I am the only Yankee in our family, or to be more precise, I’m the only non-Texan. I’m not exactly sure where Texans fit into the whole North-South thing. It’s been my experience that they view themselves as a breed apart from … quite frankly … the rest of the world.
In any case, I’m the last and late born son of Ray and Lillie Bell. Last may not be the best way to describe my position in the family, as it implies a string of many children. In fact there were only two sons born to this union. What is unique is that our births were almost two decades apart.
In November of 1953 my parents moved from Sherman, Texas with a population of just over 20,00 to Saint Louis with a population of 850,000. The culture shock of moving from a sleepy little southern town to a large industrial Midwest City was exceeded only by the shock of my unexpected arrival. Nineteen years after the birth of my only brother I arrived on the scene in August of 1954.
My mother had given up a little white frame house with a rose garden and goldfish pond to live in a two family flat in south St. Louis. When you combine that transition with a record-setting heat wave, an unexpected pregnancy and general culture shock from moving to a different part of the country, you can understand why my mother considered herself trapped in a special type of Midwest, urban purgatory, if not hell.
Christmas holidays provided the perfect excuse to make at least a brief escape. The yearly pilgrimages back to the promised land of Texas became a tradition. The perfect excuse to visit with both sides of the family. The perfect excuse to enjoy multiple holiday meals. And the perfect excuse to drink iced tea the way it was meant to be enjoyed … sweet.
Most of my childhood Christmas memories revolve around those annual trips to Texas, riding in the back seat of my father’s big Pontiac. While not exactly traditional, those Christmas memories were as magical as anything that Norman Rockwell could conceive.
Pontiacs were my dad’s choice of vehicle when I was growing up. In Dad’s mind the quality of a car was in direct proportion to the amount of cubic feet available as trunk space. The big four door Pontiac Catalinas provided a lot of cargo carrying capability for the money. He eschewed Pontiac’s Bonneville model as too expensive. It’s luxury features were merely opportunities for more things to malfunction or break; most importantly the extra money spent on the upscale model did not gain you any more trunk space.
Our luggage along with the piles of presents for assorted relations tested the capacity of those land leviathans. It may have been crowded, but it was a cozy crowded. What kid would not want to be surrounded by wrapped Christmas presents? The knowledge that a good number of those packages had my name written on the tag only added to the excitement.
Johnny Mathis, Brenda Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Gene Autry, Andy Williams and most importantly David Seville and the Chipmunks serenaded our family with holiday songs as we speed south. The signal from the AM radio drifted in and out as we entered then excited the range of the stations in the nearby towns along our route.
A good portion of the first leg of our journey was spent on the Will Rogers Turnpike. Named after Oklahoma’s favorite son, its main claim to fame in my mind was not the divided four lanes or the reasonable tolls, but the “Glass House Restaurant” that spanned the turnpike in Vinita, Oklahoma. Built in 1957 by the Conoco Oil Company, the same year the turnpike was opened, it afforded drivers going either direction an opportunity to fill up on gasoline, souvenirs and pot roast.
It was the first restaurant constructed over a United States public highway and became so popular with the local residents that high school proms from nearby towns were held there. Later it operated as a Howard Johnson’s then became a McDonald’s and it’s elegant mid-century modern arches were painted a golden yellow. I chose to view this (in my current curmudgeon state) as a metaphor for the general decline in charm, civility and good taste in America, but that’s a blog post for another day.
We left the turnpike at the Big Cabin exit and headed south on highway 69. As seatbelts were not standard equipment back in the day and certainly not in the rear seats, I spent much of my journey in the back of the car standing on the drivetrain hump with my elbows hooked over the vinyl clad front bench seat that my mom and dad were sitting on. If that wasn’t enough to give Ralph Nader nightmares, I also spent time reclined on the large deck beneath the rear window, totally unencumbered by any type of restraining device or car seat.
Some of my favorite memories of those trips whether we were headed to Sherman, Chandler, or Wichita Falls Texas was not the time spent on the turnpike, but the two lane roads that took us through the little towns along the way. The local business districts, pre-Walmart, decorated for the holidays. Christmas themed display windows, banners stretched across Main Street that proclaimed, “Merry Christmas.” Courthouses and town squares where nativity displays were the norm and where figures of Santa, Rudolph and Frosty coexisted with the holy family and somehow it all made sense.
Of course the real joy was reuniting with family. The Agnew’s, the Boatman’s and the Feltman’s. The hugs, the laughs, the meals, the flurry of holiday wrapping paper, flying through the air as presents were revealed.
Dad went to his reward in 2012. Mom will turn 102 this Christmas day. I can no longer share those Christmas memories with her in detail, they are beyond her grasp now.
Neither my children nor grandchildren will ever ride in the backseat of a 1963 Pontiac loaded down with Christmas presents, headed to Texas. But I will do my best to pass down the magic. And if the opportunity presents itself, we will stop and have lunch at the McDonalds that spans the Will Rogers turnpike.