Archive for March, 2017

Our Colorado Vacation Starts Moving Backward

Sunday, March 12th, 2017

People getting a driver’s license today have no idea how dangerous cars used to be. For example, you could reach through the driver’s window, past the steering wheel of a car with an automatic transmission, and, without inserting a key, shift the car out of park. Think about that for a second. Anyone could get in a car and put it in neutral. Today, there are multiple safeguards preventing that.

Yeah, no. Nothing like our Western vacation.

This was less of a deal living in the endless flats of Illinois, where I grew up, but as my brother Mike and I proved, children will exploit any safety oversight.

Our family had a big, black AMC Ambassador station wagon back in the mid-1960s that was beloved by all. It probably had more usable room than any minivan to come, which my parents loved. We kids never got over how it had a fold-up, rear-facing bench seat in the back. Watching the world flow away from you is really satisfying in a way I can’t describe. And, if we were careful in hiding this from Dad, we could be “bold” by making faces at the cars immediately behind us. Fortunately, we did not yet know about obscene gestures or someone eventually would have gotten killed, probably at my dad’s hands.

One day, while my brother Mike and I were still in elementary school, we got shooed off the Heinzes front yard for playing Batman with some of our friends. It was understandable, as that game consisted of running around and play-fighting while screaming “neener, neener, neener, neener, neener BATMAN!” over and over again.

Back on home turf, literally, and having lost our friends to someone else’s yard, we grew bored. And then, as if it had suddenly popped into existence, we saw the station wagon. It was parked, as it usually was, on our asphalt drive next to our red-brick, two-story home.

We ran over and opened the driver’s door and piled in like two baby zoo apes presented with a new refrigerator box. Mike and I took turns sitting behind the wheel “steering,” and sliding around on the shiny black vinyl seats. One of us shifted the car to neutral at some point before we opened the door again and ran off for more excitement.

Our driveway was the closest thing to level that you could find and still have an incline. After we’d left the scene, that Ambassador slowly rolled out the drive. The steering wheel had been turned a bit, so the car turned lazily as it glided silently onto Massasoit Street with the driver-side door wide open.

As Mom would later relay to us, had Mrs. Carmody from across the street not called her with this news, our station wagon might have been sitting diagonally on the street, where it had stopped, until someone crashed into it.

My first thought, standing there in front of my embarrassed and angry mom, was not the best one to voice, but I did. I told her that you’d have to be blind to run into a car in the street like that. Had I not said that, I think my mom would have sent Mike and me to our room for an hour or so. But, I had technically talked back. Mike, a year younger than I and already wiser, remained silent. Not that that spared him.

We were sent to our room “until your father comes home.” My dad was “father” when punishment was involved. I immediately calculated roughly how long Mike and I could play in our room — we had a complete Major Matt Mason Air Force astronaut toy set under our beds — before we would have to tearfully beg Mom not to tell Dad. The tears would be real.

Looking back, I can say my mom exhibited an average level of tolerance for embarrassment. If our family dog — a German shepherd named Prince — represented the level of anger unleashed when she was embarrassed, my dad’s reaction could best be visualized as Godzilla.

It went about as Mike and I had anticipated. We were spanked and told to stand against the wall for an hour without lifting a leg and absolutely without rubbing our stinging behinds.

Ten years later, we were in the middle of our first and only two-week family vacation. It was a July drive to Pike’s Peak in Colorado and back. By then, the eight of us — me, my younger brothers Mike, Dan, Terry and Tommy; my older sister Kim; and our parents — traveled in a new car, a Ford Country Squire station wagon.

Faux wood paneling ran along each side, but much of the rest of the car was similar to the Ambassador, including a fold-up seat in the rear, facing back. We pulled a white Ski-Tow Puma pop-up trailer, the roof of which was raised on folding braces and two canvas-and-wood bunks slid out fore and aft.

My dad knew a guy who worked for a commercial baker in Chicago who coincidentally saw three end-table sized sheets of individually wrapped chocolate-and-walnut brownies fall off a truck. Amazingly, the same guy saw a like amount of sugar-wafer cookies hit the pavement. He contributed the cache for the trip. To wash it down, my mom bought four cases of Canfield’s pop. I exclusively drank Cherry-Ola Cola.

There was more chemical energy in the cabin than in the gas tank.

I don’t know if the wagon had air-conditioning, but I know Dad didn’t turn it on had it been installed. We stayed primarily at kitschy campgrounds, most of which were very new, so few of them had trees. Not all of them had showers.

The result of all of this is that we were a carload of sweaty, sunburnt, itchy and sugar-topped powder kegs. My mom and dad had almost daily arguments or icy standoffs. We kids were bored, territorial and buzzed.

The drive was intense.

Dad was a powerful man. As a journeyman electrician he had surprising speed, strength and stamina. He could reach his hand back to the second row while driving and slap our bare legs with alarming accuracy and force.

Mom was a believer in strict discipline, though she sometimes tried to intercede before the hitting began. She’d be in line for guff if she got involved after that point.

At one roadside restaurant along I-80, a hectic place I remember being blindingly white with big windows, white and black asbestos tiles, white ceramic tiled walls and a white plaster ceiling, Mike and I took turns snapping butter patties up to the ceiling from white cloth napkins across our laps on the sly. We racked up three successes.

Later, as Dad started the car, our waitress came skittering toward us, yelling and waving. I froze in my seat next to the window nearest to the restaurant. My fingers and feet were tingling as I pictured what was about to transpire. A beating was assumed, but my dad was never going to forget this embarrassment. Not ever. In those rapidly diminishing seconds, I figured I would sneak away and live on my own, traveling along the freeway. My mom had bought me a rubber snake and a beaded “Indian” belt earlier in the day, and I figured that I’d use the snake somehow to snare food, and the belt would hold up branches of a lean-to.

The waitress, in a white dress and stockings that almost made her look like a nurse, reached the car. I was sitting behind my dad and had a perfect view of what would result in my death sentence.

“You left your wallet, ma’am!” she said, catching her breath. Ohs and thank yous from my mom and dad. As the waitress turned to go, Mom shoved five dollars at Dad, and after a second of bickering, he called her back and gave her the money.

My dad put the car in gear, and my mom sniffed the air. “Is Tommy’s diaper wet?” She turned to look, and our eyes locked, her brows knitting in concern.

She’d noticed even before me that I’d pissed my pants.

Several hours later, we arrived at our next campground. The terrain had turned from cast-iron hot and flat to big and bubbling foothills. This particular campground covered the southern hemisphere of one of those foothills.

For reasons I don’t remember, my dad drove of the main road and up the grass, almost to the office, before killing the engine. He took the keys and went to check in. Mom said we could get out of the car, but we had to stay in the area immediately around the station wagon. All four car doors flew open and out we shot, making the car look like a bug preparing to fly off.

Check-in always took a long time back then because so many other station wagons full of families were living the post-war middle-class adventure.

I’d walked down the slope, to the right rear corner of the trailer. From there, I could see my mom, trim, top-heavy and smoking near the front right bumper, holding my youngest brother, the dyspeptic butterball known as Tommy. Mom was wearing her big, faux tortoise-shell sunglasses, light blue sleeveless cotton button-up blouse and loose black shorts. She was wearing sandals with inch-wide white leather straps across the tops of her feet.

The rest of my brothers and my sister were further to the right goofing around. Actually, one of my brothers was missing: Terry, next oldest after Tommy.

Without warning, the trailer starting moving slowly backward, surprising me, because I hadn’t noticed my dad return. My job when the trailer started moving backward was to back out of the way and guide my dad, but the trailer quickly picked up speed. I’d only just gotten out of the way, moving off to the right. I watched bemused as it continued moving downhill in an arc away from me.

My mom was yelling something I couldn’t make out. The back right car door passed within inches of me and still I couldn’t move. I wasn’t afraid; it just didn’t make sense.

Then the edge of my mom’s car door hit my right torso and ripped the side of my right hip raw. I fell, rolled once and then lay still, watching the right front tire inches from crushing my ankles. Someone, I later learned it was a vacationing doctor, grabbed the base of my skull with two hands, like a chiropractor preparing to make an adjustment.

His hands were on me for a second or two, but I remember how they felt. They were strong and firm but gentle. They were cradling my head and pulling me out of danger. I felt calm in his hands. Regardless of the unreality of it all, his hands made me feel like this was just part of the day. Normal and reassuring. I never saw his face.

He was still holding my head when my mom’s face filled my vision. She was crying and checking me for broken bones, but I was still complete. I was aware of a large crowd of other campers gathered around and then I blacked out.

My next memory is a hard one.

Our campsite was set up, and I was on one of the slide-out beds in the camper. My thigh hurt, but it wasn’t so bad. It felt like a burning charley horse. I felt calm as I tried to remember everything that had happened.

The canvas window to my right was open. I saw in the twilight a picnic table and, further out, a campfire. My dad walked into my field of view dragging Terry by his spaghetti-thin arms. Terry had been wearing shorts the last time I saw him, but now he was in just a tshirt and pathetically baggy, thin BVD underpants.

He was moaning and crying as he was yanked to the table. My dad sat, using one hand to strip his belt off, never letting Terry go.

Terry had climbed into the car’s front seat back at the office and did what Mike and I had done. He took it out of gear. My dad hadn’t set the parking brake on a car parked on a hill with his family flitting around it like june bugs around a citronella lamp.

The beating Terry took was savage. He was dancing on his bare toes, hanging from the arm in my dad’s grip, trying to get away from the slashing leather. His free arm tried to block the belt, which only infuriated my dad more. He was sweating, growling and shouting around his cigarette.

Slap! Slap! Slap! Slap! Slap! Slap! “Hold still, God damn it!” Slap! Slap! Slap! Slap! Slap!

Terry was rigid, shaking and quivering. He was whining and crying and hiccupping.

Then my mom swooped in trying to end it by feigning her own anger at him. She took Terry’s other hand and pulled, saying this is what you get; now you can go to bed without supper.

For the briefest moment, my dad refused to give Terry up. His arm was cocked and ready for more action, and his bulging, glassy eyes were wild. Mom noticed the moment, and swiveled to put herself between the belt and my brother.

Dad’s eyes screwed up at Mom, and it looked like he was going to go at her with the belt. There was no sound; not just in our campsite. There was no one to be seen in the other sites, and no one said a word. I imagine that’s the way it is right after a lioness brings down a zebra and looks around at the remaining herd.

That awful moment passed as my dad released his second-youngest son.

Unable to bend his legs, my mom gently lifted him by his armpits to get him in the camper, where he stood so Mom could look at his legs. She was facing away from me so I couldn’t see her reaction, but then I couldn’t look away from those vibrating, skinny white legs.

Raised, parallel welts, mottled pink and deathly white, ran back and forth. Splotches of dark red spidery webs blossomed where my dad had broken capillaries by the thousands.

Mom helped him into the bunk opposite mine, and put cold, wet cloths on his injuries. Outside, Dad was lighting another cigarette and drinking his umpteenth Stroh’s beer of the night.

My mom turned to look at me. “Stop crying, Jimmy. Get some sleep.”

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