The One with the Way, Way Back

If you were a child of the 1960s and 1970s in the US, the title of this post probably brings one thing to mind: station wagons. The station wagon was the quintessential pre-SUV, gas guzzling family vehicle with the turning radius of an army tank.  You could comfortably fit everyone on your block for a trip to the drive-in.

My family didn’t have a station wagon, but my aunt and uncle did. It was a fabulous avocado green with fake wood paneling along the sides. Just like this:

Ford Country Squire

Image via WikiCommons

The way back refers to the rear-facing, third-row seat. It was the perfect place for rabble-rousing, as my aunt used to say, just far enough from my uncle’s long reach.

On warm summer evenings, when it was often light until 9 p.m., my cousin and I would climb into the way back of the Hulk (what else do you call an enormous, angry, green car?). My uncle would drive the whole family to the Italian ices place across town. My cousin and I sucked the ices from the paper cup while a line of red dribbled down to our elbows. I was just young enough not to think it gross to lick the juice off my arm. Then we’d all climb back into the station wagon while my uncle pumped the gas pedal, making it rev like a jet engine.

Image via Wikicommons

Seat belts? We don’t need no stinkin’ seat belts. Image via Wikicommons

Station Wagon: A Safer Place for Kids

Interesting what was considered “safe” back then. Image via Wikicommons

The extra-fun part about the way back was the ability to look other drivers in the eye.  We spent a lot of time at red lights and stop signs making ridiculous faces and (my favorite) doing a “Jaws” sketch wherein we pretended we were being attacked by a shark, thrashing this way and that until we were “eaten” and sank below the door.

There was also the opportunity to interact with the cars around us in a meaningful way. One night, my cousin dangled her legs out the way back window. Correction: My long and lean, Bo Derek look-alike cousin dangled her legs out the way back window. Appreciative honks and whistles sounded. Of course, I wanted to do everything she did, so I stuck my legs out the way back window also. Correction. I stuck my hairy calves out the way back window as I was too young to have started shaving and too short for my legs to reach farther. All honking ceased immediately.

What got me thinking about station wagons was an excellent movie called The Way, Way Back. Duncan’s (Liam James) summer is not off to a good start. His mother (Toni Collette), her overbearing boyfriend (Steve Carrell) and his daughter stick 14-year-old Duncan in the way, way back literally and figuratively. Having a rough time fitting in, Duncan finds an unexpected friend in Owen (Sam Rockwell, who was wonderfully cast), manager of the Water Wizz water park. Allison Janney was terrific as the neighbor.

The dialogue was sharp and witty as written by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (the team who brought you The Descendents). There are clear consequences to the character’s actions (and also their inaction).  The Way, Way Back is  charming and poignant and fun. It’s a feel good flick that proves you don’t need explosions and apocalypses and flesh-eating zombies to keep audiences interested.  If you enjoyed Little Miss Sunshine and Juno, you’ll enjoy this one, too. The movie was out in limited release this week in NYC, but look for it when it comes to your neck of the woods.

Do you have any fond memories of your family’s car? 

Have a great weekend, everyone!

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22 comments

  1. We had nothing but station wagons for all our trips! We had a Vista Cruiser….It had extra sets of windows above…I guess a pre-curser to sun roofs. We used our station wagon often as a playhouse. Fun days. Loved this post! Love your writing.

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  2. Great memory-stirring post, Jackie. I do recall seeing kids behaving like goons in the backs of station wagons in my youth. Since I grew up on the West Coast and you in the south, I doubt you were one of the kids I saw. My dad always drove yacht-sized souped up 4-door Buicks and Chryslers. By souped up, his cars had air conditioning, vinyl roofs, FM radio, cruise control (he loved driving on the freeway with his foot off the gas pedal) and an alarm (he worked in the jewelry business and carried live samples so that was practical). His mother, my grandmother who lived with us, had a tendency to open the door before he’d shut off the alarm, so it would sound like the fire department was heading out to battle a five alarm blaze directly from our driveway. Unlike your uncle’s station wagon, I don’t think my dad would have been very happy if I ate anything sloppy in his chariots, but I do recall going to McDonald’s back in the franchise’s early days. We’d eat our burgers in the car. What I liked most was dessert, the fried apple pie especially when I did not suffer third degree mouth burn biting into it. I tended to ignore the warning – “Caution: filling is hot.”

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  3. I haven’t seen the movie, but I do have memories off our tan station wagon with the wood paneling. We called it woody. That car hated us. would break down all the time. Once it broke down in the desert in Nevada no where near any town or city. We were stuck out there in the middle of the summer for over six hours. It’s hot out there. Real hot. Even though the car hated us I still have fond memories. All of us piling in on summer days to head to the beach is my favorite. That wagon could hold a lot of sand toys, boogie boards, surf boards, and five to six kids. Those were the days.

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    1. I love that you called your station wagon Woody. It reminds me of the Toy Story character — so much friendlier and charming than the Hulk. 🙂
      That story about getting stuck in Nevada is one you’ll have to work into your next novel somehow!

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  4. Fun memories! Our neighbors had a similar wagon and the mom would take eight of us for ice cream almost every day in the summer. The noise must have driven her crazy, but she never complained once. What a saint.
    I was wondering about the movie because I like Toni Collette and Steve Carell a lot. It opened here this weekend, so we’ll probably go in the near future.

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    1. I hope you get a chance to see the movie. My friend and I enjoyed it. It’s a fun summer flick with a bit of nostalgia and good dialogue too.
      One caveat — Steve Carrell doesn’t play the lovable kooky guy in this movie. That role went to Sam Rockwell.

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  5. My uncle too had a station wagon just like your uncle’s! It was light blue and big enough to fit two families into it – two sets of parents and ten children – on a trip to the beach over the summer holidays in Cape Town. I have so many wonderful memories of those holidays – thanks for reminding me of them! The movie sounds great and I love Steve Carell and Toni Collette.
    Sunshine

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    1. I bet you had a lot of fun riding in the way back! Did you have any “rules” about who got to sit there? Was it just the oldest kids or just the boys?
      I hope you get to see the movie. It was a lot of fun. Have a great week, Sunshine!

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      1. I don’t really remember any rules. The oldest and the boys always got what they wanted, and being one of the youngest and a girl, I just did what I was told! Haha! I’m not so much like that today! : )

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  6. My family had a huge white Chevy station wagon with flat wings on the back. Loved going to the drive-in in that big bomb. This post stirred so many good memories, Jackie. Family vacations up to the lake, and down to my uncle’s place in 29 Palms. Kinda makes me feel old too, though. LOL!

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  7. My family has never had a car. But I travelled in the back part of this vehicle: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/20/Trabant_1.1_Universal_(02).JPG), covered by some old blankets with my friend when we were 7-8 years old in case a police car would pop up. I’m not sure whether it can be called a car. The nickname of these beasts was “Paper Jaguar”, and it was made partially of plastic: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trabant.
    I also have beautiful memories about trips to the mountains with the families of my mother’s school. We, car-less people were transported by proud owners of such models: http://www.origo.hu/auto/veteran/20080216-wartburg-353-w.html?pIdx=1, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wartburg_(car), or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zaporozhets.
    All of them were extremely loud and foul (they had a two-stroke engine).

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