Monday, January 9, 2012


I'm telling this story today because it came up with a friend over lunch the other day and its a great example of the events in my life that have made me the type of person I am. Go ahead, laugh. This shit's funny, too.

In the early 90s, when I was a teenager, my family was poor. Really poor. "Come-home-from-school-not-sure-if-the-lights-will-come-on-when-I-flip-the-switch" poor. "Evicted-from-our-run-down-duplex-in-November-homeless-for-the-holidays" poor.

On New Years Day 1994 the Wisconsin Badgers went to Pasedena to win the Rose Bowl. My three brothers, my mom and I were finally back together under our own roof, in a new run down duplex. I remember we all slept on the living room floor that first night, and I remember lying there in the dark with my family, hearing the neighbors cheer as the Badgers clinched the win.

Sometime that year my mom got a job working for what was then called Midwest Express Airlines. Circumstances required her to take whatever job she could get, which meant my 5'6" skinny little thing of a mom was working outside in the Midwestern winter, loading and unloading luggage from planes. NOT easy by any means.

One of the perks of working for the airline, however, was that each year, she and each of her family members would receive one free standby ticket to anywhere Midwest flew. This meant that for the first time EVER, each of us kids would get to fly in an airplane.

I'm fairly certain that was her motivation behind that first trip. The idea that not only could she actually take her kids on a vacation but that we could fly there, too. Because she started in the fall, the trip was hastily planned, and in January 1994 the five of us flew to Washington, DC.

From touch down to take-off, we were there for 26 1/2 hours.

The only things I remember from that DC trip were
1) having a homeless man in the subway call me by name (which he and everyone else could clearly read on the front of my varsity letter jacket) and
2) the only place/thing/landmark we saw was whatever Smithsonian museum has rows and rows and rows of old dresses from presidents wives and such. No monuments. No White House. No historic anythings.

Let me pause here so that you may realize that my mother drug four kids, three of whom were boys, aged 6-16, to the airport, through the airport, from the airport to the hotel (I have NO memory of how that happened, btw), from the hotel to the subway, navigated the subway, got us lost on the subway, got harrassed by homeless men calling me by name on the subway, to the Smithsonian. And not the good one with the dinosaurs and the giant diamond but the shitty Smithsonian with nothing but dresses, only to go back to the hotel via the subway (on which we got lost AGAIN) to go to sleep, get up in the morning and go back to the airport and head back home. Oh, and we of course couldn't afford to park at the airport so we'd taken the city bus. Five people. With luggage. On the bus. The routes of which, let me tell you, my mother navigated no more savvily than the Washington DC subway system, meaning that we took a bus we weren't meant to take and ended up standing in the cold in downtown Milwaukee in front of a bar for 45 minutes waiting for a connecting bus to pick us up and take us closer to our home. Because that first bus had been the wrong one, this meant the stop we eventually got off on was a half mile from our house. Imagine us wheeling our hand-me-down luggage and toting our school backpacks full of clothes in the winter cold. I shudder to think of how pleasant we must have sounded.

We should have just stayed home.

The second trip was a little better. The following summer my mom saved her pennies to take us where every mother worth half their weight in salt wants to take their families to prove they're good parents -- Disney Land. I'm guessing the only reason we went to California and not Florida was probably because Midwest flew to LA and not Orlando. It might just as easily have been because my mom thought it sounded cooler. Whichever.

Prior to the stint working for Midwest, my mom worked for a rental car company at the same airport. This time we were staying for a week and mom was going to work her connections to get us a rental car. A friend of hers worked out a deal that she pay for the lowest cost rental (a Geo Metro) and we'd get a free upgrade. Sweet!

Only the message about the upgrade sorta didn't make it to LA.

This meant that five people, each with a week's worth of luggage, had to cram into a hatchback smaller than a twin sized bed. And then my directionally-challenged mother drove us through LA.

Yay! We're on vacation!
Yay! We can get out of the car now!

 I don't think I have to tell you we got lost.

But Disney Land! We were going to Disney Land!

Except when your kids are sorta spread far apart in age you can imagine that the younger ones are going to love it oh-so-much-more than the older ones.

I was 16 and one of my brothers 15. The younger two were 8 and 6. This meant that while the older two of us wanted Space Mountain and Not Disney Land, the younger two wanted tea cups and Pirates of the Carribean before it was Pirates of the Carribean circa the awesome Johnny Depp years.

Pretty much all I remember of the Magical Kingdom was tears and frustration. And chasing down Chip and Dale for autographs to make my baby brother happy.

And oh God - the day my mom decided to take us to see the ocean? Lost. In standstill traffic. With motorcyclists whizzing by between the lanes of cars. Mom swearing. Screaming, "WHAT IN THE HELL THAT IS JUST SOOOO DANGEROUS!!!" Little brothers crying. Me asking how we could possibly not find the ocean. My "just drive west" directions not appreciated.

And another day "checking out" Hollywood Boulevard. I took many pictures of stars on the sidewalk. I remember going into a scary-looking candy store and seeing the Capitol Records building from afar. And that's about it. I'm surprised we weren't all maimed or mugged or forced into prostitution.

The best part of that trip? The crappy hotel pool.

Yeah. Hold on tight. Cuz that floatie might save you. And don't forget to hold your nose.

I remember all four of us splashing about in a pool not completely unlike the ones outside cheap hotels in the Dells (much like this one). I could swim then lounge on a deck chair with a book while my youngest brothers jumped in 1,000 times with their Donald Duck floaties and my third brother sulked around like a sullen teenage boy. It made us all happy and it was free.

So yes, the family vacations my mother worked so hard for were pretty much a bust. Its not lost on me just how many hours she must have had to work in the cold and snow to be able to do something like that for us, even with free airfare and car rental deals.

Parts of those occassions are funny to me now, looking back. But it taught me that the best of intentions as a parent sometimes don't work out the way you want them to. You may mean well and even believe you're providing your family with something very special and meaningful. But if you have to drag your kids kicking and screaming or are going to lose your sanity in the midst of providing that super awesome cool thing? Its probably not worth it.

Cuz the damned kids are gonna pretty much just love the crappy hotel pool anyway, and you certainly don't have to travel 1700 miles for that.