Jennifer E. Miller
Traveling with an engineer is madness. I can attest because my father is one of those engineers. And I’m not referring to the train conductor kind. I’m referring to the kind who use grids, mathematical equations, theorems, and other hocus pocus. Engineers have a quirkiness about them where the obvious becomes oblivious because everything is far more complicated than necessary. Dad was no exception.
Allow me to elaborate by explaining calculator variations. To add 1+1 on a standard calculator is simple: push the number one, the plus sign, the number one, followed by the equal sign. Badda-bing badda-boom! Dad’s Reverse Polish calculator, on the other hand, had its own irritating personality. There were more buttons, functions, and algorithms than any ordinary person should be subjected to. It went something like this: push one, push enter, push one, push enter, push the plus sign, push enter. Then the device whispered, “Psst! The cosign function is located to the left. Don’t you want to muddle this equation some more?” Push the equal sign again, followed by the final enter. See? Complicated.
Dad also had strange relationship with maps. He either overused or underused them. During road trips, he drove while I was responsible for providing a global positioning point at each stupid mile marker. In case I forgot, there were plenty of reminders: “Did you read the map correctly?...Where are we on the map now?...How about now?...Are you certain we’re heading in the right direction?” I wondered why a play-by-play of our progress was necessary when, clearly, there was no other way to get ourselves lost. See, Dad typically panicked on solitary two-lane backroad highways with no side roads to make a wrong turn. It was pretty much a straight shot from point A to point B. But by Dad’s logic, it was imperative to know our whereabouts at all times. Cellular phones hadn’t been introduced to the general population yet, so in the event of an emergency our only chance of rescue would be the luck of a passing motorist. “But we’d know our exact location and we’d look smart!” Dad argued. I sort of thought the motorist rescuing us would know their own whereabouts, too, but that’s beside the point.
The truly frightful events happened when he refused to enlist the help of a map. I recall a trip to San Francisco when I was a high schooler of about seventeen. I finagled a way to leave class a few days short of the school year in order to take advantage of cheaper airfare. Another one of Dad’s quirks was frugality, which I could live with, because I was skipping school, leaving all my friends drooling with jealously.
The purpose of this trip was a vacation, of course. Dad had lived in San Francisco during some other prehistoric decade, and was excited to “show me the ropes” of this place. “We’ll have fun,” he said, which I later determined was his attempt at a joke.
We settled into our hotel the first evening and planned to begin sightseeing after a good night’s rest. The following morning, we collaborated over breakfast at a nearby diner. Eggs sizzled and popped on the griddle in the open kitchen behind us.
“Shall we examine the map?” I suggested.
“What map?” Dad answered.
“The one to help us get around.”
“So we know where we’re going,” I said. My point seemed entirely too obvious.
“No need for a map, there’s me!” Dad declared happily.
He ignored my concerns about being twenty-some odd years since he set foot here and perhaps, in some distant urban fantasy, the city’s size may have increased to a level where navigational aid would serve us well.
“We’ll be fine,” he said, with a carefree wave of his hand. In other words, this day would be the equivalent of hacking through a jungle with machetes.
Dad paused a moment and said, “Well, I suppose I could give you a basic layout of the town.”
While the deep crevices of my mind were fraught with worry over my impending doom, Dad blabbered on about this landmark located at such-and-such side of town, and over here is the pretty bridge, and right out the door we would catch a trolley. I was so lost in thought, I hadn’t noticed he fastened together a city diorama with our table’s supply of dispensable straws and chewed gum yanked free from under the table. It was like a makeshift erector set.
“….Well, now you know the basics. Are you ready?”
I stared blankly at his diorama. My brain resembled the sound of those sizzling eggs, and steam was surely rolling off my head in big puffy bursts. I raised my eyebrows and asked, “Why don’t we just buy a map?!”
“I told you, we don’t need a map! I know where to go. Plus, I just made you a rudimentary map.”
Hello, Captain Obvious, I can’t take it with me. I kept that comment to myself. I sucked down the remainder of my coffee while Dad took care of the bill.
As we stepped outside, Dad spotted a trolley and ran after it. He hopped on and clung to a metal pole, made for such occasions. Without proper instruction, I was left stranded on the sidewalk. Realizing his mistake, Dad jumped off and sprinted back to me.
“Sorry. I forgot to tell you: just grab on.” That was the beginning and end of the proper instructions. “Here comes another one…!” His voice trailed off as he ran to catch up with the next trolley.
The next few hours consisted of us darting randomly through the city with each landmark being “right around the corner.” We passed about eight hundred corners, leading us down wrong streets and alleyways. Several times, Dad commented about buildings he didn’t remember, thus causing his disorientation. He maintained confidence he could navigate through this city. To me, it felt like wandering through the jungle I imagined back at the diner.
Finally, I got hungry and suggested we stop for lunch.
“I know of a place nearby,” Dad said. “It was an old favorite of mine.” I estimated a distance of 4.76 miles as we rounded more corners searching for this place that probably existed only in memory. We passed dozens of other sandwich shops, burger joints, and diners. All were met with disapproval because they weren’t the right one, which Dad was certain was still in business. Our day of sightseeing was turning into a scavenger hunt predisposed for failure.
Dad’s complicated navigation eventually brought us to the edge of a rocky beach littered with wood and metal objects of various shapes and sizes. I welcomed the break after the dizzying maze of streets and dirty alleyways. Hunger pains stabbed my innards once again and I cursed at myself for forgetting to pack a snack.
My thoughts were interrupted.
“Well. Would-ja look at that! I found Alcatraz!” Dad proclaimed as he rocked back on his heels, hands on his hips, smiling with pride.
I turned in his direction. Before me, the infamous island hovered in the haze off the bay. Dad pulled out his field glasses (a complicated way to say binoculars), took a look, and handed them to me. Alcatraz was an intriguing site. An oversized rock with an all but abandoned building situated on top. As the salty sea mist blew towards us, I recalled stories of prisoners who attempted escape. Most didn’t make it. Well, at least I saw Alcatraz in person, even if it was from some sketchy shoreline.
I was ready to move on when I noticed Dad was quiet. Too quiet. He was thinking, scheming. Finally, he broke his own silence.
“Are you all set?” Dad asked.
“Yes. I’m rather hungry and ready to head back.”
“No, no. Are you ready to go to Alcatraz?”
Ever so slowly, I lowered the field glasses, and glared.
“What do you mean? That island is,” I gestured with an outstretched hand, “out there! And we’re here, which is nowhere near,” another hand gesture, “over there!”
The waves lapped against the shore, hissing as they curled and flattened.
“All we have to do is cross this channel.”
I lost any sense of reasoning. “And what do you suggest: swim across?”
Dad rolled his eyes then proposed his preposterous idea. There was enough debris here to build a small raft and sail across. I quickly objected to this arrangement.
“Many a prisoner tried escaping from that place and the statistical outcomes are not in our favor.”
“Well, we’re not trying to escape, we’re trying to arrive. Big difference.”
“Same water,” I pointed out.
He threw his hands in the air, ignoring my protests, and began gathering debris. As he lifted the larger pieces, homeless people cried out in agony as they shielded their eyes from the bright sunlight. They were like insects exposed from underneath a log, the UV rays frying them in their exoskeletons.
“I think you may be destroying an established ecosystem,” I pointed out.
Dad continued selecting the right pieces for equal weight distribution and other smarty-pants nonsense. He laid scrap Styrofoam pieces underneath metal sheeting. Some unidentified object served as the rudder. He found an old wooden oar with part of the handle broken off. The end looked a jagged spear. I could only guess one of us would steer and the other propel with the oar. Everything was ready to patchwork together when a new problem arose: no tools to fasten the pieces together. He stood up and tapped his chin to expedite the thinking process.
The wailing vagrants caused quite a stir, attracting the attention of a nearby boater who motored over to us in an old wooden dinghy. Its paint had peeled away and I couldn’t quite make out the original color. The captain, if you call him such, was a wiry leathered beanpole of sorts with a white beard dangling to his Adam’s apple. He wore a short-sleeve button-down shirt that flapped in the breeze, exposing his dirty elbows. It was paired with grease-stained pants and tattered sandals. I got the impression he had been recently marooned on a deserted island and hacked his way out of a jungle with a machete. Hope was restored immediately!
“Yous is causin’ quite da commoshion,” the captain said. His voice was ragged and raspy, and I noticed several missing teeth.
“That’s because this nautical genius wants to build a raft and float us across to that giant rock,” I sputtered.
“Oh. Yous can’t do dat,” he said. “Dey’ve got rules now dat only uthorized boats can git yous to dat place.” He rubbed his beard and pondered. “But, I see yous had a nice idear dere. Unfortun’ly, yous is demolishin’ dese here nice folks’ homes, see?” He swept his hand in the direction of the vagrants who had now shriveled up in fetal positions. The stench of homelessness hung in the air.
“Why don’t yous let me give yous a lift to the pee-ar, and yous can catch da appropr’ate transp’tation?”
“Wonderful, thank you!” I said.
I hopped in the nice man’s boat before Dad could stop me. He had no choice but to abandon his unfinished creation and join me. I was thrilled to escape his crazy sailing attempt, which was most certainly going to land us at the bottom of the bay. Or jail. And not the one that tourists visit.
The pier was a short ride around the corner. We stopped at the nearest dock and Dad scrambled out of the watercraft as fast as possible. I lingered around a moment to give the captain a few bucks for his trouble; after all, he was our rescuer. He thanked me and motored away. As I joined Dad on the dock, he met me with a scowling glare.
“Why’d you hop in that stranger’s boat? That was dangerous. For all we know he could be a serial killer.” Those three sentences displayed both complication and oblivion. A stranger, sure, but obviously an easier way to get us out of there in a jiff. Dangerous maybe, but Dad’s makeshift raft was a safer alternative? The reference to a serial killer was a prime example of his madness.
I changed the subject. “Well, you really didn’t land us too far off from the pier. That ride was less than five minutes, ta-da!”
It seemed to have the right effect, and his mood improved. We walked to the ticket booth, got in line, and purchased our tickets for the Alcatraz tour. We were told the ferry was departing in a few minutes. I asked if we could embark on the following one to allow time for a bite to eat.
“Stop overthinking. There’s bound to be food to purchase on the ferry or at the prison itself,” Dad said.
We loaded with a group of other tourists. The ferry was plain and basic, meaning there was nothing to eat. The vibrating hum of the motor was welcoming and I relaxed in my seat.
Upon arrival at Alcatraz, we unloaded and single-filed into the prison. I spotted a gift shop and was about to search for a snack, when Dad grabbed the audio equipment for the self-guided tour and strapped headphones on each of us. He claimed he’d like to get started since most of the day was depleted by waiting in lines and other such tourist inconveniences. I was tempted to lock him in one of those cells the audio tour kept referencing.
We finished the tour and waited outside for the ferry to take us back when hunger troubled me again. In an attempt to distract it, I walked around and came across a flock of seagulls that eyed me curiously. They looked plump, meaty, and delicious. I began salivating and moved towards them. One sensed danger, squawked a warning call, and they all flew off. It was for the best because I frightened myself with my primitive savage instincts. Hunger is a driving force for urban hunting, apparently. I realized my situation had become dire and I must find food, pronto!
Luckily, the ferry soon returned us to the pier. Our feet clonked over the weathered wooden dock as we disembarked. I was about to faint from hunger when Dad said, “Well, that was fun, but now I’m hungry. How about we get a bite to eat?”
“Wonderful! I know this great little restaurant right around the corner...”
About the Author
Jennifer E. Miller resides in the far east of Washington State where she earned an English Certificate from Spokane Community College. She is the author of Raccoon Ransack. You can find more of her humor, and sometimes seriousness, at http://mini-summaryofme.blogspot.com/.