I remember the sweat pouring off of me as I clung to my father, even though the sun had gone down as we sat in that outdoor theater. I could not have been more than four years old. My memories of the play are like someone turning on and off a light switch, just flashes. Cowboys, fistfights, torches, guns being fired, horses, blood, a burning cabin, things that would normally had me on the edge of my seat. Yet, I was coldly indifferent towards it all.
I am sure my father thought this was going to be the highlight of our family vacation for him. He had probably loved the John Wayne/Harry Carey movie version of the play. Here we were, outside of Branson, Mo., watching “Shepherd of the Hills.”
So, it must have been incredibly heartbreaking for him to pick me up and carry me to the nearby bathroom for some air and, in case I got sick again. While a whole theater of individuals from across the United States were glued to the performance, he was having to miss all the excitement.
Well, to be truthful, what greeted us on that darkened path was a lot more exciting than anything forty or fifty actors could put on. Even though I was seconds away from vomiting, it caused him to freeze.
In front of us, like a gunslinger eyeing my dad, was a skunk. We were cornered. I am sure that somewhere in back of his mind was that wonderful Clint Eastwood spaghetti western music. The skunk eyed my dad. My dad eyed the skunk. If it had been an old west main street, townspeople would have been pulling their shades and hiding in doorways.
If my dad moved, he risked the ire of his black-and-white nemesis. If he remained still, his youngest son was going to unleash an assault all over him. My dad was an impeccable dresser. He once wore a sports coat to a family gathering at a lake. Either way, the garments he took great pride in were about to get ruined.
It is said that time slows down and your whole life passes before your eyes before you die. I am sure that moment as the skunk slowly turned and a noise that clearly was not human could be heard rumbling from within his four-year-old son was one of those moments for my dad.
While he probably did not have time to revisit his entire life, I am sure the last few days came back to him in full force. The initial excitement of planning this trip. The idea of finally taking some time away from work for some much needed R & R.
While there might have been a hiccup or two — one of my older twin brothers was in a losing battle with carsickness and had to be moved to the front seat of our brown station wagon a few miles into the trip — and there was the typical ceaseless juvenile “he’s touching me” fights, everything seemed like it was going to work out perfectly.
My parents had been smart enough bring along babysitter to help wrangle their five young children in Missouri. Do you know how hard it is to find a responsible teenage girl willing to watch four boys and a little girl who was a toddler for a week?
A few weeks earlier they had hired a young girl who my older brothers conned into believing that I required no supervision. I promptly took off all my clothes and walked down the highway, heading towards town. I would have gotten there too if some nosy old lady hadn’t stopped to see what the dog and I were up to on our stroll. My mom still grinds her teeth when that incident is brought up.
On this trip we had one of the good ones. She was one of our regular babysitters. My parents still adore her four decades later. She never took guff from any of us. Tough as nails — I am sure if she could have been armed with a whip in one hand, a chair in the other and a big revolver in her belt, she would have been. She was perfect.
Well, she was perfect until about one day into the trip. At the St. Louis Zoo, as we moved from cage to cage, spellbound by the animals, and I wondered to myself how I could smuggle a walrus out to the station wagon without anyone noticing, she passed out. It was like watching Ali/Frazier. One moment she was upright, the next she went down like a sack of potatoes. At such moments, I discovered it is not appropriate to yell, “This is so cool.”
She was basically MIA for the rest of the trip. She wasn’t sick. She had just taken a nosedive for some unknown reason, which meant she needed a lot of rest for the rest of the trip. If my father had been smart, he would have thrown us all into the station wagon and headed back to Iowa as quickly as possible. The night before, as we checked into the hotel, should have told him this was the Voyage of the Damned.
As my parents filled out the registration information, two of my brothers decided to run in and out of one of the nearby elevators. As both of them stood inside, the oldest one, who could not have been older than nine, decided to push every button he could and pulled a lever of some kind in the elevator. As the doors closed, he promptly jumped into the lobby, leaving one of the twins trapped inside.
Even with alarms going off, you get to know the hotel staff pretty well. My parents were on a first-name basis with them by the time we checked out. The same brother who suffered from carsickness was also a sleepwalker. It seems that it was great entertainment for the rest of us kids that when he was in such a state to open the hotel room door and let him wander down the hallway to wherever his dreams might take him. Mom and dad did not find the same entertainment in this that we did.
It is debated to this day among us boys whether the towel rack in the bathroom snapped off the wall because one of my brothers tried to hang another from it with a towel or was it because there was a chin-up contest going on, with the towel rack turning out to be the loser. Either way, the maintenance staff had to be called.
I almost drowned in the hotel’s indoor pool when I decided to teach myself to swim by jumping in the deep end in my street clothes. It was a sink-or-swim situation, and I sunk. A very nice rotund woman in a one-piece white bathing suit saved me. We are not done yet. I might have broke the hotel’s miniature golf course’s windmill when I jammed my putter into the hole in its wall because I wanted my ball back. I am not saying I did or did not do it. There is just no proof that I did it. It could have been any blonde-haired four-year-old boy staying in the hotel.
Let me remind you, this is just the hotel. We were down to two functional adults watching five young children, one of them being my younger sister who was constantly colicky, and a babysitter who might go unconscious at any moment again. So, it was shocking how smoothly our trip to the Six Flags Amusement Park went. Well, at least until the brother, who battled carsickness and sleepwalking, decided he wanted to ride the roller coaster.
He changed his mind at the apex of the first hill and decided he was going to get out of the car. With my mother holding onto him for dear life, he somehow didn’t wiggle his way to freedom from beneath the safety bar before the ride ended.
Then I got sick. Super sick. Fluids coming out of every orifice sick. Still, I seemed well enough for my parents to buy tickets for a western show that took place in a theater that looked like an old cowboy saloon, complete with wild-west showgirls. Everyone sat around these circular tables like cowboys would have played poker at. For a kid raised on westerns, it was exciting.
They locked the doors just before the show started because they did not want anyone getting up and disturbing any of the other patrons enjoying the show. I looked at my father. He looked at me and asked if I was OK. I answered by vomiting into his cupped hands. Remember, nobody is allowed to leave the showroom until the show is over. My father had to sit there like he was holding a bowl of soup. I am sure several people around us wondered why this rude man would not applaud the wonderful performers on stage acting and singing their hearts out. This brought us later that night to Shepherd of the Hills and my father’s standoff with the skunk.
The best part, a few days ago, our pastor at the time’s daughter found two postcards written at the time my mother had sent them, supposedly from me and the brother who had tried to escape the roller coaster, informing them what a wonderful time we were having at the zoo, Six Flags and swimming in the hotel pool, and how much fun was awaiting us in Branson. I guess she did not ask my dad. I say this because, for some unknown reason, we never took a family vacation again.
Trevor Soderstrum is a Story City native who has been writing columns for about 10 years or so. He’s been all over the world, and attended the summer session of The Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He loves to share his stories.