We are surrounded by Health and Safety notices, laws and restrictions. It can feel like autonomy has been taken from us as the Health and Safety Police decide on what is safe for us and what is not. Making a car journey recently, my husband and I had to take two cars to facilitate the transportation of our three small nephews who all have to sit in separate seats that are fitted into the back of a car. They wouldn’t all fit in one car, so we had to take two. Not factoring in the cost of petrol, and the damage to the environment, I shudder to think of the expense that parents have to go through transporting families that contain more than three or four children. Sometimes it feels like common sense has left the building as we all rely on instructions and laws to guide our movements and decision making.
Health and Safety is a new concept and one that was thankfully not around in the 70’s when I was growing up.
The first mode of transportation that I remember as a child was my Dads Bedford Van. It had double doors that opened at the back and on Sundays my Dad would regularly lift two arm chairs from our living room, depositing them in the back of the van for my Grandparents to sit in. We enjoyed excursions up the Dublin Mountains to go blackberry picking and general days out to the seaside. My older sister and I used to sit on the wheel arches in the back of this van and my mother sat up front with a baby in her arms.
We never crashed, we never got hurt and we all laughed as we rounded a corner too steeply sending myself and my sister skittering off our “seats” as the chairs also slid around the interior of the van with two old people clutching on for dear life laughing at my Dad telling him to slow down. The Health and Safety Police would take a dim view of that kind of travel I think.
I grew up in a family of five children and all my siblings had been born by 1970. My father had an Austen Cambridge Estate car back in those days and our family of seven fitted quite comfortably inside it.
One memorable summer in 1972 when I was twelve, we were packing up for a month’s long holiday to Ballyheigue in Kerry where we always took a house. Our family of seven were going, along with my grandparents and my granduncle Leo. That was ten people all making the journey in one Austen Cambridge car. My youngest sister Annie was only a toddler at the time and came with a lot of baggage. Amongst the luggage was a play pen, a pram and a cot for starters, not to mention all the clothes for a family of seven that had to be transported, along with games and other vital accessories like my father’s blue frying pan, his cooking knives and bread board.
Logistically my father worked out that ten people and all their worldly possessions were not going to fit into one car, so being a skilled carpenter he built a long wooden rectangular box that bolted onto the roof rack of the car and we all helped him pack our clothes, pram, cot etc. into the box. When it was full, my Dad then began the mammoth task of getting the humans packed up as well.
In this car the front set was a bit like a sofa. There was no division between the driver and passenger seats and the gear shift was almost under the dash. The handbrake was on the driver’s side alongside the door. Having this wide seat meant that ostensibly five people could travel in the front and five could also travel in the back.
As my grandparents and my Uncle good-humouredly squeezed themselves into the back and my father began to push the smaller kids in beside them, I realised that I was either going to be stuck with my smaller brothers in the back alongside my chain smoking grandparents and uncle, or else I was going to be up front with my mother and the baby squashed up with my older sister and my driver dad. Neither option was appealing.
I asked my dad if I could travel in the box. He laughed at first as he refused, but I persuaded him that I would love it. I suggested that he could put something soft in it for me to lie on and this would allow for much more room in the car.
I remember dragging the Eiderdown cover from my parent’s bed and making a space in the back of that box and climbing inside with my favourite book at the time. I felt like the heroine in an Enid Blyton story as I prepared for my greatest adventure ever.
My father nailed a clear plastic tarpaulin over the whole box assuring me that I would have plenty of air to breath as he would leave a corner up for me. I wasn’t a bit worried, I was just thankful that I was alone in this box and not stuffed in the car with the rest of the family.
Throughout that journey my dad stopped frequently for toilet stops and to check that I was ok. Back in the 70’s driving to Kerry took about 7 or 8 hours and it was a journey that I will never forget. We all arrived safely and had a wonderful holiday, but alas my grandparents and Uncle Leo departed to Dublin after two weeks taking a train from Tralee. On the return journey back to Dublin, there was ample room for all of us in the car so I wasn’t allowed back in the box.
Life was certainly simpler back in those times and to even contemplate putting ten people in one car today would be enough for the Health and Safety Police to lock up my poor father and throw away the key never mind allowing someone to travel on the top of the car in a wooden box.
That was the sum total of my adventure and it was one that I will never forget, although my mother still says that I dreamt it up. She says that my Dad was too sensible to ever let one of his precious children travel perilously on the roof of a car. Memories like this are really cherished, as the freedom to make decisions was based on something that resembled common sense, and a young teenagers knowledge that she could wind her dad around her little finger.
Destiny can be about recognising how good the good old days actually were.