I have always loved riding in a car. Well, ever since I became an adult, anyway. And the longer the trip, the better I like it. I adjust the seat for plenty of legroom, set the cruise control, pop the audio book into the CD player, fine-tune the climate control, and let the miles roll by.
Most times, I enjoy the trip more than the destination, especially if the destination is any theme park anywhere, Houston, or places where the tea isn’t already sweet when they bring it to the table. Of course, traveling wasn’t always this idyllic. Back in the day, as they say, it was a totally different experience.
My first clear recollection of a road trip features me, my older sister, and my younger brother in the back seat of a ’57 Ford Fairlane. I think I was five, so that put the calendar around 1960. In this memory, my sister is over on the other side of the compartment, and my brother is on the hump. As many of you will recall, sitting on the hump was a reverse-seniority deal. As a matter of fact, if you were the third (or later) child in the pecking order, you may still be unable to stand up straight.
The youngest child always got stuck sitting on the hump, and in those days, there was always another youngest child in the making. It was the Baby Boom, and federal law dictated that every married couple had to have at least enough children to fill up the back seat of a sedan.
Kids these days probably have no idea about the hump, so I’ll explain. There used to be a bulge in the middle of the floorboard of cars that ran the length of the passenger compartment. This was back in the days before front-wheel drive vehicles were common, and under that hump was the driveshaft. In technical terms, the driveshaft was the doolally that stretched between the hickamadodger and the thingamajig, all of which made the back wheels turn.
Anyway, the problem with the hump was that if you had to sit in the middle of the back seat, the hump ran right under you. So not only did you have no place to put your feet, but you also only had about an eighth-inch of padding between your young derriere and said steel protuberance.
Luckily, my parents were democratic in their child-rearing theories, and on this particular trip, my sister, my brother, and I all had our legs stretched straight out in front of us. This odd position was due to the fact that we were all three sitting on a sheet of plywood. In other words, none of us had any padding under our backsides, and no one had anyplace to put their feet.
Why were we sitting on plywood, you ask? It was because my parents had built a platform in the back of the Ford. This little travelling stage was erected over the seats and floorboards so that we children could sit, eat, and sleep back there. My parents had piled onto the platform so that it would be sure to be hot and uncomfortable, and they were filled with crumbs, popcorn, bread crusts, candy wrappers, paper cups, and the remains of several car games.
The concept was the same as that of the sleeper behind the cab of a long-haul truck, except in our case, there was no mattress. My parents pursued this odd course of action so they wouldn’t have to rent motel rooms. They had actually gotten the idea from an article published in Popular Mechanics Magazine. That’s right. Detailed plans for widescale child abuse used to be printed in national magazines. You just don’t see that kind of journalism anymore.
But let’s get back to my memory. It was hot in that car, summer hot, and all four of the windows were rolled down. Again, for you younger readers, very few cars had air conditioning in 1960. So the wind roared into the car like a freight train and pressed us against our seat backs. Dirt and cigarette ashes entered the vortex and were sucked into our eyes and mouths.
We met the occasional Diamond Reo, Brockway, or Mack truck, and the Fairlane rocked as it attempted to maintain its stability on the narrow two-lane ribbon of patched asphalt. There is an overwhelming impression of hotness and flatness in my memory, so I feel pretty safe with the assumption that we were wheeling through Kansas.
At that time in my life, my family was in the military and lived in Colorado, so a journey through the Wheat State was necessary as we went on our annual trip to Massachusetts, then to Alabama, and then back home. This trip was loosely termed a vacation. And who wouldn’t want to travel 4000 miles in a fog of second-hand smoke with their feet sticking straight out in front of them?
So we rode from Denver to Boston to Birmingham to Denver, and we traversed that entire distance with our bodies resembling little L’s. The dog, bless her poor canine heart, was actually under the platform, in a sort of rolling cave-doghouse from hell. We heard her whimper from time to time, but there wasn’t much we could do to help her. We had troubles enough of our own.
Still, I suppose it could have been worse. Those old 1957 Fords were very big sedans, and there was more than enough room for an outhouse in the trunk. Thank goodness Popular Mechanics didn’t publish plans for that.