Miles of smiles in our Buick

It was the summer of 1965, and our family was packing for a vacation, as we did every July. What seemed like another long, boring road trip was about to take a turn for the better: My parents had just purchased a new, pale-green Buick Skylark Sportwagon. It wasn't the plush vinyl seats or even the "sky roof," the three glass panels in the raised roof above the rear compartment, that made this car so spectacular. It was the rear bench seat that faced backward.

Family pecking order dictated seating arrangements in the new car, so I ended up with my younger sister, Lou, in the rear fold-up bench seat. From the back of the station wagon, I barely heard my parents squabbling when Mom misread the map and sidelined us in a seedy section of Queens instead of the Long Island Expressway. And I had my back to my older sister Anne, whose latest form of exercise was rolling her eyes in disgust.

For the first 20 miles or so, Lou and I were content to gaze out the tailgate window as the road rolled out from under us. We assumed the vacation pose, arms clasped behind our heads, outstretched legs propped against the tailgate. Every so often we let out a long, satisfied sigh as we peered up through the sky roof at tinted clouds and sky.

We liked it best when our mother, a cautious driver, was at the wheel. From our tailgate perch, we watched as cars and trucks zoomed toward us, tailgated, and eventually overtook us. The closer they were to our rear bumper, we thought, the better.

When a tractor-trailer approached, we pumped our forearms up and down until the driver reached up in the cab and pulled on the cord that produced a satisfying blast of air horn. Mom would screech and levitate in her seat. Dad would whirl around and bellow, "Cut it out, you two!"

That was our cue to find a different way to melt the miles. We played the alphabet game and sang all the verses to "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall." Every so often, someone would spot an odd-colored license plate on a car alongside ours. "Look, they're from Arizona," one of us would yelp as we wondered what people from Arizona really looked like. Our car would list to one side as four young faces pressed up against window glass to get their first glimpse of people from the Grand Canyon State. Usually, we were disappointed. People from Arizona looked very much the way we did. Bored.

Eventually this boredom turned ugly as Lou and I grew restless. Suddenly, we began noticing how close we were sitting and how we could feel the breath from each other's exhalation on our necks and faces. We drew imaginary demarcation lines along the hot, green vinyl seat and reported personal-space infractions to our mother.

Then the hitting would begin.

At first, we took turns trading taps, but eventually these taps turned into unmistakable fleshy slaps. Mom would say something from the front seat that we didn't hear, and then Dad would yell something we did hear.

Lou and I fumed in silence. We sat and stared head-on at the cars approaching our tailgate. And in the same dreamy way a child finds images of animals in cumulus clouds, we found car faces.

The driving machines we saw on those long family road trips – automobiles from the 1950s and '60s – reflected both the optimism and opulence of the postwar era. They were huge, low-slung vehicles that hugged the road, their sweeping fins, polished chrome, and two-tone pastel paint jobs beckoned to us.

Headlights looked like huge, round eyes in chrome sockets. Set side-by-side or stacked atop each other, they frowned, smirked, and sometimes glared at us. Amber-colored turn signals looked like dimples. Curved chrome bumpers stretched clear across the front of a car to form pouting lips or frozen grimaces. Front wings looked like fangs.

But the defining feature was the grillwork. Some grilles ran across the front of the car like braces on a kid's teeth. Sometimes the chrome made an interesting texture or pattern. Sometimes it looked like the giant head of an electric shaver. On other cars, it formed long vertical teeth that flashed like a shark's.

Some cars looked worried, some looked happy, and others appeared sinister. A Ford Thunderbird looked angry and menacing, while an Edsel, with its prominent oval-shaped grille, looked like someone who had just sucked the insides from a lemon.

A Volkswagen Beetle with its huge rounded front trunk looked startled, as though it had just swallowed a bird. A Buick Riviera, with front-fender W-sections on each side, reminded me of a squirrel that has stuffed its cheek pouches with nuts. But my favorite was the 1960 Chevy Impala. With its wing fins swept up like eyebrows, the car seemed perpetually amused.

Lou and I spent hours studying each car face and then tried to imitate these faces. We stretched our lips, scrunched up our noses, and pulled at our eyelids.

"Like this?" Lou would ask. as she turned to me for an assessment. "More like this," I'd say, pulling my lower lip even lower. Inevitably the upturned noses, bared teeth, and puckered lips reduced these two back-seat riders to giggles. For a hundred miles or so, we'd forget that we shared the same seat and the same last name.

Some 30 years later, I am the parent strapping suitcases to the top of a vehicle as my family heads off for a week-long road trip. Politely I've declined offers from friends who want to loan us libraries of videotapes. I've dismissed the idea of renting a vehicle fully accessorized with TV, VCR, and DVD player. I have packed books and cassette tapes, playing cards, and crossword puzzles. Now all my 11-year-old needs is a rear bench seat that faces backward.

t was the summer of 1965, and our family was packing for a vacation, as we did every July. What seemed like another long, boring road trip was about to take a turn for the better: My parents had just purchased a new, pale-green Buick Skylark Sportwagon. It wasn't the plush vinyl seats or even the "sky roof," the three glass panels in the raised roof above the rear compartment, that made this car so spectacular. It was the rear bench seat that faced backward.

Family pecking order dictated seating arrangements in the new car, so I ended up with my younger sister, Lou, in the rear fold-up bench seat. From the back of the station wagon, I barely heard my parents squabbling when Mom misread the map and sidelined us in a seedy section of Queens instead of the Long Island Expressway. And I had my back to my older sister Anne, whose latest form of exercise was rolling her eyes in disgust.

For the first 20 miles or so, Lou and I were content to gaze out the tailgate window as the road rolled out from under us. We assumed the vacation pose, arms clasped behind our heads, outstretched legs propped against the tailgate. Every so often we let out a long, satisfied sigh as we peered up through the sky roof at tinted clouds and sky.

We liked it best when our mother, a cautious driver, was at the wheel. From our tailgate perch, we watched as cars and trucks zoomed toward us, tailgated, and eventually overtook us. The closer they were to our rear bumper, we thought, the better.

When a tractor-trailer approached, we pumped our forearms up and down until the driver reached up in the cab and pulled on the cord that produced a satisfying blast of air horn. Mom would screech and levitate in her seat. Dad would whirl around and bellow, "Cut it out, you two!"

That was our cue to find a different way to melt the miles. We played the alphabet game and sang all the verses to "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall." Every so often, someone would spot an odd-colored license plate on a car alongside ours. "Look, they're from Arizona," one of us would yelp as we wondered what people from Arizona really looked like. Our car would list to one side as four young faces pressed up against window glass to get their first glimpse of people from the Grand Canyon State. Usually, we were disappointed. People from Arizona looked very much the way we did. Bored.

Eventually this boredom turned ugly as Lou and I grew restless. Suddenly, we began noticing how close we were sitting and how we could feel the breath from each other's exhalation on our necks and faces. We drew imaginary demarcation lines along the hot, green vinyl seat and reported personal-space infractions to our mother.

Then the hitting would begin.

At first, we took turns trading taps, but eventually these taps turned into unmistakable fleshy slaps. Mom would say something from the front seat that we didn't hear, and then Dad would yell something we did hear.

Lou and I fumed in silence. We sat and stared head-on at the cars approaching our tailgate. And in the same dreamy way a child finds images of animals in cumulus clouds, we found car faces.

The driving machines we saw on those long family road trips – automobiles from the 1950s and '60s – reflected both the optimism and opulence of the postwar era. They were huge, low-slung vehicles that hugged the road, their sweeping fins, polished chrome, and two-tone pastel paint jobs beckoned to us.

Headlights looked like huge, round eyes in chrome sockets. Set side-by-side or stacked atop each other, they frowned, smirked, and sometimes glared at us. Amber-colored turn signals looked like dimples. Curved chrome bumpers stretched clear across the front of a car to form pouting lips or frozen grimaces. Front wings looked like fangs.

But the defining feature was the grillwork. Some grilles ran across the front of the car like braces on a kid's teeth. Sometimes the chrome made an interesting texture or pattern. Sometimes it looked like the giant head of an electric shaver. On other cars, it formed long vertical teeth that flashed like a shark's.

Some cars looked worried, some looked happy, and others appeared sinister. A Ford Thunderbird looked angry and menacing, while an Edsel, with its prominent oval-shaped grille, looked like someone who had just sucked the insides from a lemon.

A Volkswagen Beetle with its huge rounded front trunk looked startled, as though it had just swallowed a bird. A Buick Riviera, with front-fender W-sections on each side, reminded me of a squirrel that has stuffed its cheek pouches with nuts. But my favorite was the 1960 Chevy Impala. With its wing fins swept up like eyebrows, the car seemed perpetually amused.

Lou and I spent hours studying each car face and then tried to imitate these faces. We stretched our lips, scrunched up our noses, and pulled at our eyelids.

"Like this?" Lou would ask. as she turned to me for an assessment. "More like this," I'd say, pulling my lower lip even lower. Inevitably the upturned noses, bared teeth, and puckered lips reduced these two back-seat riders to giggles. For a hundred miles or so, we'd forget that we shared the same seat and the same last name.

Some 30 years later, I am the parent strapping suitcases to the top of a vehicle as my family heads off for a week-long road trip. Politely I've declined offers from friends who want to loan us libraries of videotapes. I've dismissed the idea of renting a vehicle fully accessorized with TV, VCR, and DVD player. I have packed books and cassette tapes, playing cards, and crossword puzzles. Now all my 11-year-old needs is a rear bench seat that faces backward.

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