When calamity strikes, think back to dad

Family vacations can be a challenge.

Growing up, my dad often had big plans and great intentions, but it didn’t always work out.

One year, he bought an old, used Winnebago. By today’s standards, the thing was mid-sized, but in the early 1980s it seemed huge.

Dad was mechanically inclined and could fix anything. And it’s a good thing. Our vacations often demanded a lot of mechanical skill.

The camper was nothing but trouble. Fun for me as a kid but not so for mom and dad.

No stopping. Had to make good time. That was the mantra on any family trip.

And with the camper, it was a necessity. The heat shielding in the engine compartment was shot, which meant the starter would freeze up.

Stop, and you might not get another chance to get started. Not ideal for the drive from the mountains of southwest Virginia to Disney World.

All along the way, every time we’d stop, dad would find himself under the camper, swinging a small sledgehammer against the starter to try to get the thing to turn over.

He tried dozens of “fixes.”

At one point, he was forced to use the little LUV pickup truck we were towing to push this broken-down behemoth up over a curb and into a parking lot, which became his make-shift garage for the day.

Eventually, we made it to Disney, where it rained for several days straight.

For mom and dad, I think, the vacation was a disaster. It probably was for me at the time, but I look back on it now fondly. I don’t remember much about Disney, but I sure remember that camper and my dad working on it day and night.

Another time we were visiting my dad’s two brothers in Ohio. We were out on Lake Erie in a cabin cruiser that, for a number of reasons, was not so different than the camper.

Out of sight of land, the engine went caput.

After hours of struggle with the inborad, my dad was able to fashion some sort of replacement part from a piece of scrap metal. He got the boat going before we drifted into Canada and an international incident.

I thought of my dad a lot last week while on vacation Downeast with my family.

We were staying at a camp on West Grand Lake. It’s a beautiful spot and a special place for my wife, whose mom and step-dad own it.

The camp is at the end of an old logging road that is more like a path now. You can make it in and out with our Subaru, but it takes about 30 minutes to go the five miles.

It rained a lot during the week, which let cabin fever seep into the kids.

My daughter, Addie, built a rock shop where she commenced creating commerce.

My son, Elias, managed to get his fishing line or lure tangled for the better part of three days. Hung on the canoe, his shoe, his shirt, the dock, the trees, this rock and that rock.

All in all, though, we were making the best of the wet weather and the time together.

Then on Thursday we had a series of unfortunate events.

Elias managed, somehow, to lock both sets of keys in the car, along with the cell phone, which could only get a scant signal if you were standing on the dock pointing it west anyway.

It took three hours with a coat hanger, piece of broken fishing poll, fishing hook and line, a screw driver and finally a piece of oddly shaped wood, but I eventually got into the car.

Elias survived the ordeal, mostly due to his own good sense to stay arms length away from me and my wife’s yeoman’s efforts and diplomacy.

That same night, the propane that powers the 80-year-old refrigerator and the lanterns in the camp went out. No big deal. Just switch the tanks and relight the pilot.

Tanks switched, I had to channel dad once again to figure out the refrigerator. It was ancient and not cooperating. Finally, I got the pilot re-ignited, saving the milk.

Of course, all was good for about five minutes, until it became clear that the second tank was as empty as the first.

Luckily there were two others, one of which was also empty. On the fourth try, I managed to move the full tank into position, build a rock platform so it would stop falling over and reconnect it to the line.

And then relight that cantankerous pilot light one more time.

I should have mentioned it was pitch dark, in middle of the night, and three-quarters of the way through I had an allergy attack that left me nearly blind.

Through it all, I kept thinking back to dad, who had struggled mightily to try to create vacation memories for me when I was a boy.

I think he was disappointed with the way things often turned out. But those memories have only grown stronger for me now. Perhaps one day, it’ll be my kids, thinking back to West Grand Lake and 2012 and looking for inspiration to survive their own vacation calamities.

Oh, and did I mention the bear?

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com.