There is a picture we all have in our heads of what the family vacation should be. A smiling, well scrubbed group of people in a station wagon, sharing healthy snacks, singing rounders and playing I'm Going to New York. Dad drives along, pointing out interesting and educational sights along the way while Mom cheerfully navigates, never steering him away from the carefully planned route. Then there is the other picture of what the family vacation probably is in reality- sweaty, green faced children holding barf bags, squabbling endlessly over who gets the travel checkers next and asking every 10 minutes "Are we there yet?" Mom and Dad are fighting over whose fault it is that they took the wrong road 83 miles back, stopping only to turn around and clout one of the kids every few minutes. Sort of "National Lampoon's Vacation" meets "The Grapes of Wrath." Somewhere between these two pictures lies the truth of most family holidays.
My own memories of our yearly outings are sketchy, as I think I've blocked out some of it in mental self-defense. I had parents who were, well, a bit eccentric, shall we say, but striking a tolerable balance between stick-in-the mud conservatism and the type of lunacy that can put a child in actual physical danger. I think it was my father who was really the Jack Keroac wanna-be, though, and my Mom mostly went along to be agreeable. I remember fairly conventional vacations when she was in charge of the decision, we even went to Disneyland once, and the summers I had that were closest to that perfect American ideal were spent in Colorado, my mother's childhood home, at my Grandpa's farm. Growing up in Las Vegas, the closest I ever came to seeing wildlife was scaring up a scorpion or two from underneath a rock, and though I knew that milk came from cows (they said so in school, after all) neither myself or any of my friends could have come close to describing how they got it out of there and into those handy cartons. So those blissful couple of weeks spent roaming the prairies, feeding chickens and petting horses seemed like a page right out of Laura Ingalls Wilder to me. Even more exciting was getting up before daylight to go with Grampa to "ride the ditches". After retiring from farming he was employed by the Weldon Valley Ditch Company to drive around and check on the irrigation ditches, although what he was checking I couldn't tell you, water levels and so on I assume. All I cared about was that I got to bump around in his old truck with him, and was given the serious and important job of getting out every time we came to a gate, opening it for him, waiting for him to drive through, and then closing it behind him. Only when you're a kid can you actually think this stuff is fun. Even more of a mystery to my grown up self is how I would voluntarily swim in those same ditches, knowing that they were full of frogs, crawdads, and other slimy critters with claws and pincers just itching to get hold of little kids' toes (and worse). In order to get me in one now there would have to be a pack of hydrophobic psychopaths after me and the ditch my only hope of escape. Even then I'd probably hesitate.
At the other end of the spectrum, there were my Dad's versions of the family vacation, which were always adventures, not necessarily in the best sense of that word. My Dad had a passion (maybe obsession would be more accurate) for antiques. And even using the term antiques may be putting too fine a point on it, let's just say he liked old stuff, and not only decent looking old stuff, he had that kind of eye that could see a "valuable" piece under layers and layers of crap. And of course it was cheating to buy the old stuff from anything like an antique shop, it had to be either bought from someone who "didn't know what they had" for a laughably small sum, or, even better, found. The only problem being that my Dad had a rather loose definition of "found". Apparently if there was no one actually watching the item when he liberated it from its current location, it was "found". Consequently we spent a lot of our precious vacation time bumping over rough terrain in various unsuitable vehicles searching for so-called "ghost towns" he had heard rumors of, or looking for any other deserted (or semi-deserted) gas stations, motels, restaurants or homesteads. I imagine if Indiana Jones ever had any kids I could tell you exactly what their family holidays would be like. I remember sitting patiently for hours on end while my Dad tried to figure out how to dismantle a combine harvester and then fit the bits into the trunk of a Rambler. I once watched him try for what seemed like forever to hook a glass lantern with a piece of wire and retrieve it from a hole that used to be the cellar of a house that was long gone. Oh, did I forget to mention that there was also a dead cow sharing said cellar with the lamp? I'll never forget the heat and the smell and the endless tedium, and thinking that there had damned well better be a genie in that lamp who would whisk me off to Disneyland if he ever got it out of there. He did get it out of there, by the way, I still have it. I know this is impossible after 30 odd years, but I still imagine it smells faintly of dead cow.
Although he was never actually caught "finding" any of his treasures, I'm sure there were narrow escapes, and most surely I remember occasions when instant Karma reared its head. While trying to remove an old brass and wrought-iron bed from a sheepherder's cabin in Wyoming my Dad and Uncle unwittingly incurred the wrath of dozens of wasps who had been nesting in the brass knobs on the head-and-footboards. We all narrowly escaped being stung to death, and what's more he had to search for years for suitable replacements for those knobs.
As much as he collected memorabilia my Dad liked to collect strange towns, which made up the other half of our weird holidays. If we could find a semi-deserted town full of Deliverance-type mutants, then we had hit the vacation jackpot. Some of these people hadn't seen an outsider in years (as the places we found were so far off the beaten path that you could never get lost enough to end up there, you had to actually go there deliberately), and would initially do no more than throw stony glances in our direction. But after a while we would all somehow have become fast friends and my Dad would have gotten some old grubby stuff either free or really cheap (because of course these people never "knew what they had"), thankfully eliminating the need to st- uh, "find" any of it.
However, by far the worst "Dad vacations" were the ones
spent in his boyhood home in Oklahoma, or the Colorado
vacation's evil twin. Now, I'm sure that Oklahoma is a fine state
full of beautiful countryside and offering many fascinating diversions
for the modern holiday maker, but unfortunately my experiences
of the place were tainted with my father's curse of weirdness
and his even weirder relatives. In my very vivid memories the
several years I spent there one fortnight in July had all the
charm of a stint in a Thai prison. It was hot, it was humid, there
were bugs the size of large hamsters, and worst of all there was
my cousin George, a 9 year old sociopath with a mean right hook
and what they would now term an anger control problem. The only
air conditioner to be found in the whole county was in my aunt's
10 by 20 foot trailer in which George held sway over all, but
if you went outside you were immediately enveloped in a cloud
of gnats, and leapt upon by scads of ticks or chiggers. So I spent
most of my time sitting out in our car reading books and sweating
like a pig in Burma, which earned me the reputation of being "odd"
among the family members. To compliment my fear of George, the
first night we spent in town the tree outside my bedroom was split
in half by lightning. This sounds exactly the way you'd think
it would sound- like Armageddon. I hardly slept a wink the whole
2 weeks. When we left town to go and spend a few days in the country
with my Dad's Aunt Fanny I was looking forward to something akin
to my Colorado memories, and I was even further excited to learn
that Aunt Fanny had a pet monkey. What on earth an old lady who
lived in the backwoods of Oklahoma was doing with such an exotic
pet I'll never know, but I guess I can well understand from which
side my Dad got his eccentric streak. My happiness was short lived,
however, when I discovered that the monkey was nothing more than
a smaller, hairier version of my cousin George. It was as nasty
a little bugger as you could ever imagine, and within hours I
was hoping it would drop dead right in front of my eyes. He lived
in a cage on the covered porch, and I couldn't even enjoy the
charms of the old-fashioned porch swing because the little horror
would screech and scream and fling himself around the cage so
much that my nerves couldn't take it and I'd have to retreat into
the house (or back to the car with my book). The feud between
the monkey and myself came to a head when he snatched my ice cream
right off the cone as I stood just a little too close to the cage,
and my Dad, in a rare moment of chivalry, promised me that he
would "get him back". One of the few electrical outlets
around the house was (for some reason) out on the porch, and my
dad had been going out there in the mornings to use his electric
razor, which seemed to fascinate the monkey. It would stare fixedly
at the razor in my dad's hand, reaching out its paw in his direction
every few seconds. I will never forget my delight as I watched
my father poke the razor into the cage, the switch turned to "on",
wait for the little monster to grab it up in it's mangy little
paw, and then plug it in. The creature nearly exploded in a fit
of surprise, fear, and I'm sure not a small amount of rage. Aunt
Fanny was none too impressed by this little prank and announced
sadly to my Dad, "You know Jay, that monkey will never like
you now". "Gosh, that's too bad," my dad replied,
"I was really hoping he'd write to me when I got home."
My Dad's idea of a camping trip differed vastly from the tent and Coleman stove idylls that other "normal" families indulged in every summer, too. Looking back, I believe he was trying to relive his time in North Africa chasing Rommel around the desert (if my Dad's stories are to be believed World War Two was the greatest vacation he ever had). He would find the most spookily remote and uninviting place possible, lay two blankets on the ground along side of a jug of water and a can of beans and announce that we had found our campsite. If he couldn't find a spot devoid of trees, grass and running water, he would look for somewhere next to the most odd or disturbing people in a 50 mile radius. We once camped with a group of Hell's Angels who were on their way to a gathering in a neighboring state, and although they turned out to be surprisingly polite and friendly people, at 12 years old I just wasn't able to enjoy this for the adventure it was. I think I had seen too many of those paranoid movies that were made in the 60s, where an innocent and trusting middle class family is set upon by longhaired drug addicts, the mother and daughters ravished and the men roughed up and demoralized. I think the producers of those films must have had a Viking fixation.
They say we are all fated to turn into our parents, and, like my peers, I can see the evidence of this more every day. I seem to have developed a taste for "alternative" people, and I would probably opt for a trip into the Burmese Jungle over a four star hotel in Paris. I haven't been back to Oklahoma since I've been allowed to make my own vacation choices, though, and I do prefer to camp in a nice safe campground with showers and a Denny's not too far away. But you never know what the future brings, someday in the not too distant future I just might go back and look up that monkey.
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