Some things you understand and appreciate more in retrospect than you did at the time.
Every summer during my youth, we went on a two-week family camping trip. We had an old pea-green Plymouth station wagon. Most of the silver-colored hood emblem had broken off and only the last three letters remained, so we called it The Big Green “Uth.”
My folks had purchased a used, homemade, fold-out trailer with tent, which we pulled behind. We acquired most of our camping equipment by collecting and redeeming S&H Green Stamps. What didn’t fit in the trailer went on top of the car. The tent/trailer could sleep all seven of us, but it was pretty crowded so sometimes two of us slept in the car.
I was the oldest of the kids, then in my early teens, followed by three sisters and a brother. Our mom planned and organized all the vacations and our dad and we kids pretty much went along with her proposals. Grumbling wasn’t much tolerated. So, every summer, we took off from our central Illinois home to travel across America.
In the span of our childhood we camped in all of the lower 48 states. These trips weren’t just traveling adventures, they were learning experiences as well and Mom was the teacher.
Mom was a teenager during the Great Depression and her dad died when she was 15. She came through the experience with a strong spirit, a deep sense of responsibility and a love of learning and adventure which she strove to convey to her children. She taught us to be resourceful and never waste time or money or an opportunity to learn or an opportunity to help. These lessons came through during our camping trips. She gave everyone tasks that matched our capabilities, and expected them to get done. The trips were well planned, but she didn’t hesitate to deviate if something more interesting came up.
She was optimistic. Not every day was wonderful, but the not-so-great days were at least memorable. We prepared for each adventure to get the most out of it, and then took turns writing a daily trip log to preserve the memory.
For the centennial of the start of the Civil War, my mom thought we should visit the battlefields of the war. After her research and planning she decided it was too much to do in one summer, so we split the adventure into two trips. In 1960 we did the northern campaign. At night, by the light of our Coleman lantern, we took turns reading from my mother’s collection of Life magazine Civil War clippings about the sites we would be visiting the next day.
Before Gettysburg, we read about the terrible carnage of Pickett’s Charge. The next day we walked the battlefield. Even in our young minds, the tragedy from a century earlier was palpable. For inspiration we read the Gettysburg Address on the site of Lincoln’s famous speech.
The following year we did the western campaign of the War, following the same routine of preparing before visiting the historic sites. In Mississippi we visited Vicksburg, then headed north toward Shiloh. That night we camped outside of Yazoo City.
It was after dinner and getting dark and we were in our tent to escape the mosquitoes. We saw flashlight beams through the canvas and heard the rustling of approaching footsteps. We could also hear dogs barking in the distance.
The tent flap was suddenly flung open and we could barely make out two men in khaki uniforms and trooper hats, training their lights on our startled faces. After a few seconds one of the men said in a very calm, pleasant drawl, “Good evening. We’re out checking the campgrounds to protect you good white folks. Have a nice stay.” And they turned and walked away.
We kids didn’t grasp what was going on. My dad, who had a strong sense of integrity and justice, suspected their motive immediately. He explained that what the deputies were probably looking for were what they would call “outside agitators,” and our Illinois license plates were suspicious.
This was the summer of the “Freedom Riders,” when young activists, many from the North, Black and white, men and women, all came to protest the segregated facilities in the South, from bus depots and lunch counters to restrooms and drinking fountains. Their tactics were peaceful, yet they were often met with brutal resistance. We had come to learn about history, and we witnessed some firsthand.
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