So, what did you do during your social distancing today? I spoke to family and friends, paid some bills, completed the census, sorted through stacks of paper (most of which I threw away) and found some very old pictures that made me smile.
One was from the 1970s–the Condor motorhome that took us on many adventures.
It reminded me of a story I wrote years ago, called “Rowing the Boat.” It was about one of our trips across country to visit my grandparents. Mostly, it was a tribute to my father and the patience he had during much of our lives.
Here’s the story. If you have time to read it, I hope you enjoy it, and I’d love to hear about a fond memory of one of your family trips.
Rowing the Boat
One hot summer day in 1972, my four siblings and I bounced up and down like bobbers in a pond full of hungry fish. My dad had just pulled into the driveway in a Ford Condor, a monstrosity of corrugated white metal with a tan stripe down the middle. Though I considered myself a sophisticated fifteen-year old, I squealed every bit as loudly as my nine-year old baby sister.
The goliath came to a stop and rumbled for a few seconds, its power vibrating the ground beneath my feet. Dad poked his head through the driver’s side window, smiling as big and proud as a teenager showing off his first car.
“All aboard!” he yelled.
We burst through the door, “oohing” and “ahhing” over the olive-green plaid upholstery and dark-wood paneling. We each claimed our favorite “territory”—the well-appointed living room, complete with television and stereo eight-track player. The cleverly-designed compact shower. My favorite was the kitchen, so cute I might not even mind doing dishes there.
Through all the noise and chaos, Dad grinned, his six-foot-four frame towering over us. “There’s enough room and plenty of time to try out every seat when we go to . . . Grandma’s house!”
A week later, my parents, three sisters and baby brother trekked back and forth from the house to the motor home like ants on a trail, our arms full of clothes, toys, games, eight-track tapes and Polaroid cameras.
Our chariot packed at last, we each took the seats we’d won in battle days before, ready to depart on our first adventure, 2200 miles from California to Kentucky.
Dad started the engine, and I watched the eyes of my younger siblings widen. Don’t get me wrong. I was excited, too. But as the oldest and by my estimation, the wisest, a nagging thought prickled my enthusiasm. I couldn’t get a quote from an old Western out of my head.
This town ain’t big enough for the two of us.
By my figuring, the motor home wasn’t big enough for seven plus a dog, either.
My fears began to materialize when, after two days, Mom complained about a migraine and surrendered to a bed for the rest of the trip. We were asked to be quiet.
An Air Force pilot, Dad was accustomed to long hours behind the wheel and he drove hour after hour with his usual good nature. Sometimes, I sat next to him and as his co-pilot, kept my eye out for his head nodding. When it slowly fell forward, he’d shake it real fast, then open his window. If those two tricks failed, I could always predict his next stay-awake-technique was to begin singing You Are My Sunshine. If all else failed, we’d pull over for lunch and a nap.
By our third day, I never thought a gas station would be a source of pleasure, but by then, we yearned for any opportunity to disembark and use a “real” bathroom. One-by-one, we each “did our business” on the toilet Mom had sprayed for germs with her trusty can of Lysol, though she still reminded, “Don’t let your panties touch the toilet. And don’t forget to wash your hands!”
Next, we perused snack food aisles for something to purchase with change from the dollar we’d been given at the start of our journey.
“All aboard!” Dad called, and we were off again. Several miles would pass before the questions started again:
“When are we gonna stop?”
“How much longer?”
Dad slammed on the brakes and pulled to the side of the road. “What do you mean, ‘Where’s Tami?’”
Mom bolted up in bed. “Robert! Where’s Tami?”
Tuck, my eight-year old brother, said, “She said she had to poop.”
“Oh, no!” my mother cried. “We left Tami at the gas station? Robert, turn around!”
Dad was already in the process of a 180, turning as fast as the monstrous motor home would turn.
When we arrived at the gas station that would forever be known as “The Place We Left Tami,” we found her safe and sound, eating a cookie in the gas station manager’s office.
Miles down the road, we were bored again. Tired of playing “I Spy My Little Eye,” we created a new game—Human Ping-Pong, where the five of us flung our bodies from port to starboard and back again, like wild electrons bouncing off the walls.
Dad beseeched from the driver’s seat. “Okay, kids. Settle down. Mommy has a headache. Let’s sing Row Your Boat.”
“No,” we whined, breathless from body slams, laughter and resulting hiccups. “That’s no fun.”
Sometimes I wondered if he survived by purposely letting things go in one ear and out the other, because he began to sing, despite our protests. “Row, row, row your boat,” he began. “Now you start. Gently down the stream.”
Though I rolled my eyes, I’d begun to feel sorry for the challenges we presented, and empathy won over my aversion to singing. I was the first to oblige. “Row, row, row your boat.”
One-by-one my siblings began to join in, until we were all merrily, merrily singing in rounds. I didn’t want to admit it – probably none of us did – but pretty soon, we were having almost as much fun as we’d had as human ping pong balls.
But that didn’t last long. The next afternoon, the thrill of being in our new motor home had morphed into feeling trapped on a sinking ship.
“How many more miles?”
“I have to go to the bathroom.”
“Soon,” my dad replied. “Time will pass more quickly if you quit thinking about it. Come on. Let’s sing.”
But we were tired of “row, row, rowing,” seemingly getting nowhere. We wanted off the silly boat.
“Anyone hungry?” Dad asked. “We’ll stop for the night just a few miles down the road.”
We pulled into a K.O.A. campground and piled out. Dad stayed behind to cook dinner and take care of Mom.
After we finished eating, I washed dishes in the kitchen I didn’t think was so cute anymore. Dad plopped into the driver’s-seat-turned-recliner, and opened a book. His head nodded. This time, he didn’t sing to try to stay awake.
Late the next afternoon, we finally pulled onto the dirt road to our grandparents’ house. From the starboard window, I watched Grandpa fling the screen door open. Grandma ran out next, arms ready to wrap around us.
We flew out of the Condor, greeted with hugs and kisses.
“How was the trip, son?” Grandpa asked, patting my dad on the back.
Dad took a deep breath and half grinned, half rolled his eyes. “Oh, it was a trip we won’t soon forget.”
Years later, when “challenged” by my own children, I thought about that trip, and marveled at my father’s patience then and throughout our lives. How did he do it? When I remembered the words to the song we used to sing when his patience was surely most-challenged, I realized that for him, they must have been a mantra:
. . .Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily. Life is but a dream.