The year is 1960. I’m five years old. My brother, Duncan, is seven and a half years old and has a year of first grade under his belt. My sister, Susanne is two and a half: a rosy, happy toddler. It’s mid-August in Newburyport, Massachusetts.
The car bumps along the dusty road leaving the beach. In the back seat, Duncan and I are jostling against the stiff, itchy upholstery. The ground in sand enhances the fabric’s abrasiveness and our deepening sun burns. My mom, slender and blonde, steers the lumbering 1948 Plymouth Coupe through a long course of potholes and rocks. Susanne is perched on the other end of the mountainous front seat. She deftly avoids the “right hand child restraint,” administered frequently as mom endeavors to keep her upright on the seat.
We are not rich or famous. Dad commutes an hour to Boston five days a week and needs a reliable vehicle. He and some friends pieced together the Plymouth for my mom and keep everything under the hood functioning. The rest of the car is a wreck. Most glaring is the fact that the floorboards are rotted to the point of making it dangerous for even a forty-pound child to step there. This means launching ourselves from the running board to the seat. It also leaves open the possibility for endless games.
On rainy days we pile newspapers over the holes in the floor to keep the water from splashing up in geysers when we hit a puddle. On days like today, it means the Army Man Drag. Battalions of Duncan’s molded, green plastic army men have given their lives to our game.
The grocer delivers our meat wrapped in white paper and tied with thin red and white string. This string is saved in a drawer in the kitchen and Duncan hoards scraps of it for the game. We tie the string through the soldiers legs and lower them like a fishing line through the ragged openings. My job is to scramble up the tall backrest to the shelf below the back window. It is the perfect length for me to stretch out on my belly and watch the road behind. Seldom does the soldier make it to bouncing along behind as we envision it should. The string breaks, the army man bounces off in any direction, and we have to reload.
Mom seldom pays much attention to what is going on over the wall created by the back of her seat. If we are quiet, she assumes we are tired out from a day of sun and surf.
I must be doing a lot of hopping up and down as she glares into the expanse of rear-view mirror and utters some warning. Susanne takes this opportunity to seek revenge for all the “child restraint” action. She lightly tosses mom’s purse out the wide-open window.
Said purse is a basket-y thing that is popular and chic with the moms. It is lined with cheery gingham and has a perky ribbon. Duncan and I are impressed when it flies by the window like a Wiffle ball. It is several miles of dirt road before mom’s attention is drawn to the empty spot on the seat between she and Susanne.
What then ensues is a hysterical woman, slamming on the brakes while pinning Susanne against the seat with one arm. She executes a perfect forty-eight-point turn on the one and half lane road as it clogs with cars leaving the beach. From there she drives erratically up and down the stretch of road, head out the window; the three of us waver between being terrified and giggling hysterically at the situation. The basket eventually is found as the sun sinks over the last cars rumbling away from the beach.
Mom is irritated, though relieved at finding her purse. She pulls up our long driveway with itchy, red kids needing baths, sopping sandy towels to wash and dinner to be made. Dad surveys the situation. He has the good sense to see the tension, and the wisdom to only chuckle quietly as he helps us up the stairs to bathe.
The very next weekend he and some friends install a new plywood floor in the Plymouth. It is a band-aid on a peeling sore; it would not have prevented the purse tossing, but it certainly does curtail our games.