A kink in the family “buddy system.” A bus power outage in the thick of night. A brisk swim in Lake Superior. A bear crashing breakfast.
Traveling in a motorhome with nine children is apt to generate its share of memories.
How did Genny and Howard Jennings manage motorhoming with nine kids, anyway? “One at a time,” said Genny. “My oldest was 12 when my youngest was born.”
They used a buddy system, she said, to keep track of everyone while traveling. Ralph, the second oldest, described this system and how it was put to the test.
“When we had the green Ford bus, we had a buddy system because my mother was so busy, obviously. Each one of the older kids would take one of the younger kids and that was your buddy. Before we started driving off, we’d always say, “Got your buddy?”
Out in the Black Hills or somewhere in Nebraska, Ralph recalled, Wells, the third youngest child, got left behind. “He was Charles’ buddy. We didn’t’ do our buddy check until a mile or two down the road. Actually, it was before we got out of whatever park we were in. Somebody went ‘Got your buddy?’ and Wells was missing and we stopped and saw him running across a field crying because he thought he was going to be left.”
‘A chance to see a lot’
More often than not, though, the buddy system worked.
They traveled, en masse, to many historical sites, which provided the kids real-life lessons in geography and history. “We got a chance to see a lot more than the kids we grew up with because we went to so many different places,” Ralph said. “And it was fun traveling because you were on your own; you had to find places to stay, find where the state parks were and we were always on the back roads, so it was a lot of fun.”
Ralph fondly recalls the special blue book that made trips even more enjoyable. “We had a game book that we used to use while driving along. We’d have license plate games and we’d have state games and sign games and car games. Then there were general knowledge games. There were all kinds of things in that blue book.”
Ralph recalled one back road that wasn’t so enjoyable, en route to the FMCA gathering at Fort Ticonderoga, New York, in 1964.
“Late at night we were driving through New York somewhere on a two-lane paved road. There were trees hanging over the road and all you could see were our headlights going past the trees. The lights started getting dimmer and dimmer and all of a sudden I think my dad realized the alternator was going out because the battery was running down, so we had to stop for the night.
“That was kind of a mess because we spent a day there on the side of the road while Dad took the alternator out and went somewhere. It seems like he took it to a little town and I can’t remember whether he had it repaired or bought a new one. But those kinds of images stick in your mind … I just remember that it was already dark — kind of like being in the Outback — but when the lights went out it was really dark.”
In cold water
A year or two after the Fort Ticonderoga trip, the kids learned firsthand that Michigan’s Lake Superior region was once the leading producer of iron ore.
“We went across the Mackinac Bridge and around Lake Superior,” Ralph said. “One of the things I remember about that trip was how cold the water of Lake Superior was. There were about four or five of us who went swimming one day. My dad said, ‘Now the water’s cold, so buddy up.’ And we got out there and I remember when everybody got out of the water their lips were all purple. It was really cold, and that was probably July or August, so it was warm out, but the lake was really cold and it was full of iron, too, because all the rocks were rusty.”
Bear-y fun times
Ralph and Genny’s retelling of the Beartooth Mountains episode is interspersed with laughter. Ralph remembers his frazzled mother trying to round up nine kids during a bear sighting. “Afterward, she went into the back of the motorhome and laid down and cried, he said.
“I didn’t cry — I was scared to death,” countered Genny with a chuckle.
Beartooth Mountain is just north of Yellowstone National Park. The family had been visiting Yellowstone on the Fourth of July 1965. The next morning they stopped for breakfast alongside the Beartooth Highway (U.S. 212) on the way to Montana.
“As we were eating breakfast at the table,” Genny said, “one of the kids says, ‘Mom, there’s a bear coming across the road.’ Dad was doing something with the motorhome’s engine. So I said, “Everybody take their dishes and go into the coach, go quick.”
They forgot the milk and orange juice. The bear finally came down onto the table, picked up the milk carton and punctured it with its claws. Then he jumped up into a nearby tree.
“It was kind of a scary thing to have all those little kids and try to figure out how I was going to get them into the coach in time,” Genny said. “But it was fun. I think my son still has the movies of it.”
Yes, he has the movies. And the memories.