The Little Willis Kids Standing on the Beach

And the third “Indy’s Child” post. This one is from the archives, but still a Willis classic.


We’re getting ready to head to St. George Island for Spring Break. Lots of sand, ocean, books, wine, sunshine, and food. Nothing could be better. Loading up the Suburban for our journey, however, always brings back memories of our ill-fated vacation to Myrtle Beach.

We don’t travel lightly. Imagine the Beverly Hillbillies, and you’ve got a fairly accurate image. Now throw in some boogie boards strapped to the roof and bikes bungeed to a rack on the back. Add some Dramamine and 7-Up, and you’ve got us pegged.

This story isn’t short. In fact, it seemed like the actual event lasted for years and years and years. Most of my blog posts won’t be this long. But for this one, you may want to grab some chocolate and an extra cup of coffee.

On that fateful day a few short years ago, we were packed to the gills, locked and loaded, and ready to begin our long-awaited vacation once we completed our short 13-hour drive with our four young children.

It all went wrong somewhere in the South Carolina backcountry.

With less than two hours left until we reached our Mecca with a beachfront view, the Suburban began to smoke and sputter in the oppressive heat. Surrounded by nothing more than wilted orange cornflowers and a boiling expanse of highway that shimmered in the distance, we pulled over to assess the trouble.

Chris, being the Renaissance Man that he is (he can cook, pontificate, and diagnose car issues), immediately recognized the problem as a coolant hose gone bad. We were losing coolant by the second, and the engine was overheating. Storm clouds were rolling in, the temperature was well into the 90’s, and the kids were anxious. We did what any self-respecting family would do. We called AAA.

Problem is that our AAA membership had expired about a month earlier. So, while Chris was going through the automated renewal process (to the tune of a couple hundred dollars), his cell phone died.

By this time, we were all out of the sweltering car and standing on the deserted roadside. Sweating.

“I’m going to walk back to the last exit and see what I can find,” Chris informed us. My head immediately filled with visions of roadside serial killers coming out of the brush to off our entire family.

“No way in hell,” I responded. “We’re going with you.”

We locked our week’s worth of clothes, snacks, and beach paraphernalia into the Suburban and commenced our journey.

After about half a mile of walking and whining, we reached the exit. Mary Claire’s blood pressure and general anxiety rose as the storm made its way closer.

As we stood at the exit, a kind, large, loud African American woman pulled up in a very tiny car.

“You babies in trouble?” she shouted.

“We’re looking for a gas station or a convenience store,” my husband explained. “Do you know where the closest one is?”

“Back that way,” she replied, pointing in the direction from which we came. “About four miles.”

I tried not to cry as I imagined walking my hot, weary family four miles to the nearest phone.

“I don’t usually do this, but because you got the children and all, can I offer you a ride?”

I looked at her car, looked at Chris, looked at my kids, and was instantly rendered unable to make a decision. Would we all fit in the car? We didn’t have car seats. Would she kidnap, rob, and kill us? Was the four-mile ride to potential safety worth the risk of piling into her micro-machine?

“Yes, thank you,” Chris offered. “We would very much appreciate a ride.”

Decision made.

I sat in the front with George strapped on my lap. Chris sat in the back with Mary Claire on his lap and Sam and Gus squished in beside him. I’m not sure how many laws we were actually breaking at that given moment, but I suppose desperate times call for desperate measures.

Our saviour talked our ears off for the next four miles, and we graciously offered her our last $20 in cash for her troubles. She dropped us at a convenience store — or the closest thing to a convenience store in the South Carolina backcountry — and left us standing bereft and sweaty at the entrance.

We were truly in the middle of nowhere. The only thing we could see for miles was a small, disheveled house next to the store with two elderly black men sitting on a bedraggled golf cart. They eyed us with a mix of curiosity and suspicion as we fell out of the car like circus clowns.

Chris found an outside electrical source for his phone charger and re-connected with AAA. I took our hot, tired kids into the convenience store and bought them each a frozen treat from a rickety, rusted deep freezer.

Just as we were finishing up our transaction with the cashier who was less than friendly — who, quite frankly, bordered on downright mean — a large bolt of lightning and rumble of thunder knocked the electricity from the small building. The kids cried and spilled ice cream as they tried to crawl onto any available part of my body, and Chris — again — lost his connection with AAA.

The golf cart duo who had witnessed every second of our convenience store activities offered us a ride on their golf cart. I’m not sure where they were planning to take us, or how they were planning to get us all there, but we politely declined as the kids’ cries permeated the silence around us. At this point, you could actually see the line of black clouds slowly making its way toward us. It was menacing, to say the least. And although I tried to tout the wonder of Mother Nature’s glory, the kids were not impressed.

“Are we going to diiiiieeeee?” Mary Claire sobbed.

“No, Honey, we’re not going to die. We’re going to see some pretty cool lightning, though.”

“Are we going to be hit by liiiiiiiiiiggghhtnniiiinng?”

“No, Honey, that’s not going to happen. You have to trust me.”

“But we’re going to diiiiiiieeeee!”

At the most precious of moments, Chris entered the dark, muggy convenience store to inform us that a taxi was on the way.

Apparently, rental cars were available, but could not be delivered outside a certain radius. And we were definitely outside a certain radius. Hertz may deliver to some, but not to those of us most desperate.

As the storm clouds rolled closer and Mary Claire’s sobbing became more edged with hysteria, a long, black sedan circa 1988 pulled into the drive. Our chariot.

Chris loaded me into the taxi with the kids and promised he’d be right behind. AAA was sending a tow truck, and he’d grab a cab once the car was unloaded. Reluctant as I was to leave him in the middle of that God-forsaken place, I knew I had to get Mary Claire to the condo or risk her long-term mental stability. And by that time, Sam had joined the chorus of fear. The two of them ping-ponged their anxiety back and forth until it had escalated nearly to the point of no return.

Our taxi driver kept us one step ahead of the storm as she told us uncensored stories about her wayward kids and their drug, alcohol, and and promiscuity problems. I’m fairly certain my kids learned more about life in that 45-minute trip than they could ever hope to learn in a “Creating Positive Relationships” class in middle school.

With no more cash in hand and a $200 tab on her meter reader, I begged our driver to swing past the ATM machine.

“Please, please, please,” I pleaded. “I don’t have any cash.” I was then torn between leaving my kids as collateral in the car or pulling them out into the eye of the storm while I withdrew a large, unexpected chunk of our vacation fund. While the ATM spit out my twenties, I anxiously glanced at the taxi as I envisioned our driver peeling away from the corner with my precious cargo.

But they were safe. The fare was too much to forfeit.

She dropped us at our destination, and I ushered my tired, anxious kids into the condo lobby. Which was closed. Now, this presented a problem because we were unable to claim the key that would grant us entrance to our condo.

“What are we going to doooooo?” my kids wailed.

Fueled by desperation, I catapulted myself over the counter and began to check all the drawers, most of which were locked up tight. With the security camera pointed right at me, I began to fashion my explanation for the police report. And then. A drawer opened. And in the middle of the drawer was a key. With our condo number tagged on it.

Miracle of miracles.

In the midst of our convenience store trauma — in between power outages — we were able to reach the dear friend whose condo we were staying in to tell her of our travel woes and solicit her advice. She contacted her Myrtle Beach-resident parents, and they met us at the condo with an extra car and a grocery bag full of breakfast food and essentials. Like the three wise men bringing gifts to the Baby Jesus, they could not have been a more welcome sight for sore eyes.

And the donuts? Those were the only things that stopped the flow of Mary Claire’s tears as the storm came crashing in around us.

While we were carrying the food to the third floor, Chris arrived in his minivan taxi. I died a little inside as I watched him shell out another $200 in cab fare, and he then began to unload our week’s worth of clothes and amenities onto the condo lobby floor.

In the process, an entire bottle of rum crashed and shattered all over the tile. I sopped it up with a beach towel — praying that I wouldn’t lacerate myself in front of my already-fragile children — and was more than a little tempted to suck the remnants directly out of the towel. Kind of like a teething blanket of sorts — for adults. It seemed a crying shame for all that lovely alcohol to go to waste.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go double-check our Onstar subscription. We’ve got a road trip to make.

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