On the road: Family treasures memories of seeing America
WALWORTH--If you ask Merle or Rosemary Romenesko what it was like rumbling across country in a 1968 Pontiac station wagon with 10 kids, they will tell you their children were good travelers.
“I don't think I ever had to raise my voice,” Merle said. “It was almost like they were taking care of each other. It was understood that when we got into a city, they would all quiet down.”
All these years later, fourth child, Patrick, wonders how his parents were so patient during those storied trips in the 1960s and 1970s, when the family motored from coast to coast and border to border—and beyond.
“It seems like much of the time a third of us were car sick,” Patrick recalls. “And a third of us were wondering when we were going to get there. We had air conditioning, so those in the front would complain about being too cold. Those in the back would complain about being too warm. It was one kid complaining after another, but my parents got us there safe and sound.”
Merle and Rosemary of Walworth know that many vacations are over by Labor Day, but the memories of a family trip last a lifetime.
Now in their 80s, they brim with tales about travel with their family to many of the nation's iconic landmarks—Niagara Falls, the St. Louis Arch, the Grand Canyon.
“I grew up in the Depression, followed by World War II,” Merle said. “I never went anywhere.”
Merle, who retired in 1990 as administrator of Big Foot High School, made sure things were different for his kids.
Today, the Romenesko children, who range in age from 46 to 61, are amazed at how their parents packed them in the station wagon for a trip almost every year.
“I learned a new respect for them as an adult,” 57-year-old Patrick of Elkhorn said. “What an ordeal it must have been to get us all ready. I feel blessed. Very few people—from large or small families—can talk about all these trips they took as kids.”
In addition to Patrick, the Romenesko kids are Mary Smrecek of Appleton; Jayne Hill of Williams Bay; Jim of Evanston, Ill.; Tim of Barrington, Ill.: Dan of Sharon; Peg Hubertz of Walworth; Sara Duckett of Naples, Fla.; Kate Drohner of Plover; and Joe of Downers Grove, Ill.
Merle and Rosemary began their family vacations by motoring to cities, including Biloxi, Miss., and San Antonio, Tex., where Merle had been stationed in the U.S. Air Force.
Merle said the kids all knew their places in the car, which had three wide seats. The two youngest children often sat on the floor between the second seat and third seat, which faced the back window.
No one used car seats back then. No one wore seat belts, either, because the car had none. Global Positioning Systems did not exist, and road maps were the only way to figure out which highway to take. The Interstate System was still young, and the family often traveled on roads that wound through Main Streets across America. They even traveled along Route 66 all the way to California before it became a historic roadway.
“It meant nothing to me as a 17-year-old to be on Route 66,” Patrick said. “Years later as an adult, I got interested in it and realized we were on the road.”
Patrick recalls how his dad let him drive in California.
“I was a little frightened at first with all those people in the car and all our cargo,” he said. “I was honored to be driving. Dad must have trusted me.”
Third child, Jim, recalls how exciting it was to travel to big cities, including Washington, D.C., for kids growing up in the small village of Walworth.
“We would see buildings that looked like skyscrapers to us,” he said. “We also would stop and eat at McDonald's, which was a huge treat in the 1960s because there weren't many of them yet.”
Jim remembers when the family crossed the border into Mexico and attended a bullfight in Juarez in the early 1970s.
“I almost fainted when the bull got hit with a spear,” Jim said. “It was the first and last time I went to a bullfight. I also remember the chaos in the parking lot when we wanted to leave. The cars were parked every which way. We saw a taxi driver get upset with someone and smash a window. For kids from Wisconsin, it was quite a scene.”
Sixth child, Dan, often took photos during the trips. Later, he got a degree in professional photography. One of his photos shows three of the Romenesko kids looking out the back of their station wagon.
“The trips were great,” Dan said. “You appreciate them, especially when you get older.”
Rosemary and Merle are hard pressed to say which trips were their favorites because each was memorable in its own way. But they vividly recall the night they camped in Montgomery, Ala., when Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated in April 1968.
“It was a tense night,” Merle said. “There were riots in some cities. As we were going home the next day, we could see huge plumes of smoke.”
On Saturday, the Romenesko children are coming home to Walworth. The house that Merle and Rosemary built in 1963 is turning 50. As part of the birthday party, the five boys and five girls will gather around the dining room table and share favorite vacation memories.
Since childhood, they have created new memories with their own families on trips around the country. They thank their parents.
“When your parents set an example, it makes you more adventurous to travel,” Jim said. “I have friends who are intimidated by traveling because they did not travel as kids. I enjoyed seeing places as a kid, and I enjoy traveling as an adult.
"Early on, we learned an appreciation for exploring beyond our hometown.”
Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or email email@example.com.
This article was revised on Sept. 3, 2013, to reflect the following correction:
PEG HUBERTZ IS ROMENESKO CHILD
An earlier version of this article cited the wrong name for one of the 10 children of Merle and Rosemary Romenesko. She is Peg Hubertz of Walworth.