The station wagon with the third seat facing the rear pulled into Boston and stopped at the traffic signal. My two younger brothers and I rode that seat from California to Massachusetts, watching where we’d been, rather than where we were going.
3,177 miles backwards. For a while I was dizzy, car sick, nauseous, but after a while I got used to it.
The ’59 Dodge was a big car. It seemed like Mom and Dad, and whoever else was sitting up front with them, were in a different county. The actual dimensions of this monstrous car? Just over eighteen feet long, six-and-a-half feet wide, weighing about 4,200 pounds. The advertised top speed was 120 MPH, but I never saw my parents drive faster than 115. Mother liked to drive fast. I remember my turn to sit up front and help her “stay awake” one night driving through the Arizona desert while Dad got some sleep. It was scary.
We got about nine miles per gallon if one or two people were in the car. Seven or eight miles a gallon when all ten of us went somewhere together, like we did on this cross-country trip. Nobody had seat belts back then.
As we pulled up to a traffic light in this strange city far from home, suddenly, my dad was yelling and talking excitedly. Someone outside was shouting and talking just as fast. From way back in the third row, I tried to see what was going on. Were my dad and the stranger mad at each other? Why were they yelling? I looked out the side window of our car and saw that the driver of the car next to us had dark skin and black curly hair. Why was he yelling at my dad? And why was my dad yelling back at him?
As I listened, it seemed to me that they were not angry with each other. No, I’m sure they were not upset. Rather they were excited and happy. They were yelling for joy. But why?
As I kept on looking at the man in the car next to us, I glanced down to see the license plate on his car. We had played the license plate game all across the country, keeping track of all the license plates to see who gets the most states. There were a lot of variations to that game. Riding backwards made it easier if the cars catching up to us had front license plates, because looking backwards I could see them before my brothers and sisters in the middle seat could see them. But if we were passing the other cars, then they got to see the license plates first. The way my parents drove, nobody ever passed us, so I never won the game.
At the red light in Boston, the license plate on the car next to us looked familiar. Was it? Yes! It was orange and black, a California license plate! We hadn’t seen one of those since we left home. Was that why Dad and the other guy were hollering? Yep, sure was.
Sitting in the car at the red light on our first day in Boston, we didn’t know a single soul in the city, or in the entire state of Massachusetts. But that first traffic light placed us right next to another human being from California. It was his first day in Boston too.
That was the first time I remember seeing an African-American, and the thing that stuck in my mind more than anything else was the connection that he and my dad made with each other. It wasn’t age; my dad was forty-two and the other guy seemed to be younger. It wasn’t family circumstance; my dad had a wife and eight kids in the car, while the other guy was single. It wasn’t that they had similar careers; my dad was in the Navy, and the other guy worked in a factory. And it wasn’t that they looked alike; my dad was a balding white guy, and the other guy was black with a full head of hair.
No, the connection they made with each other was simply that they had something in common. They were both from California, and that was enough. They were both more than 3,000 miles from home, and friendless – until that moment. But they had found someone from home.
I often think about that experience, and why people who are different despise each other? Why do people of different color, nationality, language, gender, religion, political party, or economic status hate each other?
Why can’t we be like my dad and the stranger in the car next to us, that day back in 1962?
I was seven years old when we drove into Boston. Over the past fifty-plus years, I have tried to focus on what I have in common with other people, instead of our differences: marriage, kids, jobs, sports, music, food, weather, fears, dreams, movies, faith, or our human-ness. There’s so much we share, it’s a shame people choose to fight over their differences.
Something powerful and amazing happens when we connect over something we have in common.