Back in the day, we here in the Champlain Valley often made the redcoats’ lives hell – the breakfast brawl at Hubbardton notwithstanding. But my parents always had a soft spot in their hearts for one particular redcoat stationed at Fort Ticonderoga in the 1960s.
Okay, he wasn’t a real redcoat. He was, perhaps, a college kid on summer break earning a little money and sweating off a semester’s worth of keg beer beneath his regulation British Army uniform. But here is, more or less, what happened.
My parents had put my older brother and me in the backseat of the station wagon – a blue woodie – and driven four or five hours north from our home in Westchester County. (I should note that my brother and I probably weren’t always in the backseat. We were just as likely to have been hanging out in the cargo area. Seat belts back then were viewed as a serious inconvenience. The last thing anyone wanted was to be buckled into the seat if you smashed into a tanker truck and had to get out fast. Besides, how could my brother and I wrestle in a moving vehicle if we were strapped into our seats?) It was one of those classic summer vacation car trips, where we went north to Lake George and Fort Ticonderoga, and then west to Niagara Falls.
And while I don’t remember much, I remember two moments: The redcoat. And the brothel. More on the brothel in a moment.
I was three and my brother was eight. Based on the photos from the trip that remain, we looked like we were pulled straight from an episode of “Mad Men:” Crew cuts and short pants. We are always posed in front of Revolutionary War era cannons. Among my annoying habits (and, apparently, I had plenty), was that I used to suck my fingers. Not my thumb, which normal, screwed-up three-year-olds depended on, but fingers. I used to suck the ring and middle fingers. Simultaneously. It drove my parents wild, but they seemed incapable of stopping me.
But one summer afternoon, the redcoat accomplished in nine words what my parents had been trying to make happen for months. For years, for all I know. As we were passing the redcoat at Fort Ticonderoga, he said to me in the voice of a drill sergeant, “Soldier! Get those fingers out of your mouth – now!” According to family lore, I was awed. I listened. And I never put my fingers in my mouth again.
The next day we motored on to Niagara Falls. Just before we arrived there, however, the station wagon’s transmission died. The woodie was towed to a garage near Buffalo and we went to the motel across the street from the garage to spend the night. It was – and here I am being kind – a dump. The fellow behind the counter begged my parents not to stay there when he saw they had their children with them. I weighed in with one of those remarks mothers memorialize in baby books: “What a crummy joint.” And, yes, if it wasn’t actually a brothel, it was what we euphemistically call a “hot sheets motel.” My mother made us sleep in our cloths on the bedspreads. (Given what we now know about motel bedspreads, this may in reality have been the far more disgusting solution. The sheets are at least washed.)
I share these two Wonder Bread memories with you because many of you are finalizing your own summer vacation plans. Your car trips to great destinations. Your roadside adventures for July and August.
My advice? Think big. Expect the unexpected. Be flexible.
And, yes, check your transmission.
Now buckle up and take your fingers out of your mouth. It’s already June and those hot sheets motels fill up fast.