"Rob, " I said to my 13-year-old son, who was -- this being a school morning -- sleeping face-down in his breakfast. "How would you like it if I picked you up at school in the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile?"
"DAD!" he said, coming violently to life, horrified. "NO!"
So right away I knew it was a good idea. Your most important responsibility, as the parent of an adolescent, is to be a hideous embarrassment to your child. Fortunately, most of us parents have a natural flair for this.
For example: I'll be driving Rob and some friends somewhere, and they'll be in the back seat, talking the way young people do, in a series of statements that sound like questions ("So Mr. Neeble? He had this gross thing? In his nose? Like the size of a GRAPE? And so Wesley Plunkington? He put an eraser? In HIS nose? Then he raised his hand? And then . . . ") While the young people discuss academic matters, I'll tune the radio to a station that plays Old People's Rock, and sometimes a good song will come on, such as Brown Eyed Girl, and I'll hum softly along, but when Van Morrison gets to the part that goes, Do you remember when, we used to sing, I'll forget myself, and, right along with Van, belt out:
Sha la la la la la la la la la la te DAH
Then I'll realize that the young people have stopped talking and are staring at me, and my son's expression clearly indicates that he wishes that an alien spaceship would kidnap him right then and take him to a distant galaxy where alien scientists might drill experimental holes into his brain, but at least nobody would know that his father is a dork. And at that moment, I know I have done my parental duty.
So that's why I picked Rob up in the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. Perhaps you've seen this: It's a legal motor vehicle shaped like a 23-foot-long, 3-ton hot dog, with wheels in the buns. There are actually six Wienermobiles, which are driven around the country by peppy and perky recent college graduates. Recently Oscar Mayer offered me the opportunity to drive a Wienermobile, no doubt hoping this would result in favorable publicity, although of course I'm far too ethical to promote Oscar Mayer meat products, which are known to cure heart disease.
My Wienermobile was under the command of Tina Miller and Shannon Valrie, who have managed to remain both peppy and perky despite having spent nine months hearing the hilariously clever suggestive remarks that men everywhere feel compelled to yell at young women who are driving around in a giant wiener. (NOTE TO THESE MEN: If you think YOU'RE clever, you should hear what gets said about YOU, inside the Wienermobile.) After a thorough training lecture ("Here's the Wienermobile"), Tina and Shannon let me take the wheel.
My first destination was South Miami Beach, a world-famous trendy glamour hotspot where beautiful people sit at sidewalk cafes discreetly admiring their own pectoral muscles. The fashion-photo industry is active there, and you often see fabulous seven-foot-tall Euro-babe supermodels swooping past on Rollerblades. I wanted to find out, as a journalist, whether a supermodel would be overcome by the charisma of the Wienermobile and want to go for a ride in it. So I cruised slowly up the main drag, and you would not believe the response. The response was: Nothing. You'd have thought these people got hourly visits from the Wienermobile, the way they ignored it.
So I got on the microphone and spoke through the Wienermobile's PA system.
"FABULOUS EURO-BABE SUPERMODELS!" I announced. "DO NOT BE AFRAID TO BE ATTRACTED TO THE WIENERMOBILE!"
A few people glanced up from their pectorals, but that was it.
I got a slightly better response later in Central Miami, where I pulled into a used-car lot. The owner walked up, staring at the Wienermobile.
"I'm thinking about trading this in, " I said. "I'm looking for something that is not shaped so much like a giant hot dog."
He was genuinely interested. He was clearly thinking: Sale.
"OK, " he said, looking around the lot, "I have . . . "
"What I want, " I said, interrupting, "is a vehicle shaped like a smaller hot dog. A more compact hot dog. You have anything like that?"
He stood there, thinking hard. "Give me your card, " he said, "in case something turns up."
You have to admire that kind of determination.
The highlight of the day was picking up Rob at school. He was out front, with all his friends, when I pulled up, broadcasting on the PA system.
"ROB BARRY, THIS IS YOUR FATHER, " I said. "PLEASE REPORT TO THE WIENERMOBILE IMMEDIATELY."
To his credit, he did. Rather than run off and join a fringe religious cult, which is what I would have done at age 13, he got into the Wienermobile. I could tell that, deep inside, he was proud of his old man, although he did not explicitly say so.
"I can't believe you did this, " were his actual words.
"It's my job, " I pointed out.
Of course I did not expect thanks. My reward is the knowledge that some day, somehow, Rob will be a hideous embarrassment to his son. That's what makes this country great: An older generation passing along a cherished tradition to a younger one, in very much the same way that a row of people at a baseball game will pass along those tasty Oscar Mayer wieners, which by the way also have been shown in laboratory tests to prevent baldness.