17 April 2007

Technicolor travel, remembered

"Everything looks worse in black and white" --Paul Simon, "Kodachrome"

Danger, Will Robinson: Talmadge is fixin' to have a road geek eruption!! ("fixin'" -- there's that 35% Dixie talk for ya)

I'll preface my treatise with a simple question: If given the choice, which would you rather have guiding you on our highways.......

This, your basic regulation U.S. highway shield?
Seraphim's probably thinking, "Oh no. There he goes, bitching and moaning about those damned colors again!"

The 'colors' of which I speak are the late, lamented Florida U.S. highway shields. Other states experimented with colors in the 1950s -- Arizona tried it for a short while with directions (northbound routes = red; south = green; west = blue; east = ???), Connecticut used colored
shields for a time, U.S. routes within the District of Columbia were said to have been color-coded prior to the 1960s, and even Mississippi experimented with color. Roadways within many cities had colored shields. Tupelo did. And it shouldn't surprise you that I remember 'em: US 45 = green. US 78 = red. US 278 = blue. Miss. 6 = yellow.

Downtown Greenwood [

It's been said that the arrival of the urban interstate made the whole color business obsolete. Other states gave up and went monochrome. However, FLORIDA took the ball and ran with it, making an institution out of paint-by-numbers navigation. The Sunshine State began putting up colored shields in 1956, and used their system for more than 30 years. Florida's highway department even mentioned this fact on their official road maps: "For your convenience, U.S. highways are marked with distinctive colors designating each route."

And roadgeeks like myself ate it up, hue by glorious hue. It meant something special. Seeing the colored route signs - above all else, even the billboards for tourist traps - meant one thing: YOU'RE IN FLORIDA! When we made Summer trips to Florida during my growing up years (Sarasota, mostly), seeing the green US-27 shield and especially the beautiful blue US-90 marker were all my eyes needed to see. And my heart would race when I-75 ran out at Tampa (back in the stone age, ya know), and we picked up the Tamiami Trail. US-41 was the highway, and her color was orange. Sarasota and paradise at the Coquina On The Beach were near!!!

Dorothy followed yellow brick roads. Florida went her one better: travelers could follow the yellow shields. Or blue. Or green. Red. Orange. Intersections in Florida had more color than Joseph and his amazing dream coat.

So ... what happened? It was simple as our federal gumment. There's the small matter of a publication called the MUTCD. I'm sure Oprah will recommend it someday. Kate/Susan might even consider it for her "Lit Chicks" group -- just in case they need an insomnia remedy.

It's the (M)anual of (U)niform (T)raffic (C)ontrol (D)evices, and it spells out -- right down to size, color and shape -- regulations for those unassuming sheets of metal bolted to posts. In 1956, states were given far more leeway in designing road signage. By the '80s, as with other facets of government, Uncle Sam became a road sign micromanager.

Florida's colors were now in violation of federal law. Roadside contraband. The state could continue to post them, but such flagrantly colorful insubordination would cause the Feds to take away their allowance. Lose the colors, or elsein' we'll take away your highway money.

"Talk back to me young man, and I'll ground you."

Florida had little choice but to sell their stock in Sherwin-Williams. Black and white shields started going up in the early '90s. Today, there aren't many colored markers left. They're mostly on isolated urban stretches or in forgotten crevices of rural areas.

Finding a rare surviving specimen of shieldus pigmentibus today is quite thrilling for persons of my ilk. Back in 2004, when Seraphim and I were attending a family reunion of hers south of Bainbridge, Ga., I took a short trip down to Chattahoochee, Fla. to procure some Lotto tickets (the reunion venue was just miles from the Florida line). As I drove into the Sunshine State and approached Highway 90, I saw a blue shield. I felt like Marlin Perkins. Hell, if Jim Fowler were with me, I'd have given him my ratchet set and had him take it down as a souvenir -- while, of course, I told my friends about the latest Mutual of Omaha insurance policy.

I returned to the reunion, and evidently I had a smile on my face or some happy expression. My wife said, "Either you won big on a scratch-off, or you saw a colored sign."

Seraphim knows me too well.

If the colors pique any curiosity, here's somewhere to go and kill some time.

Otherwise, in the words of Marvin Gaye, we've come to the end of our road.

Ciao for niao.

--Talmadge "Primordial Polychromasia" Gleck

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