Anyone who has opened a box of Cracker Jacks lately knows that the prize inside isn't what it used to be. At least not like the toy ring I lost in the tear between the back seat and its upholstery in my parents' 1951 Chevy. I think of that car whenever I open a box of Cracker Jacks.
The car was a beauty: black, heavy, with an air of certainty and stability. Like most cars of its time and breed, it was built for function - no fancy dashboard gauges, just a speedometer and a large glove box. It had "Powerglide," the smoothest automatic transmission of its day. Its purr was a comforting companion on the first leg of vacation travel because it assured you of a safe journey.
The back seat was a fort, a sanctuary, and a safe place to pout when I didn't want to leave the place we were at. It was a restaurant (when fast-food places had no indoor seating) and a place to stretch out, pillowed and blanketed, with popcorn and a soda to watch a drive-in movie.
The "Bomb," as it was called in later years, aged gracefully with some well-worn appointments. The shiny black exterior dulled to a purplish hue; the heavy chrome bumpers and headlight trim became dotted with rust. The seats ripped in a few places; the headliner yellowed; and the gray door panels became marked with bell-curve water stains from windows left open during thunderstorms. The hard plastic steering wheel became worn at 12 o'clock where my father held it most.
I can see him now, his left arm elbowing the armrest while his right arm flicked upward at intervals so he could check his speed on the speedometer. All the while, his steering hand firmly guided the wheel's loose and floating manner.
My father was the consummate pilot and never had an accident. He continually extolled the virtues of defensive driving whenever he observed a car disobeying the rules of the road. This was the extra comfort our family took solace in, especially on long trips when roads were strange and unknown. His undistracted demeanor made it all the more easy to float blissfully asleep on the road to a new destination.
Now that I am a father to a four-year-old, I realize how powerless and so full of trust I was at 4 as I sat in the back seat, not knowing where we were.
If I had almost fallen asleep in the back seat at night on our way home, I would play a game with myself to guess where we were, by noting the number and type of bumps, where we turned, put the brakes on, or signaled.
I so loved the refuge of the back seat that whenever we arrived home late at night I would protest going inside to bed, preferring to stay in the car and fall back asleep.
In its final year, when the name "Bomb" stuck, it became apparent that the Chevy was giving us more trouble than it was worth. After several failed attempts to start and a few times leaving my mother stranded, my father came back from work one evening with a 1959 Mercury Montclair; a used, but gleaming, finned monster, with winking tail lights and a grill that flaunted a cheesy smile, stood in stark contrast to the comfort and aplomb of the Chevy.
I often wonder where that Chevy is now and if the same rips are under the front seat where I would push up my seat, endlessly bothering my father. I wonder if the drool stains from open-mouthed naps to my Aunt Lucy's are still there or if the engine still purrs and if the Cracker Jacks ring is still in the lining of the back seat. I hope it is.
That back seat is still mine, and that Cracker Jacks prize stands as a tribute to all children who enjoy the sanctity and comfort of that little room when the world looms large and strange.