Back in the 1940s automobiles – like everything else – traveled at a considerably slower pace, allowing motorists ample opportunity to soak in the roadside sights.
Those sights included iconic Burma Shave signs that sprouted up along the country’s highways and byways.
The four-line couplets were printed on signs one line at a time and posted at approximately 100-yard intervals.
Travelers would read their way toward the humorous punch-line.
Nowadays as we whiz down the interstate there’s not much to read other than bland “Food Gas Lodging” signs at each exit. I was recently reminded about our literary loss by a Jean Shepard short story titled “Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss.” It’s about a long-ago family road trip, and Jean’s pop’s devotion to the signs:
“The old man cackled appreciatively. His favorite form of reading, next to the Chicago Herald-Citizen sports section, was Burma Shave signs. He could recite them like a Shakespearean scholar quoting first folios.”
Eventually the Burma Shave signs went the way of mud flaps and quarter-a-gallon gas, but I can think of several that would be appropriate for day’s travelers:
Cell phone drivers Like to blab But no dial tone From graveyard slab Burma Shave
Or a nod to our state law allowing the salvaging of road-kill:
Mushy varmits In the road Means yummy meal Scoop up a load Burma Shave
A reminder that on today’s high-speed highways nobody likes a slowpoke:
Granny’s slow But she is 90 What’s your excuse For dragging hiney? Burma Shave
And if that doesn’t get the message across, try this:
Geezer drivers Haulin’ tail About the speed Of crippled snail Burma Shave
Who could fail to identify with this one:
Windshield bugs Make quiet a splat Wonder why They’re all so fat? Burma Shave
Back in the good old days it would have been possible to combine two fixtures of highway Americana, Burma Shave poems and See Rock City signs:
See rock city What a sight Admission’s cheap If dad’s too tight Burma Shave
Most male drivers have been here:
The road runs out So slow down hoss As your wife said Your butt is lost Burma Shave
Or a gentle hint to today’s pudgy society:
Start a diet Don’t over-eat Till you can see Your missing feet Burma Shave
The worst thing in the world was for the fourth and final sign – the one with the punch line – to be missing. You’d recite the first three and be leaning forward with anticipation, looking for the final one, the zinger, only to be disappointed when it wasn’t there. But that allowed creative travelers to compose their own. For example:
My gal Sal Lies on the grass Getting sunburned (final sign missing, use imagination)