Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Dharma Dads

Perhaps the best thing about traveling with teenage boys is their tremendous susceptibility to public embarrassment. Having recently returned from such a trip, I speak with authority.

The fun started on Wednesday morning when my friend E. and his son A. came to pick up my oldest child and me. I walked out to their car wearing a bicycle helmet.

"What are you doing?" asked A., a nervous look in his eyes.

"I'm supposed to wear this whenever I travel," I answered, banging my head on the top of the car. "Doctor's orders."

He shuddered and got in the back seat with my son, both of them rolling their eyes. E. laughed.

We had a baseball game to get to that night, hundreds of miles away, but E. likes to drive and we made good time. As promised, I'd brought my iPod and the car was soon filled with the sound of music. Thanks to the thoughtful suggestions of the many Friends of Befouled, I'd made several additions to my already impressive list of chart toppers, including the Jimmy Cliff version of "I Can See Clearly Now" and a Dionne Warwick medley of "Walk on By/Say a Little Prayer/Do You Know the Way to San Jose." The most beguiling segue, in the sense of watching the boys cover their ears and cringe, was from Donny Hathaway to Joy Division to Harry McClintock. E.'s and my yodeling along only made the time more special.

After a while I got tired of singing and suggested we needed a theme for the trip. "I think we should honk like geese. We don't do enough of that."

E. nodded. "Honk," he said.

The boys started yelling, "Stop it!"

"Honk," I responded.

"Honk," said E.

Around noon that first day we stopped for lunch in an exurban wasteland. A. insisted he wanted Chinese food but was overruled and we found ourselves at a local sports bar. The waitress brought our drinks and asked if we were ready to order.

E. looked at her and said, "The burger looks good, but I need to know what's in it. I'm extremely allergic to corn and I'll blow up like a puffer fish if I eat it."

A. and my son stared at him aghast while the waitress wrestled with this obviously foreign concept.

"It's a bad allergy," I chimed in. "Even corn dust can trigger it. Do you use much corn in the preparation of your menu items?"

The waitress shook her head slowly and said, "I don't think so, but I'll ask the cook." She walked away.

A. looked at us and said, "You two are idiots." We honked in agreement.

Lunch proved a corn-free experience and we soon resumed our journey. By mid-afternoon we were checking into our room and by 5:00 it was time for an early dinner. This was Kansas City, and that meant barbecue. At the urging of the hotel desk clerk, we headed for Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue, located in a beautifully restored freight house. Our waiter was an accommodating sort named Larson who assured E. that he understood the potentially devastating effects of a corn allergy.

"Thanks, I can't be too careful," said E. "Say, Larson, that's interesting. I don't think I've ever met someone else with that for a first name."

Larson replied he was named after his father, Lars.

"Right," I said. "That's a Belgian tradition. Do you speak Flemish?"

"Or you could be Japanese," said E. "The Japanese often use those family names too."

Larson, a 6'2" Anglo-Saxon, gave us a puzzled look and said, "I'm pretty sure I'm not Japanese."

"You never know," I said. "Hey, this pork we ordered, is it kosher?"

He grinned and said, "Yeah, we've got a rabbi in the kitchen blessing it." Then he turned and stomped off robotically, chanting "Godzilla smash" and earning a nice tip in the process.

The boys sunk down in their chairs and glared at us.

I lowered my voice and leaned in. "You've got to be careful here in Kansas City. There are a lot of Belgians. Don't make eye contact with them. They can be pretty hot-tempered."

E. lowered his voice too as the boys tried to focus on their appetizers. "The Belgians and the Dutch divided up the city years ago, but there are still a lot of gangland executions and drive-by shootings. The Belgians never really forgave the Dutch for the system of dikes they constructed."

After a delicious meal it was off to the game. For an older non-Fenway park, Kauffman Stadium is quite nice. It's not quaint but it is serviceable, although I strongly recommend skipping the $1 snout dogs. I tried to convince the boys to smile for the camera, without much success.

Midway through the 5th inning E. went to the concession stand. Fifteen minutes later, he finally came back with my beer.

"What the hell took so long?" I asked.

He sighed. "I'm up at the counter, along with fifty other people, and all the attendants are just roaming around aimlessly, not helping anybody. Finally I yelled, 'My friend's an alcoholic and if he doesn't get something to drink he's going to start screaming about snakes again.' So this lady poured your beer but she wouldn't let me have it until I showed her my ID. When I gave it to her she stared at it so long I finally asked her if she was slow. She threw it back at me and it landed in your beer. Sorry about the plastic aftertaste."

I shrugged and honked. Beer is beer.

The next day we arose early and left for St. Louis. I've always liked this city, hot and humid as it can be. It's got character and an Italian section, and in honor of both we stopped for lunch at Cunetto's House of Pasta. After confirming the corn-free status of their menu items and asking the waitress to take a picture of us, we told the kids it was important to understand the history of the places we were going.

A. smirked. "Yeah, whatever, you two dorks are probably going to tell us there are a lot of Belgians here." My son smirked with him.

"Don't be stupid," I said. "The Belgians are in Kansas City. St. Louis is a Gypsy enclave."

E. shook his head knowingly. "That's right. There are a lot of Slavs here too. It's almost worse than the Belgian-Dutch warfare in Kansas City."

That seemed to quiet the boys down and the rest of the afternoon passed without further note, except when E. asked a park ranger to arrest them for refusing to let me take their picture at the Arch. He must have been a father himself because he appeared to seriously consider it.

Busch Stadium is another lovely ballpark. It was stunningly hot by game time and even I had forsworn beer in favor of water, although a new stadium and a World Series Championship apparently equates to shockingly expensive concessions. No matter, I was still full from lunch and I made it to the 4th inning before I ate my first hot dog.

During the bottom of the 8th, the skies lit up over the arch. Fireworks of some sort. E. glanced up at them. "Hey guys, the Slavs must be bombing a Gypsy encampment down by the river. It's going to be a bloody one tonight."

The people in the seats nearby gave him startled looks. Our sons stared at the field and tried to pretend they weren't with us, which met with some success until the crowd started doing the wave, prompting honks of excitement from E. and me every time it reached our section.

The next morning was an early start back home, too early for breakfast even. By noon, we were starving. Fortunately we saw a sign advertising the delightful experience that only a Huddle House can deliver. The boys were appalled.

"We're not going to eat there! We already passed four Subways and a Popeyes Chicken!"

"Don't be ridiculous," I said. "The whole point of traveling is to experience new things. Look at the menu - they have country fried steak with white gravy. We're going."

E. and I were, at least. The boys refused to leave the car.

"Fine, the hell with it," said E. "Let them rot. I'm eating."

We went in. There was a sign over the counter announcing it was the cook's birthday, so we loudly wished her well and took a seat.

Our waitress came to to the table, eighteen or nineteen years old. "How many of you are there today?" she asked.

"Good question," said E. "There's the two of us and then there are a couple of kids in the car. They don't want to come in."

"Why not?"

"Don't know. Maybe if you invited them they would."

So she did, walking to the front door and waving and hollering across the parking lot, "Come on, you guys, what are you waiting for?"

The boys slumped lower in the car and refused to acknowledge her.

"Don't worry about it," I said. "They're pinheads. I'll have the chicken fried steak and my friend will have the meat loaf. There's not any corn in that, is there?"

She hustled off to place our order and E. and I looked across the parking lot at his car. Even with all four doors open it must have been 110 degrees in there, a dark car sitting in the full sun on a sea of concrete.

"Morons," said E. "Watch this." He hit the panic button on his key chain. The car lights started flashing and the horn started blowing. We saw two heads pop up momentarily in the back seat and then disappear again. E. let it go for about thirty seconds and then hit the off button. The rest of the customers stared at us curiously, but nobody said anything. No doubt stranger things have happened in a Huddle House parking lot.

After a leisurely lunch, E. and I returned to the car where A. and my son were both playing with their cell phones. We honked our greeting and headed back to the highway.

After much complaining, we eventually did stop at a Popeyes for the boys, a decision they came to regret when we were caught in a construction zone and they realized they'd neglected to get a drink to wash down their chicken and muffins.

"It's sure a hot one today," E. and I took turns saying at regular intervals, before loudly slurping from our water bottles. "Hot and dry. Just look at all that dust along the road. If I didn't have something to drink I don't think I could stand it."

We made it home that night before dark, younger brothers standing at the door eagerly awaiting their souvenirs. As my son doled them out, my Lovely Bride asked him if he'd had fun.

"Yeah," he said. "It was a good trip."


zombie rotten mcdonald said...


I liked the car alarm bit. Pinheads, indeed.

You should have just loaded up the Golden Throats CD for the drive. Shatner, Mae West, andy Griffith... or just a whole trip of nothing but Shatner and Nimoy singing.

"Bilbo was a hobbit..."

Kathleen said...

the Jimmy Cliff version of "I Can See Clearly Now"

so glad I could assist with such a memorable trip. :)

Righteous Bubba said...

You must take a trip to Pea Soup Andersons. One of 'em has a giant room with big bug-lights in the corner, and as you walk to your seat you pass family after grim and road-weary family eating the same gray-green sludge. I recommend the sludge over anything else on the menu.

Kathleen said...

I love pea soup andersens.

fish said...

I never did understand what the Belgians had against lesbians. Maybe it is the pink pistols.

Snag said...

I wish Pea Soup Andersens had a mail order option.