Automobiles always seem to get a bum rap. They are, after all, it is said, the reason for urban sprawl, for the rise of the suburb, for sexual promiscuity, for our dependence on oil, for pollution, for junkyards -- the usual litany of horrors. Every technological improvement has its down side, I suppose.
Growing up, however, the car was a place I recall feeling closest to my family. There's nothing quite like barreling down a road in the pitch dark on a late night ride out of town or around town listening to my Mom and Dad talk quietly in the front seat. A good rainstorm, or cold weather, made it even better. My sister and I would lie down in the back seat, talking, or, given my small size, I would curl up in the floorboard at my mother's feet, enjoying the security of a small place and the heat that blew from the vent down there.
We had an Olds, a Jetstar 77, I believe, a tank of a car that guzzled the gas, then $.26 per gallon. I remember riding in it home from church sometime in 1969 or 1970, when we were stopped by the police at a roadblock and informed that a curfew was being put in place at 9:00 (it was just after 9). It was the South, and my city was the focus of race riots, violence I really didn't understand at the age of 11 or 12.
The car was also part and parcel of every annual vacation, when I remember driving, driving, and driving all over the Southeast and Midwest, staying in small mom and pop hotels, my only requirement being that they had a pool. No air conditioning in that car, and no seat belts. Sometimes we'd stretch out in the flat area behind the back seat, just under the rear window. Imagine space for that! We'd stop for picnics beside mountain streams, eat at McDonalds when we felt extravagant, and, mostly, ride and see the sights.
I loved that car. I loved riding in it with my family. We were together, with no MP3 players, DVD players, or CDs --- nothing but our imaginations. We counted blue cars, yellow signs, cows, billboards. We played word games. We even slept (a relief to my parents, I'm sure.)
I had a recurring dream as a kid. I was in that Jetstar 77, driving the streets around my home, alone, at ten. Around and around. I loved it. That's back when cars were cars and gas was cheap. And being in the car was a family thing. And if you're under 40 you probably have no idea what I'm talking about.