Thank you Mama Kat for the inspiration!
Kids wear sweatshirts tied around their waists and stand in front of beaming parents who “accidentally” dress in matching khakis and white collared shirts. These are the pictures that sit on mantles or line the walls that lead up to the second levels of Middle America houses. They stand next to Anne Getty calendars and mugs that read, “I don’t do mornings.” The people who take these photos are the ones who store memories of family vacations in the parts of their brain marked “precious” or “beautiful.” Parents remember the orgasmic rush of the seemingly bottomless Grand Canyon. Kids only have visions of lines, boxes and zigzags burned into their retinas from their Gameboys. Families look back on childhood and laugh at how the kids incessantly asked, “Are we there yet,” in nasally, lethargic voices that pinched eardrums with obnoxious cuteness. They were probably on their way to Florida or Grandma’s house.
These memories are mundane and fade quickly. The trips frequently orchestrated by my dad still burn bright in my mind and I can only hope to create vacations half as memorable for Darla.
We would travel to Julian to pick up an apple pie. We would trek to Anderson’s to enjoy their famous split pea soup. The highlight and motivation for every trip was food and usually required at least an hour’s worth of driving. One of his favorite vacation spots was Knott’s Berry Farm. He would throw out a net to catch as many of his twelve kids that he could and toss us in his Station Wagon. Typically, this number hovered around eight, as the oldest ones had the good sense to hide or move out of the house.
With all his kids loaded up, he drove North on highway 5 as two layers of brothers and sisters endured two to three hours of sore knees, numb limbs and a mild claustrophobic panic. We might’ve ignored the spasms in our legs had we been allowed to play music, but my dad said he would get in an accident if we turned on the radio. How could he be expected to pay attention to the road AND sing along to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline?” We respected his desire to not kill us, so we stared out the window or at his comb over to pass the time. Usually, right when I thought I was about to have a panic attack because Sarah had been pinching my arms for the past two hours, we would pull off the freeway.
Entrance into Knott’s parking lot was just as long and tedious as our journey to it. Cars slowly snaked through the packed parking lots hunting down a spot. We eight pressed our noses against the window of the car and watched ravenously as the rides swooped, jiggled and plunged. I would hear the sound of fading screams and my heart would fall. I wasn’t destined to enjoy the rides or even step foot in the park. Despite the fact that we traveled there bi-weekly, we only went inside a handful of times.
As my dad reasoned, “Why da hell am I gonna pay $400 for all yous kids to sit on rides when you can just experience da lord’s splendor every day.” This came from a man who would later spend $60 on fresh squeezed orange juice in one sitting. His frugality was selective.
We had made the trip not for the rides, but for the long deceased Mrs. Knott, whose restaurant was typically a side note on anyone else’s vacation. Before we could make it to the restaurant, however, we had to go through the ritual of showing the parking attendant his two-toed foot so we could park in the handicapped spot. A disability placard would’ve remedied this need, but he derived too much pleasure showing it off.
|My dad and my sister Sarah|
Here is how it would typically go down:
As we entered the parking lot, my dad quickly spotted the parking attendant. He slowly drove over to her. The high, hot sun beat down on her large straw hat and ray-ban sunglasses; beads of sweat ran down her abnormally tan nose. The woman glared at my dad as he interrupted the steady flow of traffic.
Our mom, who up until that moment, hadn’t said a word, decided to speak up, “please, Frank. Not today.”
He, intentionally ignoring the woman’s irritation and our mom’s request, waved the parking attendant over. Instead of beckoning with his index finger, like most people would, he utilized his middle finger. The gesture, which crosses all cultural and linguistic boundaries, told her, “I’m not dicking around. Come talk to me right now.”
The previously agitated parking attendant shifted gears and cautiously approached the car.
I, six years old and in my usual spot on my sister Mary’s lap, screamed silently. I knew I wasn’t the only one who was afraid of what was going to happen next. I fidgeted with the frayed hem of my daisy dukes and kept my face turned away from the parking attendant; I nervously ripped out the string until it began to make tiny cuts in my hand. That pain was more tolerable than the anxious anticipation.
Our dad said, “Sweetheart, it seems we have a problem here. Err, I’m a man whose got a lot to deal with, like da twerlve kids sitting in da back.”
It didn’t matter that this point failed to drive the story forward in any way and there weren’t twelve of us in the backseat. As long as we roughly looked like that amount, everything was cool. The woman peered in the window and was confronted by an unkempt, bitter group of pale, freckled, buck-toothed kids. She probably wondered why he was showing us off.
He paused a moment both for dramatic effect and to let the parking attendant process the information.
“The reason I tell ya dis, sweetheart, is because I have a bit of a praablem with my foot. I had a little boomp boomp and, well, I can’t walk too good. Here, I’ll let ya see.”
He quickly threw the car in park and we all watched with horror as he pulled off his black tennis shoe. He peeled off multiple layers of torn, black socks to expose the most memorable foot that parking attendant had ever seen.
He thrust his exposed appendage through the window, right under the parking attendant’s nose. (For how round he was, he was astonishingly limber). The bright sun illuminated the foot perfectly and the moist puss and scabs glistened. It was a glorious body part, peppered with scar tissue and gashes.
The woman looked as if she were going to faint and I am pretty sure I saw her gag. She wanted us out of her face and she waved us into the disability section as fast as she could.
I took a sidelong look at her as we passed and saw she was holding her head in her hands. Her eyes were squeezed shut as if she were trying to erase the gory image from her head as we pulled into the parking spot. We headed into the restaurant.
Groups of tourists wrapped around the waiting area in the log cabin-esque restaurant. I would’ve assumed they had made the trip just to eat like we did, but their sunburnt noses, souvenir Knott’s Berry Farm cups and large plastic pencils/piggy banks told a much different, far more exciting tail than my own. The only thing we had to look forward to was watching our dad devour her famous fried chicken, fluorescent pink rhubarb and mashed potatoes.
Once seated, we’d listen to the lighthearted, high-pitched screams of the adventure seekers faintly in the background as we watched our dad rip into heavily breaded fried chicken with intense passion. As I looked around the restaurant, I could see he enthralled all the other patrons. Were they admiring how he was able to spread chicken all over his face? Or, maybe, they were wondering how he got so much butter on the back of his neck.
My dad could lose himself in a meal. He was a prize-winning gurgitator that made Kobayashi look like a snail and outshone fireworks on the Fourth of July. (One of my brother, Patrick’s, friend specifically requested that he be put on alert when my mom purchased corn. He wanted to be sure he could make it over to our house in time to stare at my dad with wonder. A kernel could somehow shoot across the room, make a lap around the dinner table and wind up on his forehead in a matter of seconds). Us kids, however, had grown bored of his skills and immune to the fascination of this sight. We wanted to ride roller coasters, not watch grease drip down our dad’s chin; we could do that at home.After fifteen minute, he had left a mess that spread all over the table, his face and a five-foot radius of his chair. He would pay the bill and usher us all back in the car. He wanted to get us home in time for dinner.