The tide pounded us back, but we struggled into the heaving waves, tossed back on the hard shore, rising, struggling forward again. With a mighty effort I picked up the raft and hurled it forward and climbed aboard, thinking I might be safe – and just as grabbed for a hand-hold the highest wave hit, picked me up, flipped me over, and shoved me down. When I stood I was blind.
Lesson 2: you don’t want to lose your glasses in a wave pool.
To which you might well ask about Lesson 1: don’t wear your glasses in a wave pool. But the previous night I’d never gone down, had kept my bearing, and amused the kids by throwing their rafts into the waves, letting them get swept up on the concrete shore. It was manly work! Honest toil! All the summer’s workouts had led up to this, being Wiry Strong Dude whose small size belied his strength! Uh, yeah. But when I lost my glasses I realized I had committed the hubristic sin of thinking I could best the elements. Act fast: the undercurrents will take them away. The feet of the multitude would crush them, and then I’d be utterly undone for the weekend. Few things make you feel as helpless as trying to find your glasses, because the very thing you need is the thing you seek. But I saw them – I lunged – I got them.
The frames were fine. The lens looked like I’d dodged a velociraptor attack just in time. Gah. So. To the weekend’s hemorrhaging of funds, add that.
Ah well. Things happen. It’s vacation. Things happen.
It was an unusual vacation: in addition to our own child, we had two more, kids of a wife’s friend. Yes, it was the first family vacation where the kid has peers, which changes the dynamic right away: no longer just the nuclear family but the nuclear family plus protons. Our destination: the Wisconsin Dells.
If you haven’t been to the Dells, you have . . . no idea. It’s a family resort down known for its scenic natural water-based attractions, like, well, Dells. As in the Farmer In The. You can rent a ride on amphibious vehicles, see water shows – or, more likely, pack into enormous pens with a few thousand other half-naked people and bob around in a pool or ride screaming down water chutes. It’s Vegas for kids. They love it. Parents want to call in an airstrike after two days. It depends where you stay, I suppose; some hotels have the water parks built right in, so you don’t have to go to Enormo Splash-World. We stayed at the Great Wolf Lodge:
part of a chain of such places, as manufactured and ersatz and kid-friendly as you can imagine, right down to the robotic animals in the lobby that tell a tale about, altogether now, THE CIRCLE OF LIFE at eight every night. The Circle does not include predation or scavengers, as far as I can tell. Actually it was the Rhythm of Life, something to which the Wise Old Owl is perfectly attuned, as opposed to the rest of us humans who have to be hit on the head to realize the seasons are changing. The kids thought it was SO COOL and AWESOME: ah to be ten. And not paying for it.
It only took three hours to get there. We arrived after four. The room wasn’t ready, so we decided to play MagicQuest, a rather ingenious money-sucker erected in a four-story building next to the hotel. Kids get a wand, which they use to activate items all over the structure. They are on Quests – the usual quasi-medieval stuff where you have to wake the Man in the Stump, find the Rune of Mystery, accumulate skills, and all the rest of the stuff that inevitably ends by confronting a dragon and killing it. The rhythm of life! (Dragons are the only creatures you’re permitted to kill nowadays, it seems.) It required running all over the structure and pointing your wand at things that said “You have already completed this quest” or “You already have this object,” and since you had dozens of kids playing at once the bedlam of pre-recorded underemployed actors speaking in vaguely British accents was enough to make you lose your mind by the third day, which I did, but that was a few days away.
After we got our room – spacious, with a special room for the kids decorated in fake logs – we ate at Buffalo Phil’s, which had a special room for everyone decorated in fake logs. The attraction? Your food is served on a train! A small train runs around the dining room, and sometimes it has drinks. Most of the time it had action figures. Everyone got big paper hats with Buffalo horns. Our waitress was from South Africa, a med student from Madison down the road. She was old enough so her parents grew up under apartheid. I imagine they are tremendously proud. Lots of foreign students, for that matter – all from different places on the planet, serving pizzas to Midwesterners wearing paper buffalo horns.
Then the water park. Good Lord. The enormity. I thought one room was enough; there were three. Everyone splashed around until exhausted, then went back to the room and collapsed and expired. I was ready to go home.
But no! Day two was exactly more of the same, except we went into town, past one motel and resort after the other. There’s a place called Mt. Olympus – stretches for about a half a mile, and includes an enormous Trojan Horse:
(Took those on a twilight trip to see if I could get some good shots of old motel signs.) (Could not.) We drove through downtown, which is astonishingly well-preserved, albeit smothered with signage to the point where the old downtown buildings are almost invisible. At the end of the downtown I found something that made my heart sing:
And on the way back, an homage (cough steal cough) of the Great Sign. Ahhh:
We decided to play miniature golf about five minutes before the sun came out and the temp went up 20 degrees, which made for a punishing course. We were right behind a family not having the time of their lives: one utterly sullen tween daughter who threw fits, a Winston-voiced Ma who seemed to fancy herself a Miniature Golf, and Big Daddy, with his stick legs and enormous belly and John Bolton mustache, walking around in silence with a kill-me-now expression. They were slow, partly because sullen tween kept whacking the ball into the bushes JUST TO SHOW YOU ALL HOW STUPID THIS IS.
Once we were done we headed back to MagicQuest for more Questing, then went to eat at the place of the kids’ choosing. Denny’s Diner! Denny’s DINER! It was indeed done up in Diner style, even though it was crammed with anachronisms. Drives me nuts. Hey, let’s put up a picture of James Dean, a 1917 Coke ad, a ROUTE 66 sign, and call it retro! Add 30s style light-fixture and a stamped tin roof and 60s-style booths! It’s all part of the same deal, which is to say it’s THEN, as opposed to NOW. But I did not let this stop me from enjoying it, anymore than this ruined my morning shower.
Anyway. Next stop on the roller-coaster of fun was an enormous indoor arcade called Knuckleheads, which turned out to be attached to Buffalo Phil’s. You know the drill: get your tokens, put them in machines, get tickets redeemable for nothing in the world anyone needs. Kids love these places and you love to see kids enjoy them. They give my wife a headache, though, so she went over to Phil’s to hear a band play at the bar. I played some air hockey with my daughter; she’s good. Cautioned the kids not to waste their tokens on the idiot-traps, the ones that have heaps of tokens constantly raked back and forth into piles; you add your coins in the hopes they’ll push over the heaps, which gives you . . . tickets. I’ve seen people play these things at Vegas, but here there were grown adults feeding tokens into the machine to get tickets, as though you could possibly come out ahead on this transaction. The place wasn’t exactly packed for a Saturday night; the large parking lot was sparsely filled, and the restaurant wasn’t jamming either. As with so many things these days: wonder if they’re making it.
Wandered back to the bowling area. Wandered over to the party rooms, which were decorated in “Old West” themes – including a jail.
So . . . Sheriff Woody put the kids in jail? If that’s the case, he seems unnervingly happy about it. (Stretch was in another picture, also with bars.) I’m sure all the rights were paid. Along the wall I saw a poster for a movie I’d never heard of, but I know I must see it now. On the way down the kids had watched “The Pink Panther” – the modern version, of course. Sigh. (They were somewhat surprised when I started whistling along with one of the songs on the soundtrack, which was “The Race” by Yello.) It got me thinking about Blake Edwards, how he was first known for witty radio scripts, and eventually was known for brilliant slapstick. But a Blake Edwards western, with James Coburn? Sold. Sealing the deal, and this is easy: name that artist.
Met wife, bought kids soft drinks, sat down as the band began its second set. Mungo Jerry. “In the Summertime.” All the families, sing along! If her daddy’s rich, take her out for a meal / if her daddy’s poor, just do what you feel.” I had a double vodka. It had flies in it. Double flies.
But it was all fun. Everyone was having fun. No one argued, no one got sulky, threw fits, begged, whined, or anything. I even enjoyed the ersatz Old West theme, since it reminded me of last year’s more authentic Deadwood / Rushmore trip. I sang along with Mungo Jerry, to my daughter’s humiliation. It had been a fun day. Let’s go back to the wave pool!
Two hours later, I was trying to read a book through a lattice of scratches on my glasses, and dealing with a popcorn hull that has apparently worked its way into the nerve ending of a tooth, but that’s life.
The next day we went to Danny’s Diner for breakfast. Danny’s Diner is across the street from Denny’s Diner. Which might explain why Danny’s Diner was closed and for sale. Since I was in no mood to troll the strip for breakfast – I am unreasonable when hungry, and get feral – we went to McDonald’s, because A) the kids would be happy, and B) having laid a check on the refi people the morning we left, I’m not exactly feeling like I want to strew ducats in my wake. (Did the previous day for $115, including meals, excluding lodging, which is not bad for a party of five.) That’s where I finally lost it. Not because of the staff, most of which looked like more imported college students, but because of the people: they had ten minutes to study the menu, and still couldn’t figure things out by the time they got to the line. After they’d placed their orders, some unknown imperative made them drift over to the place where the coffee and condiments were kept, where they formed dense squat knots you could not move with a chainsaw. The Confounders! Curses! At this point I had just had enough of people, and the entire world looked like a giant obstacle course that stood between me and normalcy.
Because this was the beginning. As you’ll see over the next few weeks.
Anyway: we packed the car, then went back . . . to MagicQuest. They had to finish the 12th Quest and kill the dragon. I pointed out that this could be accomplished by unplugging the projector that displayed his image, but they were purists. Well. While they played I wandered back to the gift shop and bought my daughter a little wolf snow-globe, because she likes those, and I could tell now and then she sorta kinda missed by Only Child who was special, and I wanted to slip her something that was one of those dad-daughter things when it was all done, and we were home.
First, though, we had to get there. Fine. Three hours. Piece of pie. Drove along the highway, noting the upcoming construction: LANE CLOSURES. Usually I hate these, because they give me agita in the form of claustrophobia, but I’d checked the Wisconsin highway department site, and all the work was nocturnal. As it should be. But it made me smile, in a crooked, bitter fashion: on this very stretch of highway, many many years ago, I’d gotten stuck in highway construction on the way back from a disastrous weekend with a girlfriend who was away for the summer and not being, shall we say, true to her school. This had upended my world at the time, and the kinghell panic attack – the second; the first was a month before – hit with world-flooding fury, and I found myself in the middle of a convoy of National Guard vehicles, unable to go left or right or around, and my heart started pounding, my feet went numb, my hands went numb, my solar plexus went numb, and I thought I was going to die.
I made it home, but that changed my highway joy forever, and it would take many many years to conquer what eventually became a bonafide anxiety disorder. This was that road.
On the other hand: it had a been a great trip. Fumbled for my iPod, thumbscrolled around to Holiday Road, and hit it. Really, that’s what a dad’s job is, in the end. Get them to WallyWorld.
Note about this week: relations are piling into Jasperwood. The Fair begins. Two weeks of wonderfulness starts Monday, and this means the temporary suspension of most updates to the site. Rest assured that I will chip away at the updates as I can, so when normalcy returns in September – cursed be the very name, cozening foe of Summer – I can deploy everything. See you at the usual places in the meantime, and as ever, you can check Twitter for any tumblr updates. Summer
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