Diamond Impressions

31 07 2011

My sister and me with our Rambler

Walking down the sidewalk of downtown Columbia, SC, I had a flashback.  It was another sticky hot day, so hot that even the squirrels were stretched belly down on shaded bricks, trying to cool off.  A woman walked in front of me wearing shorts and a sleeveless blouse.  Imprinted on the back of her thighs were diamond tattoos, not made with ink, but rather from the weave of the chair she had been sitting in.  Well do I remember those diamond tattoos.

Playing Traffic Cop

The year was 1965 when my parents bought the Rambler.  It was a blue station wagon, equipped with a radio and (drum roll please) air conditioning.  I spent a lot of my growing up years in that Rambler, so air conditioning was a real bonus.  Each summer, my family would take off for another part of the United States, pulling the pop-up trailer behind us as we traveled for weeks on end.  My father had worked his way up to five weeks of vacation a year at that point, so we would often be gone for three or four weeks at a time.  With this being a new car and all, my parents covered the vinyl seats with clear plastic seat covers with a raised diamond design.

Just because we had air conditioning did not mean we used it all the time.  A typical day’s drive would start with the windows rolled up for the first few hours, seeing as how we’d get better gas mileage without the wind resistance.  By 11:00 or so, sweat would be trickling down my mother’s face and neck.  Folks like to say that Southern women don’t sweat, they glow.  Although by then she had lived in the south longer than from her home state of Illinois, Mom was definitely not a Southern woman.  She didn’t glow; she poured.  She never complained (we did enough of that for her), but by the time we stopped for lunch she would be soaking wet.

Getting out of the car was always an experience.  My sister and I would have to pry our legs off those plastic seats, our legs making squelchy wet sounds as we eased them out the door.  And no matter how much we tried to sit on our hands or shift around, we always had diamond tattoos on the backs of our thighs.

More times than not, our lunch stop would be at a roadside pull off, where we would drag out the cooler and have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and warm lemonade.  Sometimes after lunch Daddy would stretch himself out on the top of the concrete picnic table, crossing his legs and interlocking his fingers over his stomach.  Within minutes, he would be asleep while we entertained ourselves by pretending bahia grass stalks were magic wands or, better yet, by throwing acorns at each other.  Soon enough we’d be on the road again, this time with the air conditioning on for a few blessed hours.

It was on these trips in that Rambler that I taught myself to read without getting carsick.  I had to.  There was nothing else to do, other than letting the telephone lines hypnotize me as they swooped past.  I have mixed feelings about the video games and DVD players that kids have in their backseats today.  I understand parents needing some quiet time in the car, but sometimes kids have to be bored into reading.  Those books took me farther than that old Rambler ever did.

We played “I Spy.”  It usually went like this:

ME: I spy something green.

MY SISTER: Is it grass?

ME: Yes.

MY SISTER: My turn.  I spy something gray.

ME: Is it the road?


BOTH:  I’m bored.

PARENTS (in unison): Read a book.

I remember one time we were somewhere in New England, or maybe Ohio, and Lucy and I both got sick.  Really sick, the throwing up kind.  We didn’t head for home.  We hardly slowed down.  My mother cleaned out the Way Back and threw in a couple of pillows and a bucket.  Lucy and I lay down with that bucket between us, and we continued on.  I felt like a martyr.

Just call me "jughead." That's Daddy and me in front of the tent-trailer.

We camped all over the United States this way.  I learned that Sault St. Marie is pronounced “Sue Saint Marie.”  I learned that empty gas cans are best not thrown in the campfire.  I learned that the Golden Eagle Passport gets you in most national parks (much later, this was the answer to a high school current events question that I answered correctly, much to the surprise of my teacher).  We traveled to museums, national parks, monuments, battlefields, and beaches.  We ate black walnut ice cream on the hood of that Rambler, out of the carton, finishing the whole thing before it melted.  We waited out storms that kept us cooped up in the car for hours before we could set up the tent-trailer.  I can count on one hand the times we stopped at Mickey Dee’s or any other restaurant.  I was in eleventh grade before I stayed in a hotel, when my best friend invited me on vacation with her folks.  I thought all families traveled like we did.

Traveling is so much more comfortable now.  We have soft seat covers, leather even.  We run the air conditioning just as soon as it starts to get warm.  Electronics keep our kids entertained.  We stay in nice hotels, condos, or resorts.  We eat out without even thinking twice.  We let tour guides show us the best sights.

Eventually, the long road trips came to an end.  The Rambler was put to rest out at Sassafras, the hundred-acre plot of land out on Highway 302 that my father bought upon retirement.  I went to see her once.  She was resting comfortably under a shed, sharing space with stacks of old lumber, windows scavenged from a house Daddy tore down, and rolls of chicken wire.  Her blue paint was dull with age, pine needles clogged her wipers, and her tires were up on blocks.  Inside, though, her seats were in pristine condition under the now-cloudy plastic seat covers.  I ran my hand over the raised pattern, remembering the temporary indentions they made on my thighs.  Although they faded from sight fairly quickly, those diamonds had left a permanent impression on my life.