When I was still at home, family travels were always a lengthy affair. We had exactly five destinations: (1) Grandma Carman in the St Louis area, a five hour drive, which also meant Mom’s side of the family and some of Dad’s. (2) My sister Linda and her husband Mac in Kansas City, about 10 or 11 hours away. (3) Granny Sutton in Flint, Michigan, light years away. (4) My brother Phil in Memphis, about an hour away. And, (5) my sister Deena and her husband Freddie in Forrest City, Arkansas, a 2-hour drive.

On trips #4 and #5, food was never an issue. We didn’t eat in the car and we didn’t stop to eat. I don’t recall being allowed to eat in the car, unless Mom packed a meal. We learned, on shorter trips, to swallow our spit.

On trips #1, #2, and #3, we stopped only when we had to fill up the gas tank. But ancient cars like our ‘70 Impala had 25-gallon tanks, which meant we never had to stop for gas (and thus for food).

But when we did finally stop for food, we would pass by McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Hardee’s, Burger King, Dairy Queen and at least 12 other perfectly good eateries in search of Dad’s ultimate culinary quest: “substantial food.” 

The kids would be begging: “Dad, there’s a restaurant!” “Dad, a McDonald’s!” “Look! A Wendy’s!” 

Swift came the reply: “I want a place that serves sub-stan-ti-al food,” he would say, carefully pronouncing the key word. 

Thus we would drive as far off the highway as we had been on it. We would meander through towns and suburbs, winding up in seedy places, dimly lit, in the far recesses of these villages, crowded with common folk like us. 

There were never any other children in sight. Apparently they had been offered in the pagan temples of “Substantial.” It didn’t matter to me. In my teen pride and rebellion, I always ordered a cheeseburger no matter where we went. 

Dad’s ultimate quest for substantial food reached its zenith 1985. He, Mom, and Linda all came to visit me in Kansas. While there, they took a day trip out to western Kansas. When they got back, Dad was positively radiant. Somewhere near Dodge City, he saw a billboard for a small local eatery that promised “Substantial Food.” 

As he described the glorious billboard, I thought I heard in the background faint echoes of smallish people singing, “Follow the yellow brick road.” For a few moments, Dad had found Oz.