"It's like taking a nap on that little rug when you were in kindergarten."

Summer of 1972 – The Family Station Wagon

On this particular late-July day, it was typically hot and humid across most of Iowa, including our fair city of Cedar Rapids. Who doesn’t love 95 degrees Fahrenheit and 90% humidity, where your shirt sticks to your body like Saran Wrap as soon as you walk out of air-conditioned paradise?

Our family made the four and a half hour trek back to our hometown of Omaha, to visit grandparents and other assorted relatives, every couple of months.

Fortunately, to start this trip, we now had a brand-spanking-new 1972 Chevrolet Kingswood Estate Station Wagon.

Our Wagon looked just like this!

What a sweet ride it was: Power everything, before everyone had power everything; an eight-track player (wow!); a REAR facing third seat in the “way back” as it was known by our family; and a luggage rack that could hold the carrier so we didn’t have to take valuable people-space away from those inside the vehicle.

This might not seem so special, but consider packing seven children, two parents, and approximately five large suitcases into one conveyance … before the advent of the mini-van.

Think level 100 on Tetris and you get a rough idea of how difficult it was to shoehorn our lot in to the wagon prior to hitting the road!

As we embarked on this particular trip, we popped in the Dean Martin’s Greatest Hits eight-track tape, and quickly struck up the familiar:

“When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie,
That’s amore.
When the world seems to shine like you’ve had too much wine,
That’s amore.
Bells will ring ting-a-ling-a-ling, ting-a-ling-a-ling,
And you’ll sing “Vita bella.”
Hearts will play tippy-tippy-tay, tippy-tippy-tay,
Like a gay tarantella.”

I’m sure we could have passed for the Von Trapp Family Singers of Sound of Music fame (at least in our minds)!  Hey there were seven of them, as well, and we had that eight-track we could sing along to as good as the next 70’s family.

Sound of Music, Von Trapp, Julie Andrews

As we over-listened to all three eight-track tapes (Dean Martin, Sound of Music, and the Chevrolet Variety Hits that came with the car), completely played-out the “license plate” game, the “I’m going on a safari and I’m taking a …” game, and started bickering and outright fighting with each other, dad decided it was time to stop for food.

Getting food for a family of nine, back in those days, was an adventure of epic proportions. You didn’t have an exit full of fast food choices every 20 miles or so. You got food – and gas for that matter – when you had the opportunity. If not, you might have kids gnawing off each other’s arms just for sustenance. You know, only the strong survive!

Dad spotted an A&W Drive-In restaurant where we would be eating, and turned off at the exit. We pulled up to one of the ordering stalls – one that was not under the protection of a an overhead roof. As we placed the order from hell for twelve hot dogs, three hamburgers, eight orders of french fries, and seven root beer floats, the weather began to take a turn for the worse.

Hmm, enough for the Monaghans?

If you’ve lived in the midwest, you know it can be sunny and hot, and then suddenly the temperature drops … and BAM: thunderclaps, lightning, and torrential downpour.

It was at this point, that all eyes turned to the head of the household. Drops, and then what seemed like puddles, of rain began to plop on us inside the brand new car, and we wondered why dad wasn’t getting our new “power windows” rolled up with the flick of a switch.

You see, we didn’t question the old guy. That’s just the way it was back then. So we waited, getting wetter by the second.

As the silence – the most unusual of occurrences for our passel of children – stifled the vehicle, we realized something was seriously wrong. It appeared that somehow the battery had died during our A&W pit-stop, and our “power windows” were now as powerless as Superman around kryptonite.

After much finagling, asking for help, getting a new battery, and trying to dry ourselves and the inside of the car off, we were back on the road. We had gained yet another memory-arrow to store in our quiver called “childhood.”

How much did this incident stay with me? Let’s put it this way: I was so afraid that a vehicle with power windows would have the battery die, that when I purchased my first four cars, I insisted that the windows had manual-crank mechanisms to roll them up – couldn’t afford to be stuck at an A&W with a dead battery in the rain!

Did you ever have anything like this happen to you?

This memory was triggered by Melissa’s wonderful story at Play101. Be sure to check it out.


  1. Dang it. Now I want a hot dog from A & W. I guess I will have to settle for The Varsity………….

    We had numerous driving mishaps in my family of four, but the thing I will always remember about those station wagons was how any one of us could’ve been a projectile. I loved nothing more than getting in the very back and rolling around on the itchy carpet. One of my friends had one that had the two seats that pulled up in the very back, and I was always fascinated with that. But, what I liked most was having my friend’s Dad roll down the very back window, sitting in the window, and banging on the top of the car while he drove us around the block.

    How did we ever make it to adulthood???

    • Hello, human projectiles is right!! What were our parents thinking? I know they didn’t know better, but seven kids and a sudden stop? Boy, that would have been bad.
      How did we make it to adulthood?

      I have to say, I usually was in the middle seat (I was the second oldest) and the “little kids” had to take the way back.

  2. Beautiful story, MJ — and thanks for the nod. :)

    I loved your visuals, with the family Tetris game. And I think I will forever now think of you as a Von Trapp.

    This line was great, “You see, we didn’t question the old guy. That’s just the way it was back then. So we waited, getting wetter by the second.” Yes! That’s how things were. Day by day I try to steer my children into being better listeners. I’m sure if I had the attitude our fathers did, it would be a non-issue.

    What a wonderful memory, and a great analogy of arrows in a quiver.

    • MJ Von Trapp – you are too funny, Melissa!

      Yeah, we just did what we were told for the most part, right? No choice then.

      Thanks so much for the compliment – means a lot coming from you, my friend.

  3. Ahhh, those were the days! I was the oldest of three kids and we all craved a station wagon just like that one, Michael! But my father insisted on sedans. Naturally, after the oldest two graduated from college my parents bought….a station wagon.

    • Why do they do that to us, Ellison? I remember AFTER I left the house, my parents started taking summer vacations. I think we had two total when I was at home. Funny, huh? :)

  4. I believe the rear-facing third seat is referred to as “The Little House On The Prairie Seat”.

    Now those were the good days–not old days.

  5. We had a Pinto. Every family trip we took — yes, in a Pinto, and no, there weren’t many — involved a trip to the mechanic to fix something.

    Every family trip also involved copious fights, angry swearing and drinking at night. Not the children, but definitely the parents…


    • That’s awesome, Mikalee!

      I had friends who had a Pinto. You survived it, thank goodness! That’s a very small car for family trips, so I can understand drinking and swearing. And even your parents doing those things! :)

  6. Back in 1988 we owned the Buick equivalent of your Family Truckster. It was white and we used to refer to it as the “White Whale.” I don’t believe ours had the rear-gunner seat though. It was so big that it sailed down the road like a boat and the kids used to get sea-sick back there. We considered getting a tanker trailer for it just to haul gas. We never did try to haul the dog up on the roof rack though, besides, it may have changed the paint color.

    Funny, I’ve always had the same fear failing electric windows and still prefer hand-cranks. Of course I’ve many cars where the window was a sheet of plastic, that didn’t go up or down either. Ah, the memories…

    • Hmm, K1, we have a lot more in common than we know. I had a friend who had a “White Whale.”

      Nothing wrong with hand cranks – I still get leery of power windows, myself. What if it goes into a river and the electric shorts out, etc. :)

  7. Ha! Great story MJ, as usual!

  8. hey, where’s your like button? wanted to press it, couldn’t find it…

  9. Loved A&W. Or was it the babes? George McGovern was the only democrat for whom I ever voted. I really believed in him and the change of course America needed. My first year as a teacher in 1972. Salary $5,400 for the year. It was a turning point for me as I almost went career army(I was one of 600 nation wide for full army scholarship in 68). I decided that God did not put America here to drop fire on innocent little rice farmers on the other side of the world.

    • I bet it wasn’t the root beer, Carl!

      Interesting what the teachers salary was and that that was a good wage back then. And you were of service to your country by preparing young people for the future.

  10. Ahaha wow, what a story! I’m sure you were probably ready to throttle someone at the time! Haha :) Love the whole car sing-along thing, so cute.
    Me and my family did have I guess a slightly similar situation. We were on a trip to see family and our exaust pipe sorta half fell off. So for quite a large amount of the journey we had to trail slowly along the road, this horrendus noise following as we went until we could get it fixed. We certainly got some strange looks!
    Great post as always mj, also MY SUNBSCRIPTION FINALLY DECIDED TO WORK YAAAYYY. You’ll never get rid of me now mwuhuhuhu.

    • Oh, I’ve had that grinding exhaust pipe thing. Not fun, and you get a lot of dirty looks from passersby.

      We must have been a sight to behold – all those kids singing. :)

      And I’m SO glad the subscription thing is fixed. This has been puzzling me for a while. So, thanks for the feedback, Becky!

  11. Naomi Baltuck says:

    Hi mj. Your post brought to mind the summer of 1966, when my newly widowed mother took us on an eight-week tour of the Western United States–seven kids, three cats, and one long-necked guitar (that didn’t even survive as far as the Continental Divide). We traveled in a very old VW bus, hauling a battered Apache tent-trailer, living on PBJ or baloney sandwiches on Wonder Bread. You might ask, “WHAT WAS SHE THINKING?!?” But we loved it so much that every summer after that we were on the road, exploring the 49 states that you could drive to, region by region. Thanks for a great post, and for bringing back some wild and chaotic (but happy) memories.

    • For crying out loud, Naomi!! What was she thinking, was exactly what I thought!

      That was so brave. I loved Wonder Bread – that gooey goodness with PBJ … yum!
      I seriously would have loved to be on that road trip. I still like long-distance driving.

      You must have so many super-fantastic memories of those trips.

  12. Great story, it was very interesting. it sounded like the intro into a great novel that I would read. You have a great talent for writing, you should write a book sometime. You use such great similes and metaphores. The last long carride I went on with my family we were driving to California from Omaha. We were driving for about six hours when we stopped in Sterling Colorado at a rest stop. My younger cousin was helping me do handstands. I finally got it down and I did one hoping my dad would see, but he didnt, so I did another one and I fell broke my arm and we were at the hospital for hours. When we were done there we kept driving. The next day we arrived very late and our family greeted us. We stayed up late discussing who would sleep where and trying to figure out how I would be able to swim in the ocean with a cast. it all worked out, I just had a trashbag arm, with a lot of duck tape.

    • Tinca, thank you for the very kind compliment. So sweet of you to say.

      I heard about your unfortunate incident with the handstand. Boy, that must have been difficult having to wrap your arm and cast in a trash bag, but hey, you got to go into the ocean that way, right?

      Hope it’s all healed up now, and that you avoid an event like that in the future. Look forward to seeing you in the very near-future! 😉

  13. My Dad was a shade-tree mechanic so he could fix anything that came up, usually with a piece of baling wire! Amazing what you can do with baling wire! Dad was a firm believer in less is more. No new-fangled buttons or extra whistles and bells on our vehicles. The more it had on it, the more that could go wrong. We never had electric windows in any care we owned growing up. Heck, we never had a new car! All of the cars Mom and Dad had were used.

    • Interesting that you mention it, Lori. That wagon was the only new vehicle that I remember the whole time I was at home.

      My dad, on the other hand, liked all the bells and whistles. I’m about half and half. I’m kind of a simple guy, but I like some of the creature comforts, if that makes sense.

      I too, like a little shade-tree mechanic-ing! Extra bolts, hmm, must not have needed those. hehehe

  14. I grew up with the Furry III, but only 2 children in the back seat. When we would drive across the Central Valley to Yosemite or King’s Canyon, we would stop at A & W in the middle of nowhere. I grew up thinking that this was the only A & W in California, thus rootbeer floats were a really special treat!

    • Yum, yum – nothing like the root beer float.

      The ol’ Plymouth Fury. What a great car. Glad you have some memories of your central California adventures, Oscar.

  15. Judy Berman says:

    Michael, you have a fantastic way with words and creating a memorable visual. “somehow the battery had died during our A&W pit-stop, and our “power windows” were now as powerless as Superman around kryptonite.”
    And, yes, I remember not questioning whatever it is my Dad – or my Mom – said. Even though I thought on occasion, “What were they thinking?”
    Great blog.

  16. Ahhh, car-luggage tetris! I was an only child and my parents had a large Renault Espace – the 7 seater. Every year we used to go on a long camping holiday to France. Every year to go on holiday and a few times during plus once to come back we would play tetris. Thankfully my Dad is one of the super-organized men on the planet so after year 1 he figured out “the system” – everything had its place, and it went there and no-where else. Thankfully in our car you could take out any seats you didn’t need, so there was only usually 1 seat in the back of the car for me and the rest was filled with a very large frame tent, our portable kitchen, crates of food (mostly things we couldn’t get in France such as crisps, chips in American, and peanut butter) and enough luggage to last us until we could find a laundrette.

    I do remember the one horrible year where my parents “upgraded” the car to a 4×4 and I got squished by the camping fridge whilst going around a very large roundabout… Thankfully the dashboard went on the blink (speedometers are kind of necessary) so we took it back, complained and they gave us most of the money back (we had driven the entire way around France and back) and my Dad promptly went and bought the latest Espace so everything went back to normal – except this one had a 6 CD changer ;).
    Thankfully we never had any battery problems!

    • Your dad sounds like my kind of guy. I too, am a pack every square inch kind of guy. He sounds like he has such a great sense of organization, that he has also passed down to you, my friend.

      I love the story about being pinned in by the camping fridge. Our kids have complained about stuff wedging them in during trips and moves, more times than I can count. hehehe

      MLB was an only child as well. Now I’m starting to understand you even better! 😉

  17. Tetris! Haven’t heard that name for years!

  18. Jane Thorne says:

    Oh mj I loved this story and you’re right we never questioned the authority in those days did we? Teenage years in Africa all us kids used to pile into the back of the pick-up and we went miles in that thing…bad hair days were irrelevant back then and my freckles joined together in a permanent tan! Thanks for this post – J x

    • Boy, you’re so right about pick-up trucks, Jane. I didn’t have too many friends who had parents with trucks, but the ones who did, had their kids ride around in the bed all the time. So lucky none of them fell out or got slammed around, and injured.

  19. I truly loved this trip down Memory Lane! It was like “The Wonder Years”, but well-written and hilarious!

  20. How on earth did you parents ever get all of you in the car/out of the car/ fed/clothed/and off to school. What amazing people. And what a great post. Not only is it a tribute to childhood, but it’s helping AW sell hot dogs. I’ve gotta have one, now and maybe listen to The Sound of Music.

    • I honestly don’t know how they did it. I know we didn’t get individualized attention, because there were so many of us, but getting all of us ready must have been crazy. Don’t know how we were ever on-time for anything. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  21. That wood paneled station wagon in the snow sure brings back memories! As does your Van Trapp family reference. 😉

    • Ah, the faux-wood-paneling! It was laminated on the side of the vehicle. I’m pretty sure nothing was “The Real Thing” in the 70’s, except maybe Coca Cola! hehe

  22. I felt like I was squeezed in that station wagon right there with the rest of you :) Wonderful trip down memory lane. Reminds me of trekking through the Canadian Rockies, all 7 of us, and stopping to buy cases of Bing Cherries which my Mom put in the back window. Our little hands were into those cherries and … in due time they took effect. 8Million pit stops later, we were finally back on the road … oy! Cheers to you- MJ

    • Oh my … Bing Cherries for the whole family – that’s terrible. My dad would have been so frustrated making all those stops. He was a point A to point B, kind of guy.

  23. Great story Mj. It was funny and beautiful. For me best part was, “You see, we didn’t question the old guy. That’s just the way it was back then.:- I can tell you in this part of world, now also we can’t ask questions to our dad. So I could understand what was your expression by that moment. :)
    Thanks a lot for sharing this beautiful story with us, I know you must have a smile on your face while typing this story, because this memory must be very close to your heart.

    • Thank you so much, Arindam! Means a lot coming from you.

      In some ways it was better with the respect level that kids had for their parents, but on the other hand, NOTHING could be questioned at all. Even if things didn’t make sense.

  24. You have a gift for spinning quite a tale, my friend…

Love to hear from you.

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