Seven Reasons to Avoid Holiday Travel

Before Interstate highways, piling into the station wagon for a trip from the suburbs of Washington, DC to Reading, Pennsylvania was something akin to an adventure. It usually only took five minutes of fighting over who got to sit in which seat before the conversation turned to how long it would be before we encountered the “roller coaster” road. My vague memories of the route involved crossing the Susquehanna River on Route 1 before turning north on the Lancaster Pike (The true test of your routes to the area remain pronouncing “Lank aster” rather than “Lane caster”). I do not remember if the roller coaster ride was on the way into or out of Lancaster.

We all remembered the rolling farm land with hills that allowed us the feeling of free fall followed by the slow climb up the next hill. On the way down, we enjoyed the feeling of speed as my father resisted the urge to use the brake and on the climb up to the next peak it was back to counting hex signs and viewing the barns with the “Mail Pouch” chewing tobacco ads covering an entire exterior wall. Maybe, if the interstates had been built earlier (I cannot imagine the adventure of the roller coaster road during a snowfall) or if my mother's father and my father's mother had lived longer or if there had been fewer of us, we would have made more trips to my grandparents for the holidays. Instead, Thanksgiving and Christmas became a holiday spent in Virginia as my parents became less tolerant of the hours spent in the car a growing number of children.

In fact, the whole prospect of time in the car led us on my first cruise. A very short one, but still an overnight on the open seas. All of us were packed into the station wagon for the short trip to Baltimore and into the inner harbor. We pulled the car up the ramp and into the ship for our voyage down the Chesapeake Bay. We pulled away from the pier without ticker tape, balloons, champagne or any of the romantic movie departure themes. Any sea shanties sung by the crew were lost in the sounds of the whistles, engines and tug boats escorting us out to the channel of the Patapsco River and our meeting with the Chesapeake Bay.

Dinner on board and off to bed with the chugging of the engines and the rolling on the light seas, sounds like something to keep a six or seven year old up all night, but for me it was a peaceful night of rolling with the motion. While I slept, we steamed down the Chesapeake and up the James River. My first cruise and all I had to show for it was good night's sleep. I can only imagine that my Dad was better rested from the cruise than 5 or 6 hours driving through the Virginia tobacco farms.

I have many more memories of visiting Jamestown and the restored fort that marks the beginnings of Europeans in Virginia. Even to my boy's eyes, the construction at Jamestown seemed too small to be the beginnings of a nation. What seemed huge to me was the musket carried by the costumed militia. I was sure that thing was twice my height. There was so little to see on the point of land where it all began in Virginia that thinking about that first community celebrating a first harvest with the knowledge that they would have enough food to make it through the winter put Thanksgiving in a very personal perspective.

The stop in Jamestown was the prelude for the main event, Williamsburg; Virginia's colonial capital located less than 10 miles to the north. Williamsburg is the home of the campus of William and Mary University that includes many buildings that date back to the school's origins. I did not know on that first visit that my two children would earn degrees there in Williamsburg; no a child only sees the history in its preserved version while the big picture forms in the iterations of accumulated experience. The real treat was spending most of the day in the restored city of Williamsburg where the life of the city in the 1700's was recreated. I was fascinated by the blacksmith shop, the glass blowing, the apothecary where we bought rock candy on a string and the pub with the clay pipes in racks by the bar, but nothing compared to the woodworking. Watching the craftsmen creating furniture and buildings with hand tools without using nails or screws would stay with me for a long time. When I started making furniture, the memories of the cabinetmakers in Williamsburg were all the horsepower I needed to push a plane over a board.

I do not remember the drive back to DC. Maybe exhaustion left me curled up on the back seat. Maybe I was reading “A Spy in Williamsburg”, which was the thickest (over 200 pages!) book I had tackled to that point in my life. I just know that the sense of history and the aversion to traveling became a theme for the family until my brother, sister and I became old enough to help share the driving and a second car to provide enough seats, so as much as my own household traditions centered on being a child of the 60's, my parents maintained more traditional standards. Turkey, yams, green beans with cream of something soup and canned onion rings and the ever popular gelatin salad with miniature marshmallows and shredded carrot. Dinner was family only and we eschewed any activity other than eating.

A large family, a sense of history and no televised football on Thanksgiving led us to our own family patterns. If Thanksgiving was the day of wonderful smells taking over the house, the day before was the day dominated by an odor that became increasingly obnoxious as it became a staple of our holiday meals. My mother decided to try a chestnut stuffing recipe that called for boiling raw chestnuts the day before preparing the stuffing. The process began with cutting an “X” on a flat surface of the nut before boiling the nuts, in their shells, until the house smelled, frankly, like a compost pile. From my point of view, my mother knew the nuts had boiled long enough when the entire family was huddled outside in the cold to get some fresh air.

That evening, the the real torture began. The mushy chestnuts had to be peeled. Everyone old enough to not hurt themselves with a small kitchen knife suffered when the parental press gangs rounded up the stragglers to serve their time. I guess that it is typical of boiled nuts that they take on a texture that is completely removed from the delightful, crunchy presentation of the roasted version, and I became familiar with the difference at an early age preventing me from taking any pleasure from boiled peanuts even though there are those that find them a delicacy. The sad part of this story is that the peeling party became a part of the family experience and the stuffing is still staple on my mother's menu.

Each of us collects small memories of our experience that define the way we enact the rituals of our culture. My parents experiencing the difficulty of station wagon travel with a writhing cargo of offspring, adopted a pattern that kept them home for the holidays for the next 50 years. My experiences in Jamestown and listening to "Alice's Restaurant" are building blocks of my own reflexive understanding of demonstrating holiday culture that still includes a more political context.

This account has not addressed the one moment of the Thanksgiving holiday that created magic in my young life. Right around Thanksgiving, the family was also pressed into service to thoroughly wash and wax the asbestos-laden asphalt tile of the basement floor. Dreaded hard work? No! Once the floor gleamed, we could haul out the old foot lockers to make the foundation for the sheets of green painted plywood that was the surface for train! Writing and editing this account has been frequently delayed as I move from the keyboard to the train board recreating some of the cherished portions of my childhood. I have noticed that the train is not hauling a load of boiled nuts.

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