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Vacation from Hell

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  • Vacation from Hell


    T minus thirty minutes and counting.

    My parents weren’t rich. The idea of taking a two-week vacation was totally out of the question. The best we could afford was a day trip to the Poconos, to Lancaster, to the shore, something close. I remember one day trip, as we were heading home, my father grumbled, “I can’t even afford to take my family on a lousy little trip.”

    My mother, hoping to give him some words of comfort and reassurance, rubbed him on the shoulder and said, “Honey, this IS a lousy little trip.” Ever since then, we would go on what we called Lousy Little Trips.

    We had distant relatives in San Diego. Three thousand miles distant. My uncle wanted us to come and visit them. They even offered to take us to see Disneyland. But there was no way we could possibly afford something like that. So he offered to send us his credit card to cover gasoline expenses.

    I know what you’re thinking. Anybody who would mail his credit card to a relative to be used for a vacation across the country has got to be insane.

    And you’re right.

    I was an only child. So my parents decided to let my cousin come with us for the trip. It would be company for me. I remember the preparation, the marked up road maps, the packing, the expectations, the excitement and anticipation of seeing a part of the country I thought only existed on channel 3. My father also promised that I would get to see the Barringer meteor crater near Winslow, Arizona. My mom hoped to see the Grand Canyon.

    T minus fifteen minutes and counting.

    Johnny and I were in the back seat with a huge styrofoam cooler for our lunch meats and drinks. Luggage in the trunk, luggage on our laps, pillows and blankets all around us. Hardly any room to spread our legs. It reminded me of pictures of Alan Shepard as he climbed into that tiny black Mercury capsule high atop the powerful Redstone Rocket, all fueled up and ready to propel him into the annals of American History.

    Tiny black capsule. About the size of a Rambler. A black Rambler American.

    T minus twelve minutes and counting.

    The four of us all snuggled up in our lovely, spacious, black 1961 Rambler American. we got ready for that moment of ignition. Countdown is proceeding as scheduled. T minus eleven minutes and counting.

    We ran down the checklist. Food? Check! Maps? Check! Clothes? Check! Luggage? Check! Last minute stop to the bathroom?

    T minus ten minutes and holding.

    After what seemed an eternity, we managed to resume the countdown. Then we had liftoff. We were on our way. We reached orbit somewhere after we crossed the Ben Franklin Bridge. When the Philadelphia skyline came into view, we knew we were far from civilization. We were well on our way.

    Houston, we have a problem.

    Once we were in orbit, I realized that the centerline of the the styrofoam cooler in the back seat wasn’t exactly lined up with the center of the car. It appeared to be about one inch closer to my side. He had more room that I did. Johnny swore that it was about one inch closer to his side. Unfortunately, we left our yardstick home, so we couldn’t determine who was right.

    Wasn’t it Einstein who said that time appears to slow down as you approach the speed of light? This certainly seemed to be the case. Once we got onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike, our spacecraft went into warp drive, but getting to Pittsburgh seemed to take forever.

    It was nighttime when we got near Pittsburgh, and the fuel supply was running low. My father turned off Interstate 70 to find a local service station. After driving several miles, we came to an isolated spot of civilization. Little did we know we were about to cross over into another dimension, a dimension of sound, a dimension of light. There’s a signpost up ahead. Our next stop: Brownsville.

    We found what we were looking for. Off in the distant blackness, a faint, flickering amber light, like the star of Bethlehem, guided us in the direction we should travel. The flashing light appeared to grow brighter as we approached it. Our headlights illuminated a sign that informed us that we were entering Brownsville. Just beyond the sign was a street corner with an old country store set back not more than a few yards from the edge of the road. Two gasoline pumps stood next to the road, giving the motorist freedom of choice. No, not regular and unleaded. They were both leaded. But with one pump you got free S&H green stamps to paste to your stamp book. The gas tank that offered the green stamps was two cents more per gallon than the other one. By paying more for gasoline, you could save up green stamps and get a free appliance. The other pump was for intelligent people.

    Fortunately the place was still open. We filled the tank and went on our way. Now we had to find our way back to Interstate 70. We must have been traveling for more than fifteen minutes along the dark back roads, climbing steep hills and picking up speed down the valleys. Up ahead, off in the distance, we could see something. Off in the distant darkness, a faint, flickering amber light, like the star of Bethlehem, guided us in the direction we should travel. It grew brighter as we approached it. The headlights illuminated a sign that informed us that we were entering Brownsville. Just past the sign was a street corner with-.

    We were back where we started. Obviously we made a wrong turn somewhere. My father turned the Rambler around and headed back in the other direction. Again, miles of unlit roadway, filled with hills and valleys. Off in the distant darkness, a faint, flickering amber light, like the star of Bethlehem, guided us in the direction we should travel. It grew brighter as we approached it. The headlights illuminated a sign that informed us that we were entering Brownsville.

    The corner store was closed now, the owner probably at home fast asleep in bed. But we were still trying to find our way out of Brownsville, if there was a way out, and back to Interstate 70. We must have passed that gas station five times that night before we found a sign telling us how to get to Route 70.

    The rest of the trip to California was pretty much uneventful. My parents took turns driving and taking naps We stopped at grocery stores for milk and cereal, ate breakfast in the car in the morning as we drove. For lunch we opened up the styrofoam cooler and took out already-made sandwiches and lukewarm milk. In the evening, we would stop briefly at a roadside snack stand. Roughing it, as some people call it, produces an appreciation for a vacation. Instead of passively reclining in a lounge chair on the beach or on a cruise ship, roughing it means taking an active part in the events that are to be experienced. That’s what made those Lousy Little Trips more fun. It was the challenge. And little did we know that this Lousy Big Trip was to have even greater challenges waiting for us.

    Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas. They say Texas is the only place where you can travel for eight hundred miles and still be in the same state. I guess they never heard of Brownsville, Pennsylvania.

    New Mexico. Arizona. Not far beyond the horizon was Mexico. We were watching out for illegal aliens crossing the border. My cousin wondered why illegal aliens would cross the border from Mexico. I explained to him that Mexico was nowhere near as industrially advanced as the United States, and it was much easier for them to land their spaceships in Mexico undetected.

    Many people take vacations simply to get away from the burdens of work. But traveling among the huge Rocky Mountains, along hundreds of miles of desert, spotted by an occasional cactus bush, feeling the wind blow on your face with blast-furnace heat, these things are more than vacation. They are experiences that I would never forget, even many decades later. They were pictures from an encyclopedia being brought to life, showing me that this great land of ours is more than oak trees, farmland and urban sprawl.

    We reached the Colorado River. Up ahead was the border, lined by a heavy chain link fence. Beyond that was the People’s Republik of Kalifornia. The guards caught a farmer attempting to smuggle contraband grapes out of Kalifornia. But this time the guards would be merciful. He would be permitted to leave the People’s Republik of Kalifornia, but can’t take the grapes. Frustrated, he decided to give them away. My parents accepted them graciously. Delicious, juicy sweet grapes.

    It was early afternoon when we arrived at my uncle’s. I got to meet my cousins. We all talked about how he was going to show us Los Angeles, Hollywood, Beverly Hills where all the stars lived. We would go to Disneyland. The next few days would be very exciting. That was an understatement.

    Nighttime came. It was still hot outside, but it was dry, and that made Johnny and me feel more comfortable nestled in our sleeping bags in the garage. And it was peaceful, quiet.

    In the middle of the night, we were wakened up by angry voices. They were coming from inside the house. The voices got louder as people started screaming and yelling at one another. My uncle picked that night to throw one of his first-class, world-famous temper tantrums. We didn’t know what was going on, but we knew we were scared.

    After an hour of terrifying yelling and screaming, my parents walked out of the house, carrying their luggage. They told us to quickly grab our things and get into the car. We were leaving. We spent the rest of the night sleeping in the car, somewhere in a parking lot in downtown San Diego.

    Sunrise. No money. No credit card. Stranded. But we still had some sandwiches left. My mom was beginning to feel sick. So she started to eat some of those grapes. Juicy sweet grapes.

    First thing in the morning, my father went to a nearby parsonage pleading to a priest for some money so we could get back home. He would send the money back after we got back home. He was told to get lost. We already were. He went to the house of a rabbi, and was told the same thing. That turned him off toward any organized religion for the rest of his life. Finally we were able to contact some relatives in New Jersey and have money sent to us from Western Union.

    We had enough money to get back home. In fact, a little more than enough if we spent it carefully. But my father had made a promise to take us to Disneyland, and he was determined to keep that promise, no matter what. So we headed toward Disneyland.

    To save money, my parents decided stay in the car while we spent the afternoon on the rides. Besides, my mom was feeling too sick to walk around. She just wanted to stay in the car and relax. And munch on a few of those sweet grapes. Sweet, purple grapes.

    We took note of where the car was so we could find it when it was time to leave. Somehow the rides, the excitement, the costumes, the fantasy world that Disneyland had to offer helped Johnny and me forget about the crisis for the time being. He and I must have spent hours having the time of our lives, as our greatest dreams had come to fulfillment.

    It was evening. Time for us to get back to the car. We remembered exactly where the car was. It wasn’t there. We looked around a wider area. No mom. No dad. No black Rambler American anywhere in sight.

    For more than two hours we searched. We searched the huge parking lot, went back inside Disneyland and searched, went back into the parking lot. It was nighttime now. The crowd was beginning to thin out as people went home. My legs were beginning to hurt very badly. But we still kept wandering around the parking lot, and among the amusements.

    I think it was after midnight. Only a few small crowds still hung around. Finally, as we approached the exit one more time to try the parking lot again, there was my father, talking with some security guards. Words can’t describe how relieved these two little boys felt at that moment. We found out that my mother got sick and threw up in the parking lot. The odor from the vomit was making her sicker, and they had to find some other place to park the car. All that time, my father had been looking for us.

    We started on our long journey of thousands of miles home. Not much food left. The grapes were gone. No more delicious, juicy sweet grapes.

    We made it to Arizona, and my father had to stop for the night. My mother was too sick to take turns driving. We slept in our sleeping bags under the desert sky. Never before that night, nor ever since, have I seen such a clear, pitch-black starry sky as I did that night. Never had the milky way appeared so radiant as it did that night, spreading across the sky from one horizon to the other. If there is such a place where silence can drown out noise and commotion, it would have to be out there in the Arizona desert under the nighttime sky.

    Texas. The car broke down. Rust inside the gas tank managed to clog the line. My father had to call for more money. We managed to get the car fixed that same day, and we were on our way again.

    Kansas. Indiana. Ohio. Wheeling. Pittsburgh. Hershey. We were impatiently counting the miles that still lay ahead of us. Lancaster. Philadelphia. The Ben Franklin Bridge. Gradually, the landscape became more and more familiar.


    Early, the next morning, my father took my mom to the doctor. It was Diabetes. Back there in California, she thought munching on those grapes would make her feel better. Delicious, sweet juicy sweet grapes.

    That was in 1963. Every day of her life since then until her death in 1998, my mother has had to inject herself with insulin. I don’t remember her having had a healthy day since then. Every so often I have myself checked to see if I might have inherited this disease.

    My father lived until 1986, when his heart, slowly deteriorating, finally beat for the last time. He and his brother never communicated, even when their mother passed away.

    A few years after my father died, we received a very short message from California. One cousin had grown up and become a policeman. One day while off duty, he shot and killed my uncle in self defense. That’s the last we ever heard from them.
    Last edited by Faber; 10-27-2020, 03:15 PM.
    When I Survey....

  • #2
    Wow. What an adventure. What a tragedy. It is wonderful that your dad and mom sacrificed the extra amount to let you enjoy Disneyland after all.


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