I could see yellow sweat pants as she leaned in the side door of a minivan ten years older than my own. A mop of gray hair was mashed against the passenger’s window, what I could only assume was a second woman, who was asleep. The first woman was eating ice cream with one hand. With the other hand she appeared to be changing the diaper of a kid spread out on the floor of her vehicle. I was not positive this was a child or that a diaper was being changed; for all I knew she was bludgeoning a little person or delivering an infant. I could simply see two wiggling legs and the woman pinning this thing down and eating her ice cream.
Without further introduction, I immediately knew this woman. Her van represented the vehicles you see trolling the parking lot of any box store in America, although this particular woman skewed more toward Wal-Mart, if that helps paint the picture. I could not see it, but I knew the back bumper was covered with pearls of wisdom on faded stickers such as “Follow too closely and I’ll flick a booger on your windshield”, or “My sixth grader beats up your honor student.” Another sticker would loudly demand the return of some freedom that being denied, or hadn’t been denied enough, usually dealing with guns or reproductive organs. The drivers of these restless vans roaming large parking lots are not looking to shoot a rival gang member, run over anyone, or abduct a child. They simply drive around and around the shopping tarmac, adding to the congestion and burning fuel, until securing a parking spot within twenty feet of the store’s front door. Then some random, disheveled clan will disembark from the vehicle and lumber inside.
It was of little consequence to me that this was the kind of person who needed to park in a different parking lot and WALK to the front door. My biggest problem with that woman right then was that she was parked behind me, only there was no parking space. She had simply stopped her van on the other side of the lane, hemming me in between the cars parked properly on either side of me. I was the only person affected by her impromptu parking spot. There was half a lane open, so the other traffic could squeeze between us.
We were in a fast food parking lot, on our way back from a family road trip to Washington DC. Walking across the parking lot, the woman with the ice cream and yellow sweat pants made eye contact with me, then glanced at my family before her gaze stopped on the vehicle we were cramming in to. Then she had continued whatever she was doing, pausing every few seconds to eat her ice cream.
I started the van and waited.
“You want me to say something to her?” My wife asked, reaching to unbuckle her seat belt.
I did not. My wife has little tolerance for such things and we were on the back end of a successful but exhausting trip. Should my wife negotiate on our behalf, I could see things quickly escalating into some kind of redneck, parking lot, slap-fest. My reverse lights were on. It was clear enough that we needed this woman to move in order to leave. I would give her a minute. Maybe the child was choking on something, except surely the woman would put down her ice cream if she was performing the Heimlich.
There was a long sigh from my wife.
“I’ll just ease backward,” I said.
“You can’t get out unless she moves. What the hell was she thinking stopping right there?”
I verbalized my previous thought as a way to stall any potential altercation. “Then it must be an emergency.”
“Charles, she is eating ice cream. No one in the history of the world has eaten ice cream during an emergency”
I don’t want to generalize, but for most men the family road trip is about pace. How quickly can you reach the destination? Once there, in a target rich, tourist environment like Washington, how many sights can you actually see? The answers usually turn out to be, not quickly enough, and never as many as you want.
There are six people in my family. Me; the wife who always chooses fashionable over functional footwear; the eldest son who likes to wander off to show his independence, which is fine given he is sixteen years old, but does hold up the group at times while we try to relocate him; my daughter, who lingers with much drama before store windows, viewing this trip less as a chance to learn about our government’s history and more as a chance to shop; and the high energy, eleven year old twin boys who pepper me with suggestions and questions and move a lot faster than everyone else.
We started our exploration atop Capitol Hill, checking out the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress before wandering around to that vast expanse of grass and the incredible views down to the Washington Monument. My daughter stopped before a sign. She stomped one foot, then yelled, “You’re NOT telling me THIS is the Washington Mall!”
Over the next four days we hit all the tourist sites. Quite frankly, I found the Smithsonian Museums to be tired, looking just like I remembered them from twenty years before. The Newseum was impressive. They’ve cleaned up Ford’s Theater. And Arlington National Cemetery brought a hush, even to my bunch. Low gray clouds delivered rain when we visited the National Archives. Some guy right outside the subway sold me three umbrellas that were apparently designed for stick people. I also bought two disposable, clear plastic ponchos for the twins, which they ripped even as they put them on.
We stood in line next to a family the same size as ours. This family was everything we weren’t. They had color coded rain gear, umbrellas that could have provided shade for the Grand Canyon, and waterproof footwear. One of my twins had a dingy wet sock poking through a hole in his shoe. These other kids were respectful and quiet as we all inched forward, while mine jostled and poked and splashed each other. Just the day before, the twins had reached through the fence and plucked bits of lawn from the White House. I hadn’t thought much about it at the time. A memento of sorts and what did it hurt? Only then they spent the rest of the day rubbing the blades between their fingers and asking anyone who passed “Psssst, dude, you wanna buy some White House Grass?” These other kids might have been dry and warm, but they weren’t funny, and I began to suspect they had to ask permission before they were allowed to smile.
And it wasn’t like my kids were total train wrecks. I have to say with some pride that all four of my kids were sucking up every bit of the history they could, even my daughter, although she managed to visit every gift shop in DC. Still, every museum, every artifact, every memorial only seemed to ignite more questions from my children. And, more impressively, they actually listened to the answers their parents provided.
As I tried not to hate the well-organized dad in front of us, I decided to focus on the other wet people around me, all of them tourists braving the cold and rain as they flocked from monument to museum, hoping to touch, explore and understand the things that made our country what it is. Despite the negative onslaught out there about where the country is right now, this bunch had brought a herd mentality of enthusiasm and love for country to their sightseeing task. Ironically, throughout the week, many of the awed expressions around me were uttered in languages I could not understand.
Even the ones who were clearly American were a refreshing type of American tourist. Not the flip-flop and Hawaiian shirt, theme park, Nascar kinds of tourists, but people who could name the current U.S. Secretary of State. Mostly, these people were un-American, Americans. And there were some Europeans around. And a whole boatload of Asians with cameras, they really knocked that stereotype out of the park.
So, as many heap scorn and ridicule on this current crop of leaders, I couldn’t help but think that time has helped glaze over the uglier governing behaviors of those we idolize. Standing among clicking cameras in front of that massive monument to Abraham Lincoln, I wondered if anyone during the Civil War would have thought him worthy of this monumental slab of marble. In his own day, did he really sit up above the fray and stare out above those around him? Of course not. He was down in the trenches, conducting, and surviving, the ugliest of political fights.
The simple fact is that our country’s form of government is loud and messy, and some of our biggest steps forward take time to appreciate. My twins almost never wear blue jeans, opting for shorts, or, worst case, school uniforms. By the end of the first day, both of them were dealing with some serious, inner thigh, chafing issues. In my mind, that’s about sums up where we are as a country right now.
Our mini-van has a camera for backing up. With a little help watching the cars to either side, and with that camera, I began to edge my way out of the parking spot. I did not hit that woman’s van, although I came awfully close, with my own car chirping the impending collision at me like a robot on steroids. The woman finally chose to acknowledge my plight, not by offering to move, but by frothing at the mouth and shaking a fist at me, while still holding the ice cream, and still pinning down some type of squirming creature on the floor of her van.
It took time, and I clogged up traffic, but we finally got out.
My kids cheered from the back. As I pulled away, my wife glanced over her shoulder one last time, then settled into her seat. “You know, it really is hard to take a screaming person seriously if they’re holding an ice cream cone,” she said.
The last stretch of any road trip is always the toughest. Gone is the expectation and excitement of the untold adventure to come. Now the horizon only holds a return to repetition, and what is known and common. The kids had given up on their books and electronic devices and spent the last one hundred miles singing along with the radio. My wife and I held hands. It was miserable, and we were miserably happy.
I was thinking about stopping for ice cream.