You’d never know it today, but there was a time when eating in the car was not only uncomfortable, it was nearly unthinkable. No holders, no fold-out trays, no handy pouches and slots for drinks, treats and garbage bags.
As youngsters, our meal-on-the-go was a Butter Rum Life Saver, and entertainment was the landscape flying by the window. For the kid in the middle, the view was the same but with someone’s head in the way. Drinks were handed out judiciously from a thermos, because any overloaded bladder meant more stops, and more stops meant not making good time.
In the high heat of a summer day when air conditioning was a frill for other people, ice cream was the reward on a Sunday drive. It was the carrot to prevent fighting or whining or someone taking up more than her allotted share of the bench seat by spreading her fingers wide or smoothing her dress across the invisible boundary. That’s why kids get bored in their ear-bud, captain’s chair world: they can’t hear a sibling singing It’s a Small World After All just low enough under their breath to irritate the other (“Make her stop!”) – and trip-long battles to establish territory while the kid on the hump in the middle is yelling “time to change!” are no longer needed.
Technically, ice cream cones produce no garbage. My father couldn’t have been protecting the precious plastic interiors of his station wagons; I still have the Hudson’s Bay blanket my mother would put down on the seat, because bought-and-paid-for plastic was still more valuable than borrowed-money velour, or my personal favourite, Corinthian leather. Hearing Ricardo Montalban roll those words off his tongue made me want to run out and buy a Chrysler Cordoba, even though I was only 11. My mother agreed; my father did not.
My sisters and I would stand at the Dairy Queen window, scanning the menu board before ordering the same thing: chocolate-dipped cones. In the time it took to draw the ice cream, cover them in chocolate and pass them through to waiting hands, my father would eat his plain vanilla cone in three bites. He would head back to the car as my mother tried to buy us time, knowing you can rush many things but you can’t rush a child with a chocolate-dipped ice cream cone.
Inevitably, long before we were ready, we’d pile back in, the heat sending sticky tendrils of ice cream down the sides of the cone. Mom would hand back Kleenex and urge us to hurry up; instead, we’d carefully pull off large sections of hardened chocolate, comparing our talent at this unique skill as dad kept glancing in the rear-view mirror knowing all the Kleenex in the world wouldn’t be helping this at all. So much for no garbage.
We weren’t allowed to get pointy cones in the car, after the first time we were caught nibbling out the bottom of the cone, like mice. It seemed like a good idea at the time, this competition to see who could eat their ice cream upside down. It wasn’t, but it did make me understand that when children have only one thing to focus on, especially in a car, they will become creative geniuses. There is more than one way to eat ice cream, and there is more than one way to pinch your sister.
Cars are not meant for food. Cars are where worst-case scenarios play out, especially for children. Occasionally, we’d get doughnuts, an experience that had to include as many moving parts as possible. A single bite into a sprinkle-covered doughnut would send shards of topping to the floor, while someone else was shooting strawberry jam out of another. My father would down something horrible like a Dutchie in 20 seconds, as tidy and controlled as the one who has to do the cleanup usually is. Children don’t order Dutchies; children order peanut-covered mess machines.
My parents had bought some silence when the back seat was munching away, and there were far more apples than ice cream; looking back, I realize my mother spent half of her life turned sideways in the front seat, hand outstretched for whatever nasty debris we handed to her.
Today, we eat in our cars as a matter of course, from coffee to snacks to meals. My kids have never considered it the treat that we did, though more than once I’ve pulled a roll of Butter Rum Life Savers from the glove box.
They may hide their smiles when I mention what a big deal this was in the dark ages when I was small, but they never turn them down.