Reviewed by Kristin
Richard Ratay sets out to take readers on a trip across the United States and through his childhood memories, and he succeeds admirably. Part memoir of growing up in the 1970s, part Technicolor history lesson, this book provides a nostalgic look back at the author’s own experiences when the interstate system was new, the station wagons were wood-paneled, and the seatbelts were optional.
Richard was the youngest of four children and often ended up wedged in between his teenage brothers Mark and Bruce in the backseat while his prone-to-carsickness-sister Leslie took refuge up front between their parents. Of course, staying in your seat was not exactly required in that decade. Richard would often end up lying on the shelf in the back window waving to state troopers as they passed, and often getting a friendly wave in return.
The elder Mr. Ratay was a very economical man, constantly trying to save time by leaving their home in Wisconsin at 3:30 am (thereby missing the Chicago morning rush hour) and trying to save money by skipping meals on the road. Dad often encouraged the kids to take a nap shortly before their hunger kicked in, therefore giving him a chance to eat up the miles and avoid spending money on lunch for six. When the family did drive through a McDonald’s, they performed a speed drill worthy of the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote, or perhaps The Three Stooges.
Between all of the family anecdotes, Richard provides quite a history of United States transportation. Did you know that the construction of better roads was strongly influenced by bicycling clubs in the late 1890s? Another proponent of smooth roads were health professionals who were big fans of riding bicycles and later driving the horseless carriage, simply because of the health problems that piles of manure created on city passageways. An overview of popular destinations such as amusement parks and the world’s largest ball of twine—also all included in this book. Billboards, motels, CB radios, videogames—all are discussed with gentle humor that took me back a few decades as well.
I remember well my family’s 1976 bronze Chevrolet cargo van. The shimmery metallic interior was soon covered by custom installed wall-to-wall shag carpeting. A bench seat which folded down into a bed (and may or may not have had seatbelts—I don’t remember!) provided a place to lounge whether on our way across town or on our way to visit family in Arkansas. Behind the bench seat and accessible from the back doors was a storage compartment with a flat top, allowing for one child or another to lie against the back windows. Between the backseat and the storage compartment was a small gap which my little brothers dubbed “the basement,” always a good place to hide away.
We had a citizens’ band radio and CB nicknames for everyone in the family as well. Perhaps we were caravanning with friends or perhaps my dad was chatting with the truck drivers, but I can remember him using his handle of “Third Baseman” on the radio. My mother was “Mayflower,” I was “Woodstock,” my middle brother was “Pickle Jar,” and my baby brother was “Fuzzy Bug.”
As for the golden age of family road trips, all good things eventually end or at least undergo significant transformations. The Airline Deregulation Act of October 1978 (Thanks, Carter!) triggered changes in the air travel industry. Fares, routes, and schedules were no longer set by the government, allowing the free market to push prices downward and to open new transportation possibilities for the average American family. No longer were airplanes filled with only the upper class and business people with hefty travel allowances. With less time spent together in the car, family vacations necessarily changed. For the better? Maybe. Maybe not. A hundred years ago there were surely people arguing that it was much better to ride in horse-drawn buggies instead of those infernal motorcars.
I recommend this well-researched and nostalgia filled social commentary/memoir to anyone with fond memories of family road trips.