Feed on

Today (Jan 21) I decided that I really needed some chewing gum. My favorite sort is Wrigley’s Spearmint (not the sugarfree kind) and it can invoke in me nostalgias of the A la Recherche du Temps Perdu caliber. Okay, probably not so poetic and drawn out, and definitely not invoking Oedipal musings and epic insomnia, but still. Wrigley’s Spearmint is a nostalgic flavor for me.

My mom used to keep a “Plen-T-Pak” of Wrigley’s Spearmint in her purse, along with all the usual purse detritus that one totes. She’d give it to my sister and me in the car—one stick each, and no whining and begging for more when the sugar was chewed out. It helped combat my sister’s tendency for carsickness, and alleviate any ear-popping that might ensue on trips where actual elevation changes took place. Moreover, it did kind of help keep us quiet. There were rules about gum chewing. No stretching it out of your mouth. No chewing with your mouth open. When you’re done with your gum, either throw it in the trash or, if you feel you must, swallow it. Mom didn’t believe in the old chestnut that if you swallowed gum it would be in your stomach for the next 5-7 years. She didn’t see much point in stopping us swallowing it, especially when we were in the car and there was no good place to dispose of it. Confession: I still swallow my chewing gum when I am sick of chewing it.

Around the time I was in 2nd grade bubble gum became a huge fad, and there were several different brands that offered a Kool-Aide cornucopia of crazy flavors. The overall grand champion flavor with my sister, our friends, and me was watermelon, with grape being a second and orange a close third. Nobody really favored “red” or “pink” flavors like the ersatz strawberry, the medicinal cherry, the lackluster red-raspberry and the faintly nauseating “bubble gum” flavor. My friend Kerri really loved the strawberry-banana, and when blueberry flavor made a debut, for a while it was a most favored flavor. Bubblegum was a great fad, though. Once you got all the sugar chewed out of the gum, instead of having an unpleasant mouthful of faintly-flavored rubbery confectionary, you had the medium for a rude, messy, competitive art form—bubble blowing. We’d see how big of bubbles we could blow, how many linked bubbles could be made at a time, how loudly we could pop bubbles. I spent countless hours rolling and picking gum off the lenses of my glasses and easing gum out of the ends of my bangs when particularly glorious bubbles went awry.

Anyway, back to Mom’s packs of Spearmint and riding in the car.

Back when my sister and I were little kids, our mom had a 1974 Dodge Dart Sport. It was a 2-door sedan model of 1970s-era midsize designation, with reasonably decent body lines and a quiet, powerful V-6 engine. Mom loved this car to bits, even if its clip-car heritage was all too evident in the fact that the shades of red of the front quarters and the back quarters did not match, and its black vinyl roof covering was going a bit scabby. It had an automatic transmission and an AM radio with good speakers. Dad bought it for her in 1979 when she was pregnant with my little sister. He’d been trying to teach her to drive in his vehicle, a massive 1950 Ford panel truck, which was a stressful and hair raising experience for the both of them. To start with, my dad’s panel truck is considerably larger than some garden sheds. It is really mind boggling how big cars were back in the 1950s until you find yourself standing beside one of these behemoths, resting your elbows on the fenders, and hardly having to lean down at all. So the panel truck was huge and unwieldy. The steering box was starting to go out and thus it was difficult to keep it going in a steady, straight line. At the time it was powered by a flathead V8 that was barely adequate to the task of moving the truck’s prodigious bulk, and that flathead fed into a transmission with straight-cut gears which necessitated an amount of clutch-pumping jiggery-pokery to downshift. This was emphatically *not* a good car to be teaching a high-strung, pregnant, first-time driver to drive in. After some months of sporadic and fruitless driver training in the panel, my parents came to the conclusion that it would be more painless to just go ahead and buy a more practical family car. Hence the Dodge.

In the 1980s, there were still a few decent AM stations out there. There was an Oldies station which played plenty of 1950s Rockabilly and 1960s Doo-Whop. There was the Reservation Station which was one of our top favorites, a multi-genre station where you might hear Louie-Louie, then hear a native drum-chant of Louie-Louie, then hear a boot-scootin’ country-and-western tune, then hear a big-hair heavy metal song. There was the local college station, which didn’t have a very wide broadcast area, but which played some great music. Some of the student-DJs stuck to a Top 40 format, but some of the others were more rebellious—punks, metalheads, folkies My sister and I were fascinated with punk rockers and outrageous popstars, and dressed as punks for Halloween on a couple of different years. My sister also idolized Cyndi Lauper and would shee-bop around the house with a muffler tied around her head in imitation of Cyndi’s gigantic lace hairbows.

Our mom was the “Cool Mom” to ride with on field-trip carpools. She let kids chew gum in her car, played rock-and-roll on the radio, and head-grooved and butt-danced along to the best songs. She didn’t drive too slowly, like Shay & Staci’s mom, and she didn’t drive so fast kids got carsick, like Lisa & Lynette’s mom. Of course, there were benefits to riding with Kelli & Traci’s mom, as he had an enormous station wagon with cushy plush upholstery which smelled sweet because she delivered Mary Kay makeup. Kerri & Jenni’s mom also had a station wagon, albeit a much smaller one, and she let us crowd in and giggle and chatter and try to get semi-trucks to honk. My mom was (and still is) a timid driver, and whenever the noise levels inside the car started to creep upward, she’d tensely tell us to pipe down unless we wanted to make her have a wreck. A couple of times, field trips fell on my dad’s day off (he always had mid-week weekends, Wednesday/Thursday for ages, then Tuesday/Wednesday for the rest of his time on the railroad). When Dad drove on field trips, we went in his 1965 VW “Beetle” that he had hot-rodded up with a 1776cc engine that boasted dual carburetors and a noisy header. Even when he drove slowly in that car it felt like you were going fast, because the suspension was stiff, the engine noise was loud, and the car was so low-slung that the scenery looked like it was whipping past your nose like a sped-up film. The boys in my school particularly liked riding with my dad. First, there was the novelty aspect of it: nobody else’s dad ever drove on a field trip, and nobody else’s family had a Herbie car. Then there was the fact that my dad drove a fast, noisy car, and drove it pretty hard. Then there were the humorous aspects of Dad’s ’65. It had one grey fender—a primered replacement from a parking lot mishap. The grey fender was off of a ’67, so it had the upright headlight, while the other blue fender had the old-style headlight with the glass dome covering the actual bulb. This mismatch gave the car a certain wall-eyed visage. Inside the car, it was always a little furry smelling—all VWs of the type 1, 2, or 3 persuasion have this scent due to the horsehair padding in the seats, the woolen batting in the headliner, and the jute carpets in the footwells and the cargo area behind the back seat. Whenever he had to use the heater, there would be a moment of gagging until we got used to the smell. You see, a previous owner had spilled a milkshake down one of the back heater channel openings, and so the car always had a kind of burnt-sour-milk smell when you first opened up the heat vents.

When I was a little kid, I kept a mental tally of milestones that marked the way to becoming a grown-up, and of course, as an American kid, I knew learning to drive would be a biggie. Mom let me park her Dodge a few times when I was 11 or 12 (most of my farm-kid friends had already been driving the family tractors and farm pickups around in 1st gear, out in the pasture for a couple of years by then, and weren’t terribly impressed, whilst my citified Californian cousins thought it was the height of terrifying coolness that my mom let me sit behind the wheel of her car at all!) When I was 13, the Dodge was finally retired, due to extreme rust and the need for a top-end rebuild. Dad didn’t see it being worthwhile to resuscitate the Dart, though my mom was exceedingly put out at her beloved Dodge being deemed scrap. He fixed up a nice, orange 1973 Super Beetle he happened to have around. It had VW’s Autostick transaxle option, and he reckoned Mom could easily get the hang of clutchless shifting. *This* is what I learned to drive in, two years later.

Imagine, if you will, a high-strung, nervous mother (who didn’t learn to drive until she was almost 28) teaching a nervous, high-strung 15-year-old how to drive in a car with the world’s weirdest transmission. Mom had let me toodle the Dodge around a little bit a few years previously, and my dad was teaching me to drive a car with a manual transmission in a junker dubbed the Plum Bucket, but for the Rules-of-the-Road, town-and-country, logging-the-miles kind of driving, it was me, Mom, the Pumpkinmobile, countless arguments and shouting matches, and the open road. Little wonder that I passed the driving test, but remain, to this day, a nervous, edgy driver. I can’t have the radio on in town, and I break out into a cold sweat whenever I see a cop. I am not a terribly great driver—obviously timid, but to my credit, I have never been in a wreck or had a ticket, so I must be doing something right.

Gee, how did I get here from a $0.25 packet of minty chewing gum? Maybe I am as bad as Proust, only all post-modern and shit.

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