Summer approaches. The time when families traditionally pack some belongings into tight little wheeled containers, strap themselves into tight bigger wheeled containers, and disrupt routine in the name of roving relational recreation.
Note I did not say “vacation.” Vacation comes from a Latin root meaning to be unoccupied. When you put together the words “family” and “vacation” the concept of being unoccupied just doesn’t apply.
I’m speaking of a specific type of odyssey that many of us know from childhood – usually involving a vehicle that even a high school student desperate for wheels would be embarrassed to drive – a journey to somewhere that is supposed to wholesomely promote togetherness. (Because sharing the same genetic material and living under the same roof are apparently just not intimate enough.)
At its notorious best, the family vacation leaves an indelible mark on the record of one’s life. Much like a fire or drought or volcanic eruption will scar the growth rings of a tree.
In some ways, the military is like a big family. Like many families, the military is big on taking trips together and forcing a lot of togetherness. But the military doesn’t call their trips a “vacation.” And they don’t call the result “memories.” They call it “unit cohesion.” That’s “the bonding together of soldiers in such a way as to sustain their will and commitment to each other… despite combat or mission stress.”
Substitute “children” for “soldiers” and I think General Whoever-Wrote-That aptly defined the net result of the family vacation.
Despite no shortage of combat and mission stress over a 45 year term of family enlistment, I remain bonded to a brother, sister, mother, and father. And I do give partial credit to family vacations for our unit cohesion.
Like tree rings, memory is always a tricky and incomplete record. So it is that most of my memories of childhood family vacations are vignettes.
I remember being thirteen, an age when every single thing has the potential of being mortally embarrassing. Specifically, I remember standing right beside my then-five-year-old brother when he decided to ask the very nice, overweight lady at the camp site next to ours “Are you pregnant or just fat?”
I remember my sister, who could get carsick just looking at a photo of a car up on blocks with its wheels removed. Specifically, I remember my parents deciding to pick up our Uncle John and take a family drive along the famously scenic – and even more famously curvy – highway of the central California coast. Uncle John favored old-school half boots with zip up sides. Sensibly, he took them off in the car. Equally sensibly, my sister vomited in them. This caused Uncle John to use some words that I think he learned in the Navy. Which in turn caused Dad to swiftly pull over, tires screeching, into the parking lot of a picturesque little roadside eatery with outdoor tables. Free of the constraints of Uncle John’s footwear, my sister loosed a second, steaming, gastrointestinal geyser of used minestrone out of the open car door in full view of the restauranteur and his clientele. We dined in style afterwards. All the nice patrons left just to make room for us. It was so relaxing that Uncle John didn’t even wear his shoes.
The vehicle, of course, was a circa 1970s green and white VW van. Unlike many vehicles, it had an air-cooled engine. “Air-cooled” is German for “no air conditioning.”
In this vehicle we made several summertime journeys through California’s deserts en route to and from camping destinations in the more temperate mountains and coastal areas. For readers who picture surfers when they think about California, yes, we actually have deserts. Big, flat, really, really “air-cooled” deserts. Picture the implacably flat surface of a blacksmith’s anvil. Now picture someone hammering a red-hot piece of metal on that anvil. And imagine that the piece of metal is a VW van… If that image doesn’t work for you, just know that the place we were traveling through – in the middle of summer – is called Death Valley for a reason.
Sweltering in the back of the VW van, one of we three kids realized that our gummy worms (that we had purchased in a happier time and cooler place many miles before) were slowly entering a superheated state of matter somewhere between a solid and liquid. Artists know that inspiration often comes from suffering. Our epiphany was discovering that if we stuck the head of a gummy worm to the outside of the window, the searing air rushing over the near-molten exterior surface of the van would improbably lengthen our gummy worm. As the gummy worms suffered, they would twist and flap and deposit a caramelized residue on the side of the van, but nonetheless adhere with leech-like resolution to their anchor point for an impressively long time before releasing themselves in the hope of finding a kinder, cooler windshield behind us. At the time, we did not share this information with our parents, who were fighting heat stroke in the front seats. We did not even share later, when my father was using some of Uncle John’s Navy words as he tried to clean the windows. They were never the same.
In the heat and wind of family fusion and frisson, memories of family vacations past stretch and distort like gummy worms – strange, brightly hued, sour sweet sticky binding cords, cohering our family unit.
Marc Kuritz is father and husband, rare book seller, and author of Man With Child: Confessions of a Full-Time Daddy in a Mommy’s World.