Adventures in the Wayback

My dad taught me that life, at its best, is an adventure. A lot of our adventures with our dad were in the back seat of one of a series of old Ford and Mercury station wagons we owned. These were vehicles with a third row (bench actually) of seats in the very back, and in the case of our Mercury, even (exotically) facing backward. Since the second row of car seats was generally referred to as the “back”, my brother and I came to dub the third row as the “wayback”, which also riffed on the wonderfully creative “Rocky & Bullwinkle Show” and the history travelling machine of Mr. Peabody (the talking professorial dog) “and his boy Sherman”.

Our dad took us on many day trips which were launched with no specific destination in mind beyond simply a general direction. These were the days of gasoline at 25 cents a gallon. Throughout the course of the days drive we would end up at some fast-food place for lunch, a miniature golf course or bowling alley for a few games and maybe a donut shop for “goodies” and jolts of caffeine (Cokes for us and coffee for dad). He was happy to be alone in the front driving while we were seemingly miles away in the “wayback” playing out some fantasy world which might or might not be incorporating the world we saw going by.

Sometimes my brother and I were tail-gunners in a World War Two bomber being shot at by, and returning fire on, the other cars and truck behind us. This was usually a more narrative invention than today’s basic first-person shooter video/computer game, because each of us tail-gunners had a back story and a comradely relationship with the other. We were often injured by enemy fire invoking dramatic prior-to-death confessions and/or miraculous recoveries. Sometimes the time-clock was rolled forward a century and we were wielding laser cannons instead of machineguns.

Other car trips we would informally survey the general friendliness and shyness of the drivers and passengers of other cars behind us by animatedly waving at them from our “wayback” perch. Would they return our boisterous and friendly waves with the same, or a more restrained wave or none at all?

Sometimes we would bring the little reel-to-reel tape recorder our mom bought for us and record our own radio programs. The one that jumps to mind is our satirical soap opera, “Sickies Circle”, which featured a deadpan narrator and an array of over-wrought love-lorn characters voiced deliciously and derisively by either my brother or I.

Other times we would play a game we called “Steam Bath”, which was fairly moronic, and involved being lured into some sort of a body-encompassing machine (which we saw in TV shows and cartoons but never in real life) that gave your body a sort of personal sauna. Invariably, the device would malfunction, not let the encased person escape, and then build to crescendo of pressure and explode, killing the occupant. The catch was that the death would move you through three states in sequence. First in the alive state, you would be lured into the steam bath by some marketing pitch delivered by the robotic voice of the device itself. Then after malfunction and explosion, you would transition from being alive to being in heaven. Amazingly enough, as you enjoyed this wonderful new environ, there would be another steam bath that would lure you into it and, or course, again malfunction. The subsequent explosion would move you from heaven to hell, where you would desperately look for and hopefully eventually find yet another malfunctioning steam bath to kill you back to being alive again. The fun of the game was the ever ratcheting up of the verbiage and other incentives that would lure you into the steam bath in the live world or heaven or your own fast talking to get yourself into a steam bath in hell.

One time I remember my brother and I singing one hundred verses of “Henry the Eighth” by Herman’s Hermits, the final stanza beginning with “one hundredth verse… same as the first…” It must have been mind numbing for our dad to be driving up front hearing this repetition, but he never said anything and drove on.

And finally, the most exciting travel scenario for our backseat adventures, were our vacation trips back east to either Binghamton New York or Cape Cod Massachusetts. Either of these was a daylong trip usually begun at five-thirty in the morning to get as much driving done as possible before the hot August sun was a factor in a non-air conditioned car.

Because of the before dawn start time, the car would be configured for the trip the night before. The backseat and “wayback” seat were put down flat and we would put two thin cot mattresses to cover the entire back area of the station wagon behind the front seat. Suitcases were squeezed into corners or somehow underneath the seats, leaving a large flat cushioned area which would then be festooned with pillows and blankets for my brother and I to initially sleep in and later play in during the long day’s trip. This of course was before the days of seat belts and I shudder to think what would have happened in this configuration if we had gotten in a crash.

The morning of the trip we would be awoken, bleary-eyed before dawn, and still in our pajama’s, stumble out and into the back of the wagon. My dad usually taking the first shift driving would set out on this grand day’s adventure. My brother and I would nestle ourselves under all the blankets and amongst the pillows and peek out the windows at the scenery going by. I can remember watching mile after mile of telephone wires, with their lazy gravity induced curve from pole to pole as we drove. Eventually we would be awake and play in our cushioned play area in the back, the various games I have described before among others.

2 replies on “Adventures in the Wayback”

  1. Thanks for writing so beautifully about that popular family transportation in the 60’s. There were 7 kids in my family so the memories have a few more altercations thrown in. Overall though it was good to learn about places that weren’t Ann Arbor or a European capitol.

  2. Thanks Michael… I appreciate the kudos. I guess many of us have great recollections about those big 1960s “cruise machines” many of our families had. I try to hang on to that mantra that “Life is an adventure”, or at least should be, at its best.

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