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Roadtrip with Kids, Old School

March 26, 2010

Since everyone is talking about American cars, I think back to when I last rode in one, as a child. I remember how it was in our family station wagon. It was spacious. There was a long bench seat in front and back, and a big flat place behind that for suitcases. Driving back from Sunday dinner with the grandparents, we’d lie down with pillows under our heads and sleep until the car slowed to a stop and the first door opened, and we knew we were home. The sleepiest were carried or slung over shoulders, and the nearly-awake were led by the hand into the house and up the stairs.

On longer trips we had sandwiches, assembled in the morning, plucked from a paper bag a few hours later and handed back to us in halves: peanut butter, tuna-fish, egg salad. There was a gallon of milk, and paper cups. We ate and drank as we watched the scenery unfold, and crumbs fell in our laps.

On still longer trips we stopped at restaurants, and cheap motels for the night. It was on those extended trips that the other, equally venerable car tradition of arguing started. Something about the car made conditions favorable for arguing. First, it was cramped. Next, it was hot.  Third, it seemed there was really no good place to be.

On short trips, the way back was the most coveted piece of territory. Room to spread out. No neighbors. It was like a big open field. The good feeling lasted for three hours, tops. After that it felt like the Gulag: hard, dry, cold, and lonely. The word was out; no one else wanted to go there.

The back seat had its own set of troubles. Milk spilled in the crevices, getting sour as we made our way south to Florida. Plus, it was crowded like a tenement: full of children, crumbs and blankets. There was a baby, who had needs and who in this small space and time had ceased to be loveable. The alphabet game grew tedious.

The bickering started and rose to a crescendo, until our father finally shouted: “Shut up! I can’t see where I’m going!”

At that point my mother would intervene. “Remember, kids, we’re going to Florida.” She’d pull out her ukelele and Mel Bay songbook, and begin reviewing the chords. One child would get to play and all of us would start singing our travel anthems, the songs we only sang in the car.

I never understood what the seeing had to do with the hearing, or why the sound of our off-key singing was better than the din of our arguing.  Behind the wheel of my first old-fashioned road-trip, I get it. Driving kids around is tricky. Driving kids around strange places where it’s hot and maybe raining, while they’re arguing and hurling food at each other is a challenge of a higher order.

The ukelele — a kind of pocket guitar with a chirpy Ha’waiian sound —  is the charm.  It’s small enough to fit in a car, be passed over the front seat and among a heap of children in the back.  It’s cute enough to make you forget the smell of sour milk in the backseat and the monotonous scenery.  That, a few soggy sandwiches and a good American songbook, and you’re on your way.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Matt Nicodemus permalink
    March 26, 2010 8:34 pm

    A dark blue Ford Country Squire, that’s the family station wagon I most remember from innumerable long road trips. That was followed by a faithful if ugly International Harvester. With three boys separated by one year each, we added a few specialties to the frequent mayhem, including shooting spitballs with the straws obtained at the last food stop (we’d try to get ammo to stick to the rear view mirror when the driver wasn’t looking), shooting rubber bands from side windows into passing cars, and even at least once throwing dog biscuits (poor Prudence, our yellow Lab) out the back window. I remember too when CB radios were big in the 70s — all of us kids would get in on communicating with nearby truckers (“That’s a big 10-4, breaker breaker!”). One aural-kinesthetic experience that my dad (a ukelele player himself, though not on the highway) gave everyone in our big boats of cars was the rhythmic pulsing of acceleration surges and side-to-side swerving he’d do in time with Olivia Newton John and the Carpenters on the radio. We kids would groan in response, whining, “Daaaad! Cut it ouuuuuut!!” A useless attempt that usually was. Anyone else have a similar experience?

  2. March 27, 2010 6:27 pm

    Not to make this all about me, but your reminiscence just brought back a whole other flood of memory. I can’t believe the swerving to the Carpenters part! My dad did the same thing! Did they, like, go to school for this? And the CB! How many wannabes, I wonder, were out there in their station wagons consorting with real truckers in pidgin CB? I remember my brothers, at ten and twelve, trying to deepen their voices so no one would know they weren’t old enough to drive, let alone drive a truck. Those were the days. The charade went up a notch during night driving, when the car felt extra cosy, the road scarier, and the experience of being an imposter sent a thrill through a safe child’s heart.

  3. March 27, 2010 8:39 pm

    Brings back lots of memories. We never seemed to tire of eating green grapes.

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