Traditions . . .

This has been a year — or at least a few months — for examining past traditions. When the future seems uncertain, there is something comforting about remembering the past, getting lost in nostalgia, and returning to happier days full of memories of family, friends, fun and tradition.

It has been especially true during all the holidays of the year: Valentines Day, Mardi Gras, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and New Years — many of those special times normally full of family celebrations and traditions have passed us by since 2020.

In the days leading up to fall holidays, few of us would have believed that the “norm” in 2021 would once again be another scaled-down version of Thanksgiving dinner. It may not have been potluck shared by extended family at socially distanced outdoor picnic tables in a state park, (yes, that happened the previous year), but for most it was, once again, a small table not heavily laden.

Many of our holiday celebrations, those that actually were held, have been accompanied by masks and elbow bumps, but no hugs. Who would have predicted that we would spend last Christmas alone, despite the hopeful news in 2020 that two effective vaccines were ready to be delivered nationwide? Who then would have believed that “the abundance of caution” against large family gatherings would continue for a second Christmas? Who could have imagined yet another mutated virus wreaking havoc with family get-togethers and travel plans now and for the foreseeable future? Yet, that is exactly what has occurred.

May you live in interesting times . . .

Depending on your upbringing and mindset, that phrase has alternately been considered a blessing or a curse. Although there is little evidence that it originated with the Chinese, and even less that it stems from a Yiddish expression or a rabbinical interpretation, it persists in the minds of many of us as a warning that we should never get too comfortable. Life is not to be taken for granted.

Our times — this past year and three quarters, and still today — are nothing if not interesting.

Many of us are still hopeful that we will once again be free to travel freely. But, with the return to mandated masking in many places, extensive travel disruption attributed to ill employees, and persistent warnings about travel, gatherings and testing, we are again uncertain. We hope that we will continue to care for others, by being mindful about where we go, what we do and how we act. But, as this last year has taught us, life is fragile. I am now even more convinced that we must savor the traditions that have brought us here.

For me, that means being with friends, not via face time, Skype or Zoom meetings, but up close and personal. It means sharing good times, welcoming the births of new babies and celebrating graduations and promotions. More importantly, it means being together to comfort one another during sadness and hard times. Working remotely may not be a great hardship. But, being continually remote — from family, friends and business associates — is devastating.

This past year, I lost several acquaintances to COVID. Many others in my circle of friends and family have been ill with the virus. Others, both vaccinated and unvaccinated, have tested positive recently, with varied symptoms and severity, with — presumably — the Omicron variant. I am learning more than I ever wanted to know about the SARS-CoV-2, commonly known as COVID-19.

Humans were not meant to be solitary animals. That is only too evident today, with increasing concerns about not only mental health, but the economy.

The path forward seems clear. We must not forget these past months, nor the shutdowns, the fear, the toll it has taken on lives and livelihoods. But, we also must not give up hope. Let’s don’t ever forget what makes life worth living. Let’s all honor those traditions that we missed so much in 2020 and were hesitant to resume in 2021. Let’s not return to the place of isolation and alarm. Let’s be smart rather than complacent, but let’s go on living our lives with confidence

Yes, COVID-19 is a scary disease. But all diseases are scary. And those who are sick need to be comforted, not left alone. No matter what or how you celebrate the special days that are to come this year, may holidays that are meant to bring us together in the coming months continue to bless you, uplift your spirits and prepare you for what lies ahead.

That is my wish this second day of the new year.

Along the road: The giggles are gone

The road goes on foreverIt’s hard to know just what will trigger a long-forgotten memory; it’s harder still to know just where that memory will lead. A small piece in last Sunday’s paper mentioned that the Highway Beautification Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on October 22 — 50 years ago. Of course, here in Texas we all credit Lady Bird Johnson with the impressive expanses of bluebonnets and wildflowers along our highways. That’s all good.

But highway beautification as a national mandate — Wow, I missed that one, I guess, in my youth. Actually, now that I think about it, I was living in Europe at the time — billboard proliferation along American highways was not something I concerned myself with then. But, on Sunday, that little news story suddenly brought back the memory of red and white Burma-Shave signs — and the realization that the act signed into law that long ago October day most likely spelled the end of a long tradition. Those clever advertising messages sometimes contained important messages; they certainly prompted adult smiles and kept young minds occupied for almost 40 years.

The 1965 Outdoor Advertising Control Program did not actually mandate the removal of signs, and it really didn’t force states to control those massive billboards. It was designed to discourage excessive signage along the Interstates, and stipulated that development funds could be withheld for non-compliance by the states. In that way, it was effective. And the Interstate highway system soon supplanted most of the older highways.

You had to be there: Missing one of the signs could sometimes be the cause of tears; more often, an attempt to fill in the missing word or phrase spawned uncontrollable giggles. It was, for generations of kids, one of the few fun things about road trips — often long, hot, dusty treks along not-so-good highways. Towns in most of this United States at that time were far apart, usually small, and boasted no readily available “fast food.” Gas station and rest room stops were the result of advance planning, for the most part.

Summer or winter, travel could be iffy — heat, cold, mechanical problems, flat tires, boredom, seemingly endless stretches of blacktop. Radio station signals made news and music unreliable across vast distances. But the signs — oh, those signs! We all looked forward to them. The “game” became who spotted the first sign first. Then, everyone “won” as the message was revealed across the miles. At the height of their campaign, Burma-Shave had 7,000 signs in all but four of the Lower 48 states.

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Yes, the occasional giant billboard may have ruined the view, distracted drivers and “polluted” the landscape. But, Burma-Shave signs? Although I haven’t thought about them for decades, I miss them. I’m also sorry  I  couldn’t play the game with my own child; I have trouble even explaining the concept to my grandchildren. But, then, today we travel on smoother Interstate highways — and the kids are plugged in to their own virtual world of movies, music or audio books.

The times have changed — but, the “road goes on forever.” I’ll just spend the rest of the day humming that tune and laughing about those verses! There’s currently a new interest in Route 66 and its associated memorabilia. Sadly, though, Burma-Shave signs seem to have disappeared forever.

Some of them were totally about the shaving cream. In 1932:

You’ll love your wife

You’ll love her paw

You’ll even love

Your mother-in-law

If you use

Burma-Shave

Others were just plain clever! From 1945:

‘Twould be

More fun

To go by air

If we could put

These signs up there

Burma-Shave

Sometimes they had important messages. Here’s a good one from 1949:

When frisky

with whiskey

Don’t drive

‘Cause it’s

Risky

Burma-Shave

Another:

Ashes to Ashes

Forests to Dust

Keep Minnesota Green

Or we’ll ‘

All go Bust

Burma-Shave

They could also be a little risque. This one’s from 1959:

Baby your skin

Keep it fitter

Or “baby”

Will get

Another sitter

Burma-Shave

You can read more of the iconic road-sign jingles, indexed by year at Burma-Shave.org.