Save the Great American Family Road Trip

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Growing up in the 1980s, my family’s vacation destinations were a string of forgettable places. But the journeys? Unforgettable. Alas, the classic family road trip, as the children of Generation X knew it, is in danger of death by neglect.

Neglect from teenagers, perpetually wired into their devices. Neglect from their younger siblings, misbehaving in the way back of the SUV, beyond the long arm of parental justice. Today my family travels in one car that’s seemingly split among three time zones—adult, teen and child—with none of the interaction of yore.

How different things used to be. Mom would ride in the passenger seat, a faraway look in her eyes. She was remembering a time when her life was still out in front of her, and when the car didn’t smell like a foot.

Dad would drive, always. He approached the car only after everything was ready, striding like

Mariano Rivera

across the outfield at Yankee Stadium. I’d say he got behind the wheel only after everyone was seat-belted, but seat belts back then were like flossing: great if you did it, but nobody checked.

In one hand dad would have his sunglasses, and in the other his cassette tapes. If you’ve seen “CHiPs”, you’re familiar with the eyewear. But unless you’ve been detained in Gitmo, you haven’t been subjected to as much continuous

Kenny Rogers

as I have.

Things in the car would be calm for a spell, but about an hour into the journey, something would set dad off—maybe a yell from one sibling after a kidney-poke from another—and the fur would absolutely fly.

This is when the magic happened. Road rage between two drivers is deathly serious, but road-trip rage, from father to children, is a wonderful opportunity for kids to develop critical-thinking skills.

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Don’t make me come back there. This threat was patently absurd. If anything mattered to dad, it was making good time. You practically had to lawyer up to secure unscheduled bathroom stops. Unless your dad was

T.J. Hooker,

there was zero chance he was going to crawl about a moving car.

Quit crying or I’ll give you something to cry about. This threat sounds menacing today, but we kids knew it was all hat and no cattle. Never have these words made a child stop crying—and he knew it. Like a pitcher who’d lost his best stuff, the old man was licked when we heard this.

I don’t want to hear another peep out of you. Even dad knew what would be coming. Silence, yes, but only for a moment. Then my kid brother was always good for a “Peep!” followed by louder ones from my elder sister and me. Pretty soon the back seat was a bird hatchery, and even dad couldn’t suppress a smile.

This is your only bathroom stop. Make yourself go. Decades later, my urologist confirms this wasn’t a good idea.

Some 35 years after the fact, these are memories I still cherish. It’s time my kids experienced a real road trip for themselves. Later this summer when my family heads to Lake Michigan, I shall break out the “Ponch” sunglasses and find “The Gambler” on Spotify. As I snarl at the kids—“You’ll get nothing and like it!”—I’ll think of my old man and smile.

Mr. Kerrigan is an attorney in Charlotte, N.C.

Appeared in the June 29, 2018, print edition.



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