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Our Lady, Queen of the Highways is a Pot 'O Gold event pick #memoir #roadtrip #irish #giveaway
Title: Our Lady, Queen of the Highways
Author: Tim Coonan
Our Lady, Queen of the Highways is author Tim Coonan’s memoir of growing up Irish-Catholic in California during the 1960s and 1970s, told through recollection of cross-country driving trips to visit relatives in the Midwest and the East. Organized as a transcontinental journey, the narrative follows the family station wagon (blessed by his dad’s prayer to the very unofficial and unauthorized Our Lady, Queen of the Highways) from their hometown of El Segundo, a Los Angeles beach city, to the East Coast and back. Each chapter describes a geographic leg of the journey, and explores the significance of these locales to the family’s growing understanding of this country’s natural and cultural history and their Irish-Catholic roots, and ultimately to the author’s own life experiences, many of which occurred in these locales. Their route followed the Mother Road, Highway 66, and so the narrative is sprinkled with references to the landmarks of that classic route: the twin arrows outside Flagstaff; the trading posts and ersatz teepees in New Mexico. The family’s Grand Canyon stop kick-started a love of national parks for the author, eventually leading to his life’s work as a wildlife biologist for that agency. Anyone who ever took a family road trip in a station wagon, fought to sit in the way back, and listened to AM radio all across the country, will relate to this book. And as all journeys must come to an end, the book is also a reflection on the nature of the past, on our experiences and memories. Including the paths not taken.
Our Lady, Queen of the Highways, pray for us
St. Christopher, be with us
So began every family trip, my dad leading us in that prayer as he drove the station wagon away from our home town. Now, as far as I know, there is no Our Lady, Queen of the Highways. That is not an official appellation for the Virgin Mary, like “Our Lady of Sorrows” or “Our Lady of Guadalupe”. I don’t know if my dad made that up, or if he got it from somewhere. However, there is also no “Our Lady of Malibu”, but that in fact is the name of a Catholic parish in that coastal enclave. Whose schoolkids, I might add, are absolute hellions. I know because I chaperoned an outdoor education trip for my daughter’s class, and bunked with the chaperone from OLM. Poor guy. He was up every night dealing with the latest trouble his kids had gotten into. My kids were no trouble at all, and were somewhat in awe of the Ugg-wearing, blonde, free-spirited kids from OLM.
But I digress. The point is, by invoking the good name of OLQH, we had secured divine protection for our Chevy Bel-Air station wagon (and in future years, the Kingswood) and its inhabitants, on our rather ambitious trips, coast-to-coast forays to visit relatives and see America. We made four of these, in 1967, 1969, 1972, and 1976, years that now stand out in my mind like Olympic years or election years do, or years of Dodger World Series victories or Notre Dame national championships, as notating significant and somewhat regular events (granted, the World Series victories and national championships have not been nearly as regular as many of us would have hoped).
Saying the road trip prayer was completely in character for our large Irish-Catholic family, who, for a period of time, knelt and said the Rosary nightly in front of the Virgin Mary figurine on the living room bookcase. A Virgin Mary whose head had been severed several times by balls, which were not allowed in the house.
How Catholic were we? Very. We attended tiny, funky St. Anthony’s school in El Segundo, in the shadow of the Standard Oil refinery where my dad worked – when the church windows were open, from the pews you could see, and hear, the massive machinery of the refinery in action, breaking down crude oil and sending steam into the air. The school was set on a hill covered in blacktop. We were toughened by daily football games on asphalt; after recess, Deane DeFontes, the best athlete in our class, would be rinsing the blood off his elbows at the drinking fountain. We boys wore flimsy, white collared shirts over white undershirts, and salt-and-pepper cords which came in three fits: I was always a “slim” and Terry a “husky”; neither of us was a “regular.” The girls wore the same flimsy white collared shirts and plaid jumpers, which, by the time we reached the upper grades, looked pretty damned good on some of them. The school was staffed by nuns, who wore habits and were not hesitant to use a ruler on recalcitrant students. And Sister Linda Peters, our fourth-grade teacher, could throw a football farther and more accurately than Deane DeFontes.
The Catholicism into which we were indoctrinated was a 1950’s/60’s literal version: the Baltimore Catechism with its depiction of a pure soul, a gleaming white milk bottle, contrasting with the impure soul – a milk bottle which was smudged and blackened. There was apparently no non-dairy option for the lactose-intolerant. Our concepts of sin, at that point, were wonderfully simple. Asked for examples of what might be a mortal sin, Fred Curcio offered the following: “Step on a rosary? Throw a rock in a church?” Instead of Halloween costumes we came to school dressed as saints for the saint parade. Terry and I favored the warrior saints, like dragon-slaying St. George or St. Martin of Tours; for those costumes we got to bring a lance or a foil-covered cardboard sword and shield to school. Every month we collected money to feed the Pagan Babies, whom we got to “name”; one month the boys in the class named a Pagan Baby after Roman Gabriel, then quarterback of the Los Angeles Rams (I sincerely hope that there’s a guy in equatorial Africa with the name of Roman Gabriel). Probably the highlight of our school week was Hot Dog Day. I never ate the hot dog, just the bun; gave the hot dog to Terry. Little wonder I was a slim and he was a husky.
As a first-grader, I remember that the eighth-grade boys looked huge. They were practically grown men, in my eyes; I’m sure they came to school - maybe even drove themselves - with cigarette packs rolled up in their sleeves and with five-o’clock shadows on their faces. By fifth grade we were card-carrying members of Mrs. Michelson’s Dominic Savio Club, with a devotion to that boy saint marked by a promise to remain celibate and say the Rosary daily. For the rest of our lives. When my sister Katie had Mrs. Michelson, she would occasionally have Katie watch the class while Mrs. Michelson took a cigarette break in the supply room next door. By eighth grade we boys were the lead altar servers – this was well before girls broke that barrier – and Bob Gilbert was sampling the altar wine in the back of the sacristy. I was too scared to; was that a mortal sin?
Granted, it sometimes seems as though Catholicism and drinking went hand-in-hand. Some dads (but not mine!) were members of the local Knights of Columbus and would day-drink at the local K of C hall while we boys played pool and ping-pong there. And then there was Monsignor Maddox, known to play cards with local parishioner families on “Vatican Hill”, a local street where many Catholic families lived, and sometimes he had trouble getting back to the rectory after a night of cards and Scotch.
How Catholic were we? Dad and Uncle Ted went to Notre Dame, as did three of us kids. My twin brother Terry became a Catholic priest. Then he un-became a priest. But again, I digress. We’ll get to Terry, and everyone else, all in good time. These trips, and the places we visited, were some of the most formative experiences of our youth, and, at least in my case, likely set me on the course I would take later in life. A sense of place.
Buy Links (including Goodreads):
Amazon.com: Our Lady, Queen of the Highways: A memoir: 9781958419052: Coonan, Tim: Books
OUR LADY, QUEEN OF THE HIGHWAYS: A Memoir – ADELAIDE BOOKS NY
Our Lady, Queen of the Highways: A Memoir by Tim Coonan | Goodreads
What makes your featured book a must-read?
If you ever fought with your siblings to sit in the way back of a station wagon, watched the miles roll by though the rear window, or prayed for the night’s motel to have a pool, this book is for you.
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Tim Coonan was born during the Eisenhower administration and grew up during the 60s and 70s, a fact which greatly influenced his consistent and questionable sense of hair style. He and his twin brother (who became a priest for a while) were the oldest in a large Irish-Catholic family growing up in southern California, from which their family made the epic family station wagon trips retold in this book. Tim’s dad went to Notre Dame, and thus Tim and his siblings grew up as Fighting Irish fans in hostile USC Trojan country, a siege mentality that no doubt affected his decision to leave idyllic southern California for the frozen tundra of northern Indiana, to attend college at Notre Dame (two of his brothers did, as well). Driving home from ND one spring, Tim passed through Flagstaff, Arizona, a Highway 66 town which he fondly remembered from family road trips, and he decided to attend grad school there, at Northern Arizona University, because, well, it was pretty. This led to a love of wildlife, wildlife biology and conservation, and several summers spent as a ranger at Canyon de Chelly National Monument. The rest, as they say, is history. Tim ended up spending 30 years as a wildlife biologist for the National Park Service, chasing bighorn sheep in Death Valley and getting bitten by island foxes in the Channel Islands. In fact, Tim, along with his ex-wife, wrote the definitive (all right, the only) book about that unique and rare endangered species, the island fox of the Channel Islands. Tim now teaches science to impressionable Catholic kids in Ventura, which means he has, ironically, come full circle, being a product of 16 years of Catholic schooling himself. Tim has two grown daughters and lives with a German shepherd and two cats. Tim has spent most of his life trying to be outdoors, and hates wearing shoes, except when hiking (he also wears shoes when teaching).You can find more of his writings at www.timcoonan.com
Social Media Links:
Tim Coonan - United States | Professional Profile | LinkedIn