Road trips began the day before we left. First a bright picture would be painted about our destination, then some food for the road packed, ending with strict admonishments about promptness the next morning. "We're leaving exactly at 8AM," and we'd hardly all be awake by then. If we left an hour after we planned it was considered a huge success of timing, two to three hours late was the norm. My siblings and I would jostle with the parents for bathroom space. Sharing one bathroom with six is no joking matter. A strange hierarchy would develop as we waited our turn, a cross between the privileges of age, sex, and whoever got there first. The first battle of the day, when characters were still rubbed down to the basics.
Whoever had actually been ready on time and impatiently waiting for everyone else would have the pleasure of the first snarling vindications. It was almost always one of us kids. We'd chant "It's 8 o-clock! Is everyone ready!! I'm ready!!! It's 8:15! When are we going!! You said we were going at 8!!! It's already 8:30! Lets just not go!! Come ON you guys! Were gonna' be LATE!!!" As the morning progressed more of us would jump on the "I've been ready" bandwagon. We'd then be able to shove the entire responsibility of our being late on the last sole member of the family. They'd be hurried into the gruelling ordeal of "we're leaving now with you or without you" as patience snapped like a rip cord through the family. Voices were raised, recriminations muttered, luggage fortified.
Finally we'd lurch outside, barking questions to each other on what we brought, what we forgot. (Invariably we forgot quite a bit and usually ended up circling back two or three times to pick up one last thing, before we'd finally leave the orbit of our home). The next ritual was now engaged, Position in the Back Seat. The windows were coveted, the two middle positions the grim consequence of not getting your way. Elaborate and constantly changing systems were created. Odd days for boy's choice, even days for girl's. Except it would have to switch because one of us realized there were more odd days in the year. So next month it would be odd days girl's, even boy's. Somehow even with switching it was always boy's day, or at least so the girls accused. There was the "switch on the way back" technique. No one had a clear consensus on what won that battle since the way back was the time when you really needed the support of the window seats to sleep against, but the view was best on the way out.
Eventually puberty determined positions as my stepsister and myself, the two oldest, were consequently the biggest and had most need of the extra leg room by the window seats. By the time all four of us couldn't fit in the back anymore we had dispersed like the tribes of Israel, stepsister and myself to college, stepbrother to his father's home, stepmother to medical school, father to business trips across the country, and sister with the sad luxury of an empty house and plenty of room in the car. But when all four of us sat in back we would jostle for the view, the floor, the seat, with the child's conviction that the present moment was everything, so take whatever you can get away with.
The accompanying game to Positioning was Territories. Seats were cruelly divided and the slightest crossing of these imaginary borders were greeted by shoves and complaints. "Quit hoggin the seat! Dad, he's taking up all the room!" Soon enough even crossing the line with one's eyes was too much.
"Stop looking at me! Mom, she's looking at me!!!". About this time the parents would bow their heads and discuss whether it was too early for Dramamine. "It's for carsickness," one of them would tell us, carefully doling out either a half or a whole pill to each of us, depending on our weight. We knew better after the first time. They were knock-out pills, pure and simple. My younger siblings' frames soon sprawled against each other, mouths agape and eyes closed, small snores music to our parent's ears. My stepsister decided not to take them, carefully pretending to swallow then spitting the white pill out. If any one of us caught her, we'd rat for sure, so she became extremely crafty, slyly removing them from her mouth with the studied assurance of a secret agent. I suspected my sister stored them up for recreational use, but I was never sure. As we aged their narcoleptic effects were diminished. Or perhaps we just built up a tolerance.
Carsickness could occur, however, with my father's driving. He favored lurching with the brake, pushing our young guts up and down like a ride on the octopus at the amusement park. "When are we going to get there?" we'd fidget, our patience itching. "Stop looking at me!" It was about this time that my sister developed the Horrible Laugh which reached an incredible earsplitting high pitch, worse than fingernails across a blackboard. The Laugh would make everyone cringe uncontrollably, so was the perfect counter weapon. Make my sister laugh and watch the winces. The driver, who was usually my father, was clearly affected the worst. Unfortunately there was no appropriate punishment for laughing. Once we made my sister laugh while she was being spanked. She hung upside down over my father's knee as we made faces at her. Tears streamed down her face as she laughed louder and louder with each slap of her behind. It infuriated my father but my sister was caught in the uncontrollable hysteria of childhood and wouldn't come down for hours, like some cruel fairy tale. Back in the car, once nerves were shot by my sister's laugh, it was clearly time to get "rowdy" and "hyper", as the parents labeled our behavior.
First there would be nonsense songs and some taunting and cruel mimicry and then some insults and jokes, with much reference to farting. Actual farting didn't begin until after lunch or dinner on route, when we'd play the "not me" game, each of us loudly accusing the other, the real farter never letting on. "Sayers Layers!" we'd scream, "Every fox smells his own hole!" By the second or third stinker we'd corner my father or my stepmother as the culprits, then one of us would obviously let one go and the jig was up. Simultaneous farting from two of us was the real corker. The stronger the smell the worse we'd exaggerate its effects, rolling windows down and gasping theatrically, "Oh My God!", swooning from the aroma. Covering our faces with our hands and screaming with laughter. Once, at a roadside stop, my father agreed to light his fart for us. After some misfires, a small blue cloud of flame appeared for only a second but was enough to put us all in an epileptic seizure for hours.
The effect of several long hours in a car would try the nerves of a saint, and believe me, none of us were saints. At some point us kids would have a real fight and my father's arm would swoop back from the front of the car, blindly swatting the first knees he touched, his eyes on the road, driving one handed while my stepmother would gasp with the white knuckles of a truly convicted back seat driver. He'd turn to her and state "I'm never taking these kids anywhere again!" Then she'd turn to us, "See, now he's mad! See what you've done! Why can't you all learn to behave!" Guilt would rear its ugly head but we smashed it down like a milk carton beneath our heels; BOOM. "Do you want to get out of the car right now and walk home?" He'd ask us, glaring balefully as we yelled and giggled and dodged the ineffectual knee spankings. Sometimes he'd actually stop, "That's IT! You're walking home!" Whoever was by the window could then exercise the option of "talking back" and jump out of the stopped car screaming "FINE! I'LL WALK HOME! I HATE YOU ALL!" and hurriedly trot down the road. My father would back the car up quickly, "Get back in this car right now!" This small victory brought the price of later punishments, meted out with the insufferable inconsistency of all young parents who face the indomitable will of four children.
My stepmother would ask us to play some "nice games" like counting licence plates or some equally droll endeavor that couldn't entertain even the youngest. "I need to use the bathroom!" was the chorus that we shared, along with "When are we getting there?" and "Are we there yet?", or "I'm hungry-thirsty-bored-NEED TO GO RIGHT NOW!" "You should have gone back at the house (gas station, restaurant)," the parents would complain, but who could plan their pee like that, doling it out with such thoughtful foresight?
Sometimes we stopped at fresh vegetable stands and buy up boxes of drippy peaches or tart apples, messy and sticky. Of course there were never enough napkins. Other trips meant icy Cokes and spicy SlimJims at the gas station, especially appealing after dutifully tasting whatever overly healthy snacks my stepmother prepared, rusk crackers or pale cheese sandwiches or some tepid ginger ale. Depending on the newness of the car my father would get varying degrees of anxiety about having food actually in the car. "Don't drop anything!" he'd warn us, "Don't get anything on the seats. Don't spill any of that!" Once when his car was particularly new he admonished us not to put our dirty feet on the floor. We hovered our feet in the air while my stepmother told him some expectations were just unreasonable. My stepbrother once screamed, "Oh no!" after my father finished a tirade on spilling, just to see him look back frantically and weave the car across two lanes. We laughed just about forever on that one.
The trip back was the other, crueler half of our endeavor. Trips were always twice as long returning, and what we lacked in energy we'd make up in bitchiness. The vocal threat was replaced by sullen stares and hateful murmurs. As the journey home progressed the driver struggled against sleep with a muted radio and an open window while the rest of us collected drool on each other's shoulders. Darker, quieter, it was the long space in which all our hurts and angers and piques accumulated during the day were washed down by the heavy sleepiness of being overtired, or sunstroked. Or on cold winter nights being warmed too quickly by blasting heaters, always too strong in the back of the car.
In that space between boredom and exhaustion, when even fighting took too much effort, I'd often find myself staring at white fence posts on cow pastures rolling past, or at the thick woods looming up and overhead on both sides of the road. The road a green walled tunnel, climbing up and down hills, curving this way and that. Or at the white moth-ridden glow of the highway's streetlights rhythmically casting their pallid glow overhead, red lights blinking up and down the highway. I'd see other cars filled with families, asleep or silent, small faces looking back from another window into mine. By the time we arrived home the youngest couldn't be roused. Their bodies hung limp, nestled in my parents' arms as they carried them to bed.
I really can't recall most of the destinations, it was the trips themselves that we spent the most time at after all. Now I know that none lasted more then a few hours in the car at a time, but to the crawling time of a child it was a lesson in infinity. There would be a destination and some functions performed. Places explored and activities completed. Souvenirs purchased, foods eaten, beverages spilled, bathrooms created by the side of the road. But those didn't seem to matter as much as the voyage there and back, the family on the road. I wouldn't trade the memories for anything.