Sunday 25 Sep 2016

Riding in the Back
AJ Robinson

These days, riding in a car is all about safety. Infants are in special car seats, kids have booster seats, and everyone wears a seat belt. Well, we hope they do. And, of course, this is best -- let me make that clear -- right from the onset, I agree with it! I was just about dumbstruck that an actual study was needed to determine that texting while driving is dangerous. I was like, "Well, duhhhhh!"

But, there is something to be said for riding in the back of a car or pickup truck.

Back when I was a kid on Martha's Vineyard Island -- in the time of the "ancients" -- in the late 60s and early 70s, such safety measures were rare. That we all lived was due more to the slower pace of the time and place than anything else. My father had a VW Squareback, and it was not uncommon for him or my mother to drive a huge car-full of us to the beach. There'd be me, Lisa, Dailis, maybe Reed and Jimmy and Eddy, and maybe another adult or two. So, do the math -- a lot of people! A Squareback was not exactly known for its roominess. So, several of us would be consigned to the far back -- something we all loved.

After all, we could sit around in a tight little circle, chatter away, look out the back window at the cars behind us, and even play all sorts of games. And then, coming back from the beach, we'd sit there and review all that we'd done that day. Sometimes we'd have seashells or other stuff we'd found on the beach; or we'd just pick up some of the things invariably left in the back of the car and invent a use for them. An old Cheerio's box became a TV or radio; some paper towel tubes became binoculars or laser guns. Looking back, it truly amazes me the fun we could have in such a limited space.

Still, it was a true miracle that we lived!

Yet, I can understand why. Back then, cars didn't drive as fast, and on the Island no one drove very fast under and conditions. So, we enjoyed the simple joy of the moment -- as kids would -- and didn't think of the danger.

And then there was my brother Greg's pickup truck. He lived on the Island and worked there as a general contractor. So, as you'd expect, he had a pickup truck with his tools in the back, and usually some scraps of lumber. He was quite a bit older than me. I'm the baby of the family. I was (am) closer in age to his two kids, Nick and Heidi, than I am to any of my brothers. So, when he took us anywhere on the Island -- whether the beach, to help on one of his jobs, or just to visit someone -- we kids rode in the open back and loved it.

He'd cruise on down one of the many tree-lined road and we'd stand up in back, hold on to the roof of the cab, and relish in wind whipping against our faces. The smells of the Island would positively force themselves up my nose and overpower my senses. There was that distant flavor of salt sea air, the strong smell of honeysuckle, and just the merest hint of skunk. Not generally considered a highlight of nice aromas, but taken in -- moderation, it really wasn't all that bad.

Yeah, I know -- oh so dangerous!

But, overall, no one cared. Well, there were some Island cops who seemed to take great pleasure in rousting us hippies. You see, Greg was your classic hippie -- long hair, headband, tie-dye clothes, and big bushy sideburns. And some of those Island cops were true "good old boys"! They took one look at Greg and pulled him over. What was truly hilarious is that the cops never cared one iota that us little kids were riding in the back. They'd take Greg's license, get on their radio, check him out for any warrants, give him a stern warning about obeying the traffic laws, and then send him on his way. Oh, and yeah, as he'd walk away, he'd say, "You kids sit down back there."

Looking back, I realize we were incredibly lucky, but I also realize that that period was a real clash of cultures. Me, I was too young to understand it, but to see the older generation butting heads with the young, and seeing the things they did to irritate each other just makes me laugh. I truly believe that Heidi could have been playing with matches and a can of gasoline, Nick could have been juggling knives, and I could have been loading a gun -- and that cop would not have so much as raised an eyebrow.

"Kids playing," is what he would have said.

But, a long-haired hippie driving a pickup truck -- oh, he had to be "put in his place" by "the man."

There are a lot of things about my childhood that I miss. Riding in the back of a car or truck was fun, but people getting rousted just for being different -- no, that was bad. I know that the former has pretty much fallen by the wayside, and that's for the best. The question is: has the latter? I leave it to the next generation to answer that question.

Combining the gimlet-eye, of Philip Roth, with the precisive mind of Lionel Trilling, AJ Robinson writes about what goes bump in the mind, of 21st century adults. Raised in Boston, with summers on Martha's Vineyard, AJ now lives in Florida. Most of the time he writes, but sometimes he works at Disney World to renew his fantasies and get a few dollars more. AJ writes, with insight and passion, about his family and his dog. His liberal, note the small "l," sensibilities often lead to bouts of righteous indignation, well focused and true.

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