Recapturing the past, one cow at a time

When John Steinbeck and his poodle Charley left Long Island for their cross country trip, Nixon and Kennedy were vying for the presidency, Russia was seen as the biggest threat to America, and I was seven years old, learning along with my classmates that the place to be during an attack — nuclear or otherwise — was under my desk, with my hands over my head.

Between the sturdy formica desktop, and my fat little hands, what harm could possibly come to me?

Despite those repeated drills, I felt safe growing up on Long Island — not too far from the cottage in Sag Harbor where Steinbeck lived and wrote. Not even Nixon scared me. In fact, before I knew any better, I was a fan.

Possibly I liked the near symmetry of his name. Possibly, though I don’t think I had hit the rebellious years yet, I was for Nixon because my parents were such big Kennedy supporters.

I remember, on a fall trip, probably just weeks before the election, sitting in the back seat of my parents Buick station wagon — the back back seat, which faced backwards, affording me a fine view not of where we were going, but of where we had been. It also gave me an opportunity to campaign for my man, Dick. I tore up sheets of paper, wrote “Vote for Nixon” on them with pencil, then licked them, hopefully avoiding lead poisoning, so they would stick on the inside of the back window — at least until my saliva dried up and they fell off and had to be licked again.

The drive to my grandparent’s home in Saugerties, 100 miles north of New York City, took about two hours — but, given our eagerness to arrive, it seemed much longer. “How many more miles?” I’d whine as we tooled along the New York Thruway.

As I headed there this week — in another nostalgia-provoked variation from Steinbeck’s route — my thoughts went back to those trips, and to 1960. So many things have changed over the 50 years since, and so many have not.

We still feel threatened. We’re still, politically, divided, and prone to showing our colors on bumper stickers. We’re still, as a society, as restless and impatient as a child in the back seat.

In many other ways, the world’s a different place — that child in the back seat being a perfect example.

In the 1960’s, I passed the time by reading (until I got car sick), campaigning for Nixon (until it got boring) and playing games. Most commonly, it was the cow-counting game. I would choose one side of the highway, my brother or sister would choose the other, and we’d each count the number of cows on our side. The one with the most cows won.

Today, I see children in passing minivans and SUV’s watching movies on built-in television screens, texting, talking on cell phones, listening to iPods and playing video games — all but oblivious to what exists outside the car.

One on hand, it seems another example of how we’ve grown less in touch with the world around us, more insulated, more computer-bound, less likely to relate to the earth we’re on and the other humans who occupy it.

When I was a child, we’d actually look at the scenery — especially when going through a “Fallen Rock Zone,” where I always watched for some to fall, but never saw any. Today’s youngsters, from what I see, might briefly look up from their video game, at their parents’ urging, when passing an amazing vista. But then it’s back to the little computer screen.

Not to sound too much like an old man — and not that I think counting cows necessarily makes for better adjusted children — but with all the beauty, in terms of scenery and people, that Ace and I have seen in our travels so far, I’m struck by how many people seem to ignore it, tuned in instead to their electronics.

The same seems to hold true outside of the car. On the street — be it Phoenix or Philadelphia — I see people so wrapped up in talking, texting and checking their email that they are completely oblivious to what’s going on around them.

Sure, some of those messages they’re sending and receiving may be urgent and necessary, but moreso, I think, being constantly “in touch” gives us a sense of importance, and  — like the gummy underside of my elementary school desk — a sense, false or not, of safety and security.

I think, too, that all the gadgetry is how we cope with boredom, how we fill our lives  — the modern day equivalent of whining “How many more miles?” rather than shutting up and appreciating the particular spot you are in.

Maybe it was a longing for the good old days — and the older we get, the gooder they seem — that drew me back to Saugerties, with no real plan other than driving by the old farmhouse my father grew up in, triggering some recollections of my grandparents, seeing how the little village had changed, and walking the streets of neighboring Woodstock.

Heading south from Albany, I pulled off the thruway and got on Highway 212, which runs between Saugerties and Woodstock. Rounding a curve I spotted the Centerville Fire Company — the landmark that, back in the 1960s, served as sign that we were almost there.

That was another game — being the first person to see “Grandpa’s fire house.” He was a member, and served as chief, of the volunteer fire department, as well as being tax collector for the village of Saugerties.

Being the first person to see Grandpa’s fire house was a far more important victory than winning the cow-counting game — more important than who might be attacking whom, or any presidential election. And it meant there were only three miles left to go.

Old habits being hard to break — even 50-year-old ones —  I found myself rounding that curve, turning to Ace, and saying, out loud, “I see Grandpa’s fire house.”

Once again, I won.

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