“Get in the car, kids, we’re going for a drive.”
You don’t hear that any more. As I write this, gas is more than $1.33 a litre and most people would look at you blankly and ask, “A drive to where?”
Nowhere, of course. That staple of my childhood – aimless driving – is long gone. My own kids wouldn’t understand the concept of three hours of looping about back roads, getting lost on purpose and having no destination. And yet, looking back, those memories are among the most important ones deeply lodged in my mind.
My dad wasn’t much of a guy for random. Leisure was just another word for lazy, and sitting idle meant he hadn’t given you enough chores. He had to be moving, and it wasn’t until an oxygen tank forced him down that he got close to sitting still. Even then, he sweet-talked his therapist into getting him a 40-foot line so he could still work his garden.
But in a car, you’re moving. My father could sit still and move, all at the same time. It’s not just that he was a product of his era; I know many people who love driving, and kids who are missing out on something that has silently leaked away.
Vacations were different. When we made the long treks to Saskatchewan or the cottage or the United States, it was all about making good time, beating the traffic, or getting past another exit before somebody had to pee. The planning had been monumental; maps assembled, coolers packed, who forgot what, well, it’s too late now.
But Sunday drives were different. When this shift worker had a rare Sunday off, we would pile into the back seat knowing exactly where we would be heading: to the country. In his mind my father was heading home, and he was taking us with him. As farms rolled by and small villages and hamlets came and went, my father would tell us what was growing, and what would be done with it when it was finished doing that growing.
It was different then. It was about the driver, not the passengers. My father had to be able to concentrate on whatever it was he wanted to concentrate on, and if we were bored or hot we were left to sort it out. The crazy child-centred world of today has us looking in, as out there slips by unnoticed. We watched Wild Kingdom with dad; he didn’t watch Romper Room with us. We would grow to be adults in his world; he would not become a child in ours. He was the best teacher I ever had.
If temperatures or tempers started to rise, my mother would sing. She had a lovely voice. We would beg my father to join in. I can see that smile, as we pulled him back from the prairies and into our car. He only had one song – Home on the Range – and he only had one note.
I would tell myself stories, usually facing out of the back window of the station wagon. No seatbelts back then and no air conditioning for Al Sommerfeld. With the noise of the wind providing a crucible of isolation, I would braid bits and pieces snatched from my father’s commentary into my own. My world, his world, that world.
I would be fascinated as we passed through Mennonite country, creaked over wooden bridges or landed in a dead-end. A sign would say No Exit, but my father would barely pause. This made my mother nervous, but my father knew you found the best secrets in the places you weren’t supposed to be.
We never had how-was-school talks on these journeys. We didn’t discuss what was for dinner, or who left the garage unlocked the night before. We talked about owls and horses and split-rail fences. Rather, my father talked. He had excellent vision, and his hunter’s eye would see things long before we did. He could pick out things I couldn’t have found with binoculars, because it’s not just knowing where to look, it’s knowing what to look for. He would point to many high-circling hawks a concession over, and tell us it was probably a worksite and the hawks were scooping up newly routed mice. This idea would stay with me for an hour; it would stay with me for a lifetime.
Horses were smart and cows were dumb, but pigs were the brightest. With the windows wide open and our blonde hair whipping wildly, we’d crinkle our noses as my father would tell us which was sheep manure and which was cow manure. We didn’t care; it all just stank. He didn’t say manure, though, and my mother would say, “Oh, Al.”
And we would come home and tumble out, ice cream clues on sticky hands, and my father would head back to his garden, his patch of the prairie.
Readers, have you got any pictures of your family drives? Send us your best pics at firstname.lastname@example.org.