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FIRST PERSON

He's Not Taking the Back Seat Lying Down

June 17, 1997|CHRIS ERSKINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Once upon a time, the back seat of a family car was a fun place for kids. They would roll around the back seat like barrels over a waterfall, crashing to the floor, then getting up and hurling themselves across the car, only to be thrown to the floor once again.

Football. Rugby. Lacrosse. The back seat could accommodate them all. Tennis anyone? You could play that too. On a long car trip, the back seat was like Madison Square Garden. One moment, you'd have a basketball game. Later that day, there might be a prizefight.

Then seat belts came along and back-seat sports changed forever. Sure, you could still take a swipe at your sister with a Wiffle ball bat. But you couldn't really get in a full swing, not with that silly seat belt on. All you could do was bunt.

"Dad, can I ride in the front seat?" the little boy asks as we get into the car.

"No."

"Why?"

"Because it's not safe," I say. "The air bag is dangerous for kids."

We have this conversation every time he gets in the car. He wants the front seat. I say no. He asks why.

He doesn't really believe the air bag explanation. He believes this is more adult propaganda, designed to rip all the fun from his so-called life.

Besides, to him, an air bag is an abstraction. He's never seen one work. He isn't even positive they exist.

"Mom lets me ride in the front seat," the little boy says.

"Mom's car doesn't have an air bag," I remind him.

I can't really blame him. Nowadays, the back seat of a car is like New Jersey, full of bad air and funny smells. It's too crowded to be comfortable. There's old gum on every surface.

"I hate the back seat," the little boy groans.

Lately, the car is a constant source of conflict for him. Not only does he get rejected from the front seat almost every time, he often has to sit in the back with his sisters. There're two of them, one on either side. And misery hates company.

"Know what?" I ask, trying to prepare him for worse things to come. "Pretty soon kids won't be able to ride in front seats at all."

"What?"

"Pretty soon, it might be illegal," I say. "The federal government wants laws so that kids don't ride in front seats with air bags. Too dangerous."

I watch the little boy in the rearview mirror. This stuff about air bag laws seems to take the life right out of him. His little shoulders sag. The color goes out of his face.

He's come to look forward to our father-son debates over the front seat. But if it becomes law, there is nothing much left to talk about. The mess in his room. How often he brushes his teeth--or not. Maybe football.

He stares out the window.

Finally, he says, "Really, Dad?"

"Yup."

"Oh no."

He is almost to the point where he would rather walk. That's how desperate he is. To L.A. kids, walking is a last resort. They've heard about it. They even know people who've tried it. It's just not for them.

Just last week, in fact, the little boy called collect from the bagel shop only a mile away.

He didn't think it was ridiculous at all, calling me from a bagel shop only a mile away to get him and his buddy because they drank too much hot chocolate. It seemed like a natural thing. Because to him, I'm not just a dad, I'm a driver. And I'm always on duty.

"We're kind of sick," the little boy said.

"Walk it off."

"But Dad. . . ."

Click.

"Dad, it might be food poisoning," my lovely and patient oldest daughter told me after I hung up.

So off to the bagel shop we went, catching them halfway home, holding their bellies and limping like aging linebackers.

"You guys sick?" I asked.

"Sick?" the little boy said. "No, we just don't like walking."

So, for now, the little boy will continue to ride in the back seat, miserable but still mobile, dreaming of a day when he will finally reach the front seat, all the while dreading what his state Legislature might be up to next.

"You sure they're going to pass that air bag law?" the little boy asks.

"Probably," I say. "I think they probably will."

"I can't believe it," he says. "What'll they do to me next?"

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