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Traveling was tough on Christmas vacation in 1939

We pile in our new Ford, and “pile” it is, for in the backseat is most of the luggage for the four of us: my dad, my mom, my older brother and me.

On top of the luggage, there is a layer of presents for all our relatives. On top of the presents, Jimmy and I splay ourselves on our stomachs, bumping our heads on the inside roof of the car as we climb to our perches. We are on our way from Minot, North Dakota, to Minneapolis, Minnesota, and it is Dec. 15. We will drive 500 miles to get there, and it will take us close to 11 hours.

Every year, the company my dad works for, Corn Products, sends its traveling salesmen to Minneapolis for a three-day conference. Every year, a new Ford. Every year, all expenses paid. We glory in this opportunity to have part of our trip paid for. My mother’s sister, Bee, my Uncle Homer and their girls Natalie and Joey live in Minneapolis. We will spend several days with them.

The getting to Minneapolis is coupled with icy roads, freezing winds and whirling snow. We expect it, for our family has been making this trip from northern North Dakota to southern Wisconsin since before I was born. We are always grateful for these few days in Minneapolis.

Jimmy and I are bundled up in layers of sweaters, snow pants, mittens, caps and jackets. There is one heater for the entire car, centrally located on the floor between Mom and Dad. It shoots hot air straight ahead. Not much of it reaches the back seat.

We somehow manage to stay warm, except when we need to go to the bathroom. There are none of those along the way, as there are no hotels, restaurants or gas stations except in towns. We can’t always wait till we reach a town.

So once Dad stops the car, we manage to climb down from aloft in the back seat. There are those layers of pants to pull down. It is a challenge to bare our backsides to the subzero elements, especially when we become one with the tall drifts leaning against almost obliterated telephone poles.

After all, it is rare that we can see at all through the spiraling gusts of snow. We feel it, though, as pins and needles against our flesh. It is a blessing to pull our pants up and get back into the car.

My mother has packed food for us to eat along the way, and it is carefully stored in the car’s trunk, probably so my brother won’t sneak a few bites between meals. I have learned to be too good a girl to do that. Stopping at a restaurant becomes a necessity only when we run out of our own food. When we stop, everybody piles out and we plod through the snow single file to the restaurant door. Once inside, we mostly all order hot soup, though Jimmy loves hamburgers. (He gets one if the price is five cents.)

The soup warms us to our toes, though, and saves money at the same time, we’re told. It is essential to keep from spending money whenever possible. After all, it’s the Great Depression, and gasoline alone costs 10 cents a gallon. We are taught to know the value of coins. Dollar bills are rare.

At some time cars must have come equipped with a radio. Reception is scarce, however, as are towns with radio stations. We bridge this gap with song. We are a singing family, harmonizing into a quartet as far back as my memory reaches. Mom carries the lead, Dad sings tenor, and Jimmy and I manage the alto until his voice changes. That’s when he begins to really round out the quartet by adding the bass.

The miles go by faster with “Home on the Range” and “Shine On, Harvest Moon.” I’m always glad when we sing, for it keeps me safe from my brother’s surreptitious pinching.

We arrive in Minneapolis after dark. Sometimes Dad gets lost in this big city. When that happens, we all squint through the car’s small windows into the darkness, helping to look for our relatives’ street. We seldom agree on which way to turn. Whether from memory or not, Dad eventually finds it, and after we park in the alley, we trudge single file again, this time through more drifts to the front of the house.

The night is black with billions of brilliant stars so close they feel as though they envelop us. We form a semi-circle below the bottom step of Uncle Homer and Auntie Bee’s house and break into song, “Silent Night, Holy Night.” My dad starts the first stanza in German, “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.”

Finally, the front door swings open. Out they all spill. There are squeals of joy and hugs as we are welcomed into the warmth of their home. Our first lap is completed. We are away from the frozen elements at last.

Mary Lansing is a member of

the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.


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