Comforting Thoughts

COMFORTING THOUGHTS

      I was waiting for a Metra train to downtown Chicago yesterday, just looking at the billboard advertisements along the track, when I savored a comforting thought:

Somewhere in a Las Vegas casino right now, there is probably a  young man betting my favorite numbers on roulette. Suddently,  one if his numbers hits, paying out 35 to one. I imagine he bet heavily, as I always did on my favorite numbers.

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Oddly, this wasn’t the first time I’ve imagined such things, when under some level of stress. I used to think that, regardless of what I had to deal with, I could take comfort knowing  at that very moment a family was enjoying Disney World for the first time, maybe riding Small World or Spaceship Earth, or climbing aboard their first Monorail. It didn’t matter, as long as someone, somewhere, was experiencing happier times than I was.

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I’ve come to believe that the act of remembering is deeper, more immersive than we usually appreciate. I once read that our minds are far more complex than we realize, and that our meanderings, our recollections, are true relivings of our past experiences. Who can think of a primal fear, like falling from a dizzying height, watching a crawling spider, or seeing a plane crash on the news (to name 3 of my fears), and not, at least emotionally, touch a part of their subconscious that recoils in terror from such images?

I reason that if these fears, when genuinely experienced in my memory, can elicit those negative emotions, than why not instead try to elicit pleasant experiences in idle moments? Indeed, I have found that such total recall, to coin a phrase, is akin to the genuine experience.

And so, in this humble context, I offer this thought: when confronted with the worst of life, remember the best of life. If fearful, or stessed, or discomforted, remember times of joy!

Combat everyday annoyances with images of some perfect moment in time. Whether it be a cherished vacation, a gathering with family or friends, or a past triumph, a happy thought can at least compete with a momentary displeasure.

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I suppose, for me, it’s the idea of someone enjoying, at this very moment, some happy time in my past. It’s usually a travel experience: a jet lifting off for parts unknown, a cruise ship leaving dock and setting sail, watching pounding ocean waves on a sandy beach, or even that lucky spin of the roulette wheel.

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So I seek these varied experiences in my own life: the times when I shake things up, push past the routine, and dive into unknown waters. Good or bad, they are at least different.

And when I find in my wanderings that I’ve hit upon that special moment, that joyful happening to touch my soul (whether I realize it at the time or not), I have discovered treasure. I store it, embellish it, and protect it from the world.

If possible, I retain some physical keepsake of that experience. My shelves and closets are crowded with momentos of these special times, always new regardless of how long I’ve had them.

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Too often, I will need those life-affirming moments again. And you know, they never wear thin. They are always present, in the back of my mind, to offer comfort.

Those memories are the reason I love to travel, and hopefully always will.

– Pete Murphy

September, 2014

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Indianapolis: A Great Family Getaway

INDIANAPOLIS: A GREAT FAMILY GETAWAY

 

Indianapolis is a good three hour drive southeast of our home in the south Chicago suburbs.  A fun destination for a long family weekend or part of a week, my family and I last went in April, 2013.

For us, the car ride down is a decent balance between a day trip to one of Chicago’s Museums, and the are we there yet? trials of a longer vacation.  While not as scenic as other auto trips I’ve taken, my kids (ages 5 and 10 on our last trip) are always fascinated by the numerous windmill farms along I-65 south of Brookston, Indiana.  There are literally hundreds of them, and I recall reading on a billboard that Indianapolis Zoo’s electricity is largely supplied by these turbines.  Occasionally, you can see a flat bed truck carrying one of the massive white turbine blades as you transit this corridor.

Navigating through Indianapolis was much easier (and less aggravating) than driving through Chicago’s Loop, and soon enough the expressway was behind us as we checked into our hotel in the downtown area.  Hotels and restaurants are plentiful in Indy, but I don’t recommend visiting the area during the Men’s NCAA Basketball Finals (a.k.a. the Final Four).  Most hotels and tourist venues are packed with fans during this weekend, making getting around and seeing the sites difficult.

Typical of most visits, on arrival we bought tickets to our favorite destinations through the concierge at our hotel.  These can be had at somewhat of a discount, and during this trip we planned to see the Children’s Museum, Indianapolis Zoo, and the Motor Speedway (home of the famous Indianapolis 500).  While not speaking from personal experience, I assume the weekend they run the 500 race is also pretty crowded.

Our first stop, after checking into the hotel and getting our tickets, was the Children’s Museum.  This makes for a fun afternoon, and the Museum is a only a short 10-minute drive from downtown.  The Museum itself has several exhibits for kids and grownups alike.

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The entrance level is dominated by a life-sized dinosaur peeking into the glass enclosure of the lobby.  Once through the main entrance, we followed the path to the Dinosphere displays.  A good balance of fun and education, the mix of dinosaur models and skeletons are reminiscent of the Field Museum in Chicago.  From there, it’s a short walk to the All Aboard! exhibit of trains, including the 55 ton steam engine Reuben Wells.

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The Museum has five floors of exhibits, with a circular ramp in the center to move guests between floors.  In the middle of this ramp is the fabulous Fireworks of Glass, a 43 foot sculpture of blown glass that really is fantastic.  A maintenance crew was cleaning this sculpture when we visited, and it was neat to watch them perform their work while hanging suspended by ropes from the ceiling over 40 feet above.  It reminded me of mountain climbers descending from a cliff face, or divers working in a large aquarium.  Sort of eerie and unreal at the same time.

Another memorable exhibit was the tour of Egypt.  A walk through the cabin of an Egypt Air jetliner (complete with airline seats, in-flight movie, and cockpit windows showing animated clouds and scenery), and we arrived in the half-scale version of a small town in that Country.  While the jetliner was probably the kids’ favorite part, they also enjoyed driving (via video screen) a 3-wheeled cab, and walking through the stores and houses.  I’ve discovered online that this exhibit will soon be replaced by Take Me There: China.  I imagine this latest offering will be every bit as fun to explore.

Not surprisingly, my Daughter’s favorite part of the Museum was Barbie: The Fashion Experience, which unfortunately closed prior to our last visit.  Housing everything from the history of the Dolls to an executive office Barbie might occupy, my Daughter enjoyed each moment.  As a nod to the boys, a glass case of GI Joe figures and vehicles was displayed nearby.  The Musuem’s exhibits change from time to time, making each visit a new experience.*

While my Wife and Daughter visited the Health House interactive exhibit, my Son and I explored the Hot Wheels For Real exposition.  This was a testament to all things Hot Wheels, and as a long time fan of these toys, I was impressed.  Several full-sized race cars were on display, based on the Hot Wheels models I played with as a kid.  Also on display were the first 16 model cars Mattel made, the so-called “Sweet 16” from 1968.  Even now, I can’t quite help myself from occasionally surfing eBay, to see how expensive these cars are to buy.  As can often happen, I had most of them during my childhood, but have lost them long since.

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On the top floor of the Museum is ScienceWorks and Carousel Wishes and DreamsScienceWorks included a long water table to sail boats on, demonstrating currents and wind power, as I understood it.  Not surprisingly, the kids there (mine included) considered it more of a splash zone, and mostly just had fun playing in the water.

The Carousel was enchanting, a remnant from a simpler time, before automobiles were common, and modern air travel was unheard of.  This restored classic, like many I’ve seen brought back from decay, whirls under a dazzling of electric stars to the joy of the younger set.  Watching my Daughter tame her wild horse, I was reminded of my many rides on carousels long years ago.

We bid farewell to the Museum around dinner time, heading back to our hotel for a few hamburgers and some swimming before bed.

The next day, we were up early to be first in line at the Indianapolis Zoo.  For me, it’s hard to avoid comparing it to our own Brookfield and Lincoln Park Zoos.  Somewhat smaller than either of the Chicago Zoos, Indianapolis Zoo is unique in many ways and worth the visit.

The Dolphin Adventure Show at Indianapolis Zoo is probably the best dolphin show I’ve seen, and reminds me of those shows Brookfield Zoo used to present in the late 1960’s.  Only the Shedd Aquarium’s show comes close these days.  Flipping, jumping, and darting around, the dolphins are entertaining for all ages.  Those lucky few who sit close to the tank usually get soaked, a practice I discourage with my kids.

The penguins are also fun to watch, particularly as they pass beneath the glass floor from one side of their habitat to the other.  It’s also a treat to see the polar bears swim in their tank, which is clear to provide visitors with a view from underwater.  The Zoo also has a terrific cheetah habitat where you can almost touch the big cats, and an opportunity to run faster than cheetah speed on a timed track.  Not to worry when you lose – no one can beat a cheetah’s running speed!

Overall, the Indianapolis Zoo’s smaller size provides more up-close encounters with the animals.  Inside the Zoo is also one of the very few remaining Dog‘n Suds restaurants in the Midwest, where we enjoyed lunch next to the resident flock of pink flamingoes.  We stayed through the early afternoon, then headed back to the hotel to let the kids play in the pool and relax.

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After dinner, my Son and I walked over to Rhythm! Discover Center, in the lower level of the indoor complex in downtown Indy.  This complex has a series of walkways connecting several restaurants, hotels, and the Artsgarden, located in the center of the commercial district.

Rhythm! is easy to overlook during a busy vacation, but anyone interested in percussion instruments should make time to spend an hour or so touring the Center.  From primitive instruments to the most modern drums, visitors have a unique opportunity to see and play this fine collection.  Near the end of the self-guided tour, there are several sound-proof rooms available for the budding (or retired) percussionist to discover the fun of setting a beat.

 

On our last day in Indy, we headed out to the Motor Speedway.  At close to half an hour from downtown, depending on traffic and construction, the Speedway is typically the farthest we drive during our stays.  You enter the complex by driving under the actual race track, and quickly notice how big the track and infield truly are.

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We drove to the main facility of the Speedway, which houses the Hall of Fame Museum, on our last day in Indianapolis.  Inside is virtually every car that won the Indianapolis 500 since it began in 1909.  The Museum houses images of all the legendary drivers who’ve won, and many of the trophies they earned during their careers.

Walking through over 100 years of race cars, I couldn’t help but consider the improvements that each new race brought to the art of those machines, and to wonder what the future winning cars will look like.  We also had time that morning to take the bus tour through the infield and gasoline alley.

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I’ve watched many Indianapolis 500 Races on television, but like most such events that are televised, the true dimensions of the Race can’t be seen on TV.  The bus tour allows you to appreciate the enormity of this iconic track.  Indy cars cover 500 miles in 200 laps, meaning each lap is 2.5 miles, regardless of how quickly they speed by.  The closest comparisons I can think of are the infields of large airports, like O’Hare and Midway in Chicago.

Our tour guide was great at explaining the history of the Speedway, from the Brickyard  track of the early days, to the hi-tech racetrack designed for driver safety we see today.  A little piece of nostalgia remains here:  the start/finish line is made up of a 36” strip of the old bricks from the original track.

After our exploration of the Speedway, we headed back to our own piece of automobile history (my sedan), and made our way out of Indianapolis, to I-65 and home.

It’s hard to beat Indianapolis for a quick getaway with the family, and the expense is pretty reasonable.  I recommend this trip as a remedy for those long summer weekends when there’s little left to do at home, or those early fall days when school never seems to end for the kids.

My own kids never tire of our trips to Indianapolis, and keeping them interested in new and different experiences pays dividends.  Not only does it broaden their minds, but the threat of canceling an Indy vacation can work miracles in keeping the family peace!

 

*  The Children’s Museum exhibits described here may no longer be open.  For updates on current exhibits, visit their web site

http://www.childrensmuseum.org/

 

Reunions Workbook link to this article:

http://reunionsworkbook.com/indianapolis-a-great-family-getaway/

 

–           Pete Murphy                June 2014

 

MOTORCYCLES ANONYMOUS

Motorcycles Anonymous

            Indy sauntered to the bike lift at the front of the room, feeling every mile of his 26 years on the road.  He looked at the small group gathered in the dimly lit garage, cleared his pipes, and began the meeting.

            “Okay folks, let’s settle back to idle.  Are we all here?  Good.  Let’s go ahead and recite the oath together …”  The group looked up at Indy and, almost reverently, spoke with one voice:

            I am a motorcycle.  I live on back roads and highways, race tracks and trails.  My only purpose is to give my Rider the freedom and joy of the Ride.  Through the curves and dangers of the road, the long nights, the storms, and the long hot days, I will not fail my Rider.  I will protect my Rider with my life.

            “I guess I’ll let someone else start tonight,” said Indy.  “Anyone want to come on up?”

            A newer model Japanese bike rolled forward, and turned toward the group.

            “Hi, I’m Suzie,” she began.

            “Hi Suzie,” responded the bikes, as tradition dictated at these meetings.

            “I’m pretty new off the line,” she said hesitantly, “ … my Rider picked me up about two months ago.”  She gained in confidence as she continued on with her story.

            “Vickie rides me almost every day, except in the rain.  Mostly local miles, like forest preserve runs after work or down to that burger joint half a day south of here.  It’s been just great for us!

             “Now, I’ve also had a few close calls with the four-wheel crowd.  Hard stops and quick turns have kept us safe, and Vickie rides in full leathers with a full-faced SNELL helmet.  She learned how to ride at an MSF safety course, and practices hard turns in a local parking lot once a week.  She checks me up and down before every Ride, from lights to tires.  I am tuned up, gassed up, and ready to rocket!”

             As Suzie returned to the group, the older bikes couldn’t help but stifle a weary but indulgent sigh.  Let the rookie have her days.  There could be precious few of those, they all knew, and even the best Riders could fall victim to the Crash.

             The Crash.  Never talked about even in these meetings, but something on everyone’s mind.  Fault simply didn’t enter into it for the bikes.  It was that split second when joy can turn to terror, when endless Rides can become long-term storage, and when a motorcycle’s entire purpose is laid bare in an instant.         

            It had happened to most of them, as they’d given witness to over the years in this very garage.  Close calls or wrecks, miracles or sad truths.  The gas and oil scent of the air bore mute witness to all the bikes had been through and survived.

            A few others said their piece over the next hour.  Kam (pronounced kam-mu, meaning flower dream), another Japanese import, with the story of his Ride to Alaska with George, who eventually quit Riding in favor of a wife and kids.  The big full dresser was gathering dust, and had recently been put up for sale.  “New owner,” a few of the bikes softly groaned, as Kam returned to his place. 

            Indy himself said a few words about his owner Joe, who was Riding a lot more frequently since losing his job.  Sadly, though, Joe was having more than a few beers every afternoon, and had Ridden twice late at night afterward.  On one Ride last month, Joe had dropped Indy at a red light.  He’d lost his balance and down he went, unable to stop the tipping machine.  Luckily,  Joe got back up and headed home before he was arrested.  Most thought it couldn’t last, but none said a word.          

             The meeting was drawing to a close as Indy finished his sad story and looked out on the group.  “Let’s have someone who hasn’t been up here in a while.  Harvey?”

            The bikes turned around and watched as another older cycle made his way up to the front and stood on the lift.  Harvey, the big American classic.  Indy moved aside as Harvey began.

            “Hi, I’m Harvey.”

            “Hi Harvey,” responded the room.

            “Well, I haven’t been ridden in 6 years.  My rider was Fred.  He, ummm..” Harvey paused for a moment.  “He loved the Ride.  When the weather broke in April or May, he had me tuned up and out we’d go.  Mostly day rides, you know.  Friday after work, almost all day Saturday; but then we’d have a week or two of longer rides, out of state, over the summers.  Man, we’d just blast.  I thought it’d never end.

            “Winters, you know, they got long sometimes for Fred.  He’d sneak out to the garage and just sit, looking at me like he wanted to just Ride through the snow until we hit Florida or something.  He’d start me up and just sit, itching to go, listening to his iPod and dreaming of the road.”   

            Harvey took another long pause.  “We were up on the high plains one summer evening, near the mountains, when the car pulled out of the rest stop without seeing us.  Fred didn’t have much of a chance to swerve, and my front wheel caught the left rear bumper of the car.  Fred did a high side vault over my bars at 75 m.p.h.” 

            The silence in the room was complete as Harvey continued.  “He survived, but … well, he doesn’t Ride anymore.  Fred didn’t believe in brain buckets, and hit his head pretty hard.  He can walk, mostly, but just isn’t the same guy.  They had me fixed up:  something about Fred needing a reason to keep going.  But I stay in the back of his garage now.”

            As he slowly came down off the lift, the other bikes watched in respectful admiration of the old timer.  Most had heard his story before, but all understood it.  They were motorcycles. 

            It wasn’t about safety, or the moral of any of the stories.  Like their owners, they lived for the Ride.  No one thought less of Fred.  Many of their own Riders were the same, and for these bikes it simply did not matter how they were Ridden.  Such things, in the end, were beyond them.

            Philosophy was likewise beyond this group of simple souls.  They got together to share stories of the road for the memories and joys, hardships and pains.  It kept them going.  And for better or worse, in lean times and happy times, they would keep going.  For their Riders.

            They rose again, and solemnly recited their oath:

            I am a motorcycle.  I live  …

               

                                                –           Pete Murphy                June 2014

 

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Mundelein’s Seminary: Worth the Time

Mundelein’s Seminary: Worth the Time

 

If you live in the Chicago area, as I do, or have an occasion to visit, I recommend a trip to Mundelein’s St. Mary of the Lake Seminary. Established in 1844, the Seminary was re-charted in 1929 by Archbishop George Mundelein. The beautiful setting, historically significant buildings, and long tradition of religious education of this Institution, would refresh the soul of any Roman Catholic.

I visited St. Mary last Fall during a scout fishing trip, organized through the Chicago Archdiocese Catholic Committee on Scouting (CCS). It was a truly beautiful day, all pleasant sunshine, and still a bit warm for mid-September. We drove a little over an hour north of our homes in the south suburbs, and soon entered the 600 acre campus with its forest preserve atmosphere. After an introduction and short program of prayer featuring some of the seminarians, the scouts were free to find a spot and try their luck at fishing the waters of St. Mary’s Lake.

I should point out that fishing the Lake is not always permitted at St. Mary. The scouts obtained special permission through the Archdiocese CCS, and anyone planning a visit should check out their web site or call to check hours and visitor policies.*

Along with a few of our scout leaders, I brought the recent graduates of my summer-long Ad Altare Dei (to the Alter of God) program. Ad Altare Dei is a Catholic boy scout religious awards program, involving a load of work and study for the four young men who completed their awards last summer.   They each received medals at a special Mass at Holy Name Cathedral early this year, but last September they were at St. Mary to tour the campus and learn about being a seminarian. I learned a great deal as well.

The seminarian who volunteered to show us around was in his first year at Mundelein. He had completed his undergraduate work at St. Joseph College Seminary at Loyola University (formerly Niles College Seminary), prior to being accepted at St. Mary.

I was amazed to learn from him the amount of education required of a Catholic priest.   Undergraduate studies can take 4-6 years, and a candidate can spend the same amount of time at St. Mary as a graduate seminarian, discerning his vocation and earning the knowledge expected of a diocesan priest. More time, certainly, than it took for me to earn my degree in law. I better understand why support of our seminarians is so important a part of our Faith.

Before making this journey, I took some time to ask a few of my colleagues and my parish priest what to expect.   By sheer coincidence, two attorneys I know quite well had spent time at Niles and had visited St. Mary. They regaled me with stories of questionable authenticity. One story was about a haunted dorm room that was home to an exorcist at one time, now long since sealed up. Another legend, this one quite probably true, involved a pair of seminarians who died boating on the Lake several years ago, the robes they wore becoming quickly waterlogged when they fell in.   Whether accurate or not, I was intrigued by this font of Catholic wisdom before I first stepped out of my car onto the campus.

That Saturday, we toured the library and some of the dorm buildings with our young seminarian. He proved quite knowledgeable, as one would expect, about the day to day life at St. Mary. The students rely almost solely on support from their home parishes and the Knights of Columbus, and earn little income even as newly ordained priests. As our guide put it, seminarians do not measure success in terms of money, but in the Grace that comes with serving others.

He had heard his call when contemplating the Miracle of Transubstantiation: that part of Mass when the host becomes the Body of Christ. I’ve often told my scouts to pay special attention during this sacred moment, and humbly pray to the Holy Spirit for His gift of Faith as they receive the Sacrifice Most Holy.

During the remainder of the ground tour, our seminarian also related a tradition that involved placing either a Bears or Packers cap on the statue of a cardinal (I forget which one), depending on which team won over the weekend (or which fans gained the upper hand after dark). I also remember the outdoor Stations of the Cross, and the little grotto being renovated nearby.

The Lake itself was a wonder. Built along its shores across from The Chapel of Mary are great stone piers and a boathouse.   The three adjoined piers jut out into the Lake in somber elegance, and atop the center pier is a tall gazebo of staid columns.

This center pier, called The Belvedere (see below), offers a magnificent view of the surrounding Lake and forest area, and is well worth the short climb to the top. Of all the memories I have of the outdoor campus, The Belvedere remains the most remarkable in my mind. Its majestic prominence reminds me of the prow of a great ocean liner from a bygone era, bravely sailing from shore into the storms and troubles of the world.   Like the seminarians this school trains, nurses, and then casts upon the waters, with the hope they will prove as steadfast.

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Also of special note is the Chapel of Mary. Completed in 1925, it was made to honor the Virgin Mother under her title of the Immaculate Conception. This Chapel dedicated to Mary is a true rarity in our western world, and Her numerous titles (in Latin) adorn the upper walls inside. Our seminarian lead us in a prayer service in this hallowed place.   We humbly asked Our Lord, through the intercession of Mary, to support our scouts throughout their lives, and for each to be open to whatever God has in mind for them. It was a moment of special grace to hear again the words of Jesus, encouraging all to follow Him.

After our short prayer service, we left the Chapel and enjoyed a picnic lunch near the soccer field. The rest of that afternoon passed in quiet pursuit of the small fish in the Lake. Quite a few of our scouts got lucky, and one boy caught over 20, releasing each one back into the tranquil waters.

 
I didn’t land any fish that day.  Yet, I trust that some of the young fishermen I came with will one day, like the Apostles before them, hear the call of Jesus and become “fishers of men.”

–   Pete Murphy                       April 2014

*          The home page of St. Mary of the Lake Seminary is: www.usml.edu/

Telephone (847) 566-6401

Wisconsin Dells: Traditional Family Fun

Wisconsin Dells is one of my family’s favorite vacation places.  Close to our home in Chicago’s south suburbs, and with plenty to offer kids and parents alike, it’s a great place to spend a long weekend or part of a week’s vacation.

We took the drive up in mid-April this year.  My children, ages 7 and 11, were off school on Easter break, and my Wife and I had managed to schedule a few vacation days to take them.  As is tradition on our family vacations, we surprised the kids on the morning we left with the good news.  They knew we were going soon, but keeping the actual date secret meant a good night’s sleep (theoretically) for all involved.  The next morning, we ran for a quick breakfast, then plopped the kids in the backseat of my big Chrysler for the drive up north.

The journey to the Dells continues to be a bit of a challenge, with construction on most of I-90 North (the Jane Addams) from the Rockford exit to near the State Line (40 miles or so).  It probably added half an hour to our 3 ½ hour trip this year, but when the project is finished in 2016 it could well reduce travel time to less than 3 hours.

The first thing you notice on exiting onto Highway 12 in the Dells is the truly huge funnel structure that makes up part of the Howlin’ Tornado at Great Wolf Lodge.  Seeing the funnel always excites the backseat crew, since Great Wolf is our usual destination when we go to Wisconsin.

 

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Check-in at Great Wolf is typically a painless experience, then it’s off to drop the suitcases, change into swimsuits, and run down to the water parks.  We spent nearly all of our first day swimming.  It was still pretty chilly outside when we left home, so the indoor water parks at Great Wolf were really the only chance we’d have to get wet this early in the Spring.

Seeing the massive bucket dump at the Fort Mackenzie park for the first time is something I’ll never forget, and watching it now is like reading a “welcome back” sign.  Great Wolf keeps the queue lines down, and the crowds to a minimum, by allowing only resort guests and their visitors into their water parks.  This excellent policy means our kids can ride the water slides till they wear out, but also requires frequent long climbs up the staircases of the tallest rides for Mom and Dad, the latter often carrying whatever inflatable tube the ride requires.

Everyone loves Slap Tail Pond, the indoor wave pool that’s the largest in the indoor water parks.  The sound of wolves howling (I assume it’s electronic) announces the start of the wave action every 15 minutes or so, and with waves up to three feet high, it’s fun to body surf into the shallows.  A word of caution:  the pool bottom in the shallow beach area is a bit rough, and sliding along on your bare stomach or back could mean a few souvenir scratches to take home.  On this trip, we got to watch a practice rescue by the guards in the wave pool.  I was impressed how quickly they shut down the waves and got to the “drowning” teen, if not by his acting skills.

Resort service is really above average, with an attentive and professional staff, life guards everywhere, and a good selection of reasonably priced food.  Hotdogs and fries at the water parks is a fun treat between swims, and there are plenty of restaurants with kid-friendly menus in the vicinity of the resort.

I’ve been going to the Dells since I was younger than my kids, and many of the attractions I remember are still there, if somewhat updated.  The Wisconsin Ducks, though, remain closest to my earliest memories of them.  We took the Ducks’ tour on the chilly morning of our second day there.

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The Ducks don’t run as often early in the season as during the summer months, about every couple of hours depending on how many people are waiting to ride.  We were the last to enter a full boat, and it was nice to be surrounded by other warm bodied mammals as we began our trip through the forests.

I really respect the young people who drive and narrate these tours, learning the numerous gears and handling these 60-year-old, 8-ton monsters safely, all the while keeping things light and fresh with continual banter.  Admittedly, most of the jokes sound the same from one tour to the next, and having a sense of humor about the Chicago Bears is pretty much expected of passengers, but the views are spectacular and entering the water from any type of wheeled vehicle is a novel experience.  It was windy and cold on the Wisconsin River, but well worth the discomfort to see the Baby Grand and Hawk’s Bill rock formations along the tall banks.

 

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The campy jokes of the drivers always remind me of similar comedy bits I’ve heard on Disney’s Jungle Cruise at the Magic Kingdom in Florida:  “Remember, if you have small children, please keep them ….”  [pause for laughter].

The hour tour was soon over, and with a last look at Duck Dock we drove the short distance back to Great Wolf.  There are literally dozens of other attractions in the Dells, including power boat runs on the rivers and lakes, water shows, and numerous exhibits.  This trip, though, we kept to the Ducks’ tour, our resort area, and a few restaurant meals. Another couple of hours of swimming followed by pizza in our room rounded out the second day of our trip.

Once again on this visit, the kids talked us into buying the resort’s Paw Passes, giving them access to MagiQuest along with stuffed animals, candy, and other treats.  They’re a good deal if you plan on buying a few souvenirs anyhow, and MagiQuest is fun for kids, if only for the 4-storey playground they get to explore.  Aside from several more hours of water park time, our third (and last) day there also included a stop at MagiQuest and a visit to Tanger Outlet Mall, both within walking distance of Great Wolf.

I don’t often advocate a shopping excursion during vacations, but on this occasion it was a good break from all the water activities.  Tanger has some top notch places to shop, and prices well below anything I’ve seen online or at our local malls.  I figured we had enough trunk space to carry some extra packages, and so for a couple of hours picked through clothing and toys to find a few things we normally wouldn’t have bought, but could use at home.

We had dinner our last night in the Dells at Buffalo Phil’s, literally located just a short walk across our resort parking lot.  It has the unique feature of delivering your food by train, so has become a “must stop” for our kids.  When not running burgers and homemade root-beers out to waiting customers, look for the train to pass by with stuffed animals or toy vehicles aboard.  So long as the kids on the neighboring tables don’t make a grab for your food (or the engine), table service via model train is a fun way to enjoy a meal.

I guess the last night of a vacation is a mixed blessing for any family.  The sadness of leaving is hard on young minds.  I take the band-aid approach:  get it over with quickly to reduce the pain.  Having packed most of our stuff the night before, the next morning we were only a few doughnuts and a couple of coffees away from the drive back.  We had a somewhat longer trip back, again due to road construction, but made it home in the early afternoon to unpack and unwind.  The kids were happy to be off another week on school break.  Their Mom and I, not so much, but we returned to our jobs with the kind of memories that make long afternoons at work quite a bit more tolerable.

And reading my emails the next morning, I guess I wasn’t surprised to see one from Great Wolf Lodge, asking when I planned on coming back.  Maybe in the Fall?

I just won’t tell the kids yet.

 

 

– Pete Murphy                May 2014

 

 

The Newfoundland Ferry

THE NEWFOUNDLAND FERRY

 

I was born in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada.  At the age of 3, I emigrated to the U.S. with my Parents and infant Brother, settling in the far south suburbs of Chicago, in the same Village where my Aunt and Uncle lived.

 

I have few memories of my time in St. John’s before moving to the U.S., but many more of my trips to Newfoundland during my childhood.  Airfare being out of reach for my Father, those visits began with a long car trip through the U.S. and half of Canada, then on into Nova Scotia.  It was there that we left the mainland for The Rock, crossing on the Newfoundland Ferries:  from North Sidney, Nova Scotia, across the Gulf of St. Lawrence, to Port Aux Basques, Newfoundland.

 

Our earliest trips, in the late 1960’s, took four or five days.  From Chicago north to Detroit, over the Ambassador Bridge (or under the companion tunnel) to Windsor, Ontario, then east on the Trans-Canada Highway through Quebec and New Brunswick, and finally Nova Scotia.  We drove big Fords for the most part, and in those early years stopped most nights to sleep in roadside motels.

 

This was, of course, long before GPS systems, as satellites themselves were in their infancy.  Traveling by car wasn’t quite as routine or predictable as it is now, and we had many adventures along the roads between Chicago to North Sidney.

 

Getting lost was not uncommon, since few road maps included every road you could find yourself on.  Meals were also hit or miss, but I remember some great little diners, with uniformed waitresses and the best apple pies in the world.  The big burger franchises hadn’t yet forced these roadside Mom & Pop restaurants out of business.

 

Finding a service station was also tricky.  Dad usually started looking around the half-tank mark on the fuel gauge, and his solemn rule was never leave the highway unless you could see the gas station from the exit.  Even then, it was a search for whatever station would take your gas card.  Gas prices were still pretty low, and we always got an oil check and window wash from an attendant when we pulled in.

 

Arriving in North Sidney, Nova Scotia, was an exciting time.  The ocean crossing awaited us, and the seaside Town smelled of salt air and diesel exhaust from the huge engines of the dockside ferries.  By the time we made it, we usually had reservations on whatever ferry was in port and heading to Port Aux Basques.

 

Not always knowing our planned departure time, Dad usually called from a roadside payphone when we were less than a day from North Sidney.  Most times we were lucky enough to get a cabin for the 12 hour crossing, on one of the big Canadian National (CN) Marine Ferries, with names like William Carson, Leif Eiriksson, and Ambrose Shea.*

 

Our first look at the boat we were to make the crossing on usually came when we neared the ferry parking lot.  Whether on a bright sunny day, or a cool early Spring night, the images of those vessels is something I will never forget.

 

The ferries were massive, holding 4 decks of cars, trucks, and even trains.  Purpose-built for the crossing, I remember distinctly the dramatic white superstructures of the ships, with the red-orange CN smokestacks atop the tall decks.  I remain awed by the sheer power and majesty of these behemoths, waiting in their docks to brave the fathomless seas.  They appeared, then as now, equal to the task.

 

Once checked in through the gatehouse, we parked our car in the long line of other vehicles waiting to drive on board.  The ferry lot was marked with lines to facilitate loading, and once our car was in line we had to leave it there until departure.

 

Most times, this afforded us the chance to walk around the nearby community of small restaurants and shops.  There was usually a subtle vibration in the air, as those big marine engines idled in port, waiting for their next trip across the North Atlantic.

 

Soon it was time to board, the ferry whistle echoing the quiet streets with notice of departure.  We hurried to our car, and with a thump of the steel ramp drove on board.  Dark and damp, the car decks were a hovel of activity, as each vehicle was parked close to its neighbors and chained down to the deck.  This was pretty important, as at the end of one crossing we learned that a VW bug had broken loose and smashed into a few of its nearby companions.

 

Next we walked the deck to the narrow stairs that lead up to the cabin levels.  We carried a few of our suitcases, but my Brother and I were too excited to notice these mundane details.  We were on board!  Heading topside, we couldn’t wait to look down the sides of the ship and into the water.

 

If the shore waters were a bit oily, once out of the harbor the big ocean rollers more than made up for it.  The rocking of the ship as we hit the open sea was subtle, but the long drop to the surface from the upper decks (as demonstrated by a quick shot of spittle) was awesome.  On some crossings, the spray made it up to even those dizzying heights, hitting my lips with the salt tang of water that had perhaps journeyed around the globe.

 

There is something both familiar and ancient in the taste of sea spray to me.  I can’t help but recall how we all once came from the sea, that it makes up the very blood in our veins.  Not the noticeably sour taste of the science experiments that all kids do to demonstrate dissolved solutions (and we’ve all tasted that concoction), but the more subtle reminder that this water covers most of the world, and transcends the fleeting taste it delivers on the lips.

 

Our cabin below was every bit as exotic as the seas above.  Once out of sight of land, we made our way downstairs to the tiny metal compartment that was to be home for the next half day.

 

On night crossings, we settled down in bunks, with heavy curtains to hold you in place if the ship started to rock.  Each bed had its own light for reading, and came complete with a flat pillow, tight sheet, and coarse woolen blanket.  Under the beds were those ubiquitous orange life preservers we hoped never to need.

 

In the morning, our bathroom was another new experience.  The tiny sink had a shower head attached to it, and with no tub or shower enclosure, you could spray water till completely soaked as the suds drained down into the middle of the room.  Small bars of red-wrapped CN soap helped us clean up, and then it was off to the galley for breakfast.

 

CN Marine had a well deserved reputation for excellent food in those days, and rumor had it that some very fine chefs opted for employment with the line.  I remember many great meals, including hand carved turkey and ham, homemade mashed potatoes, eggs cooked to order, and slices of chocolate cake.  Our meals on board were among the best we had on those vacations.

 

Back on deck, we watched as dim brown outlines above the dark water resolve into our first look at Newfoundland from the sea.  It is quite a site, and one that stirs the heart of every Newfoundlander.  Soon, though, we’d get the call to head back down to our cars and prepare for departure.

 

Our voyage nearly over, my Brother and I were usually so engrossed with seeing St. John’s that we little noticed departing the big ferries.  I do remember the dark of the lower deck turning bright when the cargo doors opened, and how my eyes hurt when we finally drove outside into the sunshine.

 

We usually left Port Aux Basques quickly, to rejoin the Trans-Canada and the long drive to Newfoundland’s Capital City.  My aunts, uncles, cousins, and family friends were all there, waiting for our arrival and the endless visits it would entail.

 

Before one of these crossings, while in North Sidney, my Brother and I participated in the age-old ritual of a note in a bottle.  We had drained our glass-bottled sodas outside a small grocery store in the streets of town, and filled out notes giving our names, addresses, and that part of the sea we intended to launch our messages from.  We corked them and let them go late one night, in the middle of our passage.

 

I’d like to say here that we heard something of them in later years, but like so many things lost to the sea, we never knew what became of those bottles.  I guess I’ve thought of them over the years:  floating on the vast oceans, washed up on some nameless shore, or broken to pieces in a terrifying storm far from land.  These images never lessen my joy and wonder in crossing the ocean, and indeed, have made my voyages since then even more exciting.

 

Ships in the end are magical things, giving us the seas and landing us on distant and exotic shores.  Our earliest form of global transportation, they remain the fulfillment of our dreams of travel.  The opportunity of a sea voyage is something I don’t believe I could ever refuse.

 

–           Pete Murphy            May 2014

 

        This Article appeared in print in the August, 2014, issue of

        Downhome Magazine (Volume 27, No. 3) 

Tinkles

TINKLES

            When I think back on those long car trips I took with my Folks and younger Brother in the late 60’s and early 70’s, one of my fondest memories is of how we kept ourselves busy during the long miles.  Handheld computer games, even the simple ones like Mattel Football or Simon from Milton Bradley, were still quite a few years away.  The truly overwhelming assortment of distractions offered today by Kindle or iPad were beyond anything even NASA could conceive of in those years.  So, we enjoyed simple pleasures.

Most summers we would load up the Ford LTD and head out on highway.  Two weeks away from home:  staying in motels (the best of these had pools), eating at diners, seeing the tourist sites, and spending many hours driving each day.  Aside from the occasional two day stop in a major city or destination, we lived on the roads.

Seatbelts technically came in most cars back then, but were simple lap belts that were soon buried under the seat cushions.  A useful weapon to swing in a pitched battle with my Brother during our legendary back seat wars, their regular use was largely discouraged.  These wars were always a conquest for more space, and usually settled with a hasty truce, after the third or forth threat from the front seat of “pulling over and coming back there” finally seemed imminent.  And so, we could sit up and look out the windows, lay across the back bench seat, or scoot down in the floor wells of our old Ford.  The floor was where we kept our toys and the best place to play, out of sight of Mom and Dad.

In the weeks leading up to vacation, it was a ritual to assemble the stuff we would bring to play with in the car.  Aside from the back seat, there was no other place to pack our playthings, so we had to pick toys that would fit and still allow room to play, fight, and sleep.  I kept several cigar boxes my Uncle had given me over the years, and filled them with toys, paper pads and pencils, books, and magazines, in preparation for the trip.  It was a meticulous process, and my first real experience with decision making.

Of course, we also played car bingo, 20 questions, I spy, and tried spotting the license plates from all 50 states (no surprise that Hawaii was the toughest to find).  But the tiny toys that filled many hours on the road for my Brother and I were tinkles.

I think my Brother and I coined that name, and it certainly doesn’t occur in this context anywhere else that I’ve found.  It’s probably derived from trinket, as mispronounced by my much younger self.  For us, it came to mean any small toy that would fit (with several others) in a cigar box.

These toys could include just about anything, from Crackerjack prizes to gumball charms, Matchbox cars, old campaign pins, souvenir pens, superballs, sliding puzzles, and magnetic corgi dogs.  Whether discovered in a parking lot, bought from a vending machine, or found at the bottom of a Crackerjack box, they made their way into a cigar box to tour the U.S. with us.

My very first collection, and from which all of my later collections would grow, was my tinkles collection.  They really did provide us hours of fun on the back floor of that old LTD.  I remember drawing a crude map on a blank sheet of paper, and then setting a magnetic corgi dog on top, while its twin brother on the bottom moved it through parks, farms, and cities.  Or taking apart the 3D plastic toy puzzle/keychain, bought for $.50 from a vending machine at a highway oasis, and then handing it up to the front seat for reassembly.

The souvenir pens were a treat, particularly the “floating” ones, where the Maid of the Mist sailed across the front of Niagara Falls, or the Disney Train crossed in front of the Contemporary Resort.  Tipping the pen the other way let you relive the experience, pretty much forever.

If you were lucky enough to find one (and talk someone into buying it), the mini slide viewers were one of the best tinkles around.  Sold as souvenirs at many of the places we toured, each was shaped like a camera or television, and looking through the small magnifier revealed a colored picture of the place.  It was a personal and private show you could enjoy whenever you needed a break from watching the road.

Nighttime in the back seat was special, with most of the traffic gone away.  It was quiet all around outside, and looking through the rear window revealed either the bright lights of tall highway lamps, or the soft glow of stars.  The AM radio up front was usually turned down, playing soft jazz or country western.  My coveted pen light was near at hand, and as long as I didn’t shine it up front or onto the roof lining (or directly into my Brother’s face), I was free to play with my tinkles so long as I could keep awake.  Shining the light through the little plastic and metal figures made them seem to move.  Worlds, cultures, and centuries came and went in the back seat of that lonely Ford, driving down the back roads at night.

Like all things from my childhood, taking tinkles along on car trips eventually came to an end.  Those I didn’t lose ended up in a cigar box in storage, like so many sad scenes from Toy Story.  But this story would be incomplete if I didn’t mention that some few were found and saved, and more than a few were picked up on eBay over the past couple of years.

Image

I’ve shared them with my kids, getting them started on their own tinkle collections.  Although these simpler toys may have a tough time competing with iPads and Kindles, I think it’s worth the fight.

And today’s seatbelts are harder to swing as weapons in the back seat.

 

–           Pete Murphy     May 2014

Welcome!

Compass

Greetings intrepid reader!  After many years of mundane writing, I am returning to my passion for travel and journalism.  Here you will relive with me vacations of the past, during those less complicated years of the 1960’s and 70’s.  We will also find new destinations, and explore today’s travel from a sensory, and often reflective, point of view.

I hope you will consider this time well spent.  Now, let’s get moving!

 

Pete Murphy