Arrival

The Alarm going off at eleven PM felt incredibly rude and distinctly impossible and I flailed at its unfamiliar controls as I tried to get my brain wrapped around where we were and what was next.

We had been in bed for possibly three and a half hours and though Short Stack had been out cold for the majority of that, it had taken me a little while to mentally wind down and then a little longer to find peace with the bundle of knees and elbows that curled up against me in the strange bed. Little kids are notorious in their lack of bed sharing etiquette and my son, as it turns out, is no different. The mental image of sleeping with your child in your arms is just about guaranteed to turn the heart of any parent immediately into sentimental goo, but the reality of the experience is that, even in sleep, your average child possesses ten thousand times the energy of an espresso fueled chipmunk and it will need to be released in wild explosions of sleep gymnastics throughout the entire time.

They will sleep. You shall not.

Oddly enough, the next night, the same sleep deprived and lightly bruised parent will almost immediately sign up for the exact same punishment once they look down at the beautiful form of their own child curled up and alone in bed. Apparently, it’s not just our hearts that our kids can turn into goo. Our brains are fair game as well. The effect is something like Stockholm Syndrome and we willingly crawl right in, ready for another night’s micro-beating.

I fumbled about in the half light looking for pants, shirt and shoes, and eventually had myself dressed and fuzzily awake enough to consider the next step. We needed to get to the car. What I SHOULD have done was to get the car mostly packed up the night before so that, naturally, had not happened. I had realized this when the moment had arrived but it had been the exact moment that Short Stack was finally getting sleepy and we were on the downhill run to bedtime. Normally, I would have left him with my wife at that point and scooted off with the larger bags and been back to the room in five minutes. With a little kiddo in tow however, and no back up, I was tied to spot. Since he was too tired to go with me and there was no chance of me leaving him alone, even for the sprint to the vehicle, I found myself unable to “run out” and do anything. It was a slightly frustrating realization but one that would be a part of every moment of this trip. While we were here, I wasn’t letting Rocket Boy out of my sight, even for a moment. This is when I remembered the stroller.

It had seemed goofy to lug it in with us when we checked in and I had almost left it at the car. Actually, I had almost left it at home all together. My reasoning had been that Short Stack is a pretty good walker and we would be doing something that he loved. I had little fear that once we were surrounded by the objects of his adoration, he would, as my Grandfather liked to put it, turn into a Cream Puff.

Being labeled “Cream Puff” had been an epithet of my childhood to be avoided and it was the one he liked to use when you, as a young child, would wimp out on a long walk and ask to be put on his shoulders. As a kid, I had taken many a long stroll with him at the beach and to this day, I can remember the exchanges that took place after I started to whine about tired legs.

“Your not going to turn into a cream puff on me, are you?”

“No.” Plod, plod, plod. “Grumble grumble grumble”

“What’s that?”

“I’m just getting tired.”

“Cream Puff?”

“NO!”

…and I’d trudge on down the beach with renewed determination my little chin leading the way, at least for a little while longer. Some would see this as being too tough on a little kid, and I do remember complaining to my folks when I’d come home, more often than not sitting on his shoulders anyway, but I did get pretty darn good at keeping up for more of the walk than I expected. Looking back as an adult, I have a sneaking suspicion that his encouragement had more to do with saving his back and neck muscles than building any character and stamina on my part, but the effect was much the same. I’ve tried the same treatment on Short Stack but he tends to fight back with logic.

“My legs are shorter than yours, though.”

To which I’ve replied, “Yes but you weigh less.”

This argument worked well until at one point he realized that, yes, that was true, “But my feet are smaller”

This kid is way too good at logic arguments.

“Are you being a Cream Puff?”

“No. Just carry me”

Ah, the best of both worlds. And I go on with my Cream Puff on my shoulders. Who needs to go to a gym to work out? My gym finds me!

Through all this, I have developed a packhorse mentality and will take just about any load on my back and trudge for miles. This was indeed my plan for Florida too. When his little feet gave out, I could simply plunk him on my shoulders and he’d be fine. I could do that for three days… I foolishly though. During the initial packing phase for our adventure, I had seen of the stroller as being an unnecessary torture instrument that I could leave behind. Strollers are not made for men, (or woman for that matter) of any height. Though I am only six foot tall and thus, well within the average for a male of mixed European heritage, strollers make me hunch painfully with the rear wheels so close that I inevitably wind up kicking them as I stride along. Couple that with the evil, free castoring front wheels that will inevitably go off on their own unexpected expeditions, often into the inevitable trash can or unnoticed door frame, and you can see why this can quickly degrade into a litany of mumbled swears. Right now though, it was a lifesaver and awkward as it was, I was grateful that my wife had convinced me to bring the thing along. Though I was pretty sure that I could have done without it during the day, there was one flaw I hadn’t considered. For Short Stack to stay on my shoulders, he needed to be awake.

With as delicate a touch as possible, I lifted my sleeping boy from his bed, set him down in the red canvas of the seat and wrapped him up in the travel blanket his mother had thoughtfully provided in her dutiful packing the night before. He stirred briefly and then was back to dreamland in seconds. Tossing a flannel shirt over the sun shade like a bullet proof mosquito net, I hoped to keep him sheltered from the blinding hall lights just out side our room’s door.

I glanced at the clock next to our still warm bed as I gathered up the last of our belongings.

“Crap. We’ve gotta go!”

Wheeling him out before me and pulling the suitcase along after turned out to be a challenge as usual and our room’s pneumatic door tried its best to chew on us as I shoved us though and out into the hall and escaped to the elevators. Catching wheels and snagging shoulder straps, we managed to make the lobby. With all the jostling, he was starting to come around.

“What are we doing, Daddy? Is it time to go?”

“Yup! But it’s a long drive. Just go back to sleep, buddy”

I was really hoping that the dark car ride would do the trick for him and that he’d get the sleep he should, but that it wouldn’t have that same effect on me. Realizing how groggy I still was, this became more of a concern than it had been before. It’s a simple thing to say, “I’ll just drive though the night” It’s another thing entirely to do it. What I needed was coffee.

The same multi-talented young woman was still working behind the front desk when I wheeled our ungainly caravan through the lobby and she smiled brightly as I appeared in all my encumbered glory, cloaked, half sleeping child pushed before me. “Don’t worry,” she said in a whisper and waived a dismissive hand. “I’ll check you out myself. Enjoy the launch! It should be a good one.”

“Thanks! Um…” I paused and whispered back. “Coffee?”

In the end, they had no coffee and the nearest all night dad refueling depot would take us a good bit off our intended course. With time weighing me down more than the bags, I decided to opt for the syrupy gloop that passes for bottled ice tea that was available from our helpful host. I didn’t have time to fill out a comment card and I regretted that. She had been great and deserved, if not a promotion, then at least an assistant or four. I also might have mentioned to the hotel chain their need for coffee in the lobby.

By now, the transfer from the bed to the stroller had woken my boy up a bit and the lights in the hall and lobby hadn’t helped, though I had done my best to muffle both. My brief search for caffeine hadn’t helped either and by the time I was clicking him into the car seat, he was rubbing his eyes and yawing. He was up and he knew where we were going. It was rocket time! As I made ready to pull out and leave, there was none of his usual chatting coming from the back seat as he grappled with his sleep drunk body and attempted to take control. He’d start a sentence with a groggy, “Um… Daddy. Um…” and get no further than possibly, “Did we… um.” And leave it at that. Mentally, he was struggling to the surface but trying to get the machinery of his little brain going was rough. It was still clogged with the cotton batting of deep sleep and though it became quickly evident to me that there was no chance of him nodding off again, I stayed quiet too in the hopes that he’d nod off again. I punched our destination into the GPS that I had oh-so very thankfully borrowed from a friend before we flew out and pulled the car onto the highway.

At NASA, an hour away, the countdown was running…

It was actually running!

Both they and we were on schedule.

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Rolling Down the Snow

So, last night, the car started acting funny. Actually, there was nothing funny about it. The car was packed to the gills with small, wiggling children, seven tons of groceries and many hard won trophies from the hunt at Target. We had been out since eleven that morning and, naps be damned, we had stayed out until close to three thirty! Sometimes in the effort to have some semblance of a normal life, not to mention trying to actually accomplish goals you set for your self (such as having food to eat) you need to forgo the normal routine that ostensibly keeps your children sane but keeps you anchored to your house. This is exactly what we had done and we had the station wagon full of booty and crazed children to prove it.

The excursion had all in all, gone well. Neither Short Stack nor Lulu Belle had inflicted an emotional meltdown on us and both seemed happy for the chance to do something interesting. The rainy, cold weather had prompted me to do something! By ten that morning, I was looking down the barrel of hours and hours of hanging out in the living room with the kids, slowly going insane to the pitter patter of raindrops. Normally, I’d have jumped into a project, but with both kids home, that was decidedly NOT going to be a possibility. Plus, I didn’t want to.

By the time we were pointed homeward, the sky was looking brighter, the February rain had stopped and Short Stack at least, had managed to nod off for a few precious minutes. We were wrapping up a good afternoon outing. We drove back to the boat terminal and were the first car in line to board the ferry for the trip back to our island home. When the boat was ready, we drove on, parked and shut off the car.

Bad move.

Some time later as the ferry pulled up to the dock, we got the kids back in their seats and turned the key.

“Raur… raur…. raur.”

“Oh, you have GOT to be kidding me!”

My wife, Action Girl, was driving at the time and she was looking at the dashboard with a mixture of disbelief and hate-lasers. If any mortal being had been given that look, they would have had to shield their eyes or burst into a torrent of flame. The car, on the other hand, didn’t seem to care.

“Raur… raur… raur…”

There was obviously no way it was going to crank fast enough to catch. Having to make the other cars behind us wait while the crew went to get the onboard jumper pack was bad enough, but remember, Action Girl is a captain here. This is her turf and she knows every one and they know her. Plus, she HATES to be embarrassed. Needless to say, I wouldn’t want to be the car right now.

So, with a jump, we got home with our cargo. It just about died when we pulled into the yard and after going for a quick spin to charge up the battery, I’m pretty sure it’s the distributor or possibly, the alternator. Either way, it’s not reliable and is scheduled to go in to the garage later this week. Should be a fun drive to get it there.

This morning we all got up early enough to have a leisurely breakfast before heading in our various directions. Action Girl is working an AM shift and needed to be gone on an early boat and Short Stack needed to get to pre-school. Lulu Belle and I were the only ones loafing at home today. Not trusting the car to behave was no problem for Action Girl. She didn’t need it to get to the ferry landing and thus, to work. The question was, how to get my son where he needed to be. His pre-school is on the island and not a very hard walk at all, but as anyone who has gone for a stroll with a nearly-three year old can attest, the power of the “distraction” factor is with out equal. Everything is worth inspecting with deep interest and care when you’re that age. To make matters more patience grinding, Short Stack is in the full blown “why” phase of life.

“What is that, Dad?”

“It’s a parked car.”

“Why is it parked there?”

“Because, the people who own it must have left it there.”

“But why did they leave it there?”

A quick intake of breath as I see the conversational precipice loom before me. “Well, maybe they live in the house next to where the car’s parked.”

“Why do they live there?”

“Everyone has to live somewhere.”

“Why does everyone have to live somewhere?”

I rub my brow in an effort to smooth out some of the rapidly deepening wrinkles. “We all need a place to be, I guess. Look Short Stack! Is that a robin?”

He’ll easily blow past my pathetic attempt to redirect the conversation and pulls things back to the confounding persistence of the car to remain parked there as well as the philosophical need to belong to a place. All this time, we will have moved, oh… two and a half feet if I’m lucky. I try really, REALLY hard to answer each and every question he has, but if we are attempting to actually get someplace, it would have been faster to box the two of us up and mail us than let us walk.

No. Walking there was out of the question. Plus, yesterday’s rain had turned into last night’s snow and a couple of inches of the fluffy stuff covered everything. Remember, two inches to an adult equals at least five to a three year old. If we walked, the tulips would be in bloom by the time we arrived.

Action Girl actually came up with the solution. The roads were still covered and perfect for the sled. When breakfasts were finished and snow suits donned, I packed Lulu Belle into the kid carrier backpack, hoisted her up and strapped her in. Then, we dusted off the sled. Short Stack needed little encouragement to hop in and was beaming from under his knit hat as he hugged his school bag.

“Ready, buddy?”

“YAH!”

The orange plastic sled easily scooted along and as I trudged along, we left a trail of compressed snow, happy laughter and exclamations of glee. This was the best way to go to school ever! The trip took marginally longer than it would have with the car and was defiantly more appreciated. The sun was bright, the wind low and the world sparkled with its clean, while mantle. We arrived without incident and once he was pealed out of his layers of winter clothing, he happily joined the table of other children covered in paste and construction paper. I had to actually ask for a hug and kiss goodbye.

As Lulu Belle and I tromped home, sled tucked under my arm, I looked down at the trail we had only just made. It was still flat and unblemished by footprints. The crisp outline of the track stood out strongly on the smooth snow and it made me think of times long past. Days when the roads were rolled after a snowstorm to pack it down for the horses and sleighs. When children going to school by sled was probably anything but odd and looked forward to as part and parcel of the winter season.

rolling2

It’s days like this that I really love where I live. Being in northern New England provides us with the “Currier and Ives” old world of barns and colonial era houses that I enjoy so much and island living means that traffic is thin at worst and non-existent at best. It also makes the sledding all the more satisfying.

I almost decided to keep walking when we reached our front yard but Lulu Belle was starting to flag and her crib was calling to her. It was, after all, time for the morning nap. I walked up the steps and looked back at our trail, now starting to melt in the morning sun. By the time I need to go collect Short Stack this afternoon the snow would likely be gone or at least, un-sledable. Looks like we’ll be walking after all.

I’ll be sure to pack provisions for the trek. We might be gone for a while and have to make camp.

“But why do we need to make camp, dad?”

“AAAAAAAAAAAA!”

Valhalla in Salzburg

“Where the heck are we going?”
“You’ll see! It’s going to be great!”
“You’re not going to kill me and stuff my body in a trash bin, are you?”
“I can’t promise that. It’ll depend on your behavior.”
“Great.”

The lower city of Salzburg twisted away from us as we climbed, as my good friend bounded ahead in a dubious looking direction, trying to remember his way in the dark of the sleeping architecture.

That spring, I was visiting a good friend of mine (I’ll call him Mountain Man) who was living Germany. He was there on a Fulbright Scholarship, teaching english at a gymnasium in what was until very recently, East Germany. The Wall had come down only a few years before he went over and it was a great time to be there. Every one felt positive, everything seemed to be getting better and most importantly of all, you could now travel all over what was once forbidden territory. We were having a blast.

This particular night though, we had traveled back to one of his old haunts. We spent a day traveling and another punch on our euro-rail passes and had arrived in Salzburg, Austria.

Mountain Man knew Salzburg. It was his old stomping grounds, having spent a year studying abroad in this charismatic city. I had only been there once before on one of my family’s epic en-mass vacations. Traveling with the family meant nice hotels, meals at meal times and package style tours with guides. Mountain Man most defiantly had other plans and to be fair, we were doing this on the cheap.

I will freely admit, that the traveling with my family (my WHOLE family, including parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents) had made me jaded. Growing up and traveling en masse, I never had to think about where we would stay, eat or go and look at the local pile of ancient rubble. It was all planned for me and though we didn’t travel opulently, we did travel comfortably.

This trip would be different. This was where I really learned how to travel.

We had arrived in Salzburg by train and immediately headed into the city to secure lodging. It was early evening and Mountain Man was afraid that the hostel that he had in mind would be near full capacity by now. He had gone on and on about how popular it was as were their breakfasts. Warning lights should have been going off in my head with the mention of the word “popular”, but foolishly, I had equated it with the notion of it being due to its fine rooms and beds. How wrong could I be? Ohhh. Very, very wrong.

I actually could hear it before we saw it. The music was thumping out into the darkening streets and the yellow light of the foyer poured out from the open doors almost as powerfully as the cigarette smoke. As we walked in, I was immediately taken by two things. First was that the place was packed by what looked like fourteen year olds, all holding ¾ empty beer steins and smoking what must have been four to five cigarettes a piece. The second was that Mountain Man was asking the clerk for a couple of beds for us.

“No! I don’t care if we have to sleep on benches in the park, but we aren’t staying here!”

Mountain Man looked at me thought the blue smoke and smiled sheepishly. “Well, that’s about our only other option. At this hour, we’re lucky that they have any room at all. By the time we get to the next hostel, the chance of finding space is just about nil.”

I looked around at the plastered and partying highschool age patrons and sighed. “Fine, but do they at least have a double room or something. Just so we don’t have to be in the bunk room?”

He winced again. “Nope. We’ll be in a room with 32 beds.”

Great.

After securing our packs, we fled the hostel looking for an activity that didn’t involve drunk teenagers and tobacco. Mountain Man, in an attempt to make up for my obvious disappointment in our lodging situation, promised an experience that would be second to none. He wouldn’t say what it was, but that it was just “going to be awesome.”

A bit suspiciously, I followed. What else could be done?

We climbed out of the lower city and up towards the less traveled areas. It was getting late now and the only light was from the street lamps. With hardly anyone else out walking and all the shops closed, it felt a lot like trespassing. The roads we took turned into wide alleys and the alleys into open stairs, punctuated by small parks and paths that appeared sporadically as we ascended. This was when I had posed my question to Mountain Man.

We had climbed for quite a while and I was sure we were lost. “This it it!” Mountain Man had stopped at a set of massive, studded, dark oak doors on an unmarked wall.

“Are you serious?”

He just smiled. I looked around to check for empty rubbish bins, just to be safe.

More later…

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