Dramamine and My Siren Song of the Road
Runner-up 2022 Travel Story
Copyright 2022 by Tom Sodergren
Photo courtesy of Jenny Uhling at Pexels.
parents grew up during the Great Depression and the lessons they
learned became instincts which dictated how my family lived in the
mid century. It's a fact that people who have lived through
deprivation develop lifelong habits of frugality. After the
Depression and War years, my parents had powerful instincts to never
waste money. Ever. On anything. On me. Over time, our austerity
relaxed enough to allow my parents to participate in the new
mid-century phenomenon of family travel. It was a new stage upon
which to practice their frugal instincts.
of our vacations, without exception, involved the family car. This
should not be surprising since our most frequent leisure activity was
“going for a drive.” There’s a kind of
unsophisticated charm about piling into the family car for a “drive”
to nowhere in particular. Instead of going for a drive my dad would
say, “We’re going for a ride,” which would have
been sort of alarming if we were a mob family.
of our “vacations” were fairly short trips to visit
relatives. Our great national parks were smack-dab central in my
parents' cheap Depression-era wheelhouse. All we would have needed
was a tent and camping gear. Post war army surplus stores were
everywhere, but alas, my parents just weren’t campers. They
were apparently not struck at all by wanderlust, which worked well
with their frugal nature. This meant no resorts, no planes, no
trains, no rental cars, no travel trailers, no city hotels or
restaurants, no beaches, no national park lodges, no amusement parks
… I could go on. I never thought about such things and felt
deprived of nothing. This wasn’t completely my parents’
fault because I seriously doubt that my dad was given much vacation
time in his fledgling jobs. Postwar unions made headway on paid
vacation but that didn’t apply to Dad.
the tumult and stress of the Depression and the War, Americans were
eager for more leisure and tranquil family time. Industry responded
with affordable family cars, more roadside services, and motel
franchises. Madison Avenue responded as well with car company ads
encouraging leisure travel. My family wasn’t the only one going
for a drive. The American car culture was conceived in the ’50s
and went strong through the ’60s. From hot rods to muscle cars.
culture came into full bloom in the ’50s with two-tone pastel
exterior colors and radios in the car playing songs about cars.
Hanging out at “car hop” drive-in restaurants and
drive-in movie theaters. Cars had elaborate tail fins and nose cones
mimicking space age designs and cars from the ’30s were
converted into classic hot rods.
bet if I watch a ‘50s juvenile delinquent hot rod “rumble”
movie really close, I might see my family on our drive puttering past
the rumble with my dad’s elbow sticking out the window.
I was very young my dad had a sales territory in the Denver area. He
took turns taking my brothers and me on sales visits up in the
mountains. Dad loved showing us off to the small business owners he
serviced. As a kid, spending the whole day with just dad and me at
his job was epic. My dad explained the scary mountain highway signs
to me. Steep Grade 7%. Runaway Truck Ramp. Chain Law Enforced.
Caution Falling Rocks. (What is one’s defense against falling
rocks/boulders?) I remember scary hairpin mountain curves with no
guardrails. I remember deep, thick blue spruce forests. I remember
quaking aspens. I remember boulder strewn streams with the roar of
the rapids. I remember car sickness.
most important part of any car trip for me wasn’t the brakes,
or tires, or gas. It was Dramamine. It wasn’t foolproof but I
wasn’t leaving home without it. Dramamine was actually
relatively new at the time. The motion sickness compound’s
properties were accidentally discovered by a Johns Hopkins allergy
clinic in 1947. The US Army conducted experiments with post war
soldiers crossing the Atlantic for duty in Europe. It was a huge
success and on the market with the commercial name Dramamine in 1949.
Imagine the suffering of the thousands of soldiers and sailors in the
Atlantic and Pacific during the war before Dramamine.
I was a kid the interstate system was brand new and completed in
sections. Motel and fast food chains were also new and rare on the
highway. This wasn’t all that important to us because for the
great majority of our “vacations” we stayed close to home
visiting family farms in Iowa. It was really great. My brothers and I
would climb all over the tractors and sharp implements. Very
dangerous. We did these things in full view of my parents and farm
relatives drinking and smoking on the porch. It was a different time.
I never lived on a farm, I still love the hay/manure smell of a
barnyard, and the sound of bawling cows and bleating goats. On our
visits there was always great fried chicken with potato salad, and
baked beans with a lattice of bacon strips atop the bowl. Pies were
made from scratch. My mom might even be coaxed into treating everyone
to her renowned garden wilted lettuce and milk dressing salad. Since
I smell the warm lettuce, milk, and chopped eggs as I write, my gag
reflex forces me to set down my pen.
one of the farms I refused to go into the barn. On a prior trip, I
had climbed to the top of the ladder leading up to the hayloft. When
I poked my head over the top a giant black snake slithered right in
front of my face. They almost had to put the paddles on me. The
Flying Wallendas would have envied how rapidly I shot down the ladder
without actually falling. Breathtaking. From that moment on the barn
wasn’t any fun because my head was constantly on a swivel. Who
knew what other alarming surprises were in store? There might be some
obscure “tetched” relative who lived in there. He would
try to show me antique stereoscopes of naked Parisians like Poor Jud
Fry did in Oklahoma!
close to home or to relatives were common with my friends. I recently
asked a contemporary of mine if he remembered ever taking a childhood
vacation not involving the family car. He said he didn’t
remember a vacation not involving a tent.
Touché. I never knew any classmates who had been to New York
or Disneyland. Some lucky kids obviously existed. I just never met
them. To me those were faraway places that lived only on television.
There’s no way the old man was going to hemorrhage money all
the way from the heart of the Midwest to Southern California just so
we could see Disneyland.
course, on all of our trips our cars had no seat belts, shoulder
harnesses, air bags, anti-lock brakes, radial tires, power steering,
power brakes, padded dash, headrests etc. I don’t remember
having air conditioning until my dad was driving a “company
car.” It was almost better without air conditioning because
while it kept us cool it also recirculated my parents’
cigarette smoke. On a long trip my brothers and I probably inhaled
half a pack. As I said earlier, it truly was a different time.
our trips, my little brother would sometimes lay flat in the space
between the back seat and the rear window. This was sort of akin to
some people who had station wagons with a bench seat behind the last
seat facing the rear window. I think this would have made me car
sick, but at least I would be able to see the instrument of my death
up to the last millisecond of my life when we got rear ended.
time in the car on long road trips amounted to colossal tedium for
me. Most importantly, reading in the car was the surest path to car
sickness. My mom thought lemon drops would forestall the inevitable,
but they were actually an accelerant. As I now remember the taste and
smell of the drops, I’m getting a little car sick. There were
no portable audio or visual devices and even transistor radios were a
brand new thing. Transistors were great surreptitiously placed under
my pillow after my bedtime, but they were useless on the road. The
car radio was more annoying than entertaining because of the
relentless search for a signal. When we finally got a scratchy signal
it was usually some guy preaching or an ag market report which would
cause my dad to go into a deep dive on pork belly prices.
mother would lead us in car games. My favorite was to be the first to
identify the most state license plates. On a two-lane highway it was
easy as you were pulling up on a car in your lane. It was much harder
if a car was coming at you since the passing happens in the blink of
an eye. Some states’ plates looked alike which caused my big
brother, not being bothered by troublesome scruples, to succumb to
his penchant for cheating. Arguments flashed, causing my dad to yell
the good ol’ “Don’t make me pull over.” His
other favorite was “Don’t think I won’t turn this
farm houses we visited in those days were big, white quasi-Victorian
structures with wraparound or front porches with the porch
floor usually painted gray. Those houses were also always old, and
pretty plain. They didn’t have the turrets, gables, and
decorative corbels of true Victorian houses. We were relegated to the
upstairs bedrooms which were creaky and hot. I just knew something
scary was in the ancient closet in my room. All I had to do was look
inside, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. If I asked my big
brother to look for me he would have teased me forever, but only
after telling everyone I knew. I just had to lay there enveloped in
fear. I can hear my mom calling up from the hall, “If you stay
still, you’ll be cooler,” as I lay on my
sweat-dampened sheets. I lay on those wet sheets until I was
serenaded to sleep by the crickets and frogs.
most memorable relative visit was to my great uncle in New Mexico.
WOW. It was a true mid-century “Great American Road Trip.”
I don’t know how my dad mustered the initiative for such an
ambitious trip. It was so otherworldly to a Midwestern kid. Driving
through the hot, wide-open spaces with shimmering road heat mirages
way ahead. No cornfields. No soy beans. No barnyards. No subtle hay
or manure smell until we drove past the big Oklahoma and Texas
feedlots where the smell was not subtle. It seemed to stay with us
for miles like when you pass a dead skunk.
such a long trip we would have to stop for the night. Even though my
dad threw around nickels like manhole covers, he wasn’t so
cheap that he would stop at a campground, but he also wouldn’t
go for a more expensive place like Holiday
I really don’t know if they were more expensive but I do know
my dad would have made that default assumption with no investigation.
the time Holiday Inn
was a novel idea perfect for the national mood. They were uniform,
clean, and brand new at a time when the travel market wasn’t
saturated with hotel/motel chains. Motel chains and fast food are two
of the few things in our culture where the term “cookie cutter”
is not a pejorative.
the New Mexico trip my dad would have stopped at what was called a
“motor court.” These were mom and pop places long since
left behind by the franchise chains. They’re still out there,
but a very small part of the market. I remember lamps with scenic
illuminated lampshades. I remember threadbare towels, thin noisy
walls, miniature Ivory soaps, and single-ply toilet paper. I also
remember loving it. In my mind I’m smelling Ivory
now. Motor courts often had neon signs that advertised things like
FREE TV, the surprisingly rare CHILDREN STAY FREE, and the
all-important VACANCY/NO VACANCY.
it was time to look for a place for the night, we would perk up when
we saw a neon oasis appear ahead on the open plains. One of the
iconic neon clusters on Route 66 was Tucumcari, New Mexico. Signs
started advertising for Tucumcari at least 200 miles out. The signs
weren’t advertising particular motels, but the number of rooms
in the town. World’s greatest chamber of commerce.
we got to the strip of motor courts and gas stations we were looking
for only one thing. A vacancy sign. I don’t know whether
reservations were not a thing at the time or it was just us. Without
the internet or a travel agency how would you make a reservation? A
motel in Nowhere, Texas isn’t going to advertise in Iowa City,
Iowa. Even if advertising was that widespread, they wouldn’t
have had an 800 number at the time and my dad wasn’t going to
make expensive long distance calls to try to secure a room.
the neon was shining in the distant town, it meant my dad may have
waited too long to pull in for the night and there would be zero
vacancy signs. My dad and mom would have already had a subdued
running battle with hints back and forth about how tired the boys are
vs. we’ve got to get more miles behind us. If the whole town
was full it was off to the next town with crossed fingers and a mad
on any trip not close to home, we had to make gas stops. My dad
called gas stations “filling stations.” I suppose a lot
of people still do. They were the absolute opposite of self-service.
Can you hear the distinctive ding
the bell when we pulled up to the pumps? My brothers and I were
required to go to the bathroom but to not enter the station itself
because there might be forbidden temptations of snacks, candy, or
soda. Any snacks were brought in the car by my mom.
the uniformed attendant finished pumping gas, cleaning the
windshield, checking the oil, checking the tire pressure, taking our
money and making change, it was off we go. How were these guys paid
for all that work when gas was 30 or 40 cents a gallon? My dad paid
for this in a way we hardly see anymore. He took his wallet out of
his pocket, opened it up and plucked bills out of it. Credit cards
were rare and sort of exotic at the time, and definitely anathema to
every fiber in my dad’s body.
are several reasons we never stopped for food. First of all, and
obviously, the expense. Secondly, the expense. There was also the
time involved in a food stop. Fast food was in its infancy and the
“drive thru” was extremely rare. Not even McDonald’s
installed their first drive thru until 1975. Possibly the most
important factor was that nothing short of rapid gas stops was going
to get the old man off of his schedule. The probability of sitting in
a roadside cafe for an hour was nil.
even stopping for food was never going to happen, roadside
attractions didn’t have a prayer. The advertisements on signs
and billboards were a torturous tease for a kid like me. 80 miles to
The Mystery Spot!....40 miles to The Mystery Spot!....10 miles to The
Mystery Spot! Dad puleeese. Why can’t we? We’ll be good
for the rest of the trip!!! There were exotic animal parks, enchanted
caverns, and fabulous geode shops, but we never ever stopped. Ever.
I’m sure that a huge majority of travelers were like us, and
did not stop, but enough did to keep the places open. The roadside
attraction wolves patiently culled the weak and gullible as the herd
of travelers passed by.
favorite vacation of all was to Rocky Mountain National Park. I
hadn’t been there, or anything like it, since I was very young
and when we went I was probably in the fourth grade in Iowa.
Very exciting stuff. We drove west across the vast treeless
nothingness of the Great Plains. It was what Thomas Wolfe poetically
called the “great attentive gape of America.” It’s
a moment of serendipitous joy for a kid to drive for hours across
flat plains and then BOOM there’s the blue Rockies on the
horizon far, far ahead.
yes standing, in our car with my brothers between the back seat and
the front seat, peering ahead so close to my parents' heads that I
smelled their hair, peering and smelling in our car barreling down
the road at 75 miles per hour .. my heart soared.
was not a relative visit. It was available to us through my dad’s
employer, CO-OP. All Midwesterners have seen a grain storage
facility, truck, or gas station with a CO-OP sign. I think it was an
incentive prize for my dad or maybe his company rented out most of
the YMCA Camp of the Rockies. We called it CO-OP Camp. We slept in
dorms, ate communal meals, and had sing-alongs inside the dining hall
after dinner. The dining hall was cavernous. (It may not have been
but I was just a little kid.) Somebody would play the piano and we
all sang “This Land Is Your Land.” Remember “sing-alongs”
with “follow the bouncing ball?”
smell the Colorado Rockies as I write. It really is a unique and
special smell, probably because of the abundance of blue spruce. I’ve
been all over the Alps and they don’t smell like the Rockies.
Neither do the Smokies. This isn’t a bad thing, they just don’t
smell the same. Smells are more evocative than any other sense. To
emphasize this point I’m going to give you a little test. Just
tell me you don’t remember the smell of the No.2 pencil you
were chewing on in the fourth grade. Seriously. Close your eyes and
smell the paint, the wood, and the powdery graphite.
the camp I had one experience that was supposed to be iconic fun. It
wasn’t. My little brother was in some sort of kiddy camp and my
big brother was old enough to be trusted with archery, so my dad
signed me up for a tame horse ride. It was not tame. It was a
horseback mountain trail ride and to me it was just plain scary. I
almost immediately realized what a bad decision it was to agree to do
this on purpose.
kids and I were taken on a mountain trail with narrow ledges. I
didn’t trust the horse and I really, really didn’t trust
myself to be in control. Then it occurred to me that all of this
wasn’t my idea. It was dad that signed me up for this. Was dad
trying to get rid of me? He sure wasn’t going along on the
trail. As I sniffed out his plot, I was sure my horse and I would
soon be separately pinballing down, six legs askew, deep into the
void. Ride ‘em cowboy. Mom would shield my grieving brothers
from my mangled corpse. Dad would pretend to be distraught. Oh, I
could see it all. I was so glad when it was over. I smell the pine,
the leather tack and the sweaty horses right now, by the way.
in life, even though I hadn’t forgotten my scary horse
adventure years earlier, I signed up for a trail ride with my young
daughter, near Yellowstone. We mustered where and when we had been
told on an early “see your breath” August morning.
Finally, a guy shows up I’ll call Wrangler Roy. He said he’d
get us mounted and then go see what’s keeping the other riders.
I made sure he knew we had zero experience and he promised me their
gentlest horses. He brought the horses out from the barn and each was
the size of a moose. I don’t know why I thought gentle
meant smaller and I don’t know how to describe my little girl
sitting on top of that enormous horse. Her legs stuck almost straight
out without coming close to adhering to the contours of the animal. I
looked at that and felt all of my senses screaming “danger …
danger.” I should have walked away, but we dutifully sat there
waiting for the scary conclusion to our misadventure.
Wrangler Roy came back with the others he said my daughter would ride
next to him in front and I would bring up the rear of the line. He
warned me that my old horse/moose was so gentle that he was afraid to
cross streams. He told me I had to be stern with the stirrups,
whatever the hell that means. I said OK, but what I was thinking was,
“Could you not clean your ears out long enough to hear me say I
have NO experience!? To think I should be at the end of the trail
line with a horse that won’t cross a creek while the rest of
the line rode on!? What were you thinking!? Defend yourself Roy!? I’m
waiting!” … Your witness.
as we take off, a woman in the middle of the pack says to Wrangler
Roy, “Do you think it will come back?” Roy says, “I
guess we'll just have to see.” Another man says to the woman,
“What are you talking about?” She says cheerfully, mind
you cheerfully, “There was a grizzly bear higher up on the
trail yesterday.” What?! What?!!! I remember thinking about how
stupid I was to have done this on purpose. What made it worse in my
mind was that I had actually paid good money to be so miserable. I
kept conjuring the image of the other riders looking on in horror as
the grizzly mauled/ate me because I didn’t know how to get my
horse to cross a little brook.
wish I could revisit Wrangler Roy. He wasn’t a grizzled ranch
hand. He did have a cowboy hat, but why would he think I was a
natural at handling my horse/moose. I don’t picture him riding
fences in harsh Wyoming winters. In retrospect, it was a mom-and-pop
cluster of cabins advertising these trail rides. Wrangler Roy was
probably a sophomore on the local high school rodeo team.
of our family trips involved reunions. My grandparents had close to
twenty brothers and sisters in Iowa, Minnesota, and Kansas so there
were many opportunities for reunions. My great grandparents were
Mennonites of Swiss heritage. My grandpa’s side was German and
my dad’s grandparents were Swedish. I couldn’t begin to
keep all of my uncles and aunts straight. They had great old
fashioned names like Homer, Elmer, Clarence, Mabel, Esther, Elvira,
and Eldora. Imagine the importance of such a family to their small
our reunion potlucks, burgers and hotdogs were of course available,
but the stars of the show were the “hot dish'' (casseroles) and
desserts. They were all laid out on picnic tables shoved together.
Cheese potato casserole, tuna noodle hot dish, baked spaghetti, Tater
Tot shepherd's pie, Swedish meatballs, noodle spaetzle, pineapple
upside down cake, a Jell-O whipped cream combo called Ambrosia….
I could go on.
there were things I definitely wouldn’t touch. In addition to
the ubiquitous creamed peas and pearl onions, there were pickled
beets, three-bean salad with wax beans, and orange Jell-O infused
with shredded carrots. Who would bring such things to a reunion? It’s
akin to having a food drive for tornado victims and contributing a
can of stewed tomatoes. How dare you.
one of our trips we visited my Great Uncle Clint and Aunt Mabel.
Uncle Clint was a great cook, and I loved everything he made. Maybe
it was because for misguided reasons, all I’d ever had was
oleomargarine and he used “by God'' real butter. I couldn’t
truly enjoy his cooking because I was traumatized by what happened
before or after we ate. Aunt Mabel was a nurse and she gave my mom
her allergy shots at the kitchen table. I was so freaked out by the
syringes and the smell of the doctor’s office alcohol that my
equilibrium and appetite were upset.
grandma made a cabbage dish that everybody loved, but I was not a
fan. You could smell it in the afternoon as it cooked and I’d
think, “Oh crap, I know what we’re having.” It was
a large, doughy, smaller-than-a-softball kind of round cabbage-filled
bun. My mom accurately called it “old country” from my
great grandparents’ Alsace-Lorraine. It was so cheap and
filling it has to have been one of those Depression era holdovers.
could cut into the bun and a blue cloud of cooked cabbage funk would
waft out. It was tough duty pretending to like Grandma’s
cabbage buns. What made it especially hard was that grandma was an
in-home beautician. To me this meant that her house stunk even before
she cooked the cabbage. The smell of the beauty parlor chemicals
almost made me nauseous until I got used to it just before the
cabbage took over.
I was very young we lived in Denver and it was a huge treat to go to
the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in City Park. Later when we
traveled to Denver to visit relatives, we would go back to the
museum. It was and still is a grand place. It is what started my
lifelong love of museums. Most kids wanted to go to see the dinosaurs
which were reconstructed with mostly genuine bone fossils.
much as I loved the dinosaurs, my favorite thing in the museum was
the diorama wing. The dioramas were fully life-size displays, behind
plate glass, of actual stuffed animals in wonderfully recreated
natural settings featuring the appropriate boulders, foliage, and
tree species. They also incorporated beautifully painted perspective
backgrounds. From elephants on the African savannah, to parrots and
monkeys in the jungle, to bison on the Great Plains, they had it all.
The halls of the diorama section were inky dark with the only
mesmerizing light provided by the displays. They were all beautiful
with their silent artistic presentations almost poetic.
only have one bad memory connected to the museum. My brothers and I
were on our bellies watching our Saturday morning cartoons when my
parents exploded into the room. They gayly exclaimed, “OK,
boys. Today we’re going to the park for a picnic and then we’ll
go to the museum. Doesn’t that sound like fun!?” My big
brother shot a look at me in terror and exclaimed “Oh no!!!
in his tender years, he was jaded enough to instinctively and
immediately know that we weren’t getting this great treat early
on my dad’s day off without paying a hefty price.
received my Bachelor of Science degree concentrating on English
Education with a teaching certificate from the University of
Missouri. I then earned my Juris Doctor degree from the University of
Missouri School of Law. After school I practiced law for sixteen
years including terms as City Attorney, City Prosecutor, and I was
twice elected Municipal Judge. I was then elected Judge of the 19th
Circuit Court in Jefferson City where I presided for 24 years before
taking Senior Judge status in 2019.
had 125,000 cases of all types come through my court and I’ve
married 8,000 people. Let me rephrase that lest I sound like an epic
lothario. I’ve performed 4,000 marriages. I’ve never been
published, but my profession has required writing in one form or
another for 45 years. My briefs, opinions, and documents are by their
nature very dry and therefore nothing to write home about. Pun
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
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