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Stories

If on a summer’s vacation…

Now past the halfway-mark for summer, we’ve all either taken our summer vacations or we’re still planning where to go. For those of us who fall into the latter camp, beware your choices. THE WRITERS remember ways summer vacations have gone so horribly wrong.

Matthew Baldwin Goes on a Ferry

The summer when I was seven my family and I went to visit my aunt and uncle. Because the adults wanted to spend time together, I was most of the time banished to the care of my bad cousin Aaron. Aaron, five years my senior, was well-versed in the art of hooliganism, and I, just about the most straight-laced kid you could envision, viewed him as one would regard an approaching tornado: alternating between sheer awe at this marvel of nature and total fear of its destructive force. I therefore spent most of my vacation trying to keep my hands clean of Aaron’s assorted shenanigans.

By and large I was successful, and managed to keep both my conscience and reputation unsullied. But then one afternoon our families took a trip on a ferry, and he and I were told to make ourselves scarce for a little while.

Left to his own devices, Aaron began prowling the decks, searching high and low for mischief to manufacture. I, trailing sheepishly in his wake, was horrified when he rummaged around the lifejacket cabinets, was ossified with guilt when he entered forbidden cabins, and was sent into internal spasms when he randomly punched the nautical devices on the walls.

Near the end of the trip, Aaron discovered a soda machine on a lower deck. Though the machine bore a prominent “OUT OF ORDER” sign, he dutifully pressed every one of the buttons to see what would happen. And when he hit the button labeled “ORANGE DRINK,” a small paper cup dropped into the dispenser niche and was promptly filled, free of charge.

Aaron immediately quaffed several cups of the ill-gotten beverage, and then urged me to follow suit. I snorted and declined his offer. So he punched the button anyway, handed me a cup of orange drink, and sprinted off in search of further havoc.

I resolved to dispose of the evidence as quickly as possible. At the bottom of a nearby staircase was a trashcan with a triangular flip-panel lid. Wanting to be sure none of the orange drink would, if dropped straight into the can, splash out, I decided to gently set the drink inside the can. This I attempted by holding the cup in both hands and slowly lowering it through the flip-panel, edging it toward the floor of the trashcan.

And it worked! Just as I had made touchdown with the drink, though, I heard from just over my left ear: “Matthew Scott Baldwin!” My mother’s voice boomed, “What are you doing with your hands in the garbage?!”

I whirled around to see my parents and aunt and uncle, descending the staircase. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to remove two arms from a flip-panel trashcan lid quickly, as rapid motion causes the flap to seize up around whatever is being withdrawn, as a ravenous beast would lock down on its prey. Worse, the bottom half of the can was wrenched sidewise by my abrupt about-face, and it toppled over.

And there I stood, dumbstruck, the lid of a trashcan clamped around my biceps like a plastic pillory, an incriminating orange puddle pooling about my feet.

Rosecrans Baldwin Goes Rowing

In seventh grade I went to Boy Scout summer camp for a week. Our Scoutmaster had told us about all the merit badges we could earn at Camp Sequassen that were difficult if not illegal to pursue in the suburbs (shotgun-shooting, archery, fingerprinting) and we were thrilled. But that’s why boys get into Scouting; it’s like the doors to the meeting rooms are flanked by guards in olive green shorts shouting “We want the pyromaniacs! Throwing-star collectors and military brats, enter here! The ones who braid fireworks into the tails of animals, as long as they worship God and hate gays, send them in!”

The first day at camp I signed up for rowing, figuring it would be cake, one of a dozen easy merit badges I could bag in seven days. That next morning I went down to the lake alone (no one in my troop had signed up for rowing) and joined a class of about 20. The instructor showed us proper rowing technique, assigned us each a boat, and told us to row out and back to an island in the middle of the lake.

The others put their backs into it and pulled away. But I couldn’t get my oars to work. For some reason, my arms wouldn’t coordinate to pull both oars at once, so my boat spun one way until I corrected it and started again, then spun the other way. No matter how hard I rowed, the boat didn’t move. Mostly I slapped the water. One oar popped out of its lock and was almost lost to the depths. After five minutes I was only 10 feet from the dock.

I looked over my shoulder and saw that most of the group was halfway to the island or already there. The lake was huge but they’d crossed it and were now heading back. The instructor, still on land, a college dude with a black concert T-shirt over his scout shorts, had laid down on the beach to nap. I tried again for a few minutes, my face red, my arms churning the oars in the water. Finally I managed to bring the boat back to the dock. By that time the first boats back from the island were arriving.

I jumped out and ran back to my tent and didn’t get out of my sleeping bag until archery started that afternoon.

Paul Ford Goes Camping

It was Memorial Day weekend, 2000, and my friend Jake and I took off in his car for a few days of camping. Escape from Manhattan took hours, and after getting lost seven times, we finally pulled into a campground in Pennsylvania, at midnight, sans reservation.

There was no room at the inn. We decided to sleep in the car, but a ranger came around with a flashlight and told us to be on our way. Then we found another campground and the same situation. Finally, at three in the morning, we ended up at the Delaware Rod and Gun Club, on a dusty patch of ground wedged between RVs.

I’d forgotten my tent back in the city. Jake had a nifty one-person Swiss mountaineer’s tent that went up in about 30 seconds, and I had an old red sleeping bag. I stretched the sleeping bag out on the ground, raising small clouds of dust in the process.

Then the frogs arrived. Dozens of them. Tiny ones, leaping directly onto my head, my lips, my shoulders. I leapt up swearing, and Jake emerged from his hermetically sealed environment to see me clawing at my skin, then he laughed and went back into his tent.

There was a picnic table nearby, so I stretched out on that to avoid the frogs, and slept an uncomfortable three hours. I woke up to murmurs, and turned to see three men with mullets staring at me.

“You don’t look too comfortable,” one said.

“I’m fine,” I said.

“Weird,” said another.

The next morning Jake and I went to the beach, but I’d forgotten my trunks. So I took my extra pair of jeans and cut off the legs with my house key. It took thirty minutes. The other beachgoers stared as I went into the ocean, one leg of my jeans cut below the knee, the other cut up high at the crotch. Later in the day, I bought a tent.

We spent the rest of the day looking for campgrounds. Finally, exasperated, Jake said, “Screw this. We can camp in my friend’s backyard.” We drove to his hometown in New Jersey, and made a quick stop by his folks’ place to grab a sandwich. He left me in the car while he went in. “I don’t want to have a social call,” he said. “I’m just going to get some food and then let’s camp.”

He came back to the car an hour later. “My parents are getting divorced,” he said. “Right now.”

He drove me to his friend’s place, and we set up our tents next to her porch. Jake kept breaking into tears. We slept for a few hours, and then the phone rang in the house. Jake’s friend Maria, who owned the house, came out with the cordless. It was his parents.

He went into the house for some privacy. I sat in the tent until he came back out. “I have to go over there right now,” he said. “Can you get yourself home?”

“I guess so,” I said. He took off, and Maria made me breakfast, then drove me to a New Jersey Transit station.

Danny Gregory Goes Upstate

During the summer of the Iran-Contra hearings, my wife and I rented a remote farmhouse in Delhi, upstate New York. Each day, we would lie on inflatable rafts in the pond as our dog hunted for frogs in the reeds. Each evening, we would barbecue and play gin rummy. Each night, the terror returned. The darkness was impenetrable. The silence was unbroken but for the occasional creak from the old house or the vermin skittering in the walls. We lay awake, clutching the counterpane, as the same lone pickup rattled back and forth across the county road beyond our front door. We whispered to each other: Gein, Gacy, Bundy, Berkowitz, Bianchi, Buono… In the morning sunshine, those fears seemed absurd. But finally, unable to get a decent night’s sleep, we cut our vacation short.

That Christmas an item appeared in the Times. A serial killer had been arrested in Delhi. Operating in the area for years, he had been particularly active the previous summer, burying six prostitutes and hitchhikers in the farmyard directly next door to the one we had rented. The following summer, we went to Disney World.

Sarah Hepola Goes on a Cruise

I was 19 years old, and when my friend asked me if I wanted to go with her and her parents on a Caribbean cruise I had visions of The Love Boat and Fantasy Island rolled into one.

What I didn’t count on was that she and I wouldn’t be lounging with Captain Stubing on the south deck—we’d be eating lobster and ice-cream buffets, listening to the other passengers declare Martinique “full of dirty natives,” and looking forward to being back in the cramped room she and I shared, where we would watch the full run of Nick Nolte movies available on the closed-circuit television (again).

The good American teens that we were, all she and I really wanted was to get our hands around a frosty daiquiri. But her parents—who had bankrolled the trip and watched their itemized room charges with a suspicious eye—were serious teetotalers who scorned the very whiff of alcohol, even as we pointed out that the drinking age on the open waves dipped to 18.

Desperate, she and I slipped away to the ship’s drugstore and gathered a bizarre cocktail—suntan lotion, milk, and Kahlua. That’s right, Kahlua. We drank White Russians until we could just vomit from all the milk, and watched Blue Chips over and over and over again.

Clay Risen Goes to Buenos Aires

I spent the month of July 2000 in Buenos Aires. My friend William and I had both spent the year leading up to this trip teaching high school in remote, economically depressed towns, and as a result we both had excess cash and a desire to go far away for a little while. But geography is a funny thing, and while it’s cool to see toilets flush counterclockwise, it’s no fun to be stuck in the Southern Hemisphere during July—when sun and fun are replaced by unending days of cold, bitter rain. William and I may also have been the only people not to recall that Argentina is famous for its beef consumption—an unfortunate oversight for two vegetarians.

Perhaps the only redeeming part of our misadventure was discovering an underground community of non-meat eaters, though the tiny vegetarian buffets we found scattered around the city abounded with all the joy of a pacifist at a World Wresting Federation showdown.

That summer in particular was the worst time to be a tourist in Buenos Aires. In the late 1990s, it was one of the most expensive cities in the world; today it is one of the cheapest. We got caught in the middle—the economy was tanking, the city was a ghost town, which meant nothing was going on and we couldn’t afford it.

Kate Schlegel Goes to Minneapolis

In Columbus, Ohio, the best prices for rental cars are to be found at the airport. So that’s where I reserved my car when I decided to sandwich a four-day roadtrip to Minneapolis into a two-week visit to my parents’ house. No subway scrunching, no airport layovers, no Amtrak headaches. Just me, my car radio, and the highway, stretching clear to the Twin Cities.

If only I had known there was a ladies’ pro golf tournament in the suburbs that weekend. And a stamp collectors’ convention downtown. And, unfortunately, really bad traffic when I was on my way to the rental center. I was late. I admitted it. But the car-rental counter didn’t give points for frankness. My car? Gone. Where? Couldn’t be certain.

They’d held it for a while, they said, but now there were no more cars. Not at that particular lot, and not at any of the competition next door or next door to that. You couldn’t possibly expect to get a car before Saturday morning, the agent grinned. It was Wednesday. Some stamp collector was trolling around Columbus in my Ford Focus. My entire road-tripping vacation plans crumbled at the counter.

I’ll beat those stamp collectors yet. Next time I’ll mail myself to Minneapolis.

Tobias Seamon Goes to the Beach

When I was 12 I was with my family at my grandparents’ beach house in Bethany Beach, Del. I got up early one morning to make myself a bagel—but all the bagels were frozen. Too hungry to wait for the thaw, I started sawing one in half with a dull steak knife. My grandmother called from the other room, “Don’t cut yourself!”

I shouted back scornfully, “I’m fine, Grandma.”

Half a second later, the knife slipped and hacked my thumb open. Blood ran down my hand and all over the still-frozen bagel. The stained, icy sesame seeds mocked me, and to this day I carry a jagged scar across the knuckle, and an even more painful lesion on my heart at the shameful memory of my grandmother’s fruitless warning.

Choire Sicha Goes Road-Tripping

I don’t as a rule travel to foreign countries, because the locals suck at speaking English, and the travel phrasebooks are useless. Using my well-worn copy of Dover’s Say It In Serbo-Croatian, the only truly helpful phrase my friend Elaine could manufacture was “Please put your sausage where my tampon goes.”

So, instead of venturing overseas, I’ve traveled extensively throughout America. The problem is, thanks to states’ rights, each state might as well be a different country. Oh, you can fuck your cousin in Texas but not in Minnesota? Confusing!

One hot all-American summer I spent a month driving about the country with my roommate in a beat-up jeep named Shirley. We logged about 15,000 happy miles—until I totaled the car in Denver by running down the Honda Civic of two sisters named Lupe and Maria. Or something like that—I don’t remember their names, I was stoned! But then we had no car, no drugs, and some points on my license. And, since it was the late ’90s, no cell phone, no laptop, and no way to get the hell out of Denver.

Poor Shirley. We left her there. And we almost got stuck there ourselves.

Pitchaya Sudbanthad Goes Fishing

In college I spent a summer goofing off at a marine lab in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. One night, after my friends and I had been drinking in the lab, I took a crab from the tank and started to reenact a kung fu movie with it. I poked it left and right, making sound effects. I laughed as it waved its little claw around. I jabbed it some more.

Then I felt a sharp clamp on my pinky. I screamed. The crab hanging from my finger, I flailed around the room. I pounded my hand against the table three times and the crab had come off and was scuttling across the floor, but its claw was still snapped—hard—on my finger. Angered, I wouldn’t let the crab get away, no sir. I grabbed a heavy broom and whacked blindly at it, screaming and cursing the whole time. Crab parts flew everywhere. Everyone around me was laughing their asses off.

As soon as I was done, I felt awful. I scooped up all the smashed pieces and went to the seawall, then dropped the remains into the ocean. I went back to the lab and passed out from the box wine, ashamed.

John Warner Goes on a Train Trip

I was just a year out of college and I’d been dating this girl who still had a year of school to go. I was working, which meant I had a little money, and I proposed that we take a trip together from Chicago (where we went to school) to New York (where neither of us had been).

I wanted to take the train for nostalgic purposes, I’ll admit. When I was a youngster—prior to the total collapse of Amtrak—my family and I would take the Empire Builder west to Colorado for spring-break ski vacations. And it was the train that was always my favorite part of the trip—30 hours of drinking Cokes, eating red licorice, and playing Travel Yahtzee. So I naturally had it in my head that it would be fun to take the train to New York with this girl that I liked very much. We would ride coach. It would be romantic. We would talk, we’d read, we’d kiss (or even have sex!) under the blanket in the darkened cabin.

Instead, we had endless stampedes of children and throat-clogging clouds of cigarette smoke, and, thanks to a beer-can-smashing contest held just a few rows up, a blood-smeared communal bathroom. And our cabin smelled…chewy.

We did not have sex, either, but the man across the aisle did, with his hand, and not under a blanket.

Andrew Womack Goes to the Seashore

When I was seven my family and I spent a couple of early-summer weeks at my grandparents’ beach house on the Texas coast. The first floor of the house was open, though screened-in, and used primarily to enjoy the night breeze while we cleaned crab, fish, and anything else that had been caught on the many, many fishing trips with which we filled our days.

On that lower level there were two refrigerators, one of which my grandfather had thoughtfully stocked with beer for the adults, the other, for my 15-year-old brother and I, with every flavor available of the once-popular yet cost-effective Shasta soda—cola, cherry, black cherry, strawberry, raspberry, grape, vanilla, ginger ale, lemon-lime, and every permutation in between. And: Chocolate.

Though we always found a ripe moment for a cool, frothy Shasta—Shasta for an eye-opener, Shasta with breakfast, Shasta with lunch, Shasta for an early snack, Shasta with dinner, Shasta with dessert, Shasta for a late snack—we never reached for the chocolate Shasta. It was feared, its contents and taste unknown and unwanted. And so its reputation grew, and bets were placed.

“I’ll give you a dollar if you drink that chocolate Shasta,” he said.

“No way.”

The last day at the beach house my brother and I checked the refrigerator a final time. We’d cleaned the whole thing out—except for the can of chocolate soda.

“OK, I’ll give you five dollars if you drink the chocolate Shasta,” he said.

“You’re on.”

He cracked open the can and handed it over. I drank long and deep, the cocoa foam tickling the rear of my throat. The legend was true: The chocolate Shasta was a hideous beast. That was now bathing its vile essence in my mouth.

I shot for the screen door, pushed it open, and spewed brown soda across the shells that covered the house’s lawn.

My mother emerged from the second floor, looked down at my doubled-over body quivering on the shells below, and screamed at my brother: “Kenneth Womack! What the fuck do you think you’re doing to my child?”

TMN’s Contributing Writers know where to find the purple couch. Long live the pan flute, mini mafia, and Michael Jackson. More by The Writers