In the late spring of 1961, my dad got a new job in Redwood Falls, Minnesota. So just days before the end of the school year, Mom and Dad loaded up their earthly goods, and my four brothers and me, and we all trekked up Highway 71 from Jackson, MN to a farm place about seven miles south of Redwood. I was born in 1953, so I must have been eight at that time. I was the second of the boys; Paul was a bit more than five years older, Kevin a year and a half younger, and Mike and Brian were the little kids, with Brian having just been born in 1959. It was the first time I had ever ridden along Highway 71, but that road would become one of the strongest threads weaving in and out through my life.
Many of our relatives were still in Jackson; three of my four grandparents were still living, along with many aunts, uncles, and cousins were all living in or around Jackson. It was about an hour drive from Redwood, and so we found ourselves cruising up and down Highway 71 frequently. Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, 4th of July; for years we drove down to Jackson to spend holidays with relatives. Even when it wasn’t a holiday season, Mom and Dad would often tell us boys, “We’re going down to Jackson tomorrow to visit Grandma and Grandpa.” …and off we’d go!
The first year or so the car was an Oldsmobile, 1956 or so. I seem to remember being at a mechanic’s shop at Sanborn Corners one night with that Olds up in the air on a hoist. I don’t remember what was wrong with it, but it must have been something pretty nasty that it needed to be dealt with right away, at night, on the road home. At any rate, it wasn’t long before that car was gone, and in its place was a blue 1959 Chevy Biscayne 4-door sedan.
At eight years old, I thought it was kind of an ugly car, with those humongous horizontal tail fins, the wrap-around windshield and that bubble-top roofline. But there was no denying the car was BIG! We sat four of us boys across the back seat, with Mom and Dad and the youngest in the front. And I think there would have still been enough room for two or three more back in the trunk!
I’ll bet we rode in that car for seven or eight years; then our parents traded it in for a 1966 Rambler Classic. And that was a nice car, too, but it wasn’t quite as big. After that came a 1970 Chevy Impala, but by that time I had gone off to make my own way in the world, and wouldn’t be riding with Mom and Dad very much any more. Those special childhood days had come to an end for me.
In those halcyon days of the sixties, Mom and Dad were in their later 30s and early 40s, so when we went down to Jackson it didn’t bother them to stay well into the evening before starting up Highway 71 towards home. Night-blindness was still years away for them. There were numerous times, after playing hard with my brothers and apparently dozing off in exhaustion, I was awakened to the greenish glow of the fluorescent light in the kitchen, Mom telling me to get in the car so we could go home. It didn’t matter where we were; it seems everybody had those same fluorescent lights in their kitchens.
So the family would all pile into the car and head off into the darkness. Sometimes the moon would be out, sometimes not. It seems I was nearly always sitting on the right side of the back seat, so I could see out very well. On the way home that meant I was looking out on the countryside to the east side of the highway. I would ride along with my face turned to the window, noticing all the lights that located every farm. Every farmplace at that time had a large yard light so the farmer and his family could see when they left the house, and for any visitors who might stop by. Driving along the highway at night, I found those lights strangely comforting. They were signs of civilization in the darkness.
As you travel north along Hwy. 71, between the little towns of Jeffers and Sanborn the land rises to a divide, a watershed, and when you come over this highest ridge, suddenly you can see for miles! It’s fun in the daytime, but at night it’s spectacular! You can see the farmyard lights for miles and miles, but more than that, you can see the lights of the towns off in the distance. As I rode along with my face turned to the east, I could see the lights of Springfield, and farther to the east is Sleepy Eye, and way off on the horizon I could see the glow of the small city of New Ulm. It only lasted a few minutes, probably five or six, but what a time that was!
Of course, back then there was no such thing as a cell phone that I could have taken pictures, and in that darkness one would have needed a far more expensive camera than anything we could have afforded. But I am amazed that nobody in recent years has seen fit to take pictures of the countryside at night like that. Then again, maybe it never impressed anybody but me … and my mom! Because that was a special time, a special thing that I shared with Mom. She saw the lights, too, since she was on that side of the car and could gaze out the window with me because she didn’t have to drive, and my little brother was most likely sleeping next to her and didn’t need any attention. I remember asking her which town was where, and she would tell me. Looking back, was she right about the towns? I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Mom and I were looking at the lights together.
In a few minutes the city lights had disappeared over the horizon and behind the hills and the groves of trees, and all I saw were the single farm lights again. But that was a special time. The car was humming along, ‘CCO was on the radio, probably two or three of my brothers were sleeping, Mom and Dad were still young, and all was right with the world.