Over Easy: The family wagon


For the Valley News

Published: 07-21-2023 5:56 PM

I think I know how to save America: Bring back the station wagon.

That’s a bold statement, but stick with me. When America ruled the world, station wagons ruled the road. Roof racks were common and could hold half the nation’s GDP, hopefully strapped down well. The luckiest among us had wood paneling, gleaming, luxurious, classy. It was like taking your rec room everywhere.

Oh, to have a rec room. Oh, to have a wagon of your own. Oh, to drink the richness that was post-war America.

Every patriot yearned to “see the U.S.A. in a Chevrolet.” Dinah Shore sang that jingle, and even if you weren’t in a Chevy family, something in you stirred when you heard her maple syrup voice.

Sedans were fine, but a station wagon would carry everything you needed if suddenly Dad put down his newspaper and said, “Say, I have an idea. We’re going cross-country to California!”

“Oh, honey,” your mom would say. “You don’t mean that.”

“We leave tomorrow!” Dad would declare. “Find the road maps.”

“Can I take my best friend Mike?” you might ask.

“Sure. Just leave a note for his parents.”

“That’s swell, Dad.”

Everything has gotten worse since station wagons mostly faded away. There may be exceptions to this declaration, but they have no place in this column.

Growing up, I remember one particular wagon, our Conestoga. Around 1960, the brown Ford was deemed reliable enough to take us from Providence, R.I., to my father’s birthplace, Prince Edward Island, Canada. Google says you can drive it today in less than 12 hours, but it must have taken many more then.

Two adults and five children made the epic trip, my younger brother and I in the “way back.” Our Ford didn’t have the classic backward-facing third seat. We just made ourselves comfortable, more or less, sprawled among the things we’d packed. (Maybe there was a homemade carrier on top. Dads then made their own, sometimes with dubious engineering.)

I imagine we annoyed each other, but I can’t remember the major battles and grievances. Parents offered no mediation in disputes; you worked it out, or all were declared guilty and swift justice administered.

Anyway, we made it, happy and only lightly bruised.

There was something different about station wagons. SUVs seem over large and cage-like, protective against a harsh world. A parking lot full of them reminds me of the Spanish Armada.

Station wagons were open and optimistic, clad with glass that allowed you to look out and for others to look in. I liked to lean against a window and see the world pass by, and wonder about its mysteries. Before me was a slideshow: junkyard, diner, church, a dog tied to a stake, two men arguing in front of a barber shop. What to make of it all?

Without earbuds, phones or tablets, we entertained ourselves. Poking a sibling was option No. 1. I also liked to look at maps. My father sometimes read signs aloud as we traveled: “Joe’s Barber Shop, Esso Oil, Midnight Lounge, Right Turn Only.”

Believe it or not, some family members would tire of this, but in those days children did not lightly correct their parents. “State Line Package Store, Hilltop Drive-In, Ma Glockner’s Chicken.”

For better or worse, the station wagon put the family together. We were stowed-away linens, sardines, chips in a Pringles can. The only escape was sulking, which was hard to sustain on a long trip. Sooner or later something would seem funny, maybe a boy fart, and for a few minutes all was right with the world. (Sisters did not tend to agree.)

I somehow have a feeling that President Joe Biden would get behind a National Station Wagon Initiative, costing just a trillion or two, coordinated with a program to restore AM radio to its former glory. The other day I could tune in only two AM signals from our West Lebanon kitchen. Where are Elvis and the Beatles when we need them?

We have taken many wrong turns in recent years. We have left the family Polaroid behind — bad haircuts, silly grins, one sister with her eyes closed — and now we are a selfie nation. We order takeout — one gets Chinese, another pizza, another sushi. We crave personal space and “me time.” We want remote work, remote school, remote everything.

Station wagons could bring back default closeness, like we had with three or more on the bench seat in the second row. The best of times, the worst of times, sodas spilled and crumbs spread, laughter, drama, tears, all of us in a jumble, together.

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.