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Emus, and Icees, and Princess Diana

“I’m saying this is the South. We’re proud of our crazy people. We don’t hide them up in the attic. We bring ’em right down to the living room and show ’em off. See, no one in the South ever asks if you have crazy people in your family. They just ask what side they’re on.”

~Julia Sugarbaker

 

I’m not saying my family is “crazy,” but let’s just say whenever two or more of us are gathered, things happen.  Whether we are the clinical kind of crazy as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, has yet to be determined.

One thing I can say for sure is when the Brown side of the family gets together, a good time is almost always guaranteed.  After all, having fun and making memories is what it’s all about. I believe we should all live our lives like an acquaintance of mine who said she was once arrested at Disney World for “havin’ more fun than the law will allow.”

My family is known for taking “memorable” vacations.  By memorable, I mean trips which led to great destinations, but always at some sort of price, catastrophe or mishap. Growing up, I accepted the fact that we would never take a “normal” trip.

I had no idea, however, that I had inherited the “calamitous vacation gene.”  Case in point.  When the boys were younger, we decided at the spur of the moment to take a weekend trip to “Magic Springs” in Hot Springs, Arkansas.  Magic Springs was an amusement park for younger kids, and my brother had taken his daughter the year before and had a blast.

Back in the era of planning this vacation you couldn’t research every little thing on the “interweb” so I called information and the operator connected me to Magic Springs.  The line was busy so I tried again.  After thirty minutes of a busy signal, I finally gave up, thinking this place must really be magical, and we decided to iron out the details of the trip as we went along.  We were winging it, so to speak. That would be our first mistake.

With great anticipation of our fun and spontaneous excursion, we loaded the boys into the minivan, with mounds of luggage, toys, and snacks, and headed for Arkansas. After what seemed a hundred hours in the car, we arrived in Hot Springs and drove directly to our destination of Magic Springs.

Our arrival was in the middle of the day and the boys’ excitement level was off the charts!  We drove through Hot Springs, and finally came upon the exit sign for Magic Springs.  We eagerly veered off the interstate, looped around under the overpass, and cheered and shouted when we saw a sign pointing us in the direction of the amusement park.

When we turned onto the street, one of the boys shouted with glee, “Look, there it is!”  As we approached the yellow gate which would lead us into the park, the excitement level plummeted and we stared ahead in disbelief. The main gate to Magic Springs was bolted shut with a huge chain and lock.  As we further examined the situation, we noticed weeds growing wildly along the side of the road, and none of the park rides were moving.  It was as if we were visitors in the land where time stood still.

We’ve all seen National Lampoon’s movie “Vacation” and remember that moment when the Griswalds pulled up to Walley World, after their disastrous drive across the country, only to find it was closed. But when this happens in real life, there is nothing funny about it. Personally experiencing this moment was far more devastating than anything that ever happened in that movie, including strapping Aunt Edna’s lifeless body on top of the Family Truckster.

As for me, I could take or leave the idea of spending a day at an amusement park, but when I witnessed the disappointed look on the boys’ faces, I completely and thoroughly understood Clark Griswald’s epic meltdown—taking Russ Lansky, park security guard, at gunpoint (with a BB gun) and demanding to see Roy Walley, the owner of Walley World:

 

Clark Griswald: Roy… can I call you Roy? Have you even driven cross-country?

Roy Walley: Oh, hell yes. Drove the whole family to Florida. Worst two weeks I ever spent in my life. The smell from the back seat was terrible.

Clark Griswald: Ooooh. Ooooh, I know that smell. Roy, could you imagine if you had driven all the way to Florida and it was closed?

Roy Walley: Closed? Uh, they don’t close Florida.

I had become the Clark Griswald of moms.  Fortunately, we weren’t “packing any heat” in the car, so holding someone at gunpoint with a BB gun was not an option.  Besides, there was not a soul to be found in the sadly vacated and eerily empty amusement park known as Magic Springs. Most important of all, I wasn’t particularly fond of the idea of making the 6:00 news and looked too distraught to take a decent mug-shot photo.  I’m fortunate that orange is not on my color wheel. That fact alone has kept me on the straight and narrow, and at this moment that color was the only thing keeping me from doing something which might result in time in the slammer.

It was a small consolation, but in an effort to remedy the situation, we slowly slinked away from the deserted amusement park and found a spectacular miniature golf park. We convinced the children that this was the best putt-putt course in America, if not the entire free world.

We also made a stop in Hope, Arkansas and toured Bill Clinton’s childhood home.  The highlight of the entire “Trip to Nowhere” was when our backs were turned and Charles speedily and sneakily crossed under the velvet rope divider in the childhood home of our 42nd president, sat in Bill’s childhood rocking chair, and declared, “Hey! Look at me! I’m Bill Clinton,” as he rocked back and forth.  The few people who were there gave that judgmental glare that said without words, “Can’t you do something with your children?” We left rather quickly after that.

Maybe I’ve given too much information, but I believe it is necessary in order to prove the thesis that we are dysfunctional travelers and just plain bad trip-takers.  I now bring you to the Year of Our Lord, 1997.  Christopher was seven and Charles was four. The month is August, school had just begun, and Labor Day Weekend was upon us.

This wasn’t going to be a “normal” Labor Day by any means.  We would be traveling on Saturday morning, after the Friday night football game, to my grandparents’ house in Gonzales, Texas.  For all of you Texans who don’t know where Gonzales is, shame on you, and if you’re not a Texan, well shame on you for that (just kidding).

If you paid attention at all in seventh grade Texas history rather than sleeping through it, you should have an idea of the role the town of Gonzales played in our fight against Mexico.  Quick review:  In October of 1835, the Battle of Gonzales officially began the Texas Revolution, and the famous “Come and Take It” flag was unfurled as a symbol of defiance against the Mexican government.

I am somewhat of an authority on this part of history because my grandfather used to load all the grandchildren up in the back of his white Chevrolet pickup truck and take us on a tour of historical markers and monuments which were scattered all around the town of Gonzales, the main one being “The Come and Take It Museum.”

It is important that you know my brother, Greg, or “Gregger” as called by my “Papa,” was the only grandson and the oldest grandchild.  I’m really not sure what this says about any of us, but whenever we piled out of the back of the truck and traipsed up to the historical markers/monuments, Papa would always say, without fail, “Gregger, will you please read this to us?”  And then the rest of the grandchildren (my cousins Dee Dee and Noelle, and I), were instructed to listen as my brother, the official reader, “enthusiastically” shared the information, adding both emphasis and emotion.

I’m not sure what that was called “back in the day,” but in this day and time it’s affectionately known as being a “suck up.”  The grand-daughters were never called upon to read.  It was left entirely to my brother to spread his literacy and impressive reading ability as a shining example for the rest of us poor, unassuming females.

But I digress…

The purpose of our trek down to Gonzales was the occasion of my Papa’s ninetieth birthday.  The trip was around six hours and there weren’t many fun or interesting places to stop along the way.  However, about forty-five miles outside of Gonzales we discovered an Exotic Animal Park and we decided that would be a fun way to break up the monotony of being stuck in the car all day. This once again proved our ability to “wing it,” and be spontaneous.

It was one of those drive-thru parks, without a guide which was right up our alley. As we began weaving our way through the “wild life” it didn’t take long to realize we could see many of these animals at home on the side of the road, or for those unfortunate ones who didn’t make it, the middle of the road. (I guess when you live in East Texas and goats, pigs, and armadillos are a dime a dozen, paying to see them isn’t that thrilling).

The front seat windows were down, and the children were up there with us (we had a mini-van, and that meant their windows didn’t open).  We were all crammed together when we suddenly heard a scratching noise. As we slowly came to a complete stop, we realized that several goats were scratching the side of our van.  I was looking to the left, with my back to the passenger window, and when I turned around, I was face to face with an extremely ugly and extremely angry emu who had craned his neck into the car.

I screamed and the emu hissed and spat at me.  I thought I was going to die!  Never in my life have I smelled such a noxious odor.   It was horrendous, and the worst part about it was I had emu spit on me which meant the fumes would linger.  UGH!  The boys thought this was hysterical and it was then, with my encouragement, we all agreed we had experienced the maximum amount of fun that was to be had with these “exotic” animals and happily peeled out of the park, leaving behind the emus and goats chasing our van and eating our dust.

Papa’s birthday celebration was scheduled for Sunday.  Since so many family members would be in attendance, we were being shuttled off to the Best Western Motel.  I was excited about visiting the many relatives I rarely got to spend time with, and was especially anxious for them to see the boys and how much they had grown.  My father died five years earlier, so it was always a bittersweet experience seeing everyone while experiencing such a lonesome feeling, even in a fully packed room.

When we arrived at Nana and Papa’s house, we made the rounds, introducing the boys to people they may not remember.  We then went to the special closet in the den, and pulled out all of the old puzzles and games that I used to play when I was their age.  The adults visited while the boys played, and around 9:00, we were ready to go to the motel so we would be refreshed the next day for Papa’s party.

After a quick trip to the Walmart, where the boys got large cherry Icees and we picked up a few things, we were settled in for a night in the Best Western in Gonzales, Texas.  Fast forward nine hours…

The wake-up call came much too early, but I knew we were on a time table and in order for all of us to be ready I had to be the one to get up first.  I stumbled over pairs of athletic shoes and clothes that had been thrown on the floor, fumbled for the light switch and groggily walked toward the bathroom.  What I saw next completely stopped me in my tracks and took my breath away.

The boys were sharing a double bed, and what looked like a sea of blood was covering them and the once white sheets of the Best Western Motel of Gonzales.  My heart skipped several beats and I screamed out for my husband.  I gasped, not understanding at all what I was seeing and what my mind was telling me, but slowly, as my vision became clearer, the spectacle began to make a little more sense.

What originally looked like a murder scene was actually a setting that would definitely eliminate me from being nominated and/or winning the coveted title of “Mother of the Year.”  The blood was not blood at all, but rather Wild Cherry Icee, which not only was covering my boys’ angelic faces, but had also soaked through the sheets onto the mattress.  I looked for the source of the liquid, and couldn’t help but laugh when I traced it to its origin.  The large Icee cup was conveniently and methodically propped up on Charles’ left shoulder, and it looked as if the straw was in the perfect position and angle for him to take a sip during the night, if he was moved to do so.

A red cherry Icee stained mustache surrounded his mouth and chin in perfect Fu Manchu fashion.  The Icee river had spread completely across the bed so not only were Charles’ pajamas victimized, but Christopher’s were as well.  As Brian and I stood there looking at a scene that would excite most criminalists in a CSI lab, we were speechless.

I wasn’t in the mood to have to pay for damages in the room, so after waking the boys, we went into clean up mode, and put our best foot forward in trying to put the room back together. (The need to do so derives from the mantra I grew up with, “Always leave a place better than you found it.”)

Challenge accepted.

We stripped the sheets off the bed, and Brian took them to the Laundromat which was around the corner.  I put the boys in the bathtub and instructed them to start scrubbing.

My job was the mattress.  I put a dab of motel shampoo on a rag and began the process of de-Iceefying the bedding.  While I was madly rubbing the damp washcloth against the linens, I kept hearing Lady Macbeth screaming, “Out, out damned spot.”

The Icee remains were actually still damp, so I was able to get most of the stains out.  I then propped the mattress up against the air conditioner on the wall to dry it out, and hoped for the best.

Brian returned with the sheets, which probably looked better than they had previously.  We flipped the mattress, put on the bedding, dressed ourselves and were on our way to Papa’s party, a little worse for wear, knowing that although we would never have this parenting thing figured out, we were quite impressed with our ability to jump into action and clean up a mess of crime scene proportions.  I’m not sure this is an ability we should strive to possess, but it’s nice to know we have the skills if ever necessary.

When we arrived at Nana and Papa’s, the house was already filled with family and friends.  My great uncle Charles, who was known as “Chili” and his wife Florence were there, along with their sons, who epitomized Texas businessmen, embracing the cowboy spirit.  They generally always wore suits, cowboy boots and cowboy hats, and drove big Cadillacs and trucks, mainly so they could fit into them with their tall bodies and even taller Stetsons.

As we entered the room, I heard my aunt Beverly stoically say, “Poor Diana.  She lived such a tragic life.”  Everyone in the room was in agreement, as other comments were added about her less-than-fairytale-like existence.

I had no idea what was going on, and blurted out, “What happened?”  All at once, everyone in the room turned toward me, their eyes widened and their mouths gaping open in disbelief.

My Aunt Beverly asked, “Haven’t you heard?” and before I could answer with an explanation of our morning of insanity, my ninety year old grandfather said with the straightest face, “Di died.”

I was in complete shock, both at the news and the way it was presented.  My cousin Noelle looked at me and whispered under her breath, “In most circles that would be considered politically incorrect.”

Sadness washed over me as I tried to absorb the news.  Princess Diana was one of the leading role models for women of my generation.  Her natural beauty, style and grace along with her heart and compassion for those less fortunate made her someone worthy of admiration.  I remember getting up with my mother before the crack of dawn in 1981, to watch the Royal Wedding.  And now, “like a candle in the wind,” she was gone. While we had been in our own world, busily scrubbing and scouring stains off bed sheets and children, the world outside the Best Western had gone on without us, making the earlier concerns of our lives seem very insignificant.

In spite of this tragedy, the festivities continued as we celebrated the life of Papa, and we ate and laughed and shared stories of days gone by.  Several times during the day, we ventured into the laundry room and stopped the washing machine that my grandmother kept starting.  After further examination, we discovered there were no clothes in the washing machine, but Nana kept going back to it. She was extremely agitated because “someone kept stopping it in the middle of its cycle.”  It was on my grandfather’s ninetieth birthday that we realized Nana’s memory was beginning to fade.

At one point while we were in the laundry room, Papa, Uncle Chili and the rest of the Beaver men came through and opened the gun cabinet.  They each grabbed a gun and headed outside.  I had no idea what was going on, and wondered if they had recently joined a geriatric gang, or maybe they had formed a militia and were going to “hole up” somewhere and refuse to pay taxes.  I have to say it was one of those moments where I just had to shake my head in disbelief and think to myself, “What the heck?”  They really had taken the “Come and Take It” spirit to a new level.

I later discovered that my grandfather was giving his gun collection to the next generation and they were putting the guns in their trucks and Cadillacs.  It’s a good thing that none of the neighbors saw this stockpiling of weapons during the ninetieth birthday celebration.  They might have thought we were crazy.

The time finally came for us to say our goodbyes and make our journey home. The party was over, but the memories we made would last a lifetime.

Looking back on that Labor Day weekend always makes me smile and to this day, whenever I think of Princess Diana, I think of a mismatched collection and ensemble of people and things:  I remember Nana and Papa, emus and Icees, Laundromats, and washing machines being turned on and off.   I remember guns and birthday cake, family and togetherness and laughter and love.

And after I think of all those things, I always take a moment to remind myself of how happy and thankful and blessed I am that I was lucky enough to inherit the Brown’s “calamitous vacation gene.”

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