Six People, A Dog, 
And A Radiator

Jessica Hutchison

© Copyright 2002 by Jessica Hutchison

My family taught me the value of humor and persistence. Sometimes, it's all you have.

Most families take vacations to get away from stress. My family must have stepped in something sticky because problems seem to follow us wherever we go. Vacations are more a change of scenery than a relaxing break. Many suspect exaggeration when I relate our humorous tales, though the funny thing is, they are all too true. So let it be immortalized forever, that none may doubt the workings of fate, chance, and irony in the lives of simple beach-goers and a dog named Kayla.

"Pack your bags, kids, we're going to the beach!" My father likes to yell exciting news down the hallway and see how long it takes all four of us to come stampeding down the stairs. I was the first one ready since I passed the duffel bag inspection on the first try. Being the eldest child, I have acclimated to my father's extreme sense of preparedness. Even though this was a weekend trip, my bag was packed to bursting with clothes for all seasons (in case we ran across foul weather, he would warn), sunblock (of course, the sun still shines in November, you know), three pairs of shoes, a pair of sandals, a hat, coat, scarf, rain gear, beach towel and beach towel back-up, sunglasses, and an emergency first aid kit. My father missed his calling as a military general or something, though I doubt he would have made it through the army. I have inherited his resentment of authority.

It took awhile for my sister and brothers to finishing getting their things together. This was also back when my brothers were young little heathens and left disaster in their wake. Their room always reminded me of TV footage of trailer parks in the aftermath of an F5 tornado. Finally, once everyone had their stuff together and Mom checked five times to see if everything we've ever used was unplugged, we piled six people and a dog into an old-fashioned American station wagon jokingly referred to as Roadrunner.

The trip started out as many do with my brothers beating on each other with any blunt object they could get their hands on. My sister commenced her daily monologue on the tragedy of having two younger brothers. She did this at the top of her lungs. Something peculiar always happens in my family. My brothers continually misbehave, but my sister is the one who usually gets into trouble because of the loud attention she draws to herself. She doesn't ever seem to realize this either. I've always wondered why.

Everyone eventually settled down and slouched in their two inches of personal space, listening to the radio hiccup through fuzzy radiowaves. The air whooshed through cracks in the tired doors of the Chevy, whistling a soothing rhythm that relaxed everyone. I ignored my brother's offer of Skittles, as they had been clenched tightly in warm fists and melted into bright globs of sticky sugar. It was undecidedly calm on this Thanksgiving Day as six unsuspecting people and a dog drove on towards the mighty ocean.

The peaceful atmosphere was broken by a muttered profanity and Dad's call for silence. A remarkable hush, rarely achieved, fell upon the occupants of the car as Dad listened carefully to the muttered calamities of the wagon's inner workings. Pulling over on the side of the road to inspect the damage, the remaining occupants of the car waited with baited breath for the diagnosis as Dad lifted the hood, releasing a plume of steam. The hearts of six people and a dog sank simultaneously as the steam rose from the car. Dad walked slowly around the car for a few minutes and then got back in. No one spoke. They did not wish to break the stillness of the moment or utter the words, for fear that that would lend them power and make them true. Surely, this could not happen on vacation. There had been too much happiness, too much anticipation for the end to be so near. It could not be over because it had not yet begun.

But it was. Dad slowly turned the car around and started driving back in the direction of the last town. The car hobbled down the road, steam billowing from under the hood, as Dad carefully prodded the reluctant wagon along. The Chevy moved much like a man with two broken legs.

Now and again, the silence was punctuated by sniffles that quickly turned to sobs by my three younger siblings. All but myself and Dad surrendered their souls to a torrent of tears. This was just too much for everyone. The disappointment overcame them and the sight of their distress caused Mom to give in to tears as well.

Dad felt the weight of the world on his shoulders. He tried to think of a way to continue the trip, but it seemed impossible and the streaked faces staring at him with red eyes from the back seat did not help his dilemma. Besides, what kind of repair shop was open on Thanksgiving Day?

Luckily, there was a small gas station back at the last town. Suffice it to say, a number of unsuccessful remedies were tried to fix what ended up being a hole in the radiator. The whole situation was extremely boring. Dad gave us a task to keep us from whining.

"Go find some antifreeze at an auto parts store." I thought it strange that the gas station had run out of antifreeze, but hey, this was the backcountry of NC. No time for silly questions like that. So, we set out in the direction of the most prominent feature in town – the strip mall. Being Thanksgiving Day, we expected to find it closed and we were right. However, just as we were about to turn back, a vibrant shaft of light broke from the mighty heavens above and illuminated an object in front of the barred auto store. We squinted into the brillance and hurried to investigate. A lone yellow jug of antifreeze sat in front of the store, unopened and full. Okay, so the part about the heavenly light was made up, but the jug was there, I swear. It was indeed a miracle. A sacred relic that was treasured all the way back to the car.

The sacred antifreeze would not fix the hole, but it brought a little hope to us all. Not seeing a quick resolution to our problem anywhere in sight, Dad and I went to find a hotel. My sister was sent to the only open store, the Dollar Store, to ask if they sold blowtorches. Yeah, I know, she pitched a fit and thought the whole idea was stupid, but my father believes anything is possible and doesn't think you look dumb to other people just because you ask them a ridiculous question. Sometimes he has no shame.

We dragged our stuff half a mile up the road to the hotel where we would spend our Thanksgiving eating hotel food instead of the seafood dinner we had previously planned on. We tried to make the best of it, but the youngest, Mikey, was complaining.

"I don't like my milk. I'm not drinking it."

My father raised his eyebrows and ordered him to drink it or he would have no dessert.

Mikey slouched in his chair and whined.

"But, it's gross Dad, I hate it!"

This was a worn-out argument and Dad asked Mikey if he would like to go out to the car. This is code terminology of which we all understand. Mikey quieted down, but sulked in his seat, not touching the milk.

My sister, apparently forgetting for the minute that she was supposed to hate her brothers, offered to show him how to "drink it down really fast," as she hoped to help Mikey get out of trouble. She took a huge gulp of milk. We all watched, transfixed in horrified fascination, as her face turned shades of green, blue, and purple. She sputtered as the milk ran down her throat. We all hoped she wouldn't heave onto the table. Mom picked up the carton and her eyes widened in understanding. The milk had long since expired and had gone sour. The guilt that followed kept Mikey in the angel's halo for a good month. Of course, my sister's sacrifice was quickly forgotten by her brother.

The next day, doing what he does best, Dad happened to meet a guy working on the grounds of the hotel that knew a guy who did radiators. Using the miracle antifreeze, we managed to get the car over to the shop and have a new radiator put in. Even though a whole day had passed us by, we got right back into the wagon, loaded it up, and set off, holding our breaths until we passed the spot where the first radiator had steamed over.

So, with a little luck, some chance, and a lot of faith, we finally made it to the Outer Banks. It was almost anti-climatic, since so much had happened on the way over. But, we had a great time, all the more because of the journey we had to take to get there. Kayla saw the ocean for the first time, and got her own bed in the hotel room. She felt entitled, for sure. So, remember this, nothing in life ever comes easy. Time consists of a series of journeys, not destinations. It’s not where you're going, but how you got there, and the things you learned and people you met along the way.

Jessica is a graduate student at the University of Georgia busily trying to finish writing her thesis on chromium movement in soil. When not working, she writes fiction, travels, and visits her family every chance she gets.

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