Monday, June 6, 2011

Dad's Terrible, Tragic Trouser Day

It's almost Father's Day, and summer family vacations, so here is a personal/family tale about my father, C. Richard Jacob.

 I always sat behind the driver.
See the USA
in a Chevrolet;
is waiting for you to call....

That was a hit single of Dinah Shore's the year before this happened, and it became our theme song that summer, especially because we had a new red Chevie station wagon.

When I was eight, my parents said I was old enough to go on vacation trips. The year before, my parents and older brother had gone all the way to the Grand Canyon, while I spent that time at my aunt Abbie's in Dansville, NY. I loved my favorite aunt and her family, but I'd never been separated from mine before, so I was very excited to be allowed to go too this time.

Mother loved traveling, maintaining that vacation trips would be educational and fun, and give us wonderful  family memories. Less interested, Dad said that the only way we could afford it would be to go camping, and to his surprise, she agreed. At once my father the Life Scout got enthused, and after some discussion,  they purchased an umbrella tent, air mattresses (that never worked after the first try at inflating them), a Coleman lantern, a portable gas cooker whose top folded down into a metal box, sleeping-bags, and for each of us grey sweatshirts. Down in the dirt-floored cellar at his workbench, Dad constructed a big box, partitioned it off in cubbyholes and plate-slots, hinged a door so it could serve as a work surface, and painted the outside red. This would be Mother’s equivilant of a chuck-wagon, he said, for her to fix our chow off the back of the station wagon at our campsites, just like the pioneer women did when they went West in a covered wagon. Mother stowed away a set of nesting aluminum cookware, a new set of plastic dishes, and utensils, and showed me my own little messkit and a clever little set of knife-fork-and-spoon that fastened together. I could also use them when the Brownies had campouts, but I would get to use it first Out West.

Jeff prepared for the trip by asking if he could have the old cooler that they had just replaced with a bigger one. Its chief flaw was that the lid sometimes came open at the wrong time. He wanted to be sure he had a supply of Coca-Cola out there in the wilderness, and he said that just being in the car we wouldn’t need to worry as much about the lid. After some debate, Daddy sold it to him for a dollar, cautioning him that he would have to pay for the coke and ice himself. “But I’ll carry it downstairs and put it in the car. It’s too heavy for you,” Dad said.

At the time, we lived in a second-floor apartment on Mountain Avenue in Hackettstown, with a bedroom on the third floor for Jeff. To go out, one either went out the apartment's front door and down the front steps and out the front door, (a route discouraged by the landlady, Mrs. Saunders, who was not too thrilled at having to rent  to a family with two kids and a dog), or took the back way.

That involved going out the kitchen door onto a narrow landing, turning sharply left and down a steep flight of steps covered in red-and-white linoleum to another even narrower landing, and another sharp turn to go down another flight that ended at a landing barely large enough for the outside door to open in on the left, and the cellar door to open on the right, down a few steps.

We took Frisky, Jeff's mostly black beagle/fox terrier  to be boarded at the vet, since our little dog got carsick if he even looked at the car, let alone got into it, and the next morning, were up bright and early to Pack Up. 

Daddy had already worked out where everything would go, had installed a rack on top of the station wagon, and was intent on checking his list of tools and gear and roping everything on it into place under a tarp; Jeff was supposed to help. Mother, still dazed from working until three a.m. as "night-owl" at the Dairy and having only a couple hours of sleep, was making beds, doing last-minute packing, washing breakfast dishes, sorting out groceries, answering my questions, and a multitude of other things. I was making sure that my favorite Ginny and Jill dolls and some new books were in the back of the station wagon, in easy reach of my part of the back seat, and observing everyone else.

That was why I was the only one who saw Jeff pick up his cooler. Daddy was outside, and Mother was looking for the first-aid kit. At fourteen, my brother was still very short and thin, and it was heavy with the icecubes and green glass bottles of Coke.

“Daddy said he’d do it,” I reminded him.

“Dad doesn’t approve of it,” Jeff answered. “He thinks it’s sinful or something.”
“He thinks it’s a waste. Everything in moderation,” I quoted, my arms full of a small suitcase of doll-clothes and three dolls.

He said stubbornly, “We’re going Out West. Remember how Maverick almost died of thirst in the desert on TV last week? I’m going to Be Prepared. Now get out of the way. It’s mine and I’m taking it.”

I gazed at him in awed admiration; I had never imagined that he would think of future dangers, just like a grownup. So I went down the steps to the middle landing, and turned to watch his progress.

Jeff did fine maneuvering through the kitchen doorway. But somehow he tripped on the linoleum on the top step, and fell forward. The heavy cooler went straight down, coasting on the edges of the steps, carrying my brother with it on his front—because he wasn’t letting go. The lid came open. I shrank  against the corner walls as their momentum carried them past me and around to the next flight, hurtling down to the landing just as Daddy was coming up out of the cellar. He was knocked backwards, landing on his behind on a dirt floor rapidly turning into mud, thanks to spilled Coke and ice.

The entire stairway was littered with broken glass and ice-cubes, awash in fizzing brown liquid…and some blood.

Mother bandaged Jeff’s cuts and soothed his bruised chin, cleaned up the steps,and tried to mollify Dad, who was not pleased about having to change into a different pair of chinos after he unroped the suitcase they were in from the rack. We were going to be Behind Schedule and were off to a Bad Start, he grumbled.

Finally we were all packed and in the car…and waited while Dad ran upstairs to use the bathroom one more time, in what would become part of the departing ritual of every vacation trip.

Jeff sulked on his side, and I excitedly watched the scenery for a long time, being quiet so Mother could try to nap while we were in familiar territory. Two hours later, she and Daddy changed places, and she drove. Bored with scenery,  I got down into the footspace in the back seat behind the driver’s side to play with my doll. This was before carseats and seatbelts, so no one thought anything of it. This was a warm new place to play, with a funny smell to it that I soon hardly noticed.

But after a while, I stood up and leaned over the seat. “Daddy, can I have a drink of water?” I wasn’t going to tell him that my stomach didn’t feel good, after being farmed out to my aunt’s family the year before, left out on the ridiculous grounds that it was too far and I was too little to go with them, and I wasn’t going to risk being sent home at that stage.

“Dick, did you give her that Dramamine?” Mother asked. “I think I forgot to, with all the fuss. There’s some in the glovebox.”

No, he hadn’t, and I had forgotten to ask for it. So Daddy got out a tablet, and took out his jackknife to cut it in half for my dose, put the rest away, and told me to hand him the thermos.

One of the camping things they had gotten was a metal carrier that had two long curved handles that fit over the back of the front seat; it had a place on either end for two big thermoses, and a rectangular part in the middle under a hinged lid for sandwiches and fruit and napkins. The whole thing was a cheeful red plaid. I wasn’t allowed to try pouring out from the thermos, so handed it to Daddy, who took off the top and unscrewed the stopper.

Jeff and I always had contests to see who could take a pill with the least amount of water. Mother didn’t care, as long as we swallowed whatever the medicine was, but Daddy was of the school that believed in washing it down with  at least a cupful if not more, so he filled up the red cap and handed it to me.

I sipped and tried to hand it back.

“Drink it up,” he said.

“But my stomach doesn’t feel good,” I told him. It really didn’t.

“DRINK IT ALL UP!” he commanded in the running-out-of-patience-so-no-backtalk-young-lady tone.

 I did.

 We went over a bump, and all the water, the Dramamine, and my breakfast were whoopsed right out of me and into Daddy’s lap, since I was still leaning over the seat.

 I was in tears, Daddy was using bad language, Jeff got smacked for laughing, and Mother pulled over and hunted out another pair of pants. Daddy changed behind a bush.

It was very quiet for a long time.

Mother and Dad had changed places again, and he grumbled when he saw a detour sign. He grumbled more as we drove along a recently-blacktopped road, with little pebbles pinging against the bottom of the car. “I just washed it,” he complained, “and now it’s going to have tar all over it!”

Suddenly there was a jolt and a hissing sound. Dad pulled over. “Flat tire! Damn it, what else today?”

“Dick, mind your language in front of the children,” Mother said. “Jeffrey, help your father.”

“Can I help too?” I asked.

“No, sit still,” she said.

 Jeff got out, and I pouted. My brother never wanted to help Dad; I was Daddy’s little girl, so I always did. It didn’t seem fair. I craned out the window on Jeff’s side to watch them change the right front tire.

Dad was moving awkwardly, trying not to get any tar on his pants while he squatted down on his heels. Jeff was at the back.

“All right, Jeff, give me the spare,” he said.

For the first, and last, time in his life, my unathletic brother actually hit something he was aiming at—the tire rolled straight and true, hitting Dad on the shoulder and knocking him off balance and onto his fanny into a sticky black puddle.

Once again in disgrace, Jeff climbed into the back seat while I hurriedly retreated to my side, and once again Dad unroped the rack to get at a suitcase to dig out a fresh pair—this time of shorts.

More quiet time passed, until Mother suggested that we stop and have some lunch. That was a good idea, so we pulled over on a nice stretch. Dad spread out the thick blue tarp that he normally draped over the seats when we were in wet bathing-suits. Mother, Jeff, and I sat on that while Dad stretched out on a soft green bank. Having eaten a hard-bolied egg, two sandwiches, a banana and three cookies, he was drinking some milk from the other thermos when he suddenly shot to his feet. The bank was crawling with ticks!

Poker-faced, brown eyes dancing, Mother dug out his swim-trunks and held them out to him behind the bush he had gone to.

“Don’t I have any pants?”

“You were the one who rationed out how much space we’d have for clothes,” said my mother, who hated using laundromats. “You insisted that we’d only need enough outfits for a week, and that you’d pack for yourself. I can’t find any more, except for your good suit trousers for church or in case we go out for a nice meal. I don’t know what we’ll do if anything else happens to you!”

“It isn’t as if I was doing all this on purpose, damn it!” he snarled, snatching them from her.

 Once changed into his trunks and hip-length red beach cover-up, and on our way, Dad’s temper improved, and he even joked that he’d have a headstart on the rest of us if we saw a good lake for a swim.

Partway through the afternoon, we stopped at a gas station to fill up the tank. Somewhat embarrassed by his attire, but reminding himself that after all we were on vacation, Dad got out to surpervise the attendant. He always got out to do that, even if it was twenty below in the teeth of a howling blizzard. I never knew why. Jeff made a beeline for a Coke machine he spotted, and Mother and I headed for the ladies’ room.

When we emerged, the car was parked over to one side, Jeff was happily drinking his Coke, and Daddy was nowhere in sight. Mother paused. “Where’s your father?”

“Went inside to get ice cream,” said Jeff, who was peculiar in his dislike of a treat the rest of us loved.

“Go help him carry them, dear,” Mother said to me.

I didn’t need to be told twice. Inside, I didn’t see him, and when I shyly asked the lady behind a desk, she gestured to a side door into one of the repair bays. Wrinking up my nose at the garage-smell of gas, oil, paint, rubber and other smells, I entered. In front of me was a sleek, unusual-looking car, and lovingly painting a fender was a young man in grease-stained overalls, talking unintelligible car-talk with Dad, who was sitting on a green bench that matched the car. Ignoring the ice cream dripping over his fingers from one chocolate and two strawberry cones, he was leaning forward, staring at the car with the rapt, slightly fatuous expression of a mother gazing at her firstborn child.

Dad's Dream: 1923 Cord Roadster. He wanted a red and white one.

“Daddy? The cones’re melting.”

He hushed me and didn’t seem to notice when I took the two strawberry ones. I took hers to Mother, and she returned with me to retrieve Daddy.

“Dick? Honey, we need to get going if we’re going to make it to the campground. They won’t hold our reservation past midnight,” she reminded him. "At the rate we're going...."

“Look at it, Dot! A 1923 Cord!” he said reverently. “If I’d had the money when I was young, that’s the car I would’ve gotten, only I wanted a red-and-white one! He’s restoring it.”

“That’s nice, dear. We need to go.”

 She prodded him out of the garage. As we walked to the car, he was telling me about them. Mother lagged behind a couple of steps, daintily licking at an errant stream of melting ice cream.

 Then she dissolved into peals of laughter.

 We turned around and looked at her, almost doubled over, in imminent danger of losing her cone.  

“Dottie? What’s so funny? C’mon, Dot, let us in on the joke,” said Dad, grinning because she was so convulsed.

 Tears were pouring down her face; she flapped one hand at us. It was several moments before she was able to gasp out, “Look—look behind you!”

 We turned and looked at the gas station, then back at her, mystified. Jeff was grinning.

“No, look—look at your—your—“

 I moved away from them and looked. I started to giggle too. “Daddy, look at your swimtrunks!” I said.

 He twisted; the back of his dark blue trunks were striped with fresh green paint.

Mother always maintained that the real reason we got lost and arrived late at the campsite was because Daddy didn’t want anyone to see him putting up the tent in his pajama pants in daylight....

May all vacationing dads have smoother times!


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