Family Vacations: The Summers of My Discontent

Family vacations are dumb.

Nothing sends me into a tailspin faster than a technological mishap: this would include power outages and car problems, to say nothing of broken laptops. I’ve been in a tailspin since the first week in August, the week my shiny new laptop failed catastrophically on a Saturday morning, an incident that prompted a series of irritating phone calls and remote sessions with tech support, and no fewer than five trips in the car over an hour one way to try to deal, because we are underserved in Vermont. That’s more than a tank of gas and five days I’ll never get back again. This coming Saturday will mark the sixth. I remain skeptical at best, even with another new laptop in the offing: an evil vortex has settled in over me, ready to stir up trouble with any device I bring into this house, I am sure of it.

New equipment should not fail, tech support should be smart, and people on the other side of the planet who are enlisted to ‘remote’ into your computer, with your personal stuff on it and all, should not be loading weirdo media players in another language onto your laptop without your permission. I submit these are the folks who refused to do their third grade homework but still walked away with ‘participation’ ribbons, never learned manners but were coddled in the name of self-esteem boosting, and possess not one shred of respect for personal property, because if it’s broke you just buy a new one. I bet they leave crusty bowls of half-eaten ramen noodles sitting around at home. And now here they are inside my electronics doing god-knows-what, but failing miserably at fixing the problem I invited them in to fix to begin with. (You need more RAM. Wait—how could that be the case on a new laptop?)

How do these folks even get these jobs in the first place?

See? Tailspin. But I digress.

On a recent day trip over to neighboring Upstate New York to meet again with the homework slackers, HCB and I got to talking in the car as we are wont to do. We came around a twisty bend in a sleepy rural highway and crossed another busier highway to continue our trek, which took us past a lake dotted with docks where small watercraft are moored at the edge of unassuming vacation home properties; a single golf cart was sitting idle on a patch of asphalt near the edge of the lake, a beacon of leisure on this sunny summer afternoon. This tiny lake’s more or less a poor man’s paradise, cheerful nonetheless.

I never had the kind of camping experience you had growing up, I said aloud to HCB. I vaguely recall one summer when I was barely beyond my toddler years (maybe three) when my parents and I visited with my grandparents—my dad’s folks—at a place near Chattanooga called Camp Ocoee. I’m not sure we even spent the night. What remains in my head after all these years are washed out memories of rustic board-and-batten structures with wraparound screen porches and creaky screen doors. And my grandmother’s crafty ceramics class in one building. And dusty pathways, possibly a swingset, and a boy called Chris Cunningham who accepted my heartfelt passions only reluctantly. That is all I remember, and probably the only reason I remember any of it at all is the legacy of a few photos and some family folklore. (Chris: where are you now? Did you do your third grade homework, or did you get participation awards?)

I did not have cooties.

Camping was big in my family, said HCB, and he went on to describe it. The girls had better games, he said—they were more complicated and involved and fun. The boys were just idiots. Playing with the girls was your best bet.

I remember long car trips in the summer, I said, and always asking to get out of the car when we stopped at a scenic overlook or passed some landmark or monument. No, came the answer always.

I know why, I went on: it was my brother’s fault. He was a pain in the ass to travel with. We never made short trips—we were either eastward bound for Knoxville and Chattanooga all the way across the length of our squished parallelogram state from Memphis to visit family, or worse—to a remote Texas destination for a family convention tied to my dad’s work, which meant two solid days in a hot car to get there: the crayons always, always melted, and my brother always, always Crossed The Line in the back seat to my side, to purposely detonate the big sister bomb and then sit back and enjoy the explosion. This was to be expected of a seven-years-younger brother, but of course I could not appreciate that. If I were my parents, I’d want to get there, too.

Here is the truth about my brother in those days: he simply could not shut up. He sang to himself, talked to himself, and ran out of breath mimicking the noises of choo choo trains. Trains, for god’s sake. They were his everything.

The Talker

One time on the way home from a Texas vacation, my brother drove my mom to the brink of insanity with his ‘prattling,’ as she called it. We were in Arkansas, with Memphis squarely in the crosshairs by then, so close to home we could almost taste it. My mom had cleverly outfitted the back seat of the car with two vinyl shoe racks hung over the front seat headrests—one for my brother and one for me, a strategy she’d read about in a parenting tome. Mine was still fairly organized by the end of our vacation, stocked with a few new treasures acquired along the way, but his was chaos. Long weary of his toys, he busied himself with jabbering. The kid simply could not. shut. up.

THOMAS! snapped my mama about an hour away from our suburban home. SHUT YOUR MOUTH.

He complied, but continued to make all kinds of creative sounds with closed lips, including weird gurgling noises that required lots of spit.

HCB erupted in giggles when I told him this story, and then started making his own version of close-lipped noises. Two peas in a pod, I imagined, while agonizing at the thought of traveling with not one, but three siblings in a closed space. Perish the thought.

For my part, I yearned for my bicycle and my neighborhood friends about a second after we reached our vacation destination. That bicycle meant autonomy and freedom, from boredom, from a brother who followed me around like my shadow, from tiresome grown-ups. You can’t escape any of those things on a hot summer vacation with your family.

But no, we never camped as a family, and we did not get out of the car much, because dad was hell bent on getting from point A to point B. The upshot of this for me is, I have no interest in camping, never have as an adult and never did as a parent myself, but I do love me a good road trip, especially off-the-beaten path trips into the American countryside, the kind that put you in the back yards of farmers, and take you down remote highways dotted with derelict billboards, leaving your imagination to reinvent a place that is no more, and anyway what happened to it and to the people who once worked there or patronized it? I can entertain myself in silence for a long time making up a story. Lately I’ve fabricated one closer to home, about some goings-on on the rural road where I often run: in short, I have invented an entire narrative to explain the activity I have observed on a particular property for the past few weeks. It involves tawdry behavior and a messy divorce and a property dispute and unhappy children.

You don’t have evidence for any of your assumptions, HCB tells me.

What’s your point? I ask. Give me my story: I am not hurting anybody.

He smacks his hand over his face and shakes it in disbelief.

Family vacations with a younger brother are bothersome and that is all. On that very trip—the one where my brother made the gurgling noises—he also spat out his chewing gum in my long, silky ballerina hair right as we were crossing the Mississippi River from West Memphis, Arkansas, into downtown Memphis, Tennessee.

I howled in agony, ruing the day he was born, gnashing my teeth and wishing I could tear out my hair.

My mom was at once horrified and delighted: she knew just what to do to get it out, and it involved peanut butter—she’d read it in that damned book, the same one with the vinyl shoe caddy tip.

Little brother, your sister has a blog: it’s payback time at long last.

I wish I had a laptop. Because I like laptops.

Nota bene: My brother is enjoying a long and successful career in the railroad industry. He is a hard worker and a problem solver, character traits for which he is beloved in the workplace. He also holds a patent for a piece of machinery that is helping revolutionize the modern locomotive engine.

Homecoming, Part the Fourth

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I don’t know what it is about ballet schools and railroads, but just about every single school where I’ve studied or taught has been on top of them; you learn to deal with the teeth-rattling thunder of the enormous diesel engines barreling down the tracks. It’s part and parcel of operating in a low rent district, I guess.

Those engines were my brother Tom’s salvation when we were kids. For years my mom owned and operated her own small ballet school in a Memphis suburb; most days my brother had no choice except to hang out there during afternoon classes. But it was also where he could assuage his inner choo choo geek whenever one rattled through.

He came into this passion as a little kid, obsessively counting and naming cars at railroad crossings <eye roll from big sister>, mimicking the clanging warning sound of the crossing bars as they lowered. Every. Single. Time. He was so earnest about performing this pantomime (it also involved his hands and fingers) that he never bothered coming up for air—he just kept “clanging,” sucking in instead of exhaling the sound when he ran out of breath. (Sorry, Tom: your secret is now out on the World Wide Web; you’re welcome.)

Later this enthusiasm morphed into model railroading, a hobby to reach epic proportions in our downstairs playroom when everything was said and done. By late elementary school he routinely trolled a stretch of Southern Railroad tracks not far from our Memphis home, where he discovered the joys of smooshing pennies on the tracks, keeping the flattened oblong copper disks in jars on his dresser next to a rusty collection of castoff iron spikes the maintenance crews left behind. At some indiscernable moment during adolescence his bedroom took on the slightest hint of diesel fuel vapor.

The pinnacle of this gathering enthusiasm occurred when he built a real, functioning handcar with the help of a friend, the two of them trailering it to the tracks on weekends for excursions. I am certain this was both dangerous and illegal. But when you possess that much passion for a thing….

Tom ultimately turned his passion into a career, where he has enjoyed much success at the front of operations at Knoxville Locomotive Works,  working in a hands-on capacity that recently earned him inclusion in a patent for a piece of engineering used to retrofit locomotives with green technology. It’s a pretty big deal that has garnered some press. If you own a diesel engine, you send it to KLW to be retrofitted with this new technology.

My little brother is living the dream, and has for just about all his adult life.

I wanted to show Handsome Chef Boyfriend and my son Bentley the amazing Knoxville Locomotive Works facility, and so I asked Tom if he would be so kind as to give all of us a guided tour at the end of a work day. I shot lots of photos with my new-old Nikon; most did not turn out well for reasons that elude me for now. I include the better ones here to try to illustrate the enormity of this impressive operation.

The first three are pieces of the new technology in an engine that is used as a demonstrator. When you are there in person at KLW, you have no choice except to be in close proximity with these massive locomotives. It really is quite something. Tom gave us a thorough explanation of the new technology (which I can’t synthesize), including a “back to the drawing board”-style commentary on its evolution as ideas were tried, failed, revisited, and reimagined, until the whole business finally worked:

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Another finger of this interesting company is its acquisition and restoration of old cars and engines; I find that part especially appealing. Tom and his colleagues at KLW restored this old sleeper (among others) some time ago; it was in the shop to be retrofitted for new, non-leaky window fittings. If you’ve ever seen an old car sitting on a stretch of tracks near the Thompson Boling Arena entrance to the University of Tennessee campus, it is this one. It’s the pride and joy of Pete Claussen, KLW founder and Chairman and CEO of Gulf and Ohio Railroads. We pressed Tom for a peek at its interior and he obliged; there was no power, so I used my flash. I love the thoughtful and simple lines in early twentieth century design:

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And here is where you go when you need access to the underbelly of a giant diesel engine (I KNOW, right?):

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And here is a small-and-mighty GE engine (I think I can, I think I can…):

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And here is what you’d see if you were at the helm of the Southern engine shown way up at the top of the post:

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Tom also gave us a peek inside another building on an adjacent lot where work is currently underway to see whether this beautiful, old steam engine can be restored:

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And in case you’ve ever wondered how a steam engine looks without its nose thingummie:

Steam Engine Nose

We finished in nearby downtown Knoxville with dinner at one of my favorite eateries, the Tomato Head; it is a place near and dear to me also because the owners were early and avid supporters of Knoxville Ballet School, and once went to some trouble to come and visit me in Vermont. I was pleased and surprised to see its sleek new interior and expansion, changes that have happened in the intervening three years since my New England move.

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I did manage to snap a very nice photo of my son B and my brother:

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We had been joined at KLW and for dinner at Tomato Head by my mom and her husband and their daughter, and also by Tom’s wife Kathleen and their son, my nephew Tim. Amazingly, I somehow did not get photos of them. Gah.

HCB and B and I lingered awhile in downtown Knoxville, where I could not get over the commercial progress made in recent years. This beauty still awaits restoration:

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And this is the vibrant weeknight view looking south on Gay Street towards the Tennessee River:

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My favorite theatre, the Tennessee, underwent a massive restoration several years ago, long before I left. We did not have occasion to go inside this time, but you can get some idea of its more-is-more Moroccan-themed glory here.

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We found dessert at Coolato Gelato; it was only meh, but B made a nice pic:

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Thence to this giant sunflower collage, real but mostly faded, where I asked B to photograph me and HCB. I did not exactly get permission to post this, but too dang bad. I think it is a nice picture of the two of us:

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However eventful that much of our day had been, it was not all. We had a lovely morning tour of the Ice Chalet courtesy of director Larry LaBorde, another person who was a fan and supporter of Knoxville Ballet School from the get-go. The school would never have come into existence were it not for the rink’s early involvement in it, and Larry himself was so helpful during my difficult and at times painful transition through closing the school’s doors and relocating to Vermont. HCB was also the happy beneficiary of some hockey equipment after the tour ended; we had a long, happy lunch at a nearby eatery. No surprise that hockey-playing HCB and Larry had so much to talk about.

It was nice for B to revisit an institution that was so much a part of his growing up years, through hockey and figure skating, and being a part of the bigger Ice Chalet family. Thank you, Larry.

For a few brief moments, I was once again an Ice Chalet mom:

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And that was only Wednesday; so many more homecoming stories to tell. ‘Til soon.