One good thing about taking a family trip is that for a week o so nothing in the house gets broken. One drawback is that you and your alleged loved ones are trapped in the car for hours, and all the doors are locked.
Ashtrays overflow with bananas gone bad. Tape players chirp constantly. Nerves are frayed. The upholstery never really recovers from the onslaught of fried food. And there are the constant battles about whose feet can go where.
We took one such trip recently for the reasons most families do: Our kids were out of school. After considering several other schemes, my wife and I concluded it would be easier on our psyches to drive somewhere with our kids, 11 and 7 years old, than to have them hanging around our house for a week. We drove north, not south. Rather than go to a theme park -- Disney World, Sea World, Potato Chip World -- I wanted this to be an "old-fashioned," make-your-own-fun type of vacation. The kind I had as kid. I wanted to freeload off friends and relatives.
Loading the car took the usual time, about half a day, slowed by several trips to the store to get "one more thing." On our first day we made it all the way to Wilmington, Del., about 70 miles, without bloodshed.
In Wilmington, we quickly overran the home of a child-free couple. Commandeering their VCR, we began a continuous showing of "Swamp Thing." This is the story of a caring but misunderstood mutant, who battles the evil Louis Jourdan, who transforms himself into Pig Wolfe. We watched it three times.
The next day we pressed on to Wellesley, Mass., where our tribe descended on the home of my brother and his family. Here the hot entertainment was getting the teen-aged cousin to play his electric bass guitar. Other highlights included wrestling with the older, home-from-college cousin and taking the cousins' newly acquired and highly active dog on walks through the neighborhood.
After wearing out our welcome and washing several loads of laundry, we pushed on to Bolton Valley, Vt. At a ski lodge there, the big fun here was folding and unfolding the beds -- the four of us slept in one room with two folding beds. When we had put the Murphy bed back in the wall and squeezed the sofa into its sitting position, we were ready to entertain a new set of cousins, these from nearby Burlington.
With these cousins, who were 8 and 3 years old, the popular form of indoor entertainment was sitting in the lodge's darkened hallways telling scary stories.
Besides seeing the kinfolk, one of the goals of the expedition was to learn to ski. It was partially successful. Our kids picked it right up. My wife and I did not.
Each morning the kids went bounding off to a ski school run by the lodge. They strapped on skis and learned how to stop, turn, and "go fast" down the mountain -- all without imperiling life, limb or bystanders.
Meanwhile, my wife and I attempted to teach ourselves how to ski. Teaching yourself to ski is like attempting to take out your own appendix. Both are bad ideas.
The kids learned how to downhill ski. My wife and I were trying to master cross country. I heard several descriptions of the differences between these two styles of skiing. One person said downhill skiing, with its steep slopes, is for people who like to go fast, while cross country, with its winding woodland trails, is for folks who like to savor the beauty of nature.
I made the following distinction: When falling on a cross country course I have a better chance to hit a tree than when falling on a downhill slope. But in cross country, the fall will likely occur at a slower speed.
I can think of several explanations why the kids took to skiing and I didn't. Their minds were more pliant. Their joints were more flexible. Their fear of reconstructive surgery was much less developed.
At night, after soaking my aching body in the lodge hot tub, I would quiz my newly minted masters of the slopes, on what they had learned in ski school that day.
"Now once again," I would say. "Show Dad how you stop without falling over."
There comes a time in a father's life when he has to let his offspring venture out into the world.
That time came for me last week when my kids confidently hopped on a ski lift and disappeared into the mists of a Vermont mountain. I stood at the bottom of the slope, feeling colder and older by the moment. My wife stood next to me.
"I'm going to wait for the kids to come down," she said.
"Not me," I said. "I'm going to do what I do best. I'm headed for the hot tub."