I don't leave home without my rubber snake.
He's never let me down, not once over more miles of highways and bumpy country roads than I want to remember. Pulling him out always makes the kids -- and dad -- laugh, even when it seems the road trip will never end.
"Lighten up!" he tells us. "Figure out a way to have some fun here!"
Just looking at my ugly $2.99 snake reminds me what we're trying to accomplish driving umpteen hours: building memories, of course.
As corny as it sounds, he also reminds me what a family vacation is really about: the private jokes no one else gets; the moments so good we wish we could freeze-frame them; those so rotten we're thankful we don't have to survive them alone, much less repeat them.
The rubber snake has become our family travel talisman. Before we pull out of the driveway, before the kids ask "Are we there yet?" "How much longer?" or start a fight, they check to make sure we haven't forgotten the snake.
With 100 million families traveling by car this summer -- a record number, the Travel Industry Association reports -- I figure a lot of you must by now have your own travel talismans.
Did you have one to make the camping trip during the hurricane easier? Did another comfort a sick child or at least keep warring factions at bay in the back seat? Maybe it was a plastic buffalo from South Dakota or a spray water bottle the kids squirted at each other when the air conditioning broke on the way to the Grand Canyon.
Here are some other tried-and-true travel standards that are always stashed in my Taking the Kids survival pack and which you probably have around the house:
Masking tape never fails to please. Squabbling kids not only can mark their personal space, but they can create designs on the back of the front seat.
Balls, flying discs and jump-ropes are guaranteed to work off some pent-up energy, yours as well as the kids, when you stop for all-too-frequent bathroom breaks.
A laminated map for each child so they can help navigate. An added bonus: They may learn a little geography in the bargain.
Books on tape borrowed from the local library or rented from the video store. There are plenty of good stories to choose from. Maybe you can't enjoy the same music as the kids, but listening to an author or an actor read a good story is something guaranteed to please everyone, at least for a while.
Rolls of nickels or quarters. Start each kid out with one and take away a coin each time he misbehaves or she fights with her brother. It's amazing how well kids can behave when they know exemplary behavior will mean they have extra money to spend at the end of each day.
A cooler stocked with fruit, cheese, peanut butter, bread and whatever other healthy things your kids will eat. Picnics are far better on driving trips than a diet of fast food. Besides, the kids invariably will get hungry after you've passed the last hamburger joint for 50 miles.
Bathing suits and dry beach towels. Always be ready, so if you pass a water slide, state park or beach, you can stop for a while with a minimum of fuss. The kids will be so thankful they won't complain when you drive two hours farther than you promised.
Spare batteries for their hand-held video games and tape players. Nothing's worse for an already annoyed adolescent than running out of juice with 200 miles yet to drive.
Pals. Especially for teens, who think going anywhere with mom and dad is not only boring but embarrassing. Having a friend along can change the tenor of the trip. Sometimes, an outsider's presence helps keep the peace. (The kids don't really want to get into it with "strangers" on board.)
It's not too late to grab that last gasp of summer. Throw the survival pack in the trunk, head out and create a few more memories.
Just don't forget the rubber snake.
Please send your stories to Taking the Kids, Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053 or e-mail them to me at eogintol.com. I'll use some in coming columns.
Pub Date: 8/18/96