It always occurred the second week of July......the
big family trip to Pittsburgh to see Dad's relatives. It was all
so different for a city boy growing up in Newark; but let me not
get ahead of myself, for there was much to be done before we arrived
at Aunt Mary's house nestled in the hills east of Pittsburgh in
the little rural town of Universal.
Several weeks before the big trip, Dad and I would give the old
Pontiac a thorough check-over. We'd change the oil, check the brakes,
tune 'er up, and check out the carburetor, including the air filter.
Remember those old car air filters? There was none of that simple
paper cartridge replacement stuff----but rather a heavy wire mesh
affair that had to be cleaned out by soaking it in gasoline or kerosene.
We had to check the tires and give the front end a look over;
and grease and lube the steering arms and ball joints. And we did
it right there in the street in front of the house- me and Dad decked
out in mechanic overalls---mine a cut down version of his of course.
Hey, we're talking 800 miles round trip here folks, plus plenty
of trips around there locally to see family. You had to make sure
the family rig was prepared for the trip. We were often gone close
to two weeks.
During the first weeks after school let out, I would help Mom
pack the clothes into the suitcases. I always saved some of my allowance
for comic books that I could enjoy, making sure to have the latest
issues of Superman, Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Green Lantern, Batman,
and The Fantastic Four. [Oh if I only had those collectibles today!]
“Hey Roman. Where you goin’?”
“Holy cow, that’s far!”
“Yeah, takes all day to get there. Might even be some Indians
For Newark kids used to seeing houses close together and very
little wide-open spaces, except for an occasional empty lot or park,
Pittsburgh seemed to be on the other side of the planet.
Dad and Mom always planned for us to stop along the way going
out and coming home, so we could visit places like Hershey's Chocolate
factory, Crystal Caves, and lots of other roadside attractions.
It broke up the long 10-hour ride, giving us time to stretch our
legs and get out of a crowded car.
We kids did not realize it then, but we were part of the "Happy
Motoring" phenomenon that gripped post World War II America....."See
The USA in Your Chevrolet" as Dinah Shore would croon. It was
a time of exploration with your family car as your own personal
mobile home, and we had a front row seat.
It was not unusual for family cars to have their rear side windows
adorned with state emblems to show the many places the old family
car had been. I remember my Uncle Ralph and Aunt Lucy and their
family heading all the way out to Yosemite and then to Las Vegas
on one of their big family trips. They went out in one car and came
home in another, leaving the old dead family car there.
Dad loved to travel with the truck drivers because he felt those
guys were careful and courteous, being professional drivers and
all (not how we normally think of truck drivers today). That meant
we got on the road early—
"All right, everyone in bed no later than 9:00 tonight",
Dad would bark in drill sergeant fashion the night before; as if
anyone was really going to sleep anyway.
"The alarm is set for 3:00 AM and we will have 1 hour to
have a quick snack before we head out at 4:00. Remember, once we
start, no stops until a real breakfast at the Harrisburg Diner at
I think that Harrisburg Diner started my love affair with diners.
Nothing like the smell of a diner to revive a travel weary body.
The atmosphere just seems to perk you right up again.
And that is how the epic annual journey from Newark to Pittsburgh
went year after year, until I was about 15 years old. How exciting
it was to wake up in the dark and quietly head out to the family
car that was already packed to overflowing the night before. Newark
looked downright spooky in the pre-dawn hours as we tip-toed to
the car, as though our footsteps would wake the neighbors.
Dad had this tank-like contraption he made in his workshop that
he pressurized with air so he could inflate several tires on the
road in case we got flats….. along with all his other tools,
2 spare tires, and suitcases of clothes. How it all fit in the old
Pontiac is still a mystery. And let me tell you we had some interesting
predicaments along the way, like the time we had to patch the gas
tank after it started leaking somewhere in eastern Pennsylvania.
Heading out thru rural western New Jersey, we took old Route 22
into Pennsylvania and linked up with the Pennsylvania Turnpike or
"Pike" as Dad called it. From there we went almost clear
across the state to Pittsburgh--about 70 miles short of the state
line into Ohio. How different it all looked to this Newark boy without
all the local street traffic. The world got much more spread out,
with cornfields and farms everywhere.
All these sights and sounds became grist for my inevitable Fall
school essay…....What did you do this Summer? I always had
something new to say about that trip every year.
One time we stopped at the Harrisburg Diner and were walking around
after breakfast when Dad spotted some midget auto racers parked
on a trailer. He struck up a conversation with the fellows there
and next thing I knew I got to sit in one and imagine what it might
be like to zoom around a track at 100 mph.
On and on we drove, smiling and waving to the truck drivers while
they tooted back. We passed through seven mountain tunnels and finally
pulled into Aunt Mary and Uncle Henry's driveway late at night…..so
clean and quiet the little rural town seemed, with air that smelled
cool and fresh. Off in the distance, the big trucks and their whining
tires out on the Pike spoke of destinations not yet reached, like
my young life unfolding before me in those carefree summers.
With morning came the realization that life was very different
out here in Pennsylvania. Aunt Mary's backyard was huge by Newark
standards, 500 feet long and 150 feet wide. Uncle Henry had a big
garden with real corn growing way up back and there was still plenty
of room for a family softball game with all my first cousins and
To this day, the smell of honeysuckle and freshly cut grass always
reminds me of Aunt Mary’s house. She had a large honeysuckle
bush just outside the kitchen window, and the aroma was just wonderful
to me. Over my desk here at home is a picture of that backyard in
At night I would lay in the dewy grass and marvel at all the stars
I could see in the clear mountain air. How strange it was to have
family so far away. Mom's family was all within 5 miles of our Newark
home, and here was Dad's family 400 miles away; and my Pennsylvania
cousins had accents. They called soda....."pop"! The chain
stores all had different names, but there were some similarities
like McDonald's. I began to realize that Newark was one small place
in this vast American experiment. It was scary and compelling at
the same time.
Lying there I often wondered what was going on at that very minute
in Newark in my old neighborhood-what evening pranks were being
pulled by my gang of buddies? Would they ever experience this far
away episode that I was having.
I could overhear Dad and his brothers talking about the war-all
6 brothers served and saw intense action, and all came home. I wondered,
how could they have left this pretty town and faced such danger,
never knowing if they would ever return. Little did we realize my
generation would be faced with its own war.
I learned much about my Dad during those summers, driving around
his old town, visiting friends and meeting all sorts of people he
knew and grew up with. He wasn’t just a parent now but a person
like me, who made mistakes and took his knocks like the rest of
us. Aunt Mary filled in lots of details about her brother, and the
crazy things he did in his youth. I delighted at the stories of
how Dad used to throw tomatoes at the girls; and get into trouble
at school. I found out that Grandpap had a white lightning still
under his chicken coop, using potatoes as mash to feed it.
“How did you find out about all that stuff?” Dad would
“ I have been checking out your past Pop! “
“ Some folks in this family have no respect for the handsomest
brother,” he would joke.
When I visited Pittsburgh on business years later, I’d stop
in and see Aunt Mary and my cousins, but the special magic of those
youthful years could not be duplicated. Aunt Mary’s quiet
rural street was dotted with houses packed tightly together. Traffic
was downright dangerous at rush hour, and the old hill out back
was covered with houses right up to her property line.
There is a patch of honeysuckle that grows along the fence outside
my sunroom to remind me of those wonderful summer vacations at Aunt
Mary’s. I planted it years ago. Whenever it bloomed, I would
call her and reminisce. I can’t do that anymore. Aunt Mary’s
Newark and Pittsburgh will always have a special place in my heart,
even though things inevitably change. The memories, feelings, and
bonds are just too strong to let go. And I wouldn’t want to
even if I could.