CHAPTER THREE: Family Truckster
I saw Vacation in the movie theatre when it came out in 1983.
Watching the Griswold family’s stumbling cross-country journey to Walley World in their Family Truckster reminded me of my own family’s yearly recreational misadventures. We had a station wagon that looked a lot like the Family Truckster, right down to the fake wood paneling on the doors. I spent a lot of hours in the backseat of that Country Squire.
For the 1983 version of me, Vacation was little more than a goofy family comedy. Although I was twenty at the time, I saw it through the eyes of fifteen-year-old Rusty Griswold riding in the backseat of that station wagon. I couldn’t identify much with the father Clark because I then lacked three things: a wife, kids, and the hard brushes with reality that life brings to a man over the years.
Now, having attained all those things (in multiples), I see the movie through Clark’s eyes—from the driver’s seat of the Family Truckster. Vacation is more than a goofy comedy, it’s the story of a fallen hero’s quest for the holy grail of the ideal family vacation. It’s a tale of adventure, something that every man needs in his life, or he will cease to live. I didn’t know that then, but I know it now.
Now, from the driver’s seat of my Family Truckster, I can also see that Chevy Chase was brilliantly cast as Clark Griswold. Slightly paunchy and balding, he perfectly captured the essence of a man in mid-passage from young manhood into early middle age. In his real life, Chevy Chase had just turned forty and was on his third wife. Although he only had one kid at the time, he must have encountered enough masculine reality by then to help him convincingly play the fallen hero on screen. Watching that movie now is like watching a comedy about myself.
Vacation begins with Clark picking up the Family Truckster at the dealership. It’s not the car he wants or that he intends to buy, but the salesman has already crushed the station wagon he drove in with to finagle him into taking it anyway. Having no other choice but to delay or cancel his family’s vacation, Clark compromises and takes the Truckster. It’s just the first of the many compromises that Clark will make on his journey to Walley World. And, from Clark's demeanor in making it, it’s obvious to the viewer that it’s not the first compromise he’s made as a husband and father. For a family man, life is about compromise.
Rusty is outraged by his father’s acquiescence. Yet a boy, he cannot fathom the life of a man who has taken on the responsibilities of a family. For him, life still presents an abundance of limitless choices, while for Clark, the choices are far fewer and rarely the ones he would make if he were on a solo adventure. From the driver’s seat of the Family Truckster, every choice is a compromise and every day a decision whether to quit or be an asset and stay in the fight.
Ironically, given the central role the Family Truckster held in the movie, 1983 was the high-water mark of the station wagon. The next year, Chrysler unleashed the first minivan on America and by 1996 the station wagon was a dead letter. By 2005, when my third daughter was born, it was the minivan that ruled the family car market.
So, there I was at age forty-two (paunchy and balding myself) with three kids under five, listening to the Honda salesman lie to me about how much I was going to like the Odyssey after I got used to driving it.
“You won’t find a minivan with more cup holders,” he said helpfully.
Well, there was that I thought. Cup holders are like pockets—a man with a family needs as many of them as he can get. It occurred to me that the minivan is the cargo shorts of vehicles. It has what a man needs even though it doesn’t look that great in providing it.
I dithered a bit, pretending for a while that I had a choice, but I knew I didn’t. Ultimately, like Clark Griswold, I found myself in the driver’s seat of my own Family Truckster on the path of my own compromised adventure, armed with more pockets and cup holders than I thought I could possibly need.
But I was not alone. Although it seems that way to every man who slips on cargo shorts and buys his first minivan, the compromised adventure of the family man is not a modern phenomenon. Five hundred years ago Francis Bacon wrote in Of Marriage and Single Life that he that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for thay are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.
That’s a bit of baroque word salad, but what it means is that a man with a family is constrained from taking risk in a way that a single man is not. In his pursuit of adventure, he must always first consider the impact upon his wife and children should he fail. It is from that consideration that compromise is made necessary.
But compromise is not the same thing as surrender. A man must never believe that the risk so far outweighs the reward that he should abandon adventure entirely. While he must compromise to protect his family, he cannot allow himself to sink into the docile immobility of an emotional eunuch who rides along in the backseat of his own minivan. For if he does that, he will die as a man and be of no use to the very people he surrendered to protect. He will cease to be an asset and become a Fat Ted, a man who believes in nothing.
Compromise though he must, a man must always remain an adventurer. He must stay in the fight from the driver’s seat of his Family Truckster and view his minivan and cargo shorts not as totems of surrender, but as badges of honor symbolic of his compromised adventure.
They are the external manifestations of the Credo of the Minivan Centurion.