Growing Up American: Summer Vacation 1939
The year 1939 was a seminal time for America and the world. Hitler was negotiating a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, while simultaneously planning the invasion of Poland. War was on the horizon, but Americans were struggling to revive themselves from the Great Depression. Desperate for entertainment, they filled movie theaters to see a plethora of cinematic blockbusters such as The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Gunga Din, and a long-awaited screen adaptation of a best-selling book by Margaret Mitchell. Tens of thousands flocked to the World's Fair in New York. Radio sets were broadcasting the popular hits of Glenn Miller, Gene Autry, and Tommy Dorsey. With many Americans still miserable, and harder times knocking at the door, at least one little girl thought it was "the best time to be alive."
Mom's father had just bought a brand new 1939 Chevrolet four-door sedan. Advertised as "The car that out-styles, out-accelerates and out-climbs all others," it was a thing of beauty that still draws admiration from the most discerning classic car enthusiasts. My mother only knew it was green, shiny, had awesome running boards, and comfortably fit a family of eight. With the family's summer vacation coming up, everyone was itching to see the U.S.A. in their Chevrolet (even though the jingle hadn't been written yet.)
My mother's family usually stayed home on the Fourth of July. Even then, there were such wild celebrations that a newspaper from the previous year reported, "...over 400 people lay cold in death from Fourth of July accidents. Most of these were from automobile crashes, others from fireworks and drowning."
And so it was that her family set out on their summer vacation soon after all the Independence Day revelers had withdrawn to rest.
"Touring" in those days had a more relaxed feel. There was no road rage, most people didn't speed, and no one even thought of giving you "the finger." There was no need to check with William Shatner for the best-priced hotel reservations, because you only had to stop and camp along the way. Children were excited to simply watch the world pass by their car windows; they needed no DVD player to keep them occupied. Thus they set out from upstate New York to take a leisurely drive around Lake Ontario.
The summers of that decade had been hot, and 1939 was no exception. The days were warm when driving with no air conditioning, but the nights were perfect for eating and sleeping.The roomy trunk stored folding chairs, a table, and a portable camp stove. Supper could be whisked up in the kettle using food they brought with them or purchased at roadside stands. A coffee pot was brewing for the adults any time the car stopped.
They stayed in a cabin for a couple of nights. Unfortunately, there was a limit of four people per cabin. No matter -- they stayed anyway. Once, the proprietor thought she saw too many people inside, and made haste to the cabin to find them out. She left confused... having found only four people. Never outfoxed, Mom's mother had hid one of the children in a bathroom stall and three others in closets. It was a close call that was good for a chuckle at every family gathering.
My mother's family was proud to boast years later that they had been among the first to cross the Thousand Islands Bridge. It had, after all, opened less than a year before. The opening had been a big news event, with President Franklin Roosevelt and Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King cutting the ribbon. At the ceremony, Roosevelt said:
"This garden spot of nature, this bridge stands as an open door. There will be no challenge at the border. There will be no guard to ask a countersign. Where the boundary is crossed the only words must be "Pass, friend."
During the same trip, his comments resonated around the world whenhe told the Canadian people that, "The United States will not stand idly by if domination of Canadian soil is threatened by any other empire."
The Chevy cruised along the newly christened Queen Elizabeth Way. A month before, Queen Elizabeth and King George VI had toured Canada and visited the United States. Invited by President Roosevelt, it was the first time a reigning British Monarch had set foot on U.S. soil. Even the "common man" reading the newspaper knew that with Europe on the brink of war, the visit was an ominous sign.
Crossing into the American side of Niagara Falls, my mother saw a town much different than it is now. There weren't any tall buildings and too many people; it was a much quieter town, spellbound with the thunderous roar of the falls. With no white noise to cover it, the falls followed you, rumbling low in your ears. As the family shopped in town, my mother had to check every little while to make sure it was true: "Is that still the falls I hear, Mama?" she'd ask.
The family had their picture taken atop Prospect Point, a jut of rock with a rail around it that hung over the top of the falls like God's lookout point. Fifteen years later, Prospect Point would collapse, sending 185,000 tons of rock into the Niagara River Gorge. Miraculously, no one was injured, but it changed the face of Niagara Falls forever.
On the journey home, weary with driving, they stopped for the night on a beach on Lake Ontario. They set up the stove, had coffee, cooked a late meal, spread their blankets on the sand, and drifted to sleep, under a canopy of stars. The night was beautiful, the air was warm, and the waves lapped the shore. A town policeman came by -- not to throw them out, but to make sure they were alright. Mom's father told him all was fine, and the policeman yelled back, "Okay, have a good night; I'll keep an eye out for you!" Imagine that.
You can keep your Carnival Cruises, your TSA gropings, and your bumper-to-bumper freeways. Give me a Chevy with a tank full of gas, July days that melt into nights, and a passport to 1939 America. Would anyone care to join me?
Susan D. Harrias can be reached at http://susandharris.com/