I grew up in the post-Vietnam, pre-Reagan seventies. We had a 1972 Dodge Van, which was General Lee orange, emblazoned around the middle with a thick, white stripe. It got four miles to the gallon when it was coasting downhill, and we drove it everywhere, even during the gas crisis.
This was before mini-vans and seatbelts. When I was a kid, bench seats were the norm in cars, and mostly, everybody just sat up front. I think most front benches could comfortably seat thirteen across. It is stunning how quickly my mom could pump the breaks while simultaneously stopping her three kids from catapulting head first through the windshield, all with her superhuman right arm.
When I was seven, our family spent two weeks driving up the California coast, with no reservations, and no plans, in that 1972 Dodge Van. My mom was about six months pregnant with my youngest sister. Those were the days when pregnant women wore cotton shirts with the word “baby” hovering above a stitched arrow which pointed towards their bellies. The seventies were not known for their subtlety.
That trip was magical. I remember choking down cheap pancakes at dollar diners, and swimming in hotel pools (it is an irrefutable fact that no matter where you take your kids on vacation, they really only want to be in the pool). We slowly wound our way up Highway One, the sun cutting the ocean into a hundred million diamonds, just for us.
We went all the way up into Washington, but we promptly turned around at the border, and I’m still not sure why. Perhaps we ran out of energy, or money. Perhaps we had no interest in the Space Needle. I don’t remember much about the way back. A picture tells a story of a time that I fell, scraping my hands and knees on the rocks while hiking. I can still see that picture in my mind, though I’m sure it’s been lost for years. I’m wearing cut off jeans (very high on the thigh, with the white pocket sneaking out from underneath the frayed edge of the blue denim), knee high socks, and a blue skateboarding shirt with white piping on the sleeves. My mom is standing next to me, wearing (not kidding) her pregnancy shirt with the arrow on it. I am proudly showing the camera my bloody hands while my California 1970’s afro frames my face, the Redwoods towering in the background, telling their stories in whispers and groans.
I remember another trip in that van, when my parents kidnapped us from school one Friday morning, and drove us 90 miles south to Anaheim, where we checked into another cheap motel (and, of course, we swam in the pool until our feet bled from the concrete pool bed). At night, we went to the Angels game, where I saw Rod Carew hit a blistering line drive into the stands, striking an older gentleman and stopping play for several minutes. The next day, we stayed at Disneyland until very late at night, arriving back home in the early morning silence of Junewood Court, the sleepy street on which I learned to ride my bike. My parents scooped us out of our blanket cocoons, and snuck us into our beds without us making a sound. We’d wake up the next morning wondering if it was all a dream, until we felt the bottoms of our feet, still blistered from the motel pool. We’d smile and know that for a day, we were immortal.
These are the memories I have as a kid: I grew up with parents who thought it was perfectly normal to kidnap us from school to drive to Anaheim, and to drive north up the coast without a plan. In the eighties, my dad would sometimes come home with the newest Atari 2600 cartridge (Space Invaders, Asteroids, Missile Command), which I thought was for us kids, until I realized they played it late into the night after we were asleep. I have other memories, of course I do. It wasn’t all giddy and care-free in our house. But those trips in that van are the memories that cascaded over me today, as I remembered the boy that I was, and the man that I am.
I am the child of adventurers. Those memories come into my consciousness like the tide, rising and reminding me who I am and what I need to do with my life, when I am not sure anymore.
And so I wanted to say thank you, mom and dad. For not following the rules. For taking us past the boundaries. For teaching us to stretch and grow and become more than we thought we could.