Monday, February 18, 2008

New Latitude.....Same Attitude

As a four year old I had no words for it, but I knew that something big was happening. It was a hot summer evening and I felt weird – some odd combo platter of emotion…dread…excitement…fear? I couldn’t tell. But I knew that my six brothers and sisters were thrilled, and that my mom, though she was smiling, was feeling something else, something much more sinister.

Around 6pm my dad burst through the door with a puffed up chest and a mischievous smile. “Pack up the kids Doris” he bellowed, “We’re going on vacation.” It was a Friday in late August, commission check time for feed salesman in small town Southern Minnesota, and it had been a good week. My brothers and sisters were jumping and hollering. “Whoo Hoo! Vacation! I get Mom’s lap.” “Hugh-ungh you got it last time.” My mother got this odd look on her face – something between fear and homicidal mania.

You see vacation to our family was not some rustic, cozy cabin in the north woods on a lake – or even roughing in a tent with a camp stove. Our vacation home was an old abandoned farmhouse in the middle of a cricket-infested field in southern Minnesota. It had no electricity, no indoor plumbing, no bedding, no dishes – and my mother was to pack up seven children, supplies, equipment, and food at 6 pm on a Friday night so that we could arrive before dark. How she went 55 years without smothering that man in his sleep I will never understand.

Packing the car was an exercise in advanced geometry and triangulation. Nine people, food, sheets, towels, supplies, and Poncho – the nervous, incontinent, motion sick terrier were all to fit into the midnight-blue Buick Roadmaster. We were lap-sitters, the lot of us, four in the front and five in the back. As the baby of the family, I got to ride in back window of the sedan along with Poncho, and it was my job to yell “CAR” whenever I saw one approaching or trying to pass.

What would turn out to be our very last visit to the abandoned shack began just as all the others had, with frenzy and excitement and undeniable dread. And now it was nighttime – dark as pitch. I was curled up with my sister on an army surplus cot built for one. We were a tangle of clammy arms and legs, sweaty brows and musty old blankets, waging a sleep-war for the only pillow. It was a hushed symphony of cricket chirps and sleep murmurs. Then everything changed.

At first I could only hear the huffing. This was not the rhythmic familiarity of my dad’s snoring. No, whatever was breathing like that was definitely not human and it smelled horribly of musk and mold and decay. Satan’s perfume. I heard my mother’s voice.

“Ellis” she whisper-screamed “there is a BEAR in here!”
“Just go back to sleep. It’ll leave” my dad replied.
“GET IT OUT OF HERE!” She was no longer whispering.
“How in hell am I supposed to do that? I don’t have a gun.” He said.
“WELL THEN CHASE IT OUT!”
“You want me to chase a bear?”
“I WANT YOU TO CHASE A BEAR!”

Muttering curses like Yosemite Sam, my dad hurled himself out of the bed and made all the noise a 5 foot 4 inch, 145 lb man could make. He shouted and flailed and banged on whatever was near him, completely blind in the darkness. My nine year-old brother Jimmy took an inadvertent cuff to the ear and howled out in pain. This started a chain reaction of screaming and falling to the floor from seven children and a very small, very frightened terrier.

The commotion died down when Mom lit the gas lantern and we looked around the cabin. No bear, no boogeyman, just that unholy, lingering odor.
The door was standing wide open and we held our breath as Dad bravely advanced on the door, and beyond it, the wild, ferocious animal that had nearly massacred his family.

There at the bottom of the steps sat a very confused, very hairy golden retriever, panting and huffing with his head tilted a little to one side. “Well there’s you bear Doris, there’s your god damned bear.” My father shook his head, quenched the light, and went back to sleep.

Fast forward 35 or so years and I am in a lovely hotel with my husband and three kids. We have a pool, a beach, a kitchen and air conditioning. “C’mon you guys, this will be an adventure.” I coaxed. I had met a man named Christian who was building a resort on one of the undeveloped outer cayes in Belize. His resort wasn’t open for guests yet, but would be very soon. He was looking for someone to market the resort in the US, and I, being a travel agent who was already marketing a hotel on another caye, I was a natural choice. He offered free accommodations for the weekend.

We packed a boat with provisions and took the two hour ride to Long Caye Resort. As we docked the boat and unloaded, I noticed that my husband had this strange look on his face. He didn’t seem nearly as excited for this adventure as I was. “Jeez” I thought. “Where’s your sense of fun?”

The cloud of mosquitoes descended on us almost immediately. I’d never seen anything like it. They were as thick as fog, buzzing and biting like the frenzied vampires they are. At once they were in my eyes, up my nose, in my mouth and ears. Choking and swatting, we jumped into the ocean to escape.

“Careful of the stinging jellyfish ma’am.” Christian, our host announced. “They’re everywhere.” We snatched the kids out of the water and put on long sleeves and pants, hats and bandanas. Trouble is, it was about 106º and humid. Everyone was miserable, sweating and itching like crazy. “Quick – inside the hotel” I offered.

Christian showed us to our rooms – a 10x10 box with no cross ventilation, no screens on the only window and gaping holes in the unfinished roof. It did have a ceiling fan, and I was hoping that after the sun set the mosquitoes would abate and the breeze of the fan would keep us cool.

“You have electricity right?” My husband accused.
“Yes, of course.” Replied Christian.

And he did. Except, he forgot to mention that the generator was turned off every night around 10 pm - turning the 10x10 hot box of a room into a sweltering, buggy oven. We passed that hideous night taking turns trying to cool off in the shower down the hall – fully clothed.

The next morning we were up and out of there before our host was even awake. I was appropriately contrite about my mis-adventure. However, on the way back I asked my husband if we could stop at another island just a little further south. I had heard about a resort that some American had built and then abandoned. Apparently he had been in trouble with the law and had to flee country. “We should stop and take a look.” I said. “I guess it’s brand new and just sitting there empty for anyone to use. We could stay the night. It would be an adventure!” He just looked down and shook his head.

How that man has gone 22 years without smothering me in my sleep I will never understand.

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