Heading up the rise of the dusty dirt road, we could see the grey-shingled roof of the old clapboard farmhouse peek over the horizon. Even our tired old Woody seemed to pick up steam, as though fueled by the eagerness the two adults, four kids and one Dalmation within it had about the homecoming. The latter five were all eagerly jockeying for prime viewing space out the side windows of the station wagon.
“Buffalos!” crowed Brucie happily as he tugged at the red cowboy hat that parted from his head only when significant bribery was involved.
“Dope. Those are cows,” I told him.
“No, they’re buffalos,” he insisted, persistent with a four-year-old’s stubbornness. “Grampa’s gonna help me rope one!”
“They’re Black Angus cows, stupid…” As I elbowed him lightly to remind him who was older and smarter, I got a smack on my head from across the front seat by Mom. She shook her head and her lips pursed into the straight line that signaled extreme irritation. Her patience with what we kids considered the normal ups and downs of sibling relationships was never great to begin with, but tended to be stretched to the limit after several hours of forced togetherness.
“I do not want to spend the week listening to you kids bickering,” she said. “You’re four years older, Sally. Act like it. Buffalos, cows, whatever. Indulge him.”
Our family was making its twice-annual visit to the small farm in central Illinois where Mom had grown up. It was a long, three- to four-hour drive from our home in Chicago’s north suburbs. It always seemed longer because of the anticipation of what awaited us at the end of the trip, if not the hours of forced inactivity in cramped quarters.
It didn’t seem to be so bad for Sharon. She did what she usually did – pretty much tried to ignore the rest of us “children” (an attitude adopted more frequently since she’d attained teenagerhood a few months ago). She’d curl against the door, lean her head against the window and bury herself in beauty tips and movie stars or whatever she found so interesting in the Seventeen and other magazines she’d stock up on for the trip. When I tried to tease her into talking, she’d roll her eyes behind her thick cats-eye glasses. “Shut up, Sally,” she’d say wearily.
At 6 and 4, Debbie and Brucie were much easier to deal with. They’d sit in the very back seat of our station wagon with Princess nestled between them. I shared the middle with Sharon. Debbie and I would play with dolls across the seats for awhile, and Brucie, who always had little plastic cowboys, Indians and horses in his fists and pockets, engaged them in action on the back of the aging and long suffering dog. Breaking the monotony were the periodic squabble and the collective gagging and fart jokes when Princess shared the fruits of a notoriously sensitive digestive system.
What usually stretched the trip out, though, was our inability to make it through without a potty break. Since this usually happened when we were well into the country with, as my father would say with exasperation, not a gas station in sight, he’d pull off the road and gesture to the tall grass growing alongside. “Have at it,” he’d tell us, pulling a Winston from his shirt pocket to while away the wait. He was supposed to be our lookout, but on his good days, he was such a tease that we knew we couldn’t trust him. He’d drag on his cigarette, and casually run his fingers through his blondish, pompadoured hair, then freeze us in place with an urgent, “Hurry! Car’s coming down the road!” Then he’d burst out laughing at our squeals as we tried to finish up fast.
We only did the outdoor bathroom break because we absolutely had to. Well, Debbie and I, anyway. (Sharon made a point of not drinking or eating anything an hour before our trips because the absolute last thing she wanted to do was pull down her panties in front of us and anyone else who might happen to drive by.) The only one who didn’t mind these stops was Brucie. He was little, and so must have had a bladder the size of a pea for as often as he had to go. But I always thought that he really liked to stop because of the enjoyment he took in pulling out his weenie and seeing how far he could spray.
It wasn’t so easy or comfortable for us girls, of course. Well, Debbie was a girly girl and usually wearing a dress, giving her fewer layers to wrestle with. Even so, she’d shriek loudly and jump up from her crouch each time a stray sprig of grass – or a bug – brushed against her bare bottom. And once we got moving again, she’d be all fidgety for awhile like she could still feel ants in her pants. My uniform was usually blue jeans, comfortable and practical for climbing trees, playing Kick the Can or chasing after baseballs, but not so easily shed for an outdoor toilet. Once I got everything down, I’d balance on one hand and use the other to hold my clothes away from my privates, but something would usually give way in mid-stream. And I’d have to spend the remainder of the drive sitting in uncomfortably damp and smelly clothes.
This trip, there’d been a minimum of stops, I had thankfully kept my balance, Debbie had stopped fidgeting, and the end was in sight. We pulled onto the farmhouse’s gravel drive and alongside the simple ranch structure. We all tumbled out of the car, Princess instantly bounding off, surely to seek out a mound of fresh manure to roll in. The rest of us stretched after the long ride and took in the magic that never seemed to fade.