Susan's request for car games over at Crunchy Granola brought back childhood memories for me. When I was a kid, I loved going on long car trips. Most of our family vacations were camping trips to the mountains or the river – and those did not count as long car rides because the trips were less than 100 miles – but every Easter and every August, we would take a day-long journey to visit my grandmother and aunt.
My siblings and I used to prepare for the trip a whole week ahead of time. We’d find a manilla envelope, and Blonde Sister would decorate it carefully, writing the words Travel Kit in fancy letters on the top. We’d make games to put in the travel kit, like Seek-a-Words or Hidden Pictures, and of course we played the usual verbal games like Twenty Questions, and a million variations on stuff that spells out the alphabet, but the most enduring game, the one that we did every single trip, was Car Bingo.
To make car bingo, we'd get two pieces of stiff white paper and draw a grid, much like a bingo card. Then in each little square, we’d draw pictures, neatly labelled. The key was to make the two cards different but equal so that each team had a shot at winning the game. For instance, if I drew woman walking dog on one card, I would add kid riding bicycle to the other card. And picnic table is clearly equal to trash can since both can be found at any rest area. Just like horse is equal to cow. We had these figured out pretty carefully, although sometimes we’d get into long and heated debates. I still say that barn with three silos is equal to swimming pool. And no matter what my brother says, school bus and green station wagon are not a match at all.
The family would divide into teams, with three people on each team, and each team would get a card. My father, the seventh person, always opted out, claiming he would be neutral because he was the driver and he would just shout out stuff that might be on either card. I can remember dozing off to sleep and being jolted awake when I’d hear my father shout something like, “Boat on trailer! Anyone need boat on trailer?”
The two hardest things to find, always the last two remaining on the cards, were treehouse and train on bridge. I think my mother, who grew up in an urban area, originally came up with the train on bridge one. You know how hard it is to see a train on a bridge driving through the countryside? Pretty impossible. I'm guessing my father came up with treehouse. And hardly anyone builds treehouses in places where they can be seen from the road.
The fact that some of things we put on the cards were almost impossible to find did not bother us at all. The hardest ones became kind of a tradition. You've got to have lofty goals. To this day, when I go to a conferences in a place like Chicago, I will excitedly grab the sleeve of someone walking near me and yell, "LOOK! LOOK! Train on bridge!" I suspect that this is why some of my academic friends think I’m flaky.
Someone told me that games like car bingo have actually been marketed now, but it seems to me that a pre-printed game would be a bit boring. The value of the game was the fun it was to create it, and the educational part was the negotiation skills we learned as we argued about what an equal pair was. Making the car games kept the group of us children busy around the kitchen table while my parents did the real work of doing laundry, cleaning, and packing for the trip. When I see a manilla envelope with magic marker lettering on it, I still think of those travel kits, and I remember that tingle of excitement, that feeling of anticipation.