Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Tripped Out

For sheer torture, there's nothing like traveling cross-country with a screaming infant

By Margaret Renkl

OCTOBER 13, 1997:  Human nature and human ingenuity have often joined forces to create a wondrous array of devices designed exclusively to torture other living things. In Nüremberg, Germany, there's even a museum dedicated to the history of torture; you can walk through room after room devoted to every imaginable kind of human cruelty. From high-tech to bargain-basement simple, potent tools for inflicting agony and ruin abound in human history. And yet no one seems to have considered one of the most easily available methods of reducing sane adults to blithering wrecks ready to divulge any state secret or betray any true love:

Just lock them in the car with a screaming baby and make them drive on an interstate highway for hundreds of miles.

Virtually all middle-class American parents have sat on the suffering end of this torment, since virtually every one of them lives in a place that is miles and miles from some loved one. And for most middle-class Americans, there is only one absolutely inviolable article of parental faith: the belief that their adorable offspring must be regularly displayed to far-flung family and friends. This is not a particularly damaging conviction--to self, to culture, or to the environment--except when the aforementioned offspring is less than 3 years old.

A 3-year-old is a genuine human being, able to appreciate parental jokes, join in parental sing-alongs, and participate in highway games like "I Spy." A 3-year-old can understand promises like, "I swear we'll stop at the next McDonald's Playland, honey, but towns in Kansas are pretty far apart, and it might be a little while longer before we get to one." Best of all, 3-year-olds can wear headphones and operate a Walkman, and thanks to the Walt Disney Corporation they have an almost infinite selection of read-along cassettes from which to choose. That fact, combined with a 3-year-old's tendency to obsess over a favorite story, means that a single tape of Pocahontas can buy her parents a hundred quiet miles.

None of which is to say that children preschool-age and older are always agreeable traveling companions. They whine at times. They require bathroom facilities less than an hour after every meal. They argue pointlessly ("That is not a blue car; that's a purple car"), and they pick fights with their siblings: "Mo-o-o-m, she won't stop looking at me."

But at least a young child can be distracted. And if distraction doesn't work, a young child can always be bribed--with privileges or candy or action figures. A new Luke Skywalker doll can kill off 30 minutes; team him with Darth Vader, and the resulting millennial battle in the backseat can last longer than some first marriages.

Even newborns aren't so bad in the car, assuming their sleep-deprived parents can stay conscious long enough to drive the vehicle, because infants will generally sleep anywhere. To travel with a newborn, all you need to do is pack the car and stand poised to leap into it the moment baby's eyes begin to droop. If he wakes up en route, just pop a bottle in his gaping little mouth and keep going. (Breastfeeding mothers face unique problems here, though; one of my friends, reluctant to lose time if her husband pulled the car over, but refusing to take her infant son out of the carseat to nurse, actually stripped to the waist and dangled her breasts, one at the time, into the baby's mouth until he was satisfied. Certain other drivers sharing the road that day, one imagines, were left far from satisfied themselves.)

Nevertheless, once a baby begins to crawl, even a mother willing to go to such extraordinary lengths to keep him happy finds herself absolutely stymied. Babies who can get around on their own absolutely reject confinement to a carseat. By the time a child can crawl, she's been around long enough to know how interesting the world really is, how full of new things to cram into her mouth or squeeze so hard they squish out of both sides of her tiny fists.

Sitting locked in an infant carrier, facing the blank back of the backseat, she frantically tries every kind of contortion a flexible being can try to extricate herself from the torture chamber of her seat, to free herself once more to wallow in the beautiful world that's passing her by at 70 miles an hour. When contortions don't work, she begins to scream. She screams as desperately as any medieval political prisoner screamed when the door of the Iron Maiden slammed against his bare back.

Now that I have a second son irate at the restrictions of travel, I am freshly reminded of the dementia our first son caused on similar journeys. For each long trip when he was a toddler, I kept between my feet in the front seat a plastic garbage bag stuffed full of treats and toys. I handed back a different distraction roughly every 45 seconds, alternating a toy with a cracker, or a toy with a board book, or a toy with a cookie, for the first hour of the trip.

Then my big black bag would be empty. Our son would begin to cry and arch his back, straining against the carseat straps. My husband would start to sing "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" while our son accompanied him with howls. I'd offer him a cracker, and our little boy would slap it to the floor of the backseat, screaming so hard the veins were popping out at his temples and visibly pulsing.

Frantic myself, I scrunched down and poked a hand puppet over the back of my seat: "Hello there, little boy, my name is Nurse Cow, and I'm here to cheer you up." Totally uncheered, the little fellow, his fury now ballooning to cosmic proportions, would continue to shriek without a pause for breath. In desperation, I once tried to knock him out with a dose of antihistamine, but Benadryl, it turns out, actually speeds him up instead of calming him down.

After one trip when our first son was 18 months old, we arrived, shell-shocked, from an eight-hour drive to southwest Georgia. My mother-in-law (who regularly made such journeys herself, but with six children instead of one or two) took the baby from my shaking arms and told me to lie down in a darkened room until I felt better. I didn't emerge for another four hours. When I did, I could hear the whole extended family gathered in the backyard. Seemingly recovered from the grueling journey, my husband was laughing.

I slipped out the front door and walked two blocks to the town's only pharmacy. There I bought the last two dust-covered packages of disposable foam earplugs on the shelf. They came six sets to a pack. I figured 12 sets would surely get us back to Nashville when our visit was over. If we couldn't keep the child happy, at least we could dull his shrieks.

Returning to the ancestral home in much better spirits, I walked around back and proudly displayed my purchases. All 13 of the adults gathered there burst into laughter. From a bag on the ground next to his lawn chair, my husband pulled out three more identically dust-covered packages of earplugs and held them up in shared triumph.

I was still smiling when the real horror of the situation hit me. Between us, we had just purchased 30 sets of earplugs designed to be reused five times each. The dusty evidence was incontrovertible: Suddenly, I understood that this was not a temporary torture, not a brief excursion into pain. Suddenly, I knew we were going to be on this road for a very long drive.

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