When we were happy (Part 1 of Many)

This is a column I wrote after a vacation we took as a family a few years ago. I was inspired to post it because even when things aren’t going well, there are still happy memories back there somewhere. It’s a shame the turmoil can overwhelm them sometimes…


In February, the Washington Post printed a timely review of indoor water parks in the central-north state of Wisconsin (State Sport: “Shivering”). The web-site for one of these resorts had a heavily-discounted rate on 2-bedroom villas. Northwestern Airlines delivered an astonishingly cheap set of flights and, again, the family was set for a flying vacation.

As we took off from Washington National airport on a gray and dreary morning, I turned to my companion and was reminded not of the joy of family togetherness when on vacation, but of Northwestern’s peculiar insistence on liberally spreading families with young children in random seats around an airplane. My large and hairy seatmate (no relation), satisfied that he had fully blocked any access to the aisle, fell immediately into a loud and agitated sleep.

With rain and blooms left behind in the spring of Washington, we touched down into a Madison airport that was lit by a pale blue sky. Freezing lunchtime temperatures reminded us that spring had not yet arrived in this part of the country. Our unlocked hire car had the keys inside. It was parked with others in an unattended row in an airport car park with no secured exit. Fortunately this small town believed in being careful – the vehicles were carefully guarded by a firmly-worded sign.

Wisconsin Dells is not a region, but the name of the town, and apparently something of a Mecca for travelers in search of large water parks. Originally named by the French for flagstones (in French “dalles”), the town probably began when the horses’ hooves froze to the aforementioned flagstones, grounding the French there for many months. They had much to say about this (“merde”). Mind you, if they were in Wisconsin (“très froid”), they were already seriously lost. A resort destination since the 1850s with an average low in winter of 4F (-15C), its nippy climate was limiting. The town did not blossom as a major resort until very recently when someone, in the American way, had the bright out-of-the-box idea to cover and heat a water park, converting an 80-day summer season (“vacances merde”) into a 365-day tourist season (“vacances fantastiques!”).

The water park and hotel complex was huge – around 4/5 mile from one end to the other! There were hundreds of rooms, with balconies overlooking a vast car park on one side and the construction site of a mammoth expansion on the other. Based on the local climate, it seemed likely the balconies would be used for sunbathing in July/August, keeping soda cool during May/June and September/October, and storing ice cream products for the rest of the year.

Our 2-bedroom villa was in a block with a small number of similar accommodations. In a back corner, isolated and quiet, it was nestled amongst bulldozers and other earth-moving equipment that was prettily arranged using feng shui techniques. More a small house than a villa, it was an amazing deal.

Famished after the airplane lunch of a small glass of apple juice, we aimed to maximize the value of a free buffet dinner. (How we got this is a story in itself). Now that I think of it, I’ve never been served a good buffet dinner, but I never remember this when I am offered one. It’s like a small yapping dog chasing a car – what’s the plan if it ever catches one? I have realized that buffets are always the same: apparently endless variety, but few things actually served well enough to select when wandering around. Worse, in this case, the meals weren’t hot enough. The only plus for us was the well-made bread-and-butter pudding, and the opportunity for the kids to bring a half-dozen cookies (roughly equivalent to 47 airplane meals) back to the room for supper.

Stocking our kitchen to avoid an expensive breakfast and/or a return to the buffet required a trip to the grocery store before bed-time. The local at the front desk could only suggest Wal-Mart for this. When I asked whether if there were any other alternatives, she indicated that perhaps she had missed some doses of important medication by providing me only with a different route to the store.

Whether swimming wildly, falling off a single tube, or clinging to a double tube with a companion, a wave pool is a Lot Of Fun. Roaring down and around water slides in complete darkness with small screaming girls leads to euphoria as well as temporary deafness. Doing the same thing with a screaming wife mainly just leads to deafness. Trying to keep all three girls in sight and under control is as pointless as expecting American drivers to grasp the European freeway concept of a fast lane and a slow lane.

Such fun was being had that there were no whining “When are we having lunch?” queries until well after the usual start of lunchtime (which is normally eaten about two hours after the normal start of the incessant queries…I hope you’re keeping up).

As part of a tour of the facilities, it was explained that the excellent wave pool we had been using (kept to about 85F or 30C indoors) had in fact only been opened that very day, and that it had a special roof that allowed us to tan. In my personal case, it merely allowed me to burn. Despite liberal use of suntan lotion, I managed to get sunburned. Upon discovering this, and notwithstanding almost 18 years of experience with me in this regard, my wife pronounced firmly, “You’re pathetic”. The kids nodded sagely and agreed, then asked in unison, “When are we having lunch?”

The wave pool itself was a people study in diversity:

  • Young men not yet old enough to drink strutted around in a studly manner trying to telegraph to ladies of almost any age the subtle thought, “I could be ready in moments if you’re even slightly interested.”
  • Young ladies ambled around, expressing the simple message, “I’m a young country girl, I’m sexy, and frankly I’m bulging out of this bikini in all the right places”.
  • Older ladies were split. Some clearly conveyed, “These good genes, fresh country air, and some cosmetic surgery still have me bulging in the right places.” For others, alas, it was, “I remember being young and sexy, but now I weigh more than an elephant.”
  • Older men tried hard but not very successfully to display true honesty when sending the subtle message, “Really, I’m NOT looking at all these bosoms on display. No sirree, not me.”
  • Really old ladies generally expressed the thought, “I might look scary now – wait until the water washes off this multi-layer make-up!”
  • Really old men looked stern and telegraphed the message, “I might or might not look old, but I’m definitely brittle, so don’t sneeze near me.”

Adventure golf, or mini-golf, or crazy golf, was fun and something of a tradition in the family. It gives adults the chance to practice putting and bemoan the unfair laws of Vacation Gravity that allow golf balls to curve and miss without logical explanation. Kids get the chance to wallop each others’ lower limbs with clubs while the adults are distracted by the ongoing putting tragedies.

Back in Washington, Brigitte needed a bloated knee examined (possibly a lingering crazy golf injury — those putters are hard), so it was back to the usual tedium. You know how it is … three Secret Service SUVs outside the doctor’s building, two agents posted in the waiting room looking very serious, just because someone ‘interesting’ is also there … the usual boring day-to-day suburban Washington stuff …

About Single Dad

I married young. Now, after more than 20 years of marriage, 3 wonderful daughters, and many ups and downs, my wife has decided the marriage is over. The "About Me" and "My Background" pages on my blog have more details.
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5 Responses to When we were happy (Part 1 of Many)

  1. Surrey gal says:

    Oh, sweet memories… I love waterparks, not that I’ve been to many.
    What do you mean by: “expecting American drivers to grasp the European freeway concept of a fast lane and a slow lane”? Don’t you have slow and fast lanes? I must admit, I don’t remember, it’s been many, many years since I was driving in the US…
    P.s. I think we don’t have freeway concept in Europe, we have only highways 😀 (do we?)

    • Hi SG,

      In theory the left lane is the fast lane in the USA in many states. It is law in Virginia that you need to pull over for a faster driver, regardless of what speed either of you are doing. However: hahahahahaha! It does happen that someone will pull over as a faster driver comes up, but maybe they were just texting while driving and happened to steer into the other lane accidentally. You can’t be sure. 🙂

      A staple of American driving is the “It’s All About Me” attitude when compared with Europe. People often don’t use indicators to change lanes, even when someone else is already in the lane. People often don’t use indicators when turning into, say, a driveway off a minor road, which of course alarms the person driving behind them, who had no idea the brake lights meant more than just slowing down a little (so if someone does just slow a little, everyone else has to go on Full Red Alert in case slowing down becomes a hard stop). It’s not like, say, Italy or Australia, where aggression is matched with some degree of talent. Here, it’s just blindness to the outside world, not aggression. If you grew up here in the USA and you’re reading this, sorry, but you have to drive in another country before you’ll see what I mean.

      You’re right, in Europe, “freeway” is called motorway, autobahn, autoroute, and so on. But I made a declaration in an early post that I have to pick a language and go with it. I try to use American English (words and spelling) in posts. In e-mails to friends in Europe, I try to use UK English (again, words and spelling). Unfortunately, sometimes they are automatically corrected to the ‘wrong’ spelling…*sigh*

      • Surrey gal says:

        Thanks for that, I completely don’t remember it from my one year spent in US.
        But I was driving in some of the most crazy countries where there is no tallent and only aggression; Driving in UK is a dream come true to me, although Brits complain about the way they drive! It’s all relative 🙂
        It must be very tricky to switch between humour and humor, pants and trousers and so on! 🙂

  2. everevie says:

    LOL…I’m laughing at you and SG’s conversation. Trust me, it’s frustrating for a lot of Americans too. I’m pretty concious of doing things like signalling in time, etc. However, I do suffer from “Driving A.D.D.”. I mean…it can be anything from clouds, to squirrels, to the lady in the car next to me applying make-up…my head is swiveling back and forth looking at all the sights. I don’t know why I can’t just focus on the road. 🙂

    Anyhow…they built one of those huge indoor water parks here a few years ago. Everytime I see a commercial for it, I cringe. It seems a bit nightmarish to me. Trapped inside a building with children running to and fro…splashing water…all the noise…the screaming…the mother’s yelling…the dad’s acting like the kids.

    Phew! I’m tired just thinking about it.

    • Evie,

      Well at least you TRY! So we’ll give you some points for that.

      The water parks are a blast. Although it was anachronistic to be in a warm water park in Wisconsin when outside the temperature was not much above freezing. Getting from the water park section back to the house was mostly through sealed corridors, but the last stretch is outside: Brrrr!

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