The worst trip ever

A sweaty cross-country trek in a 1937 Plymouth with two cranky siblings, a kangaroo rat in a box and a pogo stick turns into family legend.

By Susan McCarthy
October 20, 1998 9:16PM (UTC)
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When the subject of horrible car trips comes up at family
gatherings, this one is always proclaimed the worst. It wins hands
down for ghastly conditions, ferocious sibling battles and the
gratuitous involvement of wild animals and infernal machines. But
I missed it, having neglected to be born, and it's obvious to me it
was the best.

In the summer of 1944 my grandparents drove their 1937 Plymouth
from their native West Virginia to California, where my grandfather
and great-uncle Harry would do war work in a DuPont factory. But,
because of the war, many motels and restaurants were closed or off-limits to civilians. Gas rationing limited them to 45 mph, so it was a long, long haul. And it was hot. My grandparents,
who had fled West Virginia to save their marriage, were barely on
speaking terms. The kids, Kenneth, 10, and Martha, 11, were
constantly fighting in the back seat. Also in the back seat was
patient Uncle Harry, trying to keep the kids from destroying each
other utterly.


The day they left West Virginia, Kenneth's friend Sonny gave him
his precious pogo stick as a farewell present. Kenneth pogoed
across America. He couldn't pogo in the car, so he grabbed every
other opportunity to pogo. I envision my grandmother, at the end of
a long, hot, horrible day, entering a motel, prepared to plead or
battle with the manager for a chance to stay the night despite
their civilian status. Behind her trail Martha, whining, and
Kenneth: Boing! Thud! Boing! Thud! Boing! Thud!

Somewhere in the Great Plains, the kids caught what
has been described to the next generation as a kangaroo rat. They
imprisoned it in a box and brought it along for much-needed
entertainment. Inexplicably, it wasn't very playful, electing to
jam itself into a corner of its confinement and sulk.

When the novelty of the rodent wore off, Martha and Kenneth
began to bicker again. Uncle Harry distracted them with a generous
offer to pay a penny for every two gray hairs they could find and
pull out of his head. They greedily inspected every lock of Harry's
black hair, enthusiastically jerking out the gray hairs. Harry was
a young man, and soon he was surprised at how many gray hairs the
kids found. But when they ran low on gray hairs, the zealous little
wage-earners simply began pulling black hair. Soon, Harry got
wise and began demanding to view the gray hairs before he would
pay. Kenneth was baffled at first, but Martha quickly evolved a new strategy: She'd pull two black hairs, so
Harry felt the tweaks, then show him two gray hairs she'd pulled
before. When Harry finally realized that he was seeing the same two
gray hairs again and again, he politely insisted that she stop.
There may have been some words spoken about honesty being the best
policy. Humiliated and disgraced, Martha huddled in a corner of the
back seat.


But now, while Martha sulked, Kenneth was somehow finding gray
hairs again, and turning them over and getting paid. Martha, sullen
and suspicious, tried to puzzle out what he was doing, and soon
spotted Kenneth's trick. He'd pull two black hairs from Harry's
head, reach into the box, pull two pale hairs out of the kangaroo
rat's tail and give them to Harry. The kangaroo rat, already
despondent about being captured, boxed and taken for a ride,
simply crouched and endured.

When Martha figured out what Kenneth was doing, she indignantly
grabbed for the rat. That was it for the rat, who finally
decided it was time to bite somebody. Martha shrieked and yanked
her hand -- with kangaroo rat attached -- out of the box, sending
it flying across the car. "Help, help!" she screamed. "My Land!"
screamed my grandfather, swerving. "Jack, Jack, watch the road!"
screamed my grandmother. "No fair!" screamed Kenneth.

They pulled over. By this time the kangaroo rat was under the
seat in hysterics, so they got out, opened the doors and waited
for it to emerge. This didn't happen for a long time, perhaps
because Kenneth took this rare chance to pogo -- along the shoulder
of the road. Boing! Thud! Boing! Thud! Boing! Thud! After
about half an hour the kangaroo rat shot out and disappeared into
the desert, where, presumably, all its hair grew back snow-white.


This incident made my grandmother realize that distracting the
kids was a matter of life and death. She got them started on word
games. But they were soon bored with spotting license plates and
playing "I love my love with an A because she is Adorable, I hate
my love with an A because she is Awful ..." They began playing a
game based on the following ancient folk tune:

If I had a million dollars

I know what I would do

I'd buy a million packets of pins

And stick them all in you

Ha ha

The game was to construct variations:

If I had a million dollars

I know what I would do

I'd buy 10,000 pogo sticks

And bounce them over you

Ha ha

This provided such a good outlet for savagery that the family
arrived in California intact. Today, Martha (my mother) and Kenneth
(my uncle) are on excellent terms, if you discount the occasional
ice cube dropped down the collar. In collective memory, the 11-day
car trip to California is a golden time -- the worst of road trips,
the best of road trips. Although my mother would never let me get
a pogo stick.

Susan McCarthy

Susan McCarthy is a San Francisco freelance writer and the author, with Jeffrey Masson, of "When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals."

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