We were on one of our famous family vacations.
I don’t remember all the places we went when I was a kid but I do remember taking summer holidays as a family. My memories of these trips are a patchwork of here and there.
On one vacation I discovered just how bad I am. We were all out to eat in a nice restaurant in a strange city. I remember sitting at a round table with Dad on my right, Mom on my left and my brother Brad directly across from me. We were in the middle of our meal. Brad was eating fried chicken. Suddenly, Brad started choking: full blown, do the Heimlich, blue-faced choking. I sat staring at him as he gasped for air. Mom and Dad scrambled into action which mostly amounted to a great deal of back pounding, arm raising and yelling at my brother to breath. Somewhere along the line one of the back slaps did the trick and out popped whatever was obstructing the airway.
Mom and Dad both moved back to their seats, shaken. Brad wiped his mouth and said, “I don’t think I’ll have anymore chicken.”
I roared with laughter. Roared. To me it was the funniest thing that he could have possibly said in that moment. I laughed so hard I almost peed my pants. I looked at my parent’s who were NOT amused and they were SO not amused that it made me laugh even harder. They banished me to the washroom until I could get myself together. And I did get myself together after many false starts and after several strange looks from people who came in to use the washroom. I can only imagine what they thought when they came in to pee and found a 12 year old boy staring at himself in the washroom mirror, laughing hysterically with tears running down his face. I would just get it together and the door would open and I’d start to roar again.
One trip I remember just as vividly was a family vacation to the Smokey Mountains. I remember lots of things from that trip but one moment, one brief incident, has stayed with me, and stayed as fresh as the memory of my brother’s near death experience after all these years.
We had pulled the car over on a steep grade where a mountain stream rushed alongside the road racing cars to the bottom of the mountain. Our family piled out of the car and walked down to the water’s edge to get a closer look. “Don’t get too close!” my Dad warned. The water was rushing by, an irresistible but shallow current.
Now it’s important to understand that my Dad was deathly afraid of water. He was on a fishing trip once with friends when they managed to flip the canoe they were in. According to his friends he flailed around in the water, crying out for help, trying to keep his head above the water, desperately trying to grab the air and pull himself up until they tapped him on the should and suggested he just stand up. Apparently the water was waist deep and all he had to do was get his feet under him. Dad and water were not friends, in any quantity or kind outside of the shower.
Of course we all know that, “Don’t get too close!” to a couple young boys means, “If you’re not wet yet you’re fine.” So we got closer, shoes off, toes in and then it happened. Brad took a step out into the rushing stream and discovered 4 things: it was cold, the current was strong, it was much deeper in the middle than where we’d waded in and the rocks in the stream were as slippery as snot. Without taking another step the current had pushed Brad over the snot covered rocks down and across the stream and the water went from the top of his feet to his knees and up to his waste and down again. I blinked and my brother was 10 feet further down stream and on the other side. As the older brother I decided to walk across and rescue my frightened little brother and bring his stupid butt back across the creek before we both got in a load of trouble.
I took one step and slid to the middle of the creek and stopped. Standing there, ice cold water up to the spot that takes every boys breath away I looked back to where my dad and mom were now at the edge of the water. I was pretty sure I was about to die. Any second I would slide again and this time just keep going to the bottom of the mountain, probably forced into some underground river where I would have to hold my breath until I finally surfaced in some raging river where I would get crushed by boulders in whitewater rapids and drown and my body would be recovered far away on the banks of the Ohio River. People on the TV news would wonder how the body of a 10 year old boy from Illinois could possibly end up drowned in Ohio and they would cut to an interview with my Mom where she’d talk about how brave and strong and smart I was but still no match for the whitewater.
And then I heard my Dad yelling at me to pay attention as he reached out for me. He kept both feet firmly planted on the bank and I knew why. My hand reached for his but the movement made my feet start to slip again over the slippery surface of the rocks in the water. I involuntarily moved away from my Dad and bumped, backwards, into the bank my little brother was still trapped on.
Then came a moment I’ll never forget. Despite the water, despite the current, despite not having a life jacket on or having a flotation device anywhere nearby, my Dad did it. He stepped out into the water. He was Green Lantern in a yellow world, Superman in a kryptonite bath, Underdog without his “Super Energy Vitamin Pill”. But he came out into the water, across the current and over to the bank we were on, picked us up, one at a time, and carried us back to the other side.
You learn a lot on a family vacation, a lot of crazy things can happen, a lot of funny things, and a lot of love can happen too.