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FIRST PERSON

The Age of Innocence Meets the Never-Ending Story

September 07, 1997|CHRIS ERSKINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

So here we are in Cheyenne, Wyo., touring a rodeo museum with the three kids. In one corner is a video screen and a row of bleachers. On the video screen, a cowboy is talking about a champion steer that no cowboy is able to ride.

"That bull don't do nothin' fancy," the cowboy explains. "He's just a bucker. He just bucks."

I look at my wife and shrug.

"He's just a bucker," I say to her with my best cowboy twang. "He just bucks."

For some reason, this amuses me more than it amuses my wife. This is not the first time. In 15 years of marriage, there have been several things that we have not agreed on.

As I sit there enjoying the moment, she shakes her head and walks off in search of more cowboy culture.

"He's just a bucker, honey!" I yell after her.

We are on Day 2 of a two-week family vacation. And on a two-week family vacation, you have to find amusement where you can. And here in Cheyenne, Wyo., I just found some.

"Is Mom mad at you?" my lovely and patient oldest daughter asks.

"Of course not," I say. "She's just embarrassed to be around me."

"Oh," my daughter says.

We have stopped here in Cheyenne on our way to Grandma's house, a brief pit stop on our journey into the heartland. For two weeks we will be together--half of it in the family car--breathing the same air, listening to the same fuzzy radio stations. We are like the crew of the space station Mir, except there are more of us. And the food is worse. (But at least our car isn't breaking down hourly.)

"I can't wait to see Grandma," the little red-haired girl says.

"Me either," says her brother.

"Then let's go," I say.

So we climb back into the minivan and head off down the highway on a trek that will take us across seven states and 2,300 miles, with occasional stops for sideshows such as rodeo museums and demolition derbies.

"He's a bucker," I say to my wife as we pull back on the interstate. "He just bucks."

The kids are enjoying the trip as much as I am, maybe more. Because when your dad is happy, you are happy. It's like a law of nature.

As I drive, they play games and take turns losing crayons between the car seats. Sometimes, they nap. Mostly, they gaze out the car window, counting telephone poles and trying to find things to argue about.

"Dad, is spit a color?" my lovely and patient oldest daughter asks.

"Huh?"

"Like, can the sky be the color of spit? Is spit a color?"

"No," I say.

"See," she says to her brother. "I told you spit wasn't a color."

They gaze across the rugged mountains and lush cornfields, reading the billboards and the road signs, trying to squeeze a little entertainment out of every long mile.

"Cute mountain," says the little red-haired girl.

"That's a grain silo," her brother says.

"Cute grain silo," says the little red-haired girl.

The little red-haired girl is seeing America up close for the first time. Mostly, she likes what she sees. The people are friendly. The air is good. The crops look healthy. And around every turn, there is something mysterious and exciting. Especially for a 6-year-old.

"What's that?" she asks as we pull off the interstate for the night.

"I think that's a prison," I say.

"That's not a prison," my wife says. "That's our motel."

"Cute motel," says the little red-haired girl.

Not that this trip is all fun and adventure. It's also work. As we travel, we prepare the kids for their visit to Grandma's house. Because you don't just show up at Grandma's house. You have to practice a little first.

So they practice their manners. And their listening. That's the hardest part, the listening. They know that at Grandma's house, listening is really important.

And, finally, they go over the things that they are not supposed to talk about in front of Grandma.

Off-limits subject No. 1: Grandma's age.

Off-limits subject No. 2: How old Grandpa would be if he were still around.

Off-limits subject No. 3: Ronald Reagan.

"Ronald Reagan?" asks the boy.

"Yes, Ronald Reagan," I say. "Your grandmother wants him to serve another term. Mention his name, and she'll talk about him for hours."

"It kind of drives your daddy nuts," his mother explains.

"OK, Dad," says the little red-haired girl. "I won't mention Ronald Reagan."

She looks at her two older siblings, then wrinkles her nose.

"Who's Ronald Reagan?" she asks.

"That's just what I mean," I tell the little red-haired girl. "You're just going to embarrass yourself."

"OK, Daddy," she says. "I won't mention Ronald Reagan."

Their mother, meanwhile, suggests that everybody just needs to relax and have a good time. And to say "please" and "thank you." And to not walk on the nice carpet with muddy shoes. Or get handprints on the nice kitchen cabinets. Or eat all Grandma's cocktail onions.

"That's all?" asks the boy, staring down the highway, wondering whether he's up to the task.

He loves to visit Grandma, but he knows there are lots of rules. Having a grandma around can be really great, but it can also be like having an extra parent. And, in his mind, the last thing he needs right now is an extra parent.

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