As Christmas cards and letters roll in from all points of the compass, especially from old classmates in high school, it gives me pause to think about how few people live their lives in one place and enjoy (sometimes, of course, not), the special intimacy of having known each other from childhood, grown up in a hometown that has changed a great deal in some ways, and in many others not at all. You can never know another person as well as one with whom you went to grade school as a child, experienced together the rather violent changes of the teen years, and then after perhaps losing touch for a time following high school, settling down to share the ups and downs of a long adult life in a small town. I count this a unique and increasingly rare privilege.
These musings have lead me some distance from my topic, which is some rather odd Christmas memories, for a hometown boy, from the road. My father, for some really strange reason for a man with five children, loved to take family trips, especially over the holidays. Lucky for us, he also loved trains.
The first leg of one of these early holiday journeys was on the City of New Orleans, the Illinois Central passenger train between Chicago and New Orleans. (Arlo Guthrie made the run famous in a song about it back in the Ď60s.) We would eventually arrive in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for a sunny vacation, but after a night in a New Orleans motel, my dad looked up a fellow Hammond organ dealer in New Orleans, who pressed upon him the keys to his cabin somewhere out in the bayou country. He insisted we spend a night there.
Dad was game, and so were we until in the gathering twilight, we found ourselves picking our way down a dirt track in the middle of a huge swamp. The directions to the place were a little sketchy, or perhaps Dad had been careless in following them. The growing, timorous chorus finally convinced him to turn around, so he backed up into the woods, turned around, and reversed course. Or so we thought until a few hundred yards later we encountered a huge impassable mud hole that hadnít been there on our way in. This was spooky, and only got more so as the last of the daylight faded into full darkness.
This made no sense at all. How could we have turned around, only to encounter this mud hole which wasnít there before. Now we could hear hounds baying somewhere off in the woods. Maybe its coon hunters, someone said, hopefully. Letís yell for help. Some less optimistic person suggested it could be prison guards looking for escaped convicts. We held our peace, except for the little kids, who began to cry.
My dad and Lee, the oldest, held burning magazines for torches and made short, aimless forays into the woods, not quite knowing what to look for, and the scary night wore on.
Finally Lee, the brain boy of the family, now a doctor, had an idea. Maybe, he said, when we backed out of the road to turn around, we bumbled onto another one that curved close to the one we came in on. That would explain the muddle that wasnít there before! Sure enough, they backtracked a couple hundred yards, walked into the woods a short way, and there was the other road. Amid whimpers of relief, we drove back out of the swamp, rechecked the directions, and finally found ourselves at our friendís cabin long after dark.
The next morning we took the train across Mississippi and Alabama, and by night time had booked a room in a Fort Lauderdale motel with a frigid swimming pool, which only the twins, Nick and Nan, would enter. My last memory of that trip is of gorging on the meat of coconuts which had fallen from palm trees around the pool and then getting violently and colorfully ill. I will not eat a Mounds candy bar to this day.
I had intended to reminisce about other Christmas trips, but am out of space and time. Perhaps Iíll take this narrative up again next year. But if you want to hear the story about how my sister was kidnapped one year from a Mexican house of ill repute, youíll have to seek a private audience with me, as it is not a suitable tale for this family publication.