When Dad Packs the Van

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    All right, kids, you’ve waited all year for it, and now it’s finally here. Time for our annual trip to the beach, and pretty soon we’ll be on the road and on our way. But hang on just a bit longer, because first comes my solemn, time-honored ritual. Here in the driveway, with feet firmly planted and hands resting on hips, I survey the yawning cargo bay before me.

    It is time for Dad to pack the van.

    Make no mistake: This is serious business, a task both science and art, and a tradition passed down through the years from father to son. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine once we hit the highway, but for the next hour or so I must shut out all sights and sounds to focus solely on the great three-dimensional challenge I now face.

    Filling this perfect rectangle in the most efficient manner possible will require me to draw on all my God-given talents of pattern recognition, as well as a fairly good chunk of high school geometry and even, I daresay, a smattering of Algebra II. And don’t even think about trying to help. My family knows this is the hour of every vacation clearly labeled Stay Away From Dad, a time of sullen marching to-and-fro, overall grouchiness, and general muttering of Why? Why? Why? As I carry bag after enormous bag filled with who-knows-what-all out from the house.

    My own father, a seasoned packologist, always looked forward to the annual family vacation and took the cheeky view in the weeks leading up to every road trip. “Vacations are for the people you meet and the funny things that happen,” he loved to say. But when time came for Dad to load up the Ford Country Squire, my brother and I always steered clear. We wouldn’t even look directly at him, for fear of catching his glare and suddenly inspiring him to take everything out of the station wagon and start the packing all over again.

    But stomping around and barking at children does serve an honorable dad goal. Which is, quite literally, to achieve poetry in motion. Imagine if you will the perfectly loaded minivan cruising down the interstate. Luggage and gear has been packed using the essential (though little-appreciated) “reverse-importance” strategy. That is, you first put in the stuff you’ll need last, then last put in the stuff you’ll need first. So non-essential items (full-liter bottles of soda, oversized boxes of cereal, ridiculous numbers of shoes) sit deep inside, just behind the rear seats. Likewise, things that will immediately transform you into a beach bum when you arrive (flip-flops, Styrofoam coolers, idiotic sun hats) are located just inside the back door. The formula also requires balancing the weight from side to side and front to back so as not to cause undue van drift or tire wear. And never pack beach chairs or boogie boards too high or you’ll create blind spots for the driver (me).

    Of course, as I found out long ago, this doesn’t always work in real life. Someone always needs something buried deep inside my perfect packing architecture – a pill, a cookie, a hairbrush – and starts tossing boxes and bags all over the place. Or you might be driven mad, as I once was, by the sound of a battery-operated stuffed toy packed deep in the stack that wouldn’t stop singing If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands and had to be rooted out from the pile.

    Besides, traveling by van these days is different from the trips I took as a kid. We’ve turned our vehicles into airtight, climate-controlled, living rooms on wheels, so mini-coolers, computers, electronic games, headphones, smartphones, and all other entertainment gear get spared from being stored in the back. And everything is playing and beeping and squawking all the time. Back in my youth, everyone smoked cigarettes, yet the plug-in cigarette lighters that came with every car never got much of a workout. Today, though, in an era when hardly anyone lights up, we constantly fight over access to the poor little lighter, which now has to work overtime as sole supplier of power to our traveling electronic universe.

    And don’t even get me started on the GPS navigator, which hogs most of the lighter’s juice. Speaking as someone who still looks askance at cruise control, I’m proud to say I refuse to use it. And no, I don’t ask for directions because I never get lost. I always know where I am. I just don’t always know exactly where I’m going. Besides, I come from a long line of Irish ancestors who conquered this country’s northern climes and helped claw out the Erie Canal–in a fairly straight line, I might add–without any help from satellites. I’ve got multiple generations of hard-earned geospatial orientation coursing through my veins. I think I can find my way to the nearest Applebee’s. And the last thing I need on my beach vacation is the voice of an Australian woman continuously speaking sotto voce in my ear as I drive the open road. Unless she’s wearing a bikini, of course.

    Anyway, I already have someone to do that job. And soon enough she’ll be sitting right here next to me in the passenger seat. And I assure you she will be fully clothed. Though she will no doubt clog up the front of the van with bags, purses, pillows, candy bars and an enormous plastic bottle filled with iced tea. But hey, we’re on vacation. There are people to meet, funny things about to happen, and a week’s worth of relaxation that the calm, cool eye of the GPS satellite will never see, all waiting for us just over the horizon.

    If we can only get out of the driveway, that is.

    Over the years, tony Farrell has written about many different aspects of parenting for books and magazines around the country. He lives in the city’s West End with his wife, Laura, and their children, Lucy and Will.