Rookie Dad: Wagons

We were about a thousand miles into our 12-hundred mile drive to see my parents when I looked into the rearview mirror, saw two completely content little boys lounging in the backseat, and thought to myself: “How can it possibly be this easy?”

No complaining, no fighting, no screaming, no nothing. Just a completely content 1-year-old and a completely content 3-year-old. It didn’t seem right.

Racing down I-95, my mind wandered back to those family vacations of my childhood. They weren’t exactly like this. Those trips were loads of fun, of course, but by today’s luxury travel standards, we might as well have been pioneers riding in a covered wagon across the prairie.

Every summer, my dad and mom would pack my three brothers and me in the old family station wagon for a trip to Maryland’s eastern shore. I can’t remember the make or model of the vehicle, but I do remember the color. It was sort of a deep red, or what some might have mistaken for purple. If we had named that station wagon, “Grimace” — the portly McDonald’s character — would have been appropriate. That’s just about what color the wagon was. Classy, yes.

My folks would sit up front and my two older brothers owned the back seat. That left the back hatch for my younger brother and me. Those were the days before car seats and super-sensitivity to safety, mind you. We’d just spread a couple of sleeping bags out and lay down for the ride. When the wagon stopped at a red light, my brother and I would slide forward. With a quick acceleration, we’d slide back. We usually fit a few suitcases back there as well and they always shifted along with us.

The rest of the luggage was stowed on the roof of the station wagon on a car rack. No, not one of today’s ultra-sleek, ultra-hip, aerodynamic Thule car racks. We’re talking the prototype here: a rickety, shiny metal job. My dad would throw suitcases, coolers, extra pillows, army cots and whatever else we needed on top. The whole thing was covered with a tarp and tied down with bungee cords. It was absurd. Yes, that’s how we rolled: Clampett-style. We might as well have had Granny in the rocking chair up there, too.

On one particular trip, the roof rack etched its place in family lore. As we cruised down the interstate, one of the army cots broke loose and sailed off the top of the car. It narrowly missed a motorcyclist, and was quickly crushed to smithereens by an oncoming tractor-trailer. My brothers and I thought the whole scene was awesome; my parents weren’t so thrilled.

Again, safety just wasn’t as ingrained in our consciousness back then as it is today. During the late 1970s, people drove their cars until they fell apart — literally.

Take that station wagon, for example. There was a hole in the floor of the backseat. An honest-to-goodness, rusted out hole. You could actually see the road go by under your feet through a dime-sized hole in that floor.

Apparently, this wasn’t a big issue. Once the hole grew silver-dollar sized, my dad patched it with a piece of chicken wire, but we still took that sucker on family vacations. When it rained, you wished you were wearing galoshes. Amazingly, I’ve heard other people tell the same story about rusted out holes in car floors. So, it wasn’t just us.

Finally, forget about air conditioning. That station wagon didn’t have it. “Open the windows,” my dad would bark when we complained about the heat in that vehicle. The heat. My gosh, the heat. You’ve never felt hot until, after a day at the beach, you pile six people into a car that’s been sitting in the sun for hours. The wet sand on your arms and legs immediately bakes onto your skin — fire-glazed in a kiln. I’m pretty sure that they make glass that way.

All of this gets me back to our recent trip. We rented a nice, new Chevy sedan. I wouldn’t say it was totally tricked out, but it had some great features. And what it lacked in technology, we supplied. Climate control, check. Satellite radio for us, check. Portable DVD player for the kids, check. Snacks and more snacks, check. No worries, check.

In total comfort, we drove 19 hours each way and we have not one wacky story to tell. As a dad, I’m not sure if I should be happy about that or if I should be lamenting a bygone era in American travel — where have all the station wagons gone?

Brian Kantz’s sons watched, by request, the same “Little Einstein” episode 17 times on that road trip. Brian’s new book, “Stay-at-Home Dad. Stay. Good Boy.,” is available at