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.

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Raymond L. Atkins

Raymond L. Atkins

Raymond L. Atkins resides in Rome, Georgia. His stories have been published in Christmas Stories from Georgia, The Lavender Mountain Anthology, The Blood and Fire Review, The Old Red Kimono, Long Island Woman, and Savannah Magazine. His humorous column —"South of the Etowah" — appears in The Rome News-Tribune. His industrial maintenance column — "The Fundamentals" — appears in Maintenance Technology Magazine. His humorous column — "And So It Goes" — appears in Memphis Downtowner Magazine. His first novel, "The Front Porch Prophet," was published by Medallion Press in June of 2008 to critical acclaim and earned the 2009 Georgia Author of the Year Award for First Novel. His second novel, "Sorrow Wood," was released in June 2009 by Medallion Press and has been nominated for the 2010 Georgia Author of the Year Award for Fiction. Both are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine booksellers. His third novel, "Camp Redemption," will be released in August, 2011.

7 Comments
  1. Our two big cross-country moves (military brat, too) from Southern California to Ft. Benning (and back) were accomplished in a brand new 1956 Chevy station wagon. On one all the luggage went in the back (strorage) area of the car and the kids in the back “seat.” Luggage and kids were reversed in the second trip. Two bright blue cushions were used as padding. Fun times.

  2. We had a ’53 Packard at the time, with overdrive. It would fly, and on vacations the Ol’ Man flew. Every thirty miles or so, he’d hawk one up and announce ‘Beware of the flying oysters!!’ and hack it out the window. You learned to duck early in my family.

  3. My car trip nightmares were both Atlanta to NY and back. The first was in 1955 my brother, both sisters and I spent 3 days in the back seat of a 1950 Henry J. traveling on 2 line black top highways. It was summer and in the evenings when we stopped for the night if there was no pool we would all lay on the cool linoleum floor. The second was a trip to NY to pick up my grandfather’s old car for my older sister. Once again trapped in the backseat of a 1960 plymouth stationwagon on the way up, and a 1957 chrysler on the way back. The return trip was terrible, record heat in Virginia, and NC. I remember putting a towl down on the vinyl seat so you wouldn’t end up sitting in a pool of sweat. Thanks for bringing that memory back to life.

  4. Melinda Ennis

    Raymond, I’m so glad you decided to write about the hump. The hump and bucket seats are as extinct as the typewriter, the record player and a TV that only broadcasts three stations (four counting public TV which you only watched if you were truly desperate because a fishing show, Porter Wagner or The Gospel Hour were on the other three channels). These things are something that are DVDed, Ipoded, Xboxed children could never possibly comprehend. While I certainly don’t miss the hump, I do miss the bucket seat quite a bit. When I first began dating, the bench seat allowed you to scooch up so close next to your boyfriend that it would look to a passing car as if two people were driving. Instead of cell phones and texting causing distraction to the young drivers, our generation was distracted by love (or its close cousin, teenage lust). With his right arm draped around me, my boyfriend/s used only the left arm stretched out to hold the wheel (which was also employed to ocassionaly tamp the cigarette ash dangling jauntily from his lips). Actually, the left arm on the wheel was usually more of a wrist, because the hand was usually dangling (as jauntily as the cigarette) over the wheel as a display of prowess when handling his parents mammoth Buick or Plymouth. The bench seat at a Drive-In was probably the real cause of the baby boom. It easily allowed your date to persist in trying to manuever move you into a totally horizontal position. But the huge space in front of the seat allowed we girls room to occasionally fall into the floor board in our struggles to remain chaste.

  5. Raymond, keep ’em coming! Not only are these stories so recognizable as to make me laugh out loud at our shared painful and hilarious past (service brat, “home” to grandparents in the car for our annual summer “vacation”), but they give my friends and me a chance to hoot over our own parents’ antics. Wow, what were they thinking?

  6. Terri Evans

    Sounds like your dog may have fared worse in its cave than Mitt Romney’s did on top of the car!

  7. Our most memorable trip with four children under the age of eight was when we moved back to Georgia after living in Dallas for a year. The date was June 14 and the temperature was 102. We , too, has fixed a mattress in the back of our wagon so the kids could stretch out. No seat belts had showed up in those days. No air conditioning either. It was so hot that we had to stop every fifty miles to find cool drinks and wipe off the sweat from hot little faces. We could not open windows except momentarily because the roads, although paved, were very dusty and the car would become flooded with gritty dust. We made the trip in one full day, but oh, were we glad when it ended. Did you know you don’t see pine trees west of the Mississippi?

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