National Post

August 9, 2002

Sometimes you need to meet your kids halfway

For these divorced parents, a truck stop is the place to pick up the kids

Monique Polak
National Post

National Post
Following his regular weekend visitation, David Wood hands over his daughters Olivia, 8, and Emily, 6, to their mother, Alyson Belanger.

On Friday and Sunday nights, Herb's, a sprawling truck stop halfway between Montreal and Ottawa, becomes the area's hottest pickup spot. But truckers don't come here to cruise the waitresses or the local Vankleek Hill girls. A different sort of pickup happens at Herb's.

Montrealer David Wood and his two pig-tailed daughters, Olivia, 8, and Emily, 6, pull into the parking lot. Minutes later, Alyson Belanger, the girls' mother and Wood's former partner, pulls up next to Wood's red Escort.

The entire transaction takes five minutes. Olivia and Emily hop into their mom's green Mazda. Emily clutches her Barbie doll and a hairbrush. "You've got to give me the hairbrush. It belongs in Montreal," her dad tells her as he kisses her goodbye. Emily relinquishes the brush and settles into the backseat next to her sister.

Wood hands Belanger a cheque to cover the cost of the children's new babysitter. "See you next week," the girls cry out, waving to their dad who's standing outside his car as Belanger drives off to her apartment in Ashton, an Ottawa suburb.

Wood and Belanger aren't the only divorced or separated couple living in separate cities who exchange their offspring at Herb's. "I'd say there's at least a dozen or more families who do the same thing," says Herb Vink, co-owner of the truck stop.

About a half hour after Wood and Belanger go their separate ways, France Lauzon and Francis Briand pull up near the gas bar -- in separate cars. Lauzon has driven two hours from her home in St-Guillaume, near Drummondville, Que. She has the children, Elodie, 9, and Zachary, 7, every second weekend. Briand, the custodial parent, moved to Gatineau two years ago to be with his new girlfriend.

Since then, Lauzon and Briand have been meeting regularly at Herb's to exchange their children. "This is the only place on the highway. A lot of families do the same thing," says Briand. Drivers who travel regularly between Montreal and Ottawa know Herb's -- even if they've never stopped to empty their bladders or fill their tanks. Founded in 1977 by Vink's father, the truck stop is the only notable landmark along this stretch of the TransCanada Highway.

From a distance, the cluster of white buildings with red roofs looks a little like a Mediterranean villa. As you approach Exit 27 from the east, there's no missing the Herb's billboard. On it, is a caricature of Herb Sr., who died in 1989. In one hand, he holds a diesel fuel nozzle; in the other, he's balancing a triple- decker sandwich with an olive on top.

The truck stop is about 100 kilometers from Montreal, and about the same distance from Ottawa. Outside, there's a large field where children can kick around a soccer ball. Inside, are the standard-issue booths and tables, as well as roasted peanut and jellybean dispensers. There's also a gleaming cake cabinet, where kids can press their noses against the glass and admire a rotating selection of desserts, including a chocolate layer cake made on the premises.

Despite all this, Herb's is no run-of-the-mill truck stop. For one thing, Herb Jr., who inherited his father's passion for airplanes along with the family business, parks his Cessna 150 on the lawn. Not surprisingly, the white and green airplane is a big hit with youngsters.

Wood, however, is drawn -- not by the truck stop's menu, nor even the airplane -- but by the location. He has sampled the dinner special -- typical family fare such as chicken nuggets or meat loaf.

But usually he simply uses the bathroom, gets a coffee to go and fills up his tank, since gas is 2 to 10 a litre cheaper here than it is in Montreal.

Wood and Belanger separated four years ago. Two years later, after finding work as a project administrator for the federal government, Belanger moved to Ottawa. The girls went with her, but the couple agreed that Wood, who remained in Montreal, would continue to share custody. He sees his daughters almost every weekend.

Neither Wood, nor Belanger can remember who came up with the idea of meeting at Herb's. "This was an obvious halfway point," says Wood.

When Wood drives to Vankleek Hill on Friday nights to pick up his daughters, he uses the time to plan their weekends together. In summer, that means swimming, going for ice cream and visiting the toy store near Wood's apartment in Montreal's leafy Notre-Dame-de-Grace neighbourhood. The drive home on Sunday gives Wood a chance to unwind after a busy weekend in the girls' company.

"It's not exactly fun to be doing all this driving," says Wood. "But the alternative -- not to see the kids -- is out of the question. I feel the kids would be missing so much if they didn't have their father in their lives. I think little girls' relationships with their dads are really important."

Most of the exchanges that take place at Herb's are amicable. "Our fights are finished now," says France Lauzon.

Sometimes, former husbands, former wives and their children even stop to share a meal together. Huguette Lajeunesse, who's been working as a waitress at the truck stop since 1994, says that in all that time, she's only witnessed one fight between disgruntled ex-es. "It was a couple with a baby," recalls Lajeunesse. "The husband kicked the wife's car."

Dwight Nieman, 18, has been pumping gas at Herb's since he was 15. Like the other employees at the truck stop, he's accustomed to seeing parents exchanging their children in the parking lot.

Nieman is the eldest of four children. His own parents have been married for 26 years. Asked what he makes of all the parents who drop off and pick up their kids at Herb's, Nieman stops to adjust his baseball cap as he considers the question.

"It's different. It seems more and more people are divorcing," he says. "But I can tell you, I wouldn't want to see my kids only on weekends."

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