I am the son of a minister, so the majority of my childhood is associated with events that took place in and around our church. As a high school student, since I was a huge nerd and had virtually no friends at school (I ate lunch every day in the stairwell of the music building, mainly because I was too frightened to attempt to try to interact with anyone), a big part of my high school experience included more-or-less compulsory participation in our church drama troupe, which was launched when the music minister realized that the vast majority of modern-day teenagers do not, in fact, want to sing gospel music together while wearing matching vests.
The drama “team,” as it was referred to, was a genius idea; it gave us an excuse to run around screaming like lunatics for at least an hour every week while being eyed wearily by our volunteer directors, and talent was optional. You can read a script aloud at a pace slightly faster than a second-grader in the “slow” group? You’re in!
I kid (…a bit)–it was actually a lot of fun; our biggest production each year was our signature “Valentine’s Day dinner theater,” which typically involved us lip-synching and pantomiming along to various songs from some particular era while wearing ridiculous costumes. One year the thing included “Crocodile Rock” by Elton John, and they tapped me to play Elton. When the lights went up on the stage, there I was, sitting at a crappy Casio keyboard, wearing a banana-yellow suit, oversized sunglasses with some type of feathers glued to them, and one gigantic clip-on chandelier earring; behind me, the rest of the troupe sort of dancily acted out the words to the song (it included my brother “accidentally” flinging his dance partner off the stage) while I mouthed the words and banged away at the not-plugged-in keyboard. There is a video of this somewhere, and I’m not going to lie, I wish I had a copy, because it is easily one of the most hilarious things you will ever see in your life–even though it has no right to be.
Aside from our annual Valentine’s Day spectacular, every summer, we’d pack up the church van with our junk and head out on a grand adventure for a week to do our little skits and hear old people tell us what a blessing we’d somehow bestowed upon them. The touring and performing I always liked; however, we didn’t have a large bankroll, so our lodging situations while on tour were, more often than not, “questionable.”
Generally, our overnight accommodations were provided by volunteers at whatever venue (church) we were performing at that day, so the quality of the bed/”bed” any given member of our group could look forward to each evening varied wildly depending on the socioeconomic status and geographic location of the church in question. For example, in a tiny North Carolina coastal town, two of my friends and I were put up in a camper in someone’s driveway, which I enjoyed; because I am not much of an outdoorsman, it was fun to pretend that I was actually camping. Contrast that modest, yet relatively cozy accommodation, with the “Hoarders”-level storage room that two of us were once assigned to.
That particular stay, which also happened to be the very first night of my very first tour (I would’ve been just out of ninth grade) started inauspiciously, to say the least. We’d barely taken our bows before a copious woman with four-foot high red hair (she was more than a little reminiscent of the “Big-Haired Lady” from the old Longhorn Steakhouse commercials–or, more accurately, two of them) leapt out of her pew and darted towards us with alarming speed. She was wearing a neon green T-shirt, stretch pants printed with a revolting flower design, and, of course, rhinestone-studded butterfly glasses. She began shrieking and flailing her arms over her head, yelling, “Which of y’all is Ryan and Kristopher?”
I am all but certain that I turned ghost white. Kris, who was standing next to me, made an audible “gulp” sound and grabbed my upper arm so hard that it left a bruise. Through my teeth I very quietly said/prayed, “Jesus, please, no!”
Jesus, who I imagine was probably getting a big kick out of this whole situation, opted not to intervene, and so we were ushered outside to her late-model conversion van with wood-panel exterior too quickly for either of us to lodge a protest with any of our “chaperones.” This lady, whose name I can’t remember (I shall call her “Durlene,” because that seems about right), insisted that we get in and sit down while she single-handedly loaded our luggage; it became immediately obvious that despite her ample cellulite, she was clearly stronger than both of us combined, and we would’ve just gotten in the way. Brawn aside, it took Durlene longer to load our meager baggage than we expected, primarily due to the volume of junk already inside the vehicle. There were clothes, including a wedding dress and several hats, on every single hook in the van. I found a roll of toilet paper under my seat. Sliding all over the floor were grocery store romance novels, all of which were missing their covers. I’m pretty sure there was also a free 1982 year-at-a-glance calendar (despite it being the late 1990s) from some local bank pinned to one of the sun visors.
Durlene talked the whole way to her house while we sat in the back, paralyzed in utter terror. She told us all about her daughter who still lived with her, although she was in college. She told us about how she was not only an accountant, but also the school system’s bus superintendent and the president of every civic organization in the city, and yet she still managed to have time to run a successful bakery. And it took about 45 minutes to get to her house, though I’m fairly certain we passed the same gas station four times.
We finally arrived at Durlene’s house and entered through what turned out to be the basement; it had been finished rather comfortably as a living room-type deal with carpet, a big couch and some chairs, and a nice TV in the corner. Naturally I assumed we’d be sleeping there, so I dropped my bag.
“You aren’t staying down here, silly!” giggled our bountiful hostess. She bounded up the dark stairs ahead of us, and moments later we heard a blood-curdling scream. This was the kind of scream you hear that shatters glass. This was an inhuman, animalistic scream—it sounded to me like she’d just looked in a mirror for the first time and realized what she actually looked like.
After a few tense moments wherein Kris and I had managed to both freeze in place and lose all bowel and bladder control, she and a random girl with a Velma-from-“Scooby Doo” hairdo wearing a Kmart mock turtleneck stepped back down the stairs. This random person that looked like she belonged somewhere in an after-school special from the late 70’s or early 80’s, was not introduced to us. “Did I scare you?” she asked, smiling a gummy smile that suggested the area was lacking in reputable dentists.
Generally speaking, it would seem to be common courtesy to introduce a random person that you run into to your guests, particularly those random persons that hide in darkened stairwells in your home, even though they don’t (probably?) live there. And yet Durlene said nothing, simply beckoning us forward through her wood veneer-paneled home featuring bonus low “popcorn” ceilings and hideous shag carpeting to our room for the night.
We reached what we assumed was a guest room, but Durlene said, “It’s a junk room. You may need to move some stuff around.” She tried to open the door, but couldn’t. So, she and the unidentified toothless girl pushed on the door together until finally it caved in—it was immediately apparent that the door wouldn’t open because there were so many boxes of junk in the room that, had a fire broken out, it would have immediately died from lack of oxygen. It took us what seemed like an hour to uncover the bed, and then it took half an hour more to find fresh sheets, as the ones on the bed had disintegrated long ago.
Once the two of us had gotten as settled in as we possibly could, given the situation, a couple of girls from our drama group, Adrienne and Stacy, stopped by to visit us, along with their host’s daughter, Cindy. Apparently Cindy, who was a completely normal-seeming and rather personable girl, was friends with Durlene’s daughter, Pamela, also lived nearby. The three of them arrived at Durlene’s house roughly the same time that Pamela did; apparently Pamela had stopped along the way at Blockbuster or something to rent a movie for the occasion: Under Siege 2. It seemed fitting.
I do not remember anything at all about Under Siege 2. Actually, no, I take that back… I remember exactly two things about Under Siege 2. First, there’s a scene where the bad guy is hanging onto the door frame of a helicopter by his fingertips, and they slam the door on his hands, which severs his fingers and he plummets, fingerless, to his death. Second, it is a horrible movie.
But, given that we were guests, the four of us from the drama team politely pretended to watch/enjoy the movie along with Durlene (she made popcorn–for herself), Pamela, and Cindy, but not the nameless 70’s girl, who had disappeared at some point just as bizarrely as she had materialized.
At some point during the movie, Adrienne, who was lying on the floor propped on her elbows, complained that her neck hurt, so I tossed her one of the ample couch pillows.
Durlene, who hadn’t even been looking in my direction, nevertheless somehow sensed the soft projectile, which had gently flown about five feet through the air into Adrienne’s hands. She leapt out of her chair and shrieked, “WHY DID YOU RIP MY PILLOW!”
I was frozen in terror, but Adrienne, who always had a much sturdier constitution than I, merely looked puzzled. She examined the decorative pillow she was now holding and noted, “There’s nothing wrong with this thing…”
Durlene apparently did not trust what she could clearly see with her own eyes. “Yes, there IS!” she bellowed. “I saw a HUGE hole in it!”
Adrienne insisted that there was no actual damage to the decorative pillow that could not have cost more than five dollars at Bed Bath and Beyond, but our hostess narrowed her eyes and said in a very matter-of-fact tone, “You’re the preacher’s son at that church you came from. I can send you a bill.” With the sort of seething hatred you normally see reserved for things like Nazi war criminals or screaming babies on airplanes, she slowly sat back down, glaring at me, and turned again to the remainder of the terrible movie. I merely sat there whimpering with my hands in my lap for fear that I might inadvertently cause several ones of dollars’ worth of invisible damage to any other decorative pillows.
Durlene abruptly left as soon as the credits started, not even bothering to say good night. Our friends and their escort also headed home, and as Kris and I followed Pamela upstairs, we asked her where we might shower before heading to bed. Pamela, who was homely in an unfortunate sort of way (she resembled nothing so much as a pile of thin-sliced deli turkey), gestured towards a bathroom (whose door had no lock) just off the main hallway of the ranch-style house, which we very quickly learned was her bathroom and connected to her bedroom… via an arched and very doorless doorway.
Seeing as how neither of us was especially keen on being molested by an unattractive college co-ed in her own bathroom, we thanked her and did the whole “oh look at the time, it’s later than I thought” routine in order to try and cancel out our shower request. Pamela looked quite disappointed and slammed the door to her room, pouting, but fortunately that was the end of the ordeal, aside from sleeping/involuntarily spooning with Kris in the long middle ditch of a saggy double mattress taco in a dusty junk-filled room. It wasn’t as awkward as it sounds, though; Kris and I had known each other since kindergarten, so it just didn’t seem like all that big of a deal when our dongs accidentally touched.
* * *
More often than not, experiences like the one with Durlene the Big-Haired, Many-Careered Lady were the exception to the rule when it came to staying with host families during these trips; in the vast majority of cases, our hosts were ordinary, kind and hospitable people. One gentleman offered to take Kris and I out on his fishing boat, but when it rained and we were unable to do so, we instead watched television and drank Cokes with he and his son who apparently worked at Long John Silver’s (he told us that he “boiled the fish”). His mother randomly informed us that he was the heartthrob of his church youth group, so this might have been why he saw no issue in wearing only embarrassingly small underwear (and also a baseball cap, during dinner) the entire time he was around us. That unusual behavior aside, they were a charming and wholly pleasant family.
Other times, we, the visitors, were far stranger than our host families. There was one trip in particular where I was paired with a slightly younger boy named Josh who I’m pretty certain I was a destructive influence on. For some reason, the two of us had decided that we were going to watch the stupidly funny yet strangely disturbing film Clifford starring Martin Short and Charles Grodin at every single house we stayed at—twice, if possible. One elderly couple that graciously yielded us their television scurried out of the room at about the same time Martin Short’s “Clifford” character was wailing something about bikers who tied him up and tried to touch his “no-no special place.” I don’t know why.
This technicality aside, though, a host family’s idea of “normal” sometimes does not exactly jive with personal expectations, oftentimes creating situations that could be, in short, baffling. Take, for instance, the trip that we took one year to Kentucky; while performing at Morehead State University, I noticed an extremely nerdy man and a comatose woman sitting together in the front of the audience. Not especially surprisingly, we learned shortly after the performance that all five male members of the drama team had been assigned to stay with this family.
While all five of us had packed conservatively, our bags did not all fit in the rear cargo area of the minivan we were to be transported in, so all the spare luggage was piled atop me, the shrimpiest member of the group. As we rode through the woods for about half an hour to the “horse farm” that we had been told that this man operated, he talked to us in oddly formal, stilted sentences with an awkward lilt at the end, leaving you unsure of whether the sentence just uttered was a question or an invitation to slap him. “The five of you will be staying in a lovely and comfortable finished basement,” he began. “The entertainment features include a television set, a new and full-featured air hockey table, a pool table with accompanying cues, various and sundry board games, and a variety of entertaining books. As for sleeping arrangements, it is our pleasure to supply you with a plentiful selection of sleeping bags, air mattresses and comfortable futons.”
A pause—I hoped that it indicated he was finished—but he continued, after what seemed like an attempt to sneeze that failed. “I apologize in advance, but I’m afraid that otherwise as an entertainment complex we fall short; we do not currently subscribe to a cable television service, but we do have a wide selection of video classics. Additionally, the broadcast network offerings are available for your viewing pleasure.”
I made my best attempt to tune out his awkward droning, instead focusing on the strange music that was playing. It was a peculiar mixture of mouth sounds and cello, the kind of thing that even the most out-there NPR programmer would probably toss in the “free” box in the lobby. I finally found the CD in question in a seatback pocket—it appeared to be the only one in the car: “Bobby McFerrin & Yo Yo Ma.”
The man’s odd lilting voice combined with the strange music made time seem to stretch on for eternity, but finally, when we reached the house, I saw no horses. I saw no pasture. I saw, in a clearing, only a small triangular grassy knoll adjacent to a large log cabin-style home with a small fishing pond and a pre-fabricated metal garage.
I think it’s safe to say that when one sees a log cabin, one’s mind does not generally then jump to “lovely and comfortable finished basement.” But somehow, as soon as we entered the house, the space-time continuum deformed around us, as the cabin’s interior cubic volume had to have been at least fourteen times larger than it should have been, based on its appearance on the outside. Apparently this family lived in a TARDIS.
We were ushered straight down steep wooden stairs to the basement, and sure enough, our host had oversold the space we were to be sleeping in, if ever so slightly. It was, in fact, an unfinished room with concrete floors, roughly the same size as a two-car garage. Crammed into this room were a mismatched assortment of something like seven couches and armchairs, numerous overcrowded bookshelves piled high with Reader’s Digest condensed books, and, in one corner, the aforementioned air hockey table and the pool table—one atop the other. We finally found the TV—it was hidden under a pile of National Geographic magazines. Its screen was approximately the size of a deck of cards, and its accompanying VCR seemed to have been manufactured during the Eisenhower administration, as its only functions were “Play,” “Fast Forward,” and “Stop.” It did have a remote control, though—a hard-wired remote control, with a three-foot long cord.
Some time later, while the rest of the group members were upstairs watching a baseball game or something on TV, I (being a sports non-enthusiast) stayed downstairs to read a book. Bored, I poked around a bit in the basement. I spotted a door leading to a space beneath the stairs that I’d not noticed earlier. The door in question had a window in it covered by heavy curtains from the inside. Out of curiosity, I tried to open the door, but it was stuck tight, so I pulled as hard as I could until it burst open from within and I was thrown to the floor.
Apparently housed under the stairs was a black hole or a quantum singularity that I suspect was being harnessed to provide electrical power to the house (and perhaps the surrounding tri-state area). I say this because, as I lay on the floor, papers started blowing all around the room. Books fell off the shelves. Wind and a bright light blasted from the open doorway. I felt like I was being sucked into the space under the stairs, probably only to be ejected from a rupture in the space-time continuum millions of light years away. I managed to kick the door shut, and heard a low-pitched warbling sound that slowly faded away. The power fluctuated; the lights dimmed and then came back up to full strength.
That, I decided, was the last time I’d ever open doors in strange people’s homes.
The next morning, we were aroused bright and early by the homeowners; they informed us that we could use the full bathroom adjacent to the kitchen to shower. I never did quite understand why anyone would put a full bathroom, including an antique claw-foot bathtub, next to the kitchen. It just seems somehow… unsanitary or not private enough? My only explanation is that perhaps the general contractor suspected that the person preparing the groceries would cause others to need to blow their groceries. Thus, a toilet was placed conveniently nearby.
Strange as this was, there were other oddities associated with the kitchen—namely, a staircase across from the bathroom that went up to the second level of the house. Ordinarily this would be unremarkable, except for the fact that from the outside, the house didn’t look like it even had a second level. Plus, these stairs went up and out at such an angle that had this house existed in the normal space-time continuum, they would have protruded well past where the outermost wall was supposed to be. Clearly we were dealing with an architect who had sold his soul to the devil. That, or it was all designed by M. C. Escher.
After washing up and forcing myself to stop thinking about the flagrant violations of the laws of physics I had just encountered, I helped myself to some breakfast which had presumably been prepared by the matriarch of the family—who was sitting in the corner of the kitchen, her eyes glazed and mouth agape, staring at some unspecified point in space. Understandably this made me uncomfortable so I sat and ate in the living room. The whole room was large, airy and open, with a vaulted ceiling, and in the corner closest to the kitchen doorway laid a large area rug; the TV, couches, recliner and end tables all sat upon this area rug, while the rest of the room—probably a good two-thirds of it—was completely empty.
That is, except for two very large out-of-place things.
Sitting in this empty, cavernous space were two stiff plastic children’s wading pools, each filled with cedar shavings… and guinea pigs. That’s right. Each of the two pools held approximately twelve of these nervous, squealing rodents, as well as a variety of guinea pig-sized furniture. There were guinea pig houses, guinea pig couches, and guinea pig… I dunno… gymnastic equipment. All of it was very strange.
Now, let’s recap here:
- Two dozen guinea pigs.
- In plastic wading pools.
- In a living room.
I involuntarily slapped my hands over my mouth, somewhat uncertain of what our host family would think if I had screamed at the sight of the guinea pigs in swimming pools in their living room.
The young daughter who’d been helping her mother with breakfast apparently saw the look of horror and bafflement on my face. She came over, pulled one of the guinea pigs out and said, “This one’s Boots.” Never mind the fact that all of the guinea pigs looked completely identical to me; for all I know, they could’ve all been named “Boots.” I was more alarmed by the fact that this child reached into this cedar chip-filled child’s wading pool in the midst of her living room and offered me a wriggling, shrieking rodent as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
The rest of breakfast was, and I believe understandably so, a blur, considering that for most of the rest of the meal I studied my “bacon” and “sausage patty” and “orange juice” for telltale guinea pig hairs. I didn’t find any, but then again I didn’t have a microscope or a pair of tweezers on me.
Shortly after I ruined everyone else’s appetite by whispering to them my theory about the in-house guinea pigs being harvested for their meat (hey, they do it in Peru!), we were driven to our rendezvous point, though it seemed unsafe for a woman in an on-again, off-again vegetative state to drive anybody anywhere. More interesting, though, was the fact that it took us approximately 4 minutes to get there, compared to the 45 it’d taken the night before. That’s a head-scratcher I’ll leave up to the Kentucky Department of Transportation and the good people at Google Maps.
* * *
In very rare instances, a group of us would be left to our own devices overnight at the church or building that we’d performed at. In these instances, it was not uncommon for us to get carried away by our imaginations. Take, for instance, our trip to Union, South Carolina, the very same place where evil child murderess Susan Smith drowned her kids inside a locked car . Our group performed at a church deep in the woods not far from the very lake where those children had drowned, and so it only made sense that all of the males in the group were left to sleep at the church.
Shortly after our performance up until close to 2 AM, the group of us could be found shrieking and hooting and hollering as we played “Capture the Flag.” The back lawn of the church was perfect for this, as it had plenty of trees and rusted-out oil drums and abandoned cars to hide behind. (This, coincidentally, is what most back lawns in South Carolina contain.) The game was great fun, although nearly everyone ended up with laryngitis the next day… less than ideal for a group traveling for theater-related purposes, but then again I don’t think anyone was expecting Broadway touring company-level stuff out of us.
Throughout the course of our game, we kept noticing battered old trucks roar around the far side of the church and disappear down a muddy gravel road into the woods. Later, we heard screaming and saw what appeared to be several bonfires in the distance. Ben, one of our adult leaders, mused that it was probably “just a Ku Klux Klan meeting.”
I had little understanding of what the KKK was. All I knew about it was (1) that it was some type of racist hate group, (2) that they burned crosses and wore scary pointy hood things, and (3) that my paternal grandfather had apparently been in it at one time, because my dad had once said something about finding his hood under the bed and running around wearing it, thinking it was a ghost costume. So, I being nothing if not an alarmist, started to have a mild panic attack from imagining torch-and-pitchfork-wielding rednecks coming to kill us. “They might hate religion and come and kill us because we have something of an evangelical message to spread! Even though we’re only mediocre in ability, and few if any people in this area know we’re here, we’re still in terrible danger! What are we going to do?!” I was yelping, as I ran around in circles flailing my arms to signify panic.
Wisely, pretty much everyone ignored me, as everyone who ever meets me quickly learns that I have a habit of blowing things out of proportion. The only reaction at all came from our music minister, Royce, who laughed at me and offered, “Hopefully, if we leave them alone, they won’t bother us.” And that was the end of the matter, though I will confess that I peed myself a little.
Shortly after our game of Capture the Flag had come to a close and all of the adult leaders had gone to bed, we (being rebellious and non-tired teenagers) decided that a game of “Hide and Seek” was in order. It was the high school boys (including me) versus the middle school boys, and when our team’s turn to hide came, we found the perfect spot—a small clearing right behind the treeline bordering the lawn. Of course, this meant we were squatting in briars and rotting leaves, but it was all in good fun.
While we waited for the middle schoolers to try and find us (like they were competent enough to do that!), Kris grabbed my shoulder and hissed, “What is that?!”
“What is what?” I asked.
“Don’t you see that?” whispered Jamie. He turned my head in the opposite direction, and pointed between two trees to one side.
“THERE!” hissed Jamie, pointing. Looking carefully, I finally noticed a small grayish figure that seemed to be floating. It appeared to be smoky and translucent, and hovered in the air, several feet from the ground; it was too big to be a raccoon or fox, and too small to be a person.
“Uhh…” was about all that I could stammer.
“It’s a ghost!” whisper-screamed Jamie. This time, instead of peeing in my pants, I crapped. I reassembled my nerves a few moments later, largely because Kris and Jamie had their hands clasped over my mouth to keep me from shrieking and injuring myself or one (or both) of them. In what I would define as an act of self-defense, I located something in the rotting leaves below me that I suspected was a rotten orange. I tried my best to lob the putrid fruit at the specter, but fell short by several tens of feet.
“What was that?!” hissed Jamie.
“I was trying to hit the ghost with a rotten orange.”
“You’re such a girl,” he informed me. “Throw like this.” He picked up a crushed aluminum can and hurled it at the ghost. It made contact—the “ghost” flailed about and then began to drift towards us.
“RUN!” I shrieked, and we all ran towards the church at full tilt, the plastic bag that we’d just thrown an aluminum can and a rotten orange at drifting harmlessly along behind us.
Later, during another round of the game, I decided to look for my own solitary hiding spot; I noticed that a panel blocking off the crawl space under the church was ajar. There was enough light from a nearby security lamppost for me to see maybe ten or twenty feet inside, and it was relatively non-dirty, even with plastic sheeting covering most of the floor. I wriggled in, replaced the panel behind me, and noticed a bare light bulb hanging overhead with an old-fashioned pull chain switch.
I screamed so loud and jumped so high that I’m surprised I didn’t burst through the floor above me, leaving behind a cartoonish body-shaped hole. I did thwack my head pretty hard on a beam, but I didn’t even notice until later, because I was transfixed by the sinister sight that the light had revealed.
Lying there in the crawlspace, placed “just so” at a point that I estimated was directly beneath the pulpit or altar in the sanctuary above, were two ghostly white hands, placed palms-up, right next to each other.
This seemed to me sufficiently alarming to call for a time-out, so I yelled for anyone who could hear me to come and see what I had discovered. Everyone who evaluated the scene concurred that it was decidedly creepy, and no one had any theories as to why these hands had been positioned in such a way, but we also quickly determined that the “hands” were in fact latex glove molds made out of some type of ceramic.
When we made this discovery, the creepiness of the scene rapidly diminished; in fact, it emboldened two of the younger boys, who grabbed the hands and began “sword fighting” with them. One of the hands’ fingers all broke off as a result; the other hand, though, may or may not have ended up being strategically placed atop a grave site in the church cemetery to look as if the corpse was trying to make an escape.
* * *
Drama trips generally ended at the emotional polar opposite of the beginning—while all of us were certainly happy to be home, we were all just so tired and drained from running around like a bunch of morons that we barely had the energy to drag ourselves and our belongings to our parents who were waiting for us in the church parking lot. While there are plenty of other travelogues I could write about being on the road with a dozen other goofy Baptist teenagers, I hesitate to say that I learned from these experiences (though I did in fact learn that our music minister’s wife laughed much harder than I thought she would at the phrase “chicken boobies” when referring to chicken breasts); I will say, though, that sleeping in your own bed after a week and a half of sleeping with strangers can be oddly jarring. Especially when you’ve gotten so used to sleeping in someone’s camper.
- Perhaps this will come across as cold-hearted, but it occurs to me that Susan Smith’s kids must not have been very smart. One was three and the other was fourteen months old, and it had to have taken at least an hour—maybe longer—for the car to roll into a lake and sink completely. Cars don’t just immediately disappear under the surface of the water; I know this from TV shows and movies I have seen. I am quite confident that my two (non-baby) nephews and my (also-non-baby) niece would, at that age, have recognized that the car was sinking into a lake and therefore press the “unlock” button and get out of the car, but then again, perhaps I’m overestimating the intelligence of South Carolinian children.