Time: Summer 1978

My Cross-Country Odyssey

At the beginning of the summer of 1978, I found out that my uncle was planning a cross-country drive from New Jersey to Los Angeles and back. He asked my cousin Rob and I if we wanted to go. Of course, we said yes and proceeded to BEG our parents to let us go. Just to shut us up, they miraculously said yes.

The goal of this trip was, in the most basic sense, to pick someone up at the airport. LAX to be precise. A few months earlier, my father's youngest and rather irresponsible brother Leroy somehow managed to travel to Tahiti and fall in love with the place. He took that one step further and fell in love with an island-born Tahitian girl named Theresa. They became close rather quickly and soon had plans to marry. I'm sure Theresa thought she had bagged a wealthy American playboy who could be easily tamed by the sweetness of her South Pacific upbringing. Little did she know that Leroy was employed by and lived in the city of Perth Amboy, New Jersey, about as far away as one could get, both literally and figuratively, from the swaying palm trees and turquoise seas of her homeland.

This trip provided stories that to this day entertain family members. If one image truly captures the essence of this trip, it's of my father sitting at the holiday dinner table throughout the years, slowly shaking his head saying, "Jesus Christ, what the hell were we thinking when we let you drive around the country with your uncle?"

Here are some highlights:

OHIO: I can vividly remember my first (and last) encounter with a snack food made entirely of pig fat.

MISSOURI: With Kansas City as our destination, my uncle suddenly remembered that a former girlfriend recently moved to the outskirts of Springfield, Missouri, as we were passing through the area. It was amazing how he knew just where this girl lived. Pulling up in front of a mobile home in a rural area of Missouri, Robbie and I began to think that we weren't going to like this little diversion. This fear was confirmed when we were instructed to stay in the car while Uncle Lee went in for a quick visit with his girlfriend. As the trailer rocked back and forth for an hour or so, my cousin and I discussed how our parents probably wouldn't like the fact that we were left out in a car in the middle of the Missouri woods while Uncle Lee 'visited' with someone who looked like one of the girls from "Eight is Enough."

LAS VEGAS: We arrived very late at night. As we drove along the Strip, I looked around at all the dazzling lights. Excitement was in the air. Things got even more exciting when we got into a car accident right in the middle of Las Vegas Boulevard - a near head-on collision no less. It was scary enough to attract a crowd. Later that night I got locked outside of our hotel room in my underwear. As I crept quickly into the hallway for some ice, my cousin fell asleep, forcing me to go down into the lobby and call up to the room for him to open the door.

LOS ANGELES: We drove through the desert for a little while when that beacon finally appeared - a green and white highway sign that read "Welcome to California." I insisted on pulling over and taking a picture. What should have really tipped me off that the sprawl of Los Angeles was fast approaching was the greenish haze that was gaining in intensity as we continued on. Finally, we were there. We checked in to the Marriott Hotel at LAX and immediately started making plans for the day. The hotel had a convenient shuttle to Universal Studios, so the three of us got on and made our way to witness movie magic. While Rob and I talked about all the cool stuff we wanted to see at the movie studio (the shark from Jaws, the parting of the Red Sea, etc.) Uncle Lee struck up a conversation with a shapely Belgian airline stewardess (they were still called stewardesses back then) and eventually wrote down our room number on a brochure and gave it to her. Naturally, we had a fabulous time at Universal but it seems that Uncle Lee and the Belgian stewardess had an even more fabulous time planned when we got back to the hotel, as we were instructed to stay down in the lobby (or go roam around L.A. if we wanted) until he told us it was okay to return. The couches in the Marriott's lobby were very comfortable.

OKLAHOMA CITY: After the long, monotonous drive through New Mexico, Texas and the western part of Oklahoma, we decided to spend the night in Oklahoma's capital city. On our way to the Holiday Inn off I-40 we noticed a tremendous amount of police activity at a roadside steakhouse. Later that evening it was announced on the news that an armed robbery had occurred early that morning, four employees had been shot to death and their bodies had been stacked up in the freezer by the robbers. This is my primary memory of Oklahoma City.

MEMPHIS: We arrived there in the late afternoon, just in time for a visit to Graceland. A huge crowd had gathered around the gates of the fabled mansion, with many people in tears. We eventually found out that it was the one year anniversary of the death of Elvis. A huge gift shop was set up in a strip mall across the street, where everything from paperweights to large garbage cans were being sold, all bearing the likeness of the King. I'm still kicking myself for not picking up that Elvis fly swatter. We then sat down for a nice dinner at Kentucky Fried Chicken, got back in the car and headed for Nashville.

Now this probably won't come as a great shock, but Theresa and her sister didn't stay in New Jersey very long. Two weeks max and then they high-tailed it back to Tahiti. And, guess what?!! There never was any marriage. Nevertheless, it did prove to be a fun-filled drive to the airport...

It was so exciting to gaze up at the famous Gateway Arch in St. Louis. We explored the park in which this symbol of western expansion is located and walked down to the banks of the Mississippi River. For some bizarre reason, I got the bright idea to fill a small bottle with water from the famed river as a souvenir. Once it was filled, I capped it and added it to my collection of mementos from this trip, ignoring the incredibly filthy condition of the water. Was that some evil protozoa actually visible to the naked eye?

This bear's home is (or was) in the St. Louis Museum of Western Expansion at the Gateway Arch. It is particularly fun because it looks as if the bear is in the midst of ripping that guy's head off.

I found an afternoon at Universal Studios in Los Angeles to be a thoroughly exciting experience. As these signs indicate, the '70's were in full swing. Remember those macho classics (from left to right), "The Six Million Dollar Man," "Baretta" and "The Incredible Hulk"?

The girls from Tahiti and me by the pool at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott Hotel. On the left is Theresa, my uncle's unfortunate bride to be; I'm in the middle, cultivating an authentic 1978 look complete with the long hair (for me, anyway) and a Queen t-shirt; Theresa's sister Mila is on the right.

Sunrise over the Grand Canyon.


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