By Suzy Beal
This is the first episode of a memoir that will unfold, one chapter each month, here on True Stories Well Told. Stay tuned for more of the adventure as teenage Suzy’s family moves to Europe, builds a sailboat, and takes up life on the high seas.
On May 20, 1961 we headed east for New York City, Barcelona, Spain and the Island of Mallorca. The VW packed to capacity with Dad, Mom, and Frank (age 6) in the front, Jan (age 11) Conrad (age 8) and me (age 15) in the middle seat, and Tom (age 17), Carl (age 12) and Hank (age13) in the back. Behind them was the luggage. The plan was to live in Mallorca, Spain while my Dad built a sailing boat for us to live on in the Mediterranean.
Some people said we were leaving the country because John F. Kennedy was our new president. My father, a staunch Republican, had supported Nixon. Others said my Dad must be a spy appointed by the State Department. And others thought my parents must be just plain crazy to take the seven of us out of school and move to Spain. Mom and Dad didn’t seem bothered by the things they heard and just chalked it up to jealousy. My experience differed from my folks because telling everyone I was moving to Europe, to live in Spain on the island of Mallorca, attracted lots of positive attention. It impressed my teachers. Friends wondered what I would be like when I returned even though I didn’t know when that might be. All this attention was something new for me and I relished it, despite misgivings. But, now the time to go had arrived, and the glory disappeared. I’d lived with these same kids my whole life. How was I going to make any new friends? I didn’t want new friends.
The last couple of days in Newport we had to move to a motel so the family renting our house could move into it. Our motel stay was the first time we had all been together in a motel and it was the first of many such nights. We left Newport the next day. We stopped at AAA in downtown Portland before heading out of Oregon. Dad picked up our Trip-Tik, a series of maps with descriptions of what we would see along the road mile-by-mile for three thousand miles. It also listed hotels and restaurants.
Each of us silent and engrossed in our own worlds, we headed east. Somewhere during that first day on the road, we picked a name for our van, “La Cucaracha.” She became our home away from home, a moving point of reference that made up with familiarity what it lacked in hominess. Each time we stopped for food or the bathrooms, we counted off as we got back in the bus. Tom called out “one,” me “two,” Hank “three,” Carl “four,” Jan “five,” Conrad “six,” and Frank “seven”. Dad instigated the “count off” after we once left Carl in a service station bathroom! Carl, the middle child, always so quiet he got lost in the noise from the rest of us. The younger ones were on Mom’s radar, but we older ones did whatever possible to stay off our parent’s radar. Carl went his own way, living in his fertile imagination, always inventing or conjuring something new and clever.
We traveled east through Pendleton, Oregon, then started south towards Salt Lake City. Dad still had relatives there, so we met them for lunch on our way through the city. We must have been a sight, filing into restaurants and motels–a family of seven children behind their parents.
We crossed the Rocky Mountains up into the May snow. It had only snowed once in Newport when we were little kids. The Oregon coast was too warm for snow. Dad stopped the bus to let us out and play for a while. Wet and shivering, back into the bus, “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven,” we hollered out. That evening we pulled into Cheyenne, Wyoming. Mom acted as the navigator and with the help of our TripTik she picked out several motels. She read aloud the motel specifications, and when she said “swimming pool,” pandemonium broke out from the back of the van. En masse we were a persuasive bunch and a swimming pool is what we got.
The experience of getting into a hot steaming pool with snow still on the ground at that altitude was dreamlike. I felt lucky and wealthy at the same time. Our next motel experience proved to be an adventure of a different kind. Uneven floors, thin blankets, no privacy from each other with only curtains to separate us. Dad and Mom might have been happy to have saved money on that room, but the look on Mom’s face told a different story. She was mad because she’d wanted to stop much earlier, but Dad pushed on into the dark. The nice motels were behind us.
Sometimes we older ones got to have a turn with the Trip-Tik and Mom sat in one of the back seats for a while. Dad explained, “The top of the map is always north, so hold the map with the top up and you know the bottom is south. East will be on your right and West on your left.” From then on I figured out where we were going with the Trip-Tik and watched our progress across the states, using a map of the whole U.S. Until then I’d never held a map. The only maps I knew were the world map hanging in front of our classrooms and a globe we had at home.
Somewhere out there on the plains, when we became bored and tired of traveling and seeing the same scenery mile after mile, we got out the playing cards. Dad hated card games of any kind; he thought cards a waste of time, so we tried to hide what we were playing. Back home, he always said we should do something useful or learning something instead of playing cards. The hiding worked well until a disagreement broke out and the conflict got out of hand. We couldn’t keep a lid on it and Dad discovered the cards in the rear-view mirror. He pulled the van off the freeway and stopped. Wide-eyed, we waited. He jumped out and came around to the side door. His face told us trouble brewed. He grabbed both door handles, swung the doors open and shouted, “We didn’t bring you kids on this trip to hear you fighting the whole way to New York. Get rid of those cards and watch the scenery.” As he stood there shouting at us, the playing cards flew passed him with the suction the doors caused opening. I looked over my shoulder as we sped away, and watched the cards fluttering across the highway, flickering red, black, and white flashes of games gone by.
© 2018 Suzy Beal
Suzy Beal, an occasional contributor to True Stories Well Told, has been writing her life story and personal essays for years. In 2016 Suzy began studying with Sheila Bender at writingitreal.com. Watch for new chapters of her travel memoir to be posted! Please leave comments for Suzy on this post.
I eagerly await the next installment of this story. Large families fascinate me, and this one seems headed for adventure.
Thank you for your response. Yes, it was a great adventure and writing about it has brought it all back and helped me realize how amazing my parents were to take us all out of school to learn “on the road.”
Nice work, Suzy.
Funny, poignant, interesting. Like your style.
Ann Marie Hannon (also a member of the Writing It Real community)
Thank you, Ann Marie. I hope we can meet in one of Sheila’s fall classes.