My parents didn’t know a lot about vacations. They were children of the Great Depression. Their parents were subsistence farmers in southern Georgia. Recreation was limited to occasional trips to the swimming hole, community cane grinding, Friday night square dances, and church. Dad was a truck driver and that provided a decent living. I would describe our socio-economic standing as bifurcated. Dad’s income placed us in the upper middle class; his occupation placed in the very low middle class. In my mind we were middle-middle class.
[When we moved to Birmingham one of Dad’s co-workers purchased a house in a nice neighborhood. He had a lawyer on one side and a doctor on the other. Shortly after moving in the lawyer asked across the hedges how he could afford to live in their neighborhood. He responded, “The same way as you. I work for a living. The only difference is my wife doesn’t have to work like yours to help me make the payments.” I don’t think he was ever invited to the block parties.]
As a Teamster, Dad also had a good benefits package with full medical and dental insurance, paid holidays, and several weeks of vacation each year (two when I was very young, three by the time I entered school, four by the time I finished elementary school and six by the time I graduated from high school). Dad wanted to use all that time working around the house and on the farm. Mom decided one week each year should be given to a family vacation. I always felt like Dad enjoyed them even if they weren’t his idea.
Let me define vacation. A vacation is a family ritual of temporary translocation consisting of (1) driving hundreds of miles cramped in an un-air-conditioned car that is over packed with six people, clothing, a large canvas tent, a Coleman camping stove, an ax (for fire wood), two ice chests full of the necessities for cooking out for a week, and miscellaneous other camping items, (2) arriving at a campground after dark so as to make the process of setting up camp a puzzle for the blind, (3) repacking everything after breakfast the next morning so you can drive to another scenic site, and (4) stopping somewhere between campgrounds to see some cheesy tourist attraction, hopefully next door to a hamburger joint. This process may be amended by spending two nights at any given site provided this wanton laziness occurs only once each vacation.
I loved these vacations. More often than not we went to the mountains, i.e., the Smoky Mountains and surrounding areas. I was in awe of God-made things that were taller than a pine tree and I was captivated by the rushing mountain streams. Driving through the mountains with my mother in the front seat was pure entertainment. In rapid fire, “Oh, look at that. Ellis can you see…? No, don’t you dare look. Children, can you see? Ain’t it beautiful?” Squeals of excitement interspersed. “Ellis you had better slow down, You’re too close to the edge. You’re too close. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, if you get me down from here I’ll never come back. Help us Lord! Oh, have you ever seen anything like that? It’s glorious. Pull over Ellis and let’s look a while.” That meant she was car sick.
Once we were driving in the mountains of northern Georgia well after dark when a sudden thunder storm erupted. Dad reached to turn on the windshield wipers in the 61 Chevrolet Impala. It was Mom’s car and he wasn’t use to driving it. In reaching to pull the knob to turn on the wipers he bumped the knob for the headlights turning them off just as we were entering a curve. With no wipers and no lights, he hit the brakes; we slipped and slid and came to a complete stop on the shoulder of the road. When he finally found the switches for the head lights and wipers we were looking out at the dark crevasse of what must have been a deep valley below.
A couple of times we went to southern Florida where we learned the art of inhaling and exhaling sand gnats. There is something peaceful about sleeping right next to the ocean, listening to the waves for a few minutes every time you wake up because the blood quit flowing to your buttocks or shoulders when the air leaked out of your air mattress. There is nothing like sleeping in a tent to bring a family together, “get off of me!” “Momma, his foot was in my mouth.” “Make him be still.”
The mountains were better than southern Florida if for no other reason than the air was cooler. Remember, it was an un-air-conditioned car.
The highlight of these excursions was eating out. As a family we never ate at restaurants at home. My mother cooked, especially if my dad was home. On a busy day of errands we might stop for a hamburger, or pick up a sack of Krystals to take home, but we didn’t eat in restaurants. The exception was on vacations when we got to eat in a restaurant once near the end of the week. Usually, that was breakfast. I fell in love with pancakes. They became my annual treat.
Mom often made something she called pancakes, but they were not anything like the golden, fluffy delicacies restaurants produce. Mom’s were very flat and cooked to a dark brown. Her batter was amber with eggs. Her pan was deep with Crisco. The best thing about them was looking for images in the patterns of the dark ridges on either side. I once ate an angel. Don’t get me wrong; my mother was a phenomenal cook. But biscuits and pancakes were not her gift.
I have a lot of wonderful memories from these annual blue collar extravaganzas of tourism. But it’s the gestalt that had the greatest impact on me. As a family we went exploring, looking for something new and different to see. We had no plans, just a general direction with no predetermined destinations. We just went and looked and laughed and fought about different things. We were a family and for one week a year we were special. We were blessed to do something our grandparents never imagined. We went on vacation.
By the time I graduate from high school I was a man of the world. I had seen everything worth seeing all the way from Key West to Pigeon Forge. My sights were set; my ambitions were great. I was going to be a world traveler. Someday I would cross the Mississippi and go at least as far as Texas. And I would travel north and see the nation’s capitol, Richmond, Virginia. [Did I ever mention they taught history and social studies a little different in Alabama?] I owe my wanderlust to those family vacations and besides, Cheryl needs somebody to carry her bags.
June 4, 2010