Pool Time, Part II

As I bobbed around in the pool with my grinning, water wing wearing bundle of energy, I resolved to see what could be done about a cold adult beverage at dinnertime and continued to listen with great delight to the peals of genuine laughter that Short Stack was making as we frolicked in the water. We kept this up for quite some time until finally, pruny, happy but exhausted, I had to call it quits on our time in the water. Naturally, it took some time and convincing to get my son on the same page as well. He’s a master of the delay tactic and being in the pool and slippery just made him that much harder to corral. We needed food and a rest now. We’d both sleep well tonight.

Padding back to the room, I let Short Stack run ahead and just enjoyed watching his little bouncy form as he trotted down the long, straight hall toward the elevators. He was still going strong and could have gone on playing for an hour more, easily, but time was starting to run short now. The realization that it was important not to squander the few hours that we had set aside for sleeping kept me focused. The simple act of moving with purpose again, waking up my sluggish brain and getting me back in mission mode. At the room we quickly showered up, dried off and dug through the suitcase to see what we could wear. I had packed for myself and knew what I wanted. My wife had packed for our son though, so it was a little work to see what I had available for my resident bed bouncer.

He hurtled over the two foot gap from one bed to another and then back again, enjoying the freedom of movement while I used the time to find what I needed in our luggage.

Bounce, bounce, bounce! “I’m hungry!”

“I’m working on it, Buddy.” I rooted around in an effort to find pants.

“The pool was great! Can we go again after dinner?” Bounce, bounce, bounce. We already had covered this ground before and to his slight dismay, the answer was still ‘no.’ He must have figured that it was worth a try.

After what seemed far too long, I found what I needed in the neat piles of clothing. Cramming the extras back into the approximate locations I had found them in, I motioned my son over. When that failed to get his attention over the bouncing, I called to him nicely. When that failed, I decided to tackle him to the bed and with much hooting and giggling, I started buttoning him into this evening’s attire.

“Perfect!” I said through my own grinning smile. ”Nothing says, ‘I’m on vacation’ quite like Hawaiian shirts and camo shorts! Now hold still you little jumping bean!!”

Wrestling him as he squealed with glee, I managed to stuff the wriggling, laughing mass of four year old into his clothes and eventually got him ready. The hotel was supposed to have a restaurant downstairs and I intended to stay on premises if at all possible. With my energies starting to run low and Short Stack’s due to ebb any moment now, I wanted to make this as simple and painless as possible. The two of us wandered around the ground floor for a bit, looking for our goal and listening for the clink of plates and silverware. After a few minutes, I gave up and asked the front desk about dinner. It was the same nice lady who had checked us in an hour and a half ago.

“Oh, well we don’t have a dining room per se, but we do have the bar. It’s right here!” With a sweep of her hand, she motioned around the corner of the check-in desk where, indeed, it had been fitted out with bar stools. Talk about your all in one service! “Here are some menus” And with that, she handed them to me and then left us to look them over while she checked in another couple just a few feet away.

For the set up, the menu was surprisingly complete and held exactly what you’d expect for bar fare. Though I was at first a tad taken aback at this setup, I quickly realized that this would be just fine for our needs. I helped Short Stack up to his very own stool and once he discovered that it spun, immediately put it through its paces. We looked perfect for the part we were playing, loud shirts draped over our pale frames and we both were happy with the way things were turning out. Short Stack was mostly happy with spinning his stool as he revolved around and around, slowed only by my hand in the concern that he might get dizzy and fall off. Glancing through the menu, I decided on two personal sized pepperoni pizzas to go, figuring that though they were probably of the microwaved variety, it gave me the best shot of getting some sort of dinner into my spectacularly hard to feed son. That decided, I then looked intently at the beer list. It had been a long day and a hard push and it was almost over.

Pretty much every evening when I’m home, I celebrate the close the day with a good, cool beer and it’s become almost a ritual for me. I don’t drink much, and having been cursed with the most amazing ability to extract the most fierce hangovers from the smallest quantities of alcohol, I rarely have more than just the one, but I’d be lying if I said that the notion of continuing my tradition this evening hadn’t been in the forefront of my mind for quite some time now.

I looked at the beer list and scanned the names.

Hmmmm.

Then I started thinking about later tonight.

In less than an hour, I was going to lie down next to my young son who may or may not actually close his eyes and nod off. In reality, even if we both did manage to, it would be more nap than real sleep. I’d be getting us up an hour before midnight, repacking the car, then driving for an hour or better on unfamiliar roads and THEN would have to get us in through the gate and set up at the Kennedy Space Center. I’d need to be on my game and what I needed, regardless of what I WANTED, was something that was non-alcoholic and non-caffeinated. I needed to be good.

Booooo!

I looked away from the tempting list of frosty delight and back up at the concierge/front desk manager/waitress/bar tender whom had returned, smiling, to take our order.

“Two, small pepperoni pizzas and… how about two orange juices. Large please.”

With an inaudible sigh that rattled around in my head for a second or two, lamenting the lack of my evening drink, I placed the menu down as my son decided to abandon his stool for the comfort of my lap. Like every establishment in Florida I’ve ever been in, the air conditioning had been cranked to polar temperatures and our jaunty shirts and tropical shorts didn’t offer us much protection from the incongruous chill. I’ve always found this remarkable when I encounter it, but it always seems to be the case. One doesn’t really think of needing to pack a sweater when traveling to the tropics but I often feel like I need one when I venture inside. I never remember this until it’s too late and I’m covered in goose bumps. Now Short Stack was discovering this too. I hugged his warm body to mine and we chatted quietly as we waited for the food to appear.

In the end, getting our dinner took way longer than anticipated, especially for two microwaved dinners and as my little traveling companion started to fall asleep in my lap, I was getting more and more ticked off at the wait. We should be sleeping by now! With the food’s arrival, I quickly paid for it, scooped up both dinner and my son and headed for the elevators. When, sitting on our miniature couch back in the room I opened the takeout style boxes, I was surprised to discover the reason. The pizzas had been hand made and baked in a pizza oven. They were delicious!

Concierge/Front Desk Manager/Waitress/Bar Tender/Pizza Chef!

That girl was good!

By the time we were fed and ready for bed, it was later than I’d hoped, but still, not too bad. We’d get a good, solid three and a half to four hours before we needed to be on the road. I pulled out traveling clothes for later, laid them out so that I could jump into them with a minimum of consciousness needed, repacked the rest and got things set so we could zip out the door as fast as possible. Short Stack was moving much slower now, the efforts of the day finally showing on him. As I tucked him into one of the massive queen sized beds, I looked down with a smile as he instinctively curled up into a tiny ball. He looked like such a peanut, dwarfed by a mountain of pillows and lost under unfamiliar sheets and blankets. He was yawning continuously but the questions never stopped.

“What will we see there?”

“When will we get there?”

“They won’t launch the Shuttle without us, will they?”

“Are the astronauts going to sleep now too?”

It was time for me to go to sleep as well and I glanced at the second, still made bed just a couple of feet away where I had expected to catch what rest I could. Then I looked back at my little boy. His voice came small and groggily from beneath the sea of bedding.

“Daddy, I’m cold”

With a glance and a last thought about having my own space tonight, I turned my back on it, gently pulled back the covers of his bed, crawled in and joined him. Still in a ball, he scrunched himself into my chest and rested his head on my arm.

“G’nite, Daddy.”

“Good night, buddy. I love you.”

“Love you too.”

In seconds, he was out cold. As I drifted off myself, I thought of the astronauts who were getting ready at that very moment. The thrill that they must be living and the excitement of knowing that soon, they would be in space. The ride of a lifetime! But as I listened to my son’s quiet breathing and my nose was tickled by his mop of hair, I realized that right then, I wouldn’t trade places with any of them. This was heaven and into it, I gently slipped away as well.

Time to sleep.

Away We Go… Part I

The night before our own personal launch, I scurried around trying to find all the last little bits and pieces that we might want on our trip. I knew that I had all the essential gear packed up, so now I was down to the silly stuff. This is the moment where my dear and lovely wife and I often split ways when it comes to packing. The way it goes, I grab something, usually on a whim, that I think would be fun or humorous to bring along. Next, I get spotted by her as I try unsuccessfully to sneak it into a bag without being noticed.

“Why are you bringing that? We won’t need it. It just adds weight.” This is often accompanied by a look that conveys exactly what she thinks of my decision making abilities. Excuses are rarely given by me since, as the male half of this relationship, it’s rarely worth making a case. I take whatever it is out, let her leave the room, entertain thoughts of putting it back and then think better of it. The kicker is that she’s almost always right about this. I don’t like to admit that last part.

This time though, I was sneaky. Well, sneakier than usual anyway.

In a flash of juvenile inspiration, I quietly slipped into the room of my slumbering little boy, grabbed what I wanted and stuffed it into my shirt pocket. Once I was back down stairs, I packed it quickly away into the confines of my own carry-on. I was not spotted. Phew!

Now, I had everything!

Our flight was for eleven-thirty in the morning and, air travel being what it is today, I was determined to be early. Very, very early, if at all possible. I don’t trust that anything will work smoothly when it comes to airports. When it does, it seems to be a notable event. When we stepped out of the car and gathered our bags, we had three hours. Good for problem solving in the event of difficulties. Not so good if you’re a bored four year old. Well, at least we could take our time checking in. With a last minute pep talk to my son about how important it was to stay close to me, we headed to check in.

Let’s be honest here. You expect flying to be hideous these days. You expect humorless and possibly clueless TSA agents to make your life hell by questioning if your electric toothbrush is an incendiary device. You know that the airlines will charge you a zillion hidden fees you never thought they’d have the audacity to hit you with. You know that since you can no longer bring any drinks and many foods through security that the vendors at the gates will hose you for every penny you have for that yoghurt and bottle of spring water. This was my expectation as well, and that’s why I was so surprised with the two women manning the check-in desk.

“Welcome to JetBlue! Are you guys going off on an adventure?” Either this was said with a genuine smile and perky attitude or she was angling for an Oscar nomination. Either way, it was mighty disarming.

“Uh, yah. We are actually. We’re going to Florida.” This is when the other ticket agent, currently not burdened with any other customers, chimed in.

“Is this your first flight?” The question seemed a bit odd until I realized that it was not intended for me, but the little red headed boy clinging to my leg. A few nods were all she got in return of her question. I smiled at her and spoke for my son who was busy pretending that he was shy.

“Yah, it’s his first time in a jet. We’re going to go watch a Shuttle launch. Just the two of us.”

“Oh, a father and son trip? That’s great! Do you think he’d like a snack for the trip?”

We did, in fact, have several cartloads of snacks with us, but never being one to pass on a free item, I said that it would be much appreciated. As one of the women continued to check us in, the other went out back and returned with a package of animal crackers for Short Stack.

That was nice!

“Now, do you have any liquids or jells in your carry on?” This was the part I wasn’t sure about. I used to fly quite a bit, but it had been a while now. The last flight I had taken, Action Girl and I had packed a full picnic lunch for ourselves and walked right through security with it, no trouble at all.

“Well, I do have two juice boxes for my son. Is that all right?” Grimaces are never a good sign.

“Nope. You can’t do that, I’m afraid. That and anything smearable.”

“Smearable? What do you mean?”

With an exasperated look that I understood to be aimed at the regulations rather than the clueless traveler (me), she ran through some examples of the more ludicrous kind.

“No puddings or toothpastes. No hair gel or lotions. Bananas might or might not be allowed and it’s only happened once that I know of, but I did hear about a child not being able to bring a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It’s pretty…” She picked her words carefully and diplomatically. “…inconvenient sometimes.”

“Are you serious? A sandwich and a banana?” I must have looked horrified and/or pathetic, because both ladies jumped in to help.

“First, let’s pack up your juice boxes in your luggage. That way you can have them in Florida and not lose them here. I’ve got some plastic bags and we’ll triple them up so they won’t leak if they puncture.” As I unzipped my backpack to pull them out, she offered more assistance. “Next, since I can see you have a couple of bananas, I’d suggest that you carry them in your hand so as to make it obvious what they are and that you’re not trying to hide them. I’m betting that you’ll walk right through with no trouble today.”

As we repacked our suitcase, I made a comment as to how things have changed. That brought a rueful chuckle from both of them.

“Oh yah. They sure have. “ It was the animal cracker lady. “I used to be a flight attendant for years. It’s nothing like it used to be. We used to have a LOT more fun.”

I was dying to find out what kind of fun, since I was pretty sure, judging by the mirth in her eyes, that the stories were pretty good, but we were all set now and Short Stack was out of crackers and getting pretty bored with adult talk. It was time to go. The last thing she asked me was, “ Did you lock it?” which, in turn, made me chuckle.

“No. It’s not locked.”

“Good. Have a great flight!”

I remember a day when that question from check-in was looking for a totally different answer.

As we strolled to our gate, we encountered our first trial. The TSA check. This was something I had been wondering about. How was I going to work this? It’s a pain for adults to do solo, let alone with a munchkin who was new to this. In the next five minutes I managed to heartstoppingly lose my tickets, momentarily, into a pocket I didn’t think I had placed them, forget my very smearable, possibly explosive bananas and freshly validated tickets on the TSA officer’s desk, misplace my computer in the wrong little grey tub and then almost let Short Stack feed himself through the x-ray scanner in pursuit of his back pack, while I fumbled with my own belongings.

Not an auspicious start. I needed to get on my game. We were still in Maine and I could feel things starting to slip out of control.

As I retrieved my child from the edge of the conveyor belt and then sheepishly accepted my lost boarding passes and fruit from the smirking TSA agent, I decided I needed to focus. If I was already having this many problems, this early in the game, it was time to really knuckle down and pay attention. No more screwups!

Please?

To get to our gate, I plopped him into the lightweight stroller I had decided to bring. I could make far better time that way and I knew where he was. It was not, however, all that interesting for him. We were in a huge, new place and here he was getting whisked along with no chance to run around like a maniac and talk to people. I did my best to pique his interest as we passed various little, “Look what we make here in Maine!” displays. As we came to each one, we talked about what they had inside; jewelry, maple products, LL Bean. All the stuff you’d expect from our state. The last one however, caught me off guard.

In a little glass cube was the green flight suit of military cut. The accompanying pictures showed the wearer and others similarly attired floating in mid-air and grinning like kids on a playground. The picture was taken several thousand feet high as the occupants bounced around, weightless, in the empty passenger area of a Macdonald-Douglas C-9 Skytrain II, or as it’s more popularly known:

The Vomit Comet.

Nicknames are usually based on some kind of fact and the Vomit Comet has a long and, ahem, colorful history. Its origin harkens back to the Mercury Program when NASA needed a way to train astronauts how to work in micro gravity. Here, in the confines of our little blue-green planet, there are only two ways to go about this. The first is to float the astronaut, suit and all, in a huge tank of water. Once they have been perfectly weighted down to achieve neutral buoyancy, they could potter around and pretend to fix satellites.

NASA does in fact do just this and it’s good training, but as anyone who has gone scuba diving can tell you, it has its limitations. It works great for learning to use the space suits, but what about inside the Shuttle, Space Station or any other place where you’d just be in your normal clothes? How do you prepare your self for that? That’s where the big padded airplane came in.

The idea is that twenty people go for a ride on a specially fitted jet. This jet takes them up to a sufficiently high altitude in a surprisingly steep climb, levels out… and then the floor drops away beneath their feet. As the pilot puts the aircraft into its dive, he balances things out very carefully. Too steep and everyone will be plastered to the ceiling. Too shallow and they’ll feel light, but still remain on the floor. At the perfect spot in between, everyone seems to float. I say, “seems” because what’s really happening is that they are falling at the same rate as the jet. You can’t eliminate gravity here on earth, so all you can do is fall in a room that is also falling. The result is the illusion of weightlessness. This sensation lasts for about twenty-five seconds. Then, the plane pulls back up into its climb in the effort to regain some of that lost altitude. Once gained, it’s back down and floating time. This goes on for two to three hours. As you can expect, it can do funny things to your stomach.

The breakdown for the passengers is something like, a third are fine, another third feels ill and the last third gets ill. Actually, they term it “violently” ill.

Still sound fun?

The real twist in the panties is that no matter how hideous a time you might be having, this ride does not end early for your pathetic sake. You just have to ride it out. The logic goes that it’s better to find out here on Earth that you aren’t cut out for space travel rather than getting into orbit and filling every available barf bag on the Space Station. Remember, the you can’t open a window up there. It’s all recirculated. Breath deep, now.

I pointed this out to Short Stack and showed him the pictures of the non-puking, happy looking riders obviously having a great time and doing their best to make a good publicity photo.

“Are those people astronauts? Are they in space?”

“They’re learning to be astronauts, but no, they aren’t in space. That’s a special jet they are riding in.” I knew what the next question would be was.

“Will we do that?” Short Stack didn’t appear too worried or impressed for that matter. He was asking merely for information. He loves information.

“Ah, no. We will be sitting in seats. Not floating around.”

“Oh. Okay.”

At first I was wondering if he was disappointed, but then I realized that his lack of enthusiasm wasn’t disappointment, it was disinterest. The jet ride was his first and as such, was notable and possibly even looked forward to, but it wasn’t a rocket, and if it wasn’t a rocket, it merited only a passing “Oh. Okay.”

Nothing personal. Just not exciting.

At least, not in his book.

That moment was coming fast.

Flightmares

When looking to book a flight for you and your four year old, I realize now there is really only one thing to consider. Simplicity.

I am no stranger to airports. I have seen them all over the world. I have eaten from their various sketchy vending machines; I have waited in smoke choked departure gates for hours on end. I have even, once, hallucinated at one due to nothing more than a toxic combination of sleep deprivation, lack of food and extensive physical exhaustion. That time was memorable.

Many years ago, my family and I were returning to the East Coast after a wonderful vacation in Hawaii. I love Hawaii and have visited many times in my life and hope to go again someday. The visits, however enjoyed, need to be spaced sufficiently far apart from each other for me to mostly forget the nightmare that it is just getting there and back. On this particular trip, we had departed the beautiful Pacific island paradise on an evening flight. Naturally, since it was our last day there, I had stayed up late the day before, risen early that morning and then played hard all that last day. Only when we were on our way back over the ocean did I realize how torturous this was going to be.

I don’t sleep on planes.

Ever.

This was all back before the days of TV’s in the seat backs, laptop computers and iPods. You brought a book, A Sony Walkman, maybe a pocket chess set, but that was about it. Since we were flying through the night, there was very limited entertainment being projected onto the one big, movie screen on the Berlin Wall between First Class and Cattle Class. Mostly, it was dark. Dark and boring. Eventually, we landed, made a plane switch at LAX, and that took us on toward our next connection in O’Hare.

Let me say this now. O’Hare, is awful. Or at least it was. I haven’t been there since and to be honest, I’m still scarred sufficiently to not even think about returning to see if they have ever managed to de-evil the place. It’s huge, sprawling, filled with moving sidewalks that go on for so long that you actually start to fear that you’ll never find your way back and for me, it was also dead. We were there around three AM.

When we had landed in Los Angles, my father, who is also notoriously bad at sleeping, had tried something new on the market to help him out. A neat little pill called Benadryl. Normally, it was used for allergies but because it was an antihistamine, it would also knock you flat. Back then, the notion of “non-drowsy” was unheard of and besides, sleep was what he wanted. Unfortunately for him, my dear Dad is also one of the most drug sensitive people I know. A half dose of anything usually does the trick for him, regardless of the malady. The full dose of Benadryl he gulped down somewhere over Colorado hit him like a freight train. When we landed, Mom and I had to practically drag him to our waiting area, zombie style. Once we had found our gate, he promptly laid down on the floor, face first and started drooling into the gum stained rug. He was unconscious in under ten seconds.

Once I was sure that Mom was all set with everything, my hunger beat out my tiredness and I went foraging for sustenance. We had about two hours to wait, plenty of time to find food.

Two things:

First: Believe it or not, the restaurants in airports do actually close. Really!
Second: You can expect them to be closed at four in the morning.

What this left me doing was pacing back and forth outside of a shuttered cafeteria style establishment where I could hear but not see noisy things happening that hopefully involved the making of breakfast and the opening of the establishment. By five, the metal curtain went up and by five-o-five, I was sitting down and eating pancakes and bacon.

As I chomped and slurped I noticed that my best friend, The Doctor, who was sitting across from me was simply looking on at the messy destruction that I was making of my plate, rather than getting some food for himself.

Around a mouthful of desperately needed, greasy sustenance I managed to ask him, “Do you want some?”

“No.” He replied with a headshake, “I’m all set” and he just smiled at me, seemingly enjoying watching me enjoy the meal.

“Are you sure? If you need some money, I’ve got enough for you too.” I was a little concerned. If I was starving, he must be too.

“No. Really. I’m fine.”

With a shrug and an “Ok” I dug back in and started to cut off another big slice from the hubcap sized pancake. Only then did I pause… and then look up sharply.

He wasn’t gone.
He had never been there at all.

The Doctor hadn’t been on this trip with us. It had all been in my mind, but man-o-man, I would have sworn up, down, left and right that he had been two feet away from me just a second before. The elderly couple in the booth across the isle were staring at me with a odd and somewhat uncomfortable expression, like you would to a street crazy preaching his beliefs, and I suddenly felt rather conspicuous and embarrassed. I managed to inhale much of the rest of my food in under three minutes and with one more spooked look back at the empty seat that had always been empty, I bolted back to my gate before any other weirdness decided to find me and start messing with my already addled brain.

Back in the departure lounge, Mom was still guarding the luggage while Dad sprawled out like a bearskin on a hunting lodge floor. I got home some time later that day and slept off my dementia.

The trip to Florida would naturally, be nothing so epic as that trip, but still the lesson was there. No Benadryl for Dad.

Um, I mean, no connecting flights. Not if you can help it.

There was also the fact that I would have no backup. It was just the two of us and when you are working without a net, you really don’t want to start stacking the deck against yourself.

Initially, this was hard for me to recognize. I am, after all, cheap. The obvious problem I had was that everyone knows that direct flights cost more and I was trying like hell to make this adventure happen for as little as possible. Money saved on transportation could, after all, be spent in gift shops! It was my friend Coley who tenderly and delicately talked some sense into me.

“What are you, NUTS?”

Coley’s never been one to mince words.

“Yah but, the one with the connector is cheaper.” I mean, come on, that’s irrefutable. He could understand that, right? He’s a Yankee!

“Not if you miss your flight. Not if you miss the launch because of delays. The whole point of going would be ruined! They could even loose your luggage.”

The missed or canceled connection was a good argument, but that last point was the most troubling. I was good at sprinting for connections and was pretty confidant that I could fly through a concourse while pushing a stroller at unlawful speeds. Lost luggage was something I had no power over though. Mostly, I wouldn’t care about the lost clothes and toothbrushes, but loosing the tent, our packages and packages of survival food and all the other goodies that I would have to spend a huge amount of time and cash on to make our stay enjoyable, suddenly started to make me rethink my convictions.

Still, the directs cost so much more…

“Did you try JetBlue? They fly directs from here to Orlando and usually have a really good price.”

“They do?” I was amazed. I didn’t think anything flew direct to anywhere from our little corner of Maine. A quick check reveled that not only was my friend right, but that the tickets purchased directly from the airline cost almost exactly what the layover flight on the other airlines would have. They even let you pick your seating! I don’t know how I missed this, but I had. That evening, the tickets were booked and our place on the plane selected. Right side for the trip down, left for the flight back. I figured that way Short Stack could watch the world go by from thirty-three thousand feet rather than a never ending vista of ocean. No carpet drooling or running for far away gates in foreign concourses for us.

Most importantly, no O’Hare.

We were ready.

Tomorrow, we leave for adventure.

Homer’s Odyssey

As I looked at the small, green, plastic coffin in my hand, a joyous smile spread across my face. Inside were the delicious “bones” of a compresses sugar skeleton, just waiting to be pit together… and then eaten.

I hadn’t seen one of these little candy coffins since I was a very young child and holding one now brought me flying back to a mental image of the route I would take to bike to the store when I had managed to get my hands on some money and needed a sugar fix.

My childhood home was in just about the perfect place when it came to possibilities. If I went out the back door, I had only to walk to the back of a dead end road before I was looking at trees to climb, fields to cross, ancient stone walls to follow and abandoned railroad cuts to walk along as I enjoyed the birds, forest and quiet. If I went out the front door, I was in suburbia. Little developments in neat blocks with architecture that told you definitively what decade the construction took place in. It also was a rich environment to find friends in.

The neighborhoods were old enough to still have some charm and life to them. Not like the dead and sprawling house farms they’ve been making since the late eighties. Their weird, arching roads with cliché’ names taken from flowers, states of happiness or saddest of all, the farm they paved over. Here the streets ran in efficient, square blocks and were named, I’m guessing, after some of the various developers or possibly the initial inhabitants. The houses were closer than they would be if built today, but it made for a closer community as well.

What it also had was a good, old fashioned, neighborhood store of the type that is pretty much gone now. It’s name was “Stop and Shop” and as local lore had it, though the much larger grocery store chain had told them that they couldn’t use that name, our little family run corner store had been there first and had all the rights in the world to use that name. For whatever reason, that made us, as the kids of the area, stand in awe. OUR store was first! Cool!

The trip there wasn’t a very long one, unless you were reduced to walking it. On bike, it took perhaps ten minutes and the route its self was pretty enjoyable. Zigzagging though the quiet neighborhoods, it wasn’t uncommon to pick up more friends as we went until a convoy of bicycles driven by candy crazed children finally descended on Stop and Shop with coins jingling in pockets and mouths already salivating. The steps themselves up to the front door were special. The door had been installed at a forty-five degree angle on a corner of the building. The steps were made round and radiated down from the entry, like the layers of a cement wedding cake. I always noticed the steps as I padded up them and wished that my own stairs at home could be so cool.

Inside, it was exactly what you’d expect. This was before the days of scratch tickets and lotto machines and I’m reasonably sure that there were no magazines for sale either. Instead, there were the racks of potato chips, a small meat counter, milk in the back and beer down the side. You could also get ice cream from a cooler, but we had arrived with the candy display in mind and the racks and racks of it never disappointed.

The owner, a bearded and stern looking man by the name of, Homer must have made at least half his money from candy sales. Right in the front, near the register, there was a wonderland of confection. Compressed or liquefied, flavored, sugary treats were abundant in their numbers and diverse in their types.

Necco Wafers
Bottle Caps
Smarties
Sweet Tarts
Wax lips
Jaw Breakers
Big League Chew
Canada mints
Tart N Tinies
Nerds
Hot Balls
Gummi Bears
Juicy Fruit
Hubba Bubba Bubble Gum
Tootsie Rolls

And on, and on, and on….

Homer knew what he was doing when it came to ordering candy and he never, EVER let us down. Most of the hard candy stuff cost five cents each, though the usual candy bars and packs of gun naturally cost more. The best part was that he also kept a good supply of penny candy. That is to say, candy that actually cost one penny per piece. Some years ago I mentioned penny candy to someone a good deal younger than I only to meet with a befuddled look and the question, “What’s penny candy?”

Ok… I feel old now.

The penny candy was naturally at the bottom of the food chain, desirability wise, but still, it was nice to have to round out your pickings for the day and it filled out the little brown bags of hyper-powder that dangled from our handlebars as we zoomed home, shouting.

After paying Homer with our collection of scrounged pocket change, we’d hop back on our mighty steeds, new baseball cards firmly attached to spokes, and ride off into the sunset. Well… actually to the pond that was a little better than half way home. We’d sit in the grass, happily rotting our teeth on Twizzlers and Pixi Stix, arguing the benefits of Star Wars versus Star Trek or what ever else struck our fancy and throwing rocks at anything that disturbed the water’s surface. Hey, we were boys on a sugar high. What else would you expect?

All of this comes back to my little plastic, sugar filled coffin. I had almost forgotten about Homer but this made me recall him and realize that he had not only done a good job with the staples of a sugar addicts desires, but he had been seasonal as well. When Christmas rolled around, he got Christmas themed candy. When Easter came close, Cadbury eggs appeared at the counter. When Halloween was in the air, for one year at least, Homer bought these little coffin candies, and I had bought one.

This year, I took it upon my self to buy my Halloween candy for the night’s festivities and perusing through a catalog I came across them. They came twelve to a box and were not cheap. There was no way I would have bought them for that price when I was a kid, but I’m not a kid anymore… and I’m better at justifying dumb purchases.

I gave them away to kids whom I knew or who had really great and obviously homemade costumes. I like to reward those who put in the effort. By the end of the evening, they were all gone, except one. That one I had grabbed from the full box and set aside. Later that night, I happily put the puzzle like candy skeleton together and laid him to rest in his little coffin and there he lies, slowly loosing body parts as I pass and remember that he’s there. He’s delicious.

The Stop and Shop is gone now and I live far from there anyway. Homer was no spring chicken when I was a kid, so who knows if he’s still around either, but I’m glad for the memory. I’m also in his debt for making me a connoisseur of fine, compressed, flavored sugar, no matter what form it may take.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a grave to rob.

Carnivore Girl

Our kids have a variety of nicknames. I rarely call my son, “Short Stack” to his face, though he will respond to it if you say it repeatedly in a loud clear voice and somehow manage to break through the impenetrable attention-wall of whatever he happens to be doing at the moment. Usually toy trucks or toy trains. Either way, whatever it is, it’s almost always more interesting that what an adult will tell him. Getting through is a tough job. Lulu Belle has quite a lost of nicknames as well but is easier to get her to pay attention to you. I’m guessing that this is because she hasn’t fully discovered the thrill that trucks and trains can bring and unless we can convince Short Stack that sharing is good, she never may, either.

What I have noticed about their nicknames is that I seem to have a theme based list that I draw from. What they get called tends to depend on what activity we are doing at the moment. Mealtime is the perfect example. Short Stack goes by the moniker, “Fruit Bat” while Lulu Belle proudly wears the label, “Carnivore Girl.” You don’t need a second guess why they are called what they are.

My wife, Action Girl has had a varied and meandering path she has followed when it comes to food. As a child growing up in rural Vermont, she was daily presented with a dizzying menu of far reaching proportions. Though she had spent her entire life in the Green Mountain state, he parents were transplants from Jersey City and Yonkers. Though the baked ziti and casserole recepies common to church suppers and Rotary meetings found their way home from time to time, the kids were just as likely to find a plate of linguini and clams, calamari, or matzo ball soup staring back at them from the dinner table. Her parent’s, remembering their metropolitan roots, were creative, often to the consternation of the younger inhabitants of the household.

With this varied gastronomical background, Action Girl made an early discovery. She really, simply, honestly, didn’t care for meat in general and red meat in particular. At an early age she and her older brother who couldn’t stand vegetables, (He ate peas one at a time, swinging each one down individually with a gulp of water, pill style) came up with a lively and lucrative trading business at the table when their parents weren’t looking.

Later on, after she grew up and eventually met me, I witnessed the carnage that was her attempt at eating steak. The ‘meat to be eaten’ to ‘meat to be discarded because it looked yucky’ ratio was about one to one. My inquiry if she would like a set of silver dissection needles with her meal was met with that special scathing gaze that girls work at perfecting, starting at age nine. Done correctly, it can actually leave marks.

Then, one year she scored a great adventure/summer job. She would be working in Colorado on a dude ranch. It would be tough to be away from her for so long, but I knew it was something that she really wanted to do. She had spent her whole life in New England and going out west to work on horseback was going to be one of those magic, life-defining kind of moments. It was. It was also full of buffalo meat.

In one letter, she told me how they had been served buffalo sausage for breakfast, buffalo burgers for lunch and buffalo steak for dinner. She also remarked how there were brownies for dessert and she was eyeing them suspiciously, suspecting that some buffalo hand managed to work its way in there somehow.

When she returned later that fall, she was a committed vegetarian.

But that was fine! We got an apartment together when she returned and she leaped into her vegetarianness with gusto. Action Girl has never let me down in the kitchen and her more than excellent talents shone through in her endeavor to make us wonderful meals with no meat included. She succeeded. We happily lived the vegetarian life for well over a decade and during that time, though I had not abandon my carnivorous ways, I never felt like I was missing it at home. Burgers were had when we went out for dinner or over to friend’s houses, but at home, the meals were delicious, filling and critter free. I was fine with this. It worked.

Then, years later, I walked though the door after a long day at work and found… a pork roast.

I did walk into the right house, didn’t I?

I checked.

My wife was there.

My stuff was there.

The address was, in fact, correct, but the dinner table did not lie. A beautiful pork roast was waiting there for me. No. For US.

EH?

Thirteen years of happy vegetarian eating had gone to the wayside for one, compelling and undeniable reason. She was pregnant with our first child and her body had one demand. No pickles or ice cream. MEAT! NOW!

Happily, I rolled with it and for the last four years, we’ve been an omnivorous family.

Some of us more than others.

Our son, whom started my lovely wife’s journey back to the meat eating side of life, is not easy to get meat into at all. The only way he will even consider it is if it’s in chicken nugget form, fish stick form or hot dog shape. Outside of those three, you can forget it. He will, however, devour just about any kind of fruit that you put in front of him and in any quantity. He actually thinks of applesauce as dessert! Or as he calls it, “kazzert.”

Lulu Belle will eat fruit as well if she’s in the mood and if it’s one of her favorites. Meat, though? That’s different. As she chomps her way through it, she will sometimes actually say, “Om nom nom nom!” as she chews with the same gusto normally encountered in the company of carnivores of the four legged variety. Some day, I’ll have to give her a turkey leg and film it for posterity/hilarity.

There is an excellent chance that someday Lulu Belle will be subjected to some heavy peer pressure that eating animals is bad and that she shouldn’t do it. It seems to be a stage that a large segment of adolescent girls (and a few boys who want to go out with these girls) go through at some point in their lives, and I have an unfortunate tendency to roll my eyes when I encounter this. Action Girl, who always was squeamish when it came to red meat, honestly had gone off it after her, ‘All buffalo, all the time’ diet and I can respect that. She didn’t wan to have anymore, not because she felt badly for the buffalo, but because she honestly didn’t like it.

Some folks believe that relying on animals for our own purposes is wrong as well, and I can respect that too, providing they turn in all their leather shoes, handbags, belts and stop eating Jell-O. In my book, anything else is hypocritical and can therefore be legally mocked. (Mocking, by the way is 100% animal free)

Some day, it could happen that Lulu Belle or Short Stack decide that meat is not for them and as I say, providing that they mean it, I’ll back them up 100%. I’ll always back them up if they mean it. They can count on me like that.

On the other hand, if Lulu comes home from sixth grade some day and announces that she doesn’t like meat anymore, I’m sitting her down and getting out the video of her in the highchair with the turkey leg.

OM NOM NOM NOM!

Eating Out of the Ice Box

Well, it finally arrived. Summer has descended on our little island and the thermometer has finally managed to stay in the 80’s for more than two days in a row. For me, that’s quite hot enough, thank you very much. It’s not that I haven’t’ experienced hotter living, I have. It’s just that loath it. My blood is made up of equal parts molasses, crude oil and taffy and hot weather just makes me more and more sloth like until I finally fall whimpering from my tree branch and sizzle to death in the sun. It’s sort of the reverse of the Wicked Witch of the West. Rather than melt when doused with water, I simply combust in direct sunlight.

Naturally, I had carefully chosen a profession that would keep me in close proximity to insanely hot industrial kilns for days at a stretch. I maintain that I managed to keep my weight down mainly through water loss and since I sold my business some time ago, I think there might be something to that. I seem to be getting rounder by the day.

It might have been the sweating, or it might be the fact that I’ve been enjoying being at home with my kids and have made a concerted effort to keep the cookie jar full at all times. It’s not easy. I seem to be just as adept at emptying the thing as filling it.

With the warm sun pounding on the roof like a troublesome neighbor who knows you’re home and won’t go away, I was confronted with the fact that I… I mean, WE needed more cookies, but what? I didn’t have a lot of enthusiasm for firing up the oven and the no-bake cookies that I love tend not to fair so well in the jar if it’s hot for too long. Then I thought of a childhood favorite that I hadn’t had in ages.

I love remembering half forgotten stuff from my childhood because it gives me a chance to introduce it to my kids. Lulu Belle is still too young to remember things that happen in her life at the moment, but Short Stack will. It was time to introduce him to Grammy’s Ice Box Cookies. I had him in mind with this recipe for a variety of reasons.

First, they are his size. Perfect for small hands.

Second, they are fun because they look like little hamburgers.

Third. Chocolate.

To those whom know him, I need say no more.

So what is an Ice Box cookie, I hear you ask (Thanks for asking, by the way)? It is made of just three ingredients, requires no baking and is delicious simplicity.

Melt one bag milk chocolate chips with one can sweetened, condensed milk.

Once mixed, remove from heat.

Lay out most of a box of Nabisco ‘Nilla Wafers (and I hate to say this, but Nabisco ‘Nilla wafers are really the way to go. The other vanilla wafers just don’t do it justice) and put a blob of chocolaty goodness on a wafer and then top with another wafer. When you run out of chocolate and wafers, (it will take close to two boxes) toss them in the fridge and let them sit for an hour or so.

This is what you get.

iceboxcookies

On the list of great moments in kitchen Olympics, this hardly rates even as a warm up. These things are pretty much the definition of “stupid-easy” but MAN, are they good on a warm summer day! The name alone ought to give you an idea how long they have been around in my family. “Ice box cookies” was the name given to them by my Great-great grandmother and though I never met her, I am eternally grateful to her for concocting them. The recipe is so basic that whether she came up with them on her own or copied them from someone else is impossible to prove. I don’t care. I just like to eat them.

As it turns out, Short Stack does too! I’ve never known my boy to back away from a chocolaty treat and if he does, I’ll know that the aliens has swapped him with a spy robot. Short Stack has now fully embraced the notion of “helping” whenever I’m doing something and cooking, as with most kids, really gets him excited. The beauty of these little morsels is that they are the perfect first recipe for young kids. He’s not old enough to use the stove alone, but with supervision, he has a blast and later, can enjoy “his” cookies.

So summer cookies from his Great-great-great grandma, direct to his happy, round belly.

Now all I have to do is explain what an “ice box” is to him.
That ought to be interesting.

On the other hand, given enough cookies, he might not care!

Cookies in the Freezer

I was always a little confused by what exactly a Girl Scout was. As a youngster, I remember seeing the cluster of girls in their green and brown uniforms with their various ranks displayed as quarter sized badges sewn onto a sash that was worn like an earthy version of those seen at a beauty pageant. Rather than reading, “Miss Russet Potato”, or some other title, the little dots showed the trials and tribulations that the wearer had undertaken and mastered.

This was a foreign world to me. Not only did I have no sister to demystify the organization for me, but I was never part of the male version either. Boy Scouts, though they undoubtedly did neat stuff, had one major flaw as I saw it. They still had to follow directions given to them by adults. Though I was hardly what you would have called a rebellious child, I was happiest when doing what ever I wanted to do. I would put my head down and get through the things that were expected of me, but when it came to unstructured time which I had control of, there was just no way in hell that I was going to put it in the hands of more people who would be telling me what to do, where to do it and how it was to be done.

The funny thing is that I always had a mild fascination with the “Scouts”, be they the boy or girl variety. The friend who I have been closest with my whole life, The Doctor, eventually attained the rank of Eagle Scout and many, many weekends I was left on my own while he want off with his troop to camp in the woods, paint park benches or… do what ever else Boy Scouts do. I believe there was some sort of a “Jamboree” thrown in there somewhere. I have no idea what that was about.

As far as our friendship was concerned, he left the “Scouting” stuff at the door when he came over to play and we never really talked about it. The only time I actually saw him in his uniform was during his Eagle Scout indoctrination ceremony and I think it was odd for both of us. It was held in a church hall, long after he, himself had left organized faith far behind on his personal road. There were, naturally, big American flags hanging up, just at the time he was starting to seriously question what our country was doing in the world and it involved jumping over symbolic sticks… which both of us found mildly humorous. I still have no idea what the sticks were about.

Now, lest I offend, let me say that I do not in any way look down upon those who choose the Scouting life. In many ways I was jealous that it just didn’t seem to fit with me. I love camping. I like doing projects. I LOVE riflery, which you can, if I’m not mistaken, get a merit badge in. I would have lived at the rifle range. For some reason though, I instantly chafed at the idea.

I think it was the neckerchiefs.

cub-scout-fred

If the Boy Scouts confused me, the Girl Scouts baffled me. I had a lot of friends in the neighborhood and we all lived on the edge of some serious forestland. We all lived in those woods and the girls whom I spent many a long day playing with were of the rough and tumble sort. Tom Boys, to be succinct. They were right there with us, scraping their arms on branches, skinning their knees and peeing in the bushes. These girls were FUN! When I looked at the groups of Girl Scouts patiently waiting for their den mothers to direct them to what ever fun that awaited them, I couldn’t help raising an eyebrow at their neatly pressed blouses, perfect and jaunty barrettes and those brown knee skirts.

SKIRTS?

To my mind, skirts were reserved for things like school and church. The girls I knew never opted for skirts and why would they? They offer poor protection form thorns and rocks and then there’s the whole tree climbing issue. The Girl Scouts uniforms were all done in dark green and tan, giving the illusion that they could step into the jungle and take on the Vietcong, but really… it was like having an camouflage bathing suit. What’s the point? Then there were the merit badges.

I knew that the girls didn’t get to do the same stuff that the boys did. A topic that is still to this day, a point of some grievance by Action Girl. She was cast out of her brother’s Cub Scout den when she started to have too much fun doing all the projects that the boys were doing. When offered the trade to Brownies (the Girl Scout starter rank) she balked. Sewing and singing just didn’t stack up well against setting things on fire and using hatchets. She will forever be a disgruntled Boy Scout wannabe.

The Girl Scouts do, naturally, have on major feather in their barrettes, however.

The cookies!

For those who live beyond the borders of the United State, I hope, with heart felt sincerity, that whatever country you live in has an equivalent to a Girl Scout Thin Mint.

thin-mints

Every year, Girl Scouts in the thousands pour out of meeting lodges and church basements and hit the pavement, going door to door in their neighborhoods with long sign up sheets and catalogs showcasing various cookies that can be ordered from Girl Scouts of America. It’s a fundraiser for the organization and one that I believe, will never leave the G.S. of A. short of funds. The cookies offered are not available in stores anywhere to my knowledge and even if there were an equivalent, it just wouldn’t be the same. The beauty of Girl Scout cookies is that the ordering happens months before the cookies actually arrive. Just long enough for you to have totally forgotten that you put your name down for an obscene quantity of sugar and chocolate covered snacks. They are divine. They are to be savored. They have just arrived!

A hand made sign on a lamp post down by the store gave notice that the cookies were on their way and would be arriving on Saturday and I mad darn sure that I would be around. As I say, there are many different cookies that the Girl Scouts sell and many of them are very, very tasty. It doesn’t matter though. I just want the Thin Mints.

A mint flavored chocolate wafer covered in more chocolate and bundled in a sleeve and two sleeves to a box, I wait for them with anticipation every year. I thought that they were perfection in a cookie until my Wife showed me the error of my ways. There was, in fact, a way to make them even better. They need to be kept in the freezer. Oh, ho ho ho. I’m in heaven. As I write, there are two boxes in the freezer, one having been mildly pillaged and two more in the deep freeze in the basement. I’m hoping that I’ll manage to forget all about them until mid summer, but that’s a long shot. I can hear them calling to me just now.

So, I still don’t understand the draw of the Scouting life and though I know that the Girl Scouts have beefed up the types of merit badges they offer to include more outdoorsy kind of activities in the hopes of appearing less… 1950’s, I’m still clueless as to what their goals really are, but that’s ok. They just need to keep me in Thin Mints and I’ll keep handing over the contents of my wallet to the nice young girls on the front step in the brown and green uniforms. At least I think they were Girl Scouts.

If Lulu Belle ever decides to join their ranks, I am truly doomed. Doomed and in a sugar coma… So I guess I won’t know about it, at any rate. And now… If you’ll excuse me, I feel a freezer raid coming on.

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