I dug up this essay I wrote a while back as part of my ongoing memoir project. I kept thinking about this snapshot of family life with my dad at the helm as I mourned his recent passing, and thought I would share. How I long to be that little boy in the way back again.

The Last Farewell and the Summer of 1975

As Viewed from the Way Back of a Ford Country Squire Station Wagon

The summer of 1975 stands out in my mind as the time when my father was at the most “dad-ish” – the epitome of the patriarch of the American nuclear family in the latter half of the last century. Perhaps this is because that summer I was old enough to remember things well, and it was the last summer we had true family trips before my older brother and sister spun off out of high school ending our togetherness.

As it was in the summer of 1975, our requisite Ford Country Squire station wagon was completely full on trips around New England, with: my parents in the front; my oldest brother, and my sister and her best friend in the back seat; and what seemed like ten feet of luggage behind them before you got to me and my middle brother – in the two jump seats in the “way back”.

The way back was the best place to be as a kid. Separated from the rest of the family, and out of swinging distance should said older brother decide it was time to give out a love punch or two. In the way back we were in our own little world – complete with no seatbelts and a tailgate window that could be controlled by my dad in the front seat.

This particular Ford Country Squire station wagon had six radio speakers long before that was common in cars. Two speakers up front, two in the middle, and best of all, two in the way back – all to hear the tinny AM radio and the music stations of the day that would play whatever was on the top 40 no matter the genre.

The speakers were also controlled by the driver, my dad, who ruled the radio, what station would be played, what songs he would allow to be sent across all speakers, and at what volume. A power he loved almost as much as controlling the car’s high beams with a foot pedal, but that is another story.

When I say dad had the power over the radio controls, that is technically true. However, the power really belonged to my sister and her friend, who at 15 needed their fix of pop music to get through the day. At that time Elton John ruled the charts and their hearts, and when a song the girls liked, say Elton’s “Philadelphia Freedom” or America’s “Sister Golden Hair” or KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight” came on, they would shout “turn it up turn it up” – and my dad would comply. Eventually the radio will be at full tilt, my mother sleeping through it all. By the time “Rhinestone Cowboy” came on the car would be pulsing and all of us – save for the too cool oldest brother – singing along.

A song the girls did not like would receive a chant of “turn it down turn it down” – an honor bestowed on that summer’s ubiquitous “Love will Keep Us Together” and “The Hustle” if I recall, with all due apologies to the Captain, Tennille and Van McCoy and the Soul City Symphony.

Occasionally we in the way back shouted “turn it up” and got our wish – like that summer’s “Listen to What the Man Said” by Wings, which is still a favorite. Inevitably commercials would come on and dad would turn the volume down until the “turn it up turn it up” chorus began again.

The trick was that dad would turn off the speakers in the front and just have the music in the back for us kids – something that was evident every so often when a song that he particularly liked came on and he would turn off the back speakers and blast the volume up front. Favorites at the time were Tony Orlando and Dawn, Roberta Flack, and John Denver. But the song that stands out the most from those crazy hazy days in the way back of our Ford Country Squire station wagon in the summer of 1975 – the song that always got the front seat speaker radio treatment was: “The Last Farewell” by Roger Whitaker.

The first few notes elicited groans from the wee ones in the back as we knew what we were in store for. The speakers in the back would go silent, all the windows would be rolled up, the song would blast from the front, competing with my dad singing along, as we all covered our ears:

“There’s a ship lies rigged and ready in the harbor, tomorrow for old England she sails,” he would warble at the start.

My mother would stir from her slumber.

“For you are beautiful, and I have loved you dearly, more dearly than the spoken word can tell,” dad sang the chorus at the top of his lungs.

Mom feigned annoyance.

“For you are beautiful, and I have loved you dearly, more dearly than the spoken word can tell,” he sang more insistently in my mother’s direction.

Mom would smile. They would share a special look, or sometime a squeeze on the arm.

Before long the song would be over. Mom would be back to her nap. Earth Wind and Fire’s “Shining Star” would come on.

“Turn it up! Turn it up!”