A few weeks ago, I was sitting on the back patio, using my recent heart surgery as an excuse to doze in the sun, when I started thinking about a forgotten era in my life, in the life of many Americans, I suspect: the Sunday afternoon drive.
For me, this era lasted from the late 1940s, when my parents bought their first automobile (I think it was a used 1946 Ford), to the mid 50s, when the advent of television and Sunday afternoon sports kept my friends and their fathers at home. During that time, I recall that on Sunday afternoons from spring into the fall, anywhere from three to seven families—the Wiles and the Prides and the Loomises, the Rollstons and the Haskells, the Teffts and the Jameses—would pile into their cars and spend the afternoon traveling the back roads of southern Maine to places like Blackstrap Hill and Pleasant Mountain to look at foliage, Two-Lights and Reid’s State Parks to see the surf, and Sebago and Crystal Lakes to swim. Sometimes, we’d just take off and head into what I still think of as Maine’s Bermuda Triangle: a series of labyrinthian back roads that no matter which one we took always somehow ended up at a reed-infested body of water called Runaround Pond.
Every one of these families had a kid close to my own age, and it was great fun swapping parents, so I could ride in a car with Craig or Richie or Peter. Some parents were more lenient than mine, and let us rough house or yell or sometimes sing, which made me feel like I was playing hooky from school; other parents were more strict, making us sit still and whisper, which made me feel like my own parents weren’t so bad after all.
Watching all these parents interact gave me my first glimpse into the confusing world of being an adult. I couldn’t understand why all the men and most of the women puffed on cigarettes, filling the cars with smoke and stinging our eyes. They often spoke in a strange sort of code that I didn’t understand and laughed at things that made no sense.
(Eventually, I learned that many of these comments had to do with sex. I remember what might have been the earliest “dirty” joke I ever heard—although it took me a while to figure it out:
Question: Who was the first carpenter?
Answer: No, Eve. She made Adam’s banana stand.)
And I find that some seventy years later, my parents and their friends still seem to me to belong to a mysterious world beyond my understanding, a world now lost to me forever. Browsing through the 3”x 3” black and white photos in my mother’s old albums show them to look older than their children did at the same age: in their 40’s, they look to be in their 50’s and 60’s—probably the result of the cigarettes they smoked and the fatty foods they consumed (my father started the day with eggs and bacon right up until he died at the age of 66), but also probably because compared to today, they look dressed up. Men wore ties, some even on Sunday afternoon drives, and for the most part women wore dresses.
Compared to today, our mothers seldom used profanity and our fathers used a lot less when we were all together. And the “F Word” was rare even in a group of men. On the other hand, all our parents peppered their language with racial and cultural slurs, with epithets for Blacks, French-Canadians, Italians, Indigenous peoples, Gays, even Catholics. I could get my mouth washed with soap for saying “Goddamn,” but no one did anything except chuckle if I called John Nappi a wop.
All of our parents were affiliated with either the Congregational or Baptist Church in town, but except for my parents and the Haskells, the other families usually attended church only on Christmas and Easter. Their real religion was the United States of America. (It was during this time that “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance.) One Memorial Day—I was probably 7 or 8—I was walking down the street carrying a full-sized American flag over my shoulder and Earle Pride yelled out the door of his store at me because the tip of the flag was dragging on the ground.
And if their religion was the United States, they worshipped the American Dream. New washing machines and dryers, larger television sets and “Hi-Fi” record players, pine paneled rec rooms, and most of all, new automobiles. It was common to trade in for a new car every couple of years or so, and when one of our parents did, the car became an object of veneration for weeks, with all us kids scrambling to ride in it on Sunday afternoons.
Those afternoon drives then became a worship service, celebrating our parents’—all of whom had grown up during the Depression—rise into American’s great Middle Class, with the freedom to follow new roads to a brighter foliage or higher surf or a longer beach. And if they got lost, or suddenly found themselves back at Runaround Pond, well, there was always next week.
It’s easy for me to criticize their provincialism and bigotry (and later in life, I did), but maybe because I tire easily these days, or maybe because I’m aware that I don’t have the goals, the dreams I used to have, I find that I miss the energy, the—excuse the pun—drive of those black and white people in the old photographs.
I also realize I miss the faith I had back then in my parents and their friends. Before the advent of Elvis and the generation gap, I believed in them more than I believed in God. I remember one Sunday drive. It must have been in the late 1940’s when forest fires burned large parts of Maine. One of our parents heard that there was a big fire in Brunswick, so we all piled into the cars to go look. I don’t remember the fire, only that as we turned the cars around to head back home, I was in the back seat of Earl Pride’s powder blue Dodge with Earl’s son Craig. One minute we were horsing around, and the next minute Craig was gone and the back door of the Dodge was swinging in the wind. Earl slammed on the brakes. I looked behind and saw the other cars screeching to stops. Doors opened and parents rushed to Craig, who was still rolling in the gravel beside the road. My stomach rose into my throat leaving a great empty cavern, until I saw Earl lift his screaming son into his arms, bring him back to the car, and lay him beside me in the back seat. “He’ll be okay,” he told his wife, Doris, “just some scraps and a bump on the head.” And Earl was right. Because he was just starting to accelerate when the door opened, the car wasn’t going that fast. But as far as I was concerned, Craig was never in any real danger. Once his father had him in his arms, I knew he’d be fine.
I had lunch with Craig last week. Like me, he’s had heart surgery, but all things considered, we’re both doing pretty well. Still, other friends have gone this year, some of them almost as suddenly as when Craig disappeared from his father’s blue Dodge. It seems as if one minute they’re here, the next minute, they’re not. And I find myself searching for some older, wiser voice, telling me that everything’s going to be all right. They’re going to be fine.