The Trouble with Family Travel

Our trip to the circus was not so wonderful. Eight-year-old Sally was bored. Wendy, age 4, alternated between wanting to leave and demanding candy, toys, and T-shirts. My energies were devoted to managing her and Sally. When I tried to switch from parent to spectator, I found myself wanting to tell the clowns to act their age, the acrobats to knock off the horseplay, and the trapeze artists to get down from there this minute.

Eleven-year-old Marie, however, loved the show. It occurred to me that she ought to be getting out more.

When I was her age, my parents would take us three boys on station-wagon rides all around the country. We saw so many birthplaces and former residences of the famous, I used to worry that, as history accumulated, we'd be a nation hemmed in by velvet ropes with hardly anyplace for regular folks to live.

During the day, when my brothers and I got tired of looking out the windows at Midwestern corn or the deserts of the Southwest, we would play a special game of skill and suspense. Whoever was "it" would lie face-up on the back seat. The other two would kneel in the station wagon's "way back" and lean over the first boy. My little brother, Jim, was the champion from age 7 on. He would pay out a drip of saliva from his mouth, and just when it seemed to be beyond the point of recall and that the supine boy below would get dripped on, the young virtuoso would dip his head with rattlesnake swiftness and recapture the drip. And Dad, oblivious in the front seat, thought the Grand Coulee hydroelectric dam was humankind's most amazing feat.

Another game we played was Counting Red Cars. The first kid to see one and yell, "Redcar!" would get a point. So to gain a racer's edge, each kid would sit moronically droning out that first consonant until the watched-for vehicle came along: "Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr--(breath) rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr--(breath) rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrredcar!" The dopey drooling game was championship chess by comparison.

Despite ourselves, these summer road trips taught us a lot of history and geography. But Jim and I were more interested in buying than learning. We had an insatiable lust for pennants, statuettes, and other useless junk emblazoned with the names of places like Niagara Falls, Yellowstone Park, and Fort Sumter.

Mom shared the driving, but on the winding mountain roads, she insisted that Dad take the wheel. "I keep looking over the edge and imagining the car plunging onto the rocks down there," she said. Scary, sure, but not half as scary as sharing a succession of motel beds with my big brother, Steve. He had a cruel streak and toenails like knives. And he used them the way Ty Cobb used his sharpened baseball spikes as weapons of aggression. Firstborn Steve felt entitled to two-thirds of any bed, and his slashing talons enforced his claim. Jim slept peacefully on the rollaway, resting up for another day of reckless shopping and slobbery sport, while Steve composed himself for slumber by stealing my covers and kicking me onto the floor.

Until all three of us were asleep, we were living, squirming, bickering proof that children are best enjoyed one at a time.

There are lots of places I'd like to take my kids, but almost no place that would be fun to take all three of them, even if they did get along with each other.

And while I'm waiting for Wendy to grow up, Marie is drifting ever closer to adolescence. Tours of an old New England whaling ship, the Hearst Castle, or Amelia Earhart's childhood home would be hard to sell to a teenager. At that age, a kid tends to find history dull and irrelevant, and that goes double for the two antiques known as Mom and Dad.

With Marie's biological clock ticking, I offered a deal to my wife, Betsy. "Sometime this summer," I said, "I want to take Marie on a whirlwind tour of as many historical sites and scenic places as we can hit in three days. You stay home with the little kids, then it'll be your turn to take Sally somewhere for a long weekend while I mind the kids." Betsy loves the idea, and she and Sally are trying to pick a destination.

And what of poor little Wendy? We'll have to arrange some kind of improving activity for her while her big sisters take turns at being broadened and stimulated. Maybe Uncle Jim can come over and teach her the home-version of his favorite game. After all, these are HER wonder years, too.

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