Let me know if I am way off base here but, doesn’t every family have at least one crazy uncle they tell stories about. My uncle Lester was the one in my family when I was growing up.
At least once every summer Lester would be allowed take over the co-pilot seat on a family car trips with us.
Lester would use this prominent position to point out car license plates of fellow travelers. "Hey, there is another one from Florida," he would say.
"That’s the second one this morning." Or: "Hey look at that Maine. Now what do you suppose they’re doing way down here?" Then he would look around to see if anyone would want to comment or offer speculation. He could go on like that for the entire trip, and most times did.
My uncle’s specialty though was to read license plate slogans. He enjoyed making quips on these, so when, for instance he’d see the slogan "You’ve Got A Friend In Pennsylvania," He would repeat it, then would turn to us and say in a wounded tone," Then why doesn’t he write?"
He really had no room to be critical coming from a state (New Hampshire) where the slogan is "Live Free or Die." Maybe I take things a little too literally, but I would think twice about driving around where people vow to expire if things don’t happen to go right. How about toning it down a bit to something like this that isn’t quite so terminal, "Live Free or Pout."
Crazy Uncle Lester was the only man ever brought before the World Court for unpaid parking tickets. On one occasion I remember, after he took over the driving responsibilities, he ended up going the wrong way on one-way streets around a town square so many times that eventually merchants came to watch from their doorways.
All this is a somewhat circuitous way of getting to the actual topic of today’s column - namely, how boring it has become to make a long car journey these days.
The trouble these days is not always the people you make these trips with, but our clean Interstate Highway System. It didn’t use to be like this. When I was a boy, the so-called ‘Blue Highways’ were littered - I mean scattered - with diversions. The diversions were not always worthwhile, but that didn’t matter. What did matter was you knew they were there.
At numerous points every day, you could count on seeing billboards that would proclaim some amazing attraction just ahead. The people who put up these billboards were brilliant, among the greatest marketing geniuses of our time. They knew to the mile how long it would take a car full of kids to wear down their reluctant father, causing him to pull over for a 50-cent tour.
Out west, in the really boring states like Idaho and Wyoming, people could put up signs saying pretty much anything - "See the Dead Cow! Hours of fun for the whole family!" "Petrified Frog! Just 125 miles!" And, "House made entirely of beer cans next exit." Or Colorado’s contribution just north of Alamosa: The UFO WATCHTOWER, "One of the best places in the world to see UFOs."
These things were always disappointing, but that wasn’t the point. You weren’t paying a half-dollar for the experience. You were paying for the anticipation created by the imaginative person who helped you pass 125 miles of boring highway. Nowadays the most exciting thing you can find along the way is a McDonald’s Happy Meal.
The unsettling thing for me is that just last week on a trip to Raton with my brother and his kids, I caught myself mumbling, "Wow, an Alaskan license plate! I bet those people are sweating their bazooze off this far south."
Makes me wonder if the next generation of my relatives will be telling crazy Uncle Dave stories!