Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Once Upon a Time On Vacation

    The Ford was packed.
    Displaying the skill of an aircraft loadmaster and sensitivity of a drill sergeant, my father found a use for every bit of space in our car.  From suitcases tied to the luggage rack with my mother’s clothesline to beach chairs jammed next to the petrified french fries under our seats, he’d packed enough crap to go to the moon and back.
    If NASA used wood-paneled Country Squire LTD station wagons for their Apollo program, that is.   
    He’d also stashed a couple of empty juice bottles behind the back seat-no sense stopping for unnecessary rest breaks.
    “The good folks at Tropicana got you coming and going,” he proclaimed.  
    Alighting from the bumper after securing the final suitcase, he proudly evaluated his work.  When asked by my mother what he planned to do if it rained, he scoffed.
    “Don’t worry about it.  Weather’s gonna be friggin’ beautiful all week.”    
    Hearing my father’s impatient call, I hastily dumped a paper bag full of garbage in the trash can stashed behind our scraggly pine hedges.  As I smelled the sickly-sweet tang of rotting food, I wondered if I should’ve put the cans out on the curb last night.  The angry cloud of flies hovering over the open containers convinced me maybe I should have.
    Oh, well, I thought as I replaced the dented lid, too late now.  ‘Bon appetít’, fellas.
    Hearing the chatter of my family gathered in the driveway, I hurried past the charred frame of the Spinellis’ tent.  Too upset to take the wreckage down, Mr. and Mrs. Spinelli left before dawn on their planned trip to Maine.  I think he preferred to scurry out of town under cover of darkness rather than see us.
    Can’t say as I blamed him.  I just hoped he and his wife would be able to find a hotel.
    Emerging from around the corner of the house, I beheld my father imperiously holding a clipboard.
    My mother was clearly irritated.  “What do you have THAT for?”
    “I just want to make sure we have everything.  And, I also want to-hey, Phil!”
    My brother, his hand on the door, froze.
    “Al goes in first.”  He consulted his notes.  “Then, Kathy, then you.  Gary goes in the back.”
    “You’ve assigned us seats!?” my mother snapped.
    “The best way to fit in with the stuff we brought.”
    With an exasperated gasp, she motioned for us to pile in.
    “Hey, Dad,” Phil called as he wedged himself between Kathy and the passenger door, “what about Duke?”
    Checking the outside of the car once more for any loose items, he answered, “She’ll be fine.  I left her plenty of food and water.”
    “But, who will take her out?”
    He waved his hand dismissively.  “I left a lot of paper in the cellar, too.  Don’t worry about it.”
    Although convinced we’d find a skeleton attached to a choke chain upon our return, Phil decided father knew best and clammed up.
    His passengers properly loaded, my father settled in behind the steering wheel.  He adjusted the rearview mirror and shoved the seat belt behind him.  Checking for traffic, he roared out of our driveway.  Oblivious to the milk truck he cut off, he gunned the car down the street toward the interstate.
    “See?” he bragged, “My system is foolproof.”
    My mother relaxed in her seat.  “I have to admit,” she said, “there is more room in here than I thought.”
    She turned around.  “What do you think, kids?”
    Minutes later, we returned to pick up Gary.

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    The vacation is a sacred summer tradition.  Shortly following the last day of school, families throughout the nation cram everything they own into their cars and sally forth onto the highways.  Whether at water parks, amusement parks, or national parks, the quest for relaxation forges a bond with others in ways that only significant personal discomfort can bring.
    My family was never big on the whole camping thing.  Trading the comforts of an air-conditioned house for a week of sleeping on the ground didn’t sit right with us.  Well, that and having to tie our food up in a tree so “the bears couldn’t get at it.”
What? Too soon?
    We didn’t fit the mold of a pioneer family.  In fact, if called upon to cook anything more exotic than frozen pizzas over an open fire, it’d be the Donner family all over again.  And, speaking of fire, if it was left to us, mankind would still be scratching for grubs in the dark.  Rub two sticks together?  Without using gasoline?  Big Mal Penwasser wouldn’t hear of it.
    During the weeks leading up to our trip, our parents trotted out an endless parade of tourist guides and brochures for our review.  The colorful little pamphlets enticed us with a dazzling array of family entertainment for mere pennies.  From all-you-can-eat pancake houses to the world’s largest decoy factory, we were promised an unforgettable respite from the ennui of our daily lives.
    Half-asleep in front of our cereal bowls each morning, we’d comb through them with drowsy eyes.  Of course, we immediately dismissed anything remotely educational (meaning the ads for Gettysburg and the Smithsonian were immediately trashed).  National parks and-are you kidding me?-museums were likewise dispatched.
    Not seeing what I wanted, I asked my mother, “Hey, how about Disney World?  It just opened in Florida last year.  Why can’t we go there?”
    She shook her head and scooped up the pamphlets.  “No, I don’t think so.  Florida’s pretty far away and, besides, you know your father doesn’t like going to new places until they work all the bugs out.”
    “What bugs?”
    “You know.  Bugs.”
    Gary, a cascade of Cheerios falling down his chin, happily chirped in, “Florida’s gotta lotta bugs.”
    I frowned in his direction.
    Tiring of our indecision, our father abruptly declared voting over, dispelling our illusion of choice.  The self-proclaimed arbiter of family fun, he announced we’d be going to Pennsylvania’s Dutch country for buggies, barns, and buttermilk.
    Furthermore, since it was so close to Philadelphia, maybe we’d go see Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell.  Even though, he said with a loopy grin, the bell was “not all it’s cracked up to be.”
    Oh, great, not only museums, but lame jokes.  This trip should be a blast.

To be continued.....

Next:  Traffic, rain, and swimming in a motel petri dish.....


  1. This is a great story, well-written! I love it so far.

  2. Poor Gary, we did the same to my little brother Callum once. And do you still have those wooden cars?

  3. Your dad sounds like how my dad was.

    Oh and growing up we had not one but two wood paneled station wagons back to back.

  4. @Eva: Thanks! I hope you like the next two chapters. Chapter Two on Friday. Chapter 3 on Saturday.
    @Tony: My brother was ALWAYS yakking out the back of the station wagon (sometimes into the windshield of a tailgater!). They don't make the super-stylish wood paneled wagons anymore, but you can still see them on the road sometimes.
    @Oilfield: I have somewhat fond memories of that car. I obviously use pictures from the internet for my posts, but the picture I used for this is an EXACT image of our yellow bomber. I learned to drive using it. And I used it to drive back and forth to school (it also could fit a LOT of kids when we went to the drive-in movies). Then, when I got home from Navy boot camp, my mom had sold it!

  5. we took so many vacations like that - four kids, plus sometimes a dog or 2 piled into the car into every tiny little space, so we could barely breathe in as there wasn't enough room for the chest expantion. i even rode in the trunk of the hatchback sometimes.

  6. But, did you ever sneak into a drive-in movie while stashed in the trunk? The story of how we did it (hide in a trunk, not "it." That's ANOTHER story!) will eventually make its way here.

  7. A great story thus far. I need to know about the dog though! I'll be watching for the next installment.

  8. OK, Spoiler Alert: the dog made it fine. Can't say the same about the other pet we had neglected while we were on vacation: our pet turtle, Cecil (although his sad tale of woe will be told in another story!).

  9. Oh this story and that wagon bring back memories - of watching The Brady Bunch. (My family didn't experience that kind of togetherness, nor did my dad carry a clipboard. But I could see Mr. Brady doing that.) Fun story, Al.

  10. This is a great story. We didn't take family vacations, but we did the whole camping thing A LOT. 2 adults and 3 kids in a single cab truck loaded down with tents, bedding, food, beer, water toys, tp for the makeshift toilet we would make, did I say beer. Lots of fond memories made while sleeping on the ground!

  11. @Robyn: I hated the Brady Bunch! Butttt, my sister and brothers (named Kathy, Gary and Phil in the story) LOVED it! Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!
    @Leslie: I never went camping until I went into the Boy Scouts, because my family really did hate it. But, now that I have kids of my own, my brothers and I go camping in Rhode Island every August. They (Phil and Gary in the story) take their eldest sons (the girls don't want to go) and I take my son and my daughter (who, strangely, doesn't mind the beer drinking and late night fart symphonies).
    Good times.