Powerless in the back seat.
46 years ago, I was being driven to the rest of my life. 13 years of quiet suburban softness, 6 miles south of the Draper household, was ending.
I was in the backseat of our new used Oldsmobile 1966 Vista Cruiser station wagon (with the skylights!). Windows open (especially the inverted corner ones) because, of course, we could not afford AC (exotic, even for a used car in 1969). The added benefit is that, unlike winter, the air exchanges kept the Kent-to-oxygen ratio breathable.
I was also in the backseat of a life swept behind the decades of decisions my parents had made “doing what was right”. Of course that meant staying married, making money in New York, and wearing dry-cleanable clothing. It also meant the things that were not choices, but resulted from them, drinking chief among them.
It meant private schools as that checked off the “parenting” box. It meant bitter disappointment when my older siblings were daunted by the fallout of “doing what was right” that rendered states of confusion, poor grades (despite private schools) and few positive measureables.
Somehow I was the vessel of hope for my parents that needed Buffalo to blossom. Or at least a place for my mother to go to with plausible deniability amid the choices she had made. I was backseat traveling in their wake, and, in memories that are completely rendered in black-and-white, listening.
A scratchy set of voices were on the Vista Cruiser’s Deluxe AM Radio and the volume was up as the windows were down, and the usual silence in the car was focused on a live human event that seemed just like JFK’s assassination in its universal focus of attention: The Lunar Lander was slowly descending to the moon’s surface, its controlled acquiescence to gravity presented live, for the world to hear..
For a moment, there was no existential anxiety over being driven 350 miles to a downtown house I had never seen. No terror at leaving a tiny private day school where I had become the “Bernie Warnock Award” winner for both 7th & 8th grades (unprecedented!) to go to a place that required sports participation from my very soft, white adolescence. No fear over when someone would say the wrong thing and the screaming would begin.
Just scratches, clicks, inaudible fragments of words describing orientation, distance and finally “TOUCHDOWN” – without irony.
“The Eagle has landed!”
As we drove to Buffalo New York, we, in a stuffed car on Route 20, were transported, third hand, to a place we could see every night, but never obtained. Like normalcy.
My fears were a tiny fraction of the boys we heard on the radio, but our uncertainties were intimate, not worldwide. My family’s perspective was snapped, broken and remained unresolved long before that drive, but its 6 hour driving grind was as vivid in its transitional crystallization as was the moon walk to come.
With the passage of time, I find that memories fade into paler grays, remembered sounds become quieter and harder to hear clearly, but the voice of Mission Control calmly annunciating location, distance and time till touchdown was and is a spot-on metaphor that I only see, now, in the dimming past.
Powerless in the backseat or riding in the Lunar Lander, the sweep of efforts that wash us to where we end up are not spectator sports: they change and motivate us: to hope or fear, action or self-loathing, or simply to exhaustion.
As 60 becomes a matter of days, this moment and others like it are more islands than pearls in a necklace: those mysteries of cruelty and grace are the medium of passage. I wish I was one of those who celebrate scars, announce they are proud of every mistake or tragedy because they “made me who I am”, but I rue the misbegotten.
Buffalo and the Moon were obtained, but arrival raised more questions than it answered. The reasons for both journeys were inarticulate, but essential and human. Going somewhere is always preferable to standing still, no matter what the value of the destination. Or at least that’s the rationale.
But that 13 year old is sitting next to me, now. The unresolvable aspects we all experience are either forgettable, or unrelenting.
I still do not know what my parents thought they were driving to that day, if they knew, they did not tell me. Why would they? I was powerless to say anything about it.