Steering the Car on Dad’s Lap

Steering on dad’s lap

I’d sit on his lap in that big old Buick
And steer as we drove through town
He’d tousle my hair and say son take
A good look around
This is your hometown . . .

The first time I heard the great Bruce Springsteen’s My Hometown I picked right up on that line. I used to steer the car all over town myself, sitting on dad’s lap and very conscientiously keeping the big Plymouth safely centered in the lane.

Today, of course, such irresponsible behavior by a parent would likely land them in court facing charges of child neglect.

But let’s be honest. Not only have times changed, so have cars. The cars we Boomer kids rode around in were big mobile masses of thick steel. They could survive impact a lot better than the little Tercel I drive to work (and get 35+ MPG while doing so ;-). Our grandchildren are certainly safer nowadays buckled into their car seats.

But at the age of seven, I had one of my earliest tastes of responsibility. It’s a shame that learning experience is no longer possible.

When my daughter was born in 1986, mandatory car seats had just been enacted in Arkansas for children under the age of two. So we purchased one before she popped out into the world. Nowadays, they have to be used until a child is six or so, and anyone older than that must be buckled in.

But flash back to the 50’s and 60’s and automobiles were much less regulated places to be. Seat belts showed up on new cars early in the 60’s and were largely ignored. If you wanted to use them, it often meant digging them out of the crevice formed by the seat meeting the back support.

However, their use was advocated by public service ads on TV and in magazines. But my stubborn Norwegian father would never hear of wearing them, even though he didn’t object to my doing so on occasion.

One day, when I was just tall enough to see over the steering wheel on his lap, he turned the wheel over to me. I knew the day was coming, because one of my friends had told me about doing the same thing with his father, and I had asked dad for the same experience. He told me that some day I could.

I had since observed his technique for keeping the car nicely on the road. On straight stretches, he wouldn’t simply hold the wheel still. No, he would make subtle corrections to the course as we motored down the highway. I took note of that, and would sit in the car while it was in the driveway and meticulously imitate his artifice.

Then, one day when I was seven, I finally had my chance to steer the car. And I was up to the task, making those same little adjustments that my father did without his realizing he was doing so. I, on the other hand, was acutely aware of their importance.

I steered the car many times after that, and was even given full driving privileges with our 1965 Chevy pickup on our farm property when I was twelve. I highly esteemed the honor, and was very careful about avoiding both stable obstacles like gates and fences, as well as the mobile versions like cows.

Nowadays, for better or worse, a kid may take the wheel in their hands for the very first time when they obtain a driving permit as a teenager. But some of us Boomers can look back on being quite experienced at maneuvering automobiles through traffic long before leaving the ranks of childhood.

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