CHAPTER ONE: A CONNECTICUT SAFARI
CAR: Land Rover Series IIA
Before I was born, my dad was the proud owner of Series One Jaguar E type. Even better, it was a gift from the auto company after Dad wrote the wildly successful XKE launch ad campaign. But sadly, that beautiful car didn’t last long in our driveway. Shortly after its arrival, my mother declared it “too pretentious” and made him give it right back. This was the first of many outrageous, ball-busting maneuvers by my badass mother.
This move in particular, however, had noble intentions. At that time, Mom was dead set on abandoning her spoiled NY roots in favor of down-to-earth Connecticut country life. After throwing back the E type like a fish too big to keep, Mom made Dad buy her what she deemed a more practical vehicle. That car was a white Series IIA Land Rover. In many ways, she was right—in those days, Wilton, CT had plenty of dirt roads, no garbage service and local snowplows were sporadic at best. So Mom who, just a few years before, enjoyed the glamorous life as the head buyer at Bloomingdales’ Manhattan flagship, was now zooming around our small town in this rough truck, her hair tucked snugly beneath a silk scarf like she was Queen Elizabeth touring Balmoral.
Because I’m the youngest, I never witnessed Mom driving anything else, so it never occurred to me that her automotive choice was unusual. I did know that while the other mothers drove enormous, wood-sided American station wagons with automatic transmissions, Mom wrestled with a clutch so treacherous that her Dr. Scholl’s would often fly off mid-shift. The other mothers drove with painted fingernails that gently grazed the steering wheel, but Mom’s unvarnished hands held on with white knuckles and we were always just one pothole away from her losing her grip.
By the time I came along, Mom had practically mastered her Land Rover. Her left thigh was as hard as a rock, her four-wheel capabilities were unsurpassed and she had even christened her co-pilot George, a Daddy Long Legs spider. The car was always a favorite with my friends because instead of one forward facing back seat, the Rover had two middle-facing bench seats so we could watch each other as we bounced around like we were in a carpool rodeo. It wasn’t uncommon for us to get airborne over bumps or even, with any luck, bang our heads on the metal roof. We would laugh and laugh until Fresca sprayed from our nostrils. The place with the best chance of this occurring was undoubtedly the bottom of Wolfpit Road.
This was our town’s most precipitous decline and at the very bottom, just as the vehicle had gained the most speed, were some particularly rough train tracks. And while most moms slammed on the brakes to avoid messing up their hair, my mom flew over them with great delight as we cheered “Go, go, go!” from the back seat. Luckily the Land Rover’s seats were covered in utilitarian artificial leather that was so tight and rough, it could undoubtedly withstand the apocalypse. So if your friend was a newbie and happened to cough up her egg salad sandwich over a bump, you were just a garden hose away from hiding the evidence. And without any obstacles such as carpeting or decoration, we could put three dogs in the back with a jug of red paint to play pet hospital without any worries of parental interference.
Every once and awhile, I’d wash the car with our Italian gardener, Reno, who was a kind and gentle old man, especially because he’d let me climb onto the car’s roof and once I was good and soapy, slide down on to the windshield and then onto the hood with a bang! It was heaven.
Like any princess, Mom’s country fantasies were short lived. As a life long New Yorker, she could only stay off of the island of Manhattan for so long. Once her clothes started looking dated, her haircut outgrown or her shoes got a bit dirty, she needed to get out of Dodge for a cosmopolitan fix. Very often, she’d drive us kids into Manhattan, slowing down briefly in front of her parents’ brownstone, just long enough for the three of us to jump out and run up the front steps, then she’d zoom away before you could say “Saks Fifth Avenue”. But more often, she’d drive to the closest large town, which was Stamford, for a fancy lunch and some retail therapy at Lord & Taylor’s.
Now because this was still the suburbs, and because this was still the 1970s, that Rover quickly converted to our makeshift babysitter. Mom would simply lock us in the car, turn on the am radio and hope for the best as she applied another coat of lipstick and waltzed into that department store to soak up as much excitement as possible. This left my brother, sister and I alone and in desperate need of entertainment. So we did what any pack of vaguely feral, closely confined, juvenile delinquents would do, we beat the crap out of each other. More specifically, my brother would try to “teach us self defense”, my sister would hit him back and I would get scared and cry. So within 30 minutes, we would turn that Lord & Taylor parking lot into Lord of the freaking Flies.
After a few hours, Mom would return to the car, ladened with 6 or 7 shopping bags, grinning from ear to ear. Upon seeing our mayhem she’d nod her head and smile casually, “Ok, guys. Cut it out. Let’s go.” When she’d turn around to back out of the parking space and caught a glimpse of our motley group, Mom would predictably command, “Oh, please kids. At least brush your hair!” We would grab a comb, straighten a few strands and then hold on for the bumpy ride home.
It wasn’t long into my childhood that Mom abandoned her Land Rover in favor of a more civilized vehicle. Her next car was a Peugeot 504 sedan with leather seats so luxurious, it was like driving a Louis Vuitton bag. It was still a manual, but was so smooth and comfortable, that driving with Mom no longer required barf bags or even a cautionary word to new passengers. Eventually, Dad moved the Rover over to the far side of our garage, in the weeds next to our custom wooden boat that we no longer had the time or interest in keeping up.