In the first few decades Michael and I spent criss-crossing the country looking for Roadfood, it was hard not to get bored. Of course, the scenery, the people, and the food we found were all amazing; but long hours sitting in the car looking out at fields of crops or sand colored hills could feel interminable.
Writing this, I feel like one of those annoying old people who say, “In my day we had to walk to school barefoot through ice storms and at Christmas we were happy if we got an apple.” Sorry if I sound cliched but I would like to tell readers what the road was like back then.
Traveling by car in the 1970s, you had two options: talking to whoever else was in the car or listening to the radio. For a passenger, other than reading a book (sure to cause instant car-sickness), there was no other way to pass the time.
Michael and I talked constantly. In fact, that was how we wrote our books. We spoke them out line by line until we got home and one of us ran to the typewriter to put it all down on paper.
But even we two blabber-mouths had to take a rest; so when we weren’t talking, we listened to the crackly little AM radio in our rattletrap cars.
There was no problem getting reception in or near cities. 50,000 watts blasted pop music towards any available antenna. The problem came when we got into the sticks and the mega-radio signals faded away.
That is when we discovered Trade-io, which quickly became our favorite thing to listen to. Almost everywhere we drove in the USA, we could find the local version. Trade-io was the simplest of formats: Callers who wanted to trade something for something else were put on the air for a few minutes. A typical Trade-io call went something like this:
“This is Bertha Jones, I’m married to Clem Jones and we run a small goat farm off rural route 68. I have an old wringer washing machine (Bertha pronouncing it “warshing”) that I would trade for a set of plastic dishes in the Irish Rose pattern like they used to have in the Green Stamps booklet. My phone number is… ”
This went on, one call after another. There was never anything rare or fancy, just mundane stuff available to swap for other mundane stuff. This was years before our present disposable culture, so even if you only had some old Readers Digests, you had a valued commodity.
Trade-io was hypnotic, almost as soothing as TV artist Bob Ross’s somnambulistic voice. Unlike Antiques Road Show, nobody had hidden treasures, and there never were such big-ticket items as a car, a mink coat, or a diamond ring. It was just stuff – stuff of little intrinsic value. But the idea of rural folk paying 1-800-Junk to haul their possessions away was unthinkable.
Sometimes the offerings were impossibly meager. A single skein of acrylic yarn, a dog bowl, or a used sunhat. Once we heard a lady offer to trade her brownie recipe for a lemon pie recipe. There was a set of keys that apparently opened nothing. Empty Avon bottles were a hot item, as were souvenir spoons from exotic places like The Black Hills. For every working lawnmower there were dozens of thimble collections, crocheted doilies, or a single salt or pepper shaker looking for a mate.
We could not always count on the radio to soothe us. Sometimes programs were so scary we wondered if we would make it to our destination. In the emptier rural parts of the Midwest and Great Plains, radio preachers found their lair. I do not mean preachers who talk about the gift of grace and the forgiveness of our Savior. I mean hard-voiced men who ranted on about the evil, sinning, lying, cunning Jews – how Jews ran the world, how Jews were responsible for every modern-day evil. It was a big and grandiose label; and as two Jews who lived paycheck to paycheck in our own little world searching for hamburgers and ice cream, it was hard to relate to. This was the dark side of finding Roadfood: an ominous feeling of being strangers in a strange land. It was especially troubling when we were on an empty road late at night somewhere in Nebraska with nothing but silos and cornfields in every direction.
The options were to turn around and go home or to keep on driving, knowing the sun would come up soon and Trade-io would once again be offering thimbles and cookie recipes. We made the right choice. We drove on.