The Beast And I: Memories of a Vacation

June 25, 2019 Updated: June 25, 2019

The Beast.

That was the honorific bestowed by my children on the ancient gray Suburban my wife and I had purchased from a friend. The kids showed a real talent for nomenclature that day.

The Beast was my wife’s idea. We agreed that we needed a larger vehicle to haul more books for sale to the homeschool conventions we then attended. When Kris heard The Beast could be ours for a song, she came home bursting with excitement, and the monster was soon squatting on its haunches in our driveway.

I wasn’t crazy about The Beast, for reasons that will soon become apparent, but Kris loved that gas-guzzling, grizzled clunker. Once she came into the kitchen from a drive into Asheville just as we were sitting down to supper. Wearing a smile that stretched from ear to ear, and a glitter of pride in her eyes, she said, “I feel like a queen in that car!” There was a brief stunned silence, and then the kids and I burst out laughing. To this day that line brings a hoot at family gatherings.

We used that beaten-down vehicle primarily for the conventions. The Beast offered all the comforts of a World War I tank, but we could pack lots of books into its belly.

Then came those 10 days one June when we were to join my wife’s mother, her sisters, and their families 950 miles away in Rockport, Massachusetts, for a reunion at the coast. This odyssey required preparations other than packing. The Beast’s air-conditioning had given up the ghost long ago, which meant driving with the windows open, and at certain speeds the noise of the engine could have competed with a bowling alley on a Saturday night. Any conversation with the children on that trip was out of the question. So I paid a visit to K-Mart, bought four cheap cassette players with headsets, ransacked the library for story and song tapes, and distributed these items just before we left the driveway.

Other than the roar of the engine and the rush of air past my head from the open windows, it was the quietest trip we ever made.

Rockport and its beach were different than the shore of my native North Carolina. The water was colder, the beach was as much rock as sand, and Rockport was older and more charming than most of the tourist towns on the Carolina Coast. We settled into our rooms and enjoyed a pleasant week of visits to the ocean and with each other. I remember my middle son daily training his cousins as Navy Seals, jumping from rocks into the cold sea or having them crawl on the thin stretch of sand on their bellies. One day, we toured Boston, visiting historical sites and showing our children where their mother and I had met in 1976. The vacation was as relaxing and peaceful as it could be with nine children under the age of 17 beneath one roof.

With one exception.

The house Kris’s mom had rented was separated from the neighboring house by a single driveway. After we had unpacked the car, I carefully backed The Beast into that narrow strip, thankful she had carried us so far north without falling apart.

One afternoon I needed to go grocery shopping. I went outside, rounded the corner of the house, and slipped into The Beast. Beside me, eight or ten feet away, was the other house, two stories high, windows open, a few people sprawled in the deck chairs and hammock on the porch. Norman Rockwell could not have painted a more tranquil scene.

Now is the time to speak of one of The Beast’s many eccentricities. Once in a great while, when the driver fired up the engine, The Beast transformed itself into a dragon, belching out smoke. I am not talking about a few, half-hearted coughs of exhaust. I am talking about rolling clouds of blue smoke, billows so thick they momentarily hid the rear of the car, a fog bank worthy of the harbor in San Francisco.

And that is what happened on this particular afternoon.

When I turned on the engine, The Beast stuttered, then roared to life and threw out a cloud of smoke that could have served as a protective screen for soldiers advancing against an enemy. As I sat there with that behemoth shuddering beneath me, I glanced to my left at the house next door.

The tranquility had vanished. The languid bodies had deserted the porch, and inside the house vacationers young and old were running from window to window, trying to slap them closed against the noxious blue clouds of gas. I couldn’t hear the voices of these frantic victims above the thunder of the engine, but I could see them screaming and falling all over themselves as they struggled to avoid asphyxiation.

In an effort to help, I quickly pulled the Beast into the street. As I passed the house, two children regarded me with astonishment and fear from behind a closed window.

For the next four days of our vacation, when I walked by that house and there were people on the porch, they would stare at me with a mixture of abhorrence and pity on their faces. From the license plates on their cars, I knew they were from New York and Massachusetts, and by their faces I could read their thoughts without difficulty: “There he goes, that poor, dumb, smog-belching, cracker redneck from North Carolina.” (Other thoughts were also visible on some of those faces, but these don’t belong in a column aimed at families.)

Fortunately for the neighbors, the Beast behaved herself for the rest of our time there. We drove back to North Carolina without incident until we reached the driveway of our house. Just as we pulled into the Beast’s parking space, the engine sputtered and then died. A mechanic brought the Beast briefly back to life, but that was the beginning of the end. The Beast breathed its last just a few months later.

My wife lost her throne, but my children and I breathed both a sigh of relief and a breath of fresh air.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, North Carolina. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Virginia. See to follow his blog.