Off We Go Into the Great Unknown

Our summer vacations were a journey of self-awareness and family togetherness—for better or worse

My dad had a big job in New York City. We lived in the suburbs and didn't see him much. Mostly, I remember watching him from behind, clad in a dark suit, walking down the hill to the train station. I was often asleep by the time he got home.

Except in the summer. For one glorious month every summer, our family of six, plus my mother's parents, traveled down south to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Or Nags Head, depending on which ramshackle cottage my parents had rented. I was the youngest in my family; I didn't get to spend that much time hanging out with my older siblings, either. But for one whole month, we made castles on the beach, swam in the ocean, picked crab, chased sand urchins, collected shells and played cards—all together. For one whole month, we got to know our dad and each other. The car ride itself was a journey of self-awareness and family togetherness, for better or worse. The vacation started with the car ride.

Most of our friends' families went on shorter journeys up north, to places like Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard or Montauk. But my family had Southern roots, so we went south. The drive itself took about twelve hours back then. We were not an organized family in any way—we could never find pencils or scissors in our house, nobody ever left phone messages for each other, it often took hours to find matching shoes and socks before we went out—but our car trips to North Carolina were detailed and exacting.

First, a few days before the trip, my mother would take my brother and me to a shop downtown that sold, among other things, candy and comic books. On this one day and one day only, she allowed us to buy all the comics we wanted. Champie, my brother, selected all the new Marvel and DC superhero ones; I preferred "Archie" and "Richie Rich."

Our mother also let us buy candy. No chocolate, though. Just lifesavers and chewing gum. My father had a theory that lifesavers and gum produced excess spit in our mouths, preventing us from feeling thirsty. The less we drank, the less often we asked to stop to go to the bathroom. He did not allow unscheduled bathroom breaks; they had to coincide with the need for gasoline fill-ups. Needless to say, my mother did not provide drinks in the car. No water bottles for us; heck, not even a sip from a thermos.

"Wait for lunch," my dad would say. "You can get a nice, tall refreshing drink then. With lots of ice."

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The night before our journey, my father and my grandfather would go out to the driveway and secure our two large, black travel trunks on top of the station wagon. One trunk held all our clothes for the month. The other trunk held books. Our cottages never had TVs and our parents wanted us to become readers like them.

At 5 a.m. sharp, my mom would run around the house and wake us up. I always felt sick to my stomach getting up so early. But excited too. I'd stumble into the kitchen to find a nice Entenmann's Crumb Cake sitting on the table, my favorite. I'd go out to the car to find the rest of the family staking out their spaces in the station wagon. Bobo and Grandaddy, my grandparents, were already neatly in place in the middle seat.

"Here, Gran," Bo would say, "you put your feet on top of this valise and I'll just put my pocketbook next to it. Plenty of room!"

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Bobo and Grandaddy brought their own small suitcase and always squeezed it in on the floor of the car. I sat next to them, with my raggedy cairn terrier, Jocko, on my lap. Champie and my sister, Jane, usually spread out in the way back, Jane already closing her eyes for the 12-hour daydream she chose for entertainment, and Champie clutched his stack of comics. My mom and dad sat in the front with Genna, my oldest sister, in the middle. She claimed "car sickness" and got to spend the most time in the front seat.

"Whoosh! Off we go! Into the great unknown!" my dad would proclaim, and off we would go, not exactly into the great unknown, but into the very well-known routines of the journey.

My dad always stuck the first cigarette of several packs of Camel non-filters in his mouth and lit it. "Open your windows all the way, kids," my mom would call from the front seat. "Don't want the car to get too smoky!"

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Smoke and ashes would fly out the front window and into the back. "Aah!" I'd cry, furiously flapping my comic book. "An ash got in my mouth!"

"Have a piece of gum, honey," my grandmother might say, passing me a piece of Juicy Fruit. To this day, the smell of Juicy Fruit makes me carsick. "Here, y'all can have a piece too." She'd pass the bag of candy around and everyone would grab a pack or two. I'd examine the Lifesavers: lemon, lime, orange, cherry and pineapple. I always saved the pineapple ones for last. They were kind of a bland whitish color, and kind of a bland sweet/sour taste. But good enough when all the others were gone.

Settling back into my seat, I'd begin my comic read-a-thon. Richie Rich was so amazing. He could have anything he wanted. What would I have if I could have anything? I might close my eyes and start to daydream. We didn't have electronic games or car DVD players. We had to imagine stuff. I know! I'd get myself an endless supply of Entenmann's crumb cake, only not the cake part, just the crumb topping. I'd warm them up a little bit, so the buttery richness would rise to the top of the crumbs and crisp them up, and I'd eat them all day. That would be the life for me.

Around 10 a.m., we'd arrive at the first of our designated stops along the route, Stuckey's Travel Center, home of the pecan roll log and cheap gasoline. You could smell the pecans right away, which along with the gasoline fumes and the always-present cigarette smoke, made me want to puke again.

"OK, everybody out," my dad would say. "Time to go to the bathroom."

We'd all troop into the convenience store and enter the bathrooms. Stuckey's did have nice, clean bathrooms, I will admit. I was a connoisseur of public restrooms. They also had those vending machines that dispensed toys like Whoopie cushions, magic tricks and, my favorite, black-and-white Scotty dog magnets.

"Dad! Can I get something?" I'd ask hopefully.

"Sure," my dad would magnanimously reply, tossing me a few quarters. "We're on vacation now!" I tell you, my dad was a different guy on vacation.

Back in the car, we'd all squeeze together again. The heat would rise and my thighs would stick to the vinyl seats. One time, my dog stood up on my lap and stuck his head out the window to catch a breeze. He put his paw on the back of my dad's seat. Then he put his other paw there. Those of us in the back seat watched with bated breath. Would he dare to put his paw on my father's back? He dared.

"Get out of here, ya' darn dog!" My dad flicked his hand behind him and swatted Jock. Jock fell back into my lap.

"It's OK, Jocko," I comforted him, patting his wiry hair. My dad wasn't completely different. He still didn't like Jock much.

The hours before our next stop dragged on. Tired of reading comics and still trying to cope with a queasy stomach, I'd bring out my trusty sword. It was an imaginary one, used only during long car rides. My sword chopped down trees and billboards. "Whoosh! Slice!" Nice clean cuts as we sped past, going up to 75 miles an hour on the freeway. We went too fast for me to see them fall, even in my imagination. And, occasionally, my sword would snag on a telephone pole. It seemed to have difficulty slicing through wires. "How frustrating!" I'd think. "Why can't I make my imagination slice through telephone wires? It's my own imagination, after all!" But I couldn't. I'd disentangle the sword in my mind and carry on.

Finally, lunchtime, and another designated gas fill-up. We always went to Howard Johnson's. No roadside picnics for us. We were on vacation. My dad let us order anything we wanted off the menu. Sometimes, while he was in the restroom, he'd come back to the table to find us all eating shrimp cocktails as an appetizer. He wouldn't bat an eye, as long as we ate quickly.

"Hurry up, though—we have to make the ferry! No one orders soup!" he might say. Shrimp cocktails, followed by fried clam rolls in buttery, toasted buns. Not to mention tall, icy Coca-Cola or maybe a Dr. Pepper since we were down South now. Another bathroom break—our last until the ferry—then back into the station wagon.

The hours dragged on. Smoke wafted through the car. Comic books flapped in the wind. Everybody tried to sleep. But my dad held steady at the wheel.

"I have to go to the bathroom," I might say.

"Tough titties," my dad would reply. "Hold it until the ferry."

I knew we wouldn't stop, but I always had to try. Finally, we'd get to the ferry, always a welcome respite. It was in the days before the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, so we waited in line to drive our car onto a large, double-decker ferry. Once sprung from the car, we could grab a hot dog from the snack bar if Dad let us. We could surely score more Cokes. One time, I accidentally let go of Jock's leash and we all watched our father run around on the lower deck, chasing him. It was a highlight of the trip. I was scared watching him, but thrilled too. Thrilled to see my dad taking such an active part in our family's life. I mean, I chased Jock around all the time but never had I seen my dad do it before.

After the ferry ride, we were home free. We had made it to Virginia's Eastern Shore and it was a clear (if meandering) shot across smaller waterways and slower roads down to North Carolina. I could see seagulls. I could smell the salt air. Soon, we'd pull up in front of our cottage, pile out of the car and begin our vacation. The one that had already begun, right there in the station wagon.