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The Red Rocket Road Trip


J. D. Pendry


Family vacations are not unlike military operations.  You have an objective to meet, an operations order and you have to quarter, feed, transport, sustain and even entertain (see to the morale of) the troops.  First Sergeant experience proves invaluable.  Some of the unchanging principles are also alive and well.  For example, the best plan disintegrates about five minutes after you cross the line of departure.  Let me share with you the Red Rocket Road Trip.


I had relatives visiting from Korea.  Two brother-in-laws and wives.  It was their first trip to the states.  One brother-in-law speaks English well enough to communicate.  The others rely on translators and sign language, which mainly consists of grunting and pointing.  They smile a lot and grab you by the arm to drag you to whatever they are surprised by or trying to understand.  Like how to turn off the water in the bathtub.  We have a faucet with a lever handle on it.  Up is on.  Up left is on and hot.  Up right is on and cold.  Straight down is off.  This has tormented my guests so much that they started using the shower in the basement, which has twisty knobs on it.  Lesson: Before you turn the troops loose on new or unfamiliar equipment train them.  It’ll cut down on your water bill.


When I first received the warning order of inbound relatives, I began to ponder what I would do with them for the weeks or months they stayed.  I did this by plotting all of the local sites.  We have some good ones too.  We have the New River Gorge with its world famous bridge.  We have an Exhibition Coal Mine, some glass factories and… well there’s a lot of stuff.  I dutifully plotted out my planned entertainment and presented it to Household 6.  She looked at it, tossed it on the table and said we’re going to Niagara Falls and Washington, DC.  Lesson: Before you start planning an operation, ensure that you understand the commander’s intent.  She was not interested in my whining, which I called reasoning and to add to the difficulty of my new mission, another sister-in-law (a local one) decided that she’d tag along for the weeklong trip.


The strength of my squad (-) was now seven.  My extended cab F-150 holds four and two of them uncomfortably.  Realizing that four of my squad were women, I surmised that I needed at least a 9-passenger vehicle to make up for the cargo, which I expected to accumulate as the trip wore on.  Checking with the local rental agencies, I discovered that I had two options.  They were a seven-passenger van or a 15 passenger because all the tweeners were reserved when I needed one.  The 15-passenger was actually a small bus.  After being unsuccessful at locating a tweener, I reluctantly reserved a seven-passenger for our trip.  Lesson:  Know your transportation requirements and get your requests in early.


On Monday evening before the trip started, I went to the rent-a-car place to pick up my van.  When I pulled in, there was two of them sitting in the lot.  One was a classy looking charcoal gray and the other was fire engine red.  Guess which one they had for me.  Yep, I got the Red Rocket.


The Red Rocket had seats for exactly seven.  It had almost enough cargo space for one woman, if that woman was my wife.  The dilemma I faced was that I had four women who were very much like my wife.  For them, traveling light does not mean the same as it might to a soldier or even your average non-soldier male.  For example, why do we need to take four hairdryers?  Couldn’t they just pass around one?  Or, here’s a wild thought for you, couldn’t they use the one provided in the hotel room?  Lesson:  Make a packing list and stick to it.


Four of my squad (-) were middle aged – 50 something and two were borderline geezers, being 70 each and change.  Even though I had offers, I told everyone it was better if I did all the driving.  My 50 something brother-in-law was dying to try out his international drivers license.  The thought of that gave me flashbacks of driving in Seoul.  I recalled one hand on the horn, the other giving the road rage salute to anyone in the way and a led foot on the gas pedal.  I thanked him for his offer then ensured him that American custom did not allow guests to drive on road trips.  Koreans are big on obeying customs.  The clan elder, my 70 something brother-in-law secured the shotgun seat.  He looked like Black Jack Pershing sitting there sticking his chest out with one arm straight in front resting on the dashboard.  He rode that way until I showed him how to make the seat recline.  He promptly squashed my second brother-in-law, who was sitting behind him, and went to sleep.  He slept a lot.  Sitting behind me was a sister-in-law.  She is quite large for a Korean woman.  In the back row sat the remaining three women, with my wife in the middle.  This created a problem.  The problem was that whenever the sister-in-law sitting behind me wanted to speak with the three in the back row, which was like every other minute, she had to turn toward the back of the van.  This was OK except for one minor problem.  Whenever she turned, she pushed off on the anchor to my seat belt, which would secure my head firmly against the headrest and drastically reduce my air supply.  She’d let out a big laugh and turn back to the front usually just before I lost consciousness.  Lesson:  Have a backup driver or arrange the seating so the clan elder squashes the sister-in-law.


Before we hit the road, I decided I’d go hi-tech and use the Internet to plot my routes.  I went to three different sites, which I won’t mention for fear of being sued, and started typing in instructions necessary to obtain driving directions.  All three were virtually the same, one had simpler instructions and left out the bazillion or so interchanges one passes through.  I put all three in the Red Rocket, but forgot to take my trusty road atlas from the F-150.  The route from Wild Wonderful to Niagara Falls was easy except that the instructions said turn right when exiting the Interstate in Niagara when they should have said turn left.  It was sometime before I was able to bring myself to ask for directions – male thing, you know.  Our first mission in Niagara Falls was to find a store and buy sweatshirts.  When we left Wild Wonderful, it was 80 degrees plus.  At Niagara, it was 40 something.  Lesson:  Do a weather recon and ensure the troops pack the appropriate clothing.


After doing all the tourist things at the falls, it was time for us to head to DC for the second part of the trip.  The Internet maps directed me through much of the New York and Pennsylvania countryside via US highways.  It was a much shorter route than what I would have plotted using my road atlas.  The first leg in New York was a good four lane divided highway for about 50 miles.  Then it turned into a tour of every small town in that part of the state.  Funny, they all looked the same.  I was taking a turn in the road on US 220 through one of those post card towns, while also being choked out by my sister-in-law, when all of the Red Rocket’s in-flight alarms sounded.  Lights were flashing and bells were ringing.  Just as suddenly as they started, they stopped.  I had two thoughts flash into my mind.  The first was… well, you know what the first was.  The second was how in the heck do I explain to whomever answers the rent-a-car help line where I am?  I hit the first gas station I ran into.  The troops piled out for the latrines and I started checking everything about the Red Rocket I could think of that may have caused the alarms to go off.  I found no problems with the vehicle, although I still wasn’t convinced I could explain my location.  Lessons:  One, PMCS has a purpose and it’s better performed before instead of during.  Second, hi-tech is good, but keep your hard copy map nearby in case you really need to know where you are.


The remainder of the trip to DC was uneventful.  My wife decided that we’d take the tour of the sites on foot, as she and I did many times during our stay at Fort Myer.  About half way through the day, the fitness level of my troops started to show through.  It was tough to get past a bench.  We ended up at the Korean War Memorial, which they thought was special.  We left three of my squad (-) there, two geezers and a sister-in-law, while the rest of us Charlie Miked into Arlington National Cemetery.  After seeing the sites in Arlington, I got the troops into a convoy of taxis and back to the hotel.  We missed our final objective for the day, which was to visit with my friend CSM Debra Strickland and watch the Old Guard and the Army Band perform Twilight Tattoo at Fort Belvoir.  By the time we regrouped at the hotel, we didn’t have enough time to get in the Red Rocket and get to Belvoir.  At about Tattoo time, it began to thunderstorm, so I don’t know if they managed it or not.  Lessons:  Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Ensure the fitness level of your troops (know their capabilities) is up to the mission and even if your unit is reduced because of stragglers, you still must complete the mission at hand.


We completed our nearly 1500-mile circle by ending up back in Wild Wonderful five days after we started.  The troops went to bed and woke up two days later.  We spent a couple more days of showing them the local sites then put them back on the plane – then I slept for two days.


Vacation’s over, I’m rested up now that I’m back at work and the Bunker is almost back up to full operation.