'50s summer rite: family caravan to Eastern Shore

May 30, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

My family had a never-fail way of dealing with Baltimore's equatorial heat and humidity: They left town.

That pilgrimage to the Eastern Shore and everything that accompanied it made Cleopatra's barge rides seem like a rowboat outing.

When my grandparents, with whom I lived with my parents, decided to quit their Guilford Avenue home, they did not do so lightly. They packed heavily, they dressed heavily and they ate heavily.

In the early 1950s, after the Bay Bridge had opened, it was not really a bad drive to the ocean. The roads we used are still in use today. There was less traffic then. But we prepared for the 144-mile trip like settlers leaving for the New World.

There was the issue of clothes. In that era you dressed properly in the evening for the required Broadway time. Earlier in the year, my grandmother and her sister took a day visiting Hutzler's dressmaking pattern counter to go through the Simplicity books for summer dress styles and then-new Bermuda shorts. Those shorts had more pleats and pockets than a general's uniform.

My four sisters had to be outfitted in light cotton summer dresses, clothes designed to draw the appropriate oohs and ahhs from my grandmother's fellow evening boardwalk bench sitters.

After weeks of dressmaking, and trying on, the sisters made their final selection of traveling clothes, garb tailored around the perceived rigors of the Chevy or Rambler. It would not have surprised me if the Queen Anne's County authorities had stopped our car at the border. The real laugher was a green elastic headdress my grandmother used to don so the wind wouldn't mess her hair on the great journey -- this from a woman who never went near a beauty shop.

We had to be provisioned. They believed (and were probably right) that no decent food could be bought along the way. This meant hours devoted to baking date and nut bread, frying chicken, squeezing lemons for lemonade and oranges for orange cake. And just to make the trip lighter, we took along the largest canister of Utz potato chips made.

Packing. A story in itself. Mere suitcases would not do. It seemed like a few weeks after Easter we started scouting and saving cardboard cartons. Since we rented a house or apartment for a fairly long stretch, we took everything from sheets to forks. The caravan also involved an even dozen passengers, so the tonnage figures were dizzying.

My patient father once accused my sister of packing a piano. The boxes (with black crayon marks identifying owners and contents) were filled days in advance and piled in the cellar. There was a caravan -- first a station wagon followed by a second car and, on some occasions, a truck.

Packing was tricky. I recall a 1950s Chevy wagon about ready to explode all over Guilford Avenue. How could we bind it all in? Simple. The backyard clothes lines were appropriated. And what was the last thing to be packed? Aunt Cora's prized, broad-brimmed Ecuadorean beach hat.

And what we hauled was even worse. The steam irons (special models of dubious wiring reserved for annual beach use) that never worked properly. The cutlery belonged in the Maryland Historical Society. Not a piece matched. There was one bent-pronged fork stamped Marine Corps that we all loudly cursed. The sheets invariably sprung holes. The toaster, also a seaboard model, issued sparks along with your blackened bread.

Just as time-consuming was the act of closing the house. We put old throws over the lamps and furniture. The tops of bureaus, tables and desks were cleared. The window shades were drawn down as far as they reach. Wires came out of electrical outlets.

We shoved off, the neighbors waved enthusiastically (after all, they got a vacation from us) and the fights started over who got stuck with the seat over the hump. There were the usual groans about Ritchie Highway traffic and discussion about whether we'd make the Bay Bridge in less than an hour.

My grandfather, a Pennsylvania native, never let us forget his place of birth. He said if he had been building the Bay Bridge it would have had four auto traffic lanes and two more for a railroad. We all condemned, damned and vilified the old Kent Narrows Bridge, whose draw was seemingly perpetually up. Maryland, my grandfather pontificated, did not know how to build roads and bridges.

Pop sure knew how to pay a toll in style. When we cruised into the toll plaza, he'd startle the money takers by casually paying in 1890s silver dollars, or at the very least, a $2 bill fresh from Pimlico.

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