(Pictured: Henry Ford’s original factory building, preserved at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, the site of many a Midwestern family vacation.)
I have written a lot about the summer of 1971 at this blog, and I’ve been listening to it again via the American Top 40 show dated August 7, 1971. Much of that week’s music is pretty great: a treasure chest of soul performances (Aretha, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson Five, Jean Knight), singer/songwriter pop (James Taylor, Carole King), and radio-ready records (“Don’t Pull Your Love,” “Sooner or Later,” “Here Comes That Rainy Day Feeling Again”) that jumped out of the box and have stayed there nearly half-a-century now.
The summer of 1971 was the first one I ever lived through with the radio on. Because I was not yet old enough to be press-ganged into farm work (that would be the next summer), I could devote 100 percent of my attention to various kid adventures, playing baseball, learning the saxophone, and listening to WLS. After absorbing the station religiously for only a few months, I knew that I wanted to do that. I didn’t know how, I only knew what, and it would be over 20 years before I would think about doing anything else.
One of that summer’s adventures was a family vacation. It’s a wonder that we were able to take them at all: Dad was a dairy farmer, and dairy farming means you milk cows twice a day, seven days a week. Before we could go, Dad would have to find somebody to help Grandpa with the milking, as he was past 70 and it was more than he could manage by himself. In those days, people who knew how to milk cows generally had cows of their own, but Dad found a young guy he could trust, and he milked for us more than once in the early 70s.
We kids would eagerly count down the days before we left, and the night before, we’d be so charged up that we couldn’t sleep. We’d get up too early the next morning and help pack the car. The logistics involved in getting several days’ worth of clothing and provisions for a family of five into the trunk of a 1965 Mercury Comet could be tricky. Provisions included a big metal ice chest with sandwiches and drinks, because we liked to stop at roadside picnic tables for lunch. Mother also packed a treat box that she opened during the ride. She took special care to pack surprises, so we discovered types of candy we never knew before, and travel games too. We counted license plates and gas stations and played “I’m thinking of something,” which was one of Mother’s simple games, in which she would describe an object and we had to guess what it was. It occurs to me now that her training as a schoolteacher came out strongly on these trips—the way she kept us entertained but sneaked learning by us at the same time, and refereed the inevitable kid squabbles.
And on the subject of learning: we did not go on trips to hang out at the beach or be lazy; we went to see stuff, and we covered lots of miles doing it. During those late 60s and early 70s summers, we visited the Mark Twain sites in Hannibal, Missouri, Abe Lincoln’s boyhood home in New Salem, Illinois, and the Wisconsin Dells. We went up to the Iron Range in Minnesota and toured the harbor at Duluth. We went to the Black Hills of South Dakota and Mackinac Island in Michigan. And in August 1971—and it must have been August because the songs tell me so—we packed the car and went to Detroit. We toured the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, and I remember one other thing: at some point on the trip, I picked up a radio survey (for I was collecting them by then) from WKNR, the fabled Keener 13. Because I insisted we find the station on the car radio, I heard the same songs on our trip that I had been hearing on WLS at home.
Forty-six summers later, I have been listening to those songs again, and they have been telling me the story not only of that specific vacation, but of all the vacations we took together, and the gift our parents gave us through them, a gift of places and experiences but also the gift of family itself. We were lucky to have what we did, and the songs won’t let me forget.