Normally, putting bags and suitcases in the back of your family’s vehicle is a sight that evokes joy, excitement, and anxiety over what may be coming. Could it be a theme park of exclusive roller coasters and mechanical rides? A long, peaceful, and somewhat entertaining camping trip on the Rockies? A trip to watch a professional football game and stay in a comfortable hotel, being served by pretty, young hotel women? Yes, these are all things that fill my stomach to the brim with butterflies of hopeful anticipation. Too bad none of the aforementioned are the case.
No, I am practically refusing to go. What is this that frightens me so much you ask? I’m not sure if I want to say it…it makes me feel dread, but I am preparing to go to a…..Family reunion. Oh yes, yes I know. It’s terrible. The very least looked-forward to of all family trips. Perhaps you find my dread to go to a family event distasteful? Well, if you knew my family, you’d understand. No, don’t get me wrong, I love them! I really do! But a weekend with them is far too long. It’s not so much the family – well not entirely the family – but the conditions. For example: the car ride.
We’re about to leave, so come, let me introduce you to the Burton family.
It is just my parents and I these days. My older brother graduated – surprisingly – and is now in college training to become an Occupational Systematic Executive Analyst’s Assistant. Yeah, don’t even ask me what that is. All I know is it’s a 2-year program at a community college. Way to aim high, bro.
My mother is a business professional and my father is the foreman of a construction company. You’re average, everyday family. Dad’s also a part-time comedian, but only in the car. Mom’s also a part time singer, but only in the shower. Yep, meet the Burtons.
We all gather into the vehicle, and of course, I have to sit in the back. The back really isn’t all that bad under normal circumstances, but I’m the only one in the family that doesn’t smoke. And I don’t mean just toking on a cigarette every now and then; these pepole practically inhale the entire package. They smoke like chimneys! As we start down the street they all light one up, as if they communicated via telepathy, “Okay, time to smoke 15 cigs in a row.” I stuff my nose down my shirt, dismayed that I’m sitting in the back, where of course the windows only roll down three centimeters. By the time it looks like a gas chamber in the car, Dad decides to roll down the window almost an inch, and instead of sucking the air out, it blows air in that circulates all the second-hand smoke to me. Thanks, Dad.
The reunion is in Stix, Alabama. I prefer to call it, “Hicks,” Alabama, because that’s about all you find there. Stix – or Hicks – is 400 miles from where we live, which means six more hours of suffocation in the back seat. I wonder if I’ll survive.
As we’re rolling along in an awkward silence, Dad tries to break the silence with one of his ever-famous jokes only he finds funny.
DAD: “Hey guys, how do you put an astronaut to sleep? Anyone? Anyone? YOU ROCKET! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAA (hysterical laughing).
Not even mom fakes a laugh for that one. Oh, finally, she’s turning on the radio. Yes, it’s my jam. Some old school Blink-182! “All The Small Things.” Maybe I can survive this ride after all. I begin zoning out to the music when suddenly the Honky Tonk starts playing.
DAD: “We don’t need to listen to any of that KID music.”
ME: “Nor do we need to listen to hick music; we’ll be hearing it all weekend!” Of course I thought that to myself.
With every annoying stroke of the violin, I feel my sanity deteriorating, until at last I’m desperate. The only way to survive this is to sleep. I rest my head on the window of the rear door, stuffing my nose in my shirt to escape the abundance of second-hand smoke that lingers in the air. (Lay head to side;Yawn) Slowly, I drift off losing consciousness.
(Wake up; Stretch, Yawn) I wake up what feels like 10 minutes later after a frenzy of cowboy themed dreams. Stupid country music. For some reason car ride dreams feel short and you can normally remember them vividly. All I can recall from this one though is being lassoed by Pecos Bill.
I look out the window only to see a picket-fence with paint chipping off of it, accompanied by a rusty Chevrolet truck set on cement blocks. The sign is too chipped and faded to read but I recognize it. Looking out the windshield, I see it, there it is. A town comes into view up ahead in the distance and my stomach settles in an unpleasant way when I see the water tower stamped with the letters S-T-I-X. That’s right, we have arrived in HICKS.
This is no less evident as we pull in to town and are welcomed by a shirtless tattooed man with a mullet waking his pit bull. To the right we pass a lifted pick-up truck with a 30-point buck strapped to the hood. Driving the vehicle, blaring Jason Aldean, is a woman wearing bib overalls, and might I add that she has the biggest Adam’s apple I’ve ever seen. This is Stix, I’m sure of it.
All the yards have rusty vehicles occupying their greenish-yellow grass. More than half of the people are outside grilling away, letting their sunburned shoulders out for speculation. In one yard I see a man standing in his underwear, beer-belly hanging out, groping a can in one hand and the case in the other. Off in the distance another man is laying in a kiddy pool with a beer in his hand.
Other than the indecent exposure, the town isn’t all that bad. Although very odd, the people here are friendly. Last reunion, as we strolled through town a man offered me a beer and some fried catfish. That would have been very nice if I had been 22 instead of 12 at the time.
The city has a few public attractions: a bowling alley, movie theater, a few bars, a few churches, some arcades, a mini-mall, even a recreational emporium. We spend time as a family at these places during the reunions, and that’s where the real adventure begins.
To be honest though, I am very thankful the reunion venue is not in town. My great aunt Matilda, the host of this fine family event, lives out on private property. After another 20 minutes of driving, we arrive on the Burton family residence. The property actually is very nice; fields of green grass, a big red barn, two enormous pewter Quonset, a tall grain silo, and a colossal blue house, all encompassed by stretches of yellow, gold, green, and azure fields. The scene is actually quite picturesque, but the image is soon banished when I see Uncle Frank ride past on his lawnmower.
Gathered inside and around one of the two Quonset is the entire family, mingling and catching up. Not all my family are rednecks. No, in fact we Burtons can be quite classy. How they ended up here is a mystery. There are few select members, though, who are not so classy. Take for example, Uncle Frank: tall, missing teeth, long uneven hair, no shirt, and mounting a riding lawnmower like a knight in shining armor mounting his noble steed. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen him without sunburn, even when it’s been the dead of winter on Christmas.
Well, here it is. Time to reunite with the distant relatives. I get out of the vehicle and look around. Hmm, surprising, there seems to be a lot of people here, more than usual. Am i at the right place? I recognize a few, but there’s a lot that I’ve never seen before.
Ooh look at her! She’s cute! I’ve never seen her before. She must – what am I doing? She’s probably my cousin!
Okay, that was awkward. Well, I need some punch to forget that whole incident. I walk over to snag a cup of punch, seeing all my relatives along the way.
(feign excitement) Hey Uncle Jack! Hey Aunt Louise! Hey Grandma Esther! Hello Cousin Rachel! Hey, Luke, you brought your kids? Hey Uncle Joe! (Disappointed) Oh, hey Uncle Frank. Oh yes, yes Uncle Frank, I have grown. People normally grow between ages 9 and 17.
Well at least now the awkward part is over. I’m now checked in. All I have to do is….Ohh (abruptly) spoke too soon. Here comes…yeah, I don’t know his name. I’ve never known his name.
RELATIVE: Hey, you! How have you been?
ME: Good, good…(shake head) (whisper) Who is this guy? I’ve seen him at every reunion, but I’ve never known his name. I hope he leaves soon…(Normal Voice) Oh what? Yeah, I know I’ve grown.
Finally! He’s gone.
Oh gosh, here comes my cousin, Jimmy. Great. I like him and all, but he’s such a Meathead! He just…he…ugh. Just observe.
ME: Hey Jimmy! How are you? Oh, I’m great. (To audience) He has a big smirk on his face. I wonder what he’s up to now? (To Jimmy) Oh, what’s that? You have a new car? A CHALLENGER?
Where did he get the money for a brand new Challenger? Last year he was working as a rent-a-clown for child birthday parties! So I ask him:
ME: How did you get the money to make payments on that?
He looks at me with an expression that says, “Did you really just ask that?” Yes, Jimmy, I did! How did you?
JIMMY: Well, since you just have to know, I’m a CEO now.
CEO?! CEO of what? Bill’s Manure Plant?
JIMMY: I am now the CEO of Al’s Wacking Waving Inflatable Arm-Flailing Tube Man Emporium and Warehouse.
I’m stunned. I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry. I can’t even judge if this is a lie or not. But I see it. I see the shiny orange Challenger off in the distance, mocking me.
I’m just going to walk away. CEO….c’mon! Only been here 15 minutes and I’m already losing it. (To self) Just hold yourself together.
So I relax, mingle, have some punch, talk to some other people I don’t know, when finally it’s time to do something fun. Aunt Matilda decided we should all go to the bowling alley. Hey, if it’ll keep me from having personal conversations with Cousin Jimmy, I’m in.
Everyone is staring to get into their vehicles. Uncle Frank mounts his lawnmower. I climb into the van, ready to go. I wonder if the bowling alley has good food? I mean when I was….hey, who’s that? Uh oh. Those are my twin hillbilly cousins Travis and Blake. What are they doing? Why are they talking to my mom? Mom…Mom…get in the vehicle now, Mom! No Mom, don’t let them ride with us. Don’t let them – Hi Blake, Hi Travis! It’s so nice to see you……(To Audience) Help!
I guess my cousins Travis and Blake are catching a ride with us. Believe me, these two practically invented the title redneck.
Oh great, they’re getting in on both sides…which means I’m in the middle. Here come the longest 20 minutes of my entire life.
We’re getting along now, pulling out of the driveway, going at least 10 MPH over the speed limit, but still not fast enough. The ride cannot end soon enough. The vehicle is already clouded with puffs of smoke, the radio cranking out Kenny Chesney, and the dufus twins getting on my nerves.
To my right we have Specimen A: Travis.
TRAVIS: (fart noise; hillybilly laugh) Blake! Did you hear that?
And specimen B on my left: Blake.
BLAKE: Sure did brother! Heh, take a gander at this? (Belch)
And then here I am in the middle. (Sing) “Here I am, stuck in the middle with you! Cause I’m..stuck in the middle with you! Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right! Here I am, stuck in the middle with you!” (speak) the soundtrack to my life at this moment.
Suddenly, Comedian of the Year, Dad, strikes again.
DAD: Hey guys, how many Catholics does it take to change a light bulb? NUN! HAHAHAHAHA (hysterical laugh) Oooh…oooh…I crack myself up.
Help me! Please!Okay, okay…we’re half way there. Just hold yourself together….Oh no…the redskin twins are having a conversation.
TRAVIS: Garsh, brother. I shot darn near 10 muskrats the other day!
BLAKE: Is that what I smelt under yer bed? Where didja shoot them skrats at?
TRAVIS: Over yonder pond, you know, the one where you fell through the ice that time.
Then here am I, catching every whiff of their flat Mountain Dew mixed with chewing tobacco scented breath.
(Desperate) Okay, okay it can’t get any worse. It can’t possibly get any worse!
But I’m wrong once again. As soon as I think this moment can’t get any more awkward, the inevitable happens. They start to breakout in to an argument.
Even though I’ve been sitting here between them listening to and inhaling every grammatically broken word they’ve said I couldn’t even pretend to know what they were arguing about.
TRAVIS: No, Blake, I done dropped the flux capacitor on my Ford.
BLAKE: No Travy, the Ford dudn’t need no flux capacitor, Chevy does!
TRAVIS: Ain’t got no Chevy!
BLAKE: Do too! Right there up dem hills!
TRAVIS: By the muskrat nest?
BLAKE: By Miller’s or Slusher’s?
TRAVIS: No, by Fillman’s!
BLAKE: Fillman? Who’s Fillman? Travy, you been drinkin’ the Chlorox again?
WHEN WILL IT END?!
I’m desperate now. I can’t take much more. Anything, anything to keep me from losing it. I never thought I’d sink this low, but survival is a must in this case. Goodbye, dignity.
ME: Hey, Dad, how about we sing a song? I have a good one…(sing) “Stuck in the middle with you.”