See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet, Again?

This past week President Obama repeated an imperative he has stated several times in his young presidency: It’s time to fix our nation’s infrastructure. That got Mister Boomer thinking about the time when the first national infrastructure program was initiated. It was a time most boomers remember well. Before delving into boomer memories, it is proper that we explore the history of the infrastructure program that was so much a part of our youth, and how it has shaped the country to this day.

The story actually starts at the end of World War I. After the experiences of trying to move troops and vehicles along impossible terrain and roadways never designed for military vehicles in Europe, the Army set up a military convoy to travel from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco to test the feasibility of troop transport in the event of a defense emergency in the continental U.S. It was called the First Transcontinental Motor Convoy, and departed Washington, D.C. on July 7, 1919 — a little less than one year after the end of World War I. Among the nearly 300 officers, enlisted men and War Department observers who participated was a young Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Thirty years later, Eisenhower was the Commander-in-Chief of Allied Forces during World War II, having taken part in the liberation of North Africa and Europe. Less than a decade after the War — in the prime boomer-time of 1950 — he was elected President of the United States. Throughout his ascent to the highest office in the land, Eisenhower recalled in his memoirs the lessons he had learned about the difficulties of moving troops from one place to another.

On February 22, 1955, Eisenhower said, in an address to Congress: “Our unity as a nation is sustained by free communication of thought and by easy transportation of people and goods. The ceaseless flow of information throughout the Republic is matched by individual and commercial movement over a vast system of interconnected highways crisscrossing the country and joining at our national borders with friendly neighbors to the north and south. Together, the uniting forces of our communication and transportation systems are dynamic elements in the very name we bear — United States. Without them, we would be a mere alliance of many separate parts.”

There was a national infrastructure program in place since 1944, building many two-lane highways across the country, but funding was inadequate to make the kind of impact Eisenhower wanted on a national scale. He proposed an interstate highway system that was unprecedented in its time, and remains so to this day. On June 29, Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which guaranteed dedicated funding for the program. Construction on the National Highway Defense System (NHDS), as it was called, began simultaneously across the land.

For boomers, the building of these highways represented many things. For some, it meant employment for boomer fathers. For others, it cut apart whole neighborhoods as Eisenhower’s “broad ribbons” sliced their way through cities and country-side alike. Other boomer families seized the opportunities brought by the new highways to open restaurants, motels and businesses that catered to the new batch of mobile travelers. For many boomer families, the 1950s mantra of the Chevy commercials, “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet,” was now within the realm of possibility.

For Mister Boomer, and many fellow boomers to whom he has spoken, the NHDS first and foremost was an irresistible playground. Young boomer boys recall the mix of heavy machinery and deep gashes in the landscape as the ideal place to carry out war games and fantasy scenarios. In Mister B’s case, the interstate was coming through an area just three blocks away from Mister B’s house. Previously, the area had been fields and forests, inhabited by pheasants, rabbits, snakes and birds … the ideal habitat for a growing boomer explorer. Now his favorite region — the edge of a forest — was bulldozed into oblivion as a deep trench was dug for the new freeway. Every tree that rimmed the field had contained a hand-made treehouse composed of discarded wood scraps. Mister B and the neighborhood boomers would borrow hammers and nails from their fathers’ toolboxes to first nail horizontal slats up the side of the tree to establish a ladder system, then through a series of ropes, haul up lumber to an adequate place in the tree to build a platform. Sometimes they would stop at that, while in others, complete walls were constructed, suspended between branches 15 to 30 feet in the air.

Though the trees were sorely missed, the new “big hole,” as it was called, had its own draw. After school and on weekends, the machinery lay dormant, and workers were nowhere in sight, leaving the entire unfenced area as a smorgasbord of young boomer rock-throwing, hill-rolling, dirt-dragging, machinery-climbing fun. Once the hole began taking in water, for some neighborhood boomers, it produced a siren call that resulted in ill-thought actions as makeshift rafts were piloted to traverse the “lake.” Mister Boomer knew better than to attempt such foolishness, as certainly no one in the neighborhood knew how to swim.

The on-site headquarters for the contractors was not a mobile trailer, as it is today, but rather a couple of large panel trucks. As was the custom of the time, the trucks remained unlocked and thus, an invitation for exploring. The trucks were hot in the summer sun, and devoid of practically everything inside as plans and blueprints were most likely taken home each night. Boomer boys could sit in the seats and look out through the windshields, wondering what it was going to be like to drive this yet-to-be completed section, but that was about it. Inevitably, however, the trucks always contained a calendar with a pin-up calendar girl. A fully-clothed, buxom young woman was an interesting curio for the young boomers, but these images would hardly rate a PG in today’s marketplace.

Eventually, this section of interstate freeway and subsequent overpasses was completed. Not soon after that, Mister Boomer’s family did indeed use the system to travel across the country, taking in places far removed from the Midwestern milieu. Yellowstone Park, the Grand Canyon and Mount Rushmore became destinations for boomer families everywhere. In a typical scenario, boomer parents loaded up the family in the station wagon and hit the open road, being sure to get a sticker to place along a side window to show the many places they had driven.

Now, as this infrastructure is in need of attention, there is a renewed call to preserve and strengthen the system. How about it, boomers? What great memories did the NHDS bring in your life?