Two huge diesel-powered tour buses (long-haul Greyhounds with paint jobs) idled in the pre-dawn darkness of the Crestwood High School parking lot. More than fifty cars were arrayed haphazardly down the slope of the lot from them. Nearly sixty of the seventy-six (or -eight) members of the Class of ’60 had earned, begged, borrowed or weaseled from their parents the cost of the, “Senior Class Trip to Washington DC (Spend a Day in Gettysburg on the Way)” adventure. We hauled our suitcases to the buses, and as each student’s name was called he or she picked up the allowed luggage and approached the indicated bus.
Each boy was allocated one suitcase which went under the bus into the cavernous luggage compartment. Each girl was allocated one suitcase which joined the boys’ luggage in the belly of one of the buses, and one “train case,” a small case in which was carried the mysteries of beauty. These came aboard with us. There had been much complaining when the extra luggage for the girls was noticed. But we were told we could each bring an equally small case. After a short investigation of the small cases available in Sears and Skorman’s stores (a local “seconds” store in Ravenna) we gave up the hunt. We would not be carrying any luggage onto the buses. Small cases were feminine, and there was no gettin’ around it.
The Old Man stood me next to the front driver’s side corner of the bus and fired a couple of flashbulb shots.
“Dick,” Mother was annoyed, “we won’t see anything but that headlight.”
The Old Man fired off one more. “The flash should take care of it.” He handed me the little Kodak Brownie box camera. “Here are a couple of more rolls of film.” I took the camera and film, putting the film in my jacket pocket.
Mother came over. “Charles, your graduation pictures are on the film in the camera. Don’t lose it.”
I was appalled. “Let me change the film.”
“No, there are at least three or four shots left. You just be careful. I want everyone to see how handsome you were in your robe and mortarboard.”
We never did find out whether the headlight washed out the photos in the parking lot, and no one who wasn’t there ever saw how handsome I was in my robe and mortarboard.
Finally aboard the buses, we were assigned seats by teachers and the parent-chaperones who accompanied us. I lucked out. I was directed to the lead bus and was assigned a window seat near the back of the bus. But for the moment all I wanted to do was tilt the seat back and return to the sleep excitement and this early start had denied me. Well, maybe later. But for the moment...
“Ladies and young men (What? We weren’t gentlemen?), some rules for riding my bus.” The bus had a speaker system for tour commentary, and it worked very well for this. “No fighting. I’m bigger, older and tougher than any of you, and I will break up any fights.” With that, he stood up from the driver’s seat and faced us. He had told the dead flat truth. No one was of a mind to argue with him. “You may sing (please sing only songs to which you know all the words. *cue laughter* Please do not sing “Ninety-nine bottles of beer...” unless it is your desire to walk the rest of the way... *cue more laughter*). You may play cards but not for real money, and you may talk, sleep or enjoy the scenery. Those of you who smoke may do so, *cue cheers* I am not your parent. That said, please do not do anything to embarrass your parents, your school, your teachers or most importantly - me. Whatever else you do, don’t do that. Unlike all the others, I can and will make you pay for that immediately.”
He turned and sat down, put the bus in gear, released the air brakes and blew the horn. The bus began to move. I awoke somewhere in the mountains of Pennsylvania with the first rays of the late spring sun jumping in and out of the bus from behind the trees and rocks of the western slopes of the Appalachian Mountains. I looked to my left and discovered an empty seat. As I pulled myself out into the aisle and turned, my seatmate exited one of the restrooms at the rear of the bus. I staggered down the aisle to meet him, shoving a stick of gum in my mouth on the way. My travel kit, which included toothpaste and brush, was in my suitcase. I had shaved at about four o’clock in the morning, and folks who looked at me later in the day were just going to have to live with the result.
I came out of the tiny restroom and smelled coffee. One of the chaperones had brought several thermos bottles of coffee, along with the cardboard cups with little wings that folded out and became handles, allowing only one’s little finger knuckle to get burned as it rested against the side of the cup below the “handle.” “Coffee, Mr. Larlham?” It was somebody’s mother, and she’d already had too much coffee... nobody was that perky at seven-thirty in the morning. I soon discovered I was wrong about that. I could not have survived that household.
I smiled down at her. “Thanks, soon as I come back.” I was putting a flashbulb in the flash reflector as I spoke. As I approached the front of the bus, the driver reached to his left and picked up his microphone. “I’m sorry, but I think I forgot to mention,” he didn’t sound all that apologetic, “but there is to be no flash photography while the bus is moving... unless, of course, you’re looking forward to rolling down the side of this mountain like a rolling pin.”
I pushed the release that dropped the flashbulb into my hand. Pocketing it, I turned and faced the bus, taking a picture just as the sun jumped once more into the bus. I often wondered if there had been enough light. I never knew, of course, but I learned much later that those bulbs were good only for about eight feet. The bus was much longer than that. I headed for the rear and coffee.
There were no fast food places on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Every plaza comprised a gasoline station, a full service garage (some also had a truck garage) and a Howard Johnson’s restaurant in which nothing was pre-prepared. I can attest to the truth of that claim. I worked in one of those plazas on the Ohio Turnpike later that summer. Nonetheless, when the buses pulled into a plaza for breakfast, the meals were served with businesslike efficiency, and all seventy or so students, parents, teachers and drivers were back aboard the buses in less than an hour. Lunch was a repeat.
In 1960 there were half a dozen tunnels through the mountains on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Without them, there might have been no turnpike. But these were scary narrow tunnels. A generation or so earlier, someone had decided to build a railroad through the Appalachian Mountains, from the east coast to Ohio (and probably beyond). To that end, they first built several tunnels, each just wide enough to accommodate two trains passing on side-by-side rails. Somewhere in the middle of the whole shebang, the entrepreneur went bust, and the railroad was abandoned.
Enter, much later, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, aka the Keystone State (that’s what that weird shape on Pennsylvania signs and State-named places represents - the keystone in the apex of a stone arch, keeping the structure from collapsing). Pennsylvania wanted a turnpike, but there had never been enough in the state’s coffers to take on the job because the tunnels cost too much. However, somebody noticed that the rail tunnels were wide enough to accommodate two lanes of traffic, and they were available on an abandoned railroad right-of-way across State-owned land. The State of Pennsylvania took over the right-of-way and began building its turnpike.
The tunnels were modified to accommodate the great many cars filled with people that could be inside a tunnel at one time by installing huge exhaust fans. Train engines would be through and out immediately, but in a world full of cars the tunnel was constantly refilled with exhaust, and people would die if the fumes and carbon monoxide were allowed to accumulate. Our bus approached the entrance to the first eastbound tunnel. The tunnels had not been widened, nor had a central barrier been installed. The consequences of the driver of a semi truck hauling seventy thousand pounds losing control and shattering a concrete barrier into shrapnel fired into oncoming traffic were too horrible to contemplate. The upshot was that cars, trucks and buses slowed to fifty-five from the highway speed limit of sixty-five miles per hour just prior to entering the tunnel and the two lanes of travel funneled into a single lane. This resulted in miles-long traffic backups later in the summer vacation season. At this early date, however, traffic was light enough that backups were only momentary.
So now our buses, full of teenagers who had never been on this ride before (plus a few of us who had), were about to enter at a terrifyingly fast fifty-five miles per hour a series of two-way tunnels in which the lanes were too narrow, the lighting was a generation too old and the loss of a tire would mean disaster if not handled perfectly. Semis rolled toward us, lights blazing, at what seemed much faster than the posted 55 miles per hour (which produced, after all, a closing speed of one hundred and ten miles per hour). Cars crowded the walls, seeking to avoid the bow waves of air from trucks and buses ahead, behind and coming toward them. It was much like herds of prey animals trying desperately to avoid giant predators in their very midst. But we rocked through the first one without incident, eliciting a cheer from the passengers. By the time we entered the third, and last for us, tunnel, the whole experience was old hat.
Today, two of those three tunnels no longer exist. Mountain passes succumbed to the giants of the earthmoving world, and great gentle sweeps of concrete open to the sky now carry traffic at full highway speed past the abandoned caves of traffic back-up, occasional terrible multivehicle wrecks and imagined terror. Where tunnels remain, parallel separate tunnels were driven. Each carries two lanes of traffic at full speed, eliminating the multimile back-ups that were the hallmark of vacation season along the Turnpike of my youth.
We left the turnpike and turned south through the mountains of Pennsylvania and later Maryland, traveling two-lane roads with a third lane on hills for slower vehicles. We qualified as slower vehicles. The roads were rougher and slower, and the curves were sharper, making the ride less comfortable. As the afternoon wore on we grew bored with scenery and cigarettes. Someone broke out a deck of cards. The bus driver had a list of radio stations that played music teens listened to, along with some we didn’t, like the occasional Paul Anka (strictly for chicks) and some slow instrumentals (listenable only when dancing). For a couple of hours we were content to listen to, or sing along with the music, play poker for matches and generally forget this was a twelve-hour drive, including meal stops.
But we were going to take longer than that. Our first stop was Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, home to the most famous of the northern battles of the Civil War. As we entered the battlefields, Mrs. Davis, our teacher of history and Latin stood up in the front of the bus. The driver handed her a microphone. As he drove the marked bus routes through the fields and past the heights where commanders stood and small contingents of Union soldiers stood and picked off marching Confederates in droves, Mrs. Davis turned into a battle strategist. While we drove she pointed out the route of Pickets famous failed charge and the open killing fields on which death reaped a bounty seldom seen in then-modern warfare.
A few times we stopped (another teacher was regaling the students on the other bus) and the two groups were herded together. Here, Mrs. Davis was in her element. She introduced local tour announcers who were responsible for some of the specific smaller actions, and for some gory details. For instance, we learned that small cannon fired two-inch solid shot at an angle to the ground, where they began skipping like stones on water, turning as many as a dozen men into casualties before losing energy. They told with particular relish the damage done to bodies and limbs by “chain shot,” rifle size shot melted onto light chain or heavy wire. When fired, it whipped through the air like a living snake.
We went into town, very much a tourist center, and purchased souvenirs. I took a picture of one of the taller boys standing just below a three-inch ball still buried in the stone wall of a house cum souvenir shop. It was the last shot on the roll of film the Old Man had left in the camera, so I found a shadowed corner and wound the film out, licked the tab at the end and fastened the cover tightly and set it down. I pulled the new film out and carefully inserted it, keeping the roll tight and quickly rolling the advancement knob to the first stop. I put the back on the camera, which released the film to be rolled again so the first frame stopped behind the lens. Then shoved the film box in my pocket and returned to my friends. I imagine my graduation film joined thousands of others in the Gettysburg landfill. I didn’t give it another thought until I pulled the empty film box out of my pocket later that evening.
We had dinner in a “homestyle” restaurant. No individual meals were served - food was brought to long tables in large serving dishes and passed around the table. There were three choices for entrée, fried chicken, “city chicken” (breaded veal chunks skewered on a short wooden dowel and deep fried) and eggplant parmesan. Some of the boys had one or more of each (and regretted it - that was a lot of food to follow up with a three-hour bus ride through mountains), but most of us stuck to a single meal. Once again, despite apparent chaos, we were on the buses and on the road in about an hour.
We left Gettysburg about seven o’clock in the evening, and pulled into our hotel’s bus unloading area about ten o’clock. At the desk, we were assigned rooms and roommates, and told we’d be awakened about seven in the morning. I needed little persuasion. It didn’t take me long to hang up the few clothes I’d brought (four shirts, two pairs of jeans besides what I was wearing) and reclose the bag, leaving t-shirts, underwear and socks in it. I was asleep in minutes after brushing my teeth and falling into the bed I’d selected.
The phone call wake-up came at seven as promised, and we were shaved, with teeth brushed and hair combed, dressed and in the lobby by seven-thirty. The buses took us to a pancake house for breakfast, and by nine o’clock we began our tour of Washington DC. The first day was monument day, capped by a tour of the White House. The “tour” consisted of a line of people that began in a maze of stands and ropes and wound between velvet ropes through the building to the exit. At various locations, men or women were located to describe the function of the room in which we found ourselves, or to tell us about some historic event associated with a particular location. Fortunately, there was no test at the end.
We visited various monuments and some of us, not including me, climbed the five hundred and something steps of the Washington monument. We spent a short while in the visitors’ gallery of the Senate, and then were escorted to offices of the House of Representatives where we met our own Congressman (whose name I have long since forgotten). I know a class photo was taken with him in the center of the class, and he gave us a three-minute homily on the importance of visiting the sacred halls of Capitol Hill where laws were made and the country was kept safe from Communism. Then with a cheery wave he returned to his office and we headed for further adventures of the touristic kind.
During the rest of that day and throughout the next we visited famous locations, nearby battlefields, “The Nation’s Attic” (the Smithsonian Museum). Actually we visited a couple. Each student was allowed to choose two of the separate museums, but the list was limited to buildings within walking distance of each other. We also visited the National Zoo (also a Smithsonian function).
The last evening we were taken by paddle boat to an amusement park. On the boat I found myself alone as I wandered around it, and leaned against the rail. A girl I hadn’t really known well (to be honest, that included most of them) came up to the rail and leaned over the same way I was and said, “You probably can’t keep up with the boat if you jump.”
“Wasn’t considerin’ it,” was all I could think to say.
“Well, I was.” And before I could say a word, “Chuck, could I ask you a favor?”
“Um-m-m-m... I guess,” (What was I getting myself into?)
“My boyfriend just told me we’re over. I don’t want anyone to know I got dumped. Would you pretend we’re on a date? Maybe people will think I dumped him. I’ll understand if you say no,” she finished in a rush.
I looked down at her. As I recall, I wasn’t too fond of her boyfriend in the first place. “Sure,” I grinned, “it’ll be my pleasure. This was a lousy time to do that, anyway.” I stepped up beside her and put my arm around her, pulled her away from the rail and started walking us down the deck toward the prow of the boat. Just to be able to walk with me, she slid her arm around my waist. “Good girl,” I said, “now look up at me and give me a smile.” I’d seen her ex, and I walked her by him, the two of us looking at each other, and down to the deck below.
I winked at her. “You OK? He’ll be thinkin’ about that. Just be cool if he comes around. Step away from us. Meanwhile, it’s hard to walk like this. OK if we hold hands?”
She nodded, and that’s how we spent the evening. We went all over the park together, and every time I saw her boyfriend, I made sure he saw us. I hoped to make him jealous, but I’d settle for upset. I have no idea how it turned out. He didn’t approach us, or me when she went into the ladies’ room later, and he said nothing at the hotel. We rode different buses, so I never talked to him at all. I did everything I could to make her evening enjoyable, and she seemed to respond... most of the time. At the end of the boat ride back, she kissed me lightly and said, “Thanks for a really nice evening, Chuck, but I’m just not ready for a new boyfriend yet.” I didn’t tell her how big a relief that was to me. I just said I’d enjoyed the evening too.
The next day was our travel home day. We made several stops at “points of interest” on the way home, and it was after dark when we got there. It was several days later when I remembered about the film. The Old Man was furious. I hadn’t endured such a tongue lashing in at least a couple of years. Mother was heartbroken, but she remembered, as I had not, that I had suggested winding the film out and giving it to her before I left. At the time, it was a tragedy, but when I look at the thousands of photos I’ve taken since, most of which remain in the package we got them back from the drugstore in, I understand that in the long scheme of my life it means very little.
I retain the memories, as did Mother and the Old Man. What others can see or imagine depends on stories like this. It was a heckuva Senior Class Trip.