Half the kids crammed into the back of the station wagon. The other half jammed inside the camper on the back of Dad’s truck.
Seven kids and two adults, all heading out for the first real vacation I can remember.
We kids were pretty jacked up about it. We were heading to the beach! As far as I can remember, it would be my very first trip to an ocean. Sure, we’d taken family vacations to the lake. A big tent and some blanket rolls, and all-nighters spent on the bank trying to land Jonah’s whale on a Zebco fishing rod.
I’d spent most of my first 11 years at that same lake. I loved it, but the idea of seeing a beach for the first time was a whole different level of excitement.
So we left our little town in East Tennessee on a trek toward Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Today’s maps claim it’s no more than a six-hour drive, but that’s because they have some pretty big highways running back and forth between the two places. Back then? Little, bitty two-lane roads, winding through the mountains and down into the flatlands.
We kids didn’t care. We were going to the beach!
Well, maybe we didn’t care for the first few hours. After about three hours on the road, we got restless and our parents got cranky. Dad stopped threatening to turn the truck around and started suggesting he might just drive it over a cliff instead.
We finally rolled up to Myrtle Beach late, late that night — only to find every single camping area was full.
We were the Griswolds trying to get to Wally World, only to find Marty the Moose had packed up his bikini and shut us out of the beach.
Undeterred — probably because they weren’t about to turn around and head back with a caravan of sleepy brats — our parents wound their way up the coast, just looking for room at the inn. Finally, we stopped in Wilmington, North Carolina. The beach was open. We had a place to sleep.
I have so many memories of those few days on the beach. Carrying my sisters piggyback into the waves. My little brother Jack, then 6 years old, playing in the surf when he suddenly began screaming. Of course we thought it was a shark attack. We were kids. We may even have been hoping. How cool would that be? Who else could brag his brother had been eaten by a shark? I’d be a legend at school.
Jack lifted his foot to show me: A small crab had lodged itself between his toes and was holding on with both claws. I raised Jack’s leg to help, ignoring the fact that as his leg went up, his head went down — under water. Dad thought I was trying to drown him. The crab disappeared, leaving with me no evidence in my defense.
We novice surf busters didn’t have the fancy stuff like surf boards or boogie boards, but we’d brought our inner tubes. We rode those babies over the waves all day long. I turned to my brother Randy to challenge him to a race, only to see his feet kicking in the air. I thought he’d found some sort of new undersea exploration technique.
Nope. A wave had flipped his tube upside down. Dad wanted to know why I was trying to drown my other brother.
Dad took us to tour the USS North Carolina, a battleship involved in so much of the Pacific War. Dad was a Navy vet; he showed us how to man the guns and climb the ladder wells. We romped all over that ship, little hillbillies climbing across the deck and hanging off the big guns.
It had to be the greatest vacation in the history of ever.
Not until years later did the question hit me: Why in the world would my parents spend their vacation time taking us kids anywhere? I mean, a man finally gets a few days off work, why wouldn’t he find somewhere quiet and brat-free? Why didn’t Mom insist he take her to a beach reserved for two people? Somewhere with a big “No Kids Allowed” sign posted right in front?
After we were grown, Dad, then retired, would spend weeks on his houseboat on Watauga Lake. Smooth move, Dad, I thought. You’re finally getting some time away from everything. I don’t blame you one bit for hiding out.
Then he wrecked it all by telling us where he’d be and how to find him. We’d park on the highway and honk, and he’d rev up his trotline boat and come pick us up. Then we’d all cram onto his little houseboat.
Have you lost your mind, old man? What have you got against solitude?
Not until years later would I get the answer to my question. Not until I became a dad myself.
In 2002, I’d just finished earning my degree and had landed my first teaching job. After years of almost no income because of my disability, I was getting my first real paycheck in a while. I hadn’t experienced anything resembling a vacation in nearly 10 years.
Did I find an exotic location where I could bask in the sun with a few beverages?
Sort of. But I brought my two daughters and one of their friends along with me. Yeah. Three teenage girls for a week in a beach cabin in Crystal Beach.
Whatever dain bramage my Dad suffered when it came to vacations, I’d obviously inherited.
There was Dad’s answer to the vacation mystery: When it comes to a vacation, family matters.
So here I am rocking along as an old man with grown children. Perfect time for some vacationing alone, right? Not exactly. We’ve planned the past few vacations around our kids. We’ve spent a week at the time on the beach, and the total number of participants has grown into a group including our kids, their spouses and their children. I’m still chasing crabs in the surf, and I’ve got little tag-alongs running right next to me. I’m still giving piggyback rides in the waves. I don’t bring inner tubes, but I’ve towed my grandkids up and down the beach in my kayak.
Sure, I could take a vacation alone. But I think I’d be bored half to death.
This past year, my wife and I celebrated a big anniversary. We began discussing plans for a real celebration. She’s never seen some of the places I have, so I offered to take her anywhere she wanted to go. Some exotic location she’s only seen on travel websites. Hawaii. Belize. She found resorts in the Caribbean. She showed me pics of a place where the rooms are little huts on stilts over crystal-clear water — huts just big enough for two people. Paradise? You bet your bathing suit it is.
Then our son and his wife moved to Arizona this past spring.
Wanna guess where we’re going for our vacation?
Yup. Phoenix. We’ll be the Griswolds and run by to check out the Grand Canyon — “it’s only the biggest hole in the world” — but only if the kids can come with us. We’ll drive back to Texas through San Antonio — not just because of the Alamo and the River Walk, but because we’ve got kids and a grandkid there. We’ll wrap up the summer with some time in a cabin on the beach. A cabin big enough for the rest of the kids and grandbrats to stay with us. We’ll stack up like cords of firewood, but we’ll be together.
We dads may not be real smart when it comes to planning our getaways.
But for a lot of us, vacations are family matters.