"Sickkkk!" came the shriek from the rear of the Rambler barreling down Route 66 on our way West. Barbara and I knew we had but seconds to react: Either negotiate the station wagon to the shoulder quickly or scramble to grab Robin, our chronically car-sick 3-year-old, and hang her head out the window. Failure in these frenzied efforts was unimaginable. Robin's shrill warning brought about instant panic. We all recalled, all too vividly, her mal d' auto episodes.
To passing motorists it probably appeared cruel to see a 3-year-old with her head hanging out the car window, losing her lunch with total impunity. For us there was little choice _ we had experienced the alternative. Adie and Laura, 8 and 5, respectively, well-conditioned and quick to respond, dove into safe corners, should Barbara not react quickly enough to Robin's piercing alarm.
We were never sure whether it was the passing landscape, cigarette smoke or the smell of anything foreign that was to blame. Some part of the problem must have been attributable to the absence of air-conditioning in our Rambler; medical science offered few solutions to a nervous family on its first excursion to the West. We even resorted to placing a brown paper bag under Robin's shirt, an old wives' remedy we knew, but it did the trick for a few days. This psychological approach proved to be transitory, sadly, and not the answer either.
We drove on bravely, as only the young and foolish would, seriously challenged only one more time when our aging muffler broke loose. It dragged along under the car to the delighted squeals of the girls who sat enthralled at the back window, watching sparks fly as if it were the Fourth of July. This fireworks display was less fascinating to us.
We somehow managed to pull off the road without exploding. It became instantly clear to this mechanical misfit that our muffler would have to be tied to the frame, a temporary measure only, until we could have it fixed in the next town. Someone much smaller than I would have to crawl under the beached Rambler and tie up the muffler. Adie, having learned early on never to volunteer for hazardous duty, nonetheless reluctantly (actually protesting strenuously) crawled under the car, dragging a rope to do the dirty job.
Struggling and grumbling as she went about her mission, she managed to get the job done. Cheers greeted her as she scrambled out, still pouting, lower lip extended as only she could. We nervously drove on to the next exit and, thanks to Adie's knot, made it to a small town in southern Illinois where we were lucky to find a mechanic who could make the necessary repairs. Throughout the rest of the trip, we suffered through Adie's retelling of her daring feat, shamelessly embellished each time.
After knocking all but 12 bottles off that blankity-blank wall, singing the tedious and mind-numbing ditty, Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer On The Wall through most of Missouri; enduring screeches of glee at each sighting of cows, horses, goats and even road-kill; accompanied by a relentless oral interpretation of every road sign; mercifully, we found "our sign" (the Holiday Inn logo that Robin could identify from any angle half a mile away).
Upon arriving, after a short gig of awkward dickering with the customarily sullen motel clerk for two affordable, connecting rooms, Barbara and I began to breathe a sigh of relief. Connecting rooms were the only frill Barbara and I permitted ourselves. We felt a modicum of privacy imperative to preserve our fragile mental equilibrium.
We seemed to be regularly plagued with second-floor rooms at each motel _ my punishment, perhaps, for those affordable, connecting accommodations. If you've never traveled with women, you will be interested to learn that it takes more than simply one trip up the stairs lugging their "needed" baggage.
The situation was eased somewhat as I had been able to convince Laura and Robin, still putty in my hands back then, to pack their belongings in brown paper bags. Adie and Barbara _ sophisticated travelers, of course _ were wholly unimpressed with my impeccable logic which maintained paper was "lighter and easier to transport" than suitcases, not to mention how "cool" it was. The travel sophisticates brought along "several" suitcases that had to be secured to the roof-top rack each morning.
After some squabbling and an occasional tear about sleeping arrangements in the girls' room, my Solomonlike decision usually ended all discussion. Dinner, next on the day's agenda, helped replace smiles for pouting faces, the sleeping arrangement question temporarily forgotten.
Meals were, for the girls, the most meaningful events of the trip. Each of them, I wager, can even today, some 25 years later, recite what they ordered in which state, and who stirred Dad's coffee.
Their recollections of the Western junket where we marvelled at the Painted Desert, the Petrified Forest, the Grand Canyon and the Rockies quite literally consist of where we stayed and what they ate. The incredible sights we saw made not the slightest impression on them. They do, of course, remember (at least the older two do) what songs were popular in 1967. If Walkmen, arguably the greatest invention for parents traveling with their kids, had been around back then, I'm convinced my beard would not have grayed so soon.
It was an incredible experience; one recommended only for the young and stout %% WARNING %%of heart. Sometimes when it's very quiet and I'm daydreaming, I can still hear that shrill voice only three inches from my right ear announce, "She touched me!!" or "She's sitting on my part of the seat." I sometimes wonder how Adie fancied viewing much of the scenery from her perspective _ looking out the rear window. She was relegated to that private "corner" after one of her frequent misdeeds. I can recall, as if it happened yesterday, driving through Phoenix, where the temperature had hit 111 degrees, the girls overcome by the extreme heat, sprawled out in the back with "borrowed" Holiday Inn washcloths, kept cold in our portable cooler, on their foreheads. A rare quiet time!
Memories abound! Right outside of Albuquerque, N.M., seeing the shadow of our moving car suddenly change and realizing that our luggage had fallen off the rack; the cheers when we found everything undamaged on the shoulder, after backing the Rambler down a busy highway for several hundred yards _ it's as vivid as though it happened yesterday.
Memories of Whiting, Ind., with its smokestacks belching out putrid-smelling emissions that almost induced mass vomiting are most vivid. The knowing smile that yet creeps across each of the girls' faces when "Whiting" (now synonymous for "foul odor") slips into our conversation. I can recall watching for license tags from different states and the disputes when one of the girls allegedly spotted a missing tag no one else had seen. The "energy" Barbara supplied the girls on our trip in the form of cookies and other treats; running out of gas when I was "absolutely sure" I had enough to make it a few miles farther: These are special memories of an unforgettable trip with my family.
Should you run into any of my three daughters, be sure to get their impressions about "the trip." Their responses will be couched in terms of Holiday Inns, chocolate milk, meals, lost luggage, Robin's upchucking, Dad running out of gas, the muffler incident and which tree Dad would occasionally run to and stand behind.
You'll hear nary a word about the fantastic sights!
I wish I could do it all over again _ this time I'd invest in three Walkmen!
Eric B. Moch lives in Treasure Island. Private Lives is edited by Mary Jane Park.