (Note to the 3 Coins Motel: no lounge chair were harmed in the execution of these stunts. Really.)

Eventually, we arrived in California and started visiting all those old war buddies and their families. I was stunned to discover that people had lemon and orange trees right there in their own backyards. California was an exotic place, indeed. Some of my father’s friends even had swimming pools in their backyards. I loved swimming, and would stay in any pool until my skin was blue and my fingers all wrinkly, but my dad’s war buddies apparently viewed a pool more as a party site than a place to swim. I remember quite a few pool parties on that trip. In California, a “pool party” was an event at which the grownups consumed impressive numbers of martinis and forgot to supervise the children. We loved them.

We stayed at hotels enroute to California, but for reasons that are unclear to me, once we arrived in the Golden State, we stayed in a trailer park. This was a huge embarrassment to my mother. I didn’t understand her attitude at all. The trailer itself was fascinating, with its tiny bathroom and kitchen, its tiny bedrooms that somehow managed to fit several beds into a tiny space. Even with its miniature furniture, the trailer wasn’t big enough to sleep seven people, so while my mother, my sisters and I slept in the actual trailer, my dad and my brothers slept on the ground outside. To me, it all seemed a great adventure. To my mom, we were just one small step away from becoming the Joads in the Grapes of Wrath. Being a Joad was never on my mother’s bucket list.

Once we were settled in our trailer park home, we were ready to start visiting the old war-buddy friends. Before we embarked, my parents told us in a stern, no-nonsense way that no one was to know where we were staying. If anyone asked, we were staying at the Edgewood Hotel. I could tell that my parents were mostly worried that I would spill the beans, and I resolved to keep this weird secret even if I didn’t understand why. When one of the other children at a “pool party” asked me where we were staying, I dutifully replied, “The Edgewater Hotel.” To this day, I feel badly about the unfairly maligned Edgewater Hotel, because my dad’s friends complained several times that their front desk was staffed by incompetent ninnies. Every time they called the hotel to talk to my dad, the people at the desk said that no one by the name of Maloney was registered there. This was all very puzzling, but I chalked it up to Weird Things Adults Do For No Discernible Reason. (Note to owners of the Edgewater Hotel: you probably had a first rate staff. Sorry about that.)

1964-gop-national-convention-pin-i-wasOur stay in California happened to coincide with the Republican National Convention, which was held in San Francisco in 1964. We were Democrats from Chicago, but my dad thought that visiting the Republican Convention would be an Important Cultural Experience, so off we went. Not only did we have the chance to rub elbows with politicians—there was also free stuff there, an Important Maloney Value. We scarfed up buttons reading AU-H2O in 1964 and Mom Likes Pepsi. Even better, there were tables where unlimited amounts of Pepsi-Cola were being given away, no questions asked. When confronted with free food or drink of any kind, the Maloney 150406164731-1964-goldwater-girls-super-169Family Philosophy was to eat or drink as much of it as possible.  My brother, sister and I drank impressive amounts of free Pepsi. If I jumped up and down, I could hear my stomach gurgling, a situation I used to great comic effect.

We took Route 66 home, stopping at the Grand Canyon along the way. My father made sure that we saw a lot of the United States from the back seat of that hearse. To this day, I get a warm feeling in my heart every time I hear the song Route 66, see a hearse, get free ice from a machine, or drink a free Pepsi. My dad wanted us to have memorable vacations. He certainly succeeded.

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