Don’t Blink or You’ll Miss It by Mary Kreienkamp

Don’t Blink or You’ll Miss It

Mary Kreienkamp

Sixty years ago, my uncle, the fighter pilot, took my father for a ride in his single-engine Cessna. It was the first and last time my dad set foot on a plane. “Your father is against flying,” my mother would explain to my brother and me as if it were a deeply held moral conviction.  But while Dad was opposed to airplanes, he fully supported matching their times on the road. After decades as a fireman, he had become accustomed to the speed that only sirens can provide.

To Dad, speed was essential “to get things done.” It was imperative “to get things done” as early as possible in order to move on to the next things that needed to get done. This philosophy drove every aspect of his life, including family vacations. Thanks to Dad, I grew up thinking it was normal for vacations to begin at 3 a.m. Then again, I also grew up thinking aftershave was called “panther piss” until I tried to purchase it at the Macy’s counter for Father’s Day.

Under the hazy suburban starlight, Dad would fill our black Ford station wagon with the gear we’d need to set a land speed record: the tent we’d pitch each night by the glow of a bug-bombarded lantern and drop each morning before dawn, the coolers of meals Mom had prepared in advance to minimize pesky interruptions like eating, the Coleman stove over which she’d warm our dinners in darkness. As we pealed from our driveway onto the still sleeping street, Dad would glance in the rearview mirror and utter the words that began every family vacation, “Let’s see how quickly we can get back.”

While my father’s pre-eminent goal was the timely completion of our trip, my mother’s was our survival. She would try valiantly to slow her husband down. “Look!” her arm would shoot toward the shoulder of the highway. “State trooper has that guy pulled over!”

“Poor son of a bitch,” Dad would reply, and floor it past the distracted officer.

But speed wasn’t the only weapon in Dad’s arsenal. The man stopped for nothing.

As we pulled into Hershey, Pennsylvania, expecting to immerse ourselves in chocolate goodness, he leaned over the steering wheel and gazed at the streetlights in the shape of Hershey’s Kisses. “See those chocolate things?” he asked.

“Yeah,” my brother and I answered.

“OK, that’s Hershey then,” Dad announced, signaling the end to our visit.

Colonial Williamsburg proved even more elusive.  As we crossed an intersection, Dad slowed the car and urged, “Look down that street and tell me what you see.”

I leaned forward and squinted past him.  In the distance, bonnet-topped women, arms entwined in baskets, welcomed visitors into wood-paneled two-story homes.  “I see old houses and people in costumes.”

“Ok, seen enough?” Dad asked, “There’s someone behind me.”

With that, he hit the gas with such force that I tumbled backward, choking on my answer.

“Don’t blink or you’ll miss it,” my mom mumbled from the back seat, and I wasn’t quite sure if it was sarcasm or a helpful tip.

Our 1981 trip to Florida began as usual, then: in the dark. By the time the summer sun made its eye-watering appearance, we had followed the orange-highlighted TripTik route across the Ohio River into Paducah, Kentucky. I flipped ahead in the guide to see Dad’s plans: St. Augustine, Daytona Beach, Silver Springs, Cypress Gardens, Tampa/St. Pete, Kennedy Space Center.  From a kid’s perspective, there was one glaring omission. “Dad, can we go to Disney World?”

“No time,” came his automatic reply.  

That seemed an easy problem to solve.

“Can we go to Disney World instead of Silver Springs?”

“Silver Springs has glass-bottom boats!” Dad exclaimed as if that could compete with the Happiest Place on Earth.

“How about Cypress Gardens?” I tried again.

“That’s where the Esther Williams movies were filmed!” he replied incredulously as if I should not only know who she was but also recognize her greatness.

Clearly, this would require more work.

Eleven hours and twenty mentions of Disney World later, we arrived in St. Augustine, fifteen minutes before the closing of the Spanish fort. “Perfect timing!” Dad beamed.

We unfolded ourselves from the car, shook the blood clots from our legs, and hurriedly hobbled around the interior courtyard of the fort, extending our necks at each gaping doorway like a family of chickens on speed.   We saw nothing but darkness beyond those doorways, but at least it was 300-year-old darkness.

Our courtyard lap completed, we found ourselves with sweat stinging our eyes and shirts sticking to our skin. It was Florida’s hottest week in a decade, and, for once, we were relieved to return to the air-conditioned car. As we sped towards Daytona, my mother uttered the question that began a revolution, “Dad, don’t you think it’s too hot to camp?”

To our left, white sands and azure seas peaked from between beachfront condos, but the vision on our right riveted our attention: the yellow flashing arrow, more bulbs burnt out than blinking, screaming “All Rooms $14.99.” Our eyes followed the arrow to a flat-roofed, one-story motel whose peculiar shade of pink I’ve since learned to call “dirty.” Dad swung into the lot, secured a room key from the motel office, and ushered us into a wonderland of air conditioning and indoor plumbing, complete with toilet, sink, AND shower! “Just like home!” I marveled. The double beds were equipped with a miracle of modern science called Magic Fingers, which could be ours for fifteen minutes for a mere quarter. We didn’t spend that quarter, but we could have.  I hadn’t known such luxury could be bought for $14.99 a night, or, according to the sign in the office window, $3.99 an hour.

My mother, I noticed, was not sharing my glee. She opened our cooler, retrieved the hamburger patties she had shaped before our trip, and fretfully plugged in our electric skillet.  “This is against the rules,” she whispered toward the sprinkler above her.  As she dropped the patties onto the skillet, her husband, the fireman, leaped into action. With each sizzle, he cranked up the A/C another notch and squeezed the wet towel he had molded around the sprinkler.  By the time the meat had browned, I was shivering under covers with no need for Magic Fingers, and Mom’s face read, “We will discuss this later.”

Mom slid the finished burgers onto thick slices of homemade bread, but the poor patties were no match for the frigid room. “A little cool,” my dad commented as he bit into his burger, and my mother’s look morphed to “Never again.”

“You know what would be really cool?” I said, playing off my dad’s ill-conceived remark, “Disney World.”

The next day was a blur of scenery flashing by our car windows, but as dusk approached, it was clear the “discussion” had taken place.  “Dad, don’t you think it’s time to stop for dinner?” my mom inquired, although we knew it was actually a statement and not a question. We were sitting at a stoplight, facing a billboard advertising “Morrison’s All-You-Can-Eat Buffet: $2.99/person”.  They had my dad at “All-You-Can-Eat,” but $2.99 made gluttony seem like frugality.

Maybe angels didn’t sing as Dad entered Morrison’s, but it was clear he had found his heaven on earth.   As we drove into any Southeastern city from that day forward, he’d pull to the curb by the first telephone booth he saw.  “Now!” he’d excitedly command, and I’d jump out, leaf through the White Pages, and write down the addresses of all the Morrison’s in town.

We’d made our way through many of Florida’s finest Morrison’s—but not Disney World—when we found ourselves in a St. Petersburg motel, having completed a deep-sea fishing excursion where my mother and brother turned green. Our next destination was Kennedy Space Center, and Dad announced we’d depart at 3 a.m. because it was on the other side of the state.

5:30 a.m. found us detained in a small lot outside the towering Kennedy Space Center gate, with Security peering into our car to see who was attempting a pre-dawn entry.  After waiting an hour for the gate to open, and another two for the Visitor’s Center, we secured the first tour of the day. As we walked back to our car, Dad tried to turn the morning’s experience into a teaching moment, “When you get the first tour, you have the rest of the day to get things done.”

“Like go to Disney World?” I asked.  

But to our dismay, we were going nowhere. During our pre-dawn arrival, we hadn’t turned off our lights. After four hours waiting for AAA, I made my way to a nearby bench, next to a white-haired lady whose eyes smiled at me over chained half-glasses. She had a lilting British accent that at once conveyed authority and benevolence. “Have you been to Disney World?” she asked, and my despondent “No!” was followed by a litany of the places we’d been and my failed attempts to reach the Magic Kingdom.

A good Samaritan had given our car a jump, and Dad hustled over to retrieve me.  “Young man!” my British friend greeted him, “You simply must take your family to Disney World! You will love it!”  My dad smiled uncomfortably and nodded, and we walked silently back to the running car.

As we got in, my dad picked up the map and tossed it into my lap, “Look up how to get there.”

“Where?” I inquired in disbelief.

“Disney World,” came his sighed reply.

About the Author

Mary Kreienkamp never quit her day job as an IT professional. She writes short stories at night for the entertainment of friends and family. Her pride and joy are her six nieces and nephews, for whom she serves as a cautionary tale.