Second Worst Vacation Ever

“Now, this RV has no parking brake — I know; don’t ask — so be real careful, and use this.”

He handed me a nail-studded scrap of 2×4 bearing the words “EM. BRAKE” scratched in red ink. “Stick this under the wheel,” he said, and I knew my vacation was doomed.

My wife’s boss Tim had generously offered to lend us his beloved camper, Little Buddy, for our road trip vacation through Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky. Now it was the day before we were to leave, and Tim and I were going over the operating instructions. Overall, I was impressed with how sound Little Buddy seemed to be, considering he’s thirty years old.

What followed was not the worst vacation of my life. What followed was merely the second-worst vacation of my life.

The #1 Worst Vacation of my life came when I was about 8 years old and consisted of a week with my family at a campground in the Adirondacks in a canvas army-surplus  cabin-style tent. Each day was characterized by either torrential thunderstorms or horrific heat, humidity, and clouds of biting gnats. But that’s not what made it awful.

I was doing a lot of throwing that summer, doctor’s orders. I’m nearly blind in one eye and can’t see out of the other, which severely impacts my depth perception; that is to say, I haven’t any. The eye doctor proposed Dad and I play some catch to help me out. My dad wasn’t the catchy type (he was a lot like me), so my parents got me this bounce-back net you set up in the yard, with a strike zone painted on it, so lonely dorky kids could play catch by themselves. I had made good progress with it that spring: I flung the ball, if I hit the net it bounced back, if it hit the glove, sometimes I caught it. More often the ball caught me, anywhere from my skull to my knees. I hadn’t brought my ball or glove (or net) to camp, but there were plenty of rocks. One hot, buggy morning, I was strolling down the camp road, flinging rocks hither and yon. I flung one hither, and only after release noticed yon automobile. The rock came down on the hood near the passenger-side fin. (Yes, front fins!) (This was about 1972.) The rock rolled into the left gutter (like most bowling balls I’ve ever thrown), tumbled along the full length of the hood and smacked the windshield. And then I noticed yon young men, camped alongside yon automobile. “Hey!” they shouted.

I have never known terror like that before in my life. If I had known how much worse it was going to get the next day, I might not have freaked out so bad, but I didn’t, so I did. I bolted. In blind terror I tore back to our campsite and hid in a pile of bedding in the back seat of our car. (I’m guessing the bedding was there because it had rained the previous night and some or all of us wound up sleeping in the car.) I hid out in the 6,000-degree car all day, fantasizing about being beaten to death with baseball bats — or maybe being stoned. My parents fetched me at supper time, long after they had smoothed things over with the young men.

The next day it got really bad.

Why did I have such a problem with men’s changing rooms? This totally sounds like the Result of a Childhood Trauma sort of thing, but this was my childhood. To swim you had to shower, and to shower you had to change, in a big open room with no partitions and other men. My parents sent me in there alone, and I couldn’t do it.

Maybe it had to do with that miserable YMCA day camp / detention center my folks sent me and my sister to the previous summer. All I remember of that place is a lot of concrete, nearly drowning in a huge pool every day, and being beaten regularly in an overcrowded locker room full of mean, naked kids.

Yeah, I suppose that could have something to do with my reluctance to get naked around strangers. So what did I do about it? I got my older sister to smuggle me in to the girl’s changing room, where they had individual, curtained stalls. This worked out okay for a few days until she betrayed me and blew my cover.

Yes… it was even worse than a week on the road with Little Buddy.

Little Buddy and Sara at Dave Dampier's place in Kentucky

Little Buddy and Sara at Dave Dampier’s place in Kentucky

That started with my own bad planning. I decided to wing it, and planned the route without even consulting a map. In my estimation of travel from Illinois to Kentucky, I neglected the entire state of Indiana (easy to do). When trying to make up time, we discovered Little Buddy had trouble topping 45 mph, which added about 3 hours to every day’s travel time. When we got to Kentucky, we discovered Little Buddy had some issues with hills, like, refusing to climb them. We also discovered his spectacular appetite for fuel. Feeding the car depleted our budget for feeding ourselves. The last leg of the trip was to be a quiet, lonely weekend at a state park near Chicago, and Little Buddy’s clutch failed about three miles outside the city. We spent 5 hours on the side of the Edens Expressway waiting for a tow that cost us the last of that years’, and half of next years’, vacation budget.

But at least Little Buddy included a private changing room.

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2 thoughts on “Second Worst Vacation Ever

  1. It’s been several months now since this vacation, and when I think back on it, what stands out are the following:
    Sunrise over a huge lake in central Illinois
    Sitting at the cozy kitchen table with my wife, playing cards and sipping tea
    Visits, however brief, with dear friends.
    Of that childhood vacation, I cannot remember any redeeming moments, though I am sure it had some. (Oh! I made my dad a tie-dye tee shirt that he loved and wore for years. It was yellow with a huge red spot front and back. It made him look like he’d been skewered by a javelin.)
    This may say something about the workings of memory as we age: as kids, it’s the scary stuff that leaves an indelible impression. As we age, perhaps we’ve had all the terror we can stand, and have learned to let it go easily, cherishing instead the simple pleasures and beauties. I hope this is the case. It would bode well for my old age.

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