If given the choice between a box of corgi puppies and a box of rusted nails my children will immediately be drawn to the second choice. So it was of no surprise that on entering “Casa De This Will Do” late in the evening after a full days travel the first game they began to play in our Lilliputian living space was a ferocious game of tag. I have to constantly struggle with intense and clear pictures of “what could go wrong” appearing in my mind’s eye. My son who has the coordination you might expect a “sensitive” and “verbal” child to have was careening around a corner in pursuit of his much nimbler little sister. I saw him flail towards the edge of the rustic stone fireplace and my imagination treated me to a bloody scene ripped from a Sam Peckinpah film. I hastily moved the couch (with my 6’2” friend laying on it reading a book) almost on top of the hearth which interrupted the circular path my children where stampeding around. With the runway now blocked my children took on the demeanor of two idling motorcycles. Their engines were ready to explode forth in celebration of windblown freedom but “the man” had closed down the boulevard ‘cause them damn hippies need haircuts. It was now time to switch gears. Feed the beasties. That would calm the proceedings down. A hastily but nonetheless tasty meal of spaghetti and meat sauce was prepared with alacrity by my wife’s bestie. Carbohydrates slowed the little ones down enough to begin the bedtime ritual. Black candles were lit and the nightly incantations were made loudly to the phantasmagorical liegemen of the sandman. So many goats were given up that night. Sleep. At long last sleep. I later looked out over the woods our cabin was plopped in. We made it. Vacation…or whatever the hell you call it.
For lunch on the second day our group settled on a pizza place in Gatlinburg Tennessee. There is nothing like relaxing with searing hot bread slathered with cheese and tomato sauce in the 98 degree heat. After overhearing the host tell a passing friend “I told my second grade teacher I only needed to learn three letters: ‘U’ ‘S’ and ‘A’ which spells ‘freedom’” we were placed on the veranda which overlooked the main strip of town. Gatlinburg is a carnival-like mishmash of biker t-shirts stores, Christian candle shops, fudge purveyors, wax museums, and olde timey novelty photographers. It’s ground zero of the oversized belt buckle of America. I grew up in Indiana so outwardly I reject places like this and inwardly I’m strangely drawn to them. Like Ben Folds once sang: “my redneck past is nipping at my heels”. So there we were eating blazing hot oily pizza in the egg drop soup-like summer air with the odor of corndogs wafting unrepentantly over the proceedings when my children leaned up on the tall metal guard rail. There is no chance they would fall. None. They would have to pull themselves up three feet and then pull off an advanced trapeze maneuver to even be close to danger. I’m in an almost constant police action with myself over letting my kids experience life while keeping them from suffering lasting damage. My 50% free range 50% helicopter parenting at times makes my behavior resemble a gonzo journalist huffing raw ether in 1970’s Las Vegas. I was however positive they were going to plummet to their end and wind up in a broken pile surrounded by a group of “I’m with stupid” shirt wearing locals who would toothlessly shout “at least they’re with the angels now”. Yet my wife and friends seemed totally unbothered by the kids location. They were safe as could be and they carried on with their conversation. I had to nervously look away with the affect of a paranoid accountant who has just finished his fifth rip off a giant Buddha shaped pipe stuffed with government grade marijuana. My wife asked:
“Mike? Are you okay” and my response was almost a bark of
“Fine! I’m good. I’m great. What a day we’re having.”. Stares. I started pacing. The kids were still leaning on the rail and now pointing at a small cadre of people on mobility scooters.
“I wonder where our waiter is with the check?! Maybe I should go find him so we can get going!”
“I’m still drinking my beer”
“Haven’t you had enough?”
“Excuse me? I’ve had one”
“Is it hot out here?”
“Mike! What’s the matter?”
“I just want the kids to not lean on the rail!”
“They’re fine. They’re just looking”
“Look I saw an internet video where a bunch of people fell from a hotel because a rail gave way! It would make me feel a whole lot better if they got down!”
This was a lie to cover up my volcanic and irrational fear that had now spilled out into the immediate circle of tables. My wife gave me the look I deserved and I excused myself to go to the bathroom. I bumbled past the Guy Ferri themed bar and while waste deep in my chagrin I almost walked right into Honey Boo-Boo. No joke. She and her mother from that reality show were walking out of the restaurant. There in my moment of terrible dadness I was faced with Honey “Sketti and Butter” Boo-Boo. At least I was fairly sure it was them. Many folks in my immediate vicinity resembled some form of the Thompson family. Why was the universe presenting me with the grand poohbah of all odd parenting in this my time of paternal paranoid preposterousness (did I just earn that alliteration? Probably not). I darted to the bathroom and washed my face repeatedly. The oil and sweat mingled with the soap. I was lost for a second. “I’m gonna screw these kids up aren’t I?” I said out loud. The guy next to me in a “Make America Great” t-shirt mumbled in a slow and steady drawl “Probably”. My mother was totally overprotective and even she would have paid no attention as I rappelled off the side of a building. Mama June while unconcerned with the fifth bag of flaming hot Cheetos her daughter just ate would probably be the type to keep Honey Boo-Boo off that rail. Was I Mama June? A parent too concerned with made up dangers to even notice the real ones? How long have I been staring into this mirror with a soap oozing down into my beard? Why are three dudes with mullets staring at me? I’m blocking the door.
I returned to my friends no more refreshed than when I left but I was relieved to see them all ready to depart. The children were now quietly coloring a picture of the Twin Towers and an American eagle they had been handed by our waiter earlier in the meal. We left and I garbled another explanation for my departure from sanity to everyone about how the made up internet video I saw truly impacted me. My friends and wife were generous and more than willing to put the whole thing out of their minds as we waltzed into an olde timey photographers. We dressed as outlaws as the photographer made aggressively sexist jokes. The day was saved.
Sitting around a fire that night with everyone was honestly the highlight of the entire experience for me. Sure chiggers were secretly attaching themselves onto my inner thigh while innumerous unnerving eyes were staring at us through the surrounding darkness and it was much too humid to enjoy the warmth of the flames but none of that really mattered. The stars were in the sky gently reminding us of the gorgeous mysteries that exist beyond our world and my children were roasting marshmallows. A guitar was lazily strummed and the assemblage of the perfect s’more was debated with playful aggression. My daughter even asked me to read the story I most love to read to her: “The Letter” from “Frog and Toad Are Friends”. I have my Master’s Degree in acting so my opportunities to perform are extremely limited at best and I relished the chance to publicly show off the voices I had developed for gentle Frog and the irascible Toad over the many months I’ve been reading this story over and over to my daughter. All was right with the world. I didn’t think about my responsibilities as a parent. I was Dad in that moment. Relieving to reflect on and absolutely lovely to experience. The fire began to crackle a little less and my son told a wandering and quietly non-sequitur ghost story. More songs. Sleeping children carried inside only to awake at the last minute by a spider drunkenly dancing across the glass portion of the front door. Yelling. Calming. Quieting. Hugging. Teeth brushing. No more story telling. Sleeping. Parents snacking. This may be the best of times.