Friday, March 18, 2011

Thunderstorms, Chicken Butts, and Pea Green Water

When last we saw our family, they were headed for the Vacationland Shangri-La of Amish Country, where the Penwassers hoped to party like rock stars.  If rock stars dressed in black and drove horse-drawn buggies to barn-raisings....

    “So, where are we staying tonight?” my mother asked.
    I leaned forward in my seat.  Like my mother, I was also wondering where the Penwasser circus wagon would stop for the evening.  We’d already been on the road for six hours and, between the fumes coming like underwear on fire from our parents’ cigarettes and the aftermath of Gary’s habitual motion sickness, it was time to escape.
    What’s more, we’d lost a lot of time in a horrendous traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge.  The two hours it took to crawl two miles took its toll on both Gary’s tenuous intestinal stability and my father’s regard for his fellow man.  Finally, after a nonstop litany of backseat complaints and a rather creative display of hand signals from Dad, we emerged on the other side to behold the source of the snarl:  some poor schmuck with a flat tire.
    This, of course, prompted the following from my father:  “Way to go, friggin’ jackass!”
    Why he never entered the priesthood remains a mystery.
    My mother opened her mouth to lay into “Saint Malcolm-Friend of Man.”  But, before her standard marital blistering, we were startled by a low rumble.
    Relieved to be spared the wrath of Mom, Dad looked over his shoulder and hopefully asked, “Gary?  Was that you?”
    Suddenly, Kathy piped in, “Hey, lookit the size of those clouds!”
    An hour later, after a stop at a Newark Montgomery Ward’s to buy a tarp, we were back on the Jersey Turnpike. 
    My mother, affecting her very best “I told you so” expression, glared frostily at my father, who kept his eyes fixed on the road ahead.  Gary and Phil were asleep while Kathy and I engaged in a marathon “staring game.”
    Except for the incessant flapping of the plastic hastily thrown over the top of the sponges formerly known as our luggage, the car was as silent as a chess match during the Mute Olympics.
    As I lost yet another game to my sister (no fair-she crossed her eyes!), I realized my father still hadn’t answered my mother’s question.
    Where would we stay tonight?    
    One thing I knew for sure.  There’d be no fancy hotel for this crowd.  Ever the thrifty manager of our finances (ok, cheap), my father saw no sense in whooping it up at posh resorts like the Holiday Inn.  Why waste money when swanky joints named the Thunderbird Motel were available?
    To be honest, we kids really didn’t care as long as it had a pool.  Half the lights on the motel sign may be missing, cigarette burns may scar the back of the toilet, and the rooms may smell like the bottom of the hamper, but if we could swim, we’d be ecstatic.
    As my father finally pulled off the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I spotted a row of pastel-colored motels.  Differing in color only, they were identical in shape, rusty playground equipment, and faded roadside placards which proudly stated they had “Color TV and Air Conditioning!” 
    They also each had small kidney-shaped swimming pools, much to the delight of my now fully awake siblings.
    My father pointed at the first one at the bottom of the exit ramp.  “The Flying Dutchman Motel!” he crowed, mentally patting himself on the back.  “Perfect!”
    No sooner had he secured a room-reminding the unshaven clerk he “didn’t need the friggin’ hourly rate, chief, thank you”-than we raced gleefully to the pool.  Heedless of our surroundings, our paroxysms of joy sent those unfortunate enough to be registered guests scurrying for safety behind locked doors.
    Performing insane stunts which would get us kicked out of any respectable community pool, we capered about like hyperactive sea lions for hours.  Whether it was a rousing game of keep-away with Gary’s shorts or seeing who could deliver the most devastating cannonball just inches from the elderly, we frolicked in water tinged just the slightest shade of green.
    As darkness approached, we were called in to eat. 
    Supper on the road usually involved something from either a) the Hamburger Group or b) the Chicken Group.  In reality, what we actually ate was determined by which was closest:  McDonalds or Kentucky Fried Chicken.
    If left to us, we’d have been content sharing two packages of Chuckles, a bag of Fritos, and a warm 7-Up from the vending machine.  Then, for dessert, we’d have settled for anything from that creepy Good Humor guy who circled the motel parking lot like a frozen custard buzzard.  
    However, wiser heads in the forms of our parents prevailed.  Instead of unhealthy snacks, we tore into a bucket of the colonel’s very finest drumsticks, thighs, breasts, and other indeterminate parts.  Of course, the irony of eating “healthy” fried food in lieu of “junk” vending goodies was lost on all of us. 
    As Kathy poked at unidentified globs of chicken fat, she stuck her nose in the air and haughtily sniffed, “I’m not eating anything I can’t identify.”
    “Those are chicken butts,” I kindly helped.
    “Dad,” Phil squealed, “Al said ‘butts’.”
    “Christ, Al,” my father groused from behind a local newspaper, “stop your damn swearing!”
    Leaving behind a pile of discarded bones and covered in equal amounts of chicken grease and crumbs, we dashed to the front door.  Intent on jumping back into the pool, we were intercepted by our father who thought we’d “had enough for one day.”  
    He didn’t want us to go swimming again so soon after eating.  Or mingle with the truckers who planned on using the pool as their personal bathtub before heading out to the Girls, Girls, Girls Christian Reading Room.

To be concluded in "It Has a Brochure."


  1. This is hilarious! And so well-written1 I love it!

  2. I think the "Vacation" movies and characters were based on you and your family.

  3. Thanks! I'm glad you like it. My family has provided me with enough fodder (father) to fill reams.
    Our favorite vacation movie is the Christmas one. It's amazing how many similarities there are.

  4. This post is absolutely hilarious! Reading about your childhood makes mine seem oddly normal. The one vacation we did take, we just put the seats in the Suburban down and all 5 (yes, 5!!) of us slept in the back. A swanky hotel with a green pool would have been much more accomodating!

  5. Ah, yes. To have known my father is to have had very little to do with him.
    The good news is that my brothers, sister, and I still get together. The stories really haven't changed all that much.

  6. Oh god that brings back memories. NJ and "Monkey" Wards. My mother worked for them for a short time and I met her there afterschool everyday. And the arguing parents,sibling fights and the innocence of youth just worrying about food and where we would sleep. Great post.

  7. Thanks! In future posts, the Penwassers will go to the beach, go fishing, go to the circus, and put shag carpet on everything in their house (except the dog).
    I'll also talk about the time I went to summer camp and Playland Amusement Park in Rye, New York.

  8. i'm pretty sure i've been to playland amusement park in ny. i spent most of my growing up years there.
    i love the comment at the end up the truckers using the pool as their bathtub. sometimes, i so don't want to go in the water after some scummy ick was in there splashing around & spreading their sweat & ass dirt. GROSS!

  9. I love this story...eagerly waiting to read the rest of it.

  10. @Sherilin: the place is still there. Although, I saw on TV that the state of NY is trying to decide how to "jazz it up." We used to go there quite a bit (I also went with the altar boys of my church every summer-that will be the subject of 'Once Upon a Time at the Amusement Park'). Eventually, though, we ended up going to Riverside Amusement Park in Agawam, MA (it's now Great Adventures, New England). Trivia: Playland is the amusement park Tom Hanks goes to in "Big."
    @Clipped: I'm really glad you liked it. I'm grateful to my family for giving me all those years of material (although, I seem to do okay on my own. For all I know, my kids will be writing about me one day!)

  11. Stop yer damn swearing Al!!!
    Don't you dare stop anything. A wonderful slice of life, so funny, and so real. LOVE IT!!!