Unplugged and Out West

Sunset from the Minarets Vista viewpoint near ...
Sunset from the Minarets Vista viewpoint near Mammoth Lakes, CAa (Photo credit: Alaskan Dude)

Each year we swim like salmon against a current of temporal obligations and fight to return to the calm, sun sequined rivers of our west coast youth.  We always arrive conflicted — barraged by the need to see family and old friends but at the same time — wanting to immerse our family in this massive, self-obsessed amusement park called California.

I am always nervous returning to Los Angeles as every email I receive from my father suggests that his once Golden State has declined into cesspool dystopia where rampant illegal immigration, corrupt public officials, profligate public spending and fewer public restrooms has made it unfit for working people, the elderly and those with prostate issues.

My west coast past and east coast present are two distinct worlds and I worry when they collide.  The stories of my youthful mischief have been well hidden like state secrets that must incubate in silence for at least seventy-five years. There is always a risk of coming west that we will encounter a long-lost acquaintance who will proceed to tell one of my children, “your father, oh, he was a wild thing!” This opens a Pandora’s Box of interrogation that I increasingly find hard to navigate.

As my Digital Age children get older, the logistics of our time together are further complicated by their own predictable canyons of self-absorption and technology.  They are like single bar cellular calls that often drop unbeknowst to the speaker.  One can spend minutes talking unaware that the other party is no longer on the line.

“I’m sorry, Dad, I lost you after you said, ‘can you please’…” is followed by the always irritating”I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish” expression.

The family road trip has radically morphed since the days of “shut up or I’ll give you something to complain about” automobile travel.   In the 1970’s, we were a predictable part of a summer land rush of urban and suburban families, enthusiastically driving to the same vacation destination and establishing ourselves for a week like hives of yellow jackets.  We would normally infest some sad, rental beach house or motel and find things to do.  “I’m bored” was always met with, “go outside and don’t come back until dinnertime.”

And we would find things to do – some legal and some illegal.  But, we would invariably return to our home base for food, medical attention, zinc oxide or with the feral dog we had just found and wanted to keep.

Comfortable mini-SUVs have replaced the Fleetwood wagon and its rigid Russian cattle car seating arrangements. A Grand Bazaar of roadside fast food chains has supplanted warm Shasta sodas and bleeding Wonder Bread PBJs that we greedily devoured at highway picnic areas.  If we were to ever actually frequent a rest stop today, my kids would assume that we were merely stopping to dump a dead body.

“I want a Jamba Juice, Dad.”

“We’re in the middle of the California desert, buddy.  There’s nothing here but sand and horizon line highway.”

“Well, actually, I just Yelped Jamba Juice and there is one in Victorville. It’s only five miles off the freeway on a frontage road and it’s near an In and Out Burger.”   Cheers erupt from the trio of digital back seat ninja drivers.  We are suddenly eating double-double cheese burgers under a neon high desert sign.

Everything has changed. In restaurants and fast food joints, the American meal has kept pace with our soaring national debt with portions eclipsing the size of Central American banana republics.  To combat the disease of over-sized portions, we assign a “designated scavenger” at each meal.  The scavenger does not order any food but can sample from any and all plates.

Since she is the smallest and least selfish, my spouse often assumes this role believing that food tastes better when it comes off other people’s plates.  As a child of Brits who survived the London blitz, she is genetically predisposed to be a scavenger.  We estimate ordering for four instead of five saves between 15-20% on meals, impedes inevitable holiday weight gain and modestly improves the mileage on our fossil fuel guzzling, Sherman Tank of an SUV.

The once almighty 20th century automobile pilgrimage replete with its sibling battles, rites of passage car sickness and endless boredom has been tenderized by satellite radio, personal entertainment systems, instant messaging and ubiquitous Wi-Fi coverage.  My children have been reduced to digital cocoons.  No one listens or looks as my wife and I happily describe the rugged beauty and history of California’s eastern Sierra and Owens Valley.

While we might be together on vacation, it is a rare harmonic convergence when we are all emotionally present. The digital age has broken the nuclear family into pieces – we are isolated microbytes of data symbiotically sharing a common ecosystem called a house. Each day the modern family must compete with alternative communities — enemy cells of friends via Live Chat, a conveyor belt of Instagram photographs  and a mindless, sewage pipe of text messages.

We arrive at our mountain destination and a late dinner at a crowded restaurant.  The entire establishment is also suffering from digital-cocooning with three out of four patrons slumped at the altar of their glowing hand-held devices and smart phones.  I assume everyone is texting or making power point presentations to one another. There is one loud table.  It is a group of five men and women who are actually talking and joking.  People leer at them with distain.  It seems so rude that they should be making noise in this quiet car of digital dining.  Sadly, the digital pollution drift has invaded the last place where table manners, grammar, syntax and personal mythology is passed on – the family dinner table.

I conjure up the countenance of my T-Rex father and growl at the children mandating that I am capable of extinguishing them if they do not extinguish their devices. You would have thought I had asked them to French kiss a cannibal.  I suggest a trivia game where we might stimulate our minds. My son protests, “How can we play trivia if we can’t look up the answers on Google Chrome?”

“Name five famous people whose surnames are a color?”

Feeling clever, I eagerly await their answers.  I could see the encouraging signs of nascent collaboration.

“Pink.” My daughter says shrugging. “Can we use our phones now?”

“No, damn it!” I hissed. ” I want four more”. You would think I had asked them to explain the Fibonacci Sequence.

“Who was the coach of the Boston Celtics? Who played football for Syracuse and the Browns? Who starred in Nacho Libre and School of Rock?”

“Okay, here’s a hint. What about the names with “Red”, “Brown”, or “Black”

“Oh I know.” yelled one of the boys. “Red Brown.”

“Who is that?” I queried.

“I don’t know, wasn’t he like a football coach? I should get two points for that!”

I shake my head and to my wife’s chagrin regress into off-color jokes and potty humor as a lowest common denominator way of keeping our conversation afloat.

It is indeed harder each year to be an analog parent in a digital world that so empowers the individual.  The road trip holiday continues to meet stiffer headwinds as our young adults become addicted to the instant gratification and entertainment of digital media.  The notion of down time is tantamount to prison time with the definition of “fun” having morphed into the need for 24/7 distraction.

Our learned behavior of working as a team arose out of our Bataan Death March childhood vacations and our common circumstances — the tedium of long car rides, carsickness,  the inconvenience of being torn from the moorings of friends and roadside Bates motels with creepy proprietors, toxic, chlorinated pools and no televisions.

Each summer, we were forced to hang out as a family and amuse one another.  We were unplugged and managed by unfiltered, orthodox parents who reminded us that they brought us into the world and that they could take us out of it.  They told us to eat all our food because children were starving in China.  We now are concerned our kids are eating too much and that China is no longer starving.

For the twentieth century vacation, each kid saved money for the annual road trip to places like the Grand Canyon so we might buy a magical vial of Painted Desert sand or a sinister scorpion encased inside a paper weight. It now seems we are constantly looking for a store that sells iPhone power cords. Travel was about seeing new places and punching holes in the walls of our suburban cocoons. The new millennium road trip has evolved where each person is a self-contained cosset.  As we move along the blue highways of our country, it seems we are not lost in America but lost in a conceited cyberspace.

“Are we there yet” has been replaced by “where the hell are we and will they have Wi-Fi?”  We are becoming part of a new slang and don’t yet understand its meaning. We are middle-aged pragmatists who have seen too much lashed to the mast with young immortals who believe that bad things only happen to other people. We will forever disagree on whether tomorrow is guaranteed. We have evolved as a modern family unit and it will fall to sociologists and our descendents to determine whether we have regressed or progressed as responsible stewards of our tribes.

We now actively seek vacation destinations that lack cell service – remote locales and pristine back roads where our digital progeny are forced to notice the tumbling streams, alpine lakes and rock strewn paths lined with purple lupine and blood-red Indian paintbrush.  On today’s hike, my daughter adroitly spots an almost invisible mother deer and her spotted fawn navigating a steep brown hillside of talus.  At home, she can barely discern stop signs.  We watch and stand quietly at a forty-five degree angle before the fauna melts into a stand of pines at the timber line.We stop for lunch and break out books or just meditate absorbing the grandeur of this glacial basin reflected in mirror of an emerald-green alpine lake.

I am convinced that our biology requires us to be upright and outdoors.  We are not constructed to sit behind desks with compressed vertebrae and atrophied abdominal muscles. Evolution has not yet come to a firm conclusion but our activities would eventually turn us into human thumbs with massive derrieres and no peripheral vision.  While it is has already happened to the stars of the reality show, “Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo”, we must resist the sedentary siren’s call.  Our hike will take all day, cover eight miles and two thousand feet of elevation gained and lost.

I help set up fishing rods and devour a half sandwich which after three hours in my pack appears to have been the seat cushion for a circus fat lady.  I chase it down with water that I have just filtered from a stream.

“Hey, I got a fish!” my son yells. I rush over to extract the treble hook lure from the oversized mouth of a spotted golden and red bellied brook trout. At this altitude and in this harsh climate, the fish cannot get enough nourishment. Yet, they adapt and thrive because they are wild — often healthier than their corpulent brethren raised on Power Bait hand-outs in the captivity of a state run hatchery.

As the sun retreats below a 14,000 peak, we estimate that we have two hours of light left to navigate the four miles of switchbacks down to the parking area at the base of Bishop Creek where we initiated our day.  We are unplugged – a simpler sweeter kind of music.  These moments are gentle notes from a six string guitar.  We joke and gently deride each other’s shortcomings – limitations magnified by proximity, the day’s physical challenges and the absence of creature comforts.

I begin to retell the stories of our mythology – tales of my family and these sacred places — times that shaped this part of America like the winds and glaciers that dominate the landscape.  I am trailing the group and yelling ahead to them, talking to no one in particular.  I am proud of my ability to wrench them out their routines and put them in touch with their more durable alter egos.

I notice someone has a single white strand of wire surreptitiously falling between his hair and his backward facing baseball cap.  My son seems to be moving, but not to the rhythm of a story of how ignominious Convict Lake got its name.  He is clearly advancing to the cadenced percussion of a band called Phoenix.  More earplugs appear and my wife and I are once again alone – travelling with our digital cocoons. She smiles.

“It was nice while it lasted.”

Like everything in nature, unplugged passages soon fade.  They are momentary — a fish rising in the early morning light leaving only green sequined circles of water.  They are a night canopy of stars, unpolluted by the distant light of cities and material obligations.  The sky is an unexplained ocean where satellites move like distant cargo ships and meteors course past the corner of your eye with sudden streaks of light.  Only the earth and sky are permanent. I recognize that my children’s cocoons are temporary. They exist for a short time in this insular chrysalis that forms and protects them until a butterfly can emerge and fly away.  For a moment, I can see them through the gossamer threads – moving, jostling, evolving  and changing.

A blue jay scolds me as I take one last look on the valley below.  My legs hurt and my body is reminding me of my mortality.  Yet, I have made it once again to this special place, the high palisades of my youth — mountains that required my full attention and commanded respect.  They underscore my insignificance but reinforce the notion that I am part of something divine.

My son stops and takes a picture of the valley and the deeply shadowed, late afternoon peaks.  He stops and peers at his photograph.  He smiles. The memory memorialized, it will soon be distributed to five hundred followers who will participate on an endless digital social comment thread.

“Dude, where are you?  That place looks wicked.”

It is.  It’s really cool.

The Goblins Will Get You If You Don’t Watch Out

hooked
Image by lanier67 via Flickr

Little Orphan Annie’s come to my house to stay. To wash the cups and saucers up and brush the crumbs away.To shoo the chickens from the porch and dust the hearth and sweep, and make the fire and bake the bread to earn her board and keep. While all us other children, when the supper things is done,we sit around the kitchen fire and has the mostest fun, a listening to the witch tales that Annie tells about and the goblins will get ya if ya don’t watch out!

When the night is dark and scary and the moon is full, and creatures are a flying and the wind goes Whoooooooooo, you better mind your parents and your teachers fond and dear, and cherish them that loves ya, and dry the orphans tearsand help the poor and needy ones that cluster all about, or the goblins will get ya if ya don’t watch out!!!

– James Whitcomb Riley, 1875

Summer is just around the corner – it is a time of endless oceans of daylight falling into purple  shrouded twilights  filled with tales of the unexpected.  It was on these warm summer nights, that my brothers and I would camp in backyard “tents” of blankets anchored by ropes and lawn furniture.  We would lay motionless – adolescent grunions on the edge of a shoreline of weak light that ebbed from the windows of our back porch – telling ghost stories.

I loathed and loved my older brother’s perpetually embellished tale of the young couple stranded in their car, while their radio warned of a psychotic killer with a hook for a hand who had managed to escape from a local insane asylum.  It appears that in the 1960’s security was extremely lax at hospitals for the criminally insane.  As well, it seemed that every town had an asylum – along with supermarket, laundry mat and diner.  And what about the hospital’s choice of prosthetics? Could you at least replace a psychopath’s razor sharp hook with a rubber thumb or feather duster?  Not! Alas, the macabre tale  always concluded in some shockingly improbable ironic twist and was punctuated with the shrieking of a girl who turned one last time to catch the sight of her disemboweled boyfriend.

My all-time favorite was a highly politically incorrect story aptly named, “Clubfoot Tom “. Tom was a downed WWII German pilot who had become horribly disfigured when his plane crashed while on a secret bombing run over Los Angeles ( yes, Los Angeles.  My brother failed history ).  He was 6′ 8″ tall with burns over 99% of his body.  After pulling himself from the flaming wreck, Tom lived off small animals and eventually children who would stray too far from their campgrounds.  Tom’s victims would first detect a sort of dragging noise ( footstep – dragging sound.  Footstep – drag ) in the near darkness.  Perhaps one might even hear a deep feral grunt just moments before a massive scarred monster struck with surprising quickness out of the corner of your eye.

Years later I would question several elements of the timeless Aryan cannibal. Just how does a 6’8″ man qualify as a Stuka pilot? What were the Germans bombing in Los Angeles? How come the police never caught the creature – a 6’8″ mass of scar tissue and fingernails is hard to miss. My brother would shake his head and smile sardonically.  He would have made a great politician.  He had a frustratingly impossible to verify answer for everything.  “You’re such an idiot.  The Germans were creating the master race.  Their engineers could make everything. They measured the cockpit of the wreckage and determined the man who occupied it must be at LEAST 6′ 8″.  The Germans were bombing Disneyland as the US was secretly building nuclear bombs underneath the amusement park ( Disney did not open until 1960 ).  As to your most preposterous question, they still have not caught Bigfoot and he probably has an entire family in the forest.” He would stare at me with derision.

One fact was irrefutable  Clubfoot Tom was a cannibal and German and everyone brought up on WWII movies knew Germans ate babies and committed acts of atrocity for sport. Each summer, there were endless permutations of Tom’s havoc, horror and misery.  However,  each curious case would always conclude in the same manner, “…and the last they saw Tom was somewhere right-around- HERE!” This would always be followed by excruciating silence and an almost inaudibly whispered question from the most frightened among us, “is-that-story-true? “  My brother would nod slowly, sadistically turning off his flashlight leaving us only with the seeds of the supernatural and our pregnant imaginations.

The night became eight hours of endless terror.  A squirrel became a sociopathic clown intent on killing 8 year old boys. A cat jumping into the adjacent ivy was the advance guard of a legion of shapeless pitch black goblins. On these evenings, I made it a habit to never drink water ‘lest biology force me to sprint past Club Foot Tom who was most likely lurking in the hydrangeas.  Dawn was a governor’s death row reprieve.  With the sun, an unknown neuorchemical was released in our brains melting the midnight phantoms into morning dew. The next camp out, we would beg for another story.

Years later, I would pay forward my brother’s gifts to my campers as a counselor at YMCA camp in Mammoth Lakes, California. Ok, so there were a few complaints  from parents whose kids came home wanting to sleep with them until they were 18 years old. And yes, to this day, I am still getting in trouble with my wife and other parents when this latest generation of fear junkies beg me for a scary story.  I am certain a psychologist would have a Freudian field day with my adolescent phantasms, but come on, we live in a region rich in legends of spooks, goblins, witches, ghostly apparitions and haunted woods.  A kid growing up in New England needs a regular meal of Washington Irving and Salem Witch Trials spiced with tales of an insane local “Leatherman” ( those hides were not made from deer ) and haunted Indian spirits like the Wendigo an evil spirit the native Americans believed was created whenever a human being resorted to cannibalism.

There are many who have consciously avoided horror movies their entire lives. There are those pacifists who feels Bambi was given too liberal a rating, ( the forest fire scene was terrifying ) and regularly convey deep disapproval of scary stories in a manner that only those who are married and live in the state of disapproval can understand.  (By the way, the state of disapproval is the 51st state in the US.  It has no area code or zip code but it is the largest contiguous land mass in the continental US.  All husbands pass through this place while some have taken up permanent residence.)  It is here that we tell stories to children that scare them into Sunday and where we get chastised for our prehistoric preoccupation with disappearances, murders and grisly discoveries – – all wrapped in a blood stained thick brown wrapper.

Scary stories served useful purposes since the dawn of time.  Most phantasms were invented by authority figures wanting to keep their children from doing something  dangerous.   In England, the green decomposing water faerie, Peg Prowler swam the edges of rivers and lakes, looking to snatch the ankle of a reckless child standing too close to the water’s edge.  Redcaps, who dipped their caps in human blood were found near dark forests, abandoned huts and caves.  The native Americans had good and evil spirits competing for the hearts and minds of children nestled shoulder to shoulder in long houses and lodges.  The greatest story tellers focused less on mayhem and more on metaphor to surgically embed a social guardrail into the brains of their wide-eyed audience.  Perhaps some of us enjoy seeing them squirm a little too much. However, the ghost story is an important stimulant to a child’s imagination.  It helps us to keep our strange mythology alive and to counteract a modern day adolescent digital mind stunted by graphic gratification, electronic realism and politically correct resolution that ensures nothing remains unexplained.

Lets face it.  The real world is scary enough. Clubfoot Tom has become the monster of public debt and the specter of hyperinflation.  The insane asylum escapee is now an ideological terrorist or a faceless pandemic.  I want to hide under my bed just thinking about all these crazy, non negotiable threats that loom out there beyond my control. Personally, I prefer the old stories where there was a sort of implied social contract with the cosmos.  If you followed the rules and you did what you were told, you just might make it out alive.   Don’t talk back to your elders, do your chores and go to church.  Kids who kept their wits about them always seemed to find a way through the scary places.

And remember –  bad things can happen to people and the goblins will get you if you don’t watch out.

Summers With Lampwick

Disney's Electrical Parade: Lampwick and Pinocchio
Image by armadillo444 via Flickr

“Juvenile delinquency is a modern term for what we did when we were kids” -Anon

My mother called them, “Lampwicks”.

She ascribed this sobriquet to any of our friends who exhibited anti-social tendencies.  She seemed to have a sixth sense about boys and almost mystically understood which kid would be most likely to become Chief Justice or a ward of the criminal justice system. “Lampwick” was the name of the truant, ne’er-do-well, delinquent kid who befriended Pinocchio as the two “boys” were swept off by the dark shadows of temptation to a seeming adolescent paradise called, “Pleasure Island.”

In this land of youthful hedonism, there were no adults and a cornocopia of self indulgent choices – – shooting pool, staying out past curfew, smoking cigars, damaging public property, eating candy and exhibiting limited common sense.  Lampwick was Disney’s and every suburban picket fence parent’s poster child for the “wrong” kind of companion.

Each town had its Lampwicks – the habitual class clowns, east parking lot smokers and reckless free spirits who were on a first name basis with every vice principal and cop in town.  While some parents were not up to speed on kids and their transgressions, my mother knew every kid’s rap sheet. She knew that people judged a kid by the company he kept.  Shady companions could lead you down dark alleys and get you into trouble. It was, after all, out of the sight of parents where bad judgment could take root and blossom into highly regrettable mistakes.  The simple act of “borrowing” another kid’s bike for a joyride could eventually lead an adolescent to commit mass murder in Kansas for no apparent reason.

Like most matriarchs, she deployed a powerful BS meter that included a lie detector system more sensitive than a Cal Tech seismograph. She could easily distinguish the earnest kid from the obsequious trouble maker. Over time, she simply defaulted to the code word, “Lampwick”, as a terminal judgment – forever branding any undesirable acquaintance that we might try to insinuate into our circle of friends.

Summer was her greatest challenge as we were rudderless ships – – unable to navigate a day pregnant with possibility because we lacked imagination and our closest friends who had left town for family vacations and sleep away camps.  With the loss of our approved social circle, we went in search of new confederates.  Summer was a season for exploration, experimentation and rite of passage “firsts”.  July and August meant hot sidewalk days that simmered slowly and dissolved into heavy, woolen nights that would cloak our illicit activities. The grass stayed dry under your bare feet as the evening could never quite reach down enough to find its dew point.

The child of the 70’s was not oversubscribed.   Summer’s primary focus was to find a source of income.  To a kid, a job meant financial freedom and spending money.  To a parent, work meant less potential idle time for trouble.  Inevitably, most kids ended up partially employed and filled long open afternoons in search of water, dangerous liaisons and forbidden things.

Summer meant new things – the kid who just moved to town and did not know a soul, a day camp or a summer school class.  Invariably, one would make new “friends”. In our house, it might start with an innocent request to spend the night at “James” house. Having never met James, his parents or not knowing whether James was real or on a work furlough program from the California Youth Authority, my mom would insist on meeting and interrogating my new companion. If he passed this simple litmus test, the sleep-over might be redirected to our home where she could carefully size up the child as well as discern the level of engagement from his parents. She would look for signs of absentee parenting – did they call to speak with her about the alleged sleepover? Did the father even bother to slow down the car when he dropped James off? My mother considered the “drop-off” a leading indicator of how active a parent was in managing their child’s activities.

Mom understood that the mistral winds of July and August carried on them lost souls and latch-key kids whose absence of supervision was only eclipsed by their complete lack of judgment.  They were sirens calling to us with promises of throwing jack knives, shop-lifting from one eyed store owners and staying out all night. They were Lampwicks offering us the chance to bite from a tree laden with forbidden fruit.  After all, no one was ever home or sober at Lampwick’s house.

My mother’s finely tuned antenna could detect any criminal in waiting: the arsonist, extortionist, the joy rider, the daredevil, the school yard bully, the BB gun freak, or the demolition expert. Her thinly veiled, sodium pentothal questioning could disarm any kid into revealing a personality profile that would reliably indicate the probability for a restful summer or a summer full of arrests.

I was in the throes of begging to spend the night at the broken home of a boy I had just met at the community pool.  Within a span of 2 hours she had gleaned through her phone tree of friends and a few select questions the fact that the boy’s brother was a suspected drug dealer, the house was teeming with teens that had no supervision because the Mom was holding down two jobs while the stay at home grandmother was motionless in the den watching “As The World Turns” in a semi stupor.

How the heck she could gather this much intel in such a short period of time was beyond my comprehension. In a time before police blotters, she always seemed to know before I did which of my friends had broken his arm trying to jump his moto-cross bike off the roof of the school. She knew who had been arrested for shop lifting and who had been disarmed after shooting their Daisy BB gun at cars.  As a red-blooded child of adventure, I was starved for the adrenalin rush that only came from being chased or at risk of physical injury.  This led to a succession of alliances with boys who my mother had blacklisted for their ingenious ability to break the law and whose parents seemed impotent to stop them.

Through my arsonist friend, Ed, I developed a profound fascination with fire.  My budding pyromania and Ed’s engineering prowess teamed us up to create the first tennis ball cannon. The device was constructed by hollowing out three metal Wilson tennis ball cans, taping them together and puncturing the base of the bottom can with a ballpoint pen.  We would spray copious amounts of lighter fluid into the sides of the three-foot mortar and then shake the lighter fluid to even distribution.  We would load the device with a tennis ball soaked in gasoline, leveling the improvised weapon at a predetermined target. A match would be placed against the small pen hole at the base of the bottom can. With an oxygen sucking “whoosh!,” a flaming tennis ball would be propelled 500 feet through the silky morning sky.

As the incendiary bomb landed on the neighbor’s roof igniting dry leaves, we panicked – scrambling up a trellis in an effort to extinguish the blaze. The home’s elderly occupant was suddenly concerned at the sound of reindeer on her roof as she was certain that Christmas was not for several more weeks. A phone call, sirens, an ill-timed leap into another neighbor’s garden led to our subsequent “arrest”. Hours later, the verdict was delivered – – Ed was given the death sentence of Lampwick.

Despite my mother’s best efforts to steer us along a straight path, we could not help but test the boundaries of our suburban cocoon. We once built an elaborate mannequin out of street clothes and dropped it off a bridge into the path of an oncoming car.  The horrified driver stopped and took our dummy resulting in the loss of clothing and a visit from the police when my friend, Mike realized that his mother had written his name in an indelible marker on his shirt collar and pants.

We pretended to foist an invisible rope that caused cars to screech to a halt. Using surgical tubing and a plastic funnel, we fired water balloons, oranges and eggs with pin-point accuracy at buses, trucks and bicyclists without regard to the damage or risks that would ensue. We once tried to ride our bicycles twenty miles through fenced off sewage culverts.

Invariably, we were ratted out, eye-witnessed, caught, injured, or incapable of out-peddling a police car on our bikes – and subsequently incarcerated. Each kid’s parent would inventory the circumstances and promulgate punishments and tighter controls to prevent their child from becoming labeled “delinquent” in our small town.

After my new friend Scott and I got caught stealing bottles from the back of a store so we could turn them to the same store for recycling refunds, my mother had declared enough and forbid me from seeing my friend. I had to call him and share the bad news that he had made the dubious Lampwick list.

As I was preparing to dial his home, the phone rang.  It was Scotty.  “Mike, my parents won’t let me come over to your house any more.  They say you are a bad influence. “

He was suggesting that I was Lampwick.

I shivered at the thought.  Every kid knew that Lampwick eventually turned into a donkey and was dragged off into the salt mines of Pleasure Island to labor forever as a beast of burden – a high price to pay for making bad choices. Upset at the tables being turned, I sought out my mother for advice.  She smiled as if she had been waiting for this opportunity. “You remember what happened to Pinocchio? He almost turned into a donkey as well. Just be careful…“

At 12 years old, I did not buy into the whole Disney Pinocchio parable.  But just in case, I went in to use the bathroom and studied the mirror.

Were my ears getting bigger?

.

The Summer of Staycation

By and large, mothers and housewives are the only workers who do not have regular time off. They are the great vacation less class. ~Anne Morrow Lindbergh

2009 has been coined the summer of the “stay-cation” – a socio-economic shift wherein families remove the pearls of multiple vacation destinations and string a more frugal necklace of “econo-tivities” and close to home travel. In these uncertain times, many will reacquaint themselves with the simpler things in life – a club that one has joined but never has actually visited, a body of water that rests patiently within miles of their home or perhaps a return to a childhood vacation community where one expended the last gasps of a memorable adolescent summer.

In lieu of ladling additional debt on top of a chiiped beef breakfast of broken balance sheets, fractured assets and wobbly economic prospects, many families are rediscovering the joy of road-side motels, derelict cabins and beach houses with porches packed with a generation of sunburned sardines in sleeping bags. The stay-cation is a blessing for a society of spend now, worry-later Americans. Summers have evolved into chaotic ballets of vacation trips, sleep away camps, and travel sports only interrupted by the occasional few days home where we shake our heads at the carefully planted vegetable garden now rotting from neglect.

We patronize these less elaborate holiday trips as a sort of temporary inconvenience to be endured during hard times. The American dream includes improving on every aspect of the generation that preceded it. Yet, I wonder if the high voltage, sugar rush uber holiday has ultimately less long term spiritual nutritional value than the simple staycation. The truth is the staycation is an echo of a simpler time when families scrimped, saved and ultimately crowned, what mother’s considered an interminable three month heat wave of thankless servitude with one grand, end of August two week hiatus to a body of fresh or salt water.

It was in the long shadows of these bronzed final days of freedom, that many of us found a first kiss, a first vice or heard our first adolescent urban legend. It was sitting next to an outdoor firepit with toes buried deep in cool sand that we discovered our parents were once children and that our sibling was actually,  kind of funny. Like desert reptiles, sun engulfed us – burning, peeling and freckling our skin while emmersing us in a fortnight of sand granules that relentlessly found their way into every inconvenient orifice via one’s bed, ears, food and undershorts.

Those who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s know that summer is a narrow window to form even the tiniest callous on the hands of a soft suburban adolescent. Its ingredients included a seven hour family road trip in an overstuffed station wagon that looked like it was the get-away car from a convenience store robbery. It meant being wedged between packing cartons filled with an assortment of cardiovascular disease agents – white bread, Jif peanut butter, eggs, bacon, margarine, and Crisco vegetable shortening ( lard) to fry chicken. These vehicles were not travelling entertainment systems but lairs of carsickness, internecine warfare and misery. In these pits of dispair, one could just as easily get hit by the driver or a passenger seated next to you, as you could be slammed by another car.

The drive to reach your August destination was mere mood music for the main event – a broken down beach house with one toilet, an outside shower and futon beds for anyone under the age of 18. The vacation supplies included canvas blow up rafts that within the week would literally sandpaper the nipples right off your body. There were stiff fins meant for WWII Navy seals that would give you blisters across the tops of your toes after three strokes. There was a cooler – a monstrosity of a device weighing more than any family member except your father. Each year, it would be filled with ice and miraculously lugged two miles down to the beach like those large stone faced edifices on Easter Island. No one truly remembers how all the equipment was transported to the beach as the entire  walk was a sort of Bataan Death march where only under hypnosis could one possibly reconstruct the actual events.

The beach abode that looked so charming in the Polaroids turned out to be the unholy offspring of a Richard Scarry bunny house and Fawlty Towers. You would innocently open a door and be met by screams and curse words from an octagenarian who had been left behind by the family that occupied the hose before you.  The dresser drawers of ancient flea market furniture, were lined with curled floral paper that clung to the wood only at the location of a dark undiscernable stain. The tap water tasted as if it had been distilled through an old sock. Rarely was laundry placed neatly in a drawer. It was recklessly and delightfully thrown into a corner where it grew and growled over the course of a two week stay until it would be domesticated in a large canvas bag. Laundry Day was the equivalent to the Allstar break in baseball, a sort of hygenic timeout and initial light at the end of the tunnel for my mother. On this day, we would haul dirty clothes to a local laundromat where we would spend an exhilarating morning washing, drying, and folding while spying on damaged bachelors, aging debuttantes and lonely hearts as they showcased their unfulfilled lives and their undergarments on adjacent tables.

These 70’s trips were vacation for everyone except mothers. Moms were still trapped in that seam between female liberation and indentured servitude. There were rumors of vacations at hotels with maid service and spacious condominiums where children were sequestered in separate rooms like typhoid patients. However, most figured these were just exaggerations started by other female prisoners of domesticity to keep up morale. It would take my mother weeks to recover from these trips. Whether it was the toilet that had not been flushed since the Eisenhower administration, an indelible marker slash that looked as if it had been left by Zorro or the blood trail across the living room floor, this was not going to be the year that we would honor any of her house rules or get our security deposit refunded.

Yet, it was on these summer journeys that we learned how to crew our family ship. We awoke to days of bright, blinding blue skies and the anxious riffle of curtains as they would gust in the breezes of a new morning. We fell asleep to a sensation of constant motion having spent an entire day in the water – our dreams bracketed by the relentless pounding of midnight waves rising and falling below a gently sloped dune. We did not see these trips as a step down from anything. The vacations primary purpose was not to entertain us – – but to keep us together as a unit, expanding our understanding of one another – exchanging insights and mythology that only surfaced from that strange sodium pentathol brew of salt water, fresh air, adventure and fatigue.

It was not quite a complete summer trip unless we rediscovered the utter chaos of an Emergency Room trying to negotiate with a hospital administrator whom my father suggested had “the world’s smallest brain”, My mother quickly understood they also possessed a black belt in the nuances of the word “no”.

“Will my son’s broken wrist be covered by my policy?”

“No ma’am. We need your credit card”.

“Do you accept insurance?”

“No ma’am”

“Well then can you at least talk to someone from my husband’s human resources department about how his insurance pays direct reimbursement?”.

“Maam, I am not authorized to accept insurance. Our insurance person is at lunch. I have been told not to talk to other people.”

“I’m a person.”

“You are a payer.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Maam, I can only answer questions about this hospital’s policy as it relates to the costs of your son’s broken wrist.”

“What if I plunge this pencil into your eye socket? Do you think you can see me better – you know, as a person? “

While to some coddled kiddies and cocooned communities, this primitive form of holiday is a sign of the impending apocalypse, for a generation who grew up without seat belts, stuck in a purgatory of long, air conditionless station wagon road trips, it’s a return to the halcyon days of youth. It remains to be seen whether the staycation is merely a solid patch on an otherwise slippery, material slope or whether it is the first sign of spring in society’s discontented winter search for liberation from its never ending need for affluent diversion.

In the end, perhaps it is a second chance to discover that less is more – – and that the best things in life still remain free.

Except, of course, a broken wrist.