It used to be the custom for children to be seen and not heard. When I was a child, it was our duty to be heard, especially in the back seat of the car on a long journey. (Any car trip that took more than seven and a half minutes was considered long.) To keep us occupied—and reasonably amused—my parents relied on a number of car games. Now that kids have their own mini-TVs and video games installed by auto manufacturers, these games will probably go the way of the Model-T.
Our favorite was the license plate game simply because it had the most variables. We began by seeing who could collect the most out-of-state-nameplates. Shouts of, “I’ve got six New Yorks,” and “Yeah, well that Vermont one is mine!” made my father’s knuckles go white on the wheel after a few miles.
Next, we’d make the numbers on the passing plates add up to a hundred. When we tired of that, we spelled words with the letters. I’ve never told, but often before the hour-long trip to Holyoke to visit our grandparents, I would look up words in the dictionary, hoping to stump my little sisters. “Spell acrimony,” I’d suggest. They’d just look at me. “No,” Jackie would reply. “I’m going to spell monster.”
We often expanded the list of available numbers or letters to billboards and the numbers tacked to signposts. Or, instead of spelling words or adding numbers, we found all the letters of the alphabet, or the numbers 1-100 in succession.
Our efforts at amusing ourselves weren’t limited to math and language arts. We sang songs, favoring the unending rounds that eventually made my father threaten to leave us by the side of the road if that %$#@ bear went over the mountain one more time. My mother would look at him and say, “Jay,” very quietly. He knew she meant he ought not to be increasing our vocabulary. In retaliation, he taught us Army songs. We’d bowl along the highway, yelling in unison, “And those caissons went rolling along,” until he was sorry we knew that song, too.
One of my uncles let slip that if we did not hold our breath going past a cemetery, the ghosts of the dead would enter our noses or mouths, a thought so horrible that when we knew we were approaching a cemetery, we would hold our breath ahead of time, just in case. My mother disapproved of such nonsense. My father welcomed the respite.
As we grew older, the games became less sophisticated and more physical. The boys favored punch-buggy. Anytime we spotted a Volkswagon Bug, the first to see it cried out, “punch-buggy!” and whatever color the car happened to be. A solid punch to the upper arm was delivered at the same time. My arms were perpetually “punch-buggy blue.”
Padiddle was the girls’ favorite. It required a kiss at the appearance of a car with one headlight. My eye was keener at night, apparently. It was an especially exciting game if there happened to be two fellows and one girl riding in the back seat. It’s a shame, really, about those in-car TV and video games.