I remember one summer evening when Mom and Dad came home with a surprise for all of us kids. Out in the driveway was a new (to us at least) wood-paneled station wagon! It was a beauty, with its cream-colored paint hidden behind that deep simulated oak panels. The front dash looked like the control panel from the Apollo 11 missions, with multiple switches and levers. The back seat was huge and I could swear it was bigger than my bed.
But what really fascinated me was what my Mom referred to as the “way back”. There were two seats in the cargo area that folded down when they weren’t needed. In addition to this, the seats were facing the wrong way! My admiration for this strange new discovery would not last long, however. What I thought initially was the greatest invention known to mankind quickly turned into the worst. Before long, my little brother and I came up with our own name – the death seat.
There were three basic flaws that the engineers overlooked. The first was a lack of leg room. The distance from the back of the seat to the rear window was about 36” deep. Given the seat was a standard 24” in length, this left a measly foot of space for your own foot and three others! This space also became more compromised if a cooler or sleeping bag would not fit in the roof carrier.
The second problem was the lack of ventilation. There was no way for air to get back in that area other than two small triangle windows that rolled out with a hand crank that functioned perfectly the first 48 hours off the assembly line, but after that could only be opened with the equivalent torque necessary to open a jelly jar that has been in the fridge for two weeks! When you did get them open, you realize that some “Einstein” has them opening up in a way that actually prevents air from entering the vehicle. We soon discovered the only way to get fresh air required a bendy straw and a double jointed torso.
The third (and by far the worst problem) was the cargo door itself. The top half was made of thick safety glass (which was unmovable) and the lower half was made of steel with the wonderful paneling both outside and in. The door opened to the left. Later models allowed the widow to be rolled down and the door open as a tailgate, but not on ours. That window captured every single ounce of radiation and heat from the sun and focused that power like a kid with a magnifying glass on a sunny day – and we were the ants who had the misfortune to be on that particular hill at that particular time. There was no shade and you couldn’t cover it up because that would block the view of the driver. There were several trips when I received massive sunburns just from riding back there. Pretty sure my appendix got vaporized out of existence a few times, too.
The lack of room, air, and solar protection made for some very excruciating trips. Our most common trip was to upper Michigan, where both sets of grandparents lived. The trip from our home in Brown Deer, just north of Milwaukee to Stephenson, Michigan, which is about twenty miles north of Marquette/ Menominee took about 5 hours, mainly because the speed limit was a strictly enforced 55 and the route was a simple two-lane highway.
We would make one stop, around Green Bay there was a Rest Area with bathrooms, bubblers and vending machines. We were allowed to use the first two. Now, since this was before water bottles were a thing, each of us kids had a 6 oz Tupperware glass with a matching cover. As if we were embarking on a desert caravan, water rationing became very important! The sibling who drank their allotment too quickly was not to be pitied, simply prayed over in the hopes that they learned their lesson. I remember once when I was running on empty, so I not very sneakily open the cooler and refilled my container with the now melted ice water. My little brother gave me a look of horror.
“Who’s in the cooler?” my father bellowed from the front seat. I then had to listen to a 20-minute lecture on how much trouble I would be in if the hot dogs thawed out before we reached Grandpa’s house. I wanted to retort that, due to the excessive heat, the dogs were almost ready but, realizing my father did not appreciate my attempts to interject humor, I kept quiet. He would also bellow when we would open up the tiny yet useless vents because they would undermine the efficiency of the AC, which never seemed to reach beyond the front seat. In addition, my father smoked these horrible cigars that he got at the local drugstore five for a dollar.
And if that wasn’t enough, your sense of reality was slowly being stripped away, mile by mile. It is unnerving to only see things in reverse, falling away as you pass them. More so when you see something coming up fast behind you, convinced that they would be unable to stop if your father hit the brakes.
With that mix of elements, carsickness was inevitable, even expected. One standard piece of equipment for riding in the backseat was an empty ice cream bucket. It was never empty when we reached our destination.
For the most part, I hated those seats and I cursed the engineers who thought that might be a good idea. But sometimes, not very often, those seats brought me some of my fondest memories.
We always went up to Grandpa’s early Saturday morning with the plan to get there in time for lunch (which was steak for the adults and hot dogs for the kids) but sometimes we left on Friday nights. My Mom and us kids would pack the car and as soon as my Dad got home from work, we were on the road. These trips usually occurred in fall so Dad could go hunting the next morning. The sun would set just north of Sheboygan and the temperature would drop about twenty degrees. The car’s heater had the same range as the AC, so most times my brother and I would unravel a sleeping bag. The window, which tried to kill us during the day, gave a tremendous view of the southern night sky. The roads were not illuminated with streetlights like they are today, and no cloud cover meant that hundreds of thousands of stars were brought into view. The cars behind us were few and far between. I would enjoy watching headlights disappear in the dips and valleys of the road, the dimming of their high beams when they got close to us and how the darkness swallowed us again when they passed.
The car was quiet at this time as if all of us had settled back to be with our own thoughts. The radio could be heard, the local station sending us George Jones, Johnny Cash and the rest of the Grand Ole Oprey. The faint light from the dashboard seemed at times like the only light source left on earth. There was a quiet, a peace that I have rarely felt in my life before or since.
I tried to stay awake in those moments, determined to see Grandpa’s house. Our ETA was around midnight, the only other time of the year I was allowed to stay up that late. After the rest area in Green Bay, somewhere around Peshtigo, the night had won and I drifted off.
The next thing I knew, I would awaken in a bed at my Grandpa’s house. A huge comforter weighed me down and the fluffy down pillow under my head made me feel like I had sunken into the bed itself. I hurried to find my glasses, eager to discover if I was in the room with wallpaper roses or the one with giraffes. I smiled at the sight of the circus clowns and elephants that so often greeted my mornings.
I raced out of bed and into the kitchen, where I knew my Grandpa would be, frying bacon and sipping coffee from his saucer so it would cool down faster. When I would ask him what he was doing, he would simply smile and say, “Waiting for you to wake up!”
I loved those mornings and they are as vivid now forty plus years later as when they happened. Grandpa and his house are long gone. I was up on the property last week for a family reunion and wasn’t that surprised that everything looked smaller.
Riding back home in the minivan with my wife (she does all the driving) and listening to our favorites artists on Amazon Music, I quietly reflected back on those times, those trips and that seat. In that reflection, another thought occurred to me although I can’t claim credit for this one.
I remember hearing a quote in high school that went something like, “I’m not afraid of dying, I only have to do it once.” I began thinking about how my life was like that car ride. The seat and its surroundings were always the same, but sometimes they were pleasant and other times, not so much. The unpleasant times were made more bearable by preparation and the pleasant ones resonate with me louder. And, like the “death seat,” the journey will eventually end. I imagine that it will be like my night rides, the ones in which I simply drift off and awake in the place I have been dreaming about for so long. A place where all my family is there to play and eat and talk and share and just love that we are finally all together again.
Best of all, My Heavenly Father will be there, frying bacon and sipping coffee, waiting for me to wake up.
Please comment if you have ever had to endure a trip in a “death seat” and feel free to share on social media.