All racked up in battle to protect the car from kids

SATURDAY'S HERO

December 05, 1992|By ROB KASPER

If I had been paying more attention in sophomore geometr class I'm sure finding the perfect position for the bike rack on the car would be easier. But I wasn't. Instead of studying the triangles on the blackboard, I spent much of the class staring out the classroom window, watching a cop who parked in front of our high school and caught speeders.

Now every time I try to adjust the angles of the rack so that no bike part scratches the car trunk, pieces of old geometry equations flash through my mind, and my palms start to sweat.

It was the standard-issue bike rack. Movable black plastic support legs were attached to interlocking cogs. It came with straps, foam cushions and illustrations showing how, if the support angles were changed, the rack could be configured to fit on any kind of car trunk or van rear end. The bike rack was ingenious. I was not.

So as I packed the car for a family trip recently, I had to fight off attacks of bike rack anxiety. I took deep breaths. I counted to 10. I carefully examined the illustrations on the bike rack box, which I kept as a study aide. It seemed to work. The process took the better part of an hour, but when the permutations and strap-pulling had stopped, the rack was stable and not marring any metal. Pythagoras would have been proud.

I care about the artfully installed bike rack because it is one part of a larger struggle. Namely the battle of a dad to protect his car from his children.

Over the years some of my other manly strongholds have fallen. The kids have overrun the basement, largely taken control of the television set, and even infiltrated the shower.

I ceded some of this turf as inevitable losses. The side effects of reproduction. But I refuse to surrender my car to these forces of chaos. It will be my island of order and sanity. There will be no candy wrappers breeding on the floor. There will be no tape players left in the space between the back seat and the rear window. The ash trays will be clean.

As a veteran I know the war between kids and car is long and multifaceted.

It began with the car-seat phase. I once thought when a kid was strapped into a car seat, he couldn't do much harm. That belief lasted for about a year. When the firstborn had trouble falling asleep, I would grab him and a bottle of formula and go for a drive. Usually after a bottle and a mile or two the kid would nod off.

But on Christmas Eve even infants can have trouble sleeping. So one such night I ended up driving up and down the Jones Falls Expressway and giving the kid more formula.

About the third time we passed the Cold Spring Lane exit, I heard an eruption. I pulled over and saw that the formula was now covering the back seat. I drove home, passed the wide-awake child to my wife and spent a chilly Christmas Eve scrubbing the car upholstery.

Next came the Cheerios phase. In this phase the kids couldn't travel in the car unless they were toting a bag of the cereal, or some other small, mushy edible. While some of these morsels made it into the mouths of the passengers, most were either ground into the car's carpet or disappeared into the black hole of every family vehicle, the space underneath the back seat. Centuries from now when archaeologists want to find out how we lived, the wise ones will look under the back seat of our car.

My kids seem to be moving from viewing the car as a traveling kitchen to seeing the car as a mobile entertainment library. On our recent trip, for example, the kids filled the back seat with video games and audio tapes. For a while they were content to listen to their tapes on the headsets of their portable tape players. But soon they were pestering me to put their tapes in the car's sound system so they could inflict the "full effect" of their music on the parents. The parents refused. This led to some sulking, and some tussling, followed by some shouting.

By the time we arrived at our destination, everyone thought it would be a good idea if the kids immediately hopped on their bikes and got away from the parents.

After pulling the bikes off, I paused to admire the position of the rack. Then I saw a new scratch. Somehow, some way, a piece of a bike had shifted during the trip and scratched my trunk.

I was deflated. Another casualty in the war to preserve the appearance of my car, and the appearance of control.

I'm told it gets worse. I'm told when you have teen-agers you walk to the curb to spend a little time with your pride and joy, and your car is gone. Worse yet, your kid is driving it.

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