When you were a little kid going on a family vacation and forced to sit for endless hours in the car, did you ever play the alphabet game? You know, the one where the goal is to race your siblings and parents in finishing the alphabet by finding letters on billboards, car licenses, highway markers, trucks, and store names.
Every family had their own rules. In our family, only one person could claim a specific letter at a time, although if a sign had two or more of that letter, more than one person could use them. All twenty-six letters had to be done in order. We couldn’t use letters that were printed inside the car. We had to claim the letters loud enough to be heard. And we couldn’t claim a letter after we had passed it. These last two rules were designed to prevent the player from declaring letters that may not have actually been there, a necessary precaution against cheating by those of us who were a bit competitive and might be inclined to stretch the truth a bit.
Here is how it would work in our family car.
Imagine there is a sign saying “Get a Great Night’s Sleep at Sleepy Time Motel.” If I could shout, “A in Great,” the “A” would be mine. Next, I would look for a “B.” The most desirable words, of course, were those that contained more than one needed letter. For example, “bargain” would be more useful than “great” because it gives you both the “A” and the “B.”
While some letters, like vowels, were relatively easy to find, a couple letters were tough, especially “J” and “Q.” They were dreaded because if several people were stuck on that letter, whoever got the next one appearing on the horizon would have free sailing for awhile. But since “Z” was also hard, we might be able to catch up before the game ended with an exultant, “Z in Zorro’s Antiques.”
That’s why everyone in our family would be on the lookout for the Quaker State Motor Oil sign. It not only gave us the coveted “Q,” we could also get “R,” “S,” “T,” and “U.” Therefore, if several of us were looking for Qs, we would want to be certain that we said, “Q in Quaker” as fast as we could. Then we could continue with “And R, S, T, and U in Quaker State Motor.” We definitely didn’t want to have someone else say the name of the Q word while we had finished our sentence.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many signs along the freeways since Lady Bird Johnson’s Highway Beautification Program. Remember, she’s the one who pushed for legislation to prevent states receiving federal funds that allowed billboards to be erected within a given distance from the side of road. On the one hand, the highways are more attractive. On the other hand, it takes so long to finish the alphabet that it’s not nearly as much fun as it used to be, although trucks do offer a diversion.