For others, the word “vacation” evokes idyllic childhood memories of family togetherness and carefree summer days spent at some garden spot by a seashore or lake. For me, “vacation” has always meant a special family time, too — a time where families retreat far from civilization for the express purpose of torturing one another in an enclosed space without distractions. It doesn’t take a $90-an-hour Freudian to trace this feeling directly back to that fateful Luchs family trip to Lake Delavan, Wisconsin.
The year was 1964. Kennedy was freshly planted in Arlington National Cemetery, having been killed (as Oliver Stone has since informed us) by a conspiracy involving 93 percent of the American people and at least two of Donald Duck’s nephews, Huey and Dewey (although there is no direct evidence that Louie helped Oswald pull the trigger, he is now known to have been on a first-name basis with both Jack Ruby and Sirhan Sirhan). The Beatles were continuing their full frontal assault on America’s youth. Viet Nam was becoming the number one vacation spot for draft-age U.S. males.
The Luchses had just purchased a peculiar little foreign car, the Citroen 2CV. This vehicle is several sizes larger than a Tonka Toy and almost as powerful. It’s basically a Volkswagen Bug with an inferiority complex and only two cylinders. The man who sold it to us — a family friend later convicted of extortion and threatening to set off a bomb in the San Francisco Hilton, but that’s another story — fondly described the 2CV as “the perfect desert fighting machine.” He claimed that if you ran out of motor oil, you could always keep a Citroen going by filling the crankcase with ripe bananas. More than once our father caught us attempting to put this intriguing theory to the test.
The 2CV could seat two comfortably. In a pinch, four people could be squeezed in if they were willing to forego minor comforts like breathing. Our car held all nine of us: our parents, Robert and Jeannine, and (in descending order of age and location in the food chain), Hilde, Kurt, Murph, Helmut, Sarah, Rolf and Cara. Then there was our “luggage” (paper bags full of old clothes), the inflatable rubber boat, life preservers, a week’s worth of food and two cats, Leopold and Loeb.
The main excitement on the trip up came when one of the cats leapt from the back seat onto Dad’s back as he was negotiating a left turn. He screamed, “Get it off, get it off!” but this only amused his passengers and caused the cat to dig in its claws, piercing his Goldwater T-shirt and drawing enough blood to simulate a lovely tie-dyed effect. The rest of the ride is a blur to me now, since I spent most of it vomiting into a bag of Hilde’s knitting. Like most healthy American families, ours included both normal vomiters (NVs) and projectile vomiters (PVs). The difference is, if an NV keeps his head in a paper bag most of the time, his fellow travelers will only enjoy his experience vicariously, whereas there is no escape from the PV. Handing a PV a paper bag is like putting a cherry bomb in a coffee can: It simply makes for a messier explosion. I was an NV, but Sarah was a PV, and by the time we reached Delavan the interior of the car looked like a gutted animal.
On first sight Lake Delavan appeared to be North America’s largest mud puddle. At no point could you see bottom. Yet it was so shallow you could wade out for a quarter of a mile and never get your head wet. Not that you really wanted to get your head wet in Lake Delavan. It seemed to have become the final resting place for all the sewage, crumpled gum wrappers, rusty beer cans and broken glass in the tri-state area. Dull, sticky soap bubbles covered everything, bubbles that emitted a sickening stench when popped.
The cabin was owned by an old Polish woman from Chicago and was apparently furnished with cast-offs from the Warsaw ghetto. Before the electricity was turned on we wandered from room to room, weeping like icons at the shabbiness of it all. “What’s that crunching noise?” asked Rolf. “Sounds like Rice Crispies,” said Hilde. When the lights came on we discovered that the cabin was carpeted with dead flies. Helmut got Sarah to eat one by convincing her she would magically acquire the power of flight. She was indeed airborne for several seconds after jumping from the cabin roof, but problems with low visibility and faulty hydraulics forced her to make an emergency landing in some sumac bushes.
The only water sport we encountered at Lake Delavan was trying to get the toilet to flush. We quickly ascertained that any amount of toilet paper, even a single square, would cause an overflow. This more than anything else drove us away. Although we had paid for the entire week, by Thursday we had all had enough. We packed up and left late that afternoon with Dad even more dazed and confused than usual.
Dad was always in a world of his own, and never more so than when he was driving. He was very superstitious. He thought it was bad luck to look at a map before a trip…or during a trip…or at any time, for that matter. He also believed it was poor form to accost strangers with questions like, “Where the hell are we?” And he nursed an instinctive fear of policemen bordering on divine awe. (There must be genes for all these traits, because I regret to say they were passed on to me!)
Unfortunately, when the 2CV was fully locked and loaded with Luches it was unable to exceed 35 miles per hour, 10 miles below the minimum. A state trooper (who probably thought he had stepped into a remake of “The Grapes of Wrath”) soon pulled us over and advised Dad that he would have to leave the main highway and use back roads with lower speed limits the rest of the way. When we turned off the main road we got lost immediately and stayed lost. Mom held the thankless post of navigator. Her pathetic attempts to read the map by flashlight while in motion so infuriated Dad that he snatched the map away from her, wrapped it around the steering wheel with one hand and turned the flashlight on it with the other. This maneuver caused us to narrowly miss an A&W Root Beer truck.
The afternoon wore into twilight. It began to rain. The winter solstice drew near. I don’t remember when — or if — we ever got home, and I don’t want to remember. And I’ll thank you not to mention the word “vacation” again.