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Reminiscences of Things That Were

The recent free fall of petroleum prices has reminded me that as a youngster, I would regularly walk from my family’s suburban St. Louis home to a nearby discount service station (self-serve had yet to be invented) with a gallon can to get gasoline, so I could cut the grass with our power lawn mower. Since gas was then running about 20¢ a gallon, and a full quarter’s worth wouldn’t even fit into the can, I’d invariably get a nickel or a few pennies change back!

And once I got started reminiscences how things used to be, it dawned on me that 2015 marks a full 50 years since I first started exploring America on my own, and 45 years of full-time employment in the travel industry, which began with the AAA Auto Club of Missouri as soon as I graduated from Washington University in the spring of 1970.

During summer, 1965, after my junior year in high school, I took my first significant solo trip on a scheduled Greyhound from Petoskey, Michigan, near where my folks had a vacation home, round-trip to New York City for the national Key Club convention. This event was being held at the old Commodore Hotel (long since rebuilt and converted into the Hyatt Regency New York) at Grand Central Station.

In those days, the Big Apple wasn’t nearly as safe as it (happily) is now, but that didn’t keep me from extending my stay long enough to visit the New York World’s Fair by myself, in the second and concluding year of its run at Flushing Meadows out in Queens. Although I remember virtually nothing of the convention, I do recall being tremendously impressed by my first impressions of New York, as well as the amazing displays of technological advancements and opportunities for international travel being presented by the numerous corporations and countries exhibiting at the fair.

The following year I returned to New York, coupled with my initial visit to Washington, D.C., on my senior class trip, which traveled from St. Louis by (pre-Amtrak) passenger rail. However, since I was not returning to Missouri with the group, but heading to Michigan and my parents’ summer home, my first experience with air travel came as I boarded an American Airlines Convair 990 (remember them, as well as their shorter-range 880 sisters?) from Kennedy International Airport to Detroit, where I connected with a (pre-Republic, pre-Northwest, pre-Delta) North Central Airlines prop-jet Convair 580 to Pellston.

About four million air miles later, a lot of water has flowed under the proverbial bridge, so I thought I’d attempt to recall a few of the now all-but forgotten names and products we’ve encountered along the way to the 21st Century, and I won’t even venture into such diverse areas as movies, television, radio, music, or consumer electronics!

AIRLINES:  Pan American and TWA were America’s primary international carriers. Eastern, Western, National, Northeast, Mohawk, Allegheny, Piedmont, Lake Central, Ozark, Southern, Trans Texas and Hughes Air West were among the well-known names, but today they’re all long gone. PSA (bought by USAir) and Air California (merged into American) were big operators in the Golden State. This list doesn’t include the numerous “low cost” carriers that went in, then out of business, frequently due to predatory pricing practices and staying power of “big name” airlines.  Names disappearing more recently include even Continental, Northwest and USAir(ways).

AUTOMOBILES:  The Packard, DeSoto, Studebaker, Nash Rambler and short-lived Edsel have now completely disappeared from the highways, and are rapidly being followed by the Plymouth, Mercury, Oldsmobile and Pontiac. In addition to transit buses, General Motors’ Truck and Coach Division was also one of the primary manufacturers of inter-city highway coaches (remember the “Scenicruiser,” 4105, 4106, and “Buffalo?”), a product line they have long since abandoned.

BASEBALL:  The Athletics played in Kansas City; the Braves played in Milwaukee; Senators teams from Washington moved to Texas and Minnesota; the Pilots played in Seattle before moving to Milwaukee where they became the Brewers and eventually moved to the National League; Montreal was the home of the Expos and unquestionably the worst stadium in the Majors before the team moved to Washington as the Nationals; and the Colt 45s became the Astros, eventually moving to the American League.  The Amazin’ New York Mets even won two World Series before returning to mediocrity!

CRUISE LINES:  NCL was originally Norwegian Caribbean Lines…currently just about the only thing authentically Norwegian is their name. Their ships initially being registered in Norway, neither NCL nor RCCL could originally offer shipboard casinos, now major revenue generators. Carnival’s first ship, the old Mardi Gras purchased from Canadian Pacific, ran around while filled with travel agents on its initial cruise from Miami. Another industry pioneer, Commodore, is long defunct, as are Home Lines, Regency, Bermuda Star, Epirotiki, Renaissance, Cruise West and Delta Queen, while quite a few other popular lines (Sitmar, Chandris Celebrity, Holland America, Princess, Cunard, Costa, Radisson Seven Seas and Oceania) have all been acquired by corporate cruise line behemoths.

HIGHWAYS:  Remember when President Eisenhower’s massive Interstate Highway System was the pride of America, before it became the overburdened, crumbling, pothole, patch and (revenue generating) radar trap-adorned relic that Congress has allowed it to become today?

LODGING:  Remember when the Best Western Motels logo had a rope around it, Quality Courts (predecessor of today’s Choice Hotels) used a sunburst logo, and long-gone Albert Pick Hotels’ logo incorporated a room key? When the earliest Holiday Inns were single story motels and Howard Johnson Motor Lodges introduced the industry’s first remote-controlled televisions, operated by a fixed wall unit adjacent to the bed(s)? Or when single rooms at Motel 6 actually cost $6, although use of its (black & white) televisions cost 25¢ for a modest amount of time? Easterners might remember Master Hosts, Admiral Benbow and Downtowner Motor Inns, while those in the West may recall the Royal Inn chain, the properties of which were painted white and featured glass-enclosed elevators.  And both the availability of king-sized beds and the charging of unjustified resort fees were unheard of in the “hospitality” industry, unlike the prevalence of outrageous long distance telephone charges.

RESTAURANTS:  Diners enjoyed fried clam dinners and 27 flavors of ice cream at orange-roofed Howard Johnson’s. Burgers at McDonald’s were 15¢, sliders at White Castle 12¢. Cafeterias like Morrison’s were popular dining and tour stops, and New York City had chains of “Automats” and Schrafft’s Restaurants. I even remember when many highway restaurants had no interest whatsoever in serving “those bus groups,” to say nothing of their policy if one happened to be African-American. And being able to find absolutely no Mexican restaurants in Boston as late as 1980, I emptied the entire contents of a bottle of Tabasco Sauce into a big bowl of bland sports bar chili.

I hope you have found this to be interesting look backwards. One wonders which of the things we presently take for granted will also have gone the way of the dodo bird 50 years from now. It’s likely that the “good old days” are little more than a consistently moving target!

reminiscence-2Bob at North Cascades National Park, Washington