“Are we there yet?” I asked Jacki for the seventh time since we hit the road to visit Grandma and Grandpa in Branson, Missouri. We had only been traveling for about 25 minutes. The trip seemed to take all day. We lived in a rural town, just north of Columbia, Missouri called Centralia. Branson was just over 200 miles away.
“No!” said my sister, beginning to lose her patience with me. “We’re only in Columbia. It’s going to be at least another four hours.”
“Ugh! I’m so bored,” I complained as I stood up in the bed of the pick-up truck. Mom and Dad were in the cab. The three of us kids rode in the truck bed with the luggage, protected only by a camper shell above our heads.
“Patti, sit down,” I heard my mom say through the speaker in the intercom system Dad had rigged just before the trip. Dad was a self-taught engineer and could assemble anything from scratch. The garage was filled with spare parts for go-carts, motorcycles and dune buggies. Metal frames were scattered across the floor. He had one or two motors that rotated through his designs, leaving deserted go-cart skeletons to lie, waiting to be looted for spare tires and headlights.
“Mom, I have to pee,” I said as I pushed the mustard-colored talk button on the intercom.
“Sit down,” Dad’s voice spoke through the box. “Don’t you remember what happened the last time you stood up in the truck bed?” I did remember. Dad had stopped quickly, launching me forward, knocking out one of my teeth. It had been three years and there was no sign of the tooth growing back in.
I returned to my pillow lying on the truck bed, against the cab, between Jacki and Corey.
“Here, lay your head on my lap and try to sleep,” offered my sister.
I tossed my head onto her lap and stretched my legs out. Her skinny thighs offered little comfort, so I rolled onto my back and rested my neck on just one of her legs.
“Get your feet out of my face!” yelled my brother.
“Mom!” I screamed into the intercom.
“Don’t make me pull over,” warned Dad.
“Here, trade places with me and lay the other way,” said Jacki.
“Bump-bump, bump-bump,” I felt the seams in the road under the truck bed as the molding wore bruises on my tail bone. Dad had tried to soften the ride by laying a three-inch thick piece of foam in the truck bed, but it offered little comfort.
“Four little speckled frogs, sat on a speckled log,” my sister sang softly as she twirled the curls in my hair.
“Bump-bump, bump-bump.” I soon drifted to the rhythmic cadence.
I awoke as the truck slowed to a complete stop.
“Are we there?” I asked tiredly.
Dad opened the tailgate and said, “Come on kids, let’s get out and stretch.”
“Is this the pie cone place?” I shouted with excitement.
“It’s pine cones, not pie cones, dork,” my brother snapped.
“I have to pee!” I said as I hopped out of the truck.
“You’ll have to go over there behind a tree,” Dad said as he pointed to the wooded area. I already knew the drill.
Jacki walked me to a tree while Mom unloaded a cooler filled with sandwich supplies. Dad and Corey headed for the look-out tower. It stood over eighty feet tall, with ten small sets of steel stairs leading to tiny room at the top, where firefighters had once watched for smoke in the distant hills. Many towers were built in the 1930’s and 40’s to spot forest fires early before they devastated the area. They were rarely used anymore for their intended purpose and a rope hung across the first level supporting a sign that read, “Do not climb tower.”
Dad and Corey ignored the sign, ducking under the rope and heading for higher levels.
“Don’t climb very high!” my mom warned. She was terrified of heights and saw potential hazard in anything more than ten feet from the ground.
As I squatted behind the tree, I saw pine cones, hundreds of them. Grandma collected pine cones and incorporated them into her crafts. Many times they served as Christmas trees for her wooden doll dioramas.
“Look, Jacki!” I yelled. “We need to collect all of these pie cones for Grandma!”
“We will, but Mom wants us to eat first,” she said.
“Lunch is ready!” Mom called. We ran to the table to enjoy a picnic lunch.
“Liver cheese for you,” Mom said as she handed me a flimsy paper plate.
I grabbed a plastic knife and cut small shapes into my liver cheese before popping them into my mouth. I dangled the lard binding in front of my brother’s face. “Here, Corey, want some worms?” I pestered. He slapped my hand away from his face and the lard went flying across the grass.
“Patti, quit being so gross,” said my mom.
My fingers were soon stained orange from cheese curls and I tried to lick them clean, but traces remained under my fingernails.
“Can we collect the pie cones now?” I asked anxiously.
“It’s pine cones for the hundredth time!” yelled my brother, to which I stuck out my tongue and mocked him.
“Go ahead,” said Mom as she handed me a brown grocery bag.
Pine needles covered the forest, making it challenging to collect my treasures. I filled the large bag to the top with prickly brown pine cones, double-checking each one for imperfections. I ran back to the truck, spilling the over-flowing portion of the cones at my feet. I knew Grandma would be excited to get this many of them.
Dad had climbed two stories from the top of the look-out tower, Mom squawking tirelessly from the ground.
“Bill, come down! Don’t you go to the top! Bill!” she pleaded. But Dad pretended not to hear her cries.
“Beee-illl, get down!” she screamed. I could hear the fear in her voice.
“Fine then!” she conceded. “But don’t expect me to help you when you fall!”
Mom stomped to the truck, slammed the passenger door and pouted for the duration of the stop. Dad never once looked her direction.
“Mom,” I said as I tapped on her window. “Can I climb the tower too?” I was never good at sensing windows of opportunity.
“No!” she screamed at me. I backed away, frightened by her reaction.
“But I only want to go to the second level,” I said quietly.
Mom glared at me momentarily, staring deep into my soul and said calmly, “You just do whatever you want.”
I ignored the sarcasm in her voice and ran to join my brother on the look-out tower.
“Slow down!” she screamed at me.
The second floor was actually quite boring and I wanted badly to climb higher, but I could see Mom in the truck, distressed and frightened. I retreated to the ground and hopped into the truck with her.
“Did you see all the pie cones I found?” I asked, trying to distract her from the potential catastrophe.
Before long Dad and Corey returned, and we were all safely piled into the pick-up truck once again, on our way to Grandma’s house. Corey and I sang 999 Bottles of Coke on the Wall, testing my sister’s patience. Once in awhile we pushed the intercom button, screaming the tune loudly for Mom and Dad to hear. I don’t know what Dad said to Mom, but she was soon smiling and found our entertainment amusing.
“I smell Grandma’s house!” Mom’s voice said through the intercom.
“Yay!” we cheered. I looked out the window and saw the tall landmark sign, high in hills, shaped like a candle that read ‘Candlestick Inn.’ We crossed a long bridge stretched across Lake Taneycomo. A huge cliff stood in front of us where Grandma’s house sat high in the air.
“I think I smell Grandma’s house too!” I giggled.