Joco Diversions

Father-son competition keeps bond a little tighter

Even when stuck in traffic, father and son have a game that keeps them alert.
Even when stuck in traffic, father and son have a game that keeps them alert. File photo

Put my family in the car on any given day, and you can expect spastic outbursts from both my husband and my son.

“Popeye!” they’ll yell, punching the ceiling of the car. This is the required protocol when either of them spies a car with one headlight burned out. Their reaction has become as ingrained a habit as the very beating of their heart.

Sometimes they holler out in unison, each clamoring to complete the announcement/ceiling punch combo first. Other times, only one will have seen the car, which will then be out of sight, resulting in an argument over whether or not the Popeye was actually seen, or if, perhaps, it was a cheat — a made up Popeye to get ahead in the game.

Because, you see, they’re keeping score, and have been for five, six, maybe seven or more years. Supposedly there is a running total of who has declared the most Popeyes, although I can’t get either of them to give me a number — or even an estimate — of what that score might be. Nevertheless, this is a cutthroat competition, and is of the utmost important that the champion stay on top of his game.

They even play the game by themselves. I’ll be driving my son somewhere, and he’ll suddenly flail and howl out, “Popeye! Did you see it? Did you see it? Can you tell dad? I’m texting him, can you tell him I saw it?”

On date night, my husband and I will be driving along, deep in conversation, solving the world’s problems, when he’ll burst out with a Popeye sighting.

Undoubtedly, my husband is ahead in the game. As the driver, he keeps his eyes on the road, while my son often stares at his phone, missing out on opportunities to score. And this little game, I do believe, has given my son incentive to spend more time aware of his surroundings, less time retreating into phone.

My daughter and I do not participate. The boys have tried repeatedly to rope us into the tournament, but we prefer to be impartial spectators, with no vested interest in the game and no preference for which side triumphs in victory.

In fact, one night, my daughter and I were alone in the car, and we spied a car with a burnt out headlight.

“There’s a…” my daughter said.

“I saw it, too!” I exclaimed.

“Ummm, I can’t think of what they call it,” she told me.

I racked my brain. What’s the word they yell when they see that? I couldn’t think of it either.

We giggled at the absurdity of it: that neither of us could conjure up the right word to yell, even after being immersed in the game for years.

Their tradition belongs to them, rooted in their relationship. At any moment, a passing car with a mechanical malfunction can remind them that their relationship is fun and lighthearted, and that whether or not you’re keeping a theoretical score, life is about keeping on, connecting, and trying to have a little fun while you’re at it.

Emily Parnell lives in Overland Park, Kansas and can be reached at