Many of my most treasured memories from childhood revolve around summer vacations with my grandparents who lived in Terre Haute, Indiana, about 400 miles away from our home in Port Huron, Michigan. My dad’s parents lived in our hometown and we would visit them on a more or less weekly basis, but my mother’s parents lived in the far away (for the late 50″s and early 60″s) Indiana.
I remember the long rides on the two lane roads in the old “51 Studebaker or late-model, Buick V8 my dad owned at the time. This was before Ipods, in-car DVD systems and all the other entertainment features kids have available today. We counted state license plates, made words out of road signs and sang songs or read comic books to pass the time on a long ride. I vaguely remember my hand and arm playing airplane out the open window and the Burma Shave signs that had cropped up all over the two-laned landscape of those days.
These memories were brought back to me in an rather round about way last week as I listened to a Levon Helm song entitled, “The Mountain” off his 2007 “Dirt Farmer” album. The first verse goes like this:
I was born on this mountain a long, long time ago
Before they knocked down the timber and a strip-mined all the coal
When you rose up in a mornin’ before it was daylight
To go down in that dark hole and come a back up at night
Helm was one of the members of “The Band” back in the day and has continued his plaintive, Americana-focused, story-telling since that group dissolved in the late 90’s.
In the late 50’s and early 60″s I often spent a couple of weeks by myself during summer vacations with my collective grandparents in Terre Haute, Indiana or briefly in Vandalia, Illinois. My mother’s dad Harry, worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad and my natural grandmother Mary, (divorced and remarried) worked for the Packard Shirt Co. Harry was in charge of a line and signal group and Mary sewed collars on fancy shirts for a living. When she remarried it was to a coal-miner named Harvey Smith and the house I remember staying in the most was really a trailer that got so hot in the summer the Wonder Bread almost turned to dough in the cabinet above the sink.
What partial memory the Levon Helm song stirred in me was my grandmother Mary driving late at night to pick my grandfather up from work in a coal mine several miles north of Terre Haute proper. I would be in the back seat asleep and would awaken to the sight of grandpa Harvey coming out of the mine with his white owl eyes, light hat propped on his head and nickel plated round lunch bucket swinging at his side. Everything but the area around his eyes was coal black and the smell that he brought into the car was something that had attached to him a mile or two underground. Musky and mysterious is all that I can recall at this moment.
He was a real gentleman and as I remember, loved listening to the radio and loved my grandma. In later years they would move almost a half a block away to a real house by a church and I don’t think it was as hot during my summertime stays. Most of my recollection is fairly fuzzy from that time but it seems that coal-miners worked long hours and he wasn’t around as much as my other grandfather who lived in an upscale suburban subdivision on the other side of town.
Suffice it to say, Harvey died several years later from what we now know was “black lung”. After his death, my grandmother visited us in Port Huron several times before finally moving in and taking care of us kids while my mother went back to work. She never remarried and the special bond that we had from those early years was never broken and never quite understood by me or my siblings. During my many rebellious phases, she would quietly remind me of my responsibilities and I would kick and scream and finally end up doing the “right” thing after I couldn’t tell her to go away anymore.
There’s a lot more I could write about those times and how special I felt in the midst of really being somewhat left alone and on my own. It is what it is as the saying goes. It was an interesting ride for that time and the memory of it certainly took me on a ride today—hope you enjoyed hanging on.