Several times a year during a holiday break our family would drive I-45 toward Galveston or I-35 toward Austin to spend time with family. It was a trip I would always be excited about because of how much fun and mischief was going to be had with my many cousins. One such game we would all play was bottle-rocket wars. We would have these wars at night for as long as our money and rockets lasted.
My Uncle Bill was a construction worker and always had scrap metal and various random work site throw-aways out near his barn. Three or four teams of two would have one cousin holding a 4-5 foot pipe while the other, with a bag of 30-50 bottle-rockets and two or three lighting pumps was the loader. The loader placed the rocket in the back-end of the pipe like a bazooka, light the fuse and the shooter aimed as best he/she could. Since most bottle-rockets were not an exact science as far as precision flight, these wars became hours of crazy laughing fun for us. This is just one reason out of many that made the 5-hour drive so unbearably long for me and my sister because Dad could never drive fast enough. For my parents it must have sometimes seemed like 12-hours.
This particular trip I’m sure my sister and I slept little the night before due to our growing anticipation; we were ready to come out of our skin. About two hours into the drive in our four-door light blue Plymouth Gran Fury sedan, zipping along at 55-miles per hour, sitting in back with my sister, she would inevitably say something or do something to provoke me. It was always her fault!
Several “stop its” and “you shut-up, no you shut-ups” later my Dad gave us our first warning. Ten minutes would pass. Again, my sister of course would whisper something mean to me or make a face at me, hence getting our second more firm warning from Dad. Mom would try to intervene, sometimes successfully other times not. She would not this go round.
The We’re-About-to-Blow Speech and Vulcan Death-Clamp
Maybe 15-minutes later, my father’s voice raised several decibels and gave us one final ultimatum. Had he not been driving he would have contorted out of the front seat and launched himself backwards to pop both of us on the legs or butts; and they would not have been love-taps. His pops STUNG for a good ten minutes. But the scariest part was knowing what was going to happen at the next stop. Thinking about it was pure torture. I’m sure Dad knew this too and worked it to the hilt. One of his most potent we’re-about-to-blow speeches were when it included the Vulcan death-clamp under the collar-bone. He’d stare at us like a drill sergeant. It paralyzed us making our eyes seem to pop-out as our little knees quaked! In my little mind not even God’s wrath scared me more than my Dad’s.
However, Dad explained he was not going to loose-it this time with us. He had something different planned. I doubt my idiot sister’s brain was processing as fast as mine trying to guess what “mystery punishment” was going to be thrown down. I couldn’t imagine it would be anything that delayed our arrival with the family; Dad was a stickler for schedules and planning and no misbehaving kids of his were going to spoil the appointed arrival time. After all, he was a mechanical engineer. Precision was his specialty. So what on earth could it be? What was going to be the final fate of my sister and me?
Then the loose gravel on the shoulder of the highway began hitting the under-belly of the car. Forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty-five miles per hour, then we came to a slow stop. “Get out” he said sternly. Mom looked at him puzzled. Her expression didn’t ease my fear at all. When I noticed that neither he nor my mother was getting out, I felt my palms get clammy and my pulse raise. “Get out on the right side, both of you!” he said more firmly. My sister looked like she had seen a ghost, but she exited the car with me. He pointed “See that green sign that says 241?” Then he explained what was about to happen for the next several miles. We were going to find number 251. Weird. Was this a hunting math game? Meanwhile, the traffic on the highway was whizzing by every few seconds, drivers and passengers all staring at our family moment as they passed.
“Both of you will now run next to the car. Do not walk, do not stop. Run!” He slowly began to pull away. My sister and I stood there in shock. “Get over in the grass and run!” he yelled, like those were about to be his last words we would ever hear from him. In the spirit of sheer fear which would have put Forrest Gump to shame, I ran….I ran like the wind! My sister screamed and quickly found her legs as well. Dad pulled a bit ahead of us; we sped up. The long grass didn’t help our stride. I tried to glance down to see what not to step in or stumble over, but I couldn’t keep my cue-ball sized eyes off the car for fear of being left! “Come on…run!” he yelled out the windows.
A half-mile gone we are still running next to or just behind the car, but never ahead of it for some reason. About every third or fourth vehicle passing us would honk. I have no clue about why; maybe they were cheering us on, maybe they were expressing their hysteria. I don’t know. What I do remember was how embarrassing it all was every honk and quarter-mile as onlookers stared at us; some grinned, some laughing, some astonished but all of it humiliating.
Approaching a mile and a half my sister and I are panting. Will he show us mercy? Where the hell was the next damn sign? “Run!” was the answer. It was always his answer until our little arms and legs were becoming jello. I believe that was just over two miles later. I was trying too hard to suck in as much air as my mouth could capture to notice any mile-marker.
“Are you two finished fighting?” as he slowed to a stop. Since we couldn’t utter a word for lack of oxygen, we both managed desperate nods yes. Once back into our seats still trying to breathe, I laid my head against the door unable to say or think anything coherent about my sister. I didn’t care. I just wanted oxygen! Mission accomplished.
For the next three hours that drive was perhaps the most pleasant drive the four of us had ever had to date and would be for years.
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