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Oddchester: Sunday drives were highways to hell

When I was a kid, I dreaded those long, slow, family Sunday drives, mostly because they felt like we were just creeping by our neighbors to snoop on them.

My father, being an effective parent, immediately picked up on my discomfort.

Which meant that, during my entire childhood, we spent Sunday mornings driving around our neighborhood in order to check on the progress of, say, the Thompsons' new garage addition or the Walkers' new basketball hoop.

This was the 1970s, so the after church streets in Bay City, Mich., were filled with families in similar situations. It was not unusual to slowly pass another station wagon — my family heading one way, theirs heading another, both driving slowly down the same street — that looked like our mirror image.

The father was driving and demonstratively pointing out flaws in someone's in-progress landscaping project. The mother was sitting in the passenger seat with a baby on her lap and trying to appear interested. In the back seat, four kids were slouching and staring sullenly out the window. Everyone was dressed up, coming from or going to church.


And, yes, for you 20-somethings, the mother was sitting with a baby on her lap. This was the 1970s, and if anyone referred to putting a kid in a "car seat" that exclusively meant "seat of a car."

In 1970s' cars, the only "child restraint system" consisted of your father grabbing you by your shirt collar to keep you from repeatedly crawling between the back and front seat. While he was driving. With your little brother sitting on his lap and steering.

A "booster seat" meant sitting on a few cartons of cigarettes.

When we would pass by these mirror image families, we got a good look at them. Mostly because both vehicles were traveling at 1 mile per hour. At a combined 3 feet per second, and with cars that were 30 feet long, that meant you were staring at that other family for 10 seconds. Which was more than long enough to make eye contact with the other kids and, with just your eyes, to effectively communicate your misery to one another.

ME (communicating using only my eyes): "Help me! We've been driving around for two hours and we haven't even driven through the dump yet, which we do every Sunday."

OTHER KID (communicating using only his eyes): "That sounds wonderful to me. After this, we're going to my grandma's rest home to watch 'Lawrence Welk' with other old people in the Community Quiet Room at Shady Oaks."

ME: "We're listening to Herb Alpert on the 8-track."

OTHER KID: "It's cabbage and dumplings day at Shady Oaks."


Eventually, I became the only kid in our family on the Sunday drives, which were then relegated to just my dad and me. The drives focused on anything unusual happening in our neighborhood — house painting and gutter cleaning and people working on cars in their driveway.

We made mandatory stops to look at anything anyone had for sale in their yard.

And while it seems like a statistical improbability, every single person who happened to be outside was someone I knew, usually one of my teachers or a girl I had a crush on.

I would sit in the passenger seat, and my father always positioned the car so that, when we passed my vice principal or a girl who had the night before turned me down for a date for the middle school dance, it was my face they would see as we crept by to judge the quality of their recently poured driveway or the asking price of their tandem bicycle.

It doesn't matter what kind of look — smile or a pursed-lip nod or whatever — you give to someone working in their yard, there is no way that person is comfortable seeing your face creep by their house at 1 mph. One mile per hour equals about 1.5 feet per second. Which means that, if they own 60 feet of roadside yard, they will see your face in the window for 40 seconds.

None of us had to speak. Our eyes said it all.

DAD OF GIRL WHO JUST TURNED ME DOWN FOR DANCE: "Isn't that the kid who you couldn't believe asked you to the Friendship Dance?"

GIRL WHO JUST TURNED ME DOWN FOR DANCE: "I know, right? Why are they driving so slow? And pointing at our new landscaping?"


ME: "We're listening to Herb Alpert on the 8-track."

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