Dad: “Back in the day, you used to be able to buy a candy bar for a dime and a soda for a quarter.”
Me: “Yeah, but dad, that was in the 1930’s. Did you even have a dime or a quarter? I mean, if you don’t have a dime it doesn’t matter if the candy bar costs a dime or a thousand bucks, does it?”
Dad: “Shut up, smartass.”
But now, as I grow older, I’m slipping into the “Back in the day…” mode. What prompted this installment of “Back in the day…” was a recent car advertisement I watched. I forget what brand it was, but the car had a back up warning alarm, a camera for backing up (so you didn't have to twist your head or use a review mirror, I guess), front passenger airbags, side air bags, seat edge airbags and roof airbags. It had so many airbags that if you ever bumped into anything you’d probably feel like you were suddenly thrust into the middle of a marshmallow.
*Minor digression: How come you see chase scenes in the movies where they intentionally run into another car and no one’s airbags go off? The movies really ought to start investing in safer cars for their people.*
Anyway, after watching the car ad (by the way, you could simply push a button and the thing would parallel park by itself – hands free) I was struck by how far automobile safety measures have come. Back in the day, the best safety measure was to get as much metal around you as possible. That’s why so many of the cars from the 1930’s through the early ‘70’s were HUGE. You wanted more car around you than the other guy, so if you did have an accident, he’d at least come out on the losing end of the deal.
Cars were a lot boxier back then too. Seatbelts were either non-existent or, if they were in the car, you pushed them down between the cushions so they didn’t end up giving you a wedgie or wrinkling your clothes. The only airbags any one knew anything about was the term’s slang use for breasts. (Hey, I was a kid and there were about two dozen different terms we used for ‘breasts’ and we used all of them constantly. We were, after all, boys.)
Because the cars were so boxy, there was plenty of room on the top ledge behind the backseat where a kid could almost lay full-length to sleep on long rides. Of course, this totally obstructed the driver’s rearview mirror, but dad was usually intent on getting to where he was going, eyes front, never looking back. With four kids in the backseat, a fifth laying behind and above the backseat smashed against the rear window, and dad a mom up front, we still had room to get into fights with a pretty good arm swing range. Like I said, the cars were HUGE.
With so many kids in the car and I the youngest, I usually got stuck in the middle where the transmission hump kept my feet wedged together and my knees uncomfortably under my chin. If my feet slipped off the hump, it was taken as a deliberate assault on a sibling’s “car floor territory” and another fight was on.
You know, looking back, in a way I guess I was surrounded by human airbags, so I was probably the safest one in the car.
There was one pseudo-safety feature that our car had, but it was only when my mom was driving.
I figured out as I got older that mom was a terrible driver. I don’t mean it as an insult to her. She was a great mom, but as a driver she was like a cat on a skateboard going down a rock slide.
She tended to drive with one foot on the gas and one on the brake. She drove hesitantly, unsure of herself and paranoid that every other person on the road was a worse driver than she was. If a driver pulled up to a stop sign facing the road we were on, she would slam on the brakes –and that’s when the automatic safety feature kicked in. If you were a kid riding up front alongside her, she would hit the brake and at the same time slam her right arm against your chest.
I don’t know why she didn’t just dig out the seatbelts, but she seemed to think that the right arm of a 115 pound mom would stop a 130 pound kid from flying forward (her knowledge of physics was as limited as her driving skills). We were usually prepared for the sudden slamming of the brakes, so all the right-arm-guardrail-thing did was knock the wind out of you or crack against your sternum.
It was painful, but it was an act of a mother’s love. I sometimes think of it and wax nostalgic. In fact the other day I was telling my daughter:
Me: “You know, back in the day, we didn’t have all these safety features on cars and we seemed to do okay. In fact, the simplicity of the car was kinda nice.”
My daughter: “Yeah, but dad, don’t you think that if your folks had had all of the current safety features available to them they would have used them? I mean, if it wasn’t available at the time, how could you really do a comparison?”
Me: “Shut up, smart-aleck.”
My daughter: “Yessir.”
Ah, the irony of the circle of life.