Did you know that New Hampshire is the only state that does not require anyone over the age of 18 to wear a seatbelt? All other states have seatbelt laws of varying severity for travelers of all ages. While the United States was right in step with the rest of the world for the installment of “safety restraints”, we were nearly dead last (right along with the U.K. and Hong Kong) to make it a legislated requirement. Australia won that race, requiring the use of seat belts as early as 1970, with New Zealand, France, and Singapore following hot on their heels. The U.S. didn’t get serious about safety belts until 1984, when New York became the first state to make it mandatory.
Nowadays, it’s second-nature for most people to hop in and buckle-up. For the “under 30” set, ya’ll have been raised with a safety restraint of some sort your whole life. No matter how much you kicked or screamed or tantrumed or begged or whined or cried, the law said you had to sit in the back seat with the proper safety harness; all dependent upon your age, height and weight. By the time you were old enough to drive, you had been thoroughly indoctrinated with the immutable evidence of how seat belts save lives. It really is a no-brainer for you: kind of like brushing your teeth or remembering to lay down when you sleep.
Imagine for a moment, though, that maybe you spent the first several years of your life sleeping standing up. There were beds around, but you had to change the sheets and make it up every morning. Such an inconvenience! Or maybe, nobody told you about brushing your teeth—ew!—only flossing. Yeah, you flossed every day and swished and gargled, but no brushing. There were tooth brushes around, but nobody used them. These crackpot guys who call themselves “Dentists” kept recommending that you use the toothbrush morning and night. But come on! So much time! Really, who has the time to run a stick full of bristles around their teeth and gums not once, but twice every day?
Ridiculous as it sounds, this was kind of the attitude about seat belts before the 1990’s. As a matter of fact, here’s a trinket of trivia: I remember watching the television series, “Scarecrow and Mrs. King”. (Our family loved this program.) Kate Jackson’s character, “Amanda King,” had an ever consistent, never faltering habit of buckling her seat belt every time she got in a car: EVERY time. No matter whom they were chasing, or who was being chased, or how much of a hurry they were in, every single time she got into a car she buckled that seat belt: much to the dismay of the “Scarecrow” (Bruce Boxleitner) who was a spy, and far too cool for such mundane encumbrances.
So, why am I talking about seat belts? I don’t know. What I really wanted to talk about was the car I grew up in. And that just lead me to thoughts about how we traveled back then: Romping around in the back seat; hanging out the window; crawling over the seats; whatever struck our fancy.
We traveled, our family. When my last sister was born, I think my father said to himself, “Self, this is the size of our family. We need a family car we can travel in!” (All five of us: 2 parents, 3 children.) My father made good money in those days. I would have never known it. I didn’t know the difference between rich or poor or whatever. But apparently, he made enough to factory-order our 1973 Chrysler Town-and-Country Station Wagon with all the trimmings and power-everything. This was a beautiful car. It could have taken us to the moon if we’d had a map.
My dad loved this car and cared for it like one of his own. The thing was a Leviathan. It had slick leather seats you could skateboard across and nooks and crannies where you could play hide-and-seek for days and never be found. They would seriously have to send out Search-and-Rescue to find you. You could fit 50 people in that middle seat! And that’s only the middle part. The real treasure is in the back.
As with all station wagons, the back part laid out flat. My mother hand-stitched a special pad to fit into the back part perfectly, and covered it with a homemade quilt, so we kids could roll around back there and read or color or nap or whatever we did while Dad drove us all over creation. That back space was mostly mine. My sisters spent most of the time in the middle seat, doing whatever they did. But I liked the back… Back there with our dog, Missy.
My favorite—very most favorite of all things kind of favorite—thing to do was to lie back at night time and look up at the stars through the back window. The window tilted in perfectly so I had the most beautiful view of the heavens. The car was usually quiet. Mom and Dad may have been chatting it up in the front seat, but that was miles up ahead. If you ever wanted to talk to the front seat, you had to use a freakin’ intercom and pay long-distance charges just to ask for a bathroom stop.
No, this was sacred time for me. My time. I don’t know how often I did this, but we travelled a lot. Every summer we traversed these great United States from one coast to the other and took our time all in between. (Dad was a big believer in travel-education.) And I always looked forward to traveling at night so I could meditate with the stars. It was during these quiet solitudinous moments of my very young life that I met and came to know God. I would often be so completely overwhelmed by the grandeur of it all—the world, the universe, and all that is in it—and the gratitude for my every breath, that I would weep for miles in absolute silence. Silence, so no one would ask me if I was alright. Silence, so my parents would think I was asleep. Silence, so as not to disturb the sacred place.
I thought something might be wrong with me that I was always so sensitive. When our fourth-grade class went to see “Call of the Wild” (1976), I—and only I—walked out into that blasted sunlight, quiet tears streaming down my face. After all—Dude!—Thornton just died and left Buck all alone! Seriously! Wouldn’t that rip anybody’s heart out? Nope. Just mine.
“Hey look!” One of my classmates pointed at me. “She’s really crying!”
“No, I’m not,” I mumbled. “Shut up.”
“It’s not nice to point,” the teacher said to the rude kid. And then she smiled at me.
“Oh, man!” I thought. “Can I just go off and die somewhere right now?”
And then I grew up and realized my sensitivity is a gift. And I try to respect it as such… even though it’s still embarrassing and still gets me into trouble.
Back to the back seat: It also folds up into a rear-facing seat! Yup! And that seat only holds 30 people, but between the middle seat and the back, you could probably fit my entire elementary school student-body and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Attached to the roof between the middle seat and the back was an air-conditioning unit built right into the vehicle. This was an entirely new concept at the time. New technology! Also, power-windows, power-locks, power-mirrors, power-brakes, power-steering, a power antenna that went up and down with a switch, and—wait for it—an eight-track player! YesSiree-Bob! That’s what I said.
And thus we see—in ever so brief summary—the reasoning behind, the explanation for, the rationale and elucidation of my relentlessly intolerable fascination with the entire repertoire of music by John Denver and Henry Mancini. Never together—these two! Oh, no! My parents must have purchased every 8-track tape containing the music of John Denver or Henry Mancini by way of every Stuckey’s Truck Stop in America which we frequented. Those tapes, right along with the 20 lbs. of ground pecan dust my mother stockpiled for her Christmas recipes.
Dad also picked up old radio programs at these stops. So we all became too well-acquainted, in my opinion, with the likes of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Fred Allen, Fibber McGee and Molly, and Jack Armstrong: the Aaaaaall-American-Boy. (Who ate Wheaties and Royal Pudding.)
The great green Leviathan stayed with our family for eleven years. I learned to drive in this car. It was akin to learning how to captain a ship, really, more than driving a car. Consequently, I have absolutely no fear whatsoever of driving any large vehicle. I was weaned on the titanic.
Eventually though, kids grow up, schedules get busy and everyone starts going their separate ways. We needed another car and sadly, the time came to trade in the great Leviathan. I think we all cried that day. We knew it had to be done. The 1973 station wagon was no longer the super-cool car it once was. It was still in great shape. I mentioned how well my father cared for it. But cars were different now: smaller and requiring less fuel. And, of course, there was the “image” to keep up. Who can be cool driving a ’73 station wagon to high school?
Do cars have souls? You know, they’re just metal and rubber and foam and plastic and… parts. But a teddy bear is only fabric and stuffing. A blanket is only thread. A ring is only metal. But if what we pour into these temporary elements in the form of memory and experience—in the form of love—has anything to do with their value: Well then, the Great Green Leviathan was our “Nanna” and I still miss her.
I miss the way she smelled and way I felt completely safe when I was in her “lap”. I miss the sound of the A/C unit as it pumped out that lullaby of cool air through the summer swelter. I miss the feeling of family and of not having to be responsible for anything but the dog and myself. I miss the exploration, the adventure, the new lands, the old haunts. I miss my Nanna.
Rest well, Nanna. Thank you for the miles and the nights of stars. (And you know what? I’m really glad you didn’t have seat belts.)