Road trip: Hell on wheels

In the past month, we’ve taken two road trips of no less than nine hours each way. If you’ve ever traveled with three boys under six, I apologize for any PTSD symptoms I may be awakening within your psyche. But you probably get the shakes whenever you see a minivan careening down the highway, so I’m not completely to blame for your tremors.

out for a drive

Hang on. It’s going to be one wild ride.

We tried driving through the night. The darkness did coax the children to sleep sometime during the third go-round of the Peppa Pig DVD, and we were not brought to a complete standstill by the many thousand construction zones we navigated. But these benefits were dampened by the parents’ exhaustion at daybreak, making the first day more hangover than vacation.

Driving during the day brings a spiritual brand of exhaustion. This weariness stems from whining children and repeated episodes of Sponge Bob. It doesn’t matter that you maxed out your library card renting movies for the trip; they will only watch two, and you will consider the second one a blessing.

Some parents eschew the practice of placating children with movies or electronics. They say such devices are figurative opiates that drug the children rather than engage them. They may have a point, which I would help them prove if I could get away with feeding the boys literal opiates on the trip. But until that enlightened day, their high-minded theories will have to remain untested.

ready for the road

“Everyone take a nice big sip of ‘sleepy tonic’ back there. Daddy needs to concentrate on the road.” (Image: Russell Lee/US Farm Security Administration)

There are many rest areas on the highways, conveniently located between the places where a kid needs to pee. I don’t mind him peeing into the woods alongside the road; it’s probably cleaner than the rest area bathroom, but that just means there will be different reason to pull off at the rest area.

Did I mention that long drives summon the Type A personality from the depths of my dark soul? I yearn to cut time off the trip. You don’t do that by stopping at, and in between, all the rest areas.

All the construction zones encountered on our highways would lead one to expect an improving quality of road. That is, until it becomes apparent that 10% of the zones have someone working in them. The other 90% are there to help us practice merging. We got lots of practice when our six lanes funneled down into a single lane. Standstill traffic has a magical effect on sleeping babies; it wakes them, in a wrong side of the bed kind of way. It makes older children ask questions that trapped parents can’t answer.

“Why are we stopping? What’s in front of the this long line of cars? Why is the road closed if nobody’s working on it?” And the ever ingratiating: “Why didn’t we take a different road if this one’s packed with cars?”

Being stuck in traffic with seven hours of road ahead of you is awesome and these questions just add to the fun.

So relax and enjoy the banter. You’ll get there . . . eventually.

My vacation in handcuffs

So we took the family to Washington, D.C. and this happened.

the middle one did it

“That’s him, officer! The pitiful-looking one with the puppy dog face!”

Though this is not a real police lineup, there were several times during the week when I wished he were in police custody so that the rest of us could enjoy our vacation in peace. At the attraction where this picture was taken, his aunt bought him a set of toy handcuffs. For the rest of the day, including the duration of our visit to the Air and Space Museum, he handcuffed me to random objects. He could have done us all a favor by handcuffing Buster to the stroller, but Buster’s wrists are too small to really pinch painfully in toy handcuffs. And it’s no fun wielding the authority vested in shackles if you can’t cause pain with it.

Buster spent the bulk of his vacation chasing Big Brother and screaming for the latter’s toy handcuffs. Buster can bust out one hell of a shriek when a brother doesn’t surrender the toy he wants. I’m sure some fellow hotel guests can back me up on this. But his parents did a pretty good job of keeping the high notes contained within normal waking hours. Those kids you heard yelling in the halls all night were a totally separate group of poorly raised children.

New Baby did an admirable job of keeping himself quiet at night. The long days of touring the city made him sleep hard, followed by some hard waking up in the morning. None of us boys in the family wake up easily, and by the looks of things, New Baby will be no exception.


“Oh my God! Where am I?”

always morning

“What time is it?”

morning still

“I did what last night?”

glorious morning

“Oh man! Could I ever use a milk toddy right now.”

After finishing the difficult work of waking up in the mornings, we spent our days seeing the sights, some familiar, some new. But for all the things we saw, the best part of this trip was discovering that D.C. has some pretty decent pizza.

I am a northeast native, living in a Midwestern world. The people here have learned not to speak to me of pizza unless they wish to unleash the condescending snob within. I can find merit in all things Midwestern, except pizza. It hurts my heart whenever I hear Big Brother say, “I love Domino’s pizza.” If he only knew.

It never occurred to me that D.C. would be the first step in his education. Who knew they’d have pizza reminiscent of the northeast? All of us, even picky little Buster, ate and ate and ate many delicious slices. And nobody’s mouth found a leisure moment to blaspheme the holy meals with talk of Domino’s. There is hope for us yet.

After my traditional confrontation with one of the conscientious workers inside a subway booth, it was time to come home. I guess I won’t have to worry about overdosing on pizza again for a while.

After carting three kids around the big city for a week, the wife and I could sure use a vacation.

Let’s play 20 (thousand) questions

If you are the father of a new baby boy and you are feeling a little left out because junior only seems to have eyes for Mommy and her rolling hills of milk and honey, take heart. Your day will come. Your day will come with a suffocating vengeance. Junior will cover you with love, elbows, knees, and incessant questions before you know what hit you.

Boys start climbing up and down Daddy as toddlers. This isn’t so bad. Toddlers aren’t very heavy. Yes, they have sharp corners, but there is usually not enough force behind the pointy parts to cause Daddy any serious internal damage. More importantly, toddlers don’t ask a steady stream of questions just to hear themselves talk. They may talk a steady stream of gibberish at you, but all you have to do is smile and nod to keep them happy.

a horse of course

They’ll ride you like an army mule.

Five-year-olds are a different story. They can get to be heavy. We’re talking a serious bag of rock salt here. Their love for Daddy can be a painful one. Worse, five-year-olds are full of Daddy questions. These are not to be ignored, even if the answers are right in front of their faces.

I’m not talking about the occasional, meaningful question – the one that lets a boy put together the pieces of his world to help it make sense. I’m talking about the “narrate the world to me as it passes so I don’t have to pay attention to anything on my own” questions.

Our five-year-old likes to watch history documentaries, especially those dealing with the World Wars. I like watching them too, so this isn’t a problem – until his mouth starts running. For the life of me, I can’t get the boy to understand that if he would just shut his pie hole and listen to the program, most of his questions would be answered before he asked them.

Moreover, his endless questions make it difficult for me to hear the TV, meaning I have more trouble answering his questions. That is, when his question is something more complex than the ubiquitous, “Are those Germans?” That one I can usually handle without the narrator’s help.

I’ve missed out on a myriad of fascinating tidbits of history answering the “Are those Germans?” question. But the boy occasionally asks a thoughtful question. It’s just too bad he can’t write these down to ask after the program.

WWI German artillery

Yes. They’re Germans. Now can we remain quiet and listen to the program for 10 seconds?

In an awkward oversimplification, I have categorized Nazis as the “bad Germans” for him. This leads him to the very reasonable question: “What happened to all the good Germans.” I only wish I were smart enough to answer that. This boy has a strong sense of right and wrong, and great pride in his German heritage. It pains me that I can’t reconcile these things for him. Even his good questions give me fits.

The good news is that I only have to hem and haw over the deep questions I can’t answer for a few seconds before we fall into our old, comfortable give and take:

“Are those Germans?”

“No. They’re Italians.”

“Oh. How about those? Are they Germans?”

“Nope. Greeks.”

Meanwhile, the unheard narrator drones on with his superfluous facts, far less important than labeling everyone in every picture.

Germany rules when Germany makes the rules

It took six hours to assemble our new basketball backboard and bracket. Thanks to instructions compiled by competing factions of preschoolers, those six hours transpired thus: two hours of making progress; two hours of undoing my supposed progress; and two hours of actual assembly, incorporating all I learned about the deficiencies of the instructions during the previous four hours.

Next came two hours of removing the rust-encrusted, old hardware from the pole. This didn’t come with instructions, which is why it did not require six hours. It would have taken less time if I’d been swift enough to cut through the bolts sooner, rather than waste time tugging at intractable nuts. The time I wasted tugging at intractable nuts is embarrassing.

set shot

When I play against him, I feel like an NBA superstar, because I’m not expected to play defense.

It was all worth it. My son loves the new backboard.

He wants to play basketball all the time now. I can see the hoop dreams in his eyes as he calls dibs, “I’m gonna be Michigan State!” Then he wants to know if I want to be the University of Michigan. I’d be justified in spanking him for even asking such a question, but I just roll my eyes.

“Or do you want to play Olympics?” he asks, sensing my disgust at his previous suggestion.

“Let’s play Olympics.”

“Okay. I’m Germany.” If you were five and saw a picture of your great-grandfather wearing his Pickelhaube, you’d want to be Germany too. “Do you want to be your favorite country?”

he scores

If it goes in, he wins. If it doesn’t, his opponent loses. So this is a pretty important shot.

“You mean the one in live in?”

“Okay. You’re USA.”

The thing to know about “Olympic” basketball is that Germany always keeps score. And he doesn’t do it by the generally accepted principles of addition.

The rules of international play are foreign to those familiar with American basketball, and arithmetic. When Germany falls behind, the scores are sometimes transposed, magically jumping him into the lead. Germany’s opponent is not allowed to “get in the way” of Germany’s shot. Germany gets extra points for an otherwise routine shot if his heels are on a particular crack in the concrete.

3 pointer

The three-point line. You have to have your heel on it just so, and you have to be Germany.

When Germany is off on a juice break, any shots his opponent makes don’t count, but when that same opponent steps away to attend to one of Germany’s little brothers, Germany is free to rack up points in his absence.

Germany’s opponent sometimes gets points deducted from his score for inadequate deference to the need for Germany to have the most points by the end of the game.

toddler in the way

“You go move Buster off of the court and I’ll see how many points I can accumulate while you’re doing it.”

But I have a say in the rules too. Being a stickler for such things, I insist Germany dribbles the ball occasionally as he moves about the court. To his credit, Germany complies, whenever he doesn’t forget.

At one point, Germany actually let himself fall behind in a game. I grew concerned that his endurance was flagging. But he rallied, creatively score-keeping his way back into the lead.

Germany is undefeated, having bested the USA, Mexico, Canada, and Italy. I haven’t decided what nation I’ll select to be his next victim.