As we approach another third Sunday in June, I began reminiscing about Father's Days past - the smell of pork chops on the grill, the sound of ice tinkling in a Tom Collins glass, the sight of process servers at our front door.
My parents nearly got divorced every summer between 1980 and 1989. Their fireworks became an annual event, as predictable and public as the ones on the 4th of July, only less precisely planned.
Nothing major sparked this recurring brawl -- no lipstick on the collar or unexplained hotel charges. Neither my father's inability to level the porch nor my mother's barbeque potato chip addiction were to blame. No, every summer my parents pushed their marriage to the brink of extinction over vacation.
We were not a "vacation family," as it were, meaning we didn't actually ever go anywhere. Anywhere cool, that is. Growing up in a fairly wealthy, predominantly Jewish town outside New York City, seemingly every kid I knew had been to Florida at least twice. I swear, Jamie Herstein must have had six sets of grandparents in Boca.
As for me, I could tell you all about Ponce de Leon, but I didn't make it to the Sunshine State until Spring Break of my sophomore year in college. My grandparents lived in Yonkers and on Long Island, not exactly the hot spots of which dream vacations were made.
To their credit, my parents tried to take us on some cool trips, but plans often went awry once the Reidy fingerprints smudged the blueprints. Like the summer of 1980 when we were supposed to spend a week in the Hamptons. Very cool, right? Of course, we didn't go.
Like George W. Bush, the most secretive President in history, my father isn't big on declassifying files. Judicial Watch has a better chance of photocopying the minutes from Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force meetings than I do of learning the exact reason for the cancellation of the Hampton's trip on the morning of our departure after the station wagon had already been packed. I do, however, remember that the alternate plan, thrown together as the car sat idling in the driveway, seemed to calm both of my parents immensely.
A resort at Lake George! Beaches, boats, summer breezes; what could go wrong?
The "cabin" was slightly more rustic than my mother would have liked; after watching my 12-month old brother's light blue outfit turn brown by the end of Day One, she dressed him in it every day and threw it out at the end of the week. As far as the "resort," there were not a lot of activities (read: none) planned for the guests, the rest of whom appeared quite comfortable with the lodging. Some of them may have even brought their own abandoned pick-up trucks to park in front of their respective cabins.
Fittingly, the highlight of the trip occurred at the famous lake itself. Inside the men's bathroom. Dad scored big points daily by waking up early with Patrick and getting him out of the house, so Mom could sleep in. One morning at the lake, my father was forced to heed nature's call. Consequently, he brought Patrick into the men's room with him. This is where things get sketchy.
Before using the urinal, Dad put my brother down on the floor, which, although cleaner than our cabin floor, may not have been the ideal surface for a baby. After completing his business, my father looked down to the spot where he had placed Patrick "just a second" beforehand. No baby.
Scanning the floor, Dad spotted Patrick's little feet -- just as they disappeared under a stall door, where they stopped in front of a much bigger, much hairier pair of feet. In an instant, my father joined Patrick on all fours and dragged him out from under the stall door before setting a land speed record out of the men's bathroom. I think we packed up and drove home that day.
So my parents decided to take control of their vacationing. No more last minute cancellations or iron clad contracts with unsuitable resorts. Now we would vacation on our own terms. The Reidy's were going to be in charge of our fate, dammit. We'd be high speed, low drag vacationers. Flexible? Hell, Olympic gymnasts would seem rigid compared to us. We would be able to pick up and leave at a moment's notice, headed wherever we pleased. In short, we started to camp.
For Mother's Day, Dad bought Mom a tent (I can only hope I inherited his knack for romantic gestures). At the time, they certainly did not realize they were voluntarily driving a spike into the heart of their marriage. I doubt my father knew he was not signing a credit card receipt at the store's register, but cleverly disguised divorce papers. I do not blame them for what followed. How were they to know that a tent is Satan with air flaps?
On our first camping trip, we drove to Ellenville, NY, a town several hours northwest of New York City and the home of a Jellystone Park. Our bright red station wagon had barely made it onto park grounds when Rich Reidy leaned out the window and, in his best Yogi Bear voice, said to the park ranger, "Heeeyyy, Boo-Boo!"
I did not actually see the Ranger's reaction -- like my mother, I had covered my head with a blanket immediately after seeing the glow on my father's face, the glow which always preceded an embarrassing moment -- but I am sure the man wanted to respond, "Heeeyyy fat-so, do you really think you are the first comic genius to say that?"
To his credit, the Ranger said nothing, but I have little doubt that he placed a call to the lodge instructing the check-in guy to assign us a camp site next to a trash dumpster or the public restrooms.
After arriving at our assigned spot -- "Look, Dear, you won't have to worry about walking half a mile to the bathrooms in the middle of the night!" -- we unloaded the tent box which, with its prominently displayed picture of the perfect tent erected by the perfect camping family, served as a mocking reminder of our ineptitude.
The directions suggested allotting 30 to 45 minutes to put up the tent. This was a bit aggressive for the Reidy's. My father may own plenty of tools, but there is a far cry between having a wrench in your hand and being handy. As for me, I was about as useful as a soup fork. In a Cub Scout campfire-building contest, I once doused my own team's flames. Throw in my 5' 3" mother -- ideally, you'd like some height when assembling a tent -- who had at least one helpful "suggestion" for each one of her 63 inches, and we had quite a tent team. 30 to 45 minutes? Try four to five hours.
I'm not sure if today's tents come with the poles already numbered, but I can only assume that they do. I will assume this because I am sure spouses, both male and female, have been bludgeoned to death with non-numbered poles much like the ones the Reidy family attempted to use that day. You wouldn't paint by numbers without the numbers, and you shouldn't attempt to erect a tent without them, either. Richard, maybe this one goes to that one.
Like all children, I had been taught that patience is a virtue. I had to take this on faith, however, because patience was rarely on display at our house. In second grade I came home from school and, having been pumped full of Great American Smoke Out propaganda, asked my mom to quit puffing for the selected day. She responded by picking up a pack of cigarettes and saying, "These have saved your life on more occasions than I can count. Do you really want me to stop smoking them?" Point well taken, Mom. We won't be having this discussion again. Can I get you the lighter? My mother, then, was a woman who traded patience now for a potential cancer later. As for my father, well, he thought patients were something a doctor had.
I won't scare you with the abusive details of the tent assemblage, but I can assure you that Rich Reidy still holds the North American record for most F-bombs over the course of one weekend. Throughout the ordeal, he was the only Reidy who did not cry, although maybe he should have. My parents had a better chance of completing an all black jigsaw puzzle in the dark than they did of correctly erecting that tent without numbered poles.
But they did it. I have no idea how, but they did. Of course, it didn't look anything like the picture on the box, but it worked. My parents kissed and made up. And started cocktail hour a little early.
On our next camping trip, they almost got divorced again. My mother was certain that we had assembled the tent one way, while my father -- shocker -- was sure we had used a completely different method. More tears, more F-bombs, but they got the damn thing up.
The following year, Dad bought a screened tent so "we can eat dinner without the bugs getting to us." Uh, Dad, do you want to get divorced? I remember Mom smiling through clenched teeth while reaching into her purse for her cigarettes.
In 1990, The Reidy's began vacationing in hotels. Not coincidentally, Mom will help Dad celebrate his 36th Father's Day this weekend.