Saturday, August 8, 2009

Of Summers Past

Pack up! Come with us on trips to Fire Island, Hemingway Country, and Route 66. Along with my essay, "Am I Blah Blah?", guest bloggers Frances O'Cherony Archer and Elizabeth Liwazer share their adventures in "Looking for Hemingway," and "An Easy Ride."

Am I Blah Blah?
by Elaine Soloway

“Am I female?” I asked my ex-husband.

“Yes,” he said.

I turned to my current husband. “Am I a movie star?”


I took a moment to ponder their responses. I was seated on a couch in the Fire Island beach house my daughter Jill rented in August of 2007. Along with her dad (my ex), my second husband, and me, Jill invited a dozen other relatives to share her vacation time. Since we all got along, there was no fear of unpleasantries interrupting the holiday.

Like everyone else, I wore a melon-colored post-it note, with a name written on it, stuck to my forehead. We were playing the parlor game, “Am I Blah-blah?” and had to guess the identity of the person on our post-its.

Stalling for time before my next question, I studied the view from the floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out onto the beach. Rain had been falling steadily since our arrival and the shore was deserted save for a few people hunting for seashells and driftwood. The water rose in high waves, raced across the sand, then grabbed scoops as it slithered back into the ocean.

I was ready for another stab. “Am I a politician?” I asked Jill.

“Yes,” she said.

“Hillary Clinton?” My daughter nodded and I leapt from my seat. I ripped the post-it from my forehead and shouted, “Yes!” Then I sat down, crossed my arms and tried to focus on the next player.

But my mind was as busy as the sea. Who had suggested Hillary Clinton? Was it one of my husbands? The one who, after 30 years of marriage, left me for another woman? Or the one who relinquished longtime bachelorhood and was adjusting to the constraints of wedlock? Did either of them see a trait Mrs. Clinton and I shared?

Instead of returning to the game, I replayed a scene in my head that might provide clues. The previous morning, my husbands and I were seated at the local diner when the conversation somehow veered to my shortcomings. “She’s so controlling,” one said. “Absolutely,” agreed his mate.

“Controlling?” I shouted. “Where would you be without my organizing, my bookkeeping, my taking care of things?” I hurled the question at both of them. They looked startled, for outbursts like this one were rare.

I started to cry. Number two put a hand on my shoulder. Number one attempted, "we didn't mean to…." I dabbed at my eyes with a table napkin. "We appreciate you," they agreed. "Sorry we upset you."

Not wanting to spoil the vacation, and admitting to myself I could be considered, well, controlling, I forgave them both and started eating.

“Am I an athlete?” Husband number one’s question dragged me back to the game.

“No,” another player answered.

The post-it on my ex’s forehead read Luciano Pavarotti. But if I had had the chance to edit the name, I'd pencil in, Benedict Arnold. And for husband number two? Brutus? Et tu?

Looking for Hemingway
By Frances O’Cherony Archer

In the summer of ’76 I sublet an apartment in Evanston, turned 20 and fell in love. When we weren’t at our summer jobs, John and I read books, listened to music, swam in the lake after dark, and rode long distances on our ten-speed bikes. Radio stations constantly played “If You Leave Me Now” and by the end of July we dreaded hearing the song: in the fall John was going away to grad school. To distract ourselves from the impending separation, we decided to take a road trip to Horton Bay, Michigan, the town where Ernest Hemingway spent childhood summers and the setting for some of his Nick Adams stories. We were English majors and had many favorite books, but we idolized Hemingway because he was, like us, from Chicago and he wrote about the outdoors and because we were still hoping for lives as adventurous as his.

Although it was an ambitious journey, a seven-hour drive from Chicago, our preparations didn’t go beyond studying my high school copy of "In Our Time" as though it were a road map. We borrowed my father’s 1971 banana yellow Chevy Malibu convertible, a muscle car that screamed summer adventure but was, we thought, a little loud for a literary expedition.

On Highway 31, opposite the turnoff for Horton Bay, there was a dirt road. We took it, thinking we might find traces of an abandoned lumber mill, Indian camp, or other landmarks from Hemingway’s stories. The road was narrow and bumpy and overgrown with weeds and shrubs. As the waters of Little Traverse Bay shimmered into view, we heard an explosion and felt the car sink. I had driven over a half-buried cement boat launch and blown a rear tire.

We walked for about an hour under a cloudless sky toward Petoskey until we found a gas station. The attendant laughed at our story, then said the earliest he could tow the car was the following morning and it would cost fifty dollars. With leftover funds we bought food and supplies: cans of franks and beans, chips, a quart of beer, water, a box of Pop Tarts, bug spray and a flashlight.

In the late afternoon we walked along a railroad track looking for the swampy spot where Nick Adams lands after getting thrown off the train in “The Battler.” Towns mentioned in the story—Walton Junction, Kalkaska, Mancelona—were miles away but we thought we’d find something. Before dark we gathered branches and twigs and built a campfire on the rocky shore, a fire big enough to last until daylight. We stayed up all night, half hoping and half afraid a hobo with a scarred face, like Ad Francis in Hemingway’s story, would emerge from the woods.

After the car was repaired, we drove back to the road we should have taken, the one leading to Horton Bay. The only traces of Hemingway we found were a few old photographs mounted on the walls of the Horton Bay General Store. We weren’t disappointed, though. Marooned overnight in the wrong place, we had glimpsed the scrubby, hard-luck landscape of the Nick Adams stories.

An Easy Ride
By Elizabeth Liwazer

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.
Mark Twain

“Remember the Route 66 trip I told you about?” Cindy asked.

“Sure,” I nodded, sipping my hot tea during our monthly dinners together. It was January and the only thing that warmed me on another freezing evening.

“My sister isn’t coming after all…do you want to go?” she asked.

Ever since I saw Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda straddle their bikes in "Easy Rider," I’ve wanted to head west from the Midwest on the iconic American open road. Now, the summer before 9/11, I had my chance. I could dump the job I hated and take off in the Honda. But, instead of a Honda motorcycle, we loaded her four-door Honda Civic with a refrigerator and Bud, a smiling bobble-headed porcelain doll we won at a friend’s bowling party.

In preparation, we highlighted our maps and atlas and toasted each other Thelma and Louise-style while watching that movie, and reread our high school copies of "The Grapes of Wrath" because John Steinbeck’s Joad family sets out for California on Route 66. We planned our course, certain to get our kicks in every place the song mentioned. From downtown Chicago, we would drive from Springfield, Illinois, through Joplin, Missouri across the state line to Oklahoma City, where we would remember a different set of victims from a local radical at the Federal Building.

Ours was a carefree attitude traveling cross-country, in the last innocent days before we understood that we, too, are vulnerable to attacks by international forces. "The Bad Girl’s Guide" to the Open Road, was invaluable to our 2,077 mile road-tripping adventure to the Pacific Ocean and we read it from cover to cover, taking note of wanderlust wisdom like other helpful uses for condoms such as snakebite tourniquet or ponytail holder and how to get out of speeding tickets. Our most difficult decisions were which diner to have lunch or what motel might be cleaner on the nights we weren’t staying in our friends’ guest rooms.

From Amarillo, Texas, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, we headed for Winslow, Arizona, taking little Bud’s picture at every tourist attraction, laughing harder and harder as we waited for Asian and European travelers to move aside so we could strategically place him beside the sites. At the Grand Canyon, we stood in awe, holding Bud, who posed happily for pictures to fill our albums. We followed step after breathtaking step on the path taken by millions of others toward the stunning sunset, never once mentioning that we missed the office.

Driving up Highway One, where Bud, with his painted-on grin, was as excited as we were to have his picture taken at the Brady Bunch house, we took the northern route back home. Our high spirits were beginning to wilt at the prospect of returning to real life until we hit South Dakota and a flock of Hondas and Harley Davidsons cluttered the expressway. Our paths intersected with those headed for Sturgis, the Mecca for motorcycle enthusiasts and the people who sleep with them.

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Cindy asked. She shook Bud until his bobble head was nodding at such a frenzied pace that it threatened to catapult through the windshield.

Had our Route 66 trip been planned after 9/11, our whole experience would have been very different. Instead, we gave each other the thumbs up Thelma and Louise-style, and joined our Honda with all the others.

(The people in the photos are: Jill, Elaine, and Faith Soloway in the first story; and Elizabeth and Cindy in the last story.)