Monday, March 1, 2010

Rowing the Boat

“Daddy’s home! Daddy’s home!”

That hot summer day in 1972, my four siblings and I bounced up and down like bobbers in a pond full of hungry fish. Anyone watching might have believed it was because the summer heat made the concrete below our bare feet sizzle. Or, perhaps it was because our father, an Air Force pilot, had returned home from an overseas trip. But, this time it was because Daddy had arrived in our new motor home—a 1971 Ford Condor, a boxy monster on wheels, corrugated and white with a brown stripe down the middle. I considered myself a sophisticated fourteen-year old, but when he turned into our driveway, I squealed every bit as loudly as my nine-year old little sister.

The goliath came to a stop and rumbled for a few seconds, vibrating the ground below my feet. Daddy poked his head through the driver’s side window, a smile beaming on his face. “All aboard!”

We burst through the side door, “oohing” and “ahhing” at the olive-green plaid upholstery and dark-wood paneling. We each had our favorite space—the quaint living room, complete with television and stereo eight-track player. The cleverly-designed compact shower. Mine was the kitchen, so cute I might not even mind doing dishes there. But the volume of excitement rose when it came time to stake claim to one of the myriad seats—a selection made not only for the prime location near a window, but for the beds they would become.

“I get the seat by the window.”

“No way. I called it first.”

“Top bunk is mine.”

“Uh-uh. Daddy!”

His six-foot-four frame towered over us. He grinned, even through the noise and chaos. “There’ll be enough room for everybody, and plenty of time to try out it all out when . . . we . . . go . . . to Grandma’s house!”

“Oh boy!”

“When are we going?”


A week later, my parents, brother, sisters and I—a trail of ants in fast motion—traced back and forth from the house to the motor home, arms full of clothes, toys, games, eight-track tapes, Polaroid cameras, and our newly-bathed dog. At last, we were ready to leave on our first adventure in our goliath chariot, an 1800-mile trek from California to Kentucky to visit Grandma and Grandpa.

We took the seats we’d won in battle days before. Daddy started the engine, and I watched the eyes of my younger siblings widen. Even I was so excited I could hardly sit still. But being the oldest, a nagging thought prickled at my enthusiasm. I recalled a quote from an old Western: “This town ain’t big enough for both of us.” And by my figuring, the motor home wasn’t big enough for seven plus a dog, either.

My fear began to materialize when Mom complained of the onset of a migraine. Two days of being trapped with five high-energy kids was already too much for her. She surrendered to a bed in the back for the rest of the trip.

Dad drove hour after hour with his usual good-nature. Sometimes I sat next to him, and pretended to be his co-pilot. A couple of times, I saw his head nod. He’d open his window and begin singing You Are My Sunshine. If these “perk-up” tricks didn’t work, we’d pull over for lunch and a nap.

I wondered how my father did it; driving eight hours a day, taking care of five kids and a sick wife. Maybe as a pilot, he was used to being behind the wheel for long hours under stressful conditions. But, how did he manage to keep his patience with his unruly mob?

Heaven knows, I’d already lost my temper with my younger siblings—more times than I could count on my fingers. I was well into counting my toes by Day Three.

We were bored, bored, bored. Tired of playing “I Spy My Little Eye,” we created a new game—Human Ping-Pong. The five of us flung our bodies from port to starboard and back again, like wild electrons bouncing off the walls.

Daddy beseeched from the driver’s seat. “Okay, kids. Settle down. Mommy has a headache. Why don't we sing Row Your Boat.”

“No,” we whined, breathless from body slams. “That’s no fun.”

“Row, row, row your boat,” he began. “Now you start. Gently down the stream.”

I rolled my eyes. But inside, I’d begun to feel sorry for the challenges we’d presented. Empathy won over my aversion to singing, and I obliged. “Row, row, row your boat.”

Soon, we were all singing in rounds, smiling and having almost as much fun as we’d had as human ping pong balls.

The next day, the thrill of being in our new motor home had morphed to feeling trapped on a sinking ship.

“How long ‘til we get there?”

“Soon,” Daddy replied. “Time will pass faster if you quit thinking about it. Come on. Let’s sing again.”

But we were tired of “row, row, rowing,” and we wanted off that silly boat.

One day to go. Like marauders, we rummaged through drawers, cabinets, and glove compartments for something—anything to do.

Mom’s nylon stockings. We pulled them over our heads and laughed at each other.

You look like bank robbers,” my brother said.

Next, we found Mom’s Twiggy wigs. The Fab Five – a bad imitation of the Beatles. We looked odd, but not odd enough. So, we kept searching.

My sister called from the mini-fridge. “I found some oranges.” Just the touch we needed – orange bug-eyes! After stuffing them under the nylons and over our eyes, we each took turns at the stern, where our stage was a large square window to the outside world. We performed for passengers in cars that followed us, bouncing our heads back and forth like strange bobble-heads.

“Anyone hungry?” Dad asked. “We’ll stop for the night just a few miles down the road.”

The K.O.A. campground was filled with wheeled-tin-cans like ours. Within seconds of the engine stopping, the five of us poured out of the Condor, our mutt barking behind us. Daddy stayed behind to cook dinner and take care of Mom.

After we’d finished eating, I washed dishes in the kitchen I didn’t think was so cute anymore. Dad plopped into the driver’s-seat-turned-recliner, and opened a book. His head nodded. This time though, he didn’t sing to try to stay awake.

Late the next afternoon, we finally pulled onto the dirt road to our grandparents’ house. From the starboard window, I watched Grandpa fling the screen door open. Grandma ran out next, arms ready to wrap around us.

We flew out of the Condor, and were greeted with hugs and wet kisses on the cheek.

“How was the trip, son?” Grandpa asked, patting my dad on the back.

Dad took a deep breath and grinned from ear-to-ear. “Oh, it was a trip we won’t soon forget.”

I never did forget. Years later, when I lost my temper with my own children, I remembered that trip, and marveled at my father’s patience then and throughout our lives. How did he do it? Then I remembered the words to the song we used to sing, at the times when his patience was most tried.

. . .Gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily. Life is but a dream.

And I decided it was a pretty good philosophy of life.


  1. "Row your boat" was the one lullaby that worked for my kids, growing up....Great story, Jan.

  2. Thanks, dormouse. It's still one of my favorites, too.