We were not vacation people. In my photo album there are a few black and white shots of somewhere called Christmas Park, and a year later more from Lollypop Farm. Both were amusement parks in western New York that did not require Dad to drive very far. In my first eighteen years of life, I can remember only three road trips, and two of those were disasters. There was the grand tour of Gettysburg, Washington, DC, and Williamsburg. Dad did not want to mess with any sort of guided tour of the battlefield, so I have a hazy recollection of standing in a large field. I was glad to be out of the car, but it was just a field. When we got to Washington, Dad attempted to drive around to see the sites. Again, he opted for the do-it-himself mode of vacationing. Washington gridlock, and L’Enfant’s evil diagonal avenues defeated him. We never got out of the car. When he untangled himself from the city, we simply drove away. I have a clear memory of being very, very quiet because Dad was so angry. I think everything must have gone better in Williamsburg simply because I do not remember it at all.
The other two road trips have a shared theme: taking the family to places where Dad built incinerators. If there is a rule about places that need incinerators it is probably that they are not also good vacation destinations. Perhaps this is because in the 1970s incinerators were often being built at landfills. Mom and I did a solo trip to visit Dad on location in Virginia. We travelled past miles of paper mills spewing sour, car-sick-inducing fumes. Then we spent a week living with dad in a motel room, while he went to work each day. We were on vacation, Hannigan-style, which basically seemed to mean that while we did not need to do housework, we also could not do much of anything else.
When my sisters and I were teenagers, Dad once again decided it was time to hit the road. He felt that it would be good to show us his latest job site, and this one had potential. He was working in Welfleet, MA, along the narrow neck of vacation paradise known as Cape Cod. I had never seen the ocean or walked on a beach, and neither had my older sisters. My Dad had been working on and off at the landfill over the past year, so he also knew that in-season prices were much higher on the Cape than preseason ones. So his plan: go over Easter break, when all of us were out of school. Easter came early that year, grim and cold and wet. Add to this three moody teenaged girls, over ten hours of driving, and someone having to ride in the middle of the back seat. We stumbled out of the car into the maw of a northeaster, sleety rain blowing sideways. I was in such a stubborn funk of 13-year-old gloom that nothing could penetrate. We staggered up over the swell of the dunes and saw the sullen dark Atlantic. But that sight was proof of the power and fury of a full-blown sulk. I stood in the presence of greatness and saw nothing. Easter breaks were not long, so two days later we drove back to western New York, and never vacationed on the road again.
But you cannot keep a man from dreaming. For my Dad, a good vacation did not involve a car at all. It involved a lake. And it did not involve meeting new people and learning about exotic locations. It meant having a guy named Louie living just down the lake a bit, a guy you worked with and even travelled with to all those landfills scattered around the country. The lake should be a small one, and there needed to be a row boat for fishing, and a dock for the kids to jump off. He did not worry too much about what the cabin looked like, or if Mom was going to enjoy all the cleaning and cooking that a vacation at a lake would entail. His cohort, Louie Wheeler had a place on Demmon Pond, and so for two years the Hannigan clan became Lake People.
Like my dad, I love lakes. There is something comforting about the constant lap of water against the shore, the grumbling of the docks, and the light breeze that lifts hair off hot, sweaty faces. Bored kids can spend time just looking at a lake, if need be, and see things worth seeing. A lake is malleable. You can poke it with sticks, digging deeply into the muck to uncover all kinds of creatures. You can lob big rocks in it, or try to skip the flat ones across it. You can build little rafts of woven grass to set bouquets of dandelions adrift. And no matter what you do to it, the next morning the lake will have undone everything. Nothing is new since the ice-age at Demmon Pond, and yet each day the lake stretched out before our toes as virgin territory to be explored.
The cabin was dark, heavily paneled, with an awful scratchy plaid sofa. My Mom arrived with enough cleaning supplies to conquer the slums of Bombay. I am sure that we helped her some, but before long she kicked us out, with orders to go play until she called. Carol Wheeler and her two brothers lived just down the shoreline from our cabin. They spent every summer at the lake, so they took pity on our lack of important lake knowledge. The first lesson (and the only one I remember now) regarded Clem. Clem, a massive basset hound, loved children with his entire smelly soul. When a child walked out a cabin door, I believe that the small hairs in Clem’s nose started to vibrate. When the child walked down to the edge of the water, Clem’s legs began to move until he had accelerated to a full gallop. Nothing could stop him. Clem had no brakes. So the first important rule the Wheeler kids imparted was this: Run into the water and get out deep enough to make Clem float. If you did not go deep enough, this drooling puddle of a dog would knock you flat on your ass, and love you beyond endurance.
Even during our lake holidays, Dad never really stopped working. He took a couple of days off, but mostly travelled back and forth with Louie to work at the plant in Wellsville. When he did relax at the lake, he went fishing. One memorable day my sister, Cheri, and I went with him. Two sun-browned girls out for a day with their Dad. What could go wrong? By this point, I had learned that I did not take walks in the woods with my Dad, because a shotgun always came along for the journey. I loved the furry and feathered creatures that my Dad saw as pests and/or dinner. But I was not overly fond of fish, particularly when they brushed against my legs when I was swimming. So I could go fishing with Dad with no fear of tears.
But that day the fish weren’t biting. Bobbers rocked with the waves, but didn’t jump with any fish nibbles. It looked like there wouldn’t be fish for dinner, and that disappointment weighed heavy with my Dad.
Until he had an idea. He rowed the boat over into a weedy, shallow area of the lake. The water was murky there, full of green fronds, and some flat lily pads. This was where all the insects lived as well: mosquitos, gnats, water skaters, little green flies, and big hairy black flies. Cheri and I were smacking bugs off each other, and beginning to whine. But the man who had challenged Washington traffic paid us little attention. He stared at the water and reached for his net. Quick as can be, the net slipped through the water and caught a frog. It is important to note that while I did not love fish, I did love frogs. Children learn all about frogs, from pollywog to tadpole and beyond every year in science class. Even the names of the frog life stages are cute, cuddly words. I did not know until that day that frogs could be food.
My father, always the outdoorsman, masterfully killed a host of frogs that day, slicing their legs off and tossing the remaining bodies back into the lake to feed the bottom dwellers. The legs went into the fish pail. He did not stop until he had enough for dinner, and then cheerfully rowed back to our dock. I do not remember if we screamed, or cried, or yelled at him. I remember looking away, focusing on points on the shore, birds in trees, anything other than the water and the bottom of the boat. Always the optimist, my Dad told us that we would enjoy eating the frog’s legs, and then he showed us how they “jump” when salt hits the flesh. He ate his dinner with relish; I did not touch the frog’s legs. Mom made an exception from the “you eat what is in front of you” dinner rule. I probably had a peanut butter sandwich. And I never went fishing with Dad again.
Vacation people know how to go to strange places with a graceful acceptance that they are not at home anymore. Vacation people try new cuisines, and dare themselves to step outside of comfort zones. We Hannigans could not help but drag our home behind us whenever we attempted to explore the world. My Mom always found herself cleaning strange rooms. My sisters and I took our own street gang with us, and spent every day fighting the same battles that raged on Highland Avenue. And my Dad, who loved us with all his heart, never stopped working. When he took us somewhere, what he wanted most was to show us the things he already knew, to explain himself to these little girls he could not understand. Our travels mapped out Dad’s singular perspective, pulling the horizons close to home. No, we were not vacation people.