Dad regularly rallies the family into the Pontiac Grand Safari for destinations unknown; the adventure often beginning after all that Sunday genuflecting, and gobbling down stacks of syrupy pancakes from the Golden Bear Pancake House.
Dispersed from fore to aft, in the enormous, paneled wagon. Mark’s in front with Mom and Dad. Chris and Jim, by birthright, take the center. Leaving the rear-facing, back seat to Mia and me. The perfect spot for making faces at innocent travelers and gesturing to passing truck drivers to sound their horns; and when a trucker pulls the wire and toots his horn, there’s plenty of room to hide down below, where we can squirm and giggle until the semi rumbles past.
Once we catch on that we’re not going home, through a series of lipped words, nods and head tilts, one of us will be chosen to ask Dad where we’re going – all of us knowing full well what his glorious answer will be.
“I’LL never tell!” he sings as he smiles and looks to us in the rear view mirror with his dark, playful eyes.
Sure to be somewhere wonderful, we’ll find ourselves in a faded, old amusement park on its very last go-round; an old-fashioned, ice cream parlor, in a long forgotten neighborhood; an apple orchard serving cold, sweet, back-teeth-tingling cider and fresh made cinnamon-sugar donuts, thoroughly warm and wonderful.
Somewhere we can be all together in the moment and in the memory.
Admittedly, the excitement of the adventure sometimes wanes with the miles it takes to get there, and things can get ugly.
Ugly enough for Dad to pull over on a long, straight, narrow, stretch of road in rural Illinois, near a solitary farmhouse surrounded by a seemingly endless pasture. Here, he makes each of us exit the wagon – even the littlest, Mark, who’s lifted from Mom’s lap and placed unceremoniously into Chris’s surprised arms.
Mom stays quiet and seated for our expulsion, but all eyes are focused on Dad, who’s already back behind the wheel.
The Grand Safari disappears over a small hill… and then the horizon.
No one has words for what just happened. We just stand there, stunned and silent.
Leaning against the barbed-wire fence surrounding the field, looking at the farmhouse in the distance, I wonder what it would be like to live there.
There’s finger-pointing, but few words spoken because each of us is well aware of our role in this road trip gone wrong.
Mark’s becoming a burden between Chris and Jim’s arms, the blood from a cut on my knee (from leaning against the barbed-wire fence) is beginning to spread across my new, thick, white, knit leotards, now torn; and all promise of a happy outing has been extinguished by the time we see the Grand Safari re-appear in the distance.
Dad steps from the station wagon, as if from a hearse, and lines us up against the fence, steps back, and… smiles – huge, laughing smile, moving each of us to do the same – which is when Dad makes his move, revealing the Polaroid camera hidden behind his back.
Still grinning with the photo now in his hands developing, he orders us back to the wagon.
Overjoyed to be back in our rear-facing, upholstered prison, I console myself with a handful of mints swiped from the hostess counter of the pancake house, and in the certainty that the next time Dad turns the Grand Safari toward another Sunday adventure, all thoughts of past car trip hardships will be disappear in a “click” from the moment we hear the words: “I’LL never tell.”