My father announced, “We’re taking a whole month’s vacation!” It was the summer of 1960, the year he won his Guggenheim grant. With the money he got we could afford to rent a cabin on Mount Desert Island for August. He saw the promise of a very well-deserved rest: for ten years he’d been working fulltime as an editor and writing by night and through the weekends. In that time he’d published four books and numerous magazine articles. He was beat.
I caught his excitement. At age 10 a month seemed forever, a forever soon to be filled with unimaginable wonders. Not the least of which was time spent with my father. Not the harried, exhausted guy he was at home, but the one I remembered from previous summers, who smiled as he enjoyed swimming, fishing and playing miniature golf.
First we had to get there.
My parents in the front seat, lips tight, were sitting rigid as mannequins, and my sister and I in the back seat, unnaturally still for kids, trying to make ourselves as small as possible. The silence in the car hummed with the electricity of a coming storm. It came on route 128, a road that felt like it went on forever.
Apparently it did. He thundered, “For crying out loud!” staring out incredulously at the signs, “Waltham? We passed that before.” We had just gone all the way around Boston, and were going to do it again if he didn’t find the right exit. The silence broken, my mother chimed in, ever helpful, “Oh, how could you!” I panicked at a crazy vision of hell, clear as a movie –an eternity of whizzing around Boston, getting smaller and smaller in the back seat as my parents shouted themselves hoarse up front.
My father finally found the right exit – never mind that the five minutes it would have taken to get off the highway and consult a map had cost us an hour’s driving. My parents found traveling so stressful that they believed stopping for anything more than gasoline only prolonged the agony.
So we ate as we drove, beginning with my mother passing my father a peace offering of a plastic cup of coffee from the thermos. He made a little sound, which I suppose was “Thanks.” My mother passed sandwiches to the back. I somehow forced mine down into my stomach, where it lay like a dead toad for the rest of the trip. My sister, wiser, promptly threw hers up on the seat between us where it sat for the rest of the journey.
When we finally got to Maine, my father painted "Manchesters" on a board and hung it under the sign for our little cabin. That he would do such a rare physical thing right off the bat told me our “whole month” was about to deliver on its promise. I saw another good sign when my father, that old Marine, handed me an American flag and pointed solemnly at the funky flagpole in our yard, saying, “Do you want to raise it? You know you have to lower it every night.” “Yes, of course!” I was still a good American boy, still had a crew cut and a smart salute.
We climbed a pink granite mountain with a funny name, “The Bubbles.” We gaped at the sea pounding into Thunder Hole. We scrambled down to Anemone Cave. It was my first cave, the first of many. It was small enough that most of it was lit by the sun. But up a ledge in back I glimpsed a black hole. I frantically scrambled up to find where it went. Nowhere, it turned out. I felt an unfamiliar disappointment. It was the end of this cave but the beginning of a lifelong passion for the underground, for finding what lies hidden around the corner in the dark.
After a few days of doing stuff with my father I discovered that the promise of a wired nine-year-old and that of a father recuperating from years of nonstop work were very different things. He’d had enough adventure and disappeared into the gloom of the cabin. I stayed outside alone, knowing nothing would happen inside.
I went and sat in the tent he’d put up for me the first day, but soon left, because inside was like an oven. I chased grasshoppers up and down the dusty driveway – sneaking up behind them, watching them flutter off in a little cloud of dust, then alight and fold up still as though I couldn’t see them. But I could, and chased them again, up and down that long driveway, day after day. The excitement wore off fast.
It started raining. My father took me to the library in Bar Harbor. He pointed to a book, a smile in his voice, “The Hardy Boys. I read them all whenI was a boy. Bet you’ll like them too.” I did, though I had to ask him about some tough words like "reconnoiter." It poured down rain everyday for the rest of the vacation. I found myself lounging on my bed, doing the same thing as my parents: reading. And I’d found my adventure. To my luck they had a mess of Hardy Boys at the library. By the end of the month I’d gotten through all of them. Driving home from the library with a stack of them on my lap, my promise and my dad’s had become the same.
With its leaky roof, our cabin was like all the shacks we rented on vacation. At home this would have evoked my father’s exasperation, if not rage. But he was so relaxed after his days of vacation that he made a joke of it, chortling as he set every pan in the kitchen under some leak. Lying there reading my book, the syncopated background music of those drops in the pans, each plinking its own note, I wished the rain would never end, nor this series of Hardy Boy books, that this month could last forever.
Of course the rain stopped, the month was over and I finished all the Hardy Boys books. We had a few more summer vacations, mixed as always, but with nice moments. Then my father got famous and everything changed.