Labor Day, 1990. You are driving back from visiting your parents, who live two states away. Your four-year-old daughter is strapped into her car seat in the back, and you are both singing along merrily to Raffi, or some such, when your accelerator gives out–suddenly a mere flap of a thing. You manage to turn on your emergency flashers, glance into the rearview mirror, and then guide your car over to the shoulder, braking gently.
“Mama?” your daughter asks from behind, holding her doll.
“It’ll be okay. The car’s broken but we’ll get help.” You crack your window in order to fly a piece of kleenex like a tiny flag and then open the other windows for air.
It is ninety-eight degrees, you are a month pregnant, and you are sitting in a broken car with a four-year old on the shoulder of a major interstate.
And…there is no such thing as a cell phone.
Nothin’ else to do, but to keep singing Raffi. And the peanut butter song. And the Mr. Rogers song. And all of your Sesame Street favorites. For safety’s sake you both stay buckled in, although soon her blonde bangs are sticking to her forehead. There is no such thing as bottled water, so you hand her a juice box. Luckily you’ve just had lunch and do not need to use the big girl’s room. You are not in maternity gear yet, but you feel a little queasy from the gas fumes from other vehicles whizzing by.
Do you want someone to stop…or not? The phrase, ‘sittin’ ducks,’ comes to mind. What if it’s some drifter, or ne’er do well? Some escapee from a Eudora Welty book?
Finally–thank heavens that it’s a holiday–and a state trooper storms by to chase a speeder, as you were starting to segue into “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” He passes you, turns around in the grassy median, and parks in front of you. He is the quintessential trooper–sunglasses, dunlop over his belt, tight hat, buzzcut. You have never been so happy to see anyone in all your life.
You explain the situation.
“So your pedal done give out,” he scratches his jaw. “Mind openin’ the hood? I’ll take a look at the engine.”
You pull the handle and he rachets up the Mommy Volvo hood for a look-see. You hear him mutter, “Damn foreign cars.”
He leans way over for a closer look, his holstered gun grazing some internal automotive organ or another.
“Mama,” your daughter gasps. “Is he going to shoot the engine?”
“No, sweetie, he’s just checking it out.” Although you are sorely tempted to shoot it yourself, or give it a swift kick. How dare your old reliable Mommy car leave you stranded?
Slamming the hood, he crunches off to radio a tow truck, then give us a salute and zooms off.
Again, we are at the mercy of the strangers on the highway, until a kind ‘Mr. Tiddle’ chugs up and jerry-rigs your accelerator– with a MacGuyver-esque rubber band and paper clip– so that you can limp home at the absolute minimum speed.
You arrived home safely, and furthermore, you had never even heard of a cell phone, so it was what it was.
Once your second child was in elementary school, you bought a ‘car phone’ the size of a brick with a tight curly cord which plugged into the lighter, and which never quite reached your mouth, and sucked all of the juice out of the transmission, but still gave you an overall sense of security. You try not to think too hard about all of emergencies you could have avoided, the carpool dramas you could have assuaged, much less quick frantic calls to babysitters, teachers, doctors and the like.
And–instead of only being armed with juice boxes and songs, to actually be able to foist an iPhone with a game app into a toddler’s palm when they are screaming in the middle of Sears? Priceless.