On a summer night, a family ride must end with ice cream


The other night I tried to inflict some family fun on my tribe. I ordered everybody in the car for an evening ride.

I have fond memories of such outings. When I was kid, an evening drive offered relief from the heat and the boredom that seemed to overwhelm August. The rides usually ended with ice cream cones, fresh peach for my parents, chocolate chip and strawberry for us kids.

One of the parental habits I can't shake is trying to get my kids to relive my childhood, at least as I remember it. While I recognize that some forms of youthful entertainment like the pinball machine, have changed since the 1950s, I believe that others, like the evening car ride, should not.

Not everyone agreed with me, at least not right away. And the other night as I rounded up passengers for an expedition to Reisterstown, I was treated like I was conscripting infantrymen for Pickett's charge. There were howls of protest.

This surprised me because, like many American kids, mine are fascinated by cars. The 11-year-old pores over issues of Car & Driver regularly recommending new purchases to the family. "Look at this, Dad," he told me the other night as he eyed a photo spread on $30,000 sedans. "If we didn't eat for a year, we could get one of these."

The 7-year-old worships speed. At night as he and I walk his playmates back to their homes, he likes to shine a flashlight into parked cars, checking the markings on their speedometers. He dismisses any car with a speedometer that stops at 80 mph as unworthy of his interest.

Despite my kids' enthrallment with the motorcar, the idea of climbing into ours and leaving their buddies behind was a hard sell. But I persisted, appealing first to logic -- a family errand had to be run and everyone was going along. When that failed, I fell back on the parent's best friend, the direct order: "Get in the car."

The trip began in forced silence, but slowly the combination of cool air, the evening sky and cricket melodies lifted sullen spirits.

The 7-year-old studied cloud formations and, as happens on car rides, airily issued observations on adult behavior. "Grandma and Grandpa," he told me, "would be scared at how fast you drive."

When we rolled to a stop sign on Church Road, not far from Liberty Reservoir, he took a whiff of the piney air and said "I love it out here."

We weren't exactly in the deep woods, we were only on a side road of Reisterstown, not far from some fast-food emporiums. A stop for a burger, fries and soda seemed to have the same uplifting effect on the 11-year-old that the fresh air had on his brother.

We also stopped for ice cream, eating it standing in the parking lot of the Friendly Ice Cream shop in Reisterstown. Several other carloads , families out for spin, couples on their way home from the movies, joined us in the lot. But soon the cold ice cream, and unusual autumnal breezes, forced us back in the car. I turned on the heater.

The porch lights of Glyndon glowed but no one was sitting out on a night, that thermometers dipped into the 60s. The kids curled up in the seats, pretending they might go to sleep.

Worthington Avenue, which in the day time is filled with harried commuters, at night seemed more like the country road it used to be. Soon we were back on I-83, and into the fluorescent glow of civilization.

While I could see that the 11-year-old enjoyed this car ride, I recognized that it had taken some time to warm up to. In contrast, a few nights earlier I had seen instant pleasure on his face, when he and one of his buddies had taken a ride on the new light rail line.

On a whim I asked them if they wanted to ride the light rail.

"Where are we going?" they asked. "No where," I answered. "Just for ride."

They were suspicious of such adult whimsy, but agreed to go along.

We rode to Timonium stopping only at the end of the line. There we ran around in a parking lot throwing peanuts at each other before getting back on the same car for the return trip.

I took the ride because I was curious to see the landscape. But it was dark outside the cars and light inside them. This made sightseeing very difficult. I didn't see a drop of Lake Roland, I did see a big Caldor sign in a shopping center. The ride struck me as more of a commute than a frolic.

But the 11-year-old and his 10-year-old buddy were mesmerized.

They clowned. They struck poses. They composed light rail raps.

And when we ambled home from the light rail stop, they offered a compliment. "That," they said, "was neat."

Which proves I guess, that the soothing power of summer's evening ride works on us all. But different wheels appeal to different riders.

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