VOL 004: European year, Holiday Inn homecoming

    We traveled plenty during that year in Europe, though none of it by plane. There were several trips to visit Grampa in Comano, by train or car – which meant putting the Datsun on a train to roll through the Gotthard Tunnel. Making the trip fully by train, pulling into his station, Lugano, the distinct marriage of scents of chocolate and coffee made arrival like falling into a wonderfully welcoming olfactory mattress. 

To my knowledge, the only existing photo of the nuclear family: (L to R) Megan, me, Dora, Obie, Patrick. At Grampa's Comano home. Yes, Obie is wearing a Speedo. 

    We hauled the Datsun to Ireland via car ferry for the St. Patrick’s Day weekend. We drove through militarized checkpoints in the north, enjoyed scones and tea with the groundskeeper’s wife when the drizzle kicked up at St. Patrick’s grave, and Megan and I were sent by Obie to pick up hot cross buns in Dublin to give him some private time with Dora. (Megan filled me in.) Hippies in parkas pick-pocketed my mother in Dublin’s American Express office. We saw the Blarney Stone, but I don’t recall anyone kissing it.  

HIPPIES IN PARKAS

PICK-POCKETED MY MOTHER

    We went to Amsterdam and crawled through the Anne Frank house, long before any of the modern enhancements like the Free2choose interactive exhibit. 

 

    Near the end of our year, as school closed, we drove through the south of France. We spent a week at a vacation bungalow a short walk from the Mediterranean, which was choppy and freezing, but good for a sunburn. We visited Avignon and I was told the antichrist once inhabited its papal palace. I saw the bridge and remembered singing “Sur la Pont d’Avignon” in French class, which would lead to my nasty teacher yelling at me because I couldn’t get the lyrics down, even if my accent was parfait. Why a grown man would ever yell at a 7-year-old for his intellectual shortcomings is beyond me. Dick. 

 

    It was a year of, as mentioned (Vol 3), pushing Susan into the greenhouse koi pond. It was a year of eating wonderful things like indulgent profiteroles and savory boulangerie rotisserie chickens. The soundtrack to our Rue Poussin year, as chosen by Obie and Megan, was the music of CabaretHello Dolly, and Bugsy Malone

 

    I got drunk for the first time, downing too-sweet Champagne that my father found in a four-pack – including two plastic cups – and brought home for New Year’s Eve. I greeted 1977 by walking into the slight angle in our apartment’s hallway on my way to put myself to bed. 

 

    It was my first year as a “latch-key child,” the apartment key strung around my neck on a piece of yarn, the same yellow yarn as in Springfield-neighbor Cathy’s hair. 

My school photo from Paris. Dora found a razor-lined, haircuts-at-home contraption that left me looking like a discount Liza Minelli – with absurdly large adult teeth in a baby head. 

    It was the year, during my hour or so home alone after school thanks to the aforementioned key, I discovered my father’s nightstand drawer, featuring pornographic parodies of Beetle Bailey, Superman and other familiar comic book characters who obviously seized my attention. Unfortunately, these cheap porn parodies had terrible bindings, and at one clandestine viewing the pages poured out onto the hardwood floor of my parents’ bedroom, skimming here and there to form an absurd puddle of porn just as I heard my mother open the front door. “I found it this way,” was all I could muster as she entered to find me on hands and knees scooping of pages of Wonder Woman fellating Batman and Gen. Halftrack mounting Miss Buxley. I couldn’t understand at the time why my mother was mad not at me but at my father – though I was certainly relieved. 

 

    Sloppy printing also created a mystery out of my constantly blackened hands. Funny how it wasn’t immediately apparent that my morning chore of running over to the Porte d’Auteuil newsstand to fetch Obie’s morning International Herald Tribune wasn’t immediately obvious. Driving past Charles de Gaulle Airport on one of the various road trips, I got my first glance of the Concorde. 

 

    While this European year offered no flight time, it began an ended by air. The flight home to Dulles was a TWA flight with Mom, Dad, Megan and me. No separation! No divorce!

 

    We flew from Paris into Dulles, and the IAD mobile lounge collected us. It was a sublime Virginia June day, the juicy-green kind that gives you an idea of what the colonials may have seen – with particular thanks to the indigenous folks who'd already softened much of the landscape – that told them the deprivations of leaving Old World civilization were worth it. Aboard the mobile lounge, rolling across the gray tarmac, beautifully contrasted through the windows with glimpses of Virginia’s early summer lushness of neon-green foliage and tarmac-adjacent lawns, a young woman lost her gold necklace. There it sat on the mobile lounge carpet. My good Samaritan mother, usually an observer, became a participant that afternoon. She retrieved the necklace and returned it to its grateful owner. It was a beautiful afternoon.

THERE IS AN IRONY THAT I ENJOYED 

MY FIRST FRENCH TOAST 

AT THAT HOLIDAY INN

    Back in America, everything seemed so large. Whereas Le Petit Hotel had welcomed me to Paris, with its quaint breakfast room of hot chocolate and tiny jars of preserves to apply to my single morning croissant, the homecoming was all-American. At the Manassas, Va., Holiday Inn, every room had a bathroom and every bathroom had a bath with a shower and a toilet. Every room had a color TV. There was a swimming pool. And that petite breakfast room gave way to an actual on-site restaurant. There is an irony in that I enjoyed my first French toast at that Holiday Inn. It was a massive offering as big as my head, with powdered sugar, whipped butter and all the syrup my juvenile blood stream could manage. My sister and I spent afternoons in the hotel pool, I on my back pretending to be the ill-fated Peaquod as she would harass me by playing the role of Moby Dick. We’d seen the Gregory Peck as Ahab iteration the year prior in Paris. 

 

    In the two weeks we called that Holiday Inn home, my mother bought a new car. We were, after all, back in America, and the Datsun alone couldn’t manage a four-person return to suburban Springfield. 

 

    My mother, sister and I saw Star Wars during a Manassas midweek matinee, the only people in the theater. Patrick drove up from Georgia Tech for a nuclear-family reunion. I think he was able to get some pool time, but the highlight was sitting in Obie and Dora’s hotel room on a Saturday night with a bucket of Kentucky Fried chicken and West Side Story on TV. One of my father’s endearing qualities was that, despite whatever baser masculine boorishness he possessed, he loved show tunes. He also loved to frighten his kids. Maybe it was a twisted sickness, maybe it was just a desire to add some spicy excitement to life. Back in the Springfield split-level, his favorite game with family – excusing Dora, who was in no way required or expected to participate – was “lights out.” Only played at nighttime, with all lights out – get it? – we kids were ordered to find our hiding father. The lucky winner would be scared shitless by this bear of a man screaming at you to announce your discovery. It was terrifying. 

A SATURDAY NIGHT WITH 

A BUCKET OF KENTUCKY FRIED CHICKEN 

AND WEST SIDE STORY

    A more subtle scare was the one he pulled during the first few days in our new Springfield home that saw me back to Rolling Valley Elementary, though Jim had moved to points unknown and Mike had moved to Las Vegas. On a Saturday night, with unpacked boxes in every room, tchotchkes on shelves still newspaper-wrapped, Obie insisted I join him for Night of the Living Dead, a late-night showing of the original – obviously, as the only one in existence in 1977 – on WTTG’s “Creature Feature.” Why not? I was an early fan of horror movies, certainly to a greater degree than now. This, however, wasn’t a horror movie in the true sense, Dad advised. Rather, this was historical re-enactment for documentary purposes, a retelling of the horrible upstate New York tragedy that apparently involved a power-generation plant and massive amounts of electricity being zapped underground and reanimating corpses. While I remained skeptical, my reasoning mind was little comfort as I bedded down on the Spartan camping cot in my new room of boxes and no bed, the large panel windows offering easy first-floor access to any undead ghoul who may come wandering out of the suburban woods. 

 

    That year, however, Dora faced greater torment. Maybe Paris was playing the long game. 

UP NEXT, VOL 005: DIVORCE, DISNEY, AND LEARNING THE AIRPORT RUSH