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In August of 1956, Daddy observed that his tobacco crop needed another couple of weeks to yellow in the fields before cutting. If my mother and I wanted, he allowed as how he could slip away from the farm work for a few days, and we could join his sisters and their families on a short vacation trip to the Smokey Mountains.
Did we want to? I was eleven years old and I’d wanted to “SEE ROCK CITY” ever since I’d learned to read the signs plastered on every barn between home and Lexington. We’d never taken a vacation before unless you counted the dash we’d made to Illinois for Uncle Henry’s funeral. That trip hadn’t been a barrel of laughs, but still, I’d enjoyed seeing the Midwest’s flat as a pancake land for the first time in my life. Now we’d go the other direction, and I’d get to see real mountains.
My cousin Judy, just my age, hadn’t traveled any more than me. By the time ten of us piled into two 1955 sedans for the journey, she and I were revved up to go.
The beauty of a road trip with a vague destination is that you can enjoy all the stops along the way. And when you’ve never been anywhere, everything is worth seeing. We stopped at the pull-over as we approached the Kentucky River palisades and marveled at this wonder so near our home. We gawked at the gaudy bedspreads hung out for sale on the side of the road though we decided we wouldn’t have one if you gave it to us. We bought sticky candy at Stuckey’s. We pulled off U. S. 25 at Dogpatch short of the Tennessee line and toured the small zoo. That’s where the monkey reached out of his cage and pulled my hair. I didn’t blame him. I’d be mad too if I’d ended up in a smelly cage at tacky Dogpatch, but still, I’ve never liked monkeys much since then.
And then we reached the Smokey Mountains, taller and grander than I’d even dared imagine. What I loved most, though, was the traveling, the hot wind rushing in the open car windows as we dashed along the curvy, two lane highways at a reckless 50 miles an hour. Judy and I would scan the billboards to select our night’s lodging. Motels were the latest, greatest thing in 1956. No antiquated hotels in small towns for us! We wanted to stay where we could pull our car right up to our bedroom door. We demanded air conditioning though neither of us had that luxury at home. And sliding, glass shower doors were a must. Judy and I played elevator half one night with those.
Eating all our meals in restaurants was fun too. I’d never seen crinkle cut French fries before, but the most exotic item was the jelly served each morning at breakfast in tiny plastic sealed containers. The waitresses were generous with the jellies – and so Judy and I squirreled away the extras for the day when our vacation would be only a sweet memory.
We collected jellies in different colors much the way beachcombers search for variety in shells. For safety’s sake, we stashed our treasures on the wide back shelf under the rear window of Uncle Melvin’s Buick. When we got tired of watching for Burma Shave jingles spiked in couplets on the highway’s shoulder, we’d pull our jellies down, and count and sort them by flavor.
It was 95 degrees in the back seat and we were thirty minutes south of lunch somewhere in east Tennessee when Aunt Neb screamed.
“What’s wrong?” Uncle Melvin asked. There was concern in his voice.
“I don’t have my teeth,” Aunt Neb managed to get out. She’d gotten false teeth a week before we’d left on our trip, and they’d put a crimp in her vacation fun. She was forever taking them out doing this and that with them. “I bet I left them back at that restaurant,” she sobbed.
Uncle Melvin slammed on the brakes and the Buick came to an abrupt stop on the side of the highway. “You’ve lost your teeth?” His voice was incredulous. “You’ve lost your teeth,” he said again. His voice was getting irritated now.
The other car in our caravan screeched to a halt behind us. Like town criers, Judy and I shouted out our window in its direction, “AUNT NEB’S LOST HER TEETH.”
Before he’d backtrack to the restaurant, Uncle Melvin declared that the entire car would be emptied and searched. Surely, the missing teeth were in the car. So out we all climbed. We stood silent in the weeds, in blue cornflowers and Queen Anne’s lace, while Uncle Melvin pushed his hands into every crevice of the car’s seats. Then, his face red with heat and disgust, his arm swept the rear shelf under the back window. He cleared it of everything in hopes the missing teeth would pop out of hiding.
All that popped however were our thirty-five boxes of melted jellies. They went flying upward toward Tennessee skies, and apricot, grape and strawberry splattered passing truckers.
Judy started to cry, “Our jellies – ” but I shushed her. I sensed it was not the moment to assert property rights. And then, oh then, I swear it’s true –
Aunt Neb whispered, “I’ve found my teeth. They’re in my mouth.”
We went on lots of other family trips after that. In time, I traveled to the other side of the world and back. But it’s hard to top magic days of plastic jellies and false teeth grown so comfortable you forget they’re in your mouth.