Desperate times call for…well, you know the line. If you’ve ever been on a road trip with two near-adolescent siblings in a phase of constant bickering, you may know a level of desperation that staggers the imagination.
About two hours into a three-hour summer drive to visit family in central Kentucky with grandkids Buddy and Sis, desperation was the mot juste. Voices were rising and appendages traversing the mid-line of the back seat at an alarming rate. This fighting thing is intense at present, and it requires particular management around the house or in public places. But inside the car, traveling at 70 miles per hour, with me behind the wheel? Pulling over was not an option, and all threats had long since worn thin. These moments call for strategic innovation, and quickly.
I went for the first thing I could imagine that would bring balm to my own soul and, with luck, drown out the audio garbage churning behind me. (As far as them smacking each other, I knew they were safely buckled in and could only reach so far, so I decided to let those chips fall where they might.)
Siri, I barked (grateful that she manifests as immune to tone of voice), Play Classic R&B Playlist. I didn’t add “And Fast!”, but I imagine the urgency was clear. I was cranking up the volume before she could even finish her response. Out from five waiting cabin speakers blasted the smashing drum/cymbal combo announcing the Temptations anthem to (stay with me on the irony here) the desperate measures required by love. I caught up to the vocals in the second phrase, determined to out-amplify the racket in the back seat.
“….but I refuse to let you go, if I have to beg and plead for your sympathy, I don’t mind, ‘cause you mean that much to me, AIN’T TOO PROUD TO BEG, and you know it…”.
As I paused to inhale, I listened carefully; could this be working? The back seat was suddenly silent. No doubt its occupants were stunned to hear their grandmother booming out the tune. Before they could muster up comments, I added Driver Dancing, keeping one hand firmly on the wheel and with the other, thrusting the fingers upward in time, elbows bending to the beat. (I’d describe it as ala John Travolta and Saturday Night Fever, if that weren’t mixing genres.)
Dance with me! I shouted, keeping eyes forward on the highway and not daring yet to measure reaction in the rearview. Soon my head bobbed along with the rhythmic elbow/finger moves; you’d have to be way in some other stratosphere if that memorable tempo doesn’t call to the marrow in your bones.
Still silence behind me, so I added another layer of strategy. This time, I fell back into a high-ranker on the list of things you should never do to change the behavior of children.
I’ll give $10 to anyone who can tell me who is singing this song, I shouted over the music. It seemed like low-risk financials, but a move that might gin up some diverting dialogue.
“Stevie Wonder!” Buddy shouted back. At 11, Buddy is rather alert to opportunities to earn a few bucks.
This answer shocked his G-ma so profoundly she nearly veered into the emergency lane, regripping the wheel with her (second) Dancing Hand just in time. I turned down the Temps for a moment to probe further. How do you know about Stevie Wonder?
“Our band teacher,” he replied, indicating with a shrug I caught with a quick rearview glance that this should not surprise anyone. Still, his grandmother felt the warm, early glow of a rekindled spark of faith in public education. And with it came the urge to nudge along this whole band thing. Buddy just began his second middle-school year as a band member, studying trumpet. I punched the button to advance a couple of songs and cranked up Earth Wind & Fire’s Sing a Song. Check out the horns in this one! I shouted.
Next on the playlist came one of my special favorites of the era, Sam Cooke’s eloquent and heartbreaking A Change is Gonna Come. After the first few phrases of his aching solo, I dialed down the volume again to discussion level.
Have you two ever heard this before? “I’ve heard this song, yes,” affirmed 9-year-old Sis, and her brother added, “Me, too.” What do you think it’s about? “It’s about civil rights and racism,” Buddy answered. I paused a moment, surprised again but grateful, as the knowledge of a rising sixth grader sank in.
Alas, Buddy had not lost the thread of the earlier opportunity. “I guess I don’t get the $10, huh, Evie?” Overwhelmed with relief for the success of my diversion tactics, I relented partly: I’ll give you $5 for just knowing to guess Stevie Wonder, I answered.
Of course, equity is everything when siblings are involved. Let’s find one for your sister to guess, I told him, punching the buttons to summon a different playlist. Thinking I remembered their mother was a fan, so this might be an easyone, I cranked up the unforgettable, opening piano chords of one of the biggest hits of my generation. We were approaching our destination, my sister and brother-in-law’s farm, and this one would calm down the vibe considerably.
“When you’re weary, feeling small,” it begins, “when tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all. I’m on your side, oh, when times get rough…”.
“I don’t know this,” Sis answered flatly, as we pulled off the interstate and turned onto the lovely country road, lined with green fields and stone fences. “Oh, you do,” her brother nudged, always eager, in spite of their bickering, to coach her to success. “Evie, can I give her a hint? When I nod, he adds, “It’s the same people who sing The Sounds of Silence.” (The knowledge revealed in this hint nearly runs me off the road again; will these children never stop shocking me?) “It’s two names. C’mon, guess!” After several false starts, she shouted triumphantly, “Oh, I know! It’s Sam and Garfunkel!”
Close enough! I shout in return, giddy with the joyful sense of music spanning the generations, and everything it implied. Five dollars for you, too!
We are pulling into the driveway of the farm now, and their great auntstands waving a welcome on the front porch. My sister, a great musical talent, took up guitar when we were not much older than Buddy. As two long-haired teenage girls, we sang, sometimes in harmony, while she strumming the chords carefully marked along the lyric lines on the pages of a loose-leaf notebook filled with the pop and folk songs we adored. To this day, I could recite the poetic lyrics of The Sounds of Silence in my deepest sleep. “Hello Darkness, my old friend…I’ve come to talk with you again..”
I turn down the volume on Bridge Over Troubled Water as I stop the car and the kids eagerly unbuckle. Wait until she hears this story, I think, waving back. She won’t believe it.