Tales from the “way back”

This is for you, Steph.

I grew up in suburban New Jersey in the late seventies and eighties in a tight-knit neighborhood full of kids. In those days, my best friends and most everything I loved or needed was a short walk away.

We played outside for hours at a stretch – in the creek, trees, streets, backyards, and basements.

We lived by simple truths:

Older brothers and sisters were in charge.

Mr. Rosenberg made the best pancakes.

The O’Connors had the biggest kickball team (11).

But perhaps one of the greatest but forgotten places to be during my childhood were the far flung regions of my friend’s parents’ station wagon – what we called “the way back.”

1970-Kingswood-Wagon“Can we sit in the ‘way back’?” was our plaintive plea at the announcement of every road trip, grocery store run, or rainy day ride to school.

In literal terms, the “way back” was so physically far from the front seat it may has well been in a different universe, which I suppose, lent it its magic.

I remember crawling over the back seat to the “way back,” the scratchy feel of the avocado felt, like the fuzz of a new tennis ball, wiry enough to give you a rug burn, soft enough for hours of travel or adventure.

1976_Chevy_CapriceSometimes we leaned against the leather-covered sideboards. Sometimes we lay on our backs, heads close to the back door and watched the sky whisk by, thin clouds racing, sunlight and shadows making patterns across our faces. On long trips, we made beds out of sleeping bags and pillows in Stars Wars and Muppet Show pillowcases.

The “way back” was a safe zone. You were much less likely to get pinched or punched or kicked or glared at by an older sibling if you were there.

On some summer evenings, while our parents sat in lawn chairs, talked and smoked (it was the ‘70s) in the backyard, we kids hung out in the front yard and driveway – sometimes sitting in the parked “way back” with the door open, like a kind of club house.

What I didn’t realize when I started digging into my “way back” memories is that the station wagon was much more than fun for us kids. It was a literal vehicle of empowerment and independence during the ‘70s. It was a call to take to the open road.

Don’t think so?

Think of The Brady Brunch journeying to the Grand Canyon.


Think of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the movie on which the sitcom “Alice” was based. Alice packed up everything she owned in her station wagon, and she and her young son set out on a journey to find a better life. The station wagon their transitional home, big enough to hold all or most of their possessions, big enough to sleep in if they had to.


Think of One Day At A Time. Ann Romano as the quintessential ‘70s single Mom divorcee. She dumped her husband and packed up her girls and her life in their station wagon – and unpacked and remade them all in an apartment of their own, on their own.

bonniefranklinAnd, let we forget, perhaps the most memorable station wagon of all, from National Lampoon’s Vacation.


I’m assuming the station wagon went out of fashion fast when the gas crisis hit, and when times got better, someone came up with the next generation: the minivan.

God, forgive us.

I guess the “way back” is gone forever. Children without seat belts romping around in the backs of fast-moving cars? Well, no.


Oh, 1970s, we miss you and your cavalier attitude, your winged hair, your independence.


But mostly, we miss the “way back.”

15 responses to “Tales from the “way back””

  1. Oh…such a delightful set of memories you’ve shared about your time in the “way back”…love the way you told us about those days…truly an enjoyable read…Thanks for the smiles.

    1. Thanks so much for reading! Happy to help you smile. : )

  2. This was great ! I remember our station wagon growing up and it looked exactly like that except it was blue, with black vinyl interior. We used to drive down to Florida and Mississippi. Those were some long road trips. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Taryn! Ooh, I bet that blue with the black vinyl interior was AWESOME!

  3. so true are your words. And Your writing inspirational. My family took our station wagon cross country in 1976. With my dads civil service vacation days saved up he took his wife, 4 kids and mother-in-law…7 total …we traveled six weeks across the USA. Northern route toward, Colorado and Wyoming, 2 weeks in CA then looped the southern route home. My brother and I got The “way back”. A non-typical version of way back seats, we faced each other but still had the precious buffer of luggage b/w us & the back seat where older siblings and grandma sat. And who could forget the squeaky styrofoam cooler that pre-dates the now common igloo cooler. Our family always had a wagon which helped being that we being, 6 could travel anywhere by car as flying with so many was not really an option. I thought I was so lucky when I was the only kid in the family that got my own car to drive when I got my drivers license. Additionally a good thing as I then packed my entire life into my station wagon to drive 14 hours south to college. It served me well and I quickly learned to grow a thick skin when driving beside all the nifty BMWs my fellow students drove at CU. thanks again for the nostalgia! Lover you, Lisa Sab-Collins

    1. Sab, thanks for sharing all of these memories. I can see them, all because you’ve described them so vividly. Nothing like a Jersey girl on the open road! Much love.

  4. My dear Badman… I Liebster’d you. You are an established writer, so it almost seems unnecessary, but… I love you to pieces, I just had to do it…. 😉

    1. Thank you! Liebster’d? Not sure I know the reference…Help!

    2. Aha! I looked it up! Thank you so much!

      1. I’ll send you 11 questions, my friend 🙂

  5. Jen,
    Steph sent me your “way back” piece. I didn’t know my pancakes were memorable. Your piece certainly is. Thanks for the memories of a time when the world seemed safer, including the “way back.”
    Ed Rosenberg

    1. I’m so happy to hear from you, and thanks for the kind words…and great pancakes!

  6. I had completely forgotten about our neighbor’s station wagon and the joy of sitting and laying in the cozy back. No seat belts back then. Thanks for the memory.

    If you care to, drop by 1950 Suburban Adventures for some of my memories.

    1. Thanks for reading and remembering! I’ll definitely stop by to check out your adventures. : )

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