August 11, 2015

Parents still stress over car trips with children. Standing in the grocery line I overheard a mother with two young children whining to the cashier about the impending stress of driving four hours to the coast of southern Maryland. By the sounds of it, she wasn’t looking forward to the trip at all.

Her droning included reference to impatience suffered in an air conditioned car with more cup holders than seats and individual DVD players for passengers in the back rows. She would get no sympathy from me. I know what a car trip from hell is like.

Five kids and suitcases stuffed into the back and underneath two bench seats of a 1963 VW bus, pedal-to-the-metal top speed when empty, 66mph. Dad at the wheel, Mom riding in the navigator seat with a lap filled with maps- made of real paper. None of us would make sainthood.

Destination: Seneca Falls, New York, only 1,645 miles away. Purpose of the trip: visit old relatives Back East.

Seneca falls sign

I’m not sure why we went. Upon arrival we were individually inspected head to toe for signs of growth in inches and intelligence. We spent the rest of our time holed up in a cooler but damper basement to escape the humid hotter air above ground. We came from the land of dry heat.

Mom caught up for 3 or 4 days with the old relatives while Dad went to work as always. He spent this stop on our vacation at Griffiss Air Force Base.

After days spent building forts of musty pillows and shooting each other with suction cup darts from plastic pistols Dad pointed the car south toward Pennsylvania and a small city named Hazleton. This was coal country. Mom said it used to snow black flakes in the winter. And reminded us we should be grateful this was August.

Visits there were painful. There was no basement. And we had to wear our best clothes for the day. That meant dresses for me and my sister, slacks and button down shirts for the three older boys. And we would sit, and sweat. For days. Games were invented and rules were established exclusively through facial expressions. Who needed sit-ups to strengthen abs? We had to stifle laughs for hours at time.

For night time rest, five of us fought over the one chair and large and ancient settee on the second floor back porch. We were prisoners.

Mom and her mother drank iced tea with lemon. We watched my Great Aunt Emma, all of 4’8”, stooped over with a hump on her back, putter all day and night between the dining room and the kitchen. She looked rather like a prisoner too.

Once this annual ritual was over, Dad steered the car west on I-80 and the engine hummed toward home. We rode along bored senseless and counted cars pulling campers by the hundreds passing us down the highway.

We rolled with the VW wheels in and out of levels of consciousness. It was too loud to have a conversation. The windows were open and so was the top!

Grace on the Ledge VW bus with scouts

Grace on the Ledge VW bus with scouts

We sweat gray slime. It was summer, we were hot. A few times a day we pulled into a Stuckey’s for bathroom breaks and to air out the car seats. It was gross, the car seats and the bathrooms at Stuckey’s.

We always ate three meals on the road. Breakfast and dinner were usually at a Denny’s. Lunch was at the golden arches. It really was fast food. They sold hamburgers and cheeseburgers, fries and cokes. And for me, orangeade! I heard fish was the last option on the sandwich menu but no one was that brave in my family. Nothing terribly happy about that meal, but it was all-American. Hey it was cheap and we ate, a lot!

Miraculously we always checked into our motel about half an hour before the swimming pool was set to close. Mom devised a one-family-one-suitcase method of packing for the three day cross country trek. Inside was enough underwear and swim gear for all. We grabbed our suits, stuck a couple of arms and legs under the running shower to rinse off, and flew to the pool. Relief.

HOliday Inn sign

The air was dark, hot and thick with humidity. The glow of underwater lights promoted an atmosphere for mischief. Diving, racing, chasing and dunking, we closed down every Holiday Inn or Travel Lodge pool we ever cannonballed into.

Mom hung our suits in the bathroom and flipped on the fan. Hours later sunshine lit up a room resembling the aftermath of a freak hurricane. Two double beds and seven people. Do the math. Getting up in the night to find the bathroom posed real danger, to the walker and the bodies strewn on the floor.

This was our family vacation, almost every year, for years. From hell. It’s how we got to know each other, really well. I’m glad we did.

First day back at school in early September was always the same. I listened to classmates share tales of visiting Disneyland, the Grand Canyon, Guadalajara, and Yellowstone. Somehow a glorious dip in the HI pool in steaming Elkhart Indiana didn’t sound exciting enough to mention. I would keep the midnight pool chicken fights and thousands of miles logged as a family inside a car hot as hell to myself. But I would never forget them.