Thursday, October 13, 2011

Because I Said So: Teen travels builds bonds, makes lasting memories

There is almost always more story than will fit in the space allotted for publication. Always a back story, extra detail, bookends, an aside or footnote. For instance, for today's "Because I Said So" column in The Commercial Appeal, I put in and then took out the fact that the cassette I kept turning over and over for the entire ride from Memphis to Naperville, IL, was the soundtrack to the film "The Big Chill." It was 1983, after all.

As I wrote in the column, I rode home to Naperville with Carol on a whim, an impulse as thought out by any of us as her buying a blue Great Dane puppy was when she lived at the time in an upstairs apartment of an old house. So I had no plan to get home, but ended up taking an Amtrak train back to Memphis. I was 13 years old and I know Carol felt guilty for years for putting me on that train alone at Chicago's Union Station. Hell, she may still have guilty pangs over that.

I sat down in the train car and could see her through the window as we pulled out of the station. An woman in her 50s sat next to me and, seeing I was alone, doted over me. She asked me if I needed anything, if I was okay and would do so periodically for the duration of the trip. I was fine. I was more than fine, I was alone and free to walk the train and find what was on the other side of this door or that. I found the club car and had a sandwich and a Coke, watched the fields of corn go by in the night and listened to the conversations around me. I spent time in my seat reading and dozing. My dad picked me up in the morning at Memphis's Central Station, little more than a shell of a building back then.

When I think of that time, that age, I don't think of it as teen or a pre-teen. It was a rite of passage and I think of my young self in terms of before and after that trip. I was given the chance to be independent and to look after my own interests. It wasn't dangerous, at least I didn't think of it as so, but it was my time to be on my own. I thank all the parties involved - my parents, my aunt, my grandparents who lived in Naperville at the time - for that experience and for planting the seed for lifelong interests in time alone with my thoughts, blue puppies, train travel and Marvin Gaye.

The column:
When I was 13 years old, I took a road trip to Naperville, Ill., with my aunt Carol. She was returning home from a visit and didn't want to make the drive alone with the Great Dane puppy she'd impulsively adopted while in Memphis. I wasn't much help on that drive, I'm afraid. I had no license and was put in charge of the puppy and the music. There was one cassette I liked and we listened to one side, and then the other, for more than 500 miles. I fed the dog Doritos.

Carol never complained.

At some point she was pulled over for speeding and had me lie down on the back seat. "Sorry, officer," she said, "I guess I was paying more attention to my nephew, who's feeling sick, than the speed limit." There was no sympathy and she got the ticket anyway, along with a bit of karmic justice when the puppy threw up all over the back of the car 10 minutes later.

As trips go, it wasn't the farthest I've traveled. It wasn't the most expensive or tropical trip. There is little glamour in Naperville, Ill. But it was an adventure nonetheless, and the bonding experience was immeasurable.

I was 13. Is there a worse age? Hormones, anxieties and peer pressure wreak havoc on teens who often don't know which way to turn at any given moment. I was able to spend quality time with a captive audience who listened and laughed, and talked with me as an equal.

This isn't a knock against parents, but as parents we have our own anxieties and pressures to deal with. Sometimes it's all we can do to keep our kids fed and clothed, never mind the Herculean effort it takes to extract information from a teen on his own thoughts and concerns.

My own 13-year-old son is leaving tomorrow for a trip with his aunt and uncle to New York City. He's excited and I'm envious. Not only because, while I'm still here feeding and clothing the other three kids, he'll be seeing new sights and sampling exotic cuisine, but also because, all sarcasm aside, that age really can be magical.

It's a time when our brains were spongy and we soaked up everything around us, whether the sights and sounds of New York or the stories and lessons of someone other than our parents and teachers; an outsider who was also very much an insider.

On that drive to Illinois 28 years ago, my aunt told me family stories, some I'd heard a hundred times before and others I probably wasn't yet supposed to learn. I kept it all inside myself and appreciated the candor and trust, and being spoken to on an equal footing. It's what I hope Calvin gets from his adventure this weekend while walking through the Village with his own village, enjoying the world-class view from the top of the Empire State Building, exploring Central Park and eating enough New York-style slices to make a puppy sick. 
Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more from him at Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook:

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