Saturday, June 29, 2013

Family Vacations in the Flower Child Era

In the 1960's gas was cheap, although you'd never know it by listening to my Dad. Camping supplies could be purchased from the local Army Navy surplus for next to nothing and campsite fees were a few bucks a night. Dad was a teacher at University and in those days he rarely taught summer school which meant the entire family, even the grownups, shared in that giddy unfettered dizzying state of freedom that engulfed us as we spilled forth from the metal and tempered glass doors of the public school we attended that year. We were, all of us, the entire family, free as fireflies once that final bell signaled the end of the day.

For a couple of years Dad tended to relocate between spring and fall semesters, timed to take place in midsummer, allowing at least a month between vacating the old place and settling into the next. It wasn't until many years later that much in the same way you catch a punch line long after the joke has been delivered, years later I figured this out. "Oh now I get it" slapping myself in the forehead, "this gave a rent free period of time right smack in the middle of summer". Very clever I observed with the knowing perspective and wisdom of the parent I had now become. This happens when you become a parent, the little tricks, slight of hand and trade secrets are revealed once you have acquired the Parental spidey sense to decode the clues. Because I was a precocious and, more importantly, nosy child, I picked up on part of the scheme even back then.

When my grade school Harriet the Spy mind made this astute and relevant observation I initially thought maybe it was because the old man couldn't afford to pay rent that month due to having the summer off work. I deduced that our gypsy vagabond lifestyle was really a thinly disguised episode of homelessness. It wasn't until stage 2 adult revelation that I realized that even with the low cost of trailer trash style travel we probably weren't actually saving any money. I think Dad ditched the apartment so we could afford to pull up stakes and indulge in our wanderlust, not the other way around.

Sometimes I used to envy the younger kids, the kids from his subsequent (and last) marriage. They were the ones who got him when he was settled. I envied that they had a stable address, went to the same school district for all 12 years. They had the benefit of music lessons, consistent friendships and financial security. When they traveled it was to big cities like New York or New Orleans or even overseas to England. And they frequently made the journey by plane or train, not crammed into the cookie crumb covered cracked vinyl back seat of a car whose summer trip was bound to be its swan song. On top of all that, they had an intact family, both parents, together in the same house. wow.

But the grass is always just a little greener when we are peering trough the fence When we look through the fence, you see, it is likely we are squinting one eye through a small knot hole This offers a pretty limited view. And you can be sure that who ever is peering back at us from their side of the knot hole, is probably seeing the same kind of out-of-context sunlit perfect little patch of oh so green grass.

On our side of the fence we'd load up the car with blankets, camping equipment, a box of dry goods, a cooler of perishable food, two sets of clothes for each kid (you brought what you could fit in a pillowcase), towels suntan lotion, fishing gear, yard get the drift. I have no idea how we managed to fit it all in and on whatever vehicle we were using at the time. I do know that towels often doubled as pillows or blankets and that antennas and wing mirrors can be used as hooks for drying wet swim suits. I also know that trail mix, dried fruit and certain brands of chocolate chip cookies can withstand atmospheric and temperature changes remaining edible for weeks. You no longer argue over what radio station to listen to once you hit mid Pennsylvania, because there is only one station (if you're lucky) and after enough hours in the car line even country western becomes tolerable. I know how to pee while squatting in any environment and quickly too. The license plate game and the alphabet game cycle through being fun, to being ok to intolerable and back to ok again, and semis were the best target for the licence game cause in those days truckers would be required to have plates from any state they regularly traveled through. Speaking of trucks, truck stops are one of the most delightful and decadent roadside attraction and they are worth staying awake for because if you are awake Dad will let you come in there with him when he goes in to pee. Dad would drive though the night to get us to our next destination. Night time was quiet. All us kids were sleeping, slouched against one another in a coppertoned sticky sweaty heap in the backseat, the highway traffic was light and no one would argue about the radio station. Once we arrived at the destination the first order of business was to set up the tent so Dad could climb inside and crash for a few hours. The second order of business was that whatever the second order of business was it needed to be done quietly enough to Not Wake Dad. Whatever happened beyond that was in the hands of my Stepmom, whose hands like a sculptor bringing life to a lump of clay, managed to create an outdoor homestead from the contents of the boxes, pillowcases and coolers. I like to think that we were helpful, but in retrospect the task of collecting firewood was clearly designed to make us wander off and disappear in the woods. "Don't bother looking close to camp, that stuff has all been used up by the people who were here have to go back a ways" And off into the woods the adventures began and carried on for the remainder of the summer like treasure hunt or a fairy tale that we crafted as we lived it, barefoot, happy and free.