Last weekend, while pausing at Starbucks to let the molten aluminum cool in my car engine, I saw a familiar sight: a sweaty dad and mom in their McDonald’s food-splattered minivan, complete with three uncomfortable, dyspeptic children. It’s high vacation season, and watching the poor couple try to get from Point A to Point B brought back many fond family vacation memories of my own.
In the 1960s, the way my family defined a “vacation” was driving astronomical distances to visit my grandparents in Denver. OK, maybe the distances weren’t astronomical from Minneapolis to the Mile High City, but when we were sitting on an aquamarine plastic Chevrolet Impala station wagon seat, breathing in my parents’ side-stream cigarette smoke, it sure seemed like a long drive. There was no onboard DVD player, there was no satellite radio, there was no in-vehicle amusement of any type except for Dad’s occasional injunction to Look At Some Natural Feature, like the Wall Drug Store in South Dakota.
One year, my father decided that we would take a massive Western tour, which included the obligatory stops at the Grand Canyon, Vail, Mount Rushmore, Moab and then on to see the grandparents. I was 14 or so, and had to sit in the convection oven back seat with my 10-year-old brother, which I note only to mention the obvious potential for brotherly violence.
After a few hours with my brother in the back seat and my parents smoking Winstons and Pall Malls in the front seat, I devised a plan to get even farther away from all of my distracting relatives: I built a fort in the far back space in the station wagon. Back there, the air was cleaner and there was less potential for territorial disputes.
I recall lying there, reading books like “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72” and hoping that my legs wouldn’t spontaneously combust in the Western sun. This particular Impala (my father was obsessed with them: We owned four of them over six years, which should have told him something) wasn’t equipped with air conditioning, since we lived in frosty Minnesota.
Now, anyone vaguely acquainted with Minnesota can also tell you that air conditioning is indeed useful there from May until October or so. My father, a famous ascetic, gutted out many Minnesota summers in polyester sports jackets and Qiana-knit shirts. Air conditioning was for the weak; hence, no AC in the car. We had vents. And windows that rolled down.
As our Western campaign swing took us from one Holiday Inn (Grand Island, Neb.) to the next Holiday Inn (Albuquerque, N.M.), all I was thinking about was a swimming pool. Oh, and Magic Fingers.
Kids now have no idea what Magic Fingers are, and for those under 50, it was a vibrator attached to the bedpost. You would insert a quarter, and it was 15 minutes of jiggly bliss. I never see them in motels anymore; if they were still around, they would have probably changed the name to Virtual Personal Full Body Masseuse and charged $3.99 per minute.
As we were approaching Denver in our rolling Chevy cookie sheet, my mother, who had lifelong delicate health, could bear the heat no longer. She demanded that we stop and have an air conditioner installed in the station wagon. My father went along with it; his plaid polyester sports jacket fused to the aquamarine plastic seat probably sealed the deal.
After experiencing zero gravity in the back seat when we had a tire blowout at 75 mph, we limped into some town in one of the large, rectangular states we had been touring to get the AC installed. I amused myself by baking crescent rolls in the window.
So, for the parents in the Starbucks parking lot, I feel your pain. Just be grateful you have an air conditioner.
Too bad you can’t have nice Magic Fingers when you put the kids to sleep in the Holiday Inn.