Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Travelin' with Dad

In many ways, my Dad, James Abbott, fit many of the stereotypes for a father in the 1960's and 1970's.  We never flew anywhere, but road trips were fairly common.  And, even in a large car, he demonstrated remarkable "Vacation Elbow" (A condition that suddenly develops in a father's arm during a vacation trip that allowed him to reach out and slap you from incredible distances).

When I was quite small, my parents had an early Volkswagen "bug".  Those old cars had a small storage compartment, behind the rear seat, and above the engine.  This was my favorite place for long trips.  This was in the days before seat-belt laws.  And, in truth, before the time when they were standard equipment.  On a trip "back east", we were in the Appalachian mountains, driving through snow.  As I remember it, my mother was very concerned about our safety.  And, while I think Dad was very concerned about the road conditions, and was quite focused on driving, he also was trying to reach a destination.  Suddenly, the bug spun-out and went off the road.  The undercarriage hit a tree stump, and our travel was abruptly stopped.  According to my parents, I was heard to have said "that was fun...but not much".

At one time, Dad had managed to buy a used Jaguar MkII "Saloon".  This car continues to be listed among the "most beautiful cars every made".  And, even today, it is noted for being extremely road worthy.  Dad claimed that the car "loved 90".  That is to say, he had trouble keeping it below 90 mph.  I remember him spending days-on-end working on that car.  I never knew exactly what he was fixing, but I could tell by the volume of parts on the floor that it must have been major.  And, it didn't seem to run for more than a couple weeks at a time before requiring more major work.  At one point, one of his very good friends had been transferred to Arizona.  So, for our vacation, we piled in the car and went to visit.  Somewhere in far-west Texas, we had a wheel bearing go bad.  He stopped at the first "service station" he saw...which was a long way from any town.  And, the mechanic there happened to remember that (a) the Jag used the same wheel bearing as a common American-made car, and (b) that he had one of those among his parts cars in the back.  Together, he and Dad removed a used (presumed to still be usable) bearing from a wrecked car, and installed it on our car.  As far as I can remember, that bearing remained in the car until it was sold.  As I recall, this event happened on a Saturday, not too long before the station was scheduled to close.  For many years, Dad spoke of how fortunate we were to have found that bearing, because there were literally no buildings for miles.

When I was 13 or 14, Dad learned of a ski resort in New Mexico called Sipapu.  It is a smaller resort, well off the-beaten-trail.  It was very inexpensive compared to the famous resorts, and not very crowded.  The draw-back to a small resort, being that the roads may not be as well maintained or cleared as high-traffic areas.  As I remember it, we had a 1966 Oldsmobile station-wagon the year the brake master-cylinder died.  Dad must have had some warning sign that things were getting bad.  When, for no reason that I remember, we headed down the mountain to the nearest town of any size.  This mountain was STEEP.  I don't remember the road name or number.  But, we were probably at the limit of safety most of the trip.  Long before we reached the bottom, the master cylinder had died, and Dad was using the parking-brake.  Riding in a  4,000 behemoth, careening down a snow-covered mountain road will stress anyone.  So, none of us was at our best when we found a town with an auto-parts store, and learned that the only option was to "rebuild" the master-cylinder...outside, in the parking-lot.  As oldest, I was expected to help with this task.  The ambient temperature was around 20º, the wind wasn't terrible, but brake-fluid has this remarkable ability to draw the body-heat out of anything it touches...and my gloves didn't help.  Soon, I was miserable.  I assume that Dad was equally uncomfortable, but stoicism was still in-vogue among fathers.  So after, oh I don't know, 10 or 20 days in the cold, we finished the task.  Naturally, Dad did the greatest part of the is not easy to get two bodies within arm's reach of a master cylinder.  To Dad's credit, the rebuild worked on the first try...and it was back up the mountain for us.

It is funny how we mostly remember the bad things that happen when traveling.  If everything goes as-planned, it just doesn't seem to build the same kind of lasting memories.  So, lest you think that our vacations were all miserable, let me say that most of our travels went pretty-much according to plan.  And some, were even more fun than we expected.  When I was about 19 or 20 (legal drinking age at that time), we traveled with friends to another ski resort.  To our great surprise, we learned of a unique 'restaurant' essentially below the lodge.  The owners basically allowed free-range of the facilities.  There were no menus, and no prices.  You helped-yourself to whatever you wanted, and left whatever donation you felt was appropriate.  The owner was leaving to go cross-country skiing when we arrived, and soon we were the only people in the room.  The younger family members went skiing, and 5 or 6 "adults" were left with gallon jugs of wine, cheese, crackers, and probably some other stuff I don't remember.  For hours, we talked, laughed, sipped wine, ate crackers, and generally enjoyed each others' company.  I remember I was completely surprised at being intoxicated when I arose from the chair.

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