The White Wagon
For ten years we drove from Nebraska to Minnesota and back every summer. The ten hour car trips that got us there were cramped, noisy, smelly, boring, and occasionally violent. How our parents survived I do not know. Add the occasional neighbor, foreign exchange student, or family pet into the mix, and we are talking about heroism of mythological proportions.
The ideal vehicle for a six person family vacation happens to be a 1982 Chevrolet Caprice Classic Station Wagon. In addition to the regular backseat, our wagon featured a way back. The way back is a place that is farther back than the back. It is behind the back and the lucky ones who sit there actually sit back-to-back with the people sitting in the back. A way back comes in handy for a family prone to personal conflicts.
The two-by-two-by-two seating arrangement allows for maximum personal comfort and clearly demarcated space boundaries. The person you are sitting next to you is your buddy. You can play games with your buddy, or talk to your buddy. But you are not supposed to hit your buddy, or put your body into his or her space. Usually, our parents were front seat buddies. Doug and Anne, my older brother and sister, were back seat buddies. My little sister Karen and I were way back buddies. Sometimes, in an emergency situation, you have to change buddies.
Here’s a scenario which may or may not have actually occurred. I’m not sure if it happened or not because most of my memories of these car trips have been suppressed for my own protection. But it’s a plausible memory. Doug, upon waking from an uncomfortable nap, realizes that Anne has eaten all of his gummy worms. He decides to retaliate by rubbing his hand in his sweaty armpit and wiping it all over Anne’s face while she’s staring out the window.
We have serious problem on our hands. Dad is driving the entire family down the interstate at 65 miles per hour. Doug has just armpit-wiped Anne. In the face. She has no choice but to retaliate. They are alone in the backseat with a rusty wire and biological weapons have already been unleashed. Escalation is imminent.
The unhappy buddies need to be separated. Dad calmly pulls the car onto the shoulder. Doug is placed in the front seat next to dad. Anne is transferred to the way back. Doug and Anne are now separated by over seventeen feet. They are facing opposite directions with my mother me acting as a back seat buffer. At this point my father is instructed to place the emergency Billy Joel tape in the cassette deck. By the time we get halfway through “Piano Man,” peace has returned to the White Wagon.