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Strap Them In

Keeping peace in the car

LORIā€ˆOSIECKI ILLUSTRATION

I got plenty to say (under my breath) about the way some people raise their kids these days. But at least everybody has one thing right: Car seats and seat belts.

Strap them kids down so they can’t move a muscle.

I know it’s supposed to keep them safe, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I am talking about peace. Used to be they was poking their little heads over the front seat, sneezing in your ear, squalling “Are we there yet?” every two seconds, and doing God-knows-what back there.

I know. I remember when I myself did God-knows-what back there.

One time my father bought a new car – this was back in Year One, way before anybody used seat belts or car seats.

He and Mama walked into the Nash dealership – us kids tagging behind – and he told the salesman what he wanted and how much he was willing to pay. They decided on a shiny green station wagon that was about a mile long and shaped like a rocket. Daddy counted out 15 hundred-dollar bills right then and there, and we all piled in and drove out of the lot.

Instead of seat belts, my father made rules. No jumping over seats. No food in the car. No drinks. No snowballs. No cookies. No candy. No food whatsoever.

He didn’t say no gum.

The day after Halloween that year, we’re getting ready to drive to my grandmother’s for lunch before we all go to the cemetery, like we do every All Saints Day. I am in my bedroom with my head in my Trick-or-Treat bag when Daddy roars, “Everybody in the car!”

I stick the bag in my underwear drawer, shove four pieces of bubble gum in my mouth and run for the car. I push my brother, Fermin Jr., over so I can sit right behind my father, to be sure he won’t see my jaws working that gum.

Well, Daddy has a habit of leaning forward over the steering wheel to stretch his back whenever we stop at a red light. When he stops at one particular light, I lean forward too, to get a good look at some boys from my fifth grade class who are walking their bikes across the street. And right then, Fermin Jr., who’s mad because I stole the window seat, smacks me between the shoulder blades. My bubble gum shoots right out of my mouth and arcs up and over the back of Daddy’s seat. In the exact same second, the light changes and Daddy sits back.

The gum is now smashed between his nice white shirt and the car seat.

I panic. I try to pantomime to my mother what happened, pointing to my open mouth and down Daddy’s back, but she just shakes her head and turns up the radio.

So the minute we pull up in front of my grandmother’s shotgun house, I zip out the car, run inside and lock myself in her bathroom.

Grandma knocks and asks if I’m all right. I say I’m sick to my stomach. Which is the truth.

After a while Fermin Jr. knocks. “You’re in trouble nowww,” he singsongs. “Daddy can’t get out the car.”

But after a longer while, I hear Daddy stomp into the front room. “Fermin!” my grandmother says, “What’s the matter with you, boy? You can’t go to the cemetery in your undershirt!”

I can just picture him, in his ribbed sleeveless undershirt with his armpit hair billowing out. He asks, “Where’s Modine?”

There is a big old-fashioned clothes hamper built into the bathroom wall. I climb in.

 Even from in there, I can hear Mama calming things down. Then I hear ice cube trays being emptied. Then it gets quiet.

Finally Mama knocks on the door. “Come out. We froze the gum off the car seat with ice. But we have to throw his good shirt out. Daddy went home to get another one.”

I come out – and I get the longest lecture of my life. I get it again, louder, when Daddy gets back. I start saving my money right then to buy him a new shirt for Christmas.

I get it in bubble-gum pink, so the gum won’t show if I ever do that again. That is how kids think.

Strap ’em in and bring on the movies.

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