Vacations of days gone by…

(Originally posted August 9, 2011)

The days of “Summer Vacation” are quickly winding down.  Back to School sales are in full swing, and I am marveling at the fact the my niece Mary Claire begins her Junior year at Cullman High School, and my nephew Ben will start his first year in Middle School.  Time flies–whether we are wanting it to or not!  As much as I loathe the heat of this season, there are many things that over the years have endeared this time of year to the heart strings.  Summer vegetables: a REAL  summer tomato, red through and through, which can’t be found worth eating at any other time of year.  Green tomatoes fried up by the platter full are right up there at the top of summer loves in my book!  Memories of stringing beans, shelling peas, and hours upon hours of catching fireflies in a mayonnaise jar late into the hot summer evening, provide a bit of redemption for the days upon end of sweating…and sweating…and sweating.  

Growing up in my family bestowed a love of the mountains if by default, with most every summer vacation finding our family of four trekking north to the Great Smoky Mountains and Gatlinburg, Tennessee.  The beach? Who needs it?!?  We had the Smokies…Cades Cove, Newfound Gap, breakfast at the Pancake Pantry, and a balcony over the Little Pigeon River, courtesy of Rocky Waters Motor Lodge.  Yes, summer did have a perk or two!!  

A few months ahead of summer’s arrival, Mother and I would send off for the latest brochures from the Gatlinburg Chamber of Commerce.  When they began arriving in our mailbox, it was almost as euphoric as the arrival of the Sears and Roebuck Wishbook…almost!  Brochures in hand, planning could begin in earnest!  And plan, I did!  My first checklist item was phoning my Granny asking to borrow the classic Samsonite luggage, the only proper mode of transport for my vacation wardrobe across hill and dale to Rocky Waters Motor Lodge!  Over the years, there weren’t too many inns, motels or “Motor Lodges” that we didn’t try out.  My personal favorite was always Rocky Waters Motor Lodge.  For some reason, a “Motor Lodge” had a nostalgic feel to it, and with a balcony over a mountain stream beckoning us to the sounds of rushing water over rocks of the Little Pigeon River, Rocky Waters was a hands down winner!

 In the weeks leading up to vacation departure, days would be meticulously crossed off the calendar in eager anticipation of our family’s mountain get-away!  Mama would always secure a box to be placed on the Living Room sofa a couple weeks ahead of time.  There, we would gather food items needed for mountainous picnic lunches.  Tiny cans of Deviled Ham (with the paper wrappers on the outside of the can), Ritz Crackers, Vienna Sausages, Jif Peanut Butter, Beanie Weenies, White Bread, a knife to slice tomatoes, and a bottle of mustard. If there were nothing else in that box, there would be a bottle of mustard.  Mama seemed to think that she could not leave town without French’s mustard safe and secure inside the sacred food box!  

The plaid cooler, paid for with stamps at the Top Value Trading Stamps store would find its place beside the food box about a week before we left.  Granny’s Samsonite would be laid out on my bed awaiting all of my meticulously folded, carefully coordinated outfits.  Without fail, I would be packed and ready to go at least a week ahead of time. 

My sister Amy would have me worried to death not taking the time to pack until a day or two before we would leave for the mountains!  However,  Amy’s vacation belongings would be on the ready by the evening before departure.  That is when she and I would have our ‘trial run’ for vacation travel.  On Vacation Eve, as soon as the car pulled into the carport, post car wash and oil change, Amy and I would begin our organizing of the car’s interior.  Pillows, a quilt, lucky stuffed animals that made the vacation ‘cut’, books, my brochures and maps to mark our journey, and various other personal items that just couldn’t be left behind for an entire week were loaded for the much anticipated journey!  We would place, shift, situate and shuffle until our little nest in the backseat of the Buick Electra 225 was deemed complete and perfect.  Being the siblings we were, different as daylight and dark from the get-go, it was also a necessity to mark off MY space and HER space–that invisible line of the no cross zone, which under NO circumstances was to be compromised, by even a pinkie toe.  Then, Amy and I would “practice” being on vacation, sitting in the back seat of the Buick to assure every pillow was fluffed and magic marker was in its place as our vacation dreams began to unfold exactly as planned.

One of my favorite parts of the departure was the time of day!  We would get up early…VERY early, usually around 4:30 or 5:00 a.m. to begin our mountain get-away wasting not one minute.  I would be gnawing at the bit to leave–starched, pressed and wide-eyed, vacation ready since 3:00 a.m.  Amy, on the other hand would barely be out of bed and dressed by 5:00.  Mother would make the ritual tour of the house, at least four times, making sure that the stove was turned off, the thermostat was set to 85, doors locked, windows latched, and one or two lamps left on to make sure the house would appear ‘lived in’ while we were away, deterring criminals and neighborhood hoodlums. Also, there was most likely a double check that the French’s mustard hadn’t accidentally fallen out of the vacation food box while being loaded. 

When the siblings were quite small and thoughts of 5 hours in the car with ‘fighting and scratching’ mere inches away from my Mother peace of mind, she had planned ahead!  Now, lo and all these years later, Mama’s “Surprise Box” which would appear immediately after the utterance of the first “Are we there yet?!?”  Then like the magic that they were, float over the front seat to the back,  our wide eyes and eager fingers reaching for our box of surprises, spending the next several hours applying stickers, etching and sketching, cutting and pasting to our hearts content!  Even now I marvel at how Mama could find the absolute perfect items for our Surprise boxes! Yes, Mama Frances knew how to achieve world harmony, along with a double dose of peace and quiet right there in the Buick Electra 225!  

“SEE ROCK CITY!”  “VISIT THE LOST SEA!” “FORBIDDEN CAVERNS!”  “SEE 7 STATES!”  Counting Rock City signs, noting license plates from exotic states like Ohio and Pennsylvania on passing cars, collecting brochures at the Tennessee Welcome Center, watching for the Chattanooga Choo-Choo sign as we passed close by, and watching with eager anticipation of the first exit sign to the Great Smoky Mountains!  Passing the traveling time. Ah, such simpler days were those…

Almost there!!  After leaving the interstate in Knoxville, we would marvel each year how much things had grown in Sevierville, Tennessee and especially in the town of Pigeon Forge, which in time seemed to take on more of a carnival atmosphere, devoid of the expected ‘mountain charm.’  Once making it through the traffic of Pigeon Forge, we could smell the mountain air and roll down the Buick’s windows to hear the first sounds of the refreshing mountain streams.  

The days to follow would be allotted a major activity or destination. Driving over the mountain to Cherokee, North Carolina one day, the next would be the long drive out to Cades Cove hoping to see a bear or deer before time to select a perfect table next to the stream for our picnic lunch. 

One day would be set aside to stroll about Gatlinburg and wander in and out of the town shops.  Mama and Daddy would always have watchful eyes should Amy and I start veering toward The Rebel Corner, a souvenir store of note that had a questionable area that our young eyes were not ready to see–so says the parents.  Tiny outhouses with crass sayings etched on the side, t-shirts with slogans even more crass than the outhouse etchings, and my personal favorite, a small plastic lady that when her tummy was pressed her top would fly up revealing the plastic breasts hiding beneath. Oh my, the scandal!!!

One day, we would drive about half way up the mountain to the Chimney Tops picnic ground.  We could find a table there close to the stream so the parents could scout for bears and other lurking mountain dangers while the siblings frolicked in the stream.  There, I could resume my annual vacation ritual of collecting stones from the rushing waters of the streams.  Another item of note: It was at the Chimney Tops picnic area where a nutritious culinary concoction, worthy of worldwide acclaim was born:  The Vacation Sandwich!  

The Chimney Top lunch day arrived one year to find the contents of the food box somewhat slim.  A jar of peanut butter and some bananas, long past their “Use by” date was just about it.  My Daddy mashed up the near brown bananas along with the peanut butter, smeared the mix on some white bread, and mmmm, mmmm!! The Vacation Sandwich had arrived on the Smoky Mountain picnic menu, never to be removed!  

Vacation bliss!  There amongst the mountains and streams, motels and motor lodges, pancake restaurants and salt water taffy kitchens, the Creel family memories of what a vacation should be were made. Cherished then and recreated today, but always just a day or two short of enough. 

Before we knew it, all the coordinated outfits had been worn, each favorite restaurant had been visited, and the plaid cooler held only questionable selections at best for roadside snacking.  Granny’s Samsonite hauled into the Buick’s trunk notably heavier, with creek rocks tucked among the swimsuits and newly acquired tee-shirts.  Bags of sweets from The Old Smoky Candy Kitchen held the requisite gifts for grandparents and neighbors kind enough to collect newspapers and watch over the homestead.  (You just never know… the two chosen lamps left burning 24 hours a day for the past week might not have fooled the local hoodlums lurking about in evening hours. This was the early days of The Neighborhood Watch!)

Fun times!  Happy memories! Well, most were happy… There was that year when a phone call one vacation afternoon gave an abrupt end to that year’s merry-making in the mountains. Granny, the giver of guilt, called to tell the latest local news:  our cousin Allene had gotten married.  Yay!!  Good for her!  But wait….we have to GO HOME EARLY?!?  Just because Allene GOT MARRIED?!? WHY?!?  PLEEEEEEEEASE tell me this is a joke??  Nope…no joke.  

Well, Granny considered it her duty to make sure that anyone having a good time felt guilty for doing so.  This process began weeks before we left on vacation, and apparently this particular year Granny didn’t feel she gave it her all before we left. The “Allene got married” phone call was construed as subliminal hieroglyphics and interpreted as “You are there having fun, and I am left here. At home. Working tirelessly. In your place.  But don’t mind me, enjoy your trip.”  Granny had her ways for guilt deliverance, this time with the accomplice of Ma Bell…and our cousin Allene. 

So, much sooner than planned on this particular year, we loaded up the Buick and headed home to appease the giver of guilt.  I was assuming the rush back to Alabama also meant a stop at the Top Value Trading Stamp store to buy a wedding gift for Allene. (If that WAS to be the case, I was NOT going to be happy after pasting all those stamps hoping to score a matching plaid picnic basket for the spiffy new cooler!!  I mean I liked Allene and all, but it would just add insult to injury, sacrificing the hard earned and well licked stamp books for a wedding gift. That after abruptly causing, albeit unknowingly, the untimely exit from the mountain haven of vacation bliss!)  From that summer vacation on, before we left the driveway of our home, the word was put out:  “DON’T CALL US!  EVEN IF ALLENE GETS MARRIED!!  WE ARE NOT KIDDING!!”

Epilogue:  You can imagine my further resentment and bitterness when just a few months post “Allene got married!”….it was duly noted that “Allene got divorced!”

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