I’m in a memoir mood today, so let’s spin the flashback wheel to the year 1972!
It’s late July, maybe early August. Richard Nixon is president and Watergate is just emerging as a scandal.
Gasoline averages 55 cents a gallon. The Munich Olympic terrorist attack has yet to happen (that will be in September). The average yearly income is $11,800 and the average cost of a new house is $27,550.
Fashion is interesting and colorful.
Food is weird.
David Bowie introduces his alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust.
ABBA is formed.
Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is published.
The top movie was The Godfather. M*A*S*H is a hit television show, although I am a Mary Tyler Moore Show girl.
Roberta Flack’s First Time Ever I Saw Your Face is the top song of the year, American Pie by Don McLean is number 3, and it is the song that I like better. We all like singing along to Harry Nilsson’s Coconut Song.
A portion of my family is on an extended one-way cross-country trip from Georgia to California.
I am the youngest. My mother, a widow with 4 children, has just married her second husband, Van, a twice-divorced alcoholic who doesn’t like children. Actually, he pretty much hates everything as far as I, at age almost 11, can tell. Cathy, our oldest sister, is not on the trip; she is in Georgia with her husband and new baby. I miss them dreadfully. Our family dog, Tripp, will be flown out later to join us in California. I also miss her dreadfully. Van took the 3 cats (Whiskers, Luke, and Christy) and the other dog, goofy Sunshine, to the pound. Somehow he spared Tripp, who is a year older than I am and has been around my entire life. She has periodic seizures; maybe even a seemingly heartless guy like Van knows you don’t take a senior dog with seizures away from her family.
This excerpt from the Little Shit memoir (Little Shit is the nickname I obtained that summer) is early in the trip, when are headed from Laurel, Mississippi to New Orleans, Louisiana.
To do this, we cross the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, an almost 24 mile long bridge that is the world’s longest span over water. That is very long, especially when you are 10, and crammed in a car with two cranky siblings and two smoking adults, no air conditioning, and no end in sight to this miserable summer. Fun times!
Apologies to my sister Ellen for my somewhat exaggerated depiction of her moodiness and carsickness. But she did miss her boyfriend and she really hated that bridge!
[Text copyright Genevieve Cottraux 2017]
We have a quiet breakfast at the Howard Johnson’s in Laurel, Mississippi. Ellen spent the previous night in our room in tears after saying goodbye to her boyfriend in Birmingham. It’s not like she’s never going to see him again. She’ll be back in Atlanta to finish high school soon enough, and he will be there for his second year at Emory. But she is inconsolable, refusing to eat dinner. I love the orange and turquoise theme but Ellen says it’s tacky. She consents to breakfast, but glares at Van between deep sighs. She fiddles with a cup of coffee, the weight of the world on her 16-year old shoulders. I go for the little boxes of cereal that you split open and pour the milk right in, bypassing the bowl. The snap, crackle and pop is the only noise at the table beside the sighs and the clinking of coffee cups on saucers.
“I can’t wait to see New Orleans,” Mom finally offers as conversation.
Steve mutters, “I can,” and Ellen just rolls her eyes.
We load the bags back onto the luggage rack. Steve crawls to the wayback, flashing me his “beat you” grin. I settle in beside Ellen in the back seat. At least I have my book if I can’t have my favorite spot.
“How can you read in the car?” Ellen looks at me like I’m from another planet. It’s as good a place to read as any.
Van has decreed that Mom is not going to drive on this trip, which is fine with her, and gets behind the wheel. She empties out the overflowing ashtray and settles in.
“We’ll be going over the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. It’s the world’s longest bridge over water,” Van announces, like he’s reading from a travel brochure.
Uh oh. He doesn’t know yet that Ellen can get really carsick on bridges and curvy roads. I love Ellen, but I don’t want to be sitting next to her over that bridge.
“Can we have the radio for a while?” Ellen asks.
So far Van has been solidly anti-radio.
“If I hear that damned “lime in the coconut” song one more time, I’m going to spit, ” he says.
Ellen loves Carly Simon and Carole King but they don’t impress Van either. None of us want to listen to what Steve likes, bands with weird names like Jethro Tull, and of course the Allman Brothers, Georgia boys who Ellen’s boyfriend used to listen to before they were famous when they would play for free in Piedmont Park. So we settle for country music. Mom tries to get us to sing along like we used to, but Cathy was always the leader then and Ellen isn’t up to taking her place at the moment.
The bridge appears to be endless and hovers uncomfortably close to the water. I’m not afraid of bridges or heights, but the idea of Van swerving the overloaded station wagon off the bridge when he gets cigarette ashes on his pants or spills his drink makes me nervous. Van also probably doesn’t know that I can’t swim.
“My goodness, look at that!” exclaims Mom. It really is quite a sight, with no end on the horizon. Ellen clutches at my arm. I let her, even though I am not sure how it comforts her at all.
“You lie down; I’ll scoot over closer to the door,” I offer. The window is open for fresh air. If we go over, is it better for it to be up or down?
In my mind I see the swerve of the overloaded station wagon and it, with the 5 of us, dropping like a giant cannonball into the water. Do station wagons float? We have the windows cracked open all the time because of the cigarette smoke and the lack of air conditioning. Now I wonder, would it be better to have the windows tightly shut in the event of a water landing? I grab the crank and start turning it, the cool smooth metal feeling like my last chance to avoid a watery grave. I practice rolling the window up and down to see how fast I can do it if called on in an emergency.
“What the hell are you doing,” Van demands, his mouth pursed around his cigarette and looking at me in the rear view mirror.
I know better than to answer the question. I stop cranking the handle and slide down in the seat so I can’t see all of the beautiful blue, deadly water out there. But it’s much too hot to burrow, and Ellen is taking up more than her share of the space as she lies on her side and closes her eyes, trying to stem the carsickness. Steve is looking out the wayback at the cars behind us, and gazing at the water as it speeds away from him rather than toward him.
“Scoot over,” I whisper as I crawl over the seat back into the wayback with him. “Ellen’s going to puke on me!”
He swats at me, “Go away.”
“Mom!” I yell toward the front.
“Mom! Steve won’t let me in the back. Tell him to move over.” I am halfway over the back seat, head and shoulders in the wayback and the rest of me trying to catch up. Ellen, sweaty and clammy with carsickness, is swatting me away with a surprisingly strong hand from one side and Steve from the other. I hiss at Steve, “Let me in, she’s going to puke on me.”
“Dammit, Nancy,” snarls Van. “I am not pulling over on this bridge. Control your children.” Mom is obliviously singing with Donna Fargo that she’s the happiest girl in the whole USA.
Was my mother really oblivious? I honestly don’t know, but it seemed so at the time. And no, in 1972 not a lot of people bothered with seat belts. I climbed around in the car. Dear younger readers, cars did not have electric windows in the old days. You had to crank them. I can’t say for sure there was a Howard Johnson’s in Laurel, Mississippi, but I know we stayed at one somewhere along the way.
We did love the Coconut Song. You know the one, “put the lime in the coconut, you know you’ll feel better…
Here I am, 45 years later, on a hot day in California in August, drinking my favorite new icy drink, coconut water with lime. It does make me feel better!