Ask anybody. Harry Cotter was a nice guy. Not just nice. Very nice. He'd been well liked in school by teachers and students and after graduating and getting a job at Wilson's Machine he'd been well liked by co-workers and the boss. Harry was the kind of guy who didn't brag or tell tall tales, and though quiet and preferring not to be in the limelight drew attention to himself simply by doing a good job. He'd been named employee of the month fifteen times in the nine years he'd worked at the shop, something others had to point out because Harry Cotter would have never mentioned it.
"The best thing that ever happened to me," was how he described his marriage to Virginia, daughter of one of his co-workers, a year after being introduced to her at her father's retirement party.
Now, seven years later, they were a family of four. Todd was the oldest, age six. William, whose birthday was a month away, would be able to brag that he was no longer four, but five.
Harry was a good family man, worked hard, paid the bills and played with the boys when they wanted to include him in their games. They ate out once a month, rented movies to watch at home and took a one-week vacation each year, an experience that was beginning to tax Harry Cotter's good disposition.
Harry was a patient guy without a mean bone in his frame and a helping hand for anyone in a jamb. But put two kids in the back seat of the family car and Harry had to fight hard to keep his good reputation. He would have said, "Maybe you never had kids, or maybe you don't know folks who do…or maybe you were an only child and never a problem for your parents…but let me tell you…the problem is…two young boys in the back seat of the family car."
"When are we going to get there, Daddy?" and, "Are we there yet?"
It was the questions…it was the number of times the boys asked, no matter how hard Harry tried to get them to focus on something else. He tried the 'make words out of passing car license plates…count the number of different state plates…count how many cars had four occupants…tried to get them to see how many songs they could sing. Harry tried every device that came to mind…but there it was again.
"Are we there yet?"
"Virginia… ." he pleaded, "do something with the boys…I can't concentrate on driving."
"Boys, you're upsetting your father. Be good. Don't be pests."
Occasionally, her admonishment was followed by a long glorious silence
"Are we there yet?" Note of desperate angst in the child's voice.
"No." Harry’s voice not at its usual pitch. "And stop asking, Todd. The traffic's been bad…we still have a long way to go."
"Gol-ly." Irritable resignation.
"I gotta go wee-wee." William's singsong mantra.
"Let's stop at the next station, Harry," Virginia said. "We can all use a stretch."
"I could use some Duct Tape." Harry searched the horizon for an off-ramp with rest room services.
Two minutes of bliss.
"Are we there yet, Mommy?"
"In just a minute, boys. Try to keep it down back there. We'll be stopping very soon."
He would have sworn he had, but Harry was trying to remember if his father had really given them spankings when he and his brothers had gotten under his skin. He was sure he'd been better behaved, but immediately wondered where he'd gone wrong in Todd and William's upbringing, wondered if all kids were so…cantankerous.
Not to be too obvious about watching his face, Virginia moved closer and whispered, "Don't take them so seriously, Harry. They're just boys. Remember we're on vacation. Let's not spat. Let's have fun."
Harry took the next off-ramp and parked in a stall at a gas station convenience store.
"You're right…let's have fun. Do we need anything?"
"I want something to drink." William was struggling with the car seatbelt. "Can I have a soda, Mommy?"
"Me too!" Todd was trying to keep William from unfastening the seatbelt.
"Mommy…Todd's gonna make me pee my pants if he won't let me out!"
"Todd…be nice. Help your brother unfasten the seat belt."
Todd was already out of the car.
Harry got out, opened the back door and unbuckled William's seat belt. "Come on…let's go before you do… ."
William followed his father into the men's room while Todd checked vending machine coin returns for forgotten change. Virginia opened the trunk and cooler, got three sodas, put each into foam rubber cozies, then shut the cooler and trunk. She stood next to the main store entrance and read news headline in the vending machines after she gave Todd a soda, a Starship crew waiting for the return of their captain. When William came out of the men's room he got his soda. The crew got in and sat while Harry filled the tank. He cleaned the windows and rear view mirrors and got back in the car.
"It's warm out there," Virginia said to window after they were back on the highway.
Harry nodded and turned on the radio. He surfed channels for better reception, found nothing he wanted to hear.
"Play the Star Wars CD," Todd said.
"We've heard it three times already today." Harry turned off the radio, tapped fingers on the steering wheel…wondered if he could pass the eighteen wheeler, but knew if he did he would be breaking the speed limit big time. Instead, he let up on the gas and settled for cruising at sixty, not sixty-five.
"We're staying in Fresno tonight?" Virginia asked.
Harry nodded, and after stifling a yawn said, "It's just too long a drive to try and make in one day. The kids can't take a car trip like that…especially when it's so warm."
Fresno was still an hour away. California's inland valley isn't thought of as an exciting place, Harry thought, little to amuse or distract his attention from rising highway heat waves. The residents of Oildale and Delano might not share my opinion, nor those of Kingsberg or Selma, either. I’m just glad that we don't live here.
"How much further?" Todd, nose pressed to glass, was squeezing his cozy-clad soda can, making it snap and pop.
"An hour, son." Harry worked to keep an even voice. "Why don't you take a little nap?"
"I'm not tired." Now Todd was trying to extract his finger from the opening in the top of the can. "My finger's stuck."
"Todd…how on earth did you get your finger stuck?" It wasn't really a question. Virginia unbuckled, leaned over the front seat and worked for a few minutes trying to free Todd's first finger.
"Well…what did you expect? Hold still."
Finger freed, Todd was on to other diversions.
William's well rehearsed protests got parent's attentions. "Mommy…Todd's poking me with his finger. Make him stop, Mommy… make him stop!"
"Here's something to think about," Harry said, "If you two don't stop tormenting each other I'm going to stop this car and make you wish I hadn't."
The pitch and tenor of his voice was more than convincing. The boys were quiet for almost an hour.
"Are we there yet?" William asked, as they passed a series of roadside neon signs, a change in the power pole farm fence monotony.
"Almost." Their mother brushed a stray strand of hair away from Harry's damp forehead.
"Just a few more miles, " Harry said. "We'll find a nice place to stay and get something to eat."
"I'm hungry." The first words out of Todd’s mouth since his father's admonition. "Can we eat at McDonald's?"
Harry glanced at Virginia with, "Any request?"
"Let's find a broiler…something not deep fried."
"Sounds good to me."
Three hours after sunset, and kids full enough not to ask for more, the family was settling into their modest motel room, two king size beds and a large TV.
"Can we watch TV?" Todd, a bit myopically, was checking twisted laces on new hiking boots after having tried them on four times.
"Let's all get a good night's sleep." Mother, bath-robed, was doing her best to get her youngest tucked into bed. "You can watch TV anywhere anytime. Get a good night's sleep and we'll have a wonderful day. Did you brush your teeth, Todd?"
"Yes, Mother." Boots drop…eyes roll up…he lies down.
"Goodnight William. Goodnight Todd. Sweet dreams."
Motel rooms. Strange places. Strange sounds. Strange smells. Beds don't feel like my bed at home, and who sleeps in the same bed with his brother? were thoughts flying through juvenile minds. Still, miles of highway and good food works magic. Both boys were asleep within minutes.
"You okay?" Virginia snuggled up against her hubby's back. "Don't let the kids bother you so much. You were a kid too. I bet you gave your parents something to think about."
"Am I too strict?" He didn't roll over to face her.
"No. Just remember you were a boy."
They had breakfast at an old style pancake and eggs joint with gold rush relics and western gear hanging from rafters, the walls papered with old maps and shelves loaded with antiques. Even Todd was snared by the mystique of the past. He was in front of a smoke-stained mirror doing fast draws with his sore finger on their way out.
They wound their way up through golden-tan olive-drab foothills and ephemeral history of desperate men seeking gold. A few hours later the road followed a wild turbulent river with towering gray granite peaks overhead.
"Are we there yet?" both asked, boys beyond excitement.
As they entered the park, eyes captive with wonder, almost speechless, faces into window-down higher elevation air, they sat, hands gripping wind-cooled sills. After Harry checked in with the ranger and paid the fee, they drove through the canyon, found their spot, set-up tent and unloaded the car.
Harry walked off by himself and found a seat on a fallen tree. It was a good vantage point. He looked down; saw the kids and the car. Then he looked up at the mountains.
When he returned to the car, Virginia had already set up camp, cooler, cook-stove and…well everything looked just right.
Harry gave her a hug and a kiss. "It isn't too hot up here for you, is it?" He looked into the softest-blue eyes.
"Shall I make some lunch?" she asked, after a much welcomed squeeze, face aglow with fresh alpine air.
"Let's go, Dad." Todd was tying a sweatshirt around his waist. "I filled up our canteens an' put the camera in Williams's pack… ."
"Eat first," Harry said. "You'll need the energy, even though I'd deny that about now if anyone asked."
"Make Todd carry the pack," William complained, unable to even lift the load.
"I'll carry it." Harry shouldered the pack.
They hiked for three hours after eating lunch, noses in the air like wild animals sniffing out the wind for adventure, overcome by breadth and magnificence of such special earth. If there was anywhere more special or beautiful than Yosemite's splendor, it was kept secret from the four in its immeasurable embrace.
"We're here," Todd announced, his foot on a large worn rock as he overlooked the valley below. "Look, dad…you can't even see cars from here…oh…there's some more."
Harry, who'd been looking at El Capitan, was looking up at Half Dome. "Seen cars before." A simple statement of fact.
Todd's gaze followed his dad's. "Golly. How did that get made?"
Harry had a few textbook answers, but faced with the magnitude of such creative power, felt the explanations fell far short of the experience. "This is old," he began, one hand on his son's shoulder, the other gesturing at the panorama before them. "It was here long before humans came along. It took a long time for ice and snow and wind and earth to make this… ." he continued, but unsatisfied with his explanation. "The more we look the more we learn… ."
Todd stood next to him and looked without talking for a long time. Harry sat on a large rock, loosened a boot and straightened his right sock. With pocket-guide book in hand, Virginia and William were trying to identify birds.
Harry opened the pack and took out the camera. "Want to take a picture?" He held the camera out to Todd.
Todd took the camera and held it up to his eye. Slowly turning at the waist, he moved the camera up and down. He lowered the camera and looked at his dad.
"It won't fit, " he said, appearing a little lost. "It doesn't look like that when I look through the camera."
"It's too big," Harry said, understanding his son's perspective. "I guess some things are too big to fit inside a camera."
"Let me take a picture of you." Todd focused and snapped off a shot before Harry could reply. "I hope I got you inside it."
He handed the camera back to his dad. Harry looked away so the boy couldn't see his eyes.
They hiked until Virginia suggested they go back. The promise of her cooking was a strong incentive to turn the explorer's footsteps. The campsite meal was one to remember, one more Virginia magic trick over a camp stove. After they ate, the four shared a long period without talk, watching dying embers in the fire-ring and roasting marshmallows on sticks. When he abandoned the stick after eating six, Todd got up and went into the tent.
He returned with two very small gift-wrapped boxes. "William and me got these for you." Almost shyly, he held out the presents, one in each hand.
When at first they didn't respond, he moved closer and handed them to his parents. Virginia and Harry looked at each other like children.
"What this?" Virginia was already unwrapping her small package.
Inside was a butterfly pin. Harry's box held a pin in the shape of an owl.
"They're for your hats," Todd explained, smiling, toeing the dirt. "Just stick 'em on your hats."
Harry wiped his eyes and said, head turned, "Smoke follows beauty. I'm going to go pin it on my hat right now."
"Thank you, boys," their mother said, smiling, holding the pin in the pit’s firelight so she could better admire the design, "they're lovely. How sweet of you." The shadow of her husband moving in the tent turned her head. "Maybe your father will bring my hat too… ."
Harry came back with both hats. "Okay…here we are..nice pins, kids. Thank you. Does this owl mean I have to learn to be smarter?"
"You're already smart, Daddy," said William, twisting fingers and chewing lower lip. "We wanta be as smart as you when we get big.”
Harry seemed to have lost his voice. Virginia took the hats, fastened the pins, then the parents modeled for toothy-smile sons.
"Well?" Virginia posed at the stove with ladle in hand. "Will I make the cover of Outdoor Life?"
William and Todd just giggled and acted like kids.
Harry was even quieter than usual while cleaning up the dishes and table. He stowed the gear in the trunk of the car in hopes that the bears couldn't get at it. Virginia and the kids brushed their teeth and rinsed with water from canteens.
"Camping is real neat." Todd was looking up between the limbs of giant conifers at a sky filled with sparkling stars. "How come there are so many stars?"
"You can see them better up here." His dad shut the car trunk. "Too much smog down there where we live. Stars are always there but you can't see them."
"Can we live up here, Mommy?" William poked dying embers with the tip of his marshmallow stick.
"No, dear. That's why we take vacations. If everyone got their wish to live up here it wouldn't be like this. There would be smog up here too."
When the boys were in bedrolls and the moon finally up, Harry and Virginia left the tent and walked up to the log where Harry sat after they arrived. It was cooler now and the sounds of other campers had somewhat diminished. Virginia put her arm through Harry's and they sat on the log.
"Are you still happy living with me?" He looked up at moonlit gray granite cliffs.
Virginia didn't answer quickly, but finally said, "Harry, you're a good man. I could never have found someone I'd love more. Don't forget your childhood, Harry. Work and all that goes with it is important, but nothing is more important to me than my family and really living our lives. We don't need anything but you, Harry. Sometimes you get too serious. Let go a little…you'll like it."
He sighed and sat quietly next to her. Neither spoke for what seemed some time. The moon had moved higher in the sky and the stars didn't seem quite as bright as before.
Harry turned and kissed her cheek. "Are we there yet?"
Eyes filled with mountain moonlight, she kissed him back.
* * *