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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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But mostly, we miss the “way back.”

Early Spring

Tonight I took a long walk through neighborhoods near my hotel. Early spring bursting all around me. Trees raining pollen. Daffodils in full bloom. The deep, damp smell of new growth: grass, hydrangea, pear trees. I walked the wide sidewalks next to homes that looked so much like my hometown, I found myself lost in childhood thoughts, a lifetime of early springs. The ceaseless hope for longer days and time outside. The near-frenetic excitement that caused me to me shed my coat weeks too soon. The subtle, unstoppable change in the evening sky as I ran to the sound of my Father’s whistle calling me home.