“To being home,” I said, as my wife and I toasted our return to her and Omaha over a couple of IPAs at the Dundee Dell. I’ve only lived in Omaha for about six months, but The Dell is one of those kinds of places that already makes you feel like home. Jack sat in a high chair across the table from us and stared at a couple of girls in a nearby booth. The Dell is old hat for Jack too. He’s probably more of a regular than most of Omaha and he’s only eight and a half months old. It’s where I will take him for his first legal drink.
It’s good to be back home. You get your own bed, your own wife, your own dog. The clubhouse is stocked with everything you need. The towels are where you like them. You get the better locker room. You know the breaks in the grass, the rough spots in the baseline, and the familiar comfort of your own batter’s box. You know the grounds crew, the season ticket holders in the first row, and you have your own stool in the bull pen. You get to wear your home uniform and you get to pick your PA music. Time and time again, coming home is the best part of any road trip.
But, you have to be able to win on the road. You need to be able to manufacture runs outside of your own ball park. Whether in baseball or real life, it’s extremely beneficial to get out of your comfort zone for awhile and see what you’re really made of. Being a visitor is good for you. A good road trip can offer a fresh perspective. A great road trip can be a life altering experience. Road trips always start out with unlimited potential. Sometimes they live up to it. Sometimes they don’t. Usually, you have to take them for what they are. Such is life. Such is kids.
I was into road trips long before I was into Jack Kerouac. On the Road was just one of many things that helped me fall in love with them. Though the trip that Kerouac wrote about wasn’t really much to celebrate, certain aspects of On The Road, combined with my own time spent on the road, have taught me to treasure not only the destination but the journey. Road trips are about more than just traveling. It’s something I have to continuously remind myself. A successful road trip is about spending quality time with those you love, learning something new about yourself and them, and the never ending quest to get one step closer to trying to figure it all out.
My two favorite road trips of all time are always my first one and the last one. As soon as I knew a friend with a license, I was in a car and on the road. My dear friend Dermot and I used to drive as far and wide as we could get away with while still making it home by dinner or curfew. We just needed a reason, rational or not. When I turned seventeen and graduated High School, we grabbed two more buddies, a cooler full of illegally obtained beer, a bottle of liquor, and some concert tickets and headed out of state. Sure, it was only Milwaukee, but it was our farthest and longest road trip up to that point. We had to pack backpacks and get a hotel room. We needed money for tolls. We ate fast food. We needed a map. We smoked. We talked to girls in the hotel parking lot. We partied for three days dancing on picnic tables to cover bands while older girls bought us PBR drafts. My friend Kevin made out with a hairdresser. We sat in the fifth row for Pearl Jam. We were invincible. I will never forget it.
But, I also believe that the best road trip can always be the next one. It’s out there for the taking if you have the guts to step out that door. Road trips make me feel alive. The one I was about to embark on was going to have a nice fat asterisk by it no matter the outcome. I would be going on the road with a different Jack, and I would be the one doing all the writing. I would also be doing all of the driving, the talking, the paying, the packing, the unpacking, the feeding, the wiping, the changing, and the waking. No, it wasn’t my first road trip, and it wasn’t going to be Jack’s first road trip either. It was however, going to be our first road trip; alone, together, and highly memorable for at least one of us.
“It looks like Jim Flowers is trying to shit all over your plans, Beardie,” my wife said to me with a sad look on her face as I walked up the last step to the bedroom and met her glance. She gave me a pouty smile and started to explain. Apparently another big winter storm was coming through the middle west and the local weatherman with the huge corsage had just broken some bad news that would no doubt put a kink in our road trip plans. We would have to leave a day early or roll the dice and leave a day late. Either way, there was already a fork in the road and there was a chance we may get stranded at our destination if and when we made it there. It never ceases to amaze me how amazed we become when there’s a chance of snow.
Weather, timing, and packing would not normally be big issues if I was traveling solo, but it takes time and careful planning to gather up the kid and all his accoutrements for what could be an indeterminate amount of time. For my first road trip I barely packed a back pack with a pair of jeans, a pair of shorts, swimming trunks, some mix tapes, three pairs of tighty whiteys and three Pearl Jam T-shirts. The only bottles we had were wearing Miller labels. As it looked to me and my fresh checklist, Jack’s stuff would fill at least a suitcase and three bags, plus a highchair and a Pack and Play. That wasn’t even counting his bottles. There wasn’t much time to waste. I cursed the cheesy meteorologist with every atom of my being, and then I flipped off the TV.
If I’ve learned anything, it’s that you can’t rely too much on plans when it comes to a road trip. Sure, it’s beneficial to have an outline, but if you’re the kind of person who gets thrown off by the littlest deviation from “the plan,” you are better off just staying home. I’ve had breakdowns, unexplained illnesses, stuck gas caps, cold showers, stolen wallets and bags, flat tires, traffic jam nightmares, and near death experiences. I’ve slept on the shoulder of a Vermont highway in the rain. But, I’ve also met some infamously interesting people, fostered lasting friendships, ate exciting food, partaken in grand conversations, discovered new things, explored unfamiliar territory, and camped out in the grass next to a runway at an old Air Force base at the Northern most tip of Maine. I’ve slept on the shoulder of a Vermont highway in the rain with my wife. Road trips, for better or worse, never go exactly according to plan.
This road trip would not be an exception. Everything seemed stacked against us. The weather wouldn’t cooperate. We were nearly sabotaged by daycare germs after visiting with friends. It was going to be just the two of us, father and son, together fighting colds, the snow, and the potholes. We lost a day. We were rushed. We were slightly afraid. But, we were determined. This was a plan we were committed to keeping even if we had to jump a train or hitch a ride in the back of a truck like Dean and Sal, though we may have had to ditch the pack and play.
When I started to tell people that I was taking 8 month old Jack on a road trip that included close to 12 hours of total driving without my wife, the reactions were all the same and were all less than encouraging. What was I missing? They started to get me to question the entire idea. Now there was anxiety sneaking into my consciousness as to how everything would go. Would we survive the drive? How many times would I have to stop? Would he freak out without someone to pacify him and I’d have to turn back or wear ear plugs? Would he get separation anxiety from being away from his mother for so long? Could I actually handle the 24-7 Jack responsibility away from my home field? The worst part is that even as I was worrying about these things, I knew that I shouldn’t be. I don’t know if I was doubting my actual parenting skills per se, but you can bet your ass that even Albert Pujols gets nervous during a clutch at bat in an opponent’s backyard. It was just a bit of pre-game, big-game jitters, I told myself. It was the Super Bowl weekend after all. So, despite my mounting unwarranted anxiety, we forged on. I figured that even if everything went horribly awry, even if our starter got shelled, even if our bullpen fell apart, even if our bats slumped, even if our team got swept and there was tons of crying, at the very least, I’d have some pretty good stories to tell.
As it turns out, things went pretty smoothly. We added on two days to the trip due to weather issues and we didn’t miss a beat. He slept over half of the time in the car, which he never does, and he was content the other half. I stopped for my own piss breaks and gas stops before I even heard a peep out of him, changed him and fed him in fifteen minutes, and was back on the road. It was easier than traveling with some of my friends. Even I was impressed. He had no trouble adjusting to sleeping in a strange room or a borrowed Pack and Play. He was charming, entertaining, and for the most part the life of the party. He barely cried. He was complimented over and over again. He seduced a guy named Spencer who wasn’t “a picking up babies type of person.” He felt up an Asian woman. He stepped it up in every way, and I was so proud of him. There really weren’t any stories, and I mean that in the best possible way.
For the most part, Jack was Jack and I was his dad. I got to spend some great time with some close friends. They got to get to know the new me a little bit more. The we. They even, in a small way, got to become part of “the we” for a few days. Together we watched Jack. We watched him climb furniture. We watched him crawl to the heat vents. We watched him cruise from the couch, to the coffee table, around the coffee table, to the couch, to the fireplace, to the French Doors, to the TV to the couch, to coffee table, around the coffee table, to the couch, to the fireplace, and back to the French doors. Then we watched him crawl to the heat vent on the floor again and be mesmerized. He made noises into it. He drooled into it. He sucked on it.
It’s weird, but watching him do that reminded me of my own youthful love of our house’s floor vents and the odd way that they played a part in my future career. I used to like to listen through them, hearing my parent’s watch television downstairs while I was supposed to be asleep. During the daytime, I would yell through them or make funny noises into them. Eventually, I would put on my own radio shows by talking into them and playing music off of an old tape recorder. I loved the floor vents in my house. What I know of Jack so far in almost nine months, especially after his open mouthed love display on our road trip, he loves floor vents even more than me.
“Should he be doing that?” my friend Mike asked as Jack French kissed the floor vent under the French doors.
“Yeah, that’s what he does. Drool is good for the vents. Trust me,” I said, focusing my attention on the Spin magazine with Pearl Jam on the cover that I snagged from the rack in the downstairs bathroom. Perhaps the only thing that I enjoyed watching more than Jack making out with the heat vents, was watching my friends around Jack. I love seeing how people I know and love react to my son, and how my son reacts to people I know and love. Even more than that, I love watching non-baby people deal with a baby in their house. While my friend Mike watched Jack, I watched him. When you spend so much time with your kid, it’s easy to find humor in the utter cluelessness of other parents, nonetheless in those without any kid experience.
Watching Mike and Sue watch Jack, I noticed a steady dose of monitoring and wonderment throughout the trip. They worried, I played it cool. After all, you get used to your kid getting himself into potentially dangerous situations when you spend all day every day with him. There isn’t anything you haven’t seen him stick in his mouth. There isn’t a fall you haven’t seen him recover from. Yes, it’s okay if he sucks on the floor vent. Yes, it’s okay if he wants to chew on the dog toy. Yes, it’s okay, his little meaty fists won’t break through the glass window on the door. There is nothing to worry about, except everything.
Even better than watching Mike anxiously monitoring Jack, was watching him be amazed by Jack. When you only see a baby every couple of months, it’s easy to be astounded by his development. When you don’t get into the game in time to see batting practice, that cleanup hitter can seem like a magician. I know what he’s capable of, and I do enjoy showing him off when we leave the friendly confines of our house in Benson, though it seems that Jack is the one that is really putting on the show and he knows it. So, I let Jack loose and he went through his routine, amazing my friends for five days with his feats of crawling, climbing, yelling, laughing, sucking, and drooling. Then he decided to give his audience something brand new. He crawled to the steps leading up from the family room to the kitchen and pointed as if he was calling his shot. Then he looked back at us either trying to seek permission or give us a warning. He was going to try something new that would really blow our minds. It was the bottom of the ninth and Baby Ruth was about to put on a show.
I’d like to think that Jack was encouraged by our road trip. He saw me take a chance with him, and succeed. He saw himself leave the cozy familiarity of the home field and go 357 miles to a strange house with semi-familiar faces and animals and no Mommy. He became so emboldened by the journey that he was ready to take the next step, literally. He smiled at us as Mike and I both looked on like super fans with our rally caps on. We felt the pressure, he did not. Then, he did it.
He tried out a few angles and various support mechanisms and techniques, and then as if he had done it a million times before, he climbed a step for the first time. He delivered the walk off home run! Mike yelled in amazed enjoyment of the scene unfolding before our eyes; Jack, one step off the ground, smiling. He wasn’t quite sure what to do next, but he had this look in his eyes like he was ready for anything. He looked fearless. He looked invincible. We were invincible. We were victorious. We were better. We were going home.