When my brother Tony turned three my parents decided that it was time for our first family vacation. I was six and had just finished kindergarten, and my sister Carla was nine. We crowded into our Plymouth Valiant and drove south on I75 past Cincinnati and into Kentucky. We arrived at Camp Marydale, a spiritual retreat center for Catholic families. We must have left after my Dad got off work because it was dark when we pulled up in a gravel parking lot. We stowed our bags in a log cabin we would share with another family and walked along a dirt path to the community lodge. The tables in the cafeteria were filled with our fellow campers and they had already started to eat. We went through the food line, and I got chili served in a robin’s egg blue bowl. I remember staring at the contrasting red, brown and blue colors and found them disturbing in some odd way. To my surprise the chili tasted good.
When we went back to the cabin my Mom told me that we were going to a communal restroom to get ready for bed. We carried our toothbrushes, toothpaste, wash rags and hand towels along a dark path. Shadowy figures from other cabins joined us en route, and my mother carried a flash light to light our way. It felt awkward to stand at a sink and wash up with lots of strange men and boys around me, but my Dad was there beside me and acted like everything was all right. I was safe.
We got up early the next morning and got a good look at the grounds. There were clusters of log cabins scattered across an open area between a long hillside and a wood. Paths led in all directions: some to the main lodge; some down into the wood to a pond; some to a grotto in the face of a cliff where Mass was held each morning.
My brother played with his collection of plastic cars on the porch of our cabin before we went to breakfast. He ran them over the wooden planks and said “vrrrrrooomm” as he pushed them back and forth. He still looked fragile to me after coming out of two years spent in the hospital. He had trouble with his kidneys from nearly the day of his birth and had barely survived a painful series of surgeries and infections. My sister Carla and I had been told, when he finally came home at Christmas a few months after his second birthday, that our doctor predicted he wouldn’t live past the age of ten.
My Mom disappeared every morning after breakfast. I once saw her kneeling and praying before a statue of the Virgin Mary when my Dad took us for a walk through the campground. She had an expression of deep devotion on her face, and I knew that she was either thanking God that my brother had been spared, at least for now, or was pleading her case for Tony’s continued survival.
My Dad left us in the afternoon and fished, played golf or shot skeet. I remember walking across a wide pasture with my mother to meet him one day while he was shooting. There were enormous piles of horse dung scattered all along our path. I could see traces of undigested hay in the droppings, and the smell made me want to gag. I was afraid of stepping in a stray turd. My Dad seemed pleased to see us when we arrived, and he looked very strong and powerful as he held his shotgun across his thick forearms with the muzzle pointed toward the ground.
Toward the end of the trip my Dad took me and Carla down to a big lake with a beach. I couldn’t swim, but played in the water near the shore. I had a little, toy motor boat that ran on batteries, and I enjoyed watching it putter along in the shallows. Dad relaxed and didn’t keep a close eye on me, and didn’t notice when I fell in the water. I lay on my back with the water over my head and watched bubbles rise to the surface. The sun shining through the water turned the underwater world a light green. I could hear the muffled commotion of the bathers around me. I wasn’t afraid and didn’t feel a need to struggle back to the surface. It was very peaceful and I felt like I could lie there forever.
I was surprised when desperate hands pulled me up abruptly and set me back on my feet. I don’t think that I coughed or gasped or sputtered, but I grew frightened when I saw the look of concern on the faces of the strangers around me. I looked around for my Dad, and he was still sitting on the shore and had just noticed all the commotion. He looked embarrassed when he came up to me and heard that I had been pulled out of the water. Someone spoke to him with a serious tone of voice and used the word, “drowned”.
I don’t think that he told my mother about the incident when we got back to the cabin. There would have been a sharp argument if he had. I sensed that it would be better for me, in the long run, to keep my mouth shut about it. My instincts for survival were much more keenly developed on land.
I was both sad and relieved when we got into our car and left the next day. My parents had been happier and more relaxed while we were at Camp Marydale, and some of the heavy concern that seemed to dog them at home had lifted. But I was ready to get back to my toys and the bedroom that I shared with Tony, back to familiar things that brought me comfort, back to some privacy when I used the bathroom.
We three kids sat in the back seat and didn’t wear seat belts on the trip back. (No one bothered in the sixties, and many cars didn’t have them.) I stared out the window at the trees and houses rushing past, and Carla read a book. Tony took a plastic fire truck out of his grocery bag full of toys and ran it across the seat beside him. He said, “vrroom, vrrrrooooom.”