A summertime education

It’s not officially summer until next week, but since I live in the desert, it’s been summer here for weeks. I’m pretty sure the forecast for my town on June 20, summer’s first day, is 110 degrees.

When I think of summer, I think of children running through a field of waist-high grass. The sun setting behind a barn in the background and lightning bugs just beginning their nightly dance. American flags standing at attention and red, white and blue bunting draped on porches. Sparklers and sunburns. Barbecues and the beach.

None of that is representational of what my childhood looked like.

Except for one all-American summer.

The summer I was 14-years-old I took an epic– and utterly ridiculous– road trip with my father and step mom.

Few times have I made my sister laugh harder than when I’m telling her stories of that fateful vacation.

In order to remotely understand how insane the entire trip was, I have to give a little background on my dad.

My parents divorced when I was 5 and my mother and I moved 300 miles away. He followed shortly after and rented the  condo across the street (my mom totally loved that).

Every morning he’d stand on the front porch with a bowl of cereal and wave goodbye as my mom left for work. He sort of had that I’m-probably-a-stalker-but-probably-harmless-thing going on.

He was raised Catholic, but converted to Judaism to impress his third wife. His fourth wife wasn’t impressed, so he became “spiritual.” His fifth wife– the step mom that went with us on our trip– was Catholic….you can see where this is going.

He didn’t graduate from high school but could put a truck engine together in mere hours, solve logic problems like no one’s business and was a meticulous restorer of old crap. He was one of the most unintelligent and smartest people I’ve known.

The summer between middle school and high school was one of a lot of change for me; we’d just moved to a new town. A 14-year-old girl starting high school in a new town should have time to unpack, get settled, meet people….so my mom sent me on a road trip with the father I rarely talked to.

Here are just a few of the things that happened:

My father and step mom lived in a trailer, as in, the kind you hook to a truck and pull (you should hear about the summer I lived with him at the KOA campground in Porterville, Calif., also known as “the summer I spent with the carnies.”). He had a cargo van that he spent months retrofitting with a “luxury” chair he got from a junkyard, a screened-window that slid open and a little table with “two different size cup holders!” For most of the trip I slept on the floor of the van and let the dog sleep in the luxury chair because 1. I was convinced that someone had died in it and 2. I was 14 (I quickly figured out that this seating arrangement made him very mad. So I kept it up.).

Just weeks before the trip I’d been introduced to musical theatre-magic when I saw a production of The Who’s Tommy. I listened to the sound track on my Walkman from California to Tennessee. Whenever he said anything I’d yell, “I can’t hear you!” Pointing to my headphones, I’d say, “He’s a pinball wizard dad. Do you know any pinball wizards?”

My father drove three hours off the route we were taking so we could go to the home of Amelia Earhart’s grandparents. She was born in that house. I was named after the woman. He didn’t want to spend the $7 for me to take the tour so we hit the road again….and later that day ended up at the Wizard of Oz Museum. Of course we paid the entrance fee for that.

We had to stop at every air museum we came across because the man was convinced he was an airplane aficionado.

I got in trouble for running the video camera batteries down filming his bald spot for an hour while we drove around Nashville. In the background you could hear him saying things like, “Face the camera out the window, you’re missing the sights” to which I would reply, “Nope, this bald spot is about as good as this trip’s gonna get.” Did I mention I was 14?

The day we spent in a library in Idaho. For no conceivable reason.

There was the time, at a campground in Mississippi, when my step mom blindfolded herself with a handkerchief claiming it would help her tired eyes and then proceeded to try to make dinner… OVER AN OPEN FIRE! This is an absolute, hand-over-my-heart, true story.

Or when the man dragged me to Dollywood and later told all the family we visited that I wanted to go. It cost about $60 for the three of us to get in there and I wasn’t named after Dolly Parton. (However, on a recent episode of The Bachelorette, I was slightly excited when a date was filmed in the theater at Dollywood. “I’ve totally been there,” I said out loud to no one as I was watching it.)

The whole trip came to a screeching halt when we returned to California and, instead of going to see an Elvis impersonator with my dad and step mom, I chose to go back home a couple of days early. My step mom actually said this to my mom: “I just can’t believe she doesn’t want to see Elvis. How ungrateful!”

I do have some special memories of that trip though.

Using a giant field in Tyler, Texas as a runway and flying in a tin can-airplane with a friend of my dad’s.

Sitting alone on a porch in Illinois watching lightning bugs. I’d never seen them before and haven’t seen them since, but the magic of them made me cry. I want my children to see lightning bugs before they’re adults. Better yet, when they’re exactly 14 and think everything sucks and no one understands them.

Walking through the woods in Flagstaff, Ariz. in a torrential downpour.

The morning I sat at the end of a pier on a lake in Mississippi and watched mist rise up off the water and birds diving for fish. Surrounding the lake were willow trees, their branches dancing a weeping waltz. That scene is forever-etched in my mind.

Or Fourth of July in McMinnville, Tenn. when my half-brothers poured a gallon of gasoline on a bucket of fireworks and lit it (In my mind I heard a banjo and the sound of rushing river water). “Oh, this is about to get good,” I remember thinking. My dad was pacing around, totally freaking out. The whole thing exploded and a lone firework shot across the street and hit my dad’s van. My comment of, “Too bad the door wasn’t open and the thing didn’t light up the chair,” was met with a volley of curse words.

I shook Al Gore’s hand in Chicago. I’m not an Al Gore fan, but it was still cool. My Repulican-father could be heard on the video saying, “Rush Limbaugh would hate this!” Oy.

That summer wasn’t all bad. If he did anything right, my dad gave me freedom– or he needed a break from the teenage daughter he rarely saw. He let me explore and wander and soak up the places we were visiting. It’s also possible he was hoping someone would abduct me.

One day, before our children know everything and think we’re totally un-cool, I hope my husband and I are able to take them on a family road trip.

I can envision my oldest son on that pier in Mississippi; my oldest daughter laughing as wind whips through her hair in a rickety, old airplane. My littlest boy lighting way too many fireworks on a rural road and the baby of the family fighting her fear of bugs in order to hold a little bit of light in her hands.

My biggest regret when thinking back on that summer? Tossing the videos in a hurried move. Those would have provided endless hours of entertainment.

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