It wasn’t so long ago that if a family embarked on a vacation, driving was the only feasible way to do it. I took my first flight (alone, no less) when I was thirteen years-old in 1981, and if memory serves, the ticket for me to fly to San Francisco and back cost around $350, a sum that made a visit to the West Coast impossible not only for my family – hence the solo venture – but for most families at that time. Vacationing meant driving, which often meant cramming into an unreliable car without air-conditioning, DVD players, phones or hand-held electronic games, and arguing about who controlled the radio and who got to play the Hi-Q peg game next. Sound like hell on Earth? Well, it certainly had a few downsides, but traveling by car in the 1970s was actually a lot of fun, and in Richard Ratay’s Don’t Make Me Pull Over: An Informal History of the Family Road Trip, he takes the reader on a pleasant Sunday afternoon’s drive through our nation’s love affair with hitting the highway. It’s a terrific read that offers equal parts nostalgia, history and hilarity.
I had expected Ratay’s book to read more like a memoir, and although we do get to know his family – often with comedic results – Don’t Make Me Pull Over is first and foremost a history book, and Ratay deftly introduces sundry topics in an entertaining way. We learn about the U.S. Interstate, the birth of the garish Holidome, speed limits, the advent of the speed gun and the equalizing force of the Fuzzbuster, the use of TripTik booklets (remember those?), video games, car games, restaurants and the creation of drive-through windows, an achievement Ratay is certain his father would rank as one of the greatest advancements of the twentieth century (well above personal computers, but not quite as high as graphite-shafted golf clubs).
Despite the ample history that’s packed into this entertaining read, the star of the book has to be Ratay’s father, a no-nonsense kind of guy who wants to “make good time” whatever the cost, who bargains with hotel clerks over price, and who settles disputes in the backseat by detaining the offender with his right arm while maintaining control of the steering wheel with his left. In one hilarious chapter, Ratay tells of his father’s insistence on driving the car for as long as possible before refueling (“No sense stopping sooner than we have to. We’ll lose twenty minutes just getting off and on the highway.”). You can guess where this leads, but the results aren’t any less slide-splitting. Ratay’s portrayal of his father reminded me a lot of David Sedaris’s father in his terrific memoirs, both idiosyncratic but likeable guys who’d probably make great supporting characters in a 1970s sitcom.
Ratay also writes about the experience of traveling as a child, and he fondly recalls the freedom that riding in the backseat used to entail:
After finishing my meal, I’d grab a pillow and retire belowdecks to the floorboard, where I stretched out for a nap on the warm and comfy shag carpet, positioning my belly just so over the hump of the transmission housing.
This stirs my own memory so well that I can almost feel the rumble of the wheels vibrating against my chest.
Because the book is a look back, it naturally leads to a final chapter that accounts for what we’ve lost along the way, and Ratay’s argument isn’t without merit. He writes about his family’s first trip taken via air in 1981 (the year of my first flight), and laments that they’d taken a trip but hadn’t made a journey. “The plain fact was that other than purchasing our plane tickets, we’d made no real effort to reach our objective…There’d been no hardships, no squabbles, no hours of tedium, not even a worry that we’d missed a turn…Our flight had allowed us to soar over all the things that once made a family vacation…a family vacation.” There’s something to this, I think, and add to that technological advances and our desire to be entertained, even those of us who still take road trips may not experience them together as much as individually, each family member glued to his or her own device.
Don’t Make Me Pull Over is a great read by a very capable author. I’ll be curious to see what Ratay comes up with next.