This is my favorite picture. If I ever write a book about that trip, this will be my cover. It pretty much encapsulates my life as a teenager. I was sixteen in this picture but given my upbringing, my sixteen years was easily everyone else’s twelve. I’ve always been a young soul and super naive. I always looked younger than my age so people treated me like I was younger. This was a blessing and a curse but mostly now that I’m older, I think it was a blessing. I dodged a lot of bullets looking the way I did.
I remember the day this was taken. We were waiting forever for my parents to finish loading up the RV that my dad would be driving us across country in for our big educational adventure of the summer. This adventure was hatched up by my mom of course. She was always one to string together impossible plans on a shoe-string and a prayer. I would never take the risks she took with us kids or her finances but because of her free spirit and general optimism, I have seen more places and experienced more crazy stories than my kids will ever hope to.
So there we are: me on the left leaning on my cousin Nicki’s knee in exaggerated tiredness. Next to her is, Tara, her sister and then that gangly dude in knee socks and hightop Converse is my brother, Shawn. We were a pack. I have a zillion cousins but I’ve always been the closest to Tara and Nicki (I hope you guys don’t mind me using your real names.), probably because we were closest in age. My mom has five brothers and sisters and us four were the first grandchildren born in the Albertson family. We stuck together.
I remember that porch with the red concrete bricks so well. It is still my favorite and when I’m house-hunting (if I ever get so lucky to be a homeowner) I will always want a house with a big front porch. The red bricks were always hot in the sun and if you were cold from running in the sprinklers all day you could always stand on them and warm your feet until they burned.
I made it a habit to jump up these steps everyday when I got home from school. It was a game for myself that I would never touch the middle step. A few times I misjudged and ate the concrete but for the most part I was limber as a billy goat. There was also a 3-foot short stucco-covered brick wall on both sides of our big front yard. I also jumped over those walls whenever I came to them like a hurdler. I was really tough on myself and my physical fitness regime. It’s too bad my parents never let me try out for track and field. But I digress.
There were a lot of cement and stucco around because the man who lived in our house before we moved in, was a cement contractor. I think everyday when he came home from a job and he had some extra cement he just smeared it onto the outside walls of our house. Everything was covered in white stucco. In fact, even the ceiling of the front porch was stuccoed cement. Our house was a tank. If a hurricane ever ripped through the desert where we lived, our house would stand still while the rest of the neighborhood blew away.
Anyway, I’ve always loved this house. It wasn’t the nicest. It was kind of a hovel but it had a lot of charm, quirk and weird add-ons. I will always be trying to recreate the sense of home it gave me. We moved a lot before we moved into that house and we stayed there the longest so it will always be my childhood home.
But back to the trip. My parents always take forever to get ready for a trip. They still do. My mom makes lists and checks them twice and just like me, she overpacks as she imagines every possible scenario. I’m sure she packed a lot of food and of course we had “busy bags” of things to do since this was the time before cell phones and boredom was only be kept at bay with coloring books and sketchpads and Uno cards and hula hoops. Wait, hula hoops? Yes, hula hoops. I’ve been reading my old journals and I made a point of mentioning that they were packed and stored behind the kitchen banquette seating because you’d never want to be caught out and about without your hula hoop. Face palm.
I’m sure we kids were no help. The fact that we are all sitting there on the front step looking bored out of our minds, and then sticking our heads out the window while my parents rush about fussing over packing and taking inventory of all the broken things on the rented RV, is a pretty good clue. But we were kids and I think our responsibilities started and stopped at remembering to pack enough underwear and a swimsuit. As soon as that was done I’m sure we felt free to whine and complain about how boring and hot the day was. We didn’t leave until 8pm that night and if I remember right I bet our goal departure time was more like 10am. That’s the way we roll.
The RV is a character itself in this story. It was a 32-foot beast called the Executive. I’m not sure if it was my aunt or us kids who renamed it “The Execute” after it proceeded to break down in every state that we drove through. It was rented from one of my dad’s pest control clients. I remember the guy’s shop well. It was a furniture rental store called Don’s Furniture. It was dusty old place full of big bulky wooden desks and grungy tweed couches sitting on a cement floor. I don’t know how he kept in business when you could find just as nice of furniture at the Salvation Army but it was the sticks and nobody really had much money back then so maybe that’s how he made it. He was actually planning on expanding his store to a second location with the two-thousand dollars he made from renting this RV to my dad. Which leads me to another question, how the blankety-blank-blank did my family afford to spend 2K on an RV? We couldn’t even afford to eat out at fancy restaurants!
The answer is: my mom. I’m sure she connived and cajoled her sister into getting her wealthy husband to pay for it in exchange for my dad doing all the driving and she doing all the cooking. That might have been a good deal. I don’t know but I do know that there are many layers to my mom and her sister’s relationship. They’ve both been known to have hot tempers and I do remember there being a lot of stress generated between the two of them. But I love them both and I know that they loved us and they wanted to create this amazing adventure across America so that we kids could learn US history in person the year before we all studied it in school. It was a brilliant plan. I almost want to try to do it myself with my own kids. But it was an expensive plan and we had no money so it went the way most expensive plans with no financing go: disastrous. Wonderfully, comically and epically disastrous.
*these memories are mine and not necessarily accurate. If somebody remembers it differently please reach out and correct me. :)
This morning I pulled out my old plastic bin of journals from our shed in the backyard. I’m beginning the daunting task of sorting them with the intention to write about the epic trip we took across the country in the summer of 1988. That trip. It almost needs no other title. It was the trip from hell but for me as a very young and naive sixteen-year-old with no expectations and only a sense of adventure, I don’t look at that trip with bad memories at all. It was an adventure of a lifetime. It was a coming-of-age story. I took it all in with wide open fearful eyes and it formed me to be who I am today.
I don’t know if I’ll be able to ever really truly capture what it was for me. Unfortunately, my memories of the important details are hazy and only the spikes of drama really come into clear crisp view and those stories I can’t always tell because I need to protect my loved ones who are involved. I can’t share their stories for them and I probably don’t even remember them properly if I could. I just remember what I remember. My memory is not like a movie. It’s like a collection of pictures and feelings and glimpses. It’s a mess.
Later in my twenties I interviewed a poet once when I was working as a student writer for the Alumni Association Newsletter at Cal State Hayward. Quick tangent: What a funny job that was. It was work/study but I think it was pretty much a charity job—meaning I was desperately poor and the school figured out a way to help me. Anyway, I hated interviewing people (I was a painfully shy introvert) and I was the worst when I had no deadline. I’d sit at my old clunker of a computer (green letters on a black screen, typing in word perfect) and bang out an article maybe once a month. They pretty much paid me to sit on my butt, answer phones and occasionally file things.
Anyway I interviewed a retired professor who had published a book of poems. That’s mostly what I did, I wrote feature puff pieces on interesting alumni. He was from the Philippines and I remember he had a thick accent. He said to me, “When you write, you don’t have to start at the beginning and go to the end in order. Think of writing as if you were hanging up pieces of scenery on a clothes line. You describe something you remember and hang it up. Then move onto the next memory and hang that one up. Then when you have a bunch of memories you can move those pieces of paper around until it makes a story.”
What great advice that was. So that is what I’m going to do. I’m going to hang up pieces of this trip and not worry too much about the order they are in. I’ll sort that later. The important thing is writing.