Many moons ago when I was a teenager, when the time came Dad and Mom used to load all four of us kids into the car and drive south to a vacation spot.
Starting 60 miles north of the U.S. border, sometimes we went to North Dakota, sometimes we went to Minnesota — usually heading for a lake where Dad rented a cabin and then turned us loose with a couple of bucks. "Make it last, ‘cause that’s your vacation money," and we were wild and free for a few days with strict orders not to disturb his well-earned rest from work – until the money ran out.
Sure, the lake was fun, but we found half the summer’s entertainment was getting there, because beside the highway there were Burma Shave signs which seemed to be everywhere – always with a message of one kind or another.
We have a few examples.
(Don’t forget to add the fifth sign, which always read; “Burma Shave.")
A gentle hint went like this: SLOW DOWN, PA. SAKES ALIVE. MA MISSED SIGNS FOUR AND FIVE.
A reminder to drive carefully related the sad story of: A MAN A MISS, A CAR, A CURVE. HE KISSED THE MISS AND MISSED THE CURVE.
Naturally, romance was always a popular theme, but the best ones combined at least two themes; usually romance and humor; BEN MET ANNA, MADE A HIT. NEGLECTED BEARD. BEN-ANNA SPLIT.
Sorry. I forgot to mention that the company liked puns, but that’s part of the game.
At the height of their popularity, these roadside jingles could be found beside almost every major road in the country, and as we rode along it became a contest to be the first to spot the next one. We even got competitive about it, and if someone raised a false alarm by spotting one that turned out to be some other product, he forfeited his next turn. Still, when we found one we hadn’t seen before, it was well worth it.
Burma Shave placed their signs almost everywhere from coast to coast, but when you drove off the main roads, you had to find something else to keep us from going road crazy, and Dad invented a new game.
When the car passed a road sign bearing numbers, we took turns adding them up, as Route 66 and Highway 81 gave you a total of 147 – and if you got it wrong, you had to start all over again! If there was more than one sign on a post, just add them up and add to your total. Next sign, next contestant.
I remember one busy intersection we passed regularly on the way to the lake. Here there was a signpost with six or eight signs on it, and we passed it so fast we could only read and remember some of them; a sure victory if we chose the biggest numbers!
We played a variation of this numbers game by adding up the front license plate of cars, trucks and buses as they approached us (648-21 = 21) – but you had to be quick, and you were on your honor to "keep it legal" and not make any of them up because your brothers and sister were highly competitive, and watched you like a hawk. (Worse, if you got it wrong, you had to convince the others it was an honest mistake – if you thought you could get away with it - and once again, if you got caught, back you went to square one.)
As if this game weren’t difficult enough, pencil and paper weren’t allowed, and trying to remember them all while keeping a running total was a real test.
Naturally, with the ever-present sibling rivalry always in play, things could get out of hand, and Dad would have to step in and declare a recess, ‘a cooling off period’ when everyone had to knock it off for a short nap so the folks could get a little peace and quiet.
Still, on the bigger highways we always looked forward to Burma Shave.
Of course, the basic aim was to sell shaving cream so after the message, the final sign simply read BURMA SHAVE, but the laughs were always there.
There was IF HARMONY IS WHAT YOU CRAVE, THEN BUY A TUBA. BURMA SHAVE, or MY JOB IS KEEPING FACES CLEAN, AND NOBODY KNOWS THE STUBBLE I’VE SEEN.
But my all-time favorite was LISTEN, BIRDS, THESE SIGNS COST MONEY, SO ROOST A WHILE, BUT DON’T GET FUNNY.
Dad loved it.
Mom thought it was “naughty”.
— Newton columnist Mike Morton writes weekly for the Kansan. He can be reached at email@example.com