After graduating from Staples in June, 400 seniors scattered.
Some stayed in Westport, to work and/or play. Some got jobs at camps, or internships in New York. Others went on vacations with their families.
As far as I know, none took a cross-country road trip with a friend.
When I graduated from Staples — back in the day — Bob Powers and I did exactly that.
We bought a van for $1,000, and named it “Van.” We thought we were exceedingly clever.
After a shakedown cruise to the Cape with a crew of friends, Bob and I headed out — by ourselves — for California. We had no set itinerary, no plan or timetable. Just ourselves, “Van,” and the open road.
Our very 1st day, in Pennsylvania Dutch country, the water pump blew. It took a day to get a replacement.
Walking through that tiny town, we made idle conversation with a couple of old ladies. That night — in our van — we heard a fierce pounding. It was the women’s husbands.
The old ladies had told them about us. The men found us — and invited us to their homes for shoo-fly pie and ring bologna.
We slept wherever we could. In St. Louis we asked around for a cheap spot. Someone suggested the roof of a dorm at St. Louis University. Sure enough, we found mattresses there.
The following morning we were awakened by the fierce pealing of bells — directly in our ears. No one told us it was a Catholic school. It was Sunday morning, and the bells we had slept next to were calling everyone to church.
Salt Lake City brought a trip to the minor league ballpark. Bobby Valentine was playing — he had not yet been brought up to the Dodgers — and because he had starred a few years earlier at Stamford’s Rippowam High School, we yelled to him that we were from Fairfield County too. He came over, chatted with us, and made us feel special.
Las Vegas was eye-opening. We found a couple of college kids to help us split a motel room 4 ways. Those were the days before Indians ran casinos — before Atlantic City legalized gambling, even — so we were thrilled to do something truly exotic. Free alcohol at the slots was an added bonus.
The next day we hiked down the Grand Canyon. Suddenly, coming up the path toward us, we spotted Staples chemistry teacher Charlie Lawrence. We stared at him; he stared back.
“Hi, boys!” he said in recognition– and kept up his brisk pace, right past us.
We crossed the desert in the middle of the summer — at midday. “Van,” of course, had no air conditioning. We opened the windows — and back door — as wide as we could. And lived to tell the tale.
We spent plenty of time in California (with a side trip, of course, to Tijuana). We drove the magnificent Pacific Coast Highway. Even losing our cameras when “Van” was broken into in San Francisco did not diminish our Golden State experience.
Finally, we sold our van — for a bit more than we’d paid for it. We used the proceeds to fly home.
When I relate those experiences to current high school students, they don’t even know how to react. Road trips are an almost unheard-of concept. The idea of traveling so far, at that age — without cell phones, GPS, bottled water when crossing the desert, and especially without adults — seems incomprehensible.
Invariably, they ask: “Your parents let you do that? What were they thinking?”
Bob and I didn’t think about what they were thinking. We were newly minted high school graduates; we had something we wanted to do, we told them how we wanted to do it, and we did it.
Maybe they were thinking we were ready to explore the world. Maybe they were thinking we were good kids who had proven ourselves in school, and had earned their trust. Maybe they thought it would be better for us than staying home to work at Chubby Lane’s or Dairy Queen.
So off we went. We promised to call every so often.
We did — maybe once a week.
Hey, pay phones were expensive.
And besides, we were on our own.