Iowa Writes

RUTH WERTZBERGER CARLSON
Sharing Bee-Wees


One especially bleak winter day in Dubuque, Iowa, when blizzards and measles had conspired to keep her ten kids (only 13 years apart) home from school for weeks, my mother Rosie read in my father's Knights of Columbus newsletter about a family in Washington, D.C. that wanted to trade houses with a family in Dubuque, so they could attend a family reunion that summer. My mom wrote an essay about how she wanted her children to see the nation's capitol and the only way we could afford it was by driving and staying in a house for free.

Each evening we ran to the mailbox to see if our acceptance letter had arrived and after several months, Mom dejectedly said, "They must have picked someone that didn't have ten children." When we finally got good news saying we were selected out of dozens of applicants because Mom's essay was so moving, the ten of us screamed and jumped up and down. Later we found out that the D.C. family had called a friend in Dubuque to make sure our family wouldn't trash their home!

The next night my dad, Art, a manager at the Dubuque Meat Packing Plant ("the Pack"), brought home an empty ham container and cut a hole in the top to serve as our vacation bank. During supper we prepared for our drive across America by naming the state's capitols. Over dessert we'd contribute to the holiday fund. Babysitting money, allowances, and birthday checks all went in, and the bigger the sacrifice the bigger the applause. We were each responsible for packing our own entertainment for the trip, including books, puzzles, and stuffed animals. My brother Bobby insisted on bringing his "bee wee" even though he was embarrassingly old for a baby blanket.

One especially bleak winter day in Dubuque, Iowa, when blizzards and measles had conspired to keep her ten kids (only 13 years apart) home from school for weeks, my mother Rosie read in my father's Knights of Columbus newsletter about a family in Washington, D.C. that wanted to trade houses with a family in Dubuque, so they could attend a family reunion that summer. My mom wrote an essay about how she wanted her children to see the nation's capitol and the only way we could afford it was by driving and staying in a house for free.

Each evening we ran to the mailbox to see if our acceptance letter had arrived and after several months, Mom dejectedly said, "They must have picked someone that didn't have ten children." When we finally got good news saying we were selected out of dozens of applicants because Mom's essay was so moving, the ten of us screamed and jumped up and down. Later we found out that the D.C. family had called a friend in Dubuque to make sure our family wouldn't trash their home!

The next night my dad, Art, a manager at the Dubuque Meat Packing Plant ("the Pack"), brought home an empty ham container and cut a hole in the top to serve as our vacation bank. During supper we prepared for our drive across America by naming the state's capitols. Over dessert we'd contribute to the holiday fund. Babysitting money, allowances, and birthday checks all went in, and the bigger the sacrifice the bigger the applause. We were each responsible for packing our own entertainment for the trip, including books, puzzles, and stuffed animals. My brother Bobby insisted on bringing his "bee wee" even though he was embarrassingly old for a baby blanket.

As the date grew closer my father made ominous noises about how it was impossible for him to take vacation during the Pack's busy season, so one night Mom said she would go without him. The thought of my mom driving across country with ten kids apparently scared my Dad more than being stuck with us in a car for days and he managed to get the time off.

Mom bought us all new matching outfits to make a good impression in the big city and we got up at the crack of dawn so we could drive as long as possible and save on hotel expenses. We didn't leave till hours later, after Dad had strapped the suitcases on top of our avocado-colored station wagon and placed the rest of the bags under our feet. Mom, Dad, and baby Carrie sat in the front seat, Susan, Jane, Debbie and I squeezed in the second seat, Cathy was in the compartment between the seats, and Bill, Paul, Bob, and Dave sat in the rear. This was 38 years ago, before child restraining seats and seat belts were required. We finally drove down the driveway, only to have Debbie say she had to go the bathroom, which started a chain reaction and all of us had to run to the toilet.

On the road, I remember Mom turning around to look at us and smiling with so much naked love in her eyes it felt like a warm blanket. To keep us happy she doled out treats like licorice and we played the usual car games, slug bug—hitting each other when we saw Volkswagen bugs—and yelling out license plates. At rest stops we got a Dr. Pepper from a machine, an unheard-of luxury in our world where soft drinks (generic only) were reserved for Saturday night after our baths. As we piled back into the car, Dad would count noses to make sure we weren't missing anyone. Amazingly no one was ever left behind.

At one point we got caught in a monster traffic jam and Mom convinced Dad to let my brother Bill, then 17, drive. They traded places and Dad climbed in the last seat, which faced backwards. It was 102 degrees so Dad rolled up his pants, stuck his calves out the window, and fell asleep. Those pale legs turned a bright red and bothered him the rest of the trip but Bill finally got a chance to take the wheel. Did I forget to mention that we didn't have air conditioning? It would have cost extra.

Despite my Dad frequently asking David, the youngest boy and a wise acre, if he wanted to walk home, we only pulled over once when the radiator overheated. While Dad was frantically looking around for something to untwist the hissing radiator cap, Bobby surprised us all by handing Dad his bee wee. My father looked him in the eyes and asked, "Are you sure?", realizing the blanket would be ruined. Bobbie nodded and we all cheered. He had finally become a big boy who didn't need a security blanket.

We went to every monument in Washington, D.C. but four decades later I remember the drive more than the nation's capitol. Today my parents are both dead, but they left us a great legacy, each other. When we complained as children about having to share, Mom would say, "Someday you'll be glad you have all these brothers and sisters." Today my siblings are my best friends and each year we pile our kids into minivans and drive from different corners of the U.S. to meet in a vacation spot. No one has more than three kids, but when the 16 cousins unite they get a taste of our crazy upbringing. Fortunately, there are enough young ones so we always have a bee wee—just in case there are any car emergencies.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

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RUTH WERTZBERGER CARLSON

Ruth Wertzberger Carlson grew up in Dubuque, Iowa, and attended Wahlert High School until the summer following her junior year, when her father was transferred to manage the Dubuque Meat Packing Plant in South San Francisco, CA. The rest of the family, including three who attended the University of Iowa, now live on the West Coast. Ruth is a freelance writer who specializes in travel, profiles of women executives, sailing, golf, and fashion. She and her husband Richard Carlson live in Santa Cruz, California, and she hopes to get him back to Dubuque this summer to see her hometown.

This page was first displayed
on November 25, 2007

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