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Dan Conradt: One station wagon, four kids and a trip to the museum

July 29, 2018

Dan Conradt

The girl on the “Gas Pump News Network” furrowed her brow, attempted a serious tone that didn’t quite fit with her Betty Boop voice and launched into a Kardashian update.

That’s when I pressed the “mute” button.

The digits on my gas pump flashed past in a blur. Five dollars. Ten. Fifteen.

The gauge was below “E” the entire drive from home, and Led Zeppelin was turned up even louder than normal so I wouldn’t have to listen to the sound of the car sputtering as it ran out of gas.

Twenty dollars. Twenty five. This could be a record.

I pulled the mini-squeegee out of its bin and started scrubbing the windshield. Some of those bugs were there when I bought the car, but I didn’t feel any sentimental attachment to them.

I only noticed the car that rolled to a stop on the other side of my pump because you don’t see many burnt orange station wagons any more.

A pile of suitcases was secured to the luggage rack atop the car with thick hemp rope.

The automatic shutoff stopped my pump with a “clunk” at 49.37. I squeezed another 63 cents worth of gas into the tank just to make it a nice round number.

The station wagon’s four doors opened at the same time. Four kids piled out of the back seat with the boundless energy kids tend to store up on a long car ride. Mom and Dad eased out of the front seat with the kind of sore muscles adults tend to get on the same ride.

“Daddy, can we get some soda?” one of the kids asked. Her hair was tied back in a brunette pony tail that stopped at the small of her back. If the word “soda” wasn’t a giveaway, her accent was … a silky drawl that said “Deep South”.

“Daddy, I gotta go potty!” a little boy said.

“Angela, take your brother to the bathroom,” Mom said in a weary “are we there yet?” voice. “Then you can each get a soda.” She pulled money out of her purse and handed it to the girl with the pony tail, and the kids disappeared into the store.

My gas pump spit out a receipt for $50.00 … yes, it was a new record … and I glanced surreptitiously at the license plate on the station wagon.

Louisiana.

“You from here?” the station wagon dad asked.

“Uh-huh.”

“Where are we?”

“Austin,” I said. I quickly added “Minnesota,” because I’ve been on enough mind-numbing drives that a city name alone might not mean much. “You?”

“Little town in Louisiana,” he said, pronouncing it “loo-zee-ANN-uh”. “You probably never heard of it.”

He told me the name of the town. I’d never heard of it.

“Anything to do here?”

“Well, we’ve got a nice museum,” I said.

“Wife and kids like museums,” he said. “We been on the road for a week … I’m kinda museumed-out myself. What kinda museum?”

I told him.

“You serious?”

“Yeah!”

“Now, you’re talking … like … the meat, right? Not that e-mail stuff …”

“No, the meat. Hormel Foods started here. SPAM is kind of our claim to fame. That and John Madden.”

Four kids came running back to the car, each carrying a plastic bottle of soda. Mom was lagging well behind, rolling her shoulders to work out the kinks that come with a long car ride.

The automatic shutoff stopped Dad’s gas pump, and as he was replacing the nozzle he jerked his head in my direction.

“This guy says they have a museum about SPAM here … you know, that meat stuff.”

“Can we go see it?” the kids shouted.

Dad looked at Mom. She nodded once and the kids piled back into the station wagon.

“Well, long as we’re here …” he said. “You tell me how to get there?”

“Sure,” I said. “It’s pretty easy. You turn right out of the parking lot and go over the bridge …”

He thanked me for the directions and was about to get into his car when he stopped.

“Weather always like this here?”

“No,” I said. “It’s usually not this hot and humid. Coupla times a year we’ll get a stretch of three, four days like this. Kinda miserable.”

He chuckled. “You ever been to Louisiana in July?”

“No.”

“Then you ain’t seen miserable!”

He climbed into the car and the burnt orange station wagon rumbled out of sight.

Heat waves shimmered like mirages as they rose off the acres of pavement that surrounded the convenience store.

“Miserable” is in the eye of the beholder.

A drop of sweat trickled down my back as I walked toward the store.

I’m suddenly thirsty for an ice cold soda.

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