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Vacation Mishaps

July 12, 2002

When I was visiting relatives last week I heard several old stories of vacation mishaps and I realized that I haven’t had that kind of problem lately. Sure, my wife, my daughters, and I have been snagged in highway traffic near Chicago on a Friday evening, one of those mind-rending back-ups where as an antidote to despair people eventually climb out of their trapped vehicles and stretch their legs and strike up a conversation with the folks from the next car. And who hasn’t spent the worst part of a day in some airport or another? A few years ago I ended up between flights having breakfast at O’Hare airport at 4:30 in the morning. The best thing I can say about that trip back from San Francisco was that it was quicker than walking.

But those are the new style mishaps of our increasingly complex, overly managed and mismanaged way of life. I want to talk, instead, about the quirky old vacation misadventures of long ago. At the risk of sounding like a lunatic, let me say that when it comes to vacation mishaps, like many other things in life, they just don’t make them the way they used to.

Here, for example, is my oldest memory of a vacation snafu. It’s somewhere around 1965. We’re camping in the Ozarks with family friends. The sun has been down for about an hour. The leaves and branches of the big trees above us are lit only by our campfire and our Coleman lantern. My father sets up his four young sons with marshmallow roasting sticks. My mother finishes the dinner dishes over at the dim edge of the flickering pool of light that marks our campsite. I toss a dry twig into the bright embers of the fire and watch it flame.

Suddenly a woman’s scream tears through the night. I recognize my mother’s voice. All the adults leap up, but luckily she is okay. There in the darkness some arboreal creature had mistaken her leg for a tree and had started climbing. You can’t get that kind of unscheduled personal attention from the creatures at Disneyworld, I’ll wager.

Or rather, some of us probably are not as willing as we used to be to stand at the edge of the unprogrammed darkness and take even a few mild chances on our vacation. I, for one, am not quite as dumb as I once was about risky recreation. In 1978 my friend Gene and I got caught in a snowstorm on the last day of a winter backpacking trip. By the time we reached our car it was standing alone in the parking lot under six inches of fresh snow. With evening coming on, we were the only two people presently enjoying the wonders of Clark National Forest.

In case you are a 20 year old guy who still believes he’s immortal, let me point out that what you’ll hear next is the especially dumb part of the story. Guess what? The car cranked for a moment and then the battery died. Gene and I were much too macho to walk for another hour down the road to the nearest house and ask for help. We had a few matches, so we thought about building a fire, but the wind was picking up and we needed to get out of there. We did not want to be rescued. How embarrassing.

Instead, we lit our camping stove inside the shelter of the trunk. For you Car Talk fans I should say that it was a 1969 Opel Kadett, the model with the gas tank strapped right there in the trunk. We unhooked the car battery and gently, gently warmed it over the stove. We tried not to think about the trouble we would have getting dates if the battery exploded in our faces. Once a few friendly bubbles began boiling up the sides of the battery, we hooked it back up to the engine, and the car started. Within moments we were making our way up the old logging road toward civilization. Within moments the tire chains broke and were lost in the snow. Gene steered and I pushed the car up several long, steep hills before we finally found a plowed road. And now I will close the curtains on that ridiculous evening of long ago.

But there may be some compromises still available, some way to get off the paths that have been paved so prettily for us and make a real adventure of our own choosing, without teaching our children the dumb risks that come either from being terminally young or from being desperate to avoid an overly programmed life. So here I am, with bifocals and balding, still willing to risk the right kind of vacation mishap, if I can find it.

A Michiana Chronicles essay by Ken Smith, aired July 12, 2002 on 88.1 WVPE. Archived original and other radio essays by K. S.