ALONG ROUTE 66 — The urge to unplug my four kids for at least 500 miles had been building for years.
It grew a little with each new realization that their childhood is not my childhood. And more to the point, that their form of travel was not my childhood travel.
Mine was a childhood of slow, unseat-belted road trips, battered by the hot air of windows rolled down and bored by miles rolling past without end.
Theirs is transit via air-conditioned minivans, bodies strapped safely and eyes tethered mindlessly to glowing rectangles.
Parents of children born after 1985 know what I’m talking about. Over the last two decades, VCRs and then DVDs and game systems have become the near-ubiquitous car accessory.
My own kids measure miles on long trips not in minutes or hours, but in movies. Five gets them to Thanksgiving in western Michigan. A triple-feature delivers them to Chicago.
Aliens could set the cornfields of Illinois aflame and abduct all of Gary, Ind., into the heavens, and my children would miss the drama outside the car windows for their 23rd viewing of “Napoleon Dynamite.”
I wanted to correct that, if only for a day.
So we confiscated the DVDs, the MP3 players and any other post-1970s technology and pointed the minivan from Albuquerque, N.M., to Oklahoma City, 540 miles away.
First, a disclaimer.
Yes, I’m a cruel parent. Yes, I wanted the kids to suffer the way I suffered.
But in that misery, I wanted to make a connection.
In a sense, I wanted my kids to meet their dad as he was in 1975, traveling across Oklahoma, loose as baby teeth in the far-back of a Ford Fairlane station wagon.
My older brother will say with a religious certainty that it was on that road trip that I cruelly threw his baby blanket out the back window, never to be reclaimed.
I didn’t, of course. The wind sucked that blanket out. Honestly, it did.
That event was the defining argument of our childhood. So fierce was the dispute that I imagined a distant future of two warring civilizations — one believing the blanket was thrown. The other blown.
So it was on this pretense of understanding dad that our kids were told of the day’s experiment.
We expected an insurgency, led by our 13-year-old daughter, Sadie, reinforced by her 10-year old brother, Max.
Instead, we were met with curiosity and at least a semblance of compliance.
“I’m going to learn what it was like before electricity,” 6-year-old Lily said. Jackson, 3, poor soul, had no clue of the potential misery that awaited him in his car seat.
We could have made this easier for ourselves. We could have conducted the experiment on the first day of our trip, with the kids eager for the vacation out West and willing to endure a day without TV. Or we could have picked the picturesque day that we drove through Colorado, allowing mountain passes and soaring cliffs to provide entertainment.
But to give this experiment credibility, we denied the kids electronic media on the first of a two-day drive home through a vacant landscape, with nothing to look forward to at the end of the road but chores and their pending return to school.
To my surprise, the kids took up the challenge right off the starting block. Even before we were out of Albuquerque, they had devised a game of their own invention.
Without coaching, they took turns deciding what animal looked most like the drivers and pedestrians they saw from the window. But after a few platypus-men and hamster-ladies, the fun faded.
They turned to the radio, knowing that we would only allow the use of the AM dial. Shockingly, they found Radio Disney. So it was with the fading strains of Miley Cyrus that we ventured into the New Mexico desert, each mile unraveling the fading signal of civilization.
It was time for my wife and me to pull out our childhood coping mechanism — the road game. Those older than 30 know them: find all 50 license plates, spot the VW Bugs, build the alphabet with billboard letters.
We had some extra help, a dusted-off copy of “Are We There Yet,” by Richard Salter, a 1991 book that notably was published before the advent of car video entertainment and not reprinted since.
Before long, we had organized a scavenger hunt. Each of us picked a few items to find: a windmill, road kill, a stalled car, a sleeping passenger.
We were skeptical it would work. But the better part of 100 miles sailed by with the kids in hot pursuit. Our oldest, Sadie, racked up the points with a previously undisclosed ability to see small objects 4 miles away.
“I kind of like playing games, especially since I am winning,” she said.
That game yielded to others. The kids took turns trying to get truckers to honk. They guessed the number of cars on a passing train. Our youngest two took to drawing and — miraculously — long naps.
And it wasn’t all structured. There were long episodes of unexplained giggling. There was Max, oddly and abruptly belting out an operatic rendition of “Proud Mary.”
For the most part, the miles burned away slowly but effortlessly, like a baseball game on the radio. We even skipped fast food at lunch, eating from a cooler at a rest stop.
I would like to say that it all ended harmoniously.
But it didn’t.
At mile 350 we hit a wall, one that required my wife to move to the back seat to provide full-time entertainment, like a kind of cruise director. A hundred miles later, that wall collapsed on top of us, as siblings collided with siblings and the snug togetherness of a minivan became a torturous confinement.
We hobbled into the hotel in Oklahoma City road-frazzled and patience-stripped from our 11-hour excursion.
Naturally, the television was turned on as soon as the kids hit the room, tuned full throttle to the Disney channel.
Then Mother Nature got in the way, sending a violent thunderstorm only minutes after the kids were reunited with media. The heavy rain scrambled the satellite signal. The television went blank.
Then a small miracle.
Without invitation or complaint, the two older kids picked up a card game. The younger ones went to the balcony to watch the rain and hail.
And in a truer test of the media-deprivation experiment, the kids returned to the car the next morning for the 500-mile drive home to St. Louis.
They knew they could watch as much TV as they wanted.
And yet they would spend a full hour playing cards before asking for a movie. And in the miles that followed, they would spend half their time willingly and contentedly free of plugged-in media.
–By Matthew Franck, St. Louis Post-Dispatch