Road-tripping the 60s (Not a Woodstock Story)

 

Grandpa and beetle and kids-001
Mary, Kathleen, Murray, and Jean Hill with their Grandpa Herbert Christie

Me: Mom, was the Volkswagen in this picture ours, or was it Grandma and Grandpa’s?

Mom: I don’t know; does it have a rusted-out hole in the floor?

Tales of Transport: the People’s Car

Our Volkswagen Beetle did the job of people-moving for many years. At the farthest corners of my memory is one small incident. I’m sitting with my little sister Mary in the back pocket of the Volkswagen Beetle. Older siblings Murray and Kathleen are in front of us in the back seat, and Mom and Dad are in the front seats. Suddenly there’s a tremendous noise. All our luggage, which had been tied to the roof (there was no room for it in the car), flew off.

This incident ushered in the era of my family’s last and best vehicle: the Volkswagen Bus. Our “new” used bus was once owned by a rock band. Ripped fabric was stretched across the ceiling. This, our parents told us, is where the hippies hung their guitars.

Road-tripping without Guitars

For several years in a row, during a whole summer month, my parents packed us all into the bus and pointed its nose at some faraway place on the continent. Mom outfitted us in dark-coloured clothing and cut our hair short; then, all set for simple living and uncomplicated fun, we hit the road, the highway stretching enticingly in front of us. To this day the Woodie Guthrie lyrics “As I was walking that ribbon of highway; I saw above me that endless skyway; I saw below me that golden valley…” take me back to the feeling of travelling.

While the bus was on the road, my three siblings and I played, coloured or read books on the blanket-covered middle floor (the bench seat that normally occupied that spot spent the month in our garage at home). Mom reports that we never got too ambitious during our journeys: we’d eat breakfast at our campsite picnic table surrounded by the scent of trees, water and the propane stove, and then hit the road for a few hours, stopping for the day when the next promising campground presented itself.

Camping with bus second tryLunch and bathroom breaks occurred at simple highway rest stops beside streams and forests; Mom or Dad would open the bus doors and we’d jump out and run like crazy. At breaks we got store-bought cookies! This was a vacation-only treat, and the four of us kids took turns being the ones to choose which kind we bought. I tended to go for the creamy centres.

If an attractive enough sightseeing opportunity presented itself, we’d stop;

Mary at some fort (don't know which)

Dad and Murray on the mountain

The Hill girls on top of mountain

…otherwise we kept moving until we got to our campground, where we’d jump into whatever body of water was on offer.

At night, our pup tent served as the annex to the bus.

Mary and Jean and the pup tent-001

Dad, Murray, and Kathleen slept there; Mom, Mary, and I slept in the bus on the piles of blankets. We bus-dwellers were subject to mosquito bites, but we also avoided the scenario in which Dad leaped into the bus in the middle of one night during a downpour, declared “we’re swimming in an island of water”, grabbed a bunch of towels, and leaped back out.

We repeated the daily pattern until we arrived at our destination: the east coast one year (there were relatives), the west coast the next (relatives there too), and then south to Florida (a big rocket ship there).

Florida Road Trip (Not a Disney Story)

In 1969, I was 7 years old and Disney World was still two years from opening. I remember this trip better than the others. I remember the sightseeing stops we made, like Colonial Williamsburg with its costumed occupants and Cape Hatteras with the giant waves. The closer we got to Florida, the less we had to worry about mosquitoes as they were dealt with by the DDT-spraying airplanes that buzzed over our campground.

On this trip I became aware of those other Volkswagen Buses: the brand new shiny ones with sinks, stoves, and cloth-covered bench seats that could be turned into beds. Some of them even had canopies that opened on top and served as skylights. These vehicles were splendid and comfortable – and full of children that were not me. Yes, I was jealous of such luxury.

Once we reached Florida, we spent several days camping in the subtropical heat among lush subtropical vegetation, enjoying the daily subtropical downpours and swimming in the campground pool. Then one day we drove to a large flat place and parked – along with hundreds of other cars as far as the eye could see.

NASA ID 6900588
Photo Credit: NASA; NASA ID 6900588

Far away, across a large body of water, stood the Apollo 11. And beside us in the giant parking lot was one of those shiny Volkswagen Buses! That one splendid vehicle holds as strong a place in my memory as the big rocket ship.

I think we must have waited there in that bright, unshaded space for a long time. At countdown, every parking lot occupant was perched on the roof of their vehicle. Hundreds of radios broadcast the countdown, and when it reached its end, the splendid rocket across the water rose in a cloud of steam.

NASA ID 8909250
Photo Credit NASA: NASA ID 8909250

We watched it until it was out of sight, and then kept watching for a long time hoping to catch a further glimpse.

I suppose the next thing we did was inch our way out of the massive parking lot. I only remember what happened four days later when the moonwalk was scheduled to happen; for the first time in our travelling lives we stayed in a hotel: my parents were there for the TV… I was there for the slide into the swimming pool!

Late that night the six of us, tucked up together in the two beds, watched the moon walk on TV. Mom had to elbow me awake so that I could see “…one giant leap for mankind.”  But I did see it; I actually do remember the grainy black and white image of a man in a spacesuit climbing down a ladder onto a surface that I knew to be the Moon. I saw as much as I needed to, and then descended again into sweet dreams of more time in the swimming pool.

The Last of the Family Vehicles

At the end of our Florida trip, the bus broke down, causing a delay that resulted in Mom and Dad taking turns driving day and night to get Dad back on time for work. My siblings and I slept on the bus floor while we travelled. A couple of years later, on a cold night in Old Montréal, the bus broke down for good. This ushered in the era of the no-vehicle family. In a city with a good Metro, in a suburb where everything was walking distance, in a family full of growing kids with strong legs, my parents quickly concluded that we didn’t need a car. Planes, trains, and rental cars became our vacation vehicles from then on.

 

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The Trudeau Era (Aka: My Childhood)

My parents kept our TV-viewing very limited; so if the television was on and I was allowed to watch it, that’s where I’d be. It didn’t matter if the show was boring like “The Galloping Gourmet” or uninterpretable like “Monty Python”, that little black and white screen was too enticing for me to pass up.

One spring day in 1968, when I was six years old, my dad had the TV on in our small living room – but I had my back to it. I was ensconced in our large cozy orange chair where I liked to sit with my picture books and whichever of the Siamese cats cared to join me. If the TV was on and I wasn’t in front of it, it must have been a dull show indeed: it was, in fact, the Liberal Leadership Convention.

I was new at this reading thing. It took a lot of concentration to decipher word after word. Suddenly, to my annoyance, there was a noisy interruption: my dad leaping to his feet and dancing around the room. Pierre Trudeau was now Prime Minister!

Pierre Trudeau at convention
Copyright assigned to Library and Archives Canada by copyright owner Duncan Cameron; Photo Credit Duncan Cameron

Such mayhem when I just wanted to read! It’s possible that I am the very first Canadian the new Prime Minister managed to irritate.

But irritating Canadians just goes with a Prime Minister’s job, and Pierre Trudeau soon moved into the background of my awareness along with many other growing-up things, like disco. When his era was over, so was my childhood. By the time I was old enough to vote, I had known no other reality but the Trudeau reality. After I turned 18, Pierre Trudeau was present for one more election. Despite my childish difficulty with him at the beginning, I probably voted for him.

Vignette: A 60s Slice of Quebec Life

Montréal Here We Be

Mom tells me that when we first arrived in Montréal, I spent the first couple of weeks cheerfully asking “When are we going home?” My 4-year-old mind somehow remembered summer vacations when we reliably returned to Sarnia, Ontario. This time, we left Sarnia and never went back.

We settled in the old leafy suburb St. Lambert and – as small children do – I quickly accepted it as home. St. Lambert was interesting because it was solidly bilingual; my siblings and I played on our dead-end street with a boy named “Pierre”, and when addressing our little next door neighbour Martin, we used the French pronunciation of his name.

But of more immediate and overwhelming interest to me were the playgrounds and kiddie pools – easily accessible by tricycle – and our sandbox in the big grassy backyard.

 

Sandbox

It so happened that something else very interesting was unfolding in St. Lambert: experimental French immersion education. But since my involvement in this required me to drag my reluctant feet to school, I only appreciate this in retrospect. A child will always wish that life were all sandboxes and swimming pools.

The St. Lambert Experiment

My Kindergarten class was the second year of the French immersion experiment: a collaboration of parents, the school board, and academic experts to see what would happen if a Francophone teacher spoke nothing but French to a classroom full of little Anglophones. Throughout our childhoods, my classmates and I were the objects of great curiosity: tested, studied, taped, filmed, and written up.

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To me, Kindergarten only meant two things: terror at the sight of so many other children, and separation from my mother. My teacher, Mme Billet, was very kind and allowed me to sit off to one side when I didn’t want to join the other kids. The fact that Mme Billet didn’t speak any language I understood completely escaped my notice.

I soon got used to the other kids. I must have also begun to understand Mme Billet, because my entire elementary education (K-6) was in French.

Grade 2 ultra picky
A 1960s St. Lambert Elementary School Grade 2 French Immersion class. I’m the hand-wringing one who won’t look at the camera. Notice that the girls all still wore uniforms…a practice that was in its dying days: by grade 6 we could wear what we liked. Our teacher was Mme Esteres. She was nice.

 

The St. Lambert experiment worked, and French Immersion is now standard in schools across the county. I guess even my prototype French immersion class worked because I can speak French to adults (so long as they don’t get too philosophical), read Bonheur d’Occasion in the original language, flawlessly order a “BLT, pain brun, non-griller” at the Tim Horton on the Eastern Townships Autoroute, and follow most of Bon Cop, Bad Cop without reading subtitles.

I’m very glad that my family landed in this bilingual suburb in this French-speaking city. We went there because my Dad’s Sarnia employer – DuPont of Canada – transferred him to head office.

Montréal had just over a decade left as a popular place for head offices. But that’s another story. The only important thing is that Montréal became our home.

Montreal here we be
My Dad, John Hill, and his four children, exploring Montréal by climbing Mount Royal.

Expo 67: Centennial Party

When I arrived in Montréal in 1965 – age 4 – the city was in the throes of preparation for a big party. I know this because my parents took us to a high point on the bank of the St. Lawrence River to see the mid-river construction site. I clearly recall the distant panorama of mud-coloured islands crawling with equipment.

Copyright: Bibliothèque et Archives Canada
Credit: Graetz Brothers / Bibliothèque et Archives Canada / PA

There was more. When the metro system opened, my family and I all went to one of the underground stations to watch the sleek blue-and-white trains go swooshing in and out. Then we rode the trains, just because they were brand new and fun.

The sight of the Queen sailing down the Seaway Canal on the Royal Yacht Britannia is also firmly embedded in my brain, because that lady waving from the deck was definitely not wearing a crown.

Party On!

On April 29, two days after the grand opening, my family went to Expo 67. I remember nothing of the visit, but based on my mom’s account, written soon after the event, here’s what it was like:

Packed into our Volkswagen bus that day were my parents, my 9-year-old brother Murray, my 7-year-old sister Kathleen, me (age 5), and my 3-year-old sister Mary. Setting out from our South Shore suburb, we soon arrived in Montréal – which wasn’t quite what my parents intended; they’d taken the wrong bridge. But there were plenty of signs sending us the right way, and lots of frantically waving officials telling us we’d gone the wrong way.

At last we arrived, and by pre-arrangement Mom dropped Dad, Murray, Mary, and me off at the Expo site. We headed cheerfully in and were immediately stopped by a nice lady with a TV crew who wanted to interview us.

Meanwhile, Mom and Kathleen brought the car back to the South Shore and hopped onto the metro. (A $2.00 Expo-site parking fee was too expensive, as was a family-sized metro fee.) But when they got off the metro at the Expo site, they discovered they’d left Kathleen’s Expo pass with Dad. So Mom left Kathleen sitting by a fountain and hastened in to the Mexico pavilion where Mom and Dad had agreed to meet.

…or at least that’s what Mom thought they’d agreed. Dad thought they’d planned to meet at the metro station. Needless to say, Mom did not find us at the Mexico pavilion and she hastened back to Kathleen. I don’t know how this kind of thing got sorted in the days before cell phones, but I guess Mom figured things out. I spotted her and Kathleen arriving at the metro station, and Mom reports that my “there they are” was the best sound she heard that day.

So, we finally and happily set out together to see Expo 67… along with 400,000 other people. Despite Murray’s and Kathleen’s insistent opinions about what we should see, our options were few. Mom reports: “…line-ups if longer in duration than about 30 seconds tend to send our youngest two over the edge” and so we ended up at the steel pavilion, which was nicely deserted; there, we enjoyed the sounds and smells and darkness of a steel mill…moving through the pavilion at the rate of interest of the “youngest two”.

By then it was lunchtime. We managed to finish our picnic on a nice little grassy knoll before my parents spotted a security guard chasing other picnickers off other little grassy knolls. My family typically has that kind of luck.

By then, Mary and I were starting to whine. If $2.00 was too much money to pay for parking, $3.00 was way too much money for a stroller rental. Nevertheless, we all strolled pleasantly past pavilions that featured faraway places, down along some canals, and through the soaring, unpainted steel girders of the Theme pavilion to the Expo Express…and on to the great amusement park sector: La Ronde.

I guess at La Ronde Mary and I stopped complaining. Never mind impressive giant pavilions packed with grand samples of human innovation…La Ronde had a train ride, a giant sand pit, and ice cream. Ice cream! This was a rare and exquisite treat, but the six cones set us back $1.50.

This time I was the one to ride the metro with Mom to pick up the Volkswagen and then go get the others, who had made their way over – by Expo Express – to Habitat 67 to wait for us.

The Royal Yacht Britannia in front of Habitat 67
Copyright: Library and Archives Canada
Credit: Library and Archives Canada

Dad took everyone exploring Habitat, and they would have made it to the Prime Minister’s apartment had there not been a security guard. I guess my family doesn’t have all the luck.

Party Over

Expo 67, of course, lasted all summer. Murray and Kathleen got to go back without their whiney little sisters and actually see some interesting things. A steady stream of grandparents, aunts and uncles, and family friends stayed with us throughout the summer. They brought children! It was a season of glorious playtime in the backyard. That part I remember.

The story goes that, late in August, my weary parents left the latest bunch of visitors in the house, packed me, my siblings, and camping equipment into the Volkswagen bus, and went to Grand Isle State Park in Vermont – an hour south. There, we discovered that all the other campers were from Quebec. I guess we weren’t the only Montrealers who’d had just a little too much party.

Montréal gave itself nine years to recover, and then had another party. But that’s a story for another time.