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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #92, 6/3/2007

Showdown at Morro Bay

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

He seemed like the classic pedophile: a middle-aged man with no stable address who had crossed state lines in a rental car with two underage girls. The three were encountered by a park ranger at a remote campground on the California coast after someone dialed 911 from the camp's payphone then hung up.

The two girls were found walking together after dark on a campground road. When asked who they were with, they couldn't give a clear answer. It wasn't their father or a relative but some other guy. They were clearly unhappy. They were hungry, they said, and they hadn't showered in two days. The man had refused to allow them to make phone calls and was holding them at this campground against their will.

The man himself appeared from the darkness a few minutes later. Per procedure in such cases, the officer separated him from the girls and went back and forth between the two, interviewing them separately. The man was asked to sit at a picnic table on one side of the road while the girls sat on the ground on the other side. Eventually, the girls were moved into the cab of the ranger's pickup truck.

One of the girls, age 11, said that both of her parents were deceased. The other girl, age 14, was apparently a runaway. The dispatcher told the ranger over the radio that this girl was the subject of a missing person report out of Las Vegas.

The man, age 47, provided a Nevada driver's license that appeared valid. He had no outstanding wants or warrants. However, the California Highway Patrol did have an "index number" for him, indicating that he had had prior contact with them. The dispatcher would attempt to obtain more.

The stories of both the man and the girls became increasingly convoluted with the telling. They had started in Las Vegas, where the car was rented. Their destination, however, was not California but someplace in the midwest. They had come to California to pick up a third girl but her parents had refused to let her travel.

The goal of the expedition, they said, was to take the three girls to visit a fourth girl in Oklahoma. The girls said that the man had promised to take them there, but earlier in the day he reneged on his promise and now said he wouldn't. They told him that they wanted to leave and go back home right away, but he refused to take them. He also refused to let them call their relatives to tell them they were okay.

The man sat alone at the picnic table as the ranger interviewed the girls. He could hear snippets of their conversation and fully understood what was being said.

"Isn't life amusing," he said to himself.

* * *

This story is true. It all unfolded last week as I transported two pubescent (but not quite innocent) juvenile females across state lines in search of another girl. I am that creepy middle-aged man. I am also a "gaywad" and a "pervert" who likes to sleep with little boys and who wants to have sex with Michael Jackson.

Both of the girls hated me. I knew this because they told me so on a regular basis.

"Glenn," they said, "I fucking hate you! You fucking ruined my life, you dumb-funk gaywad!"

"Fuck" is a major part of the lexicon of these particular girls, so much so that even I started using the word.

"Watch your fucking language!" I yelled back at them.

You might say that these girls cursed like sailors, except that we encountered a real sailor earlier in the day at a dock on the ocean. He scolded the youngest girl, "You have a filthy little mouth for a young lady," and he recommended to me that it be washed out with Zest.

I have taken many such road trips with surly adolescents. The destinations are interesting, but the journey itself is usually more important. Among other things, it is a chance to test my theories of parenting.

The two girls on this trip were "Bonkers," age 14, and "Drama Mama," who had just turned 11. These are the names they have for each other. "Bonkers" is a play on her real name and isn't particularly descriptive. She is no more bonkers than any other teen—i.e. only moderately insane with occasional moments of unexpected lucidity. "Drama Mama," however, is a perfect description of that girl. She is an extraordinary actress who turns every rest stop into a great theatrical production.

There have to be rest stops because Bonkers smokes cigarettes. I am not happy about this, but it is beyond my control, and it is not pragmatic for me to try to cure her right now. We have at least come to an understanding that we are going to have smoking breaks no more than every two hours.

When we do stop, there is always a danger that Drama Mama will wander off, or steal the car keys, or lock herself in the car, or do something else dramatic to delay and control the expedition. If the rest of us want to go, then she wants to stay. If we want to stay, then she wants to go. Her obstructions can be as predictable as clockwork. We can't just stop for a five-minute smoking break. It is often a half-hour before D.M.'s theatrics run their course.

I was not upset about D.M.'s obstructions. From my prior experience with her, they were expected. Emotionally, this was a big expedition for her. She had never been to the ocean before and had never known an adult who would even consider such a trip. I realized that I needed to let her control the pacing as much as possible. A half-hour delay at a rest area meant a half-hour less at the beach, but once I made this clear to her, my job was simply to sit and wait.

She taunted me through the car window, with me locked outside: "Glenn, I'm going to smash your camera."

"That would make me sad," I said, with as flat and disinterested a tone as possible. She knows that my camera is my most prized possession, which is why she threatens it. I know, however, that it is also her most prized possession when she is with me, which I why I know she won't smash it. I won't give her the satisfaction of responding to her theatrics, except to blandly state my position. This is how I expect, eventually, to make these tantrums go away.

I have only known her for a few weeks, but I have already learned to include a Drama Mama factor in my plans. If we stop for a potty break, I have to allow 20 minutes rather than five. If she wants to lock herself in the car or wander off, I am willing to wait her out.

"Take your time," I tell her. "We'll go to the beach when you are ready."

When we get to the beach or some other destination, I know that our departure is going to involve a similar delay. Wherever we go, I have to think about the parameters I am setting up for Drama Mama. It is very much a chess game, where I have to think several moves ahead of her.

When she is performing, Drama Mama knows no fear, which can be very frightening to anyone else. If there is a cliff in front of her, she is liable to run up to the edge of it to make the rest of us think she is going to jump. She has no intention of jumping, but the risk is that she might miscalculate, lose her footing and go over the edge anyway. My response when she makes these suicidal gestures is to withdraw from the scene completely. I turn my back on her and try to get out of her view. No audience means no theatrics.

Bonkers, on the other hand, does know fear. She'll inch up to the edge of the cliff, then pull back. This is healthy and normal and more like my own response. I see Bonkers as a normal teen. She is given to occasional distemper, but nothing like the continuous theatrics of Drama Mama.

I have known Bonkers since she was about 6. She is the best friend of my ex-wife's daughter, who is now in Oklahoma. Bonkers and I have always had a good rapport, and when I heard that she had run away from home and gone to her grandmother's house, I wanted to be involved with her again.

It is a matter of debate whether she "ran away" or was "kicked out" of her mom's house. Bonkers says she was kicked out, but I suspect that it was a little of both.

Bonker's dad is in prison on drug charges and her mom is a stripper in one of Las Vegas' fine gentlemen's clubs. Bonkers says her mom is using drugs, but Bonkers has no direct evidence of this and her perception is prone to hyperbole. What is provable about mom is that she has had a rapid turnover in boyfriends for as long as I have known her and that these relationships tend to end with a Temporary Protective Order being filed by one side or both. (They are a matter of record in Family Court.) Bonkers has four siblings, each from different fathers. In the years I have known her, they lived in about seven different places, which changed with the boyfriends. They have lived in tiny apartments as well as spacious houses in good neighborhoods but with little furniture.

Probably the only thing that was constant in Bonkers life was her friendship with my ex-step-daughter (XSD) and consequently her relationship with me. These relationships were strained by the collapse of my own household. For about three years, there was major dysfunction in our home, and Bonker's mom felt—perhaps rightly so—that Bonkers shouldn't go there. The relationship between Bonkers and my ex-step-daughter continued, but it had to be conducted in secret.

Prior to her running away, my last memory of Bonkers was about a year before, when the XSD and I dropped her off secretly around the corner from her house so Bonker's mom wouldn't know they were seeing each other. The XSD was moving out of state, and I thought at the time that I would probably never see Bonkers again.

Now she's back in my life, and I think I probably need her as much as she needs me. In spite my lack of custody or credentials, I am her dad, or at least the closest she has ever had to one. I don't know how our relationship will evolve, but I hope to be a more active father to her in the future. Reconnecting with her is part of my own healing processing from the nuclear explosion of my divorce. Now that my ex-wife and I are 1200 miles apart, we seem to be getting along well. With the dust settling at last, I want to pick up the shards of old relationships and pull together something like a family, which I have missed.

Whatever the falling out was between Bonkers and her mom, she ended up at her paternal grandmother's house, and her mom did not try to contact her there. In fact, since Bonkers left, her mom and siblings reportedly lost another boyfriend and moved yet again, and Bonkers didn't even know where they lived. I am sure that Bonkers could find her mom if she wanted, but it was clear that the relationship had burned out and that Grandma's house was the better place for her.

When I made contact with Bonkers, her grandmother was about to file for permanent guardianship over her—which was a whole fascinating area of Family Court that I didn't yet have much experience with. I helped Grandma with the paperwork and went with them to court, and the guardianship was approved last Tuesday.

We left for California the same afternoon. We had taken a couple of day trips since she moved to Grandma's, but I didn't want to cross state lines with Bonkers until her status was settled. Grandma seemed comfortable with me, and she gave me verbal permission to take her. I didn't have permission in writing, but the chaos level in this situation was already so high that I didn't feel it was necessary.

Drama Mama came with the package. She was also a ward of Grandma. (She was actually a niece, not a grandchild.) Drama Mama's parents had been drug addicts. Her dad died when she was young and her mom was murdered by her boyfriend fairly recently. (I don't know when or the circumstances.) Obviously, D.M. had suffered through a truckload of childhood trauma, and her theatrics were part of her coping mechanism.

Lest you get too sentimental about how D.M. lost her mom, I assure you that she plays it to the hilt. "I want to join my Mom!" she cried during one of her tantrums during an earlier hike, when she threatened to jump off a unspecified cliff because she wasn't getting her way. She looked up at the sky, real tears flowing from her eyes. "Mom, please take me!"

"Bravo!" I replied, applauding her performance. "All I ask is if you jump, please try to keep yourself together. I would rather you made a small stain than a big one. Please don't scatter body parts all over the place."

I like Drama Mama. When she isn't tantruming, she is exuberant, fun and smart. Owing to previous experiences in my own background, I believe I understand D.M. and know how to manage her. If she were an adult, she would fit all of the diagnostic criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder: unstable mood, frequent suicidal gestures, risk-taking behaviors, manipulation of others, constant theatrics. This diagnosis, however, isn't officially given to youth. Most teenagers are borderline by definition, and they may grow out of it.

I invited Drama Mama to join us on our earlier day trips because she was now essentially a sister to Bonkers, and I didn't want to leave her out. On our very first outing, we tried to take a hike, and she obstructed it at every opportunity. (See earlier essay: "Meet Drama Mama".) When we started hiking, she wanted to go home. If we started to head home, she wanted to keep hiking. Her position on anything could reverse in an instant. Our first hike was aborted after she took off into the woods and I had to chase her down. This was okay by me, because we had already done plenty of things that day, and I could see she needed more time.

By the time of our California trip, I was reasonably confident that I had control over her. There would be obstructions at every turn, but they were already lessening. We had had a couple of showdowns already, and I think I won. My goal was to train her to negotiate rather than tantrum and to choose a single coherent position rather than flipping every few minutes.

The main aim of the California trip was to pick up 16-year-old Liz, another friend of the XSD who I had known for years and who was the product of another complex family with a drug history. After the trip, I was supposed to drive both her and Bonkers to Oklahoma, where they would stay for a few weeks with the XSD. Liz was supposed to be in Bakersfield, and my favorite beach is at Morro Bay, two hours beyond that. This would be a perfect opportunity to take the girls to the ocean! I invited both Bonkers and D.M. to come with me, and Grandma agreed to let them go.

When we got almost to Bakersfield, we received some startling news: Liz wasn't in Bakersfield but in Sacramento, four hours north. Furthermore, her parents decided arbitrarily that she couldn't go, even though she had made the trip with me before—during a time when they were providing no support to her at all. These new circumstances made me change my plans. I no longer cared to make the 20 hour drive to Oklahoma. I would simply put Bonkers on a plane in Las Vegas for a fraction of the cost.

This is when all four of the girls said I had ruined their lives. Bonkers said she was afraid of planes and didn't want to fly alone. The advance purchase requirements also meant that she couldn't get to Oklahoma for XSD's birthday, which was supposedly imperative. Sending Bonkers by plane also meant that Drama Mama couldn't go, which was never really part of the plan anyway.

Expletives were hurled at me in person and through cellphones (which were constantly in operation during our trip thanks to OUR WONDERFUL CULTURE OF COMMMUNICATION). That's okay. I am used to expletives being hurled at me by children and adults. It is only physical objects that I don't want thrown at me, and Drama Mama had begun using some of those already.

But we were still going to the beach! The girls flip-flopped about this several times, but I was in charge of this expedition, and I said we were going.

We spent the first night camped in the Mojave Desert. They slept in the tent, and I slept in the car, far enough away from them that they didn't keep me up all night. When the sun rose at about 5:30, they were remarkably compliant and got in the car without a fight. I attribute this to the fact that they weren't quite awake and the drama machine hadn't had time to warm up.

After only modest theatrics and a couple of smoking breaks, we got to the beach. This wasn't just any beach but the most interesting coastline south of San Francisco. Morro Bay has both crashing surf and a fully enclosed bay. There are sea lions and sea otters playing in the bay as well as sand dunes, tidepools and sea cliffs nearby. I had been here many times before, so I knew the routes to take to keep kids amused—as well as the routes to avoid to keep from spending money and triggering their begging circuits.

Our first stop was the endless Strand beach facing the open ocean. I had no problem at all coaxing the girls out of the car here. Drama Mama, who had never seen the ocean before, was immediately drawn into the surf. She rejoiced in it! The water was cold, but soon she was totally soaked. She had to challenge every wave and pick up every shell on the beach. The ocean and her were made for each other! I took photos of her as she frolicked, but she was not putting on a show for an audience. The only relationship that mattered was between her and the sea. She was testing it, pushing at it, seeing what it would do. The ocean seemed to give her the kind of intense stimulation she needed.

Bonkers, on the other hand, spent nearly the whole time pacing back and forth on the beach, talking on her cell phone (actually my cell phone). It seemed to be surgically attached to her ear, and no crashing surf or dramatic scenery was going to remove it.

You may wonder what teenagers talk about when they spend hours on the phone. Well, I'll tell you: very nearly nothing. Teenage phone calls are just about the most vapid form of communication known to man. One modality is to describe exactly what you are doing on a moment-to-moment basis, like "I'm painting my toenails now." The only other mode is endless gossip about the every-changing alliances and feuds within their teenage tribe. In Shakespeare's words, teenage phone calls are "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Bonkers was on the line to her boyfriend, the XSD, Liz and a couple of other friends. There was so much to say that the ocean was irrelevant. If the waves lapped by accident against Bonkers' feet, she quickly retreated to the warmer sand.

I let Drama Mama control the pacing, and eventually she lead us back to the car. Of course, as soon as it appeared that we wanted to to go, she suddenly didn't. Like adult borderlines, she has a built-in fear that she is going to be cheated. Now that she had found the ocean, she felt certain I was going to steal it away from her.

I coaxed her into the car by telling her that we were going boating next. I told them that I brought boats with me, but they didn't believe me. We drove to the city dock, and I pulled two inflatable boats out of the trunk and pumped them up. I insisted that the girls wear life jackets, and I told them that they couldn't bring cell phones because they might get wet and be ruined. (I wish this could happen more often!)

We paddled across the narrow neck of the bay to the barrier dunes that protected it from the open ocean. There we beached our craft and hiked across the big dunes to the ocean side. We came down to a beach that was similar to the Strand but more wild and rugged. We hunted for shells there, which were of better quality than those on the Strand. We found crab shells, a strange oozing blob called a sea cucumber and many round sand dollars. A sand dollar is a silver-dollar shaped shell that Bonkers was thrilled to learn had the shape of a marijuana leaf engraved on it. I took her photo as she proudly displayed one of them.

When we had boated back to the car, Bonkers quickly reconnected with her cell phone and with all the news she had missed in the past hour. I told the girls that we would be going to one more place along the shore, then we would be heading back toward Vegas as soon as it got dark. Drama Mama took this opportunity to throw a major fit. She said didn't want to leave tonight; she wanted to stay and camp. I told her this wasn't the plan. I said I had told her guardian that we would be back tomorrow, which meant that we had to leave tonight.

Secretly, I knew there was a campground at the Montaña de Oro State Park, where we would be going next. I had planned all along that we might stay there, but we had no reservation. I didn't dare mention this campground to D.M. since it would be taken as a promise even if the campground turned out to be full.

D.M. threw her tantrum at the docks, and I waited it out. She demanded over and over that we stay overnight and I replied calmly, over and over, that we would be heading out at dark. I told her that if she wanted to burn up the rest of the sunlight on a temper tantrum, she was free to do it.

The tantrum eventually ran its course, and we drove to the state park, which was in a remote location about 10 miles south of Morro Bay. There we found that there were indeed camping spaces available. I had to give D.M. a lecture then, saying that I had planned to stay here all along but that the tantrum nearly prevented it from happening. I asked D.M. to pick a campsite, and she did, while Bonkers raised no protest.

We parked the car at our new campsite then walked a quarter mile to yet another beach. This was a rocky and rugged one on Spooners Cove. In contrast to the other beaches, this one was marked by dramatic cliffs and rock outcroppings, and the beach consisted not of sand, but of curious pebbles with holes in them like Swiss cheese. D.M. climbed the cliffs without fear and scared me to the point where I withdrew from her a couple of times. Bonkers tried to talk on her cell phone, but there didn't seem to be any reception, so she joined us in climbing and beachcombing.

We got back to the campsite as the sun was going down. There, Bonkers discovered something very disturbing: There was no cell phone coverage anywhere!

Now it was Bonkers' turn to throw a fit. There were calls that absolutely had to be made! I told her that they would have to wait until morning. She said, no, they had to be made NOW, and if she couldn't do it, then she wanted to leave and go home immediately.

I said "No." They had wanted to camp, and now we were camping. Part of the camping experience, I said, is that you sometimes have to go without modern conveniences.

Bonkers ordered me to drive her down the road a couple of miles so she could make her calls, and I still said no. I said that her calls would have to wait until daylight.

I proceeded to set up the tent.

Drama Mama then joined in the chorus. She wanted to leave, too! I tried to point out that just two hours before she had thrown a fit that she wanted to stay and camp. Unfortunately, this kind of logic is futile with D.M. Apparently what happened in the meantime is that the circumstances totally changed. Whatever it was she was raging about at the docks, I must not have delivered it properly. I had also become an "asshole" since then.

Bonkers demanded that I give her change for the payphone near the entrance of the campground. Again I refused, but the girls took off in that direction anyway.

When they came back they were both raging. I can easily manage Drama Mama alone or Bonkers alone, but when they join forces, they are a formidable foe. They reinforced each other and refused to back down. The crescendo of "fucks" and "I hate you Glenns" became louder and more aggressive, and it threatened to disrupt our neighbors in this quiet campground.

"Okay, that's enough," I said. "I'm going to the beach and will be back in a few minutes. We are not leaving. We are going to spend the night here. You can either sleep in the tent or in the car, but we are staying."

Then I took off briskly toward the beach, making sure I had the car keys in my pocket. I knew that the loud "fucks" would stop as soon as I left.

When I came back to the car, the girls were inside and the tent had been packed up and put back into the trunk. They were determined to go, and I was determined to stay. Apparently, this was going to be a test of wills, and there was no way I was going to let them win.

I assessed the battlefield and the weapons available on both sides. I controlled the car keys, which were in my pocket. If they had them, they probably wouldn't have driven away, but they might have taunted me by threatening to drive or by moving the car around the campground. (They had both become pretty good drivers, at least in the desert, thanks to Yours Truly.)

I may have had the keys but they controlled the car and its contents, including my most valuable possessions: my camera and laptop computer. Either of them could be damaged if they got angry enough.

They also had the power to scream and use foul language, which they have employed liberally before. Usually, I don't mind this. In general, I am not concerned with a child's words or "attitude," only his behavior. You can say anything you want about me and call me any name in the book; all I really care about is that you do what I tell you to and not do what I tell you not to. Yelling and bad language are harmless in the wilderness, in the car, or even down at the rocky beach, but in the campground they were highly improper and could attract unwanted attention. My counter-measure was simply to retreat to the beach whenever the cursing got too loud. They could follow me if they wanted and yell at me there.

Overall, the terrain and weather were to my strategic advantage. We had no flashlights, but the sky was clear and the moon was full, so there was enough light for us to move between the campground and the beach, where I anticipated the main battle happening. It was about five miles by road back to civilization, and getting there would require walking without a flashlight through a dark and scary forest that the girls had previously compared to "The Blair Witch Project." I knew they wouldn't cross that boundary.

I also knew that there were other boundaries that Bonkers wouldn't cross. She wouldn't smash something valuable of mine or even threaten to. She also wasn't going to lie. She wouldn't, for example, call 911 or tell a neighbor that I had kidnapped them. Bonkers was basically like any other addict who is deprived of their drug: irritable and non-cooperative. In this case, it was her cell phone addiction that I was interfering with.

My greatest fear was that things would get out of control. The girls didn't intend to hurt me or themselves, but in their fevered state, they could do something stupid that might cause unintentional damage, like when D.M. runs up to the edge of a cliff.

With the girls in the car, I took the tent out of the trunk and started setting it up again. They then got out of the car and began yelling at me. When a certain decibel level was reached, I took off for the beach again. I was prepared to go through this cycle as many times as necessary.

This time they followed me after a few minute's delay. On the beach, under the full moon, the main battle was waged. They spewed invective and distorted adolescent logic, while I calmly repeated my position. The sun had gone down and it would be about 8 hours before it came back again. I told the girls that we could leave in the morning as soon as the sun came over the horizon. In the meantime, we could all get some sleep or we could continue the argument all night. The choice was theirs.

I tried to keep things light and funny, and Bonkers had to work hard to maintain her anger.

"Stop making me laugh!" she yelled.

I taunted her about her inability to produce tears on demand like Drama Mama could. She insisted that she could produce tears and she worked herself into a great tizzy trying to prove it.

Drama Mama was along for the ride. It didn't really matter to her what she was arguing about, she just needed to oppose me. Unlike Bonkers, however, she could hit, bite and throw rocks, and I constantly kept my eye on her in the dim light to make sure I wasn't blindsided. I could see her form in the moonlight, but if she threw a rock at me, I wouldn't be able to see it coming at me.

I said, "No rocks!" and she seemed to respect that. She, too, had boundaries, but they were much more flexible than Bonkers'. In the middle of my debate with Bonkers, she hit me across the face with her sandal.

I immediately withdrew and started running back to the campground. I wanted to get back to the car before they did so I could secure my valuables. I was prepared to outlast my opponents, all night if necessary, but I wanted to put my camera and computer in a safe place.

When I got back to the car, I found that they had once again disassembled the tent and put it in the trunk. I again set it up, and I cached my valuables. When they came back from the beach and started spewing at me, I once again headed for the beach.

That's when the park ranger arrived. Someone had dialed 911 from the payphone at the entrance to the campground. It turns out that this was Bonkers, back at the beginning of our battle. (The ranger had responded earlier but had come back now for a second look.) Although she had no change for the payphone, Bonkers had tried to dial her friends anyway. One of the numbers she tried was the XSD in Oklahoma. The area code for Oklahoma was 918. By mistake, Bonkers dialed 9118, i.e. "911."

The ranger encountered the girls first, who were following me again toward the beach. He asked them who they were with, and that started the whole chain of events. It took about two hours to sort it all out. I think I put the rangers at ease fairly quickly, but they still had an outstanding missing-person report on Bonkers that they had to resolve. They called Grandma to confirm that the girls had permission to travel with me, but then she had to fax the guardianship papers to them to prove that she had legal custody. She didn't have a fax machine, which meant she had to find one at 10 o'clock at night.

As we were waiting for the fax to come, the girls sat in the ranger's truck to keep warm. Drama Mama soon nodded off on Bonkers' shoulder. With the Ranger's permission, I went over to talk to Bonkers. I told her that things were going to take a while, so she might as well get some sleep. Did they want to sleep in the tent or in the car?

She said they wanted to sleep in the car, which Drama Mama groggily seconded. This was their last act of defiance for the day, since they knew I preferred they sleep in the tent. The back seat of the car really wasn't big enough for two people; nonetheless, they squeezed in there, heavily padded with sleeping bags. Drama Mama fell to sleep instantly, as it must have been tiring to produce so much drama in one day.

After the girls settled in, I bent over Bonkers to give her a hug. There was a real look of remorse on her face. "Did I get you in trouble?" she asked sweetly.

"No," I replied warmly. "Everything's fine." Then I kissed her goodnight.

Indeed, everything was fine, BECAUSE I WON. The whole police incident may not have made much of an impression on Drama Mama, who has probably been through worse, but I am sure it changed Bonkers. I think she is going to think twice about defying me in the future.

In the morning, I awoke with the sun. I could have packed up everything and hit the road with the girls still asleep in the back, but I thought it was important to wake them up first. I wanted to make it clear at least to Bonkers that we were still at the campground. However, I didn't go "Ha, ha!" about it like I might normally do. I think the lesson will be memorable to her without any explicit reminders.

Drama Mama was another story. She was just as ornery this day as she was the day before. I didn't try to rush her: We went back to the Strand for a couple of hours, then we took our time heading back to Vegas, but the tantrums soon came back. As we were heading east from Bakersfield in the evening, things really got really dangerous. Can you guess what she was tantruming about? She didn't want to go home, she said. She wanted to camp another night!

"I want to fucking camp!" she screamed at me over and over, for nearly two hours solid between Bakersfield and Barstow. I have part of this rampage on record, because Bonkers recorded it with a video camera. The tantrum was only interrupted when Bonkers played the tape back for Drama Mama. They both thought it was hilarious, but anyone else watching it would see a hell-child out of control.

As we passed Barstow, the abuse became more intense, and I didn't know what to do. D.M. was sitting in the front seat and of course refused to wear a seat belt. I preferred to have her there so she didn't hit me from behind. She was punching me on the shoulder, and I worried that she would hit me on the side of the head while I was driving. She was also threatening to jump out the passenger door at highway speed, and she made the gestures of opening the door. I knew she didn't intend to jump, but the danger was that she would miscalculate and go out the door anyway.

I didn't want to stop the car, because that would give her an opportunity to get out and walk away. I had experienced this kind of behavior before in children and borderline adults, but I was beginning to doubt my own ability to handle the situation. Things became especially disturbing when she threatened to break every button on the car's console and actually started kicking at them. I feigned no interest, saying that it was a rental car so I didn't care what she broke, but she kept doing it anyway.

"I'll tear that mirror off," she said, pointing to my rear-view mirror, and she started twisting at it.

That's when I slapped her.

I did it across her arm, hard enough to hurt. She was stunned for a moment, then she started pulling at the mirror again.

I slapped her again.

"If you mess with the car, I will hit you again," I said.

It is a technique that has been banished from modern parenting manuals, but it worked! She retreated to the back seat while muttering something about child abuse.

She pretended to call 911 on her cell phone, which forced me to use another extreme technique. With one hand on the steering wheel, I reached into the back seat with the other to try to grab the cell phone. The car lurched from side to side on the highway, which terrified both girls. They assured me that no one would be calling 911 as long as I kept both hands on the wheel.

Now that I knew something they were afraid of, I could play the same game they did. I could produce my own theatrical rage and take my hands off the wheel whenever they got out of line.

The verbal muttering from D.M. continued at a low level for the remainder of the trip. The important thing, however, was that the physical abuse stopped. My own use of violence should not be underestimated. It is probably the only thing that would have got me out of the mess I was in.

By the time we got to the Grandma's house in Las Vegas, everything was calm and cheerful. We told Grandma about the fun things we had done while all of us conveniently omitted any conflicts. The incident with the park rangers was attributed to Bonkers' innocent mistake of dialing 9118 instead of 918. No one was to blame for that.

I told Grandma that D.M. was "no problem at all," although she didn't seem to believe me. "That can't be her," she said.

I wasn't disappointed in the trip in the slightest. It was much as I expected. As I said, it's the journey that is important, not the destination. We made no future plans, but I suspect there will be other expeditions. I have no discomfort about traveling with feral children or being mistaken for a child molester. It was actually quite fun!

Some men climb cliffs. Others jump out of airplanes, train wild animals or report on wars from the front lines. I choose to deal with adolescents, which can be every bit as dangerous and exhilarating. For me, these adventures are more rewarding than any others.

The keys to success are to never show fear and never let them get the upper hand.


Also see an earlier essay: Meet Drama Mama.

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