The Homefront: A family vacation the kids will never forget

Thursday , July 06, 2017 - 5:00 AM1 comment

D. Louise Brown, The Homefront columnist

“So, I need an idea for a good family vacation. I want to do something the kids will never forget.”

The young woman’s request posed to a group of friends sparked the memory of an old, green station wagon with the back window rolled down and two pair of feet hanging out — a sight that attracted attention, even an occasional honk as cars passed by on the interstate.

My transplanted mom (all the way from Indiana!) meant that every few years our Utah family of seven kids and two parents tightly packed our suitcases, strapped some to the top of the station wagon, tucked the rest inside and battled for window seats to begin the 1,600-mile journey eastward to Grandma’s house.

We didn’t go over the river and through the woods at all. We road through the flatlands of Colorado, the cornfields of Kansas and the plains of Missouri and Illinois.

If you’ve never taken that journey in a carload of seven kids with no air conditioning, no electronic devices, no headrest movies and no radio station everyone can agree on — don’t.

If you’ve seen one green Kansas cornfield stretching out beyond the horizon, you’ve seen them all — all hundred thousand of them. At least that’s what it seemed like.

Regarding the feet hanging out the back window, my personal happy discovery was that most of my siblings couldn’t ride facing backwards without needing a barf bag. That backwards view didn’t bother me, so my designated seat was the “way, way back” meaning the third row back which, in our station wagon, faced the back of the car.

Sitting in the way, way back had definite advantages. It was roomier (despite the suitcases stacked on half the seat) and included making friends with the carloads of people behind us who, during really boring moments, obliged us by reacting to the signs we drew on our notepads and held up.

We were also farthest from our parents which was liberating if you can say that about two kids scrunched on a bench seat against a stack of luggage.

That liberation was important because my parents each had their roles during this exodus. Dad drove, and Mom disciplined. State by state her patience understandably thinned, and by the time we hit Illinois, the way, way back was prime real estate.

I don’t know how my parents did it. Dad was an ironman driver who didn’t stop for anything. Fortunately, he needed to fill the gas tank periodically, or our bladders would have burst.

But even then, those stops were akin to the pit crew stops you see on NASCAR. The doors burst open, the kids raced — I do mean raced — to see who got the bathroom first. And then it was wash your hands, dry your hands, beg for a soda or candy bar or something to detract from the monotony of the ride, and then tumble back into the car, all while the gas pump was still running.

Dad didn’t much care for waiting around once the tank was full, and although no kid was never actually left behind at a station, there was enough talk about it to keep us hopping.

Meanwhile, Mom rode herd on a collection of seven restless, tired, overheated kids who, as the miles sped by, punched more and more of each others’ buttons.

Car games took the edge off — a little. But no Hawaii license plate ever showed up, and the “I Spy” game got bogged down in the Kansas cornfields. (It is NOT funny to challenge the group to spy a water slide in Kansas).

Mom sat up front, usually with a kid in her lap (this was the pre-seatbelt era), and a cooler under her feet that held our lunches for the next two days. (Economizing).

She handed out rolls of Neccos to each of us at the Utah-Colorado border with the instruction to make it last the whole trip. You can get up to 300 miles off a single Necco if you just let it sit in your mouth, which was brilliant since it kept our mouths shut and hopefully quiet.

Occasionally Mom would call out, “Is everybody happy?” A negative answer was pointless since there wasn’t much she could do about it anyway, so I give her credit for trying. But it was hard to sit next to the older brother who wrote “whalebone corset” on my packing list the day before and not want to punch him.

We kids didn’t hate each other. It was just hard to sit that tight for that long.

The strange part is that, looking back, I love those memories. The challenges of those journeys are eclipsed by the experiences we had, the things we saw, the places we visited, the introductions to Indiana relatives and especially the growing appreciation for two parents who tried so hard, on limited resources, to create that experience for their large family.

So if you’re looking for a family vacation idea, “something the kids will never forget,” let me recommend an old, green station wagon journey complete with no air conditioning, no electronic devices, no headrest movies, no radio station everyone can agree on and one roll of Neccos per kid. Oh, and a periodic, “Is everybody happy?”

I guarantee they’ll talk about it forever. 

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