This will take me a minute to get to the point, but it helped to make some sense of the last week. So, bear with me and hopefully it will give you some peace.
In an odd quirk of geography, the travel distance to Morris, Illinois (the place of my birth and my parents’ shared hometown) is exactly equal whether one starts in San Antonio, Texas; Tallahassee, Florida; Rochester, New York; or Washington D.C. That list of cities is where I lived growing up and the embarkation points for annual vacation pilgrimages to Morris to see the grandparents and other relatives and friends. My sainted mother, chief navigation officer for the trips, carefully kept the mileage and can to this day recite exactly how long it took for dad to transport her, me and my brother Scott from our various homes to Morris. The precise answer is– “forever.”
Apparently, the romance of cross-country travel wears off when the luggage includes two boys. That disappointment holds even if you happen to be making the trip in a behemoth Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon equipped with wood paneling and the ever so hip, 1970’s option of choice, the tinted moonroof for the middle seat. That particular classic was the Howen family chariot of choice.
I am sure my compatriots close in age remember similar journeys in similar vehicles. A common feature was the back-seat bench. For us, there was no captain’s swivel chair with a screen built into the headrest in front of you and a gaming console to play with in between glances at your cell phone. We were left to our own devices. The first fifteen minutes of the journey we talked about how excited we were, what we were going to do when we got there and where we might stop for lunch. The next ten minutes we would start on the books we were supposed to read. And then two minutes of getting comfortable. But within a half hour, complete and total boredom took over.
What is a kid supposed to do? If you have an ounce of honesty, you know the answer to that question. You entertain yourself by annoying your sibling. It starts with the weird attempt to produce strange sounds and odors that for some reason you believe will be limited to the back seat. Then comes the “claim your territory” stage, where you stretch out enough so that you own more than your fair share of the backseat real estate. Inevitably that aggression meets with pushback from the other occupant and a small, but unmistakable physical confrontation.
First intervention. After a sidelong glance from dad that signals mom to “get those two under control before there is some real unpleasantness,” mom instates the line-down-the-middle rule. Stay on your side. Maybe that holds until lunch, where you land an unexpected blow. Dad asks what everyone is hungry for. I wait for Scott to say hamburgers so I can say chicken. Or for Scott to say chicken so I can say hamburger. Mom swears to herself that she will start packing an ice chest, but you win. Until you sit down to your chicken box wishing you had a hamburger, but whatever.
Back on the road, you make it 45 minutes before the line encroachments begin. Some are just barely over the invisible magic stripe; others are deeper into enemy territory but taken back quickly. Of course, its not just offense, you must defend your own territory. Guaranteed escalation and, in another 1970’s phrase, “mutually assured destruction.” Mom has this huge bag of tricks to keep the lid on and Dad on the right side of the insanity line. There is a real chance he is calculating as to whether a 100-mph speeding ticket and a night in jail would be better than the agony he is enduring and she doesn’t really feel like giving up Friday nights out for the next two months to cover the costs of the ticket would be worth it. So, she desperately tries to work her magic.
She re-directs with conversation about some random landmark; tries to mix in some math skills by getting us to calculate the time of arrival at the next state line and of, course, metes out the ultimate road challenge, the license plate game. You are good mom, but none of that is nearly as interesting as tormenting my chief rival in the world.
Second and third interventions. The slightly annoyed, one sentence remark that is really a command: “Boys.” Peace reigns for one minute, 38 seconds. Resumption of hostilities and then the first threat “You need to settle down or…” What “or” do you actually have Mom? No immediate consequence is worse than the hell of the back seat I am in this very second and you know what? When we arrive at our destination, I have the ultimate defensive weapon, the protective grandparent shield, In my favor. Therefore, the backseat carnage escalates.
Until mom really engages. “STOP IT. RIGHT NOW.” Mom never screamed, never hit but she could find a tone that you knew was trouble. Trouble enough that all this might be remembered when we were out of grandparent protection range. De-escalation. At that point Mom had succeeded in stopping the battle of the backseat, but the fun is not over. Not by a longshot.
If you cannot annoy your sibling, what is the next thing? Easy, said sibling must be assessed the blame for the near catastrophe! Within seconds and with apologies to Seinfield, comes the airing of grievances and the outpouring of rationalizations. That lasts all of ten seconds until each of you are hit with the classic: “I.DO.NOT.CARE.” Follow on lecture about how lucky you are to have your brother, this car, your grandparents, lunch and just be silent and think about that.
You sit silently for an eternity or half an hour, whichever comes first, staring out the moonroof lamenting the unfairness of it all. How in the world can she overlook the serious, grievous nature of Scott’s intrusions? Could she not see how his reaction to my actions was wholly disproportional? And what about that time…? Life can be so brutal.
As I write this on Friday afternoon, it has become apparent that Joe Biden will be our next president, he will try to govern over a divided legislature and that no one is particularly happy with either the result or the process. We arrived at this place only after the four-year road trip from hell, during which our dual focus, executed with laser precision, has been first to annoy our siblings and second to make sure blame was appropriately placed.
I longed to write something that evoked the stirring notions offered by our previous better angels. Lincoln said, “With malice toward none and with charity toward all.” JFK urged us to “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Washington warned of the dangers of bitter factionalism. All ring eloquent and hold true.
But in the end, I decided that the country needs a dose of my mother. “STOP IT” and “I DON’T CARE” are all we have earned. Enough with the petty insults, the constant warfare, and above all, the endless recriminations. We are a family, bound together in the backseat whether we like it or not. Endless escalation will be mutually assured destruction.
Eventually we arrived in Morris. Scott and I agree on a little fishing, a little catch, followed by a trip with grandpa to the A & W where we order the exact same dinner and drink of choice, the Black Cow root beer float. Days spent exploring the countryside, and maybe a trip into Chicago where we shared the magic of Wrigley Field. Nights on the back patio with people who love us unconditionally, laughter not quite drowning out the chirping of the crickets. We slept in the same bed, not caring about lines or encroachments. Morris was a magical place for two city kids and for a week we are in paradise, not a care in the world. Never for a second did I ask myself whether the week was worth the car ride.
I voted for Biden. Scott voted for Trump. I love him all the more for it. America, we can do this.