Friday, March 25, 2011

The rural south in 1949: Four strangers on a road trip in a strange land.

The rural south in 1949:  Four strangers on a road trip in a strange land.
©Joel Baumwoll

As a kid, some of my most memorable experiences happened on family trips.  This was one of the few times that I saw our family as a little team, united and together in an alien world of strange people and different cultures.  There we were, my old man and mother, kid brother and me, in our old Plymouth, navigating through unfamiliar towns and roads, eating in places like Hot Shoppes and Howard Johnsons that we would never see around home.

Running board pride 1946

 “Taking a trip” meant hitting the road. This called for a fair amount of planning.  My old man would call “Triple A” (we never called it A.A.A.)  and, in a few weeks, a fat envelope would arrive.  We would gather ‘round as he would open it and spread the contents on the kitchen table. The table was covered with brochures, flyers, coupons, maps, and the main event, the Triptik.

A Tripik was a fat book, in ring binders, that was created especially for our trip.  The first page even had my old man’s name printed in the title.  It said “Triptik Created for Harold Baumwoll.  Itinerary: Rockaway, New Jersey to Williamsburg, Virginia.”


This was “our” trip, and each page contained information about where to stay, where to eat, what to see. This ingenious book divided our trip into small segments called strip maps.  The master map and each page showed a route highlighted by a bright red line drawn over the local, state or federal highways.

The old man was deadly serious about following these maps, and the job fell to my mother to navigate through confusing intersections, unexpected detours, and unexpected deviations.  “What terrible road signs they have in Maryland” my old man would complain, over and over, as we searched for confirmation that we were on the right track.

My mother would pack a basket of sandwiches and a jug of “bug juice” for the day’s drive.  Lunch was always a roadside picnic.  For some reason, tuna salad sandwiches were incredibly delicious eaten at a worn picnic table in some dusty pull-off.  The roads were full of these “rest spots” in the days before franchise hamburger joints took over.  They usually  offered a rusty charcoal grill on a post, a wire trash can and a smelly toilet.  But they always seemed to be picturesque places with shade and the beauty of wildflowers and hornets.

Harold, Joel, Gene, Lake Hopatcong 1947
As we drove on toward our goal, and evening approached, we’d begin to look for a place to sleep.  Before Holiday Inns, our preferences ran to “tourist cabins” rather than motels.  The requirements were a large AAA logo and a “vacancy” sign. The AAA sign meant that we would have a clean and safe night’s sleep, even if we had to pay a bit more.   Typically, these places were set just of the road in a large enclosed piece of property, often bordered by a wood picket fence.  The fancier places had low red brick walls, decorated with pots of flowers.


The property was dotted with a row or two of small wooden cabins, some large, with screened porches, and others with a simple screen door and one window facing the road.  The “deluxe”cabins were like small houses, with two bedrooms and a rickety set of wood chairs in front.  These were “extra” and my parents rarely sprung for such luxury.  Our cabin usually had a double bed, one single bed and a folding cot.  My kid brother got the folder.

The intimacy of these sleeping arrangements produced some odd conflicts and a lot of giggling.  The occasional fart or burp would occasion howls of laughter from me and my brother and shouts of “shaddup” from my old man.  Every now and then, the usual fraternal conflict would erupt into bouts of whining, pinching and crying, and these could escalate into full fledged violence.

Sometimes my old man, angry that his cherished sleep was being disturbed (“I have to drive all day tomorrow,”) would lash out with a slap or a punch, much to the chagrin of my mother, and an atmosphere of fear would seep into the fun and adventure.

Breakfasts on the road were wonderful meals.  Sometimes a country breakfast place would be close by the tourist cabins, and we’d pack up the car and head for them.  On other occasions, we’d ask the manager for a recommendation, and he’s send us to some special place that featured the “best” pancakes, or “biggest breakfasts” in the country.  If we were near a larger town or city in the south, we’d pull into a Hot Shoppe.  These were an early chain of breakfast restaurants that served generous portions and bottomless cups of coffee.


I remember fondly those stacks of buckwheat cakes, drowning in maple syrup and butter with slices of bacon or country sausage.  These were like Sunday breakfast, during the week.  How special they felt.

Fortified, we’d pile into the Plymouth, by now blazing hot and itchy.  Out would come the TripTik, and our voyage would resume.

One journey I recall took us to Alexandria Virginia.  Our destination was Colonial Williamsburg, a newly built “historic village” complete with farms, blacksmiths, old country kitchens and people dressed in costumes of the revolutionary war era.  My mother was a colonial furniture freak, and it was she who had picked this exotic destination.

In the 1940s, the days before super highways, the journey took us through small towns and rural areas dotted with barns, cows and cabins.  Occasionally we’d drive through a very poor part of town, invariably inhabited by “negroes.”

I recall being shocked at the primitive houses, unpaved streets and threadbare look of the people who stared at us from wooden porches as we drove by.  I was too young to understand what I was seeing, but it made a big impression.

As did the signs over restrooms and drinking fountains in public placed for “colored” or “white only.”  This was Jim Crow south in the 1940s, and it felt like a strange land to an eight year old kid from the Bronx.

My mother often let it slip that there were not too many Jews in this part of the country, and people were not likely to be all that friendly to us.  That puzzled me, but it also made me feel even more like a stranger in a strange land.   I was on high alert for danger.  But it never came.
The billboards and road signs were fascinating.  A family favorite were the Burma Shave signs, small poems divided into six wooden posts, each read aloud in a chorus by my brother and I as we drove by them. The last being the word "Burma Shave" sung in a deep basso profundo.

Burma Shave sign 1940
Burma Shave sign 1948

“That was a good one,” or “Not so hot” was the commentary that followed each one.  We’d speed along, alert for the next  one, which would come in five or six miles. Burma Shave supplied us with countless hours of amusement as we drive on through dusty and hot rural landscapes.

Rural advertising on the sides of barns was another fascinating feature of these rural drives.  Bull Durham was a big brand then.

Bull Durham sign

The roadside show was as interesting to me as any tourist site.  It spoke to me of a world I had never seen, and gave me a sense that there were people who lived differently than we did.  To a kid used to the sameness of the 1940s Bronx block where I lived, this was true adventure.

Nowhere in the Bronx had I seen seen religious signs displayed with such aggression.   It seemed that people down there wanted to save my soul.  It took me a few years before I figured out what it was that Jesus saves.

Ads for chewing tobacco were about as prevalent as signs for our salvation.

It was during one of these trips that we went through an experience that became legendary in our family.  It started when we were motoring through rural Virginia and left the job of finding a place to sleep a bit late.  As we drove past one “no vacancy” sign after another, a sense of worry began to creep into the air.  It had not occurred to my father that Colonial Williamsburg was a popular tourist destination, and the supply of economical AAA-endorsed motels and tourist cabins was clearly less than the demand during this spring holiday.

The folks decided to settle for a non-AAA endorsed place, but to no avail.  As the sun set and a scary darkness fell around this alien territory, the prospect of sleeping in the car did not seem too far-fetched.  My brother and I sat quietly in the back, listening to my mom, ragging the old man for not stopping earlier at the place she spotted with a vacancy sign.  He was getting steamed, and had the brilliant idea to head for the tourist information center in this god forsaken village.

The guy who manned this outpost was just on his way out the door as we drove up, shining our headlights on him.  After hearing our plight, he made a few phone calls and told us to follow him.  His name, I remember clearly, was Major Quick, and he wore a wide brimmed hat.

“See,” my old man says to my mother, “Major Quick is gonna take care of us.”  And off we go, racing at breakneck speeds down dark country roads.  My mother wasn't having any of it.  My mother, no doubt remembering her childhood experience escaping Cossak pogroms in Moldova, being at the mercy of thugs who ran the boats over the river to Romania, said “how do you know he’s not going to take us to a dark place and rob us?”

“Oh c’mon,” my father said, “where is your spirit of adventure?”  That was the first time I ever heard my old man talk about a spirit of adventure.  He was trying to pull his fat out of the fire for leaving his family up the creek without a bed in the dark of the Virginia night.
After an interminable ride, Quick’s car pulls up in front of a neat house, with a gray haired women waiting at the door.  “That’s Mrs. Jenkins,” says Quick.  Her son is in the army and she takes in roomers for a night or two. She agreed to put you folks up.”

So in we go, refugees from the Bronx, probably the first New Yorkers and the only Jews Mrs. Jenkins had ever seen.  “That’ll be $5 for the night and I expect you’ll be gone first thing in the morning,” she instructed us, eyeing my brother and I with a practiced look of a schoolteacher who knew trouble when she saw it.

“I’m hungry,” whined my kid brother.  “Me too,” I chimed in.  “There’s a café about fifteen minutes down the road, but you’ll have to hurry. They close in twenty minutes.”  “And get back here before 9, cause I want to lock up.”

Off we go, roaring down the lane to a roadside hamburger joint that looked like an gas station with a café attached.


A tankfull of Texaco and a couple of hamburgers later, we roar back to our haven  and tuck into our clean soft beds.

Ahhh…safe and sound, thanks to Major Quick.  That night lived on in our memories as the time when my mother discovered her spirit of adventure, and Major Quick became a family legend.

I've since driven through countrysides in France, Italy, Greece, Spain and China.  But nothing has replaced the excitement I felt during those times when we ventured forth as a family, into strange lands, guided only by our TripTik and my old man’s intrepid confidence in Triple A.


  1. Wonderful Blog!! I was fighting with you for the seat behind MOM..thet was out of the "old man's" reach when he would get frustrated and annoyed with us and swing away. I recall the belching contests in bed in the tourist cabins...swallowing gulps of air so we could belch up long belches and try to say whole sentences. Often the air would not belch up, which occasioned many a fart in the closely packed car the next day. Strange products abounded. In the rural south our nickel soda bottles were seven cents and larger by half. Well I recall the stretched Seven Up and Coke. The old man favored 7 UP.

  2. Wonderful story! Brought memories of trips past to the south (North Carolina) down 13/301 and US RT 1. Thanks for stirring up those wonderful times! I used Triptiks from Triple A right up till the late 90's!

  3. It is harder to find the unique personalities of our regions, now that franchises and superhighways have remade the rural landscapes. But they are still there if you work to find them.

  4. This is freakin fantastic! While I don't want to make you feel like an old man, this is quite the period piece. I love the descriptions of old Americana.

  5. Thanks Erica. I am 71 today, but don't feel old, just older. The America I described can still be found in nooks and crannies if you get off the interstates and wander the small roads and streets. I see you are on quite an adveenture.

  6. Wonderful storytelling. Please grant permission to use the photo of the cabins in exchange for promotional consideration. Thank you!

  7. I can be reached at

  8. Really enjoyed this. A delight.