It doesn't bother me that my brother-in-law calls me Mr. Potato Head. Nor do I mind that no one ever leaps to my defense. What's really annoying is that, the older I get, the less defense there is to leap to.
To illustrate my point, I ask you to imagine a typical family outing. Let's say Mr. and Mrs. Jones decide, as my wife and I did, to treat their child to a day in the snow. The scenario would unfold thusly: The Joneses would drive to the mountains, have a jolly time and return home. Chances are, their happy little trip would not evolve into a wilderness ordeal.
To my credit, I got my family to the mountains without a hitch. But I had no intention of stopping at some overcrowded spot where we'd be dodging stray snowballs and runaway inner tubes all afternoon. I wanted to give my kid the experience of frolicking in a pristine, untrampled blanket of fairy flakes.
Deep in the Godforsaken Middle of Nowhere, we came upon a narrow, snow-covered road leading off the highway, through an open gate, toward a veritable Winter Wonderland. "That's it!" I declared.
"You're not going to try driving in there, are you?" my wife asked--almost sure I was kidding. After all, we were traveling in a Ford Aerostar minivan with rear-wheel drive and four balding tires. The only off-road surfaces this baby's designed to handle are driveways and parking lots.
"Aw," said I, pulling off the highway, "the worst that could happen is we'll get stuck and have to wait until spring to drive home."
Okay. Let's recap what's just happened. I sized up a situation, concluded it was insane and drove my family right into it. About a hundred yards into it. Just far enough to discover that tires spinning in snow actually burn, just like they do on pavement. Amazing.
"WE'RE STUCK HERE FOREVER, AREN'T WE?" my kid wailed when the smoke cleared.
"No, we're not, honey," his mother cooed, so as not to frighten the boy.
"WHATTAWE GONNA DO? HOW'RE WE GONNA GET OUT OF HERE???"
"Calm down," my wife said gently. "You're scaring your son."
Her tone worried me. This is not a woman who handles ordeals well. Especially wilderness ordeals. When she gets more than fifty feet from an electrical outlet, she panics. I figured the stress had pushed her over the edge. That meant our survival was up to me.
"Mom, what are we gonna do?" my son asked, trying to be brave.
"Oh, someone will come along and pull us out," she chirped.
Hoo, boy. My wife was worse off than I'd thought. She could no longer differentiate between a wish and a plan. And with a wish like that, we could wind up like the Donner party, whose snowbound members waited so long for help they ran out of food and ate each other.
I thought back to all the true-life survival tales I'd read in Reader's Digest. What was the first thing those people did when they found themselves in a stare-down with death? It came to me like a flash. They start a diary!
SUNDAY, 1:43 p.m. We've been stranded for almost seven minutes. What to do? I get out of the car and check the tires. Yep, they're stuck in the snow, all right. I get back into the car.
SUNDAY, 1:45 p.m. Our sandwich supply is getting low. How long can life be sustained on snow and tree bark? Not long, I think. My son starts looking pretty darned tasty.
SUNDAY, 1:48 p.m. My wife, still delirious, continues to believe help will soon arrive. It's time for action. I recheck the tires.
SUNDAY, 1:51 p.m. I have a plan! Since my wife can't drive a stick shift, I suggest she get out and push while I steer. She refuses on the grounds that she's eight months pregnant. My son refuses the same offer on the grounds that he's only four. I begin work on Alternate Plan B.
SUNDAY, 1:57 p.m. My wife is reading. My son is napping. Obviously, they've given up hope. I'm still working on Alternate Plan B.
SUNDAY, 2:02 p.m. A nice man with a large pickup truck tows us back to the main road, takes me aside and asks why I thought I could drive a Ford Aerostar in two feet of snow. I tell him I was asleep in the back seat and my wife was driving.
SUNDAY, 2:08 p.m. My wife doesn't actually say "I told you so," but gets the sentiment across.
SUNDAY, 2:36 p.m. My son now thinks snow is evil and wants nothing more to do with the stuff.
SUNDAY, 5:14 p.m. We arrive home. My brother-in-law drops by, hears my wife's version of the story and calls me Mr. Potato Head. No one leaps to my defense. I don't blame them. But the last laugh will be mine when I sell the book, movie and Reader's Digest rights to my Wilderness Ordeal Diary.