MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 54 – California Here We Come!
I woke up in complete darkness when the wails of our hungry baby girl startled me. I had been dreaming – wonderful, wonderful dreams of lying on a soft white beach surrounded by coconut trees, with my darling beside me.
Sleepily, I asked Billy what time it was, I was surprised that it was so late. The three of us, Michael, Margie and me, had slept through our routine dinner hour, so no wonder she was putting up such a fuss. Billy said that we were not far from Needles, just over the California state line, and he had been driving through nothing but desert realizing there was no place to eat until we reached this desert town.
We had not made reservations at a motel, since this was the one day we had set no limits, not knowing how crowded the canyon would be, or how long it would take to drive the south rim.
Although Billy professed not to be tired having spent most of the day driving slowly and stopping frequently, it had been almost ten hours since we had awakened that morning, and he did not have the benefit of a nap when was tired.
The stars were becoming brighter as the sky darkened even more when finally we saw lights in the distance.
I had changed Margie’s soaked diaper by leaning over the backseat, and at this point, all I could do was take her out of her bed and nurse her. Her routine had been disturbed and she was not about to let us forget it. Michael too was cranky and hungry, but the lights did not seem to be getting any closer.
Later I learned that when driving in the desert, it is an optical illusion that the lights are not getting closer when in fact they are, but it seemed as if we would never reach our destination, as if our wheels were spinning in the sand instead of turning at a rapid pace towards the distant lights.
Soon we actually drove through the ‘Welcome to California’ sign, we were in Needles, and now it was pitch dark outside, although the lights of the town seemed to welcome us to California. Here, for the very first time, we saw the golden arches and brightly blinking lights of McDonald’s, and Michael, attracted by the bright colors, cried out “Daddy, Daddy, stop here! This looks like a nice place.”
Of course, now the familiar arches not only stretch from coast to coast, but also all over the world, although this was early in their development, and obviously had not reached other states. At least we had not seen them before this night. Today’s children, and young adults, would find it difficult to believe there was a time, not so long ago, when you could not drive just a few blocks in any direction and not find a McDonald’s, and now the enticing playrooms are just as much a part of the chain as the ‘Big Mac’.
We had certainly not encountered any other ‘fast food’ restaurant, other than the familiar Dairy Queen, in our travel across over half of our remarkable continent, but to Billy the sign was like ‘manna from heaven’, and he immediately headed for the now well-known arches.
We were starving, all except for Margie, who was now cooing quite contently in my arms since she had drained both my breasts in record time. I doubted if she would be interested in eating cereal and fruit now but I was going to try to feed her anyway. Billy parked and we all went inside, a very rag tag group of travelers, but obviously this was the condition most patrons entered, and no one even looked twice at us. There were no waitresses, no waiters, just a long line of customers, stretched halfway to the door, ordering and paying for their meals. By the amount of people waiting in line for service, I thought this must be a good place to eat, but as I said, this was our first experience with ‘fast food’ dining. Billy spotted a booth where there was an electrical outlet half-hidden by plastic greenery in a fake window box so we sat down, and while Margie’s food heated, Billy took Michael into the men’s room to freshen up. When he got back, her food was just about ready, so he took over feeding her so I could clean the dust off my face, and when I got back, he had managed to get her to eat all I had fixed and was playing with her tiny pink toes peeking out from under her blanket.
There were no menus, just a board over the order counter, so when Billy left to get in the line, taking Michael with him, I told him just to get me something I would like. What a strange place this was! Even at The Varsity, they had menus! However, I was hungry, and the smell of the grilling burgers was making me even more so. It was not quite fifteen minutes before Billy returned with our supper on a plastic tray, each item wrapped in paper with the same golden arches on it. Michael followed behind sipping a chocolate milkshake through a straw in a huge paper cup that also had the arches on both sides. I definitely had never seen anything like this!
At The Varsity, at least I got a real glass filled with crushed ice for my chocolate milk.
Not familiar with the food or what he was ordering and being the fussy eater that he was, I was astonished Billy never once mentioned the ‘special sauce’ that covered the hamburgers or the lettuce and tomato on top. He had certainly never eaten one topped this way before. Michael had a child’s size burger with fries, and Billy had the biggest cup of coke I had ever seen while he brought me one of my favorites, a chocolate milkshake that was twice the size of the one Michael was drinking. Surprisingly, everything was good, or we were exceptionally hungry, and there was not a crumb left when we finished eating. Michael’s face was red with the ketchup he had used to dip his fries into, and he had a mustache of chocolate milk since he had taken off the lid so he could finish every last drop. I cleaned him up the best I could with the napkins, but Billy finally had to take him into the restroom to get the rest of his meal off his face, and his sticky fingers.
When they returned, Billy took out the Atlas, and studied it carefully. “I think we can easily make Los Angeles tonight,” he said, much to my disappointment since I was tired and ready for a soft bed.
I had also promised myself that my children would go to bed each night in the comfort of a room, and not rolling along on four wheels.
“Look”, he said, handing the book to me, “here we are, and here’s LA, and it’s not that far”. Well it certainly did not look that far on the map, but then again I had learned on this trip, and especially in the large states of the American west, maps could be deceptive. I tried to count the miles along the route, but when my eyes reached the LA area, I had to give up as the one highway became half a dozen coming in from all directions, and in fact, I could not even find San Pedro. We also would be riding towards our first ‘interstate’ highway, and I did not know if this was a good idea in the dark, but Billy thought driving now, this Sunday night, would be far more advantageous than trying to find our way to San Pedro during the daytime with a lot of traffic on the road. I explained that I was worried he might be too tired, but what I should have done was insisted I was too tired, then he would have stopped, but he said he was fine and wanted to go on.
Cleaning up the table, he persisted by adding there was nothing between Needles and LA to see anyway, just desert, which for me was all the more reason to stop here and rest before the long boring drive. Finally, I gave up since I was just too tired to argue with him, and after all, he was doing the driving and I knew while the children would sleep, I could not close my eyes for fear Billy would doze off and kill us all. No, it was my duty to keep that from happening.
We stopped for gas at a Texaco station across the street from a perfectly nice Holiday Inn, with its ‘vacancy’ sign lit, and all the rooms on the parking lot level, but Billy tried not to notice. Before I could point it out to him, he got out of the car to question the attendant about the trip ahead. When he got back in, he told me the attendant said until we actually got to LA it was an easy drive, but once there he hoped we would not get lost since the merging of so many highways confused even those who had traveled them before. Furthermore, he said our map was practically useless since the maps could not keep up with construction, and the roads changed almost daily. He told Billy it seemed like they were always adding more lanes, or another exit or entrance, so to watch out for construction signs, although by arriving in the wee hours of Monday morning, we would avoid most of the congestion. What he did not tell him was LA then, like Atlanta today, was the world’s largest parking lot during rush hour, and to be stuck in the wrong lane when you got to your exit was common, but most surprising of all was that no one gave anyone a break in California.
Of course, Billy was sure he would never get lost, not after his Ranger training! If he could find his way through mountains and swamps, he could certainly find his way through the sprawling city that lay ahead of us, but he had never seen a huge city that never slept.
Oh, how I wanted him to just turn into the motel, but all I could do was look longingly at the blinking vacancy sign while Billy picked up speed, and soon we left the lights of Needles behind us, and headed to Los Angeles. Now that he was this close, he was anxious to get there, although we really did not even know where we would stay when we arrived!