I was trapped in a passenger van for hours of highway with a gob of kids. Being an old man now, I was dreading the trip.
But it was strangely quiet.
I looked around the van. Wires dangled from the ears of every youngster. Their eyes were glued to handheld devices with flashing screens. They were staving off invading armies, watching cartoons, texting friends and whatever else it is that kids can do to avoid conversations that do not involve electronic technology.
Then I heard it.
Quietly, one of the teens who had been peering intently out the window whispered to himself, ''T.''
Could it be?
A mile or so later, I saw a road sign: ''Dubois, 12 miles.'' He saw it, too.
''U,'' he whispered.
Wow! The Road Sign Alphabet Game!
I read recently that kids today never heard of The Road Sign Alphabet Game or other road trip standards of days gone by. Instead, kids have turned on their mp3 players, tuned in to what they think is music and dropped out of family interaction.
There are some great advantages to this.
Before cars came equipped with built-in video screens, parents had to be careful with private jokes about the relative they were about to visit. Otherwise, as soon as they arrived, the kids would spill out the back seat and shout, ''Daddy says when he walks behind you, it's like watching two old hogs wrestling in a gunny sack. Can we see?''
In the old days of long car rides, we played rousing games of ''I'm Not Touching You,'' interspersed by punching each other on the leg as sneakily as possible so as not to be detected by the big people in the front seat.
''OW! QUIT IT!'' little brother would yell. ''MOM!''
Dad's eyes would flash to rearview mirror just in time to see big brother virtuously looking up from his Hardy Boys book, in which he clearly has been engrossed for at least the last 20 minutes.
''He punched me!'' little brother sobbed.
''He's always trying to get me in trouble, even when I haven't done a thing!'' big brother whined innocently.
''If you two don't settle down, I'm turning this car around right now!'' Dad roared.
This kind of game could go on for miles and miles, making time pass much more quickly for the kids - and seem interminable to the grown-ups.
So Mom would try to interest the kids in something like The License Plate Game.
"OK, boys, we're going to have a contest to see who can spot the most states on license plates. The rules are you cannot talk unless it's to say the name of a state. I'll keep score.''
''Utah! Hey! I saw it first!''
''Nu-uh! I called it!''
''You saw me looking and yelled over me. Mom, mark it for me!''
''Mom, he's stealing Utah from me!''
Dad: ''I'm going to turn this car around!''
Today, kids have earbuds permanently melded to their ears. They've never heard of The License Plate Game, nor do they care. Car rides can be eerily silent compared to what I remember.
I looked back at the teenager staring out the window. ''V!'' he said.
''Hey!'' I yelled. ''Bet I can count more cows on my side of the van than you can on yours! Whoever sees the most before we get to Exit 154 wins! Go!''
Sometimes, you just need a little yelling and low-tech games.
----- Punch Cole at firstname.lastname@example.org.