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Roads scholarship

March 20, 2009
By Bob Seidenstein,

People often ask me which hat, among my vast and elegant collection, is my favorite.

It's a simple enough question, all right, but unfortunately it has no simple answer.

At any given time my favorite is the one that most fits my mood. And given how many hats I have, I can switch moods throughout the day, every day, and not wear the same hat twice for a very long time.

Article Photos

It's hard for the Dope to pick favorites among his many hats, but among baseball caps, this Route 66 lid takes the crown.
(Photo for the Enterprise — Richard Rosentreter)

So, ultimately, I guess they're all my favorites.

However, I do have favorites among various kinds of hats. For example, my favorite baseball hat is the flagship of that line - my Route 66 cap.

It was a gift from my dear friends and prolific hat suppliers - Bob and Diane Griffin. Strictly speaking, though, it was Diane's idea.

They were in a Route 66 store somewhere in the West and Bob figured (and figured correctly, I might add) that I'd really like a Route 66 hat. He'd made his selection (which I gather was pretty humdrum) and was on his way to the checkout, when Diane spotted a much funkier, flashier one. It was obviously a more appropriate choice for a dapper Dope, so ultimately she gets the credit for its selection.

It's quite the dashing lid. Standing out from its black background are enough Route 66 symbols to send any 66aholic on an instant nostalgia trip. In the front is a Route 66 marker with wings; on one side is the route itself, with its major cities; on the other side is a small US map with the route highlighted, as well as "The Mother Road" and "Get Your Kicks" embroidered brightly and beautifully. Because of its aesthetics, it catches people's attention, and because of its content, it awakens their long-dormant sentimentality.


The road

So now an obvious question: How can people have emotional reactions to a stretch of highway?

To call Route 66 a highway would be like calling the '56 Ford a car, the World Series some baseball games, or Coney Island an amusement park. Like them, Route 66 wasn't a thing in itself, so much as an iconic American experience.

Of course, it started out just a highway. Then again, Albert Einstein started out just a kindergartener and Marilyn Monroe started out just a model.

Construction was started in 1926 and, when done, its 2448 miles stretched from Chicago to L.A. Its first mass migration was Dust Bowl victims heading west, looking for work (which was when it was dubbed "The Mother Road" by John Steinbeck in Grapes of Wrath). After that, it was G.I.'s heading west, to be shipped overseas in WWII. Then after the war, the discharged G.I.'s headed east, back home. And after that, with the prosperity and national car-and-travel fetish of the 50's and 60's, it became a main thoroughfare for all sorts of folks, with all sorts of itineraries and agendas.

With all the traffic sprang up all sorts of mom-and-pop businesses - diners, motels, campgrounds, tourist traps, you name it - and ultimately, those were probably one major cause of people's emotional attachment to the route itself. Everyone had fond memories of Doc's Diner, Sagebrush Acres Campground, The Desert Rat's Mystery Spot and so on.


The show

But perhaps what really branded Route 66 on the American mind was the ultimate American branding iron - television. A show called Route 66 (what else?) premiered in 1960. It starred two twenty-somethings - Martin Milner and George Maharis - had an unforgettable theme song by Nelson Riddle, and was major Friday night entertainment for probably the majority of my generation.

On the surface, its plot was as simple as its title. Milner, as Tod, was a Yale graduate with no family, its only remnant being a new Corvette left to him by his spendthrift father. Maharis, as Buzz, was also an orphan, but instead of coming from privilege, he was a street kid from Hell's Kitchen with a short fuse and the toughness to make good on it. Every week they went to a new place, got a new crap job, ran into another bunch of characters and had another adventure.

At least, that's a superficial synopsis. Ultimately, the program, like the road, went far beyond that.

Almost all the writing was done by Stirling Silliphant, who won an Academy Award for In the Heat of the Night, as well as having written hundreds of other scripts, among them my rave-fave horror movie, The Village of the Damned, and the hardboiled cop show Naked City.

So given Silliphant's hand in the show, it delved into social issues completely ignored by mainstream television programs of the time. Route 66 tore the veneer off cliche white bread America and we were exposed to such nitty-gritty as homelessness, racism, mental illness, addiction and abuse. In many ways it was a dark show, its darkness heightened by it being an hour long and filmed in black and white.

But the artful social consciousness of Route 66 was pretty much lost on adolescent meatheads like me and my peers. Instead, to us it was the ultimate free-wheeling buddy saga. Just two guys in a hot car, with no obligations or authority figures, meeting sweet babes and weird dudes, solving some people's problems, kicking other people's butts, and then moving on, to repeat the process ad hipsteritum.

I think it was mostly a young guy thing, but I don't think teenagers were its only fans. I'm sure in living rooms across the country, from Leavittown to Loma Linda, wage-slave daddies were cacked out in their recliners, imagining they were sitting in the Corvette's passenger seat next to Tod, if not behind its wheel.

In 1963, Maharis left the show. A guy named Glenn Corbett was his replacement but hardly his equal - the show's popularity tanked and in 1964 it went off the air.

But even at the show's peak, the seeds of the highway's destruction had been sown by its replacement, the Interstate Highway System - a road with super speeds, but with no services or class at all.

By 1970, both the road and show Route 66 were distant memories, buried under the weight of Vietnam, civil unrest, family breakups and breakdowns, militant everydamnthing and Lord knows what else. Maybe the avatars of those more nave times seemed irrelevant. Or perhaps, like my unwillingness to look at pictures from my youth, we didn't want to be reminded of what we've lost along the way. Or maybe it was something else. Regardless, for a long time Route 66 seemed sadly forgotten.

But no more: Today there are Route 66 Web sites, organizations, books, maps, fan clubs, chat rooms you name it. Now that the road no longer exists, there's more literature on it than when it was in its prime, and 45 years after the TV show gave up the ghost, you can find DVD's and critical reviews galore.

So, as with all nostalgia, it's a case of too much, too late. But as far as I'm concerned, that's a whole lot better than Route 66 being in the crypt and long forgotten.

And so, to the revived memories of Route 66, I tip my hat and I'm sure you know just which hat it is.



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