In the 1980s, when you got a letter indicating you’d won something, you didn’t ask questions. You pursued that to the end, and in most cases, to the bitter end. This was serious business. So, in 1986, when my parents received such a letter, it was time to pile into our station wagon and drive to a place called Front Royal, Virginia.
If you’ve never heard of Front Royal, Virginia, don’t feel bad. People from Front Royal, Virginia have never heard of it either. As a crow flies, it wasn’t that far from our suburban Maryland home. Unfortunately, wood-paneled Chrysler LeBaron station wagons didn’t fly like crows. They barely drove like functioning vehicles.
Country drives in 1986, at least to a nine-year-old boy with two annoying little sisters, were not pleasurable experiences. Windows had to be rolled down manually, air conditioning was only used if the temperature reached quadruple digits, and the music was never from hair bands, for which I was beginning to develop an affinity.
My parents absolutely loved going for drives. That’s because they never had to share a back seat with sisters who were incapable of remaining on their sides. Normally my parents would threaten to turn the car around at the first sign of trouble, but not on this trip. This trip was different! Come to think of it, they never even turned the car around once, in all those years, despite using the threat with relative frequency.
This drive to Front Royal was like every other drive. We played the license plate game. We always played the license plate game. For the uninitiated, the goal was to identify at least one license plate from all 50 states. Of course, you were never going to find Montana or Hawaii, so the whole idea behind the game was pointless.
“I’m bored,” I said to my parents.
“Look out the window,” responded my mother.
“That’s stupid,” I said. “There’s nothing but trees.”
“Don’t make me turn this car around,” warned my father. One sister giggled quietly to me when she heard the hollow threat. I laughed too, but then got mad when she put her hand on my side.
“Mom!” I screamed. “Tell her to get her hand off my side!”
“My hand isn’t on your side,” said my sister, innocently.
We also stopped a few times at rest stops because my very young sister viewed potty training as a personal challenge. This no doubt annoyed my parents, who were quite eager to get their hands on those free cruise tickets or coupon to The Chesapeake Bay Seafood House all-you-can-eat buffet.
When we finally did arrive, after what felt like days but was probably an hour and a half, we got out of the car, weary and confused.
Memories of exactly what went down that day are quite vague. I do remember being upset at my sister for finding an Alabama license plate. She was adamant that she did find it, despite no one else verifying her discovery. Verification was part of the game, and this was high treason on her part. Despite the pointless nature of the game, I respected its rules.
We spent many hours in Front Royal, which, at the time, did not live up to its name. Nothing about it was royal and everything about it was backwards. Looking back at it now, it seemed more like a cult orientation than a timeshare pitch. I don’t think everyone called each other “brother,” or “sister,” but it would not have surprised me in the least if they had.
Under one of those gigantic party tents, a man began speaking, and he didn’t stop speaking for eleven days. Those metal folding chairs ruined my posture and crushed my spirit. Finally, this man, a cross between Jerry Falwell and Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame, handed my father a rectangular cardboard box. Our “prize.” We emerged from the tent and attempted to re-learn how to walk.
“What is it, Dad?” I asked excitedly. “What did we get?”
“Don’t annoy your father,” said my mom.
I hadn’t realized the question was annoying.
We drove ninety minutes east, towards home, mostly in silence.
“I found Hawaii,” proclaimed my sister, as we neared home.
“Where?” I asked, excitedly.
“Made you look!” she responded.
The next day, my parents grilled outdoors on their brand-new grill. A skinny-legged, extremely cheap-looking grill. It was at that moment that I realized what had been in the box. What we had driven a total of 180 minutes to collect.
The burgers were good, though.