Monday, July 22, 2013

The station wagon's Very Back was very dangerous, very awesome

This column first appeared in The Dallas Morning News and on DallasNews.com.
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In a time when cars can be equipped with satellite radio, Internet access and DVD systems, I know this is going to be a tough sell. But as the ultimate family road-trip vehicle, I’m going with a 1978 banana-yellow Ford Fairmont station wagon that guzzled gas, dripped oil and smelled like french fries and Amway cleaner.

Nostalgia is distorting my logic, of course. The Fairmont, although often described with expletives by my father, was the main vehicle of my childhood.

But there’s more to it than that. And as thousands of families head out on road trips this summer, I think the new generation of parents in the front will understand why I have such fond memories of the back.

Maybe they even took trips in a car like the Fairmont, which had a feature you can no longer find on any vehicle:

My family's wagon was yellow, so not nearly this retro cool.
Blissful ignorance.

When my family would go on road trips, my dad would fold down the back seat, creating a large, carpeted space that stretched to the back window. His kids called it the “Very Back,” a special area where we could travel as cargo unencumbered by safety considerations.

My brother, sister and I took blankets and pillows back there. We brought books, magazines, and games to pass the time in our mobile play room. We lied on our backs and looked out the windows at street signs, stoplights and splattering raindrops. It was awesome.

“No seat belts, nothing,” my dad said with a laugh when I asked about it recently. “You were just rolling around back there.”

Especially on sharp turns. The kid cargo sometimes added to the drama by yelling “whoa!” while exaggerating the roll to one side of the Very Back.

Thirty years later, I’m stunned that my parents let us ride back there.

“But you all wanted to be in the very back,” my mom said.

Yeah, but we also wanted to eat ice cream every day, and my parents wouldn’t let that happen. They also told us we couldn’t have cereals like Cocoa Puffs and Fruity Pebbles because the sugar was a risk to our health, unlike free-floating in the back of a wagon squeaking and rattling at 60 miles per hour.

It was a very different time, obviously. Our other family car didn’t even have seat belts in the back, and it was a convertible. There was no gate around our backyard pool, the monkey bars at my elementary school were built over cement, and there was nothing strange about riding to baseball practice in the back of a pickup truck. I’m sure I also ran with scissors, probably as I was hurrying to open a model-car kit with that great-smelling glue.

Seat belts are now mandatory, and even if they weren’t, I couldn’t imagine driving my kids around without them. Our minivan isn’t much to look at, but it’s got working seat belts and air bags ready to deploy from all directions. If it didn’t, I might consider bubble-wrapping my kids before long trips.

Like many parents of today, I tend to be overprotective. I know I’ve got to give my sons some freedom and some room to explore, but even if the law allowed it, I couldn’t give them that freedom while cruising along the freeway.

I do wish, however, that I could give them the feeling I had in the Very Back. The Fairmont was already a hunk of junk by the time I was 9 years old, but there was something magical about stretching out under a blanket, letting the bumps in the road put you in a relaxed trance, and then falling asleep under a smear of night sky.

It was too perfect to be dangerous.

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