Car serviced, gassed up, and packed. Christmas presents tidily stacked in the trunk, big red bow attached to the front grill of car, and the hamster and aquarium fish overfed.
Well, that's the way the annual exoduses from NC to SC for Christmas should have started, but not for our gang. Most of the time we would pile into the car groggily after waiting for either Don or myself to finish a weird double shift. The overworked parent would usually sleep the whole way while the other would drive with five hours of bundled Christmas energy sitting behind them. Frequent kicks into the back of the seat or screeches of "She's touching me!" made the driving parent envy the overworked parent. Touching wasn't hard to do when you had a Toyota Corolla and two to four kids in the back seat.
On one particular trip, Don was the sleeping parent. I remember thinking how jovial and spirited the other holiday drivers and passengers were that particular holiday season. As I weaved in and out of traffic they smiled, grinned, and laughed. I checked the rear-view mirror to see if the kids were making faces at them while passing. They weren't. The drivers and passengers seemed happier and happier the further along we got. Then I passed a lady who started beating the wheel and laughing hysterically. I glanced over at Don while checking my side mirror to change lanes and and figured out why everyone was so entertained. Don slept, mouth agape.... his face plastered to the window glass in drool. Geez.
The grill of our car was more likely to have a McDonald's cheeseburger wrapper on it than a Christmas wreath or bow. The poor hamster and fish? We usually remembered them about 100 miles down the road. The neatly wrapped presents in the hatchback? Nope, that never happened. We usually bought the Christmas presents at a truck stop off of I-77 when we stopped to get our boiled peanuts after crossing the SC state line. Toy Hess trucks, pecan logs, and Budweiser Christmas mugs filled our Santa sack.
I always tried to save the license tag game for the last leg of the trip. It usually ended minutes later with an argument over, "You already said North Hampshire!" or something of the like.
Once in SC, there were always so many people that we wanted to see but couldn't squeeze into the short visit, so we alternated homes from year to year. One year we were headed for my brother's house. He had recently moved to a new home that we had not yet visited, so I called him the night before we left and scribbled down the directions. Take a left on Main, then right, and third home on left... Got it. He told us before we left that he wouldn't be home when we got there but that we should go on in, he would see us when he got off work.
Whew, we were so ready to get out of that car. The kids were fighting over who was first in line to use the bathroom. All four of them made it to the door at the same time. It was locked. My brother must have forgotten to leave the key, we thought. Don and I looked for a key in all of the obvious hiding places but didn't see it. So Don found another way in—maybe not the right way, but nothing broke. The kids shot off in all directions to find bathrooms. I sank into the couch, Don went straight to the frig and got a beer out. He plopped on the couch with me, grabbed the remote, and flicked on the television. While twisting the cap off of the beer he noted, "Tim has got the place looking really nice." I concurred, nodding and looking about the room. Both of us noticed the framed pics on the entertainment center at the same time. Hmm... a balding policeman in uniform with a young boy. Next pic: Policeman with family. Oh Fuuuuuudddge! Only I used the F-dash-dash-dash word. Yes, the mother of all potty words.
The kids came running. Go... go... go... get out! We herded everyone as we flew down the steps. That little Corolla peeled up some asphalt as we left. This was time before cell phones, so I got to a pay phone and called my brother at work. He lived three houses further down, he told me. We parked the Corolla in the back of his place and anticipated a police cruiser pulling up the rest of the day to get us for B&E.
There always seemed to be a trip malady—leaving the gas cap on the hood and driving off, heater quits working, car overheats, windshield wiper goes out.. We knew it was going to happen, we just didn't know what it would be. On one trip, I was driving back and the windshield wiper motor went out in the pouring rain. We were still more than 100 miles from home. Again, this was the time before cell phones. I pulled the car over, got out, and determined the motor was gone. The blade would return to its down position every time I pushed it up. I got back into the car soaking wet and sat for a few minutes thinking about what to do. I pulled off my pantyhose and got back out of the car. I tied one leg to the top of the driver's side blade and threaded the pantyhose back through car window. I drove with one hand for the rest of the trip while yanking the blade up and letting it fall back with the other.
No, our memories may not be Hallmark card picturesque. But, they will always bring smiles. We learned a lot from those road trips, like that hamsters are hardier without food than guppies. And those Budweiser mugs we bought at the truck stops? They're actually worth something today.