In the dark of winter, I fall asleep to the nick, nick, nick of my mom’s sewing machine in the guest room on the other side of my bedroom wall. She stiches drawstring cases for each of our sleeping bags. Mine is pink calico with turquoise flowers. My brother’s, a Navajo print on a maroon background. My dad’s, nautical strips in yellow, navy and red. My mom’s, the same strip in red, white and blue. She makes herself a mumu in a psychedelic pattern for the baking Southwest. For me she fashions summer blouses, shorts, and my first two- piece bathing suit with padding in the cups.
My Dad buys a series of Rand McNally maps and guides, and with our roof covered in snow, marks our hot, dusty route.
The day after school is out Dad double checks all the belts, hoses, and fluids of our black Ford station wagon. Mom packs the bottom of our red, metal Coke cooler with ice, ginger ale, Orange Crush, and grape soda. Bologna, cheese, and tuna salad made with pickle relish go in the top tray. In a picnic basket she arranges: a loaf of Wonderbread, potato chips, and homemade oatmeal cookies so that nothing will be squished or crumbled. My brother calls the back back with the snacks and the cozy sleeping bags, and I start out in the red vinyl backseat.
Our first night we stop in Erie, PA with an aunt and uncle. After hamburgers, corn on the cob, and watermelon, my cousins and I do handsprings and cartwheels across a lawn blinking with lightning bugs.
In Council Bluffs, Iowa we visit our last long lost friend, my mom’s college roommate, Lucy, and her husband Dick. We park in the driveway of a towering Victorian, and Dad and my brother, Bruce, pop up the canvas roof. There are two bunk beds on one side. I sleep on top by a small zippered screen. Bruce sleeps below. My parents' bed fits over a dinky kitchen table.
After a hot day on the road, without air conditioning, I am happy to hear we’re going to Dick and Lucy’s country club—with a pool—for dinner.
I pull on my new two-piece bathing suit, and exit the club’s locker room. Lucy’s daughter has thin blonde braids and is younger than Bruce who is two years younger than me. Lucy’s son has braces and a blonde crewcut. He’s a year older than I am. They are waiting in the pool when I dive in. Without asking, the son swims between my legs and surfaces with me on his shoulders. “Hey, wanna have a chicken fight.”
My brother dips below the water and rises with the little sister above him. It’s no contest. King Kong and Fay Wray against a fairy on a lily pad. I wriggle off the gorilla and swim to the deep end. He cannon balls me from the side. On a steaming, mid-western day, I can’t wait to get out of the pool and go to dinner with adults I don’t even know.
The sleeping arrangements at the Victorian Hilton are: my parents upstairs in a bedroom with red flocked wallpaper, my brother and I in the trailer in the driveway.
King Kong looks at his little sister. “Hey, wanna sleep in the trailer too?”
My dad eyeballs him. “No son, I don’t think there’s room.” I want to kiss my dad.
Our trip continues through The Badlands and past Mt. Rushmore’s presidents. The water is so cold in Jenny Lake at the foot of the Tetons, that I jump in and out so fast, I almost lose the top of my two-piece. In Yellowstone we mustn’t stray from narrow wooden walkways beside bubbling mud, and boiling geysers.
Climbing into ancient Anasazi cliff dwellings, a gust of wind whips my mom’s carefully planned mumu, over her head, revealing white undies to all the Mesa Verde tourists at the bottom of the ladder. Hiking out of the Grand Canyon, I thank God she made me shorts and blouses.
We travel through Monument Valley and the spiky Joshua trees of the Mojave. Under cover of night we enter the neon jungle of Las Vegas. At the Golden Nugget, my dad gives Bruce and I a dollar each for the glitzy line of slot machines. He wakes us at 3:00 AM to get out of the desert before sunrise. I fall back asleep in the car and wake to surfers riding the waves of Huntington Beach, California. We made it! Next day—destination Disneyland.
An oversized Goofy takes our tickets at the gate. I spot a too-big Minnie and Micky on our way to the Matterhorn. As our little train climbs the artificial Alp I view the land I’ve dreamed of. In the distance is the castle where Tinker Bell has waved her magic wand for as long as I can remember. I plunge down the mountain, my heart in my throat, and the ride is over.
All I remember on our return trek is miraculously floating in the Great Salt Lake, and miles and miles of Kansas dotted with an occasional buffalo burger stand.
That is until our next to last stop at The Lincoln Boyhood Memorial. Once the trailer is popped up, and the cooler unloaded, Bruce and I run across a bridge towards a shady playground. Below, a boy about my age stands in the stream skipping stones. I notice his brown hair, his bare, bronzed torso. When he flashes a smile, my body melts in a way I don’t recognize. I run to the swings and pump higher, higher. With eyes fixed on his shirtless back, I watch his biceps bunch and lengthen as he releases each flat stone across the brook. He leans over to find the next rock, and pushes his sweaty hair off his forehead. From above, his perfection makes me ache for something I can’t name. I lean so far back my ponytail brushes the ground. The toes of my navy blue Keds point to the sky.
My mother calls Bruce and I from the other side of the bridge for dinner. I jump off the swing and float for a moment in mid-air like a cabbage moth, aware that I am somehow suspended between where I was and where I am going. I know my destination is nowhere on the Rand McNally Guide which lists which campsites offer pools, hot showers, flush toilets and electrical hook-ups. The soles of my feet sting with the impact of hard-packed earth. I run across the bridge and laugh to make the boy notice me.
He looks up. His white-toothed grin, however brief, takes away my appetite for hot dogs, baked beans, coleslaw, and even butterscotch brownies. This stranger has flipped a switch that I say nothing about as I place my napkin on my lap and drain my Dixie Cup of Kool-Aid.
Under the stars, I unzip the canvas screen beside my sleeping bag and let the humid air blow across my baby doll pajamas.
When I get home, the summer is half over. There are boys in my best friend, Linda’s backyard. High school boys who want to put us on their shoulders for chicken fights, even without a pool. Boys who ask me to dance at summer dances at the high school I’ll be attending in the fall. Boys whose smiles light me up like a lightning bug.
Back in my own bed, a summer breeze ruffles my sheets, and I realize I’ve outgrown Disney’s Small, Small World. The floor beneath my bed is as unstable as the bubbling, boiling ground of Yellowstone. I am as vulnerable as my mom with her mumu over her head.
History books record this as the year that Elvis got married, the year that the BBC broadcast the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. Nothing but a mental snapshot is left of the magic boy who lit puberty’s match. In the time it took for the moon to circle the earth, I left my driveway on one continent and returned to another.