The American Dad at the Wheel, the American Mom in the Passenger Seat

The iconography of the epoch known as postwar America, fossil-fueled, growth-obsessed, imperial-minded, morosely religious and fractured by leftover -isms, must feature the dominant motif of adult life, the American Dad at the wheel and the American Mom in the passenger seat, teenagers and groundlings stuffed and hidden  somewhere in the rear galleon station wagon.

This was the American family, on the road to McDonald’s, on the road to the relatives, on the road to Mom-selected, Dad-objected “vacation” hotspots. What was said inside these speeding nuclear cocoons is lost to antiquity, but of far greater sociological significance was the cognitive atmosphere of  the unsaid. There might be divorce and suicide attempts or internecine court battles or spiraling debt ahead for the fate of these connected kin travelers, but inside the Detroit spacetime machine, there were thoughts aplenty, unaired voicings of the doubts, anticipations, unsolved queries, remonstrations, nursed burgeoning hatreds, and bizarre flight desires that marked the social tensions of that suburban era.

Of course, inside some of these road bubbles were genuinely happy families, singing cross-generational roundelays and growing in rapt understanding as Dad/Mom lectured on classical knowledge that spanned all seven continents and ages from the antediluvian to the Edwardian. As the miles were conquered by Dad’s expert wheel control and Mom’s exquisite sensitivity to individual child delicacies of feeling, each child felt honored and supported, each parental side was awash in existential gratefulness for brood and life/ love partner. Good for them, the Swiss Family Driving Unit, all bound by love and laughter inside those hot tanks of familial conveyance from home Point A to enlightening Point B.

For the true mass of others, the human families of this postwar wondertime, Dad was wondering what the hell he was getting out of being the harassed captain of this mad careening ship to nowhere, and Mom was brain-chewing over why she gave up that much more exciting life to settle down with this muttering hairy fool and her squabbling micro-antagonists. So many miles, so much unsaid, so little human association with the pwoer of words, and the only art that has ever depicted this primal scene is by the hoary Griswolds of National Lampoon’s Vacation.  In literature, known now as the lit biz, not a scene from the burners-on-high fictionists, not a one from the alcoholic realists. Why this complete omission by the obsessed meaning-prospectors of the high arts?


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