When I Was an (Empty) Beer Bottle

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When I was little, dare I say this, cars didn’t have seat belts.  My kids simply cannot comprehend how this could’ve been true but it was.  When I was an infant (so my mother told me), she placed me on the floor of the car in a Moses Basket.  It explains my aversion to all things woven and wicker.  Once I became mobile, presumably, I just rolled around on the floor of the car like an empty beer bottle.

Every summer, my mother would pack up her Chevrolet Corvair (a car once deemed by Consumer Reports as “unsafe at any speed”) and drive seven hours to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  As we would usually go for a month, the small Corvair was packed to the roof with me wedged somewhere between suitcases or, even better, wedged on the ledge under the rear window on a pillow.  It is no surprise that I developed claustrophobia at quite an early age.

My mother hated driving long distances.  She also hated driving fast; her happiest day was when Jimmy Carter imposed the 55 MPH speed limit – that was about her maximum speed anyway, even on I95.  By the time we reached the causeway onto the Outer Banks, my mother was practically drooling in anticipation of a pitcher of mostly vodka.  Upon arrival, once her fingers were pried from the wheel, the car sat untouched except for brief jaunts down the coast road for souvenir buying or to chase down the fresh produce truck.  As soon as I could reach the pedals, I was the one giving chase.

Once I became old enough (maybe eight) to sit in the front seat (still sans seatbelts), my claustrophobia vanished.  I loved road trips.  I always encouraged my mother to go faster.  I assured her that if she went faster, she could be out of the car sooner.  It never worked.  She would drift into the middle lane, determined look on her face, and stay there.  Exiting the highway was always a period of high stress.  If she missed the exit, we’d end up in Florida.  On the quieter roads approaching the coast, she relaxed a bit.  Near the ocean, I would stick my head out the window like a dog, hair flying.  There was nothing better.

My father only came down on weekends, by plane.  My mother wanted him nowhere near the driver’s seat of her car because he went far too fast.  We only let him drive us down once.  It was an unqualified disaster.  We blew tires, encountered torrential rains where frogs and swamp flooded the roads; we skidded off the road and nearly into the a swamp more than once.  This trip was made in a 1970 Plymouth station wagon.  There might have been seat belts.  Upon arrival, both parents went for straight vodka.

On the plus side, even with the swampy roads, we made the trip in under six hours.  I was impressed.  It became my dream to break my father’s land speed record to the beach.  When I was sixteen, I begged my mother to let me do the driving.  My speed machine?  A 1976 Audi Fox.  I think it had 3 cylinders – well, 3 that worked anyway.  And still, with only 3 cylinders I made it in 5 hours and 45 minutes.  My mother, safely belted into the passenger seat, drank her martinis out of a thermos.  It was a good trip.  Sadly, it was our last to that part of the world as my father passed away the following year.

My kids can’t picture me as a little girl even though I’ve shown them pictures of me on that beach in Nags Head, NC.  I’ve shown them pictures of my mother, her blond hair flying in the wind, standing on the edge of the ocean with my hand in hers.  I’ve even shown them pictures of the car parked in front of the cottage.  “That was the one with no seat belts,” I said.  They looked up at me, disbelieving.  How could that be? they ask, wide-eyed.  It just was.

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