Highway to Hell

19 Aug

Before small children were required to be strapped in like the mental patients they really are, parents drove around with kids bouncing around in the backseats of station wagons with no regard to the possibility of their flying through a windshield.

One of my favorite road trip games as a kid was to sit with my face nearly flush with the back window looking for truckers and pumping my right hand in the universal signal for, “please blow your obnoxiously loud horn for our amusement.”  My sister and I even kept score to see who could get the most truckers to acknowledge us with their high decibel battle cries.  During one of these contests, I kneeled on the seat, peering out the back window and scanning the highway for the next big rig.  What I couldn’t see was that the stretch of highway my mother approached was choked with accident-scene traffic. She slammed on the brakes.

Once airborne, my body accomplished an involuntary back-flip.  Did I stick the landing?  Hardly.  But I did manage to jam my head a good fifteen inches under the driver’s seat.  I briefly mused on the dust-bunny population, but this observation deteriorated into a claustrophobia-induced state of panic.  The rest of my body twitched in fruitless efforts to dislodge its upper half while my sister nearly pissed her pants with laughter and the family dog licked my exposed legs and feet.

Playing the parent role in the most recent car trips of my life has been an eye-opener.  Let’s just say I’ve offered apologies to my mother for offenses that took place when Olivia Newton-John was on Kasey Kasem’s Top Forty.  Oh my, does she laugh heartily when I recount our misadventures of the road.

This year’s annual road trip from South Carolina to New York started off like all road trips, with optimism and energy.  Our four-year-old and the dog were nestled in the backseat, blissfully looking out their respective windows without the slightest stirrings of car-sickness.  But after only thirty miles, our little Hyundai started bucking like it had never met a sparkplug.

“Didn’t you just get this thing trip-checked yesterday?” my husband asked.

I called AAA and ripped their technician a new one, but this didn’t solve anything.  We had a family reunion deadline looming twenty-four hours and 800 miles ahead, and yelling at a mechanic wasn’t going to change that.

We turned the car around, unpacked it, took our other car for a quick oil change and packed it up.  New York or Bust, take two.  Less enthusiasm and energy, but we determined to adopt good attitudes.  We even sang along to the radio and waxed optimistic that since we wouldn’t be hitting the Tri-State Area until after midnight, there wouldn’t be the usual parking lot of traffic to endure.  It was a freakin’ Kumbaya moment considering our setback.

We were cruising along pretty well for the first ten hours, as we always do; but then the little things start wearing us down.  Our little Phoebe started to tease the dog, waving a croissant in front of his face like an annoying hypnotist.  You know you’ve really earned “Mom” status when you acquire your ‘Go-Go-Gadget’ arms capable of snaking into the depths of a backseat to confiscate contraband or administer discipline.  I activated those suckers, retrieved the croissant, rolled down the window and chucked it out without saying a word.  That bought us some silence.

After the twelve-hour mark, my husband and I started scoring one another’s farts on a scale of 1 to 10, a sign we were cracking a bit.  I was in the middle of trying to guess the ingredients of my husband’s protein bars by the “ass-perfume” he had recently sprayed, when Phoebe decided to renew her crusade to annoy the dog.

“Knock it off!” I warned her.

She did it again.  Did I mention we’d been in the car for twelve hours?

“I said, knock it off!”  I was in the midst of deploying my ‘Go-Go-Gadget’ Mom arms when my husband decided to get in on the action.

Despite the fact that we were all depending on him to steer the car, and that we were in the left lane in a construction zone whose concrete barriers nearly kissed the side-view mirrors, my husband turned 180 degrees in his seat to pin Phoebe’s arms and scream, “Stop it NOW!”

“Brendon, you almost hit the barrier!  Just drive!  I’ll take care of her!”

“She’s got to stop it!”

“I know, but you don’t have to run the car off the road!”

“I don’t care!”

“Well, I do!  I don’t want to die!” I shouted.

And then we all enjoyed the most awkward minutes of family silence we’ve ever endured.  Even the dog hung his head low off the edge of the backseat, not daring to make eye contact.

After more than half an hour Phoebe finally ventured, “Can we talk yet?”

She had breached the silence, and we glossed over the near-death experience pretty smoothly.  Until we reached New York.  It was after midnight, but New York still felt obligated to live up to its reputation for nefarious traffic.

“Un-fucking believable.”  This is what my husband always says in traffic.  Even if the situation that induced the traffic is entirely believable.  In this case there was some construction on the Brooklyn-Queens-Expressway, but that this was causing a back-up that had us at a dead stop for forty-five minutes in the middle of the night was pretty “un-fucking believable.”  Then the only thing that could have made our situation worse happened.

Phoebe woke up.

“I have to pee.”

“Of course you do! It’s the only piece missing from this wonderful scenario.  We’re on a bridge with no shoulder at a dead stop. Of course you have to take a piss.”

“It’s okay Phoebe, we’ll think of something,” I assured her.  I started rooting around in the car for a receptacle and could only find the dog’s water dish.

“Are you kiddin’ me right now?” my husband asked.

“Desperate times,” I laughed.

“No.  We’ll find something. Phoebe can you hold it for a little while?”

She nodded her sleepy little head.  I immediately went to Plan B, which was to root around for paper towels and napkins to soak up the coming flood. But then the traffic started moving and we were able to pull off at the next ramp which landed us in the middle of a residential area with dimly lit sidewalks.

“Mommy, I gotta go right now!”

“I know, I know.”  I have never unbuckled her so fast.  I maneuvered her onto the sidewalks and yanked her pants down just as the floodgates let loose.

And then we were on the road again.  And then I lost my mind with laughter.  I couldn’t help but think of Clark Griswold rallying his troops after the iconic station wagon has been launched off the road as if Evel Knievel were at the wheel.  I used to think National Lampoon’s Vacation was far-fetched when I was a kid.  And maybe the part about losing the dead aunt’s corpse while she was being towed behind the family car is stretching the average experience a bit.  But most of us have experienced the onset of delirium courtesy of the accumulation of mishaps.

That brand of delirium is an odd emotion, but one I always give in to.  I call it Road Trip Catharsis,  or Car-tharsis, if you will.  It’s yet another example of the saving grace of laughter: when you feel like you’re on a highway to hell it will keep you from crying, and it’s a lot more fun.

Check out this classic scene from National Lampoon’s Vacation



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