In Which My Family Takes a Series of “Vacations”

Ah, vacation… who doesn’t love it? Or, at least, the idea of it? Americans, of all people, need to take vacations[1.], especially given the ludicrous and slavish devotion to work that most of us have been duped into thinking is “how it should be.” Really, the eight-hour workday is a relic of the Industrial Revolution; in most “modern” jobs, people can’t/don’t/won’t/shouldn’t actually do work for every single minute out of a full eight hours. But, just as with so many other horrible, antiquated, and/or insane ideas that have either outgrown their usefulness or that never should’ve happened in the first place (e.g., Daylight Savings Time; student loans; fossil fuel-powered vehicles; deep-fried butter; tipping in restaurants instead of paying servers a livable wage; American Idol), America can’t seem to give up its addiction to 40-hour “work” weeks. That’s why it feels so good to abandon our jobs for a week or two out of the year and head somewhere out yonder for some good old R&R[2.].

In theory, vacations (or “holidays,” as pretty much every other non-American English speaker in the world refers to them) should be the perfect time to forget about one’s workaday troubles. Ideally, one should be able to lay back in a chaise lounge by the pool, syrupy $16 Tiki drink in hand, and savor having your Grand Tetons misted with Evian by some college kid who is miserably failing to conceal his obvious erection. It doesn’t matter if you look more like a beached whale than a bikini model–udders is udders.

But this is nothing more than a beautiful dream for most people, particularly the kid who gets that tit-misting job. (That’s a real thing, by the way.) Vacations, after all, have to be planned, at least to some extent or another. And planning is one of those words that doesn’t have four letters but ought to, for most people.

I’m thinking back to growing up in central North Carolina. I don’t really know how old my brother and sister and I were when we started going on family vacations together. My assumption, though, is that my sister, who is the youngest by 4 years, must have been out of diapers–so that puts us at, let’s see… around… 1996, when I was 15?

Kidding, just kidding. I am sure my mom could whip out some rapidly deteriorating photo album and determine when our first summer trip together took place. Like most mothers of Millennials[3.], my mom maintained family photo albums for years until digital cameras became a thing. You likely know the kind of albums I’m talking about–they’re essentially big three-ring binders designed to resemble thick old books, though they are actually covered with hideous “leather-look” vinyl, usually in colors that no sane tanner would ever dye real leather (e.g., pea soup green, purple). Inside they have thick white cardboard pages coated on both sides with a strange tacky wax-like substance covered with thin sheets of clear plastic. The idea was that you would peel back the plastic cover of any given page, place your photos on the waxy surface (which was just sticky enough to hold the photo in position), and then replace the plastic to “lock” everything in place. These pages worked pretty well, at least until the tackiness of the pages dried out, meaning that all of your pictures would dump out of the side of the album the next time you picked it up.

Speaking of photos, I had hopes that the photography skills of my mom–who, don’t get me wrong, I love dearly–would have improved with the advent of the digital camera. For the vast majority of my childhood I can remember her carrying around this black plastic rectangle of a camera that used something called “110 film,” which came in these odd-looking cartridges that resembled nothing so much as tiny plastic dumbbells. In those days, the viewfinder was really there as a formality more than anything else, and you had to basically hope that the camera knew where you were trying to focus (most of the time it didn’t). You might as well have just held it up in the air and pressed the button.

All of that was bad enough, but my mother has the uncanny ability to snap photos at precisely the wrong time, so invariably, someone (or, more likely, multiple someones) would be looking in the wrong direction or have their eyes closed; she also managed to inadvertently capture at least one “wardrobe malfunction” as well. This is true. Once while on vacation, Mom tried to take a picture of we three kids together just before bed; it was only after the picture came back[4.] that we realized you could see straight up the leg of the shorts my brother was wearing, and plain as day you could see half of his “doodle-dasher.” Once we made this discovery, Mom censored the photo with a piece of opaque tape that she strategically cut into a triangular shape so as to obscure the offending genital while also preserving the otherwise unremarkable qualities of the photo.

When she finally “upgraded” to a digital camera (this, by the way, did not occur until well after everyone else on the planet had done the same; for years longer than was reasonable, Mom used a 35mm “point-and-shoot” camera that was in most regards identical to the 110 camera–i.e., horrible), she picked the cheapest model available… of course. The “screen,” if you could reasonably even call it that, was approximately three-quarters of an inch diagonally, with atrocious picture quality–it looked like the display was overlaid with window screening, but in fact the pixels were just that large. It was also infuriatingly slow–it would take between 10 to 3,000 seconds for the camera to save the image it had feebly captured, and promptly the battery would die.

The net result of these horrible low-quality cameras combined with my Mom’s lack of photographic skills was the mountain of aforementioned photo albums filled with questionable imagery taken at indiscernible locations. If, for example, we were visiting, say, Disney Land (which we never did because money), instead of taking candid shots of us enjoying attractions or interacting with Donald Duck or Cinderella, Mom would have us line up in front of a totally nondescript wall or featureless walkway and take a picture there instead. I don’t know why. How many pictures of your kids looking annoyed in different directions do you need?

But back to the topic at hand–vacations. The camera would always be on hand, of course, despite the fact that the trips are largely interchangeable and undifferentiated in my memory. We would pile into the beige 1989 Chevy Astro minivan along with our luggage and an array of crap curated by my mother (e.g., an Igloo cooler filled with snacks and groceries that nobody ever wanted or ate–bologna and American cheese singles, anyone?–that would generally travel all the way to our destination and back untouched; videocassettes of movies nobody ever watched; extra bedding and pillows that no one ever used or needed). My father’s patience with these excursions was limited and he would already be displaying obvious signs of annoyance and irritation before we had even pulled out of the driveway. This might explain why the trips were always inaugurated with a prayer for safety, wisdom, etc. Dad would offer this invocation (thankfully with his eyes open) as we drove to the Noah’s Ark boarding and grooming place to drop off our toy poodle, Penny, who I now realize probably got the best end of this whole process out of any of us.

The on-ramp to the interstate was less than a mile from the kennel, and this always served as our “gateway to adventure.” Most years, as best I can recall, our destination was some beach–but not any of the “good” beaches[5.] like Myrtle Beach or even North Myrtle Beach. Instead we’d end up taking a four-hour drive to places that must have been named things like Dead Jellyfish State Park, Skunk Island, Somewhat-by-the-Sea, or South Detritus Beach–basically, anyplace where my parents could find the cheapest possible lodging. For many years this took the form of a double room in an Econo Lodge or Sleep Inn; my parents would take one bed, and my brother and I would be consigned to the other one. Mom would always reserve a “rollaway bed” in advance for my sister[6.]–but it had to be free. If she found out that there was an extra fee of, say, $5 a night for this extravagance, she would immediately cancel the reservation and make a new one someplace else.

In later years (that is, around the time I reached high school), my parents apparently realized that they could throw away their nonexistent money on a time-share, so for the low, low price of just $60,000 or something, they earned the privilege of staying in any available “Bronze Class” property worldwide[7.] for no more than 4 consecutive nights on any Off-Off-Week given at least 6 months’ notice! What this essentially translated to was a “beach” condo that was typically adjacent to some crummy golf course, and in fact nowhere even remotely within walking distance of a beach. I never understood the appeal of these places–more times than not, they’d be decorated in hideous thematic ways that featured far too many pastel colors, driftwood, and “precious” “inspirational” quotes stenciled all over the place. When I got to college and these timeshare excursions were still happening on a routine basis, I finally realized that I was a semi-adult and could simply inform my parents that I would not be joining them for Thanksgiving at Burpley Beach or Grody Cove.

The beach was not always our destination; the thing about living in the North Carolina Piedmont[8.] is that you can drive in any given direction for several hours and (1) still be inside the damn state, but also (2) be in an entirely different sort of environment. Four hours east yielded beach, but four hours west yielded mountains–and Tennessee.

Many of my earliest “vacation” memories involved the Appalachian Mountains. My Aunt Lana, my mom’s oldest sister, her husband Jim, and my cousins AJ and John lived for a while in a tiny town called Maryville, Tennessee, which is about the same distance due south of Knoxville and due west of Pigeon Forge. They owned and ran a convenience store called Rocky Top Market; somewhere there is a picture of me at maybe age 8 operating the cash register there. Basically we’d invade my aunt and uncle’s house and sleep on crappy air mattresses in their basement for a week and do nothing else/go nowhere else. One year, though, my mom’s other older sister, Dinah, who was married to a guy named Ben at that point, got the hosting duties thrust upon her. Largely, though, aside from it being a different house with different hosts, the overall experience was the same.

There was one instance, however, in which my mom’s sisters weren’t inflicted with the unenviable task of hosting us. There was one year when my late grandmother on my dad’s side (Granny, we called her) decided that she was going to rent a beach house for all of her brood. If I recall correctly, it was in Cherry Grove Beach, north of the Myrtle Beach “strip,” which is somewhat less tacky (e.g., less tourist-oriented shops selling shells and “novelty” towels printed with cartoonish bikini-clad ladies) and more focused on sport fishing tourism. I seem to remember that the house Granny had found (these were pre-Internet days, mind you) was a squatty cinder block structure painted powder blue with four bedrooms–one for her and her friend Helen, one with a triple (!) bunk bed and a double bed for my family, one with a queen bed for my uncle and his wife (their baby I guess slept in some sort of portable baby sleeping containment thing), and another room with a couple of double beds for my aunt and uncle and their son.

Funnily enough this specific trip is the only one I actually know the year of–1993. I know this because my cousin Michael and my Aunt Jana went to see Jurassic Park at a theater, and they were talking animatedly about it when they returned; I was not allowed to go, since I was five or six months shy of 12. I still maintain that Jurassic Park would have been less traumatic than the Discovery Channel special on the ancient Mayans in which it was revealed that the tribe’s shaman would lance the emperor’s foreskin with some implement or another in front of everybody and collect the blood that dripped out for sacrificial purposes. Yes, I actually remember that, even though at the time I didn’t even know what a foreskin was. (And yes, this procedure was a real thing.) It must have been burned into my memory when my uncle and dad, who were also watching the show, both involuntarily grabbed their crotches and made “Oof!” sounds.

The only other thing that I can definitively tell you about this vacation was that one night we went to something that was at that time called the “Dixie Stampede” (but is now “Dolly Parton’s Stampede”); basically, from what I recall, horses run around and fling dirt everywhere while you eat dinner, which ends up covered in said horse-flung dirt. My sister, who would have been 6 at this point, asked for a purple “Dixie Stampede” t-shirt, which featured the attraction’s logo stamped in gold foil on the front. She wore this more-or-less daily for the next two years until it basically disintegrated.

Oh, one other thing I just remembered–some cousin or another (let’s call him “Burt”) and his parent, neither of which I knew or had ever seen before, showed up randomly mid-week. I believe that Burt may have been “special,” if you catch my drift, as all I can remember about his presence was that after taking a dip in the ocean one day he padded into the house, stopped dead in the open-plan kitchen, and started howling about how he had sand in his buttocks. (Even at 11, I was thinking, “Good lord, go in the shower and wash it out, you imbecile!”)

My grandmother’s gift to all of us was decidedly generous; we did lots of things together as an extended family, which was fun and a bit unusual, since prior to then I never saw my dad’s side of the family more than maybe four or five times a year. My aunt also pooped her pants on the way to the beach, and to this day we still haven’t let her forget about her “beach blowout.”

As I mentioned earlier, my family took exactly one trip together to Walt Disney World in Orlando. The only reason that this ever happened was because my dad’s church decided to give him the trip as a gift for his 15th year (I think) as the minister–it was probably cheaper than a raise, in retrospect.

Since airline tickets were not included, this meant that we all had to pile into the Astro yet again for what I just determined, thanks to Google Maps, was an 8-hour drive to Orlando–though for some reason I distinctly remember it being closer to 12 hours long. It probably was for several reasons, one of which being the time required for my mother to rifle through her coupon tote every time we stopped at a fast food restaurant; she’d find a coupon for, say, 2-for-1 Beef ‘n’ Cheddar sandwiches at Arby’s, and the fact that she was holding a coupon would be the first thing she’d announce to the drive-through speaker.

Fast Food Worker: Hi, can I take your order?

Mom: (screaming) YES, HELLO, YES, I HAVE A COUPON.

Fast Food Worker: (no response, clearly waiting for more details)

Mom: HELLO.

Fast Food Worker: I’m here…

Mom: I HAVE A COUPON.

Fast Food Worker: OK, go ahead…

Mom: THE COUPON IS FOR 2-FOR-1 BEEF ‘N’ CHEDDARS. I’D LIKE TWO BEEF ‘N’ CHEDDARS BUT I ONLY WANT TO PAY FOR ONE.

Fast Food Worker: OK…

This would be the first point at which Mom would realize that she should have actually consulted with any of her children about what they actually wanted to eat beyond what restaurant the food should come from. So she’d turn back to us and say something ridiculous like, “We can all split one fry, right?” Anyone who has ever been a child who desperately wants junk food knows full well that you don’t split fast food components with anyone. But we had no control over the situation–we’d just howl in objection while our Dad was, I dunno, reading the Bible or contemplating suicide.

Mom: ONE… SMALL… NO, ONE MEDIUM CURLY FRY.

(Pause.)

Fast Food Worker: (Obviously expecting the order to continue without a confirmation after every single line item.) OK… anything else?

Mom: ARE THE SAUCES FREE.

Fast Food Worker: (Clearly confused) …yes?

Mom: OK. HOLD ON A SECOND.

After holding up the drive-thru line for 45 minutes (apparently failing to realize that there was a person she could confirm the order with face-to-face about twenty feet ahead), we’d roll forward and food that was already cold because of the length of time it took to order would be distributed. Again, we didn’t have any actual say in what we got to eat–the fact that we were fed was apparently sufficient.

The drive to Florida was largely uninteresting; I remember only two things that made it slightly more amusing.

  1. Somewhere in what I think must have been South Carolina, we passed a hideous-looking “gate” for a subdevelopment called, if I recall correctly, “Flactum Manor.” Mom reacted negatively to this name, saying aloud that it reminded her of “flactuating.” I was old enough at this point to ask if she meant “flatulating.”
  2. We stopped for gas somewhere near the Florida border, and someone overheard my mom talking. That person stopped her and said something to the effect of, “Excuse me, I couldn’t help but notice your strong accent… are you from England?”

We did finally make it to Orlando, and I think my dad was actually able to enjoy himself for once. I know that my brother and I did; we were old enough at this point to be turned loose on our own (I had bought my own nerdy Casio digital watch at Radio Shack by this point which had like five chronometers on it), so Casey and I ran around the parks absorbing as much as we possibly could based on the strategic research I’d done using an out-of-date guidebook I’d found at the public library at home.

It didn’t really matter–we had a great time. And really, isn’t that the whole point of a family vacation?

__________
  1. And yet the statistics suggest that a good third of Americans haven’t taken a vacation in the past two years. This is patently insane.[]
  2. Rum and Ritalin, obviously.[]
  3. Having been born at the very tail end of 1981, I’m really not young enough to accurately describe myself as a Millennial, but I’m not quite old enough to fit into Gen X. I am completely okay with not being part of either cohort, really.[]
  4. You used to have to send film to some lab somewhere to be “developed,” meaning that it would be weeks until you saw whatever you had shot; by the time it came back, you would basically have no memory of what anything was supposed to be. Yes, there were one-hour photo labs, but my mom was far too frugal to use them. Perhaps she subconsciously realized that her photos did not need–or deserve–this treatment.[]
  5. It’s ironic that as a kid I was always jealous of friends who got to go to Myrtle Beach on vacation, because as an adult, I wouldn’t go there if you paid me… perhaps my parents’ wisdom was just lost on me as a child.[]
  6. Usually my sister had no problem with this arrangement; in fact, she would usually become quite defensive of these rickety cots, screaming at us if we so much looked at or touched “her bed”–God help you if you sat on the thing. One year, however, in the only instance where we ever went to Disney World as a family, Laura started screaming and crying when her trundle bed arrived; apparently she had finally grown up enough to understand the reality of the situation, while nevertheless overlooking the fact that she was the only child who got their own bed.[]
  7. Additional fees for leaving the country.[]
  8. Believe it or not, I did not realize until I was 38 years old that “piedmont” is actually a French word meaning “foothill.”[]