LISTEN," said my friend, as she was about to take off for "L the West Coast with her new husband and their four children -- two his and two hers -- "If we get back alive you'll know this marriage will work."
They did and it does, but that didn't make that cross-country adventure any less traumatic.
They lived through it and, she said afterward, "no one has a right to ask for more."
Sometimes it gets to that even when the children have always shared the same parents. Blood may be thicker than water, but it flows just as freely at the hands of real versus step-siblings.
Traveling tends to bring out the barely buried animal in kids, so it is essential that the accoutrements of civilization accompany any trip with them, be it on safari or in a station wagon.
It need not be a portable Pac-Man -- no, although I am assured that one exists. No, it can be as simple as a coloring book and a box of Crayolas. Favorite pillow (or blanket or toy -- security paraphernalia, you know) is essential.
Now in our family, back in the days when gas was not only plentiful but cheap, we had a gas-guzzling, nine-passenger wagon for mother, father, son and daughter. That was because the latter two had to be able to be separated from one another -- either as punishment or as refuge, depending on circumstances, mood of parent, phase of moon . . .
Games: I remember pieces of Miss Cookie's Kitchen permanently melted into the "way back" of the wagon, but the most fun were the games we all played. Like Ghosts, Botticelli, Car Poker (a cat in the window wins the game). Car Poker can have any kind of rules you want to make. Basically, the kind left over from trips to camp (from Washington to Monterey, Mass.) with my sister and my parents is clearly East Coast-oriented. Points are allotted to certain animals, birds and occasional oddities like windmills or tumbleweed -- depending, of course, on where you are. A "sighting" of an animal must have confirmation from at least one other person, or game quickly dissolves into open warfare. (The level of trust between siblings is akin to Begin-Arafat, Cain-Abel.) A herd of cows or flock of ducks counts the same as one cow or one duck. A flock of geese on the wing has a lot of points compared to a horse, say. And goats are better than cows. Cats and dogs aren't much, unless the cat is in the window and, as we have noted, that wins the game. (An optional rule: A cemetery gives the first spotter the right to gently slap somebody else. This is risky. It has upon occasion been employed as a surreptitious cease-fire violation. We usually optioned it out.)
And then, when games palled, there was always Car Treasure.
Food: Car Treasure was food. M&Ms, both peanut and plain and they melted all over. (We didn't have Reese's Pieces in those days.) Fruit in season, especially seedless grapes, unless you're big on planting moldy pits and seeds in your car upholstery. Egg-salad sandwiches. (Nobody eats until we cross the bridge, get to the state line, pass through this city or that town . . .) It didn't matter, the food was gone, all gone, before an hour had passed. Something with water in it is essential.
Songs: The smaller the kids the more gore and nonsense the songs needed:
"Blood on the saddle/Blood on the ground . . ."
Or "I'm a villain, a dirty, rotten villain/I leave a trail of blood where e'er I go . . ."
Or "I'm up here in the bughouse/My brain is in a rut/My keeper says I'm crazy/But I'm just off my nut . . ."
Or: "Oh it was sad/it was sad/it was sad when the great ship went down . . ."
I never could convince my children of the joys of close harmony. One of them had perfect pitch and the rest of us tended to wander around a note, so I suppose he had a legitimate gripe, but it took wholesale bribery to get one run-through of "Now Robin lend to me thy bow . . ." or "Jackie boy, Master . . ." (What was it that the "third doe" did anyway?)
Jokes: Never mind. They were the scatology of the fourth grade.
Rule of the Road: Somebody has to stop, urgently, the split second you have just passed the last rest stop for 30 miles.
Somnolence: To be encouraged, by all means in the children. Not in the driver.
Eating. "Eating" is different from "Food." "Eating" means stopping on the road for a meal.
The greatest successes were smorgasbord-type restaurants. (Although, depending on the length of the trip, sooner or later someone would have a pizza fit.)
"Wouldn't you like some of my Jell-O?" a parent is astonished to hear a brother sweetly ask a younger sister.
The other parent points to the sign: "Take all you want but pay for what's left on your plate."
At another restaurant the same brother is punished for one or another indiscretion and the infuriatingly superior 3-year-old sister is snidely slurping the ice cream denied to her brother:
"You know," she says in one of those piping voices that maybe don't shatter glass but can be heard for 10 miles, "You know, blonds really do have more fun."
This is a horror story.
I have a friend whose children were born in Israel. When the youngest was 9 months old and the eldest was 2 1/2 years, they flew to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to show off the baby to the maternal grandparents for the first time.
The flight from Israel to Kennedy airport in New York took about 14 hours, and during the (chronological) daylight hours the flight attendants kept the boys entertained with toys and games and all the more or less helpful things people do to other people's babies. Then it was time to go to sleep. Everybody went to sleep. Even the flight attendants, some of them, went to sleep. Not the boys. And not, therefore, the parents.
They ran through all the diapers they'd packed even for emergencies, and by the time they landed in New York (to discover they had missed their Florida connection and had to wait three hours for the next) the kids had, in the language of parents everywhere, fallen apart. It was winter and they were in cute little soaked-through snowsuits.
Kennedy had no facilities worthy of the name.
When they got on the next flight to Florida it was jammed. The baby had no seat, and sat on his mother's lap screaming and squirming, refusing bottles of milk or juice and earning the hostile mutterings of people throughout the plane. Not to mention the state of the mother.
About 20 minutes before landing he fell into an exhausted and very deep sleep. The plane landed, he was loaded into a stroller and wheeled into the airport, still virtually comatose.
His grandmother took one look at him and sighed, "Oh," she said. "What a little angel . . ."
Light at the end of the tunnel department: A year or so ago we took both our kids together on a four-hour trip in a compact car. There were practically no arguments. There was even conversation. No blood was shed at all. Of course they're both in their twenties . . .
The best thing about traveling with little people is that they are little. Their eye-level is lower. They see things grownups might miss.
Like the chipmunks, the birds' nests, the wildflower in the mountain snow on the Fourth of July in Colorado . . .
Talk to them or they'll keep these secrets to themselves and you'll never know. They'll make you angry and frustrated, of course, but they'll make you laugh, too, and seeing things through their eyes is a window to your own innocence.