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Road Warriors

When planning family vacations, the normal course of action is to sit down months in advance, scan road maps, study travel guides and wrangle tips from anyone who's ever been outside the city limits.

But parents, in their haste to decide where they'll have fun, invariably forget to ask the question that determines whether they'll have fun: "Hey, is there some law that says we have to take the kids?"

The answer, of course, is absolutely not. And if you're looking forward to an enjoyable, relaxing travel experience, you'd be wise to exercise your legal and God-given right to find a sucker upon whom you can unload your holy terror(s) pronto.

Relatives are out of the question. You don't want to destroy your relationship with anyone who doesn't slam the door in your face when you show up unannounced and in the market for free childcare. So think. Do you know anyone who owes you a huge favor? Perhaps someone whose life you saved. Someone for whom you administered CPR or the Heimlich maneuver or physically shielded from a volley of machine-gun fire during military service. If no names spring to mind, you aren't thinking hard enough. Are you a recent blood or organ donor? If so, your generous gift may be keeping a borderline goner from expiring. Track down the lucky recipient, ask how he's feeling and, no matter how he responds, say, "Well, you'd be dead if it weren't for me, wouldn't you? Speaking of that, what have you done for me lately?"

If the fellow isn't a hopeless ingrate, you're on the road to vacation bliss. If he is a hopeless ingrate, well, sorry, pal. You're stuck. All you can do is make the best of a ghastly situation.

Your first step in that direction is to select the proper mode of transportation. Let me warn you in advance that none are very attractive.

Travel by bus, train or air is prohibitively expensive for most families and often involves long periods of waiting before departure and during layovers. Alas, if there's anything young children do more poorly than wait, the experts have yet to make note of it.

Of the three options, airplanes are the most desirable because your travel trauma will be comparatively short. However, crowded jetliners don't offer much in the way of running, jumping and roughhousing room, and the novelty of zooming through the heavens like Han Solo wears off before the no-smoking sign is turned off. Boredom sets in quickly, and most children deal with it by finding something to destroy. This is not acceptable behavior when you're cruising at 30,000 feet and hundreds of lives are at stake.

Automobiles are the most economical travel option, but what is saved in bucks is lost in sanity. Unfortunately, many parents don't figure this out until they've been trapped for days in a loaded station wagon with children who whine "Are we there, yet?" every thirty seconds. If you're driving from, oh, Goodyear to Disney World, you're guaranteed to be a slobbering fruitcake by the time you reach Globe-Miami.

Then again, any travel adventure with your kids will have an identical effect. So what the hell. Drive.

Once on the road, your most demanding task will be to keep your children amused. Don't rely on the passing scenery to do the job for you--especially when crossing Texas, Nebraska, and Kansas, where there is no scenery. And don't think you can enthrall them by pointing out roadside attractions during those stretches. Your repeated exclamation of "Look! Another moo cow!" will soon prove to be just as irritating to them as "Are we there, yet?" is to you.

Simple rhyming or guessing games can help relieve the back-seat fussiness of preschoolers. Older kids, however, require greater challenges. One game that will consistently provide you with fleeting moments of peace is "Noise or Cash." Play begins when a parent announces, "I'll give $500 to the first kid who doesn't make a sound for ten minutes." Don't worry about having to shell out; it's physically impossible for any child to be quiet for ten minutes. But they'll try, over and over again, provided you keep reminding them how much candy and plastic crap 500 smackeroos can buy.

Long journeys are hard on children accustomed to the freedom of movement and screaming, so be realistic in your expectations of their behavior. For example, kids who squabble incessantly at home aren't likely to call a truce just because they know they'll be terrorizing Chip an' Dale in a few days.

If the bickering doesn't cease after several requests, stop the car and explain calmly, firmly and seriously the kind of behavior you expect. If they fail to deliver, stop the car again and explain clearly, firmly and seriously how dangerous it is for small children to hitchhike from Albuquerque to Orlando.

If that doesn't do the trick, pull over one last time, save somebody's life, and pray that he or she will be very, very grateful.

Your repeated exclamation of "Look! Another moo cow!" will soon prove just as irritating to them as "Are we there, yet?" is to you.

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Michael Burkett