Dramamine and My Siren Song of the Road

Tom Sodergren

Runner-up 2022 Travel Story
© Copyright 2022 by Tom Sodergren

Photo courtesy of Jenny Uhling at Pexels.
Photo courtesy of Jenny Uhling at Pexels.

My parents grew up during the Great Depression and the lessons they learned became instincts which dictated how my family lived in the mid century. It's a fact that people who have lived through deprivation develop lifelong habits of frugality. After the Depression and War years, my parents had powerful instincts to never waste money. Ever. On anything. On me. Over time, our austerity relaxed enough to allow my parents to participate in the new mid-century phenomenon of family travel. It was a new stage upon which to practice their frugal instincts.

All of our vacations, without exception, involved the family car. This should not be surprising since our most frequent leisure activity was “going for a drive.” There’s a kind of unsophisticated charm about piling into the family car for a “drive” to nowhere in particular. Instead of going for a drive my dad would say, “We’re going for a ride,” which would have been sort of alarming if we were a mob family.

 Most of our “vacations” were fairly short trips to visit relatives. Our great national parks were smack-dab central in my parents' cheap Depression-era wheelhouse. All we would have needed was a tent and camping gear. Post war army surplus stores were everywhere, but alas, my parents just weren’t campers. They were apparently not struck at all by wanderlust, which worked well with their frugal nature. This meant no resorts, no planes, no trains, no rental cars, no travel trailers, no city hotels or restaurants, no beaches, no national park lodges, no amusement parks … I could go on. I never thought about such things and felt deprived of nothing. This wasn’t completely my parents’ fault because I seriously doubt that my dad was given much vacation time in his fledgling jobs. Postwar unions made headway on paid vacation but that didn’t apply to Dad.
After the tumult and stress of the Depression and the War, Americans were eager for more leisure and tranquil family time. Industry responded with affordable family cars, more roadside services, and motel franchises. Madison Avenue responded as well with car company ads encouraging leisure travel. My family wasn’t the only one going for a drive. The American car culture was conceived in the ’50s and went strong through the ’60s. From hot rods to muscle cars.
Car culture came into full bloom in the ’50s with two-tone pastel exterior colors and radios in the car playing songs about cars. Hanging out at “car hop” drive-in restaurants and drive-in movie theaters. Cars had elaborate tail fins and nose cones mimicking space age designs and cars from the ’30s were converted into classic hot rods. I’ll bet if I watch a ‘50s juvenile delinquent hot rod “rumble” movie really close, I might see my family on our drive puttering past the rumble with my dad’s elbow sticking out the window.

 When I was very young my dad had a sales territory in the Denver area. He took turns taking my brothers and me on sales visits up in the mountains. Dad loved showing us off to the small business owners he serviced. As a kid, spending the whole day with just dad and me at his job was epic. My dad explained the scary mountain highway signs to me. Steep Grade 7%. Runaway Truck Ramp. Chain Law Enforced. Caution Falling Rocks. (What is one’s defense against falling rocks/boulders?) I remember scary hairpin mountain curves with no guardrails. I remember deep, thick blue spruce forests. I remember quaking aspens. I remember boulder strewn streams with the roar of the rapids. I remember car sickness.

 The most important part of any car trip for me wasn’t the brakes, or tires, or gas. It was Dramamine. It wasn’t foolproof but I wasn’t leaving home without it. Dramamine was actually relatively new at the time. The motion sickness compound’s properties were accidentally discovered by a Johns Hopkins allergy clinic in 1947. The US Army conducted experiments with post war soldiers crossing the Atlantic for duty in Europe. It was a huge success and on the market with the commercial name Dramamine in 1949. Imagine the suffering of the thousands of soldiers and sailors in the Atlantic and Pacific during the war before Dramamine.

When I was a kid the interstate system was brand new and completed in sections. Motel and fast food chains were also new and rare on the highway. This wasn’t all that important to us because for the great majority of our “vacations” we stayed close to home visiting family farms in Iowa. It was really great. My brothers and I would climb all over the tractors and sharp implements. Very dangerous. We did these things in full view of my parents and farm relatives drinking and smoking on the porch. It was a different time.

 Although I never lived on a farm, I still love the hay/manure smell of a barnyard, and the sound of bawling cows and bleating goats. On our visits there was always great fried chicken with potato salad, and baked beans with a lattice of bacon strips atop the bowl. Pies were made from scratch. My mom might even be coaxed into treating everyone to her renowned garden wilted lettuce and milk dressing salad. Since I smell the warm lettuce, milk, and chopped eggs as I write, my gag reflex forces me to set down my pen.
At one of the farms I refused to go into the barn. On a prior trip, I had climbed to the top of the ladder leading up to the hayloft. When I poked my head over the top a giant black snake slithered right in front of my face. They almost had to put the paddles on me. The Flying Wallendas would have envied how rapidly I shot down the ladder without actually falling. Breathtaking. From that moment on the barn wasn’t any fun because my head was constantly on a swivel. Who knew what other alarming surprises were in store? There might be some obscure “tetched” relative who lived in there. He would try to show me antique stereoscopes of naked Parisians like Poor Jud Fry did in Oklahoma!

Vacations close to home or to relatives were common with my friends. I recently asked a contemporary of mine if he remembered ever taking a childhood vacation not involving the family car. He said he didn’t remember a vacation not involving a tent. Touché. I never knew any classmates who had been to New York or Disneyland. Some lucky kids obviously existed. I just never met them. To me those were faraway places that lived only on television. There’s no way the old man was going to hemorrhage money all the way from the heart of the Midwest to Southern California just so we could see Disneyland.

Of course, on all of our trips our cars had no seat belts, shoulder harnesses, air bags, anti-lock brakes, radial tires, power steering, power brakes, padded dash, headrests etc. I don’t remember having air conditioning until my dad was driving a “company car.” It was almost better without air conditioning because while it kept us cool it also recirculated my parents’ cigarette smoke. On a long trip my brothers and I probably inhaled half a pack. As I said earlier, it truly was a different time.
On our trips, my little brother would sometimes lay flat in the space between the back seat and the rear window. This was sort of akin to some people who had station wagons with a bench seat behind the last seat facing the rear window. I think this would have made me car sick, but at least I would be able to see the instrument of my death up to the last millisecond of my life when we got rear ended.

The time in the car on long road trips amounted to colossal tedium for me. Most importantly, reading in the car was the surest path to car sickness. My mom thought lemon drops would forestall the inevitable, but they were actually an accelerant. As I now remember the taste and smell of the drops, I’m getting a little car sick. There were no portable audio or visual devices and even transistor radios were a brand new thing. Transistors were great surreptitiously placed under my pillow after my bedtime, but they were useless on the road. The car radio was more annoying than entertaining because of the relentless search for a signal. When we finally got a scratchy signal it was usually some guy preaching or an ag market report which would cause my dad to go into a deep dive on pork belly prices.
My mother would lead us in car games. My favorite was to be the first to identify the most state license plates. On a two-lane highway it was easy as you were pulling up on a car in your lane. It was much harder if a car was coming at you since the passing happens in the blink of an eye. Some states’ plates looked alike which caused my big brother, not being bothered by troublesome scruples, to succumb to his penchant for cheating. Arguments flashed, causing my dad to yell the good ol’ “Don’t make me pull over.” His other favorite was “Don’t think I won’t turn this car around.”

The farm houses we visited in those days were big, white quasi-Victorian structures with  wraparound or front porches with the porch floor usually painted gray. Those houses were also always old, and pretty plain. They didn’t have the turrets, gables, and decorative corbels of true Victorian houses. We were relegated to the upstairs bedrooms which were creaky and hot. I just knew something scary was in the ancient closet in my room. All I had to do was look inside, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. If I asked my big brother to look for me he would have teased me forever, but only after telling everyone I knew. I just had to lay there enveloped in fear. I can hear my mom calling up from the hall, “If you stay still, you’ll be cooler,” as I lay on my  sweat-dampened sheets. I lay on those wet sheets until I was serenaded to sleep by the crickets and frogs. 

My most memorable relative visit was to my great uncle in New Mexico. WOW. It was a true mid-century “Great American Road Trip.” I don’t know how my dad mustered the initiative for such an ambitious trip. It was so otherworldly to a Midwestern kid. Driving through the hot, wide-open spaces with shimmering road heat mirages way ahead. No cornfields. No soy beans. No barnyards. No subtle hay or manure smell until we drove past the big Oklahoma and Texas feedlots where the smell was not subtle. It seemed to stay with us for miles like when you pass a dead skunk. 
On such a long trip we would have to stop for the night. Even though my dad threw around nickels like manhole covers, he wasn’t so cheap that he would stop at a campground, but he also wouldn’t go for a more expensive place like Holiday Inn. I really don’t know if they were more expensive but I do know my dad would have made that default assumption with no investigation.
At the time Holiday Inn truly was a novel idea perfect for the national mood. They were uniform, clean, and brand new at a time when the travel market wasn’t saturated with hotel/motel chains. Motel chains and fast food are two of the few things in our culture where the term “cookie cutter” is not a pejorative.
 On the New Mexico trip my dad would have stopped at what was called a “motor court.” These were mom and pop places long since left behind by the franchise chains. They’re still out there, but a very small part of the market. I remember lamps with scenic illuminated lampshades. I remember threadbare towels, thin noisy walls, miniature Ivory soaps, and single-ply toilet paper. I also remember loving it. In my mind I’m smelling Ivory right now. Motor courts often had neon signs that advertised things like FREE TV, the surprisingly rare CHILDREN STAY FREE, and the all-important VACANCY/NO VACANCY. 

When it was time to look for a place for the night, we would perk up when we saw a neon oasis appear ahead on the open plains. One of the iconic neon clusters on Route 66 was Tucumcari, New Mexico. Signs started advertising for Tucumcari at least 200 miles out. The signs weren’t advertising particular motels, but the number of rooms in the town. World’s greatest chamber of commerce.

 When we got to the strip of motor courts and gas stations we were looking for only one thing. A vacancy sign. I don’t know whether reservations were not a thing at the time or it was just us. Without the internet or a travel agency how would you make a reservation? A motel in Nowhere, Texas isn’t going to advertise in Iowa City, Iowa. Even if advertising was that widespread, they wouldn’t have had an 800 number at the time and my dad wasn’t going to make expensive long distance calls to try to secure a room.
 If the neon was shining in the distant town, it meant my dad may have waited too long to pull in for the night and there would be zero vacancy signs. My dad and mom would have already had a subdued running battle with hints back and forth about how tired the boys are vs. we’ve got to get more miles behind us. If the whole town was full it was off to the next town with crossed fingers and a mad mother.
As on any trip not close to home, we had to make gas stops. My dad called gas stations “filling stations.” I suppose a lot of people still do. They were the absolute opposite of self-service. Can you hear the distinctive ding ding of the bell when we pulled up to the pumps? My brothers and I were required to go to the bathroom but to not enter the station itself because there might be forbidden temptations of snacks, candy, or soda. Any snacks were brought in the car by my mom.

 When the uniformed attendant finished pumping gas, cleaning the windshield, checking the oil, checking the tire pressure, taking our money and making change, it was off we go. How were these guys paid for all that work when gas was 30 or 40 cents a gallon? My dad paid for this in a way we hardly see anymore. He took his wallet out of his pocket, opened it up and plucked bills out of it. Credit cards were rare and sort of exotic at the time, and definitely anathema to every fiber in my dad’s body.
There are several reasons we never stopped for food. First of all, and obviously, the expense. Secondly, the expense. There was also the time involved in a food stop. Fast food was in its infancy and the “drive thru” was extremely rare. Not even McDonald’s installed their first drive thru until 1975. Possibly the most important factor was that nothing short of rapid gas stops was going to get the old man off of his schedule. The probability of sitting in a roadside cafe for an hour was nil.

Since even stopping for food was never going to happen, roadside attractions didn’t have a prayer. The advertisements on signs and billboards were a torturous tease for a kid like me. 80 miles to The Mystery Spot!....40 miles to The Mystery Spot!....10 miles to The Mystery Spot! Dad puleeese. Why can’t we? We’ll be good for the rest of the trip!!! There were exotic animal parks, enchanted caverns, and fabulous geode shops, but we never ever stopped. Ever. I’m sure that a huge majority of travelers were like us, and did not stop, but enough did to keep the places open. The roadside attraction wolves patiently culled the weak and gullible as the herd of travelers passed by. 

My favorite vacation of all was to Rocky Mountain National Park. I hadn’t been there, or anything like it, since I was very young and when we went I was probably in the fourth grade in  Iowa. Very exciting stuff. We drove west across the vast treeless nothingness of the Great Plains. It was what Thomas Wolfe poetically called the “great attentive gape of America.” It’s a moment of serendipitous joy for a kid to drive for hours across flat plains and then BOOM there’s the blue Rockies on the horizon far, far ahead. 

Standing, yes standing, in our car with my brothers between the back seat and the front seat, peering ahead so close to my parents' heads that I smelled their hair, peering and smelling in our car barreling down the road at 75 miles per hour .. my heart soared.

 This was not a relative visit. It was available to us through my dad’s employer, CO-OP.  All Midwesterners have seen a grain storage facility, truck, or gas station with a CO-OP sign. I think it was an incentive prize for my dad or maybe his company rented out most of the YMCA Camp of the Rockies. We called it CO-OP Camp. We slept in dorms, ate communal meals, and had sing-alongs inside the dining hall after dinner. The dining hall was cavernous. (It may not have been but I was just a little kid.) Somebody would play the piano and we all sang “This Land Is Your Land.” Remember “sing-alongs” with “follow the bouncing ball?”

I smell the Colorado Rockies as I write. It really is a unique and special smell, probably because of the abundance of blue spruce. I’ve been all over the Alps and they don’t smell like the Rockies. Neither do the Smokies. This isn’t a bad thing, they just don’t smell the same. Smells are more evocative than any other sense. To emphasize this point I’m going to give you a little test. Just tell me you don’t remember the smell of the No.2 pencil you were chewing on in the fourth grade. Seriously. Close your eyes and smell the paint, the wood, and the powdery graphite. 

At the camp I had one experience that was supposed to be iconic fun. It wasn’t. My little brother was in some sort of kiddy camp and my big brother was old enough to be trusted with archery, so my dad signed me up for a tame horse ride. It was not tame. It was a horseback mountain trail ride and to me it was just plain scary. I almost immediately realized what a bad decision it was to agree to do this on purpose.

 Other kids and I were taken on a mountain trail with narrow ledges. I didn’t trust the horse and I really, really didn’t trust myself to be in control. Then it occurred to me that all of this wasn’t my idea. It was dad that signed me up for this. Was dad trying to get rid of me? He sure wasn’t going along on the trail. As I sniffed out his plot, I was sure my horse and I would soon be separately pinballing down, six legs askew, deep into the void. Ride ‘em cowboy. Mom would shield my grieving brothers from my mangled corpse. Dad would pretend to be distraught. Oh, I could see it all. I was so glad when it was over. I smell the pine, the leather tack and the sweaty horses right now, by the way.

Later in life, even though I hadn’t forgotten my scary horse adventure years earlier, I signed up for a trail ride with my young daughter, near Yellowstone. We mustered where and when we had been told on an early “see your breath” August morning. Finally, a guy shows up I’ll call Wrangler Roy. He said he’d get us mounted and then go see what’s keeping the other riders. I made sure he knew we had zero experience and he promised me their gentlest horses. He brought the horses out from the barn and each was the size of a moose. I don’t know why I thought gentle  meant smaller and I don’t know how to describe my little girl sitting on top of that enormous horse. Her legs stuck almost straight out without coming close to adhering to the contours of the animal. I looked at that and felt all of my senses screaming “danger … danger.” I should have walked away, but we dutifully sat there waiting for the scary conclusion to our misadventure.

When Wrangler Roy came back with the others he said my daughter would ride next to him in front and I would bring up the rear of the line. He warned me that my old horse/moose was so gentle that he was afraid to cross streams. He told me I had to be stern with the stirrups, whatever the hell that means. I said OK, but what I was thinking was, “Could you not clean your ears out long enough to hear me say I have NO experience!? To think I should be at the end of the trail line with a horse that won’t cross a creek while the rest of the line rode on!? What were you thinking!? Defend yourself Roy!? I’m waiting!” … Your witness.

Just as we take off, a woman in the middle of the pack says to Wrangler Roy, “Do you think it will come back?” Roy says, “I guess we'll just have to see.” Another man says to the woman, “What are you talking about?” She says cheerfully, mind you cheerfully, “There was a grizzly bear higher up on the trail yesterday.” What?! What?!!! I remember thinking about how stupid I was to have done this on purpose. What made it worse in my mind was that I had actually paid good money to be so miserable. I kept conjuring the image of the other riders looking on in horror as the grizzly mauled/ate me because I didn’t know how to get my horse to cross a little brook.

I wish I could revisit Wrangler Roy. He wasn’t a grizzled ranch hand. He did have a cowboy hat, but why would he think I was a natural at handling my horse/moose. I don’t picture him riding fences in harsh Wyoming winters. In retrospect, it was a mom-and-pop cluster of cabins advertising these trail rides. Wrangler Roy was probably a sophomore on the local high school rodeo team.

Several of our family trips involved reunions. My grandparents had close to twenty brothers and sisters in Iowa, Minnesota, and Kansas so there were many opportunities for reunions. My great grandparents were Mennonites of Swiss heritage. My grandpa’s side was German and my dad’s grandparents were Swedish. I couldn’t begin to keep all of my uncles and aunts straight. They had great old fashioned names like Homer, Elmer, Clarence, Mabel, Esther, Elvira, and Eldora. Imagine the importance of such a family to their small farming communities.

At our reunion potlucks, burgers and hotdogs were of course available, but the stars of the show were the “hot dish'' (casseroles) and desserts. They were all laid out on picnic tables shoved together. Cheese potato casserole, tuna noodle hot dish, baked spaghetti, Tater Tot shepherd's pie, Swedish meatballs, noodle spaetzle, pineapple upside down cake, a Jell-O whipped cream combo called Ambrosia…. I could go on.

However, there were things I definitely wouldn’t touch. In addition to the ubiquitous creamed peas and pearl onions, there were pickled beets, three-bean salad with wax beans, and orange Jell-O infused with shredded carrots. Who would bring such things to a reunion? It’s akin to having a food drive for tornado victims and contributing a can of stewed tomatoes. How dare you.

On one of our trips we visited my Great Uncle Clint and Aunt Mabel. Uncle Clint was a great cook, and I loved everything he made. Maybe it was because for misguided reasons, all I’d ever had was oleomargarine and he used “by God'' real butter. I couldn’t truly enjoy his cooking because I was traumatized by what happened before or after we ate. Aunt Mabel was a nurse and she gave my mom her allergy shots at the kitchen table. I was so freaked out by the syringes and the smell of the doctor’s office alcohol that my equilibrium and appetite were upset.
 My grandma made a cabbage dish that everybody loved, but I was not a fan. You could smell it in the afternoon as it cooked and I’d think, “Oh crap, I know what we’re having.” It was a large, doughy, smaller-than-a-softball kind of round cabbage-filled bun. My mom accurately called it “old country” from my great grandparents’ Alsace-Lorraine. It was so cheap and filling it has to have been one of those Depression era holdovers.

You could cut into the bun and a blue cloud of cooked cabbage funk would waft out. It was  tough duty pretending to like Grandma’s cabbage buns. What made it especially hard was that grandma was an in-home beautician. To me this meant that her house stunk even before she cooked the cabbage. The smell of the beauty parlor chemicals almost made me nauseous until I got used to it just before the cabbage took over.

When I was very young we lived in Denver and it was a huge treat to go to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in City Park. Later when we traveled to Denver to visit relatives, we would go back to the museum. It was and still is a grand place. It is what started my lifelong love of museums. Most kids wanted to go to see the dinosaurs which were reconstructed with mostly genuine bone fossils.
As much as I loved the dinosaurs, my favorite thing in the museum was the diorama wing. The dioramas were fully life-size displays, behind plate glass, of actual stuffed animals in wonderfully recreated natural settings featuring the appropriate boulders, foliage, and tree species. They also incorporated beautifully painted perspective backgrounds. From elephants on the African savannah, to parrots and monkeys in the jungle, to bison on the Great Plains, they had it all. The halls of the diorama section were inky dark with the only mesmerizing light provided by the displays. They were all beautiful with their silent artistic presentations almost poetic.
I only have one bad memory connected to the museum. My brothers and I were on our bellies watching our Saturday morning cartoons when my parents exploded into the room. They gayly exclaimed, “OK, boys. Today we’re going to the park for a picnic and then we’ll go to the museum. Doesn’t that sound like fun!?” My big brother shot a look at me in terror and exclaimed “Oh no!!! Polio shots!”

Even in his tender years, he was jaded enough to instinctively and immediately know that we weren’t getting this great treat early on my dad’s day off without paying a hefty price.


I received my Bachelor of Science degree concentrating on English Education with a teaching certificate from the University of Missouri. I then earned my Juris Doctor degree from the University of Missouri School of Law. After school I practiced law for sixteen years including terms as City Attorney, City Prosecutor, and I was twice elected Municipal Judge. I was then elected Judge of the 19th Circuit Court in Jefferson City where I presided for 24 years before taking Senior Judge status in 2019.

I’ve had 125,000 cases of all types come through my court and I’ve married 8,000 people. Let me rephrase that lest I sound like an epic lothario. I’ve performed 4,000 marriages. I’ve never been published, but my profession has required writing in one form or another for 45 years. My briefs, opinions, and documents are by their nature very dry and therefore nothing to write home about. Pun intended.

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