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That Thing We'd Do
Vacation was scheduled in 1996 for October 1997. My personal physical and emotional fuel tanks were not considered in the plans and if I began to lose momentum, as I still tend to do as the work year wears on, I was strengthened and healed at home with loving hands and encouragement. I needed (and it was important) to work through to October... It could happen no other way, because that year was different. When I look back on 1997, I wish I had it to do again. Not because I desire to fix something that didn't happen perfectly, although that is certainly my way, but because we spent time planning, preparing for and enjoying a vacation to remember. It wasn't my vacation, although each of us travelers had personal motivation, it was a trip to introduce the oldest Smith daughter to one of her early career interests- Space.
Privilege and Responsibility
The average child goes through maturing stages that are sometimes prompted by events or influences that inspire them. The oldest Smith daughter had seen a movie that gave her the desire to pursue a career in space or space sciences. After a season of stargazing and science exploration, it was determined in 1996 that she would attend Space Camp the following year. Financial limitations made it necessary for the family to deliver her to the Huntsville Alabama location while vacationing.
So many things happened this way in the lives of our young daughters... so many exciting experiences, and so many new inspirations. Gymnastics lessons, dance recitals, ice skating, karate and horsemanship lessons. Even college choices came upon each of them in some inspirational way. For parents it means hours each week in gymnasiums, dance studios, corrals and freezing ice skating rinks. But that's just part of what parenthood is all about. It's really a "privilege" that is part of the "responsibility", although it doesn't often feel that way.
In the year following the decision, Mrs. Smith, the best planner-organizer-packer would optimize every detail of our trip. We would have to minimize our hotel stays and make the best of our camping experience. The oldest daughter would attend the five day camp, and the younger Smith daughters would tent camp with us in the woods outside of Huntsville. Locations and activities were finalized by the end of the summer before the trip began, and we all felt safe with the organized planning of a trip so far from home into an unknown area. The preceding Smith vacations had been to familiar National Parks, giving us the feeling of going home no matter how the compass was pointing. This trip would be different.
Life In The Covered Wagon
By the end of summer 1997 it was becoming quite clear that mini-van #1 could not be depended on. It had been our only car for a few years, and between my commute to work, the family's responsibilities, and the traveling we had already enjoyed, that van had seen 111,000 miles in 3.5 years, and fluid leaks couldn't be economically stopped. The van would have to be retired, and so I had no choice but to spend Mrs. Smith's September birthday on Auto Center Drive. I brought mini-van #2 home that day not with payments in mind, but grateful to God for a trouble-free cross-country trip. The new van accepted the car top luggage carrier without complaint, and Mrs. Smith began to plan the packing.
Every square inch of non-human space was packed with provisions, including the necessary room for breathing air, much of which seemed to have made the complete round-trip with us. No human was in fist's reach of another with the exception of Mrs. Smith and myself, and each had her personal supplies close at hand. Music was categorized, and packed neatly. My thermos of coffee was closer to Mrs. Smith than to me, and she served gracefully. As I look back now, I see that this was always our routine. We went through this so many times, the kids knew how to pack without being directed. They knew how to get in and out of the car with only minor fisticuffs. I was the only one who understood only a little piece of the puzzle. I knew where everything was that affected me. There was a master conductor here, and three masters in the making. It was beautiful.
We checked our AAA cards, and with memberships up-to-date, we set sail in October 1997, Space Camp-bound.
On the trip itinerary was a self-guided tour of Henryetta Oklahoma. My parents grew up, met and married there. I'd been there once before in my life when my mother was the conductor and my step-father was driving. I remember visiting "very old people" there on that trip. It was a quiet little town in 1997, with green and tree-lined streets. I felt like I belonged there though my mother and father had both died many hundreds of miles away many years earlier. We drove around the town, had a picnic, and I told the kids what I remembered of my mother's "Trail of Tears" stories that her mother's mother had told her about. My heart ached when we left town, and I can feel it these many years later. My oldest sister broke some bad news in a letter a few months after our return home... my father's mother (my grandmother) had died... at her home in Henryetta. I didn't even know she was still alive when we passed through that little town. That was a knife in the heart of my notorious family disconnect, and I vowed to change my ways.
Space Camping and Tent Camping
After checking the oldest Miss Smith into her Space Camp dorm, we all toured the Space and Rocket Center, and spoke with some of the instructors. We tried out some of the simulators the students would be using, and shopped for souvenirs. Miss Smith had no problem with the ultimate parting, but I had a very difficult time of it. I had arranged for nationwide pager service before the trip, and Miss Smith received "a few" text pages from Dad that week.
We searched out our pre-arranged campsite in Monte Sano State Park, and made camp with our two youngest daughters, keeping each other occupied with stories, exploring and crafts in the absence of the oldest offspring. It was an attractive campground, and the trees were big. The week was off to the start we had predicted, and we settled into our familiar camping routine minus the whit and sarcasm of the 12 year old "astro-trainee". Mid-week we walked through the Huntsville historical districts, and were amazed at the beautiful condition of the pre-civil war homes on the tree-lined streets. Kids tire of site seeing quickly, especially when walking is involved, so Daddy-the-Clown worked overtime to get the group back to the van for lunch at the park, and a little grocery shopping. Everyone slept well those first few nights.
The next adventure took us to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in Muscle Shoals. Miss Smith #2 was a country music fan, and had wanted to see the Country Music Hall of Fame. Having driven through Nashville on the way to Huntsville, I had decided against going back. Big-city traffic wasn't sounding good after a few peaceful days in the country. The substitute proved to be the perfect day trip, and no one was disappointed. Also that day in nearby Tuscumbia we got our first glimpse of Helen Keller's birthplace, which is a big deal for any family with daughters to inspire. The roadsides and fence lines in that part of Alabama were blanketed in white, and countless huge mounds of cotton awaited transport. It was a highlight of the trip, and a peaceful calm before the storm...literally.
Back in the campground damp weather was quickly turning to wet weather. Our campsite, though warm and inviting in dry weather, turned out to be a saucer in wet weather, and all of my skills at trenching couldn't reverse the damage. One half of the tent had been in two inches of standing water; and sleeping bags, clean clothes, and extra blankets had soaked up the water like sponges. With no end to the rain in site, and shivering kids huddled around a smoky fire, it was clear that we couldn't spend another night in camp. We packed all the wet stuff together on top of the van, all the dry stuff together inside the van, and headed downtown for the friendliest looking motel we could find, where we pampered and polished the girls, and prepared for Space Camp graduation ceremonies the following day.
How The West Was Done
After celebrating the week's accomplishments at Space Camp with the Staff, other campers and their families (followed by shopping our way through the facilities once again), we headed back to the motel for one more night of laundry, hair styling, television and pizza. "That Thing You Do" was repeating on cable television, and the kids watched it at least three times in those two days. I watched a John Denver tribute as well that final night, and we were all up early for breakfast and car arrangements.
The trip home included a drive through Tupelo, which left me so disoriented, I couldn't easily find my way back to the highway. In fact, once I finally found the Natchez Trace we were all tired enough to sleep in a visitor's center parking lot. Everyone remembers the deceased raccoon we passed on the highway a few miles before finding our sleepy parking lot. It's so well remembered because we saw it again the next morning after I brilliantly took us back in the direction we came from. My thanks to those in the family who pointed out to me that... "the sun doesn't rise in the west". So after finding a "turn about", we passed, for a third time, that memorable raccoon. If they continue to bring that story up for the next twenty years, it'll be alright with me. The fact that they remember the trip with laughs is awesome enough to balance out all my goofy mistakes.
With the ultimate goal of that day being Dallas/Fort Worth, we talked, laughed and sang our way through breakfast at the Waffle House, a driving tour of the Civil War Battlefield in , and a huge storm in Shreveport which included a spectacular demonstration of sheet lightening. I recall listening to VicksburgA Prairie Home Companion on Public Radio that day, and I still listen to that show with memories of that trip in mind. The most incredibly uncomfortable motel in Fort Worth seemed like a palace after that marathon leg of the trip, and early in the morning we found family in Fort Worth. Mrs. Smith's younger sisters live there, and they couldn't get enough of the girls, which made Dallas/Fort Worth as awesome a stop as we had on that trip.
Another long-afternoon's journey took us to Carlsbad Caverns for a trip through the caves the following day, followed by more shopping. Then, as the women slept amongst their personal keepsakes, I made my way through unfamiliar New Mexico and then back into West Texas that evening. I felt a little bit like an explorer, and there was no one to talk to about it. Those are never uncomfortable times, though. I like to tell stories, so in my mind I went through the many ways to embellish my account of the drive they all had missed.
To balance the memories, Texas had to have the last say, and before escaping El Paso the troopers pulled the Smith Clan's covered wagon to the side of the highway. I was wide awake, so I wasn't concerned about my driving; and as the trooper approached my window the ladies awoke, and I found myself quieting a group of girls while explaining to a Texas official why I had no license plate on the "low riding" mini-van. After his look through the van, we moved on out of Texas. California attaches temporary registration to the windshield, but license plates are mailed out as the inmates complete their craftsmanship (you just can't rush good craftsmanship). From that hour, I think all the ladies knew my goal without discussion--stopping only for gas, food, and rest area 'naps', I was taking them home as quickly as safely and legally possible. I'm fortunate that none of them remember the return trip as being difficult. I happily bear that myself.
What I Get From All of This
Being the "bearer" of the difficult memories in the family is no easy task. But I carry the burden gratefully. You see, if I can look at smiling daughters and a smiling wife, the difficulties involved with getting to that point are far outweighed by the family "peace-love-happiness factor". And that means years of healthy if not prolonged life for all of us.