The Long-Lost Fake-Wooden-Sided Station Wagon

1956 Cadillac wagon with fake wood sides

You could always tell which homes on the street had at least three kids living there: look for a fake-wooden-sided station wagon parked out front.

It’s hard to pinpoint when the station wagon got its start. The Ford Model T resembled a station wagon in its most basic form. However, the tiny vehicle could only hold four comfortably.

In 1923, Star (a division of Durant Motors) began marketing a larger factory-built station wagon. The wagon body was made from wood.

As the decades progressed, station wagons became a common sight on American highways. The Pontiac Woodie was one of the most famous, with wooden side frames melded into a steel body. Many a California surf bum drove a restored (or not) Woodie in the 60’s.

Oldsmobile wagon

But the wood was a pain to maintain. Screws needed tightening, varnish needed periodic stripping and recoating, and the expanding and contracting lumber caused all sorts of sealing headaches.

So in 1935, Chevrolet introduced the all-steel Suburban.

But it was expensive, and sales were slow. It was considered a work vehicle, not a family-mobile. It wasn’t until after WWII ended that all-steel station wagons finally became cheap enough to produce to be successful.

Add to that the Baby Boom, and automobile manufacturers began cranking out station wagons in unheard-of numbers by the 1950’s. And most of them featured fake wood sides that brought back memories of genuine woodies.

By 1957, the wagons were common on American roads.

And most of them were full of Boomer kids.

By the 1960’s, station wagons were so common that they seemed to outnumber sedans. Wagons were a ubiquitous sight on American roadways right up until the late 1980’s.

Ford Falcon wagon

In 1984, Chrysler/Plymouth introduced the minivan. The death knell for station wagons was sounded.

Minivans allowed multiple passengers to enter the vehicle without dropping (or swinging) the tailgate. In fact, they could almost stand up! The different paradigms were an instant success, and soon practically every automaker, US and otherwise, were cranking out minivans and selling them as fast as they could make them.

Wagons continued to be manufactured, but their numbers fell each year.

In 1996, Chevrolet and Buick made their last station wagons.

We Boomer kids have fond memories of the spacious back ends of station wagons, big enough to set up miniature battlefields or road racing ovals on long vacation drives. You could also stretch WAY out and take a nap, too.

I had a 1990 Ford Taurus wagon with side-facing seats that popped up in the back area, allowing seven or eight to travel in the mid-sized vehicle! A major engineering accomplishment, to say the least. My young children loved getting to sit in the back.

Wagons are still manufactured by a few overseas car companies, and in 2005, the Dodge Magnum wagon was introduced. But long gone are the days when fake-wooden-sided wagons sat in fro

Eating on the Interstates

Howard Johnson’s

As you motor down the interstate highway these days, you are presented with a plethora of options as to what you will eat. The fast food joints have spread nationwide, and have located themselves in the middle of nowhere so that you are never more than a few miles away from a McDonalds, Burger King, or Taco Bell. There are also dozens of higher-end chains like Applebee’s, Olive Garden, Red Lobster, etc. which have located themselves in smaller towns with interstate highways passing through them.

What it amounts to is that you can get pretty much anything you want to eat, from bar-b-que to Mexican to Italian to Seafood to vegetarian, as you traverse I-40 or I-90 from the east coast to the west, and all points in between.

But jump back to the 60’s, and your choices weren’t nearly so plentiful.

Stuckey’s

What I remember were three places where dad would stop while on the road: Howard Johnson’s, Stuckey’s, and Nickerson Farms.

The restaurants were similar. They offered food and a gift shop, and sometimes gasoline. HoJo’s offered a place to sleep, in many cases, and today that is their primary focus. Nickerson Farms had no motel connections, and has slipped into oblivion. Stuckey’s is hanging on for dear life as a convenience store.

Nickerson Farms post card

I wish I could remember how delicious the food was at the familiar establishments, but with all honesty, I can’t. In all fairness to the chains, I wasn’t much of an eater in the 60’s. It seemed that most food didn’t appeal to me (except for candy, of course!). I could usually handle a hot dog under any circumstances, but I recall at least one of the three bringing me the humble frankfurter out on some sort of toasted bun that was like a rectangle, with thick squared-off edges. What a travesty!

Heck it was probably ten times better than a regular dog, but I found it unfamiliar enough to be naturally unappealing.

But the eateries were everywhere, and you could always count on finding one of the three every few miles, no matter where you were.

Today, you can hold out for sushi if you like. You’ll probably encounter an establishment offering the finest raw fish within a few miles. But go back to interstate highway travel of the 60’s, and your choices were much more limited, and quite similar to each other.

Dad’s Auto Accessories

Curb feelers

Today’s I remember JFK remembrance is the result of a conversation which took place between a coworker and myself earlier this week.

My buddy John Sorrells walked in, threw an object on my desk, and said “okay, nostalgia expert, what’s this?”

Without hesitation I said “Why, that’s a curb feeler.” John was impressed, but hey, I AM the nostalgia expert.

Curb feelers made their debut sometime in the early 50’s as an accessory added to luxury cars by Detroit. However, they were inexpensive add-ons for anyone who wanted to protect their tires from the unforgiving concrete that made up street curbs. This was particularly the case if one had big whitewalls on their sweet ride.

Whitewall tires weren’t really invented in as much as they were simply the original tires. In the automobile’s heyday of the Model T, tires were made of light-colored rubber. The rubber didn’t wear so well, so eventually, more carbon black was added to the tread area. This made for tires which were black around the circumference, but white on the sidewalls. As the entire tire began to be manufactured out of higher carbon-black rubber, consumers clamored for the look of their father’s tires. Thus, sidewalls were pigmented with a wide white stripe.

As the 50’s became the 60’s, the size of the whitewall began to shrink. By 1969, it was a narrow strip perhaps 1/2″ wide, often accompanied by a similar-sized red strip. Nowadays, of course, the whitewall is nearly extinct, as are so many of the things we remember.

Auto compass

Another disappearing accessory our fathers might have favored was the dashboard compass. Ever the focused navigators, our fathers wanted to know which way true north was. Perhaps they may have navigated B-24’s a few years earlier. Whatever the case, many a roomy sedan had a floating spherical compass mounted securely on the dash.

A 1954 ad had this to say about the trusty device: You can count on this pretested instrument, used by the armed forces, to tell you exactly where you’re headed. Used in the car, it’s a dependable companion for any motorist. Attaches with suction cup to dash or windshield. No getting lost with one of these predecessors to the GPS!

Another accessory our fathers may have preferred was the exterior window shades that kept the sun at bay.

My own father had a brand-new 1974 Audi and obtained his shades straight from the dealership. Made of shiny chrome, they clipped inside the topmost groove that contained the window. They might not have blocked a tremendous amount of sun, but look sharp they did.

Another accessory frequently spotted in Impalas and Fury’s of the 60’s was a console organizer designed to sit on the hump between the driver and passenger in front of the bench seat. The ones I remember had heavy bean bag “wings” that draped over the hump, with a box of sorts anchored to the top, where you could store drinks, road maps, ice scrapers, or any other gewgaws small enough to fit. There was a tremendous amount of unused room up there that the organizer put

Steering wheel knob

to good use. in fact, I may have been able to fit my gorgeous little 1992 Tercel that I drive to work into one of those puppies!

My dad never had a steering wheel knob, but I can recall more than one pickup of my childhood sporting them. Why pickups? I don’t know. I’ll bet many of you recall them attached to steering wheels of basic four-door land boats, but I remember spotting two or three, all in 1950’s-era Ford and Chevy pickups. Perhaps they were a factory accessory? I’m not sure. All I know is that one could really whip a steering wheel back and forth with one of those gizmos.

My own dad was obsessed with gas mileage long before the fuel crisis, and thus purchased many an attachment designed to get the very last foot out of a gallon of gas. I remember one weird device called a “Pacer Magnum” that was designed to sit on an eight-cylinder distributor cap. It consisted of little cylinders about two inches long that plugged into the holes on the distributor, and were hollow on top so the spark plugs could plug into them. There were joined together by a wire, making the whole thing look like a string of firecrackers. Did it increase mileage? Apparently not. He never bought another one.

Our fathers loved their cars. I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface of accessories that were lavished upon them. So how about you, readers? What little extras can you recall that your own parents purchasing to trick out their rides?

Clear Plastic Seat Covers

Clear covers on the back seat

It was a thick, clear plastic material that had raised triangular bumps all over it (I guess to provide traction for the slippery stuff), or also seen smooth, as in the picture. It was seen on automobile seats, couches, chairs, and nearly anything else that could possibly come into contact with the human derrière.

In the 1960’s, it was everywhere.

I remember my parents taking one of their biannually-bought new Plymouths in to have this stuff put on the spacious bench seats. When mom and I went to pick up the car, we had to drive with the windows down due to the endless square yards of extremely redolent new plastic wrap.

The polyethylene artificial epidermis was ice cold in the winter, blazing hot in the summer, and quite uncomfortable to bare skin in any weather. However, it kept the upholstery, cocooned a millimeter of so beneath its surface, immaculate.

I’m still not sure why my parents would go to all that trouble to protect the already plastic seats of a car they were going to trade in in a couple of years anyway. But at least they resisted the temptation to cover the couch.

We had friends we would frequently visit in my hometown who had their furniture encased in this stuff. And while the couch no doubt looked the way it did when new, you couldn’t tell, as the plastic wrap provided a diffused view of the original upholstery.

Perhaps it was installed as a safeguard against guests who might stay too late.

Anyhow, one of the memories we enjoy as Baby Boomers was vast square footage of upholstery safely wrapped in clear plastic coverings.

Big Funky Attractions along the Highway

The famous blue whale of Catoosa

We Boomer kids spent a lot of time on the road. In our family, my grandparents lived 400 miles to the north and to the south, so we usually traveled every year to see them. Additionally, we managed to take some great vacations. In 1967, we drove up to Montreal for Expo 67, coming back home through upstate New York, where I saw Niagra Falls. And the next year, we drove down to Miami, Florida.

Dad would get on the interstate and drive 70 miles an hour to get to the grandparents’ homes. But when we went on vacation, we would set out at a much more relaxed pace, stopping along the way to take pictures and check out big, funky roadside attractions. We never had reservations at hotels. Generally, towards the end of the day, we would pull in to a little motel with a vacancy sign turned on.

It was a great, relaxing way to travel.

The big objects were everywhere. A restaurant would put up a big tepee. A gas station would have a huge dinosaur. A motel would have a VW Bug on huge tires. And kids would eat it up.

Sometimes, an object would be so outrageous that my parents would have to stop and take a picture of me standing in front of it. That was good news for the restaurant owner, because we would usually go inside and get something to eat afterwards. Mission accomplished, in his book.

Giant Paul Bunyan statue, Tucson, Arizona

Giant Paul Bunyans were seen everywhere (and still are). They are known as “Muffler Men,” because so many of them are in proximity to muffler shops. Many more of them are holding giant tires. I’ll give you three guesses as to what sort of shop THEY are standing in front of.

Historic Route 66 still has many huge attractions along its route. Who hasn’t passed by the giant blue whale which is built on a former swimming pond in Catoosa, Oklahoma and wasn’t awed by its size and sheer blueness?

On that 1968 vacation, we took small highways all the way to Florida and up and down its length. We stayed in little motels in towns like St. Augustine, Daytona Beach and Cape Canaveral. If the beach was nice, we might stay a couple of days before moving on. Then, a giant alligator would beckon us to stop and see what was in the cage alongside the gas station (and fill up the car, of course).

The wonderful thing about these giant objects is that they are probably still sitting right where they were when you saw them as a child. They are usually made of long-lasting stuff like steel, concrete, or fiberglass. Even though the establishment that erected the giant arrow, cowboy, tyrannosaurus, or whatever might be long out of business, the big customer attractor still stands there, dutifully getting people’s attention.

So why not take a leisurely drive across the country and revisit the small towns you passed through as a child. Odds are that the giant Paul Bunyan you remember so well is still standing there next to a gas station that may or may not be open for business.

When Big Catalogs Came in the Mail

1960 Sears catalog

These mailmen today have it made. Why, back in my day, they used to haul a hundred pounds of catalogs five or six times a year!

One of the most pervasive memories we Boomers have locked away is a big catalog or two sitting on the coffee table right next to the ashtray. They would come in the mail annually from companies like Montgomery-Ward, Sears, J.C. Penney, and Spiegel. All it would take to receive them was to buy something at the store. If they got your name and address, the monstrous consumers of wood pulp would begin showing up automatically, generally laid on your welcome mat by those poor abused postmen of the 1960’s.

And there was something for everyone in those massive tomes. It seemed that women’s clothing took up the most real estate, for good reason. I’m sure it was female shoppers who comprised the bulk of the mail-order catalog business of the era. The customer is always right, load those books up with pretty pictures of dresses.

But kids got their share of cool stuff to look at too, particularly with the Christmas wish books. More on that in just a bit.

Back in the days before the internet, when discount stores carried stuff that was, well, discount (aka junk), consumers knew that they needed to deal with department stores for the good, high-quality stuff that would last years. Thus, the previously mentioned retail establishments would invest money in the big catalogs that would end up in our living rooms. It was good business.

The big catalogs provided a return on the investment of the retailers pretty much year-round, but as Christmas approached, things got really crazy. Crazy enough that the big boys would send you a second catalog in the fall, a bit smaller than the regular version, but this one aimed at the biggest customers of the period: KIDS!

Thus, we would grab that wish book, as they were known, and nearly wear it out looking at the monstrously wonderful toys to be found therein. After all, Sears didn’t mess with 99 cent toys in the wish book, they displayed absolutely gorgeous full-color images of race car sets, erector sets, model trains, Easy-Bake ovens, chemistry sets, and other expensive doors to paradise. It worked, too, our parents were relentlessly hounded right up until the big day.

It was a pleasant time for all but local retailers. They were losing sales to the catalog merchants. In fact, when the Montgomery-Ward catalog first began showing up in consumers’ mailboxes in the 19th century, it wasn’t unusual for local business owners to stage bonfires where piles of catalogs went up in smoke as a form of protest. More retailers joined up with their own catalogs, most notably Sears-Roebuck, who would become known as the most ubiquitous of the mail-order retailers, and local businesses had to learn to just deal with it.

1961 Spiegel catalog

Mail order catalogs had their heyday when we Boomers were kids, during the 50’s and 60’s. As stores began expanding into more and more areas, the shopping mall concept helping to spur this trend, the significance of the catalogs providing an easy way for customers to purchase things through the mail began to wane. The automatic mailings changed into a request-only service, you would receive a card in the mail and were required to mail it back in (free of charge) indicating that you wanted the latest offering. You also had the option of picking one up at the store down at the mall.

The big mail-order catalogs survived many economic ups and downs, but it was the internet that made them virtually disappear. The Sears catalog went away in 1993. Montgomery-Ward had problems maintaining their profitability, their catalog disappeared in 1985. You could recently request a J.C. Penney catalog through their website, but this has apparently been discontinued. However, don’t despair, at presstime you can still get a Spiegel catalog by requesting one at (link removed, no longer available)

Unfortunately, getting a Spiegel catalog in the mail won’t magically change the year to 1966, though.

Telegrams

Vintage telegram

“Effective January 31, 2006, Western Union discontinued all Telegram and Commercial Messaging services. We regret any inconvenience this may cause you, and we thank you for your loyal patronage.”

Those words can be found at Western Union’s telegram section of their website. After being one of the most reliable communication means for well over a hundred years, its time has passed.

We Boomer kids have a few memories of telegrams, even though their decline was already quite evident when we were growing up. The telegram was viewed as a way to convey urgent news. And, as often as not, the ringing of the doorbell and the appearance of a Western Union employee with a telegram meant BAD news.

The telegraph was invented by Samuel F. B. Morse, as any kid who paid attention in school knows well. The Western Union company sprang into existence in 1851, using the exciting new technology to send messages all the way across the USA in less than a day. That was a quantum leap in an era when mail was the primary form of communication, and mailed letters would frequently disappear.

As steam trains sped along as fast as sixty miles per hour, communications needed to increase in speed as well. Telegraph wires crisscrossed the nation within a few short years, and soon, telegrams were sent out for things like birthday wishes, announcements of births or deaths, and, of course, bad news of emergencies.

The 1920’s and 30’s were when telegram usage hit its peak. Long distance calls were astronomically high in cost, and sending a telegram was the next best thing. Punctuation cost extra, so the familiar “stop” was thrown in to signify the end of a sentence. The four-letter word was no extra charge.

Our parents sent and received telegrams in WWII, as soldiers overseas were occasionally allowed to send them to their loved ones free of charge, and they would respond knowing that Western Union would reliably deliver their words back, regardless of where they were serving.

Telegrams were sent via a national system of printers called Telex. Teletype machines were tied together in their own network, and messages were printed on strips of paper that were cut and pasted onto the familiar yellow telegram.

I remember my parents getting a telegram or two back in the 60’s. Fortunately, neither one was to inform them of the deaths of any of their sons in the Vietnam war. Sadly, many parents were the anguished recipients of such carefully worded announcements that their sons would not be returning home alive.

So the knock on the door of a Western Union man carrying a yellow envelope is no longer something to be nervously answered. But that’s okay. We can get news even faster these days, be it bad or good.

Win a Free Monkey

Win a free monkey! Easier said than done.

The Boomers who can recall the coonskin cap and Howdy Doody years also remember ads in magazines designed to separate kids from their nickels and dimes. One of these scams, excuse me, opportunities, was tempting kids to get monkeys or dogs that are small enough to fit in a teacup for No Cost! Well, there WAS a tiny “at almost” in front of that statement. So they weren’t TECHNICALLY lying.

But seeing how the ads intended audience was prepubescent youth, it was pretty underhanded nonetheless.

There was no doubt about it, having a monkey small enough to fit in a teacup was a pretty stinkin’ cool concept. The problem lay in the actual product. The monkeys were generally marmosets or capuchins captured and imported when regulations against doing so did not yet exist. And they started out small, but got bigger. And meaner.

I remember once going to the house of a friend of my father’s. He had a capuchin monkey that was supposed to be tame and well-behaved. The nasty little bugger crawled up my back and grabbed two handfuls of my blonde hair and started yanking! I let out a yell and jumped, of course, and that sent it into a rage, jumping all over the living room shrieking! I never wanted to get within a hundred feet of a monkey after that disaster.

But, in actuality, there was practically no chance that you would get a monkey or dog anyway.

The scam began with you sending in a black-and-white photo. The photo could be you, a pet, whatever. They would enlarge it to 5×7 and hand-color it. Then, they would send it back to you along with 20 “get-acquainted” coupons. You handed them out to unfortunate friends and relatives while showing them your bonzer little color photo.

THEN, you got the monkey, right?

Wrong. Read the fine print. You have to actually produce twenty paying customers. Eww, that’s nearly impossible.

In the meantime, the company had charged you COD for your hand-colored picture, and you very well might send them a few customers in the process of passing out coupons. So it was win/win for them, but sadly, many a child wished for and never received a teacup monkey or dog.

Sadly, scams are much more profligate today than the innocent 50’s. Nowadays, you can get “free” flat-panel TV’s, $500 or more gift cards, and other tantalizing goodies. All you have to do is “complete offers.” The fine print shows that completing the offers is nearly impossible to do without shelling out your own cash. And if you are shelling out money, why that’s not exactly “free,” is it? Sometimes, you have to refer a friend who also completes offers.

If there are any Boomers from the 50’s out there who have ever tried to earn a free whatever, they may have flashed back to when they were children, passing out coupons in the elusive hope of getting a teacup monkey.

The Libraries of Our Childhoods

My own wonderful public library, a mid-century-modern beauty in Miami, Oklahoma

This will be a fun write, almost 100% from memory, no research needed! My favorite type of I Remember JFK article.

Okay, transport yourself back to, say, 1967. You are entering an imposing building: your own local public library. One of the earliest concepts that you learned as a child was that books were freely available to you to borrow for a couple of weeks, at the end of which you either returned them, rechecked them, or (horrors) paid a fine, which may have burdened you with some of your first feelings of guilt.

Walking through those tall doors (everything was tall when your height was less than four feet), you were greeted with a wonderful smell: the aroma of hundreds, maybe thousands of books, many of which were dozens of years old. You also saw row after row of neatly organized bookshelves, with each book in its proper place. All in all, it was a wonder of order.

Behind the desk sat the librarian, with a stern expression on her face, just the thing to remind a rambunctious kid that he was in a temple of silence, and it had better stay that way, or the wrath of that hair bun-wearing matron would be quickly and painfully expressed.

A catalog full of Dewey decimal cards

You might even balk at this point, wondering if you even deserved to be within these hallowed halls. But a reassuring look at your own personalized library card would set you at ease, you were indeed a full-fledged member of this community, with every right to be in this wonderful place.

The pictured library card is missing something: a piece of metal with five or six letters or numbers stamped on it, embedded in the card itself. That card would be presented to the librarian when you wanted to actually check out the books. She would place your card into a mechanical device which would then accept another card from a sleeve found inside the particular book you wanted. The card would slide into a slot in the top, you would hear a “ka-chunka” sound, and a permanent record would be made that you had, indeed, borrowed the book in question. She would then place another pre-stamped card back into the book’s pocket with a date that was two weeks away, added to the queue of previous dates.

Old library card

I tried hard to find a picture of one of those checkout machines, to no avail. The return date cards were produced by a different machine that would take a tiny bite of paper out of the edge of the card, stamping a return date in the process. That card could be used through four cycles, turning it around once the top side was full, and turning it over once an entire side was full of dates.

Don’t Touch Blasting Caps!

Blasting Caps warning poster

When we were kids, one of the greatest dangers that we faced was that of blasting caps. They were EVERYWHERE! Why, you couldn’t sit in a back yard without some Eddie Haskell troublemaker type finding one in the grass and making plans to put it in your father’s barbecue grill and blowing up your sister!

We must have seen hundreds of public service ads on TV warning us of the dangers of blasting caps. What was frustrating to us boys was that despite the fact that the filmed spots advised us that you couldn’t walk across a vacant lot without stumbling across blasting caps of every conceivable type, we never found a one.

The message of the filmed spots was to make us afraid, VERY afraid. But unintentionally, they turned us into eager seekers of blasting caps. Imagine the sheer coolness of the lucky kid who actually located a genuine blasting cap. The leadership of the neighborhood gang would have been his!

But in my sleepy hometown of Miami, Oklahoma, the closest thing I ever found that resembled blasting caps were discarded electrical parts at my dad’s truck garage. They were close enough to scare the girls at school, though, which was a pretty significant accomplishment in itself.

This 1957 video runs about fifteen minutes. Odds are that if you remember JFK, you saw this in school. It certainly rang a bell with me.

It’s worth a watch for many reasons. Seeing dad roll up in his Lockheed Constellation (quite simply, the sexiest airplane ever built), hearing him talk about his WWII flying days, and the wise words of Mr. Barrow, who was likely old enough to have risked mustard gas and trench foot in the Great War, make it worth your time.

But there’s more. There is some seriously cool retro furniture on the back porch, where tragedy was narrowly averted by Tag, who stopped evil Chuck from blowing up his family. There’s Mr. Barrow’s sad description of a kid who handled a blasting cap and maimed his hand. “He’ll never play baseball again!”

Tell that to Jim Abbott.

Commercials about blasting caps aired on an almost-daily basis in the 60’s. While the adults in the ads were sorely concerned about the potential of the detonators falling into the hands of curious children, my dad would merely grunt if I asked him about them. I guess he knew that the biggest hazard that I faced in my NE Oklahoma hometown was getting popped in the head by a foul ball at the Babe Ruth league that we watched my older brother play in.

But obviously, the danger was out there somewhere. Otherwise, why would none other than Willie Mays be telling us about how much better it was for all concerned if we kids played with baseball bats and gloves instead of those ominous-looking little metallic cylinders with those threatening wires attached?

Blasting caps public-service ads aired all through my childhood, then disappeared from view when I was a teenager in the late 70’s. The IME (Institute of the Makers of Explosives) continue to offer educational materials just like they did in the 50’s and 60’s, but TV stations no longer feel the need to broadcast them on a daily basis.

Indeed, nowadays, we parents and grandparents worry more about things like pedophiles, drug dealers who have no qualms about selling to kids, and psychopathic students who show up at school with anger and loaded weapons.

What would wise old Mr. Barrow have to say about that?