The school year is nearly over, which means family groups will soon pile into their loser cruisers (minivans) and head out in pursuit of the great American family vacation.
There are many differences between vacations when I was a lad, and vacations today.
People are very uptight about safety today, and there are strict laws about child safety seats and seat belt use.
Back then, we were packed in among the luggage in the “way back” section of the old blue Pontiac station wagon.
In our family, this was later replaced by an even larger Chrysler station wagon in stylish gold with simulated wood-grain panels.
As the fourth of five children, I don’t think I ever got to sit in a normal car seat until I was in junior high school.
My younger sister sat in the front between my parents. My three older brothers occupied the back seat, and I was relegated to the wasteland in the back between rolled-up sleeping bags and suitcases.
It was a treat to go on vacation with my aunt and uncle, because their giant station wagon, affectionately known as “the brown bomb” had a rear-facing seat that folded out at the rear of the cargo compartment. My cousin and I spent hours back there, playing cards and watching the road behind us.
Mobile entertainment has changed a lot since I was young, as well.
Today, family vehicles seem to be designed to eliminate the need for family members to ever have to interact.
There are personal DVD players, and kids entertain themselves with a staggering array of portable electronic devices, from games to CD or MP3 players, to mobile phones.
When I was young, we listened to whatever my old man wanted to listen to, and this was not a subject that was open for discussion.
There was one exception. During one notable trip to my grandparents’ house, we got to listen to a recording of Walt Disney’s “Davy Crocket” that dad had recorded as a surprise for me, transferring it from the vinyl LP to his portable reel-to-reel tape player.
I suppose it is in a museum somewhere by now.
Back then, we entertained ourselves by playing the alphabet game, which required participants to complete the alphabet by being the first to spot each of the letters on license plates, signs, billboards, or other vehicles.
This forced kids to know the alphabet and pay attention to the world through which they were passing.
Sometimes (God forbid) we even read books.
Meals on the road have changed, too.
Today, there are individual pre-packaged snacks, juice boxes, and sodas, and the highways are lined with fast food establishments.
We never stopped at restaurants, because this would have been an extravagant waste of money.
We had a big old Thermos picnic jug filled with Kool-Aid or lemonade, and we had a supply of paper cups.
Another cooler contained sandwiches that ma made before we left the house, using bread that she baked from scratch.
Sometimes, there was fruit and maybe some homemade cookies.
When it was time to eat, we would stop at a wayside rest and sit outdoors at a picnic table dodging real live flies and bees. You don’t get that kind of wholesome entertainment at a restaurant (at least none that I would care to visit).
On some rare occasions, we got to travel by train.
I still remember standing on the platform, clutching my ancient and battered black satchel that had been in the family for generations, and watching the train pull in.
The conductor would jump down and put the little metal step on the platform, and tell each of us to watch our step as he helped us board the car.
Slowly, the train would pull out of the station, and we could watch the world slide by the big windows. The train offered views that one could never get from the road.
We could even get up and walk around while the train was moving.
There was a water fountain at the end of the car, and it was the best water ever, because it was train water and that was the only place we could get it.
One doesn’t get memories like that by listening to head phones and staring at a compact electronic device.
Too often, today, it seems that people are in such a hurry to reach their destination, they miss everything along the way.
The best way to learn about the world around us is to experience it first-hand.
We can’t get that experience by flying over the landscape, or cannoning down a sterile, homogenized interstate like a carload of zombies.
There are times when we have to get off the beaten path and explore the countryside.
Travel may be safer and more convenient today, but to get the most out of our vacations, we might be better off going back to the old ways of traveling.
If we pack a lunch and allow some time to go wherever the wind takes us, there is no telling what we might discover along the way.
If we pay attention and look for opportunities, the journey can be as rewarding as reaching the destination.