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When I was growing up in Calgary in the fifties and sixties, summer vacation meant the whole family piling into the car for a road trip to a neighbouring province or state.
For several days before we left, my mother would be running laundry, ironing, baking and making stacks of sandwiches for the road.
On the morning of our departure, having taken care of his sole responsibility – getting the car ready – my father would nag my mother to get in the car to go.
While she finished up myriad last-minute tasks, he would sit in the driver’s seat with the key in the ignition and his hands on the wheel. It was only years later that I understood the injustice of this.
My brother and I would reside in the back seat of our 1956 Chevrolet as the miles rolled along, well supplied with colouring books and comic books. But after a few hours we’d become restless and miserable.
The tedium was relieved with singing and playing games like “Geography,” in which everyone takes turns naming places that begin with the last letter of the previously named place. When my father wanted to end the game, he would invoke “Ajax” and that was that.
My mother served up a steady flow of food from the front seat – typically sandwiches and squares. These measures usually kept us under control, but when all else failed my brother and I would happily start picking on each other, then fighting.
Eventually, my father would blindly smack at us with his free arm. Dodging the arm was huge fun, unless it connected with a body, in which case the exercise ended in tears and the relief of a nap.
Once, we drove through Montana on a Sunday morning. The highway was empty, with vast open countryside as far as we could see. At some point a patrol car emerged from a side road and began travelling just in front of us.
Until then, my father had been clipping along nicely, well over the speed limit. Following the state trooper, he was forced to slow down, and he began complaining loudly. Suddenly he’d had enough. He pulled out into the empty oncoming lane, gunned the car and easily passed the trooper.
As surely as night follows day, on went the police car’s flashing light, we were pulled over and my father was given a speeding ticket. My mother said what she usually said: “Oh, Art.”
Most of the time my father drove with his window open, elbow bent and arm resting on the window ledge. By the end of the journey he had one heck of a sunburn on the top of his arm and elbow. He always swore that in the future he was going to wear a long-sleeved shirt, but he never did.
He also smoked in the car, as most fathers did then, lighting his cigarette from the little tube that pushed into the dash and then popped out when it was hot. Ours had long since ceased to pop, so my father had to hold it in, then pull it out and touch its bright red ember to the tip of his cigarette. My father would tap his ash through the little triangular side window, and it would be mysteriously sucked outside and fly past my window. It broke up the boredom of the back seat.
My Grandma Bradshaw visited us from Regina every summer, which resulted in several excursions. Inevitably we would drive through the Rocky Mountains to Banff, and stop along the way to take photos by the side of the road in front of some famous mountain or another.
I read comic books in the back seat if I could get away with it. This used to upset my mother, who would exhort me to look out the window at “the beautiful view.” I didn’t see anything I hadn’t seen before, so I’d go back to my reading. Or poking my brother. Or talking.
On one of these trips, my grandmother offered me a nickel if I would stop talking until we got to Banff, which was about half an hour away. I was deeply offended and shut up for the rest of the way – not to gain the nickel, but to convey my hurt feelings. I don’t think anyone noticed.
Backseat drama occurred on another occasion when I was required to share the seat with the teenage son of family friends. As we navigated the curving mountain roads, he started to tickle me. After a few minutes of hilarity and horseplay, my stomach started to heave.
My mother craned her neck to look at me from the front seat, then told my father to pull over. But it was too late. Quick as a flash, with the finely honed skill that only a mother could possess, she whipped her brand-new felt hat off her head, flipped it over and cupped it under my chin. I filled the hat. My mother cleaned me up, and left the hat in the ditch. The rest of the ride was quiet.
In an unfortunate example of history repeating itself, 20 years later my young daughter was sick all the way through Montana’s Logan Pass. I wish I had worn a felt hat.
Dianne Bradshaw lives in Saint-Lazare, Que.