Peanut butter crackers. You know those square cheese crackers with peanut butter in the middle? The ones that are mostly salt and artificial flavors held together by lard? Well, if you were to open up a package next to a swimming pool, and someone did a cannonball next to you and soaked them. THAT is when they are the best. That sort-of-soggy, salty, peanut butter memory. I can feel the sun on my face. Hear the sounds of splashing and laughter. Smell the chlorine.
What? You need more information? I got it.
A million years ago, while on a road trip with my family, we stopped at a Howard Johnson in Tucson. Road trip stops were typically Motel 6’s, so this was a treat. And we ended up staying two days. Also a treat.
I feel a little family-road-trip background is needed. Let me give you my perspective.
I have murky pre-dawn memories of my dad carrying me out to the car in my pajamas. I assume he did the same for my sister (she may have just schlepped herself out there, but I’m guessing not). There were blankets and pillows ready for us in the back seat of our blue Pontiac Catalina. We stretched out side by side and promptly returned to sleep. I would eventually wake to a sunny sky, telephone poles flying by at regular intervals. The radio wasn’t on, and there was rarely conversation. I would keep as still as I could, staring at the back of my dad’s head. My seat in the car had always been behind my dad. My father was a USAF officer, so my view was a head with a regulation cut. Always. From time to time, he would rub the back of his neck. He was tired. Mom would ask him if he was tired. He would always tell her no.
It’s funny, but I honestly can’t remember taking a single pee break during any of my childhood road trips. By the time we stopped somewhere, it was time to eat. Often, we stopped at a Nickerson Farms. If you don’t remember those, they were like Stuckey’s. A roadside diner with the menu on the placemats, crayons for the kids, a gift shop, and my favorite…a huge bee hive on the side of the building. You could see the colony of bees from inside the restaurant, and it was mesmerizing. (The connection between then and now is not lost on me.)
Back in the car, and wide awake now, mom kept us busy with license plate bingo, “Teakettle” (a version of 20-questions that my grandmother had invented), and individually portioned snacks on occasion. We had coloring books, game books and crayons (I still remember the smell of sun-melted Crayolas in the back dash after Dad would tell us never to leave them there), and my sister and I would speak to each other in Ubby-Dubby (anyone remember the show “ZOOM!”?) when we weren’t fighting over who was taking up more space on the seat, or who was “touching each other”. We were travelling clichés. We also had a handful of our favorite toys and I had “Fritz” and my sister had “Mick”.
Since I have already digressed so far from my original thought, I might as well tell you about Fritz and Mick. They were our “wubbies”.
Fritz was a small golden teddy bear with dark green material on the top and red plaid on the bottom. He had brown plastic eyes, and if you looked closely, you could see that there was gold fur trapped underneath. Other than that, he was naked. Furless. Dad brought him back from a trip to Scotland when I was a baby, and apparently he had fur at that time (the bear, not my dad). Mom told me that I promptly chewed all the fur off of him. I have no memory of a furry Fritz. He had been loved on for so long that his ears had the scars of stitching (dark green, to match his “shirt”). He went everywhere with me. On my 5th birthday, I accidentally left him in the Travelodge across from Disneyland (the excitement of sleeping in the shadow of the Matterhorn got the better of me) and the manager was kind enough to ship it back. It was a close call. My mom even made me a dress with a dark green top and red plaid skirt to match Fritz. He was my bff.
Mick was my sister’s “pet”. He was a flat piece of leather in the shape of a ghost or a two-part snowman. He had orange fur on one side, and a face painted on the other side of the “head”. The leather on the sides of the “body” folded in, so that the orange fuzz showed. She called those his “wings”. Mick (and my sister) annoyed me. She slept with that thing on her face. Right under her nose. She made a little clicking sound with her mouth while she slept. (I think about it now, and it’s one of my favorite memories of my sister.) It was covered with drool stains, and eventually disintegrated until only the head remained with just a hint of fur. It resembled a wash cloth. Mom was able to find another after a long search (I think when she found it, she purchased a few) and gave it to her for Christmas or her birthday one year. I know the hope was that she would abandon the original, but she was just thrilled that Mick now had a brother…”Mickey”. She eventually had to put the tiny piece of leather that was Mick into a cotton-lined jewelry box for safe keeping, and Mickey became her new bff. I wish I could say that she and Mickey enjoyed a long friendship together, but sadly, no. During a stay one summer at my grandmother’s house, I (totally accidentally) flushed Mickey down the toilet. I would give you the details, but it’s still pretty traumatizing to this day, and my sister may be reading this very blog and I certainly don’t want to drag up painful memories for her. Anyway, enter Mickey The Third. (In case you are judging me, I totally made up for it in my 20’s by needlepointing a picture of Mick and framing it for a gift. We’re good.
Back to Howard Johnson…
The orange roof with teal accents is an especially vivid memory for me. The restaurant attached to the motel had my mom’s favorite menu item – the clam roll. I really don’t know why I remember this. But that has always stuck with me. And I was allowed to get chocolate milk. A rare, but favorite treat.
Back in the room…well, I don’t remember the room. My memories of all hotel rooms were of two things. The first was going to bed. My sister and I shared one bed, so the traditional “stop touching me/stop putting your feet on me/stop fluffing on me” ensued (side bar: it was never “fart” when I was growing up. That was considered a bad word. We were told to use the word “fluff”. This made the Winnie-The-Pooh song particularly hilarious for me. No one understood my incessant giggling.) My parents, in the other bed, always cuddled for a short while before kissing and turning over to sleep. I would hear the kiss, then the shift as they moved. I relaxed and typically was asleep before any snoring began. My second hotel memory was waking up to the smell of instant coffee (made with an immersion heater and ceramic cups that my parents traveled with) and the sound of the morning news. I would always happily drift back to sleep until Dad put me back in the car.
Looking back on it, Dad was a road-trip genius. I have no idea how many miles or hours we traveled before the sun came up, but I’m guessing most of them. My sister and I never had to endure long days of travel, because we always arrived at our destination by mid-day. Mom and Dad would kick us out of the room so they could sleep. Also looking back on it, I have a feeling it wasn’t always for sleep. Which makes me feel warm and fuzzy and icky all at the same time. Depending on the location, my sister and I would play on the playground, splash in a kiddy pool or just roam the breezeways looking at the ice machine, Pepsi machine, front office, or finding other kids to hang out with. We knew our boundaries. If you are concerned with two kids running around without parental supervision, go find my blog “Pee-Stained Memories” from June 12th. Childhood was different in the 70’s.
This particular Howard Johnson had an amazing expanse of palm-tree-surrounded grass, with a nice-sized kiddy pool and large swimming pool. My sister and I were water babies. Mom and Dad owned a boat, and we spent a lot of time at the ocean, on lakes and in swimming pools. They made sure we had swimming lessons and knew how to swim. We had to pass a swim test each year to even be allowed to go into the deep end. Mom had been an underwater ballerina when she was young, and was happy to distribute nose plugs and demonstrate all the cool underwater moves she had learned. My sister and I were masters of the underwater tea party, and would make ourselves dizzy doing flips and summersaults underwater. Like most kids, we got in the water first thing in the morning and stayed till late at night. Our summer skin stayed tan and perma-pruned.
Since Dad had decided to spend an extra day in Tucson, we had a leisurely breakfast in the motel diner, and then happily headed to the pool (after waiting 30 minutes of course) while Mom and Dad “retired” to the room for the day. No complaints from us.
I want to say Mom brought sandwiches and chips to the pool for lunch for us. That seems like something she would do…but I don’t have any real memory of that. Or any meal for that matter. I have flashes of diner moments at best. My sister, insisting that ketchup needed to be shaken before putting it on French fries (I always thought this was ridiculous, and said so), picked up the bottle to give it a vigorous shake. When she did, the lid popped off and she ended up vigorously distributing it all over herself. At the time, I felt like this was a win for me. I remained victorious just long enough for karma to kick in, and I became the klutz for the remainder of my life. Damn ketchup. (Okay, I can’t completely blame the ketchup. There may have been a few other unfortunate sister-episodes that I celebrated, which probably explains the length of time this clumsy-karma has stuck).
The next memory is one of my most vivid childhood memories. Late afternoon, my Dad came out to the pool and crouched down by the edge, blocking the sun. He had a package of those peanut butter crackers, and opened it up. He handed one down to me, and I grabbed it with my pruny chlorine fingers. I was exhausted and hungry (that kind of exhausted/hungry you get as a child from playing/swimming all day. I miss that feeling), so it was the most amazing snack! He handed me another, and after being still in the shady deep end for a few minutes, I began to shiver, so I scrambled out and sat next to him on a plastic lounge chair.
We chatted in the sun for awhile. I was in the middle of taking my summer swimming lessons. I was an excellent swimmer, but the only thing I hadn’t managed to accomplish was jumping into the pool. It terrified me, and I couldn’t seem to master it on my own. Because of that, I wasn’t able to pass that particular class and move on. Dad casually asked if I wanted to practice jumping into the pool. I was up for it. He got into the water, and stretched out his arms. “JUMP!” he yelled. It took a hot minute, but it was shallow water and I felt confident. So I jumped. ON my Dad. He took it like a champ, of course, but sweetly mentioned that I needed to try again and aim more for the water. I made a couple more attempts, and while I didn’t land completely on him, I was clearly doing some damage. He thought of a better plan. “Okay,” he said, “How about we stand next to each other on the side and you hold on to my hand?” I was willing to try.
I had a death grip on his hand with both of mine. The first few times I essentially swung out over the water and held on until he let me down. By the time I let go, I was already in the water. Eventually, I let go earlier and earlier until I was making a splash upon entry. And then I was holding on to his hand with just one of mine. He must have been sunburned and exhausted by this time, but I wouldn’t have known. In my entire life, I’ve never heard my father complain about anything personal. Finally, he suggested that I hold on to four fingers, then three, then two, and then ultimately I was jumping in while only holding on to Dad’s pointer finger.
This felt like success to me, but Dad knew better. I needed to jump in by myself. The swimming instructor certainly wouldn’t offer a finger to hold while on deck. So he made his final suggestion. He would stand next to me, pointer finger extended, and I would PRETEND to hold it and jump in. Seemed reasonable. And it worked! I was officially jumping in while pretending to hold Dad’s finger! He remained at the edge of the pool with me for as long as I needed. Each jump would find me perched on the edge, gripping an imaginary finger. I remember being the one who finally told him he could leave and let me do it on my own. At some point, Mom came out and I was able to show off my new skill.
I remember everything about that moment. The sun, the dry desert heat, the cool grass, the chlorine water, the taste of peanut butter crackers, and the feelings of excitement and empowerment.
I could conquer the world by holding Dad’s imaginary finger.
Last night, I grabbed a package of peanut butter crackers and headed into my daughter’s old room. I stood there for awhile, and then I shut off the lights and stretched out on the bed, staring up at the glow-in-the-dark stars that still live on the walls and ceiling. I took a bite of cracker, and grabbed an imaginary finger.