One of my first memories happened on a family vacation. My parents were driving my older sisters and me to South Carolina to visit our Uncle Harold and Aunt Eileen. During our first night in the Smoky Mountains, a motel clerk gave my sisters balloons with cardboard penguin feet attached to the stem. At 4, I was deemed too young to handle the responsibility of a balloon.
When my dad took my sisters out of the room to fill the ice bucket, I picked up one of the balloons and lofted it into the air. It floated majestically before gently coming to rest on the carpet, where it popped.
Traumatic then, the memory makes me smile now.
So many of my childhood memories revolve around quirky things, good and bad, from family vacations: freezing in line waiting to get into the Washington Monument; my little brother Bill accidentally breaking his plastic swords in the dark whenever we went through a tunnel in the Rocky Mountains; Dad squeezing the loaded station wagon into a parking spot directly in front of the White House; Mom insisting we try the bean soup in the U.S. Senate dining room; seeing a deer jump over the car in front of us on the highway; our impeccably honest mom accidentally sneaking us into a tour group for the Stephen Foster home; learning four-part harmony on a long drive to Texas.
With college for our 18-year-old twin sons looming, my wife pulls out all the stops for this year's spring break. Instead of our usual quick getaway to Indianapolis, Springfield, Milwaukee or St. Louis, she plans the ultimate family vacation to Costa Rica.
"This could be our last family vacation," she points out, noting that all three of our sons could have different spring breaks next year, as well as summer obligations that might make vacations with their parents impossible. With all that pressure hanging over our exotic trip, how does it go?
For starters, each of us has a stomach issue that gives us a chance to try new medicines. Then, when strong winds bring our zip line to a precarious halt hanging high above the jungle canopy, I suffer my first scary asthma attack since childhood. Our rescuer pulls us the last 50 yards by hand while my wife holds my ankles to keep a wheezing me from plunging to my death in the tree tops.
We manage to avoid bites from several poisonous creatures we stumble upon. But the night millions of jungle ants, clutching egg sacks as if out of a horror movie, invade our sons' sleeping quarters, my wife sprints down the steep mountain stairs to get help and is bitten by a blind dog, which leads to an infection and a prescription.
"Best family vacation ever," every member of our family concludes. That's true. We all take turns checking off the new mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects and plants we see, from tree-dwelling kinkajous and blue morpho butterflies to vipers and a bluejeans poison-dart frog.
Previously unaware there was a rare quetzal bird, we get very excited when our guide spots one in the Monteverde cloud forest. We do the same for the three-wattled bell birds, toucans, crested guans, macaws, cuckoos and the colorful motmots.
We conclude that the 34-degrees centigrade we experience daily seems better than the 34-degree Fahrenheit of home. We relish being jarred from sleep at 4:30 a.m. every day by loud howler monkeys over the weekly 6 a.m. backup beep of a suburban garbage truck.
Will shoots a great video of raccoon-like coatis sniffing at his iPod. Ross takes dozens of photos of howler, capuchin, spider and squirrel monkeys, many with babies clinging to their backs. Ben gets into the tarantulas, killer wasps and industrious leaf-cutter ants. The boys surf, parasail and swim in the warm ocean, in natural hot springs and under waterfalls.
But 50 years from now, when they talk about the greatest family vacation of their youth, I'm guessing stories about invading ants and their mom's dog bite will make them smile the most.