Backseat Survivor

(This post is a continuation of the reposting of previous Growing Up Boomer posts from 2018 until they have been returned to their rightful cyber home. It is my hope, if you have been a follower of the blog, that you will enjoy revisiting them; if you are new to Growing Up Boomer, I hope you will find them informative and memory-provoking. Jeff)

I don’t know its origin, but at some point, in the Fifties and early Sixties, growing up Boomer meant some of our fathers had this thing about wanting to take long road trips with their families during their one or two-week-long summer vacations. Those of us who grew up in the East had fathers who expressed the view that the most spectacular educational experience they could provide to their offspring was the opportunity to cross the continent, take pictures with their Kodak Brownies of notable vistas in the most important National Parks, and be able to dip a toe in the Pacific.

I don’t know if fathers on the Left Coast felt the same way, but my non-scientific sample of one never encountered a California family passing through Pennsylvania, so maybe even then, the West Coasters were a bit less obsessive than we Easterners.

Boomer fathers rationalized these forays by pointing to all the things their kids were going to learn about this great country of ours, but some of us kids discovered the real reason when we arrived back home. In my case, the revelation followed the mother of all trips in 1962, a nearly four-week excursion that I believed, at fourteen, rivaled the challenges faced by Robert Peary[1]. Jerry, my father, revealed the truth when the first person we spoke to upon our return had asked, “So, Jerry, how was the trip?”

I remember Jerry stretching to his full, five-foot-seven-inch height and answering, “Eighty-five-hundred miles in twenty-six days!”

That was it. The magnitude of the feat. Prior to the trip, when asked what it was that motivated him, Jerry responded with the aforementioned reasons—National Parks, Oceans, educating the kids about this great nation—but I know the real reason that was ricocheting around the inside of his skull was a highly celebrated catch phrase of Fifties’ Masculinity, something that might be referred to today as the clarion call of toxic masculinity: “Because it is there[2].”

Lois, my mother, was the person bursting to share all the details of the mega trip. Knowing Jerry had nothing more to say once he had declared the scope of his feat, Lois would follow his declaration of achievement (an accomplishment certainly worthy of a citation in National Geographic) with a dramatic recitation of the highlights, which would last as long as an unfortunate listener could keep his or her eyes open. But I am getting ahead of myself.

After a lifetime of spending his weeks of summer vacation at Atlantic City, Jerry, for the second time in his life, decided it might be fun to go on a road trip. The first road trip was in 1939 when Jerry was sixteen. He had driven his mother, Babe, and her sister, Martha, from Camp Hill (a few miles across the river from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) to Miami in his grandfather’s Cadillac.

I have always assumed—due to the number of times I had heard that trip referred to by all the parties involved—the trip to Miami was Jerry’s first experience with the ego-gratification of declaring something like, “I drove over twelve-hundred miles in three days and then twelve-hundred miles back,” something that was, perhaps, of some significance in 1939 because the trip was accomplished solely on two-lane—and sometimes three-lane—highways.

I feel the need to digress a moment to explain one of the many reasons why some of us Boomers are an odd lot: the aforementioned three-lane highways. My guess is that Gen-Xers and Millennials have never encountered the genius of the civil engineers who created opportunities for fathers to manifest machismo: spectacular head-on collisions and serious, long-lasting trauma for children riding in the back seats of cars a decade or more before seat belts were required.

Imagine, if you will, a highway with only three lanes where the middle lane was the only passing lane for cars going in opposing directions. So what, you ask? Weren’t there clever applications of solid and dashed lines and signage indicating when it was each travel lane’s turn to pass? Guess again! Back in the day, the passing lane between the two outside lanes was a no-man’s land where our fathers had a no-holds-barred opportunity to validate their manhood.

Lest you question the seriousness of this matter in the days before seat belts, Jerry had my younger brother Rick and I practice a drill that involved Jerry shouting “DOWN” at the most random of moments, such as when we were driving at twenty miles-per-hour down a Harrisburg street, or at sixty-five miles-per-hour in an open stretch of the Pennsylvania turnpike, or even after having pulled to a stop in the driveway of our tiny split-level. At the command (DOWN!), Rick and I would dive to the floor behind the front bench seat and huddle there until we were given an “all-clear.”

Yes, Jerry was a World War II vet who apparently never got over (but never discussed) the horrors he had survived in Europe thanks, he believed, to the drill and discipline he received under the auspices of the Army, and by extension, he believed that discipline and drill were essential ingredients for his sons’ survival. Unlike today, there were no armed Nazis in sight in Suburbia in the Fifties and Sixties, but who knows? He may have known something Rick and I did not know.

Which leads finally to the linkage between three-lane highways and the validation of our fathers’ manhood. Because the frequent “DOWN drills” already had me on edge whenever I was in the backseat of our family sedan, a slow-moving vehicle ahead of us on a three-lane would send my heart racing. Beads of sweat would appear on my forehead, and I would find it increasingly difficult to breathe because I knew that Jerry, one of the most impatient people I have ever known, would not be content to allow the driver ahead of us to—as Jerry seemed to believe—deliberately thwart his need to be at his destination precisely when he had planned to arrive (which was at least thirty-minutes before he needed to be there).

What we backseat sufferers knew from experience was that it would not be long before we encountered another father as impatient as Jerry, approaching from the other direction, who found himself behind his own slow-moving impediment to punctuality, and with both fathers thus thwarted, the game would begin.

We would be thrown back against the seats as Jerry floored our sedan and pulled into the passing lane. To our anticipated but nonetheless real horror, another sedan filled with traumatized children would appear in the center lane and head straight toward us at a closing speed of over one-hundred-miles-per-hour. With neither father being willing to succumb to the fear of rending steel, exploding gasoline, and pulverized bodies—instead of decelerating and pulling back into the outside lanes to avoid the oncoming car—it was peddle-to-the-metal for both fathers as the closing speed climbed to one-hundred-forty miles an hour or more.

I would not—could not—breathe as I watched the other car hurtling toward us. With the cars being passed in the outside lanes, there was no place for the passing cars—now both in the center lane—to go until the slower cars had been passed. Lois would slam the palm of her left hand against the dashboard, grab the armrest with her right hand, and scream at the top of her lungs, “JERRY! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?”

DOWN!” would come the command from my father, and Rick and I would dive to the floor. As the roar of the engine, the vibration of the car, and the whine of its tires reached a crescendo, I would envision my father’s face: a flaming-red cartoon Satan, its eyes narrowed, horns raised, with a tooth-filled grin that stretched from ear to ear.

When Lois screamed, “JER-RY!” and Jerry raged at the onrushing opponent, “GET OVER YOU SON-OF-A-BITCH!” I knew the moment of my death was at hand.

But I’m still here, which means that a split second before catastrophe our car would lurch back into the outside lane, and my body would fly and crash into my brother who was already plastered against the car door.

As I heard the opponent’s car roar past, Jerry would glare at the driver and shout, “YOU STUPID SON-OF-A-BITCH!

You might not be surprised to learn that my recollections of these three-lane experiences interfered with my willingness to allow my fathers’ thing about road trips to become my thing, and when Lois—who was always the bearer of glad tidings in our family—would announce, “Guess what boys? Your dad and I have decided that for our vacation this summer, we’re going to take a road trip!” my response was always less than enthusiastic.

I still find it interesting that she never seemed to understand why.

(The featured image is a self-portrait taken in 1909 by Robert Peary and is in the public domain in the U.S.)

[1] Best known for claiming to have reached the geographic North Pole with his expedition on April 6, 1909; his self-portrait heads this post.

[2] Said in 1923 by George Leigh Mallory (not Sir Edmund Hillary) prior to Mallory’s failed ascent of Mount Everest.