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Threads: Vacations with Parents

Letters written by me, updated December 2002
to include the period 1975-1980

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Background:  I had lived at home until I was 27 years old.  Of course, I returned to visit my parents after that, and we still took most of our vacation trips together.


January 12, 1975

Over the Christmas weekend, I got to go back to Ohio for nearly five days (December 25-29).  My mother said that I must have stayed too long, because she got used to having me around, and when I left on December 29 she missed me.

Now I probably won't return to Ohio until March.  Next month, my parents are making their second annual winter trip to a resort near Phoenix, so even if I did go home, there would be no one there.


Sunday, March 9, 1975

My parents have returned from their annual Arizona trip and are preparing to paint their living room this coming week.  For the past twelve years, since we built the house, the walls, ceiling, carpet, and even some of the furniture in the living room have been off-white.  Now they're going to paint the walls sort of an avocado green.  I can't wait to go home for Easter and be stunned.

BEFORE (1968)

AFTER (1976)

A later furniture arrangement is pictured in 3D here.


Tuesday, April 29, 1975

I'm attending my college reunion at Oberlin in May, my high school reunion at Richwood in June, and after that who knows?


Sunday, June 1, 1975

Next week will also be busy, as I prepare for my one-week vacation the week of June 9.  That week, my parents and I are planning to wander around Pennsylvania and upstate New York, visiting places like Hershey, Lancaster, Philadelphia, and Syracuse, where my other alma mater is located.


Friday, July 25, 1975

I got together with my parents for a one-week vacation trip last month.  We decided to explore parts of my new home state of Pennsylvania, some of which we had visited before.

The first day took us to State College, where we walked around the Penn State campus, and then to Hershey.

The following morning in Hershey we drove around the Milton Hershey School for "Boys-one-of-whose-parents-is-deceased" and toured the school's lavish Founders Hall, a massive marble building with domed rotunda, sizable auditorium, and richly appointed dining hall.  Mr. Hershey certainly must have sold a lot of chocolate bars.

Around noon on the second day we arrived in Lancaster for some exploring of the Amish country.  This included, of course, one of those family-style meals in a large restaurant catering to tourists.  The dinner was naturally much more than we needed:  we ate about 2:00 and still felt stuffed at 7:00 that night.  What surprised me was that the family-style aspect of the dinner worked so well.  At a long table for 16, here were three or four different groups of tourists, all strangers to each other.  As she seated each group, the hostess merely announced what state they were from, and that was enough to get the conversation started.  Soon we were talking with each other as though we were all relatives who hadn't seen each other in the last few years.

Early the next morning, we visited a farmer's market in downtown Lancaster and then drove southwest to Gettysburg.  None of us had been there before.  We took the driving tour of the Civil War battlefield, ending at the National Cemetery which Lincoln had helped to dedicate.  I was surprised that the cemetery was not particularly large.  The Civil War section seemed about the size of a football field.

Then we doubled back to Lancaster for the noon meal (a lot less than the noon meal of the day before, of course), and continued southeast.  We drove through Kennett Square on what used to be U.S. 1, duly taking note of the various mushroom establishments along the way.  Then followed a walk of two or three hours around Longwood Gardens, which especially interested my parents.  Finally on this busy day, we drove into Philadelphia, a city which we'd never seen.

I must say that driving into Philadelphia during the evening rush hour was quite a shock, as we returned to urban confusion after three days in small towns and countryside.

We decided to beat the morning rush hour by driving downtown early.  Parking underground, we walked around most of Independence Mall.  The various buildings had not yet opened, so we also walked down Chestnut Street to City Hall and back.  Only a day or two before, the city fathers had closed Chestnut Street (which runs in front of Independence Hall) to all traffic except buses and emergency vehicles, so the walking was pleasant — even though we encountered a drunk sleeping in a doorway.

Returning to the Mall, we took the first tour of the day through Independence Hall and nearby Congress Hall.  [At that time, the Liberty Bell was still located at the bottom of the rear stairwell inside Independence Hall.]  That was all we really cared to see, so we drove out of the city about 10:00.

That was a lucky move, as it turned out.  As we drove north, we listened to KYW, the all-news radio station, which was reporting on a huge march to protest a recent Supreme Court ruling outlawing state aid to parochial schools.  The marchers were on Chestnut Street, headed for Independence Mall, where they were going to stay all afternoon and listen to speeches.  Traffic in the center city was completely tied up.  Needless to say, we were glad we had already left.

Our northward trip took us to Syracuse, where we revisited the University and bought some shoes [at the Nettleton factory, which operated until 1984].

Not wanting to drive the 500 miles from Syracuse to Richwood in one day, we decided to use state highways instead of the Thruway and to make an overnight stop at Niagara Falls.  We arrived at Niagara in mid-afternoon and crossed to the Canadian side.  We followed the usual scenario:  waiting around for the sun to go down, then being disappointed when it got dark and the lights were turned on.  The lights on the Falls just aren't that spectacular.

As soon as the lights came on, it started to rain, so we hurried back to our lodging.  I had no idea my parents could walk that fast, trying to dodge the raindrops.

We learned later in the newspapers that after the rain stopped late that same night, a young couple were strolling near the brink of the Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side, a spot where we had been a few hours before.  A couple of unidentified thugs threw them over the railing into the river.  Fortunately, they managed to hang onto the shore and keep from going over the Falls until they could be rescued.

Sunday, February 29, 1976

This "Smoke Tree Resort" stationery is, I'm afraid, misleading.  I'm not there now; I was two weeks ago.  So that you don't have to read all the way down to the signature to find out from whence this letter cometh, I'll tell you now that I'm Tom Thomas, once again back in good old Washington, Pennsylvania.

You see, each February for the last three years, my parents have taken a trip to the Phoenix area for two weeks.  A few other people from the Richwood area also winter out there, but their main reason for going is just to enjoy the mild weather.  This year they extended their stay to three weeks, and for one of those weeks I took part of my vacation and joined them.

It seemed to work.  On Groundhog Day, Punxsutawney Phil had predicted six more weeks of winter, and sure enough the first week of February was terrible.  Couldn't even drive my car one day because it was coated in ice.  But week #2, in Arizona, was pleasant with temperatures in the seventies; and weeks #3 and #4, back here in Pennsylvania, have also been springlike, with temperatures in the sixties.  It's like moving the calendar forward a couple of months.

My mother and I, February 1976

Most of the winter guests in Arizona seemed to come from the northern tier of states, like Idaho, Montana, the Dakotas, Minnesota, and even America's Dairyland.  People from east of Chicago tend to winter in Florida instead.  But Florida, especially the Miami area, is very crowded in the winter.  One of our Arizona neighbors was an Oldsmobile dealer from New Hampshire, who apparently didn't want to go to Florida where everyone else was.  Besides, both New Hampshire and Florida were infested with Presidential candidates.  So he and his wife came to the Valley of the Sun.

There's a lot to see in the Valley.  Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe, Mesa, and the rest of the cities clustered there have two-thirds of the state's population.  Except for a few mountains here and there, the land is quite flat, which enabled the area's planners to lay out most of the streets in a very regular grid pattern.  Some streets run as far as 35 miles across the valley without a single curve, connecting with other major streets at regular intervals of one mile (or eight city blocks).  It may not sound interesting to have so many straight, wide streets, but it does make it easy to get around.

One of the many areas we visited was Sun City, a huge housing development for senior citizens.  My parents said they'd never want to live there.  It was a very attractive community, but it was segregated:  only senior citizens were allowed to live there, and although visits from one's family were permitted, those visits could last only so many weeks out of the year.  My mother said it would be depressing to live in a place where none of your neighbors worked for a living and you never saw children.


Monday, August 9, 1976

The medical talk in the newspapers has been about the mysterious disease that has killed some 25 people who attended the Pennsylvania American Legion convention in Philadelphia.  They now seem to have the cause narrowed down to a delayed-reaction toxin, or possibly a slow-growing virus.  I'm sure you've followed the story.  Living here in Pennsylvania, I had no choice but to follow it, as all week the papers devoted two-thirds of their front pages to the "legionnaires' disease."  At first, when we thought the disease was a highly contagious "killer flu," apparently spreading rapidly among the convention-goers, a lot of us were worried.

Here's an old picture of me at age 9½.  It's the summer of 1956, and my father is surprising me with the camera as I'm walking with my grandmother and mother at Bellingrath Gardens in Alabama.  Twenty years later, my parents and I would revisit this place.


About the time the Legionnaires were in Philadelphia, my parents and I were on the road, making a week-long swing through the South.  We visited a number of places briefly, including New Orleans and the Bellingrath Gardens south of Mobile, Alabama.  We stayed overnight in Biloxi, Mississippi, a Gulf Coast resort town where the three of us plus my grandmother had stayed in 1956; we revisited the motel and the restaurant we remembered from 20 years ago, plus other sites.

Although my family is Republican, my mother has turned into a Jimmy Carter fan, so we also paid a visit to Plains, Georgia.

If Carter becomes President, he'll literally put Plains on the map.

Right now it doesn't appear on many maps; we had to get a large-scale map of Georgia to find it.

A pleasant little town, and, as the name implies, on much flatter land than most of inland Georgia.

It almost looked like a farm town in the Midwest.

(No, we didn't meet the candidate, nor anyone else famous.

My father did buy a 2½-pound sack of peanuts in a general store run by a man named Thomas.)

And we also took a tour of the Marshall Space Flight Center at Huntsville, Alabama.  This tour included a visit to the interior of a complete Skylab mock-up, and to the only Saturn V rocket on display in the world.  The Saturn is displayed outside, lying horizontally, taking up the length of a football field.  Even in that position, it seems tall as one walks beside it, because of the tremendous diameter of the first stage.

The Huntsville tour also includes an amusement-park ride called the Lunar Odyssey, which is basically a cylindrical theater built to resemble a spaceship of the future.  While a combination movie and planetarium show is running, the theater is rotated so that the audience experiences two or three G's.  It was suggested that people over 60 years of age shouldn't ride this centrifuge, so my parents stayed outside and sent me in by myself.

Along with several dozen other people, I was strapped in, and the film had just started to run, when suddenly everything shut off.  It turned out there was an electrical power outage affecting the entire area.  We all evacuated the theater, until half an hour later they had everything ready to go again.  It was probably fortunate that the blackout didn't come three minutes later, when the theater would have been spinning at full speed!

Incidentally, in case you've never ridden a centrifuge, I suppose I should report what it felt like.  There wasn't much of a sensation.  I was on the inner circle of "couches," so I was feeling just two G's.  When I raised my arms, they seemed weak, as though I was just recovering from an illness.  And at one point I felt my heart working harder, so I started to breathe more deeply.  But that was it.


Monday, August 16, 1976

We were in New Orleans, but only for four hours.  That was long enough to walk through the French Quarter, drive through a residential section, and take a tour of the Superdome.  I think this year-old indoor stadium is the largest of its kind.  I was able to handle my acrophobia pretty well until the tour reached the upper deck, where the rows of seats rise at almost a 60-degree angle.  One would feel more comfortable if seat belts were provided.  But these seats didn't even have armrests to hang onto!


Sunday, November 13, 1977

I once again sit down at my typewriter on this chilly Sunday evening with the snow flurrying outside, to bring you up to date on what's been happening.

Not much.

Oh, my parents and I did make our summer vacation trip through the South, as planned.  One of the memorable incidents was a place in St. Petersburg, Florida, called the Sunken Gardens, which we toured during a rain shower.  It wasn't raining when we went in, but started soon afterwards.  Fortunately, we three were carrying three umbrellas, so we pressed on.  And the rain made the gardens resemble a little more closely the tropical rain forest they were supposed to represent.  In about the area of a city block, a path wound back and forth for maybe a mile, with walls of artificial rock concealing the fact that the tropical plants one was gazing upon lay only a few feet from the tropical plants one had been gazing upon a few minutes before.  Parrots and other birds and monkeys were also on hand to provide the sound effects.

Other highlights included visiting briefly with a few rather distant acquaintances in Florida, spending a day touring the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and attending a baseball game in Pittsburgh on the way back.

As you might guess, we were on the road most of the time in order to cover that much territory in a week.  To alleviate some of the Interstate boredom, we took along a gadget that allows one to listen to CB talk on the car's AM radio.  My father was enough taken with the Citizens Band that now he's getting a real CB set for his car, on which he can transmit as well as receive.  I'm supposed to help him pick it out when I go home to Ohio for Thanksgiving.


Monday, September 4, 1978

Well, since I wrote you last, I've visited the Parthenon.  Not the original in Athens, but rather a full-scale replica in Nashville, Tennessee.  On my annual vacation trip with my parents, we happened to be passing through Nashville, where I had known for several years that this structure was located.  So before we left, I studied up on the original Parthenon in order to appreciate better the Nashville version.

It was built of concrete in the 1930's, and in color resembles the "honey gold" to which the marble of the Greek original has weathered.  But of course, the Nashville structure is intact, not in ruins.

[This photo dates to my father's return visit, about ten years later, with a senior citizens tour group from Richwood.]

It's not a perfect copy, as one might expect.  Rather than being situated atop an acropolis, it sits in a level park with a small hill to the west.  Although much of the ornamentation of the original is represented, much also is missing.  Rather than a 40-foot statue of Athena inside, the Nashville Parthenon has a four-foot statue on a high pedestal, beneath which is a donation box for building a full-size statue.  And whereas the dim, mysterious interior of the original received sunlight only from the huge doors at one end, in Nashville the ceiling is made up of skylights.


UPDATE:  In the 1980s, Nashville built an awesome full-scale replica of the statue that once stood in the Parthenon of Athens.

[The upper photo is by Ron Cogswell.  Click here for more about the Parthenon.]

Nearly filling the larger of the temple's two interior chambers — she's 41'10" tall and comes within a foot of the ceiling — Athena Parthenos holds a 6'4" statue of Nike in her right hand.

In 2002, she was painted and gilded to resemble the ivory and gold of the ancient original.

Nevertheless, the replica gave me a sense of the scale of the original that I never could have gotten from books — and probably not even from traveling to Greece.  I had read of the sculptures on the pediments, those triangular areas on each end of the building under the slopes of the roof.  I had thought, from looking at drawings, that they had been bas-reliefs.  But at Nashville, I realized they were fully three-dimensional statues of the gods in a huge triangular grouping, the tallest figures in the center with crouching or reclining figures on the ends.  In places, the foot of a statue would project partway over the edge of the platform on which they all stood, so that one looked up at the sole of the god's foot.


Sunday, April 8, 1979

This year I joined my parents for eleven days of their month in Arizona's Valley of the Sun.

On Baseline Road, at the south edge of Phoenix, there's a settlement of Japanese flower-growers.  Driving along this road in February, one sees fields of snapdragons.  And at their roadside stands, they also sell vegetables, as well as oranges and grapefruit from the groves which are also along this road.  I brought home with me a couple of daikon, and I still have half of one in the refrigerator.  They're known as Japanese radishes.  They're white, about 16 inches long and two inches in diameter, and as mild as a turnip.  I, for one, enjoy munching on them.

Sunday, July 29, 1979

Two weekends ago, my parents came over for a visit, and using their Ohio gasoline we went about fifty miles east of here to a famous Frank Lloyd Wright house called "Fallingwater."  Wright built it in 1936 as a summer weekend retreat for the Kaufmann family, department-store owners from Pittsburgh.  It's notable because it's cantilevered over a waterfall in the midst of a forest.

The Kaufmanns used the house for 25 years and then turned it over to a non-profit group so that the public could tour it, which is what we did.  Beforehand, we also read a detailed book about how the place was designed and constructed, so that when we took the tour we'd be more aware of what we were looking at.

Having read the book and studied the pictures made me so familiar with the house that walking through it felt like coming home.  Walking up the driveway, I knew where the obscure front entry was hidden; stepping into the living room, I knew exactly where I was and where the rest of the rooms lay; and details like the trapezoidal foam-rubber footstools seemed as familiar as the furniture in my own apartment.  It's a good experience, feeling at home in a Frank Lloyd Wright house.

Of course, Wright wasn't infallible, but more of an eccentric genius.  On the tour there were a number of questions raised of the form "Why are the ceilings so low?"  The official Wright answers, as relayed to us by the tour guide, sometimes made good sense but sometimes seemed more like rationalizations.

For example, the Kaufmanns were surprised that Wright wanted to build the house directly over the waterfall; they thought he'd put it a little downstream, so they could look out the windows and see the falls.  Wright reportedly answered that his plan led to more involvement with the falls, because to see them you had to take the conscious step of walking outside to look.  I suspect that he actually built where he did because it was more esthetically striking and more challenging from an engineering standpoint, and in his reply, he was merely parrying the Kaufmanns' objection.

There are flaws in the house.  There's a kettle built into the living-room fireplace which is completely impractical.  The kitchen, designed to be used not by the family but by the hired help, is standard 1930's ugly, and the bathrooms aren't much better.  The rounded exterior concrete surfaces have stalactites growing from their bottom edges in the forest dampness.  Parts of the house feel small and cramped.

But it's a unique place with plenty of charm.  The sunlight spills past planters of petunias into the living room with its rough flagstone floor, as you look out the long horizontal windows to the treetops outside and hear the rush of the mountain stream.

This little weekend cabin cost $150,000 over forty years ago, and would cost ten times that today, but it seems worth it.  At least if you're a Kaufmann.

Two and a half years after my mother's death, my father (left foreground)
revisited Fallingwater as part of a bus tour in October, 1984.

Sunday, March 9, 1980

For eleven days in February, I joined my parents in Arizona where they vacation every February.  Unfortunately, it rained every day but the last three, which is highly unusual out there.

The city of Phoenix, built on an alluvial plain in the desert, is made possible by irrigation.  Up in the mountains there are dams and reservoirs to catch the infrequent rainfall.  The Salt River runs through Phoenix — well, in the winter it runs, but the rest of the year it's dry.  But now that the dams have been built, it doesn't even run in the winter.  The Salt is now generally dry the year round.

Every drop of water that would flow down this river is stored in the reservoirs, from which it is released into irrigation canals and municipal water supplies.  The only problem comes when the reservoirs get full and it's still raining.  Then the excess water has nowhere to go but down the Salt River bed, washing out the roads that have been built across the mud flats, knocking down what bridges there are, and separating Phoenix and Scottsdale on the north from Tempe and Mesa on the south.

This year's flood (which was even worse in Southern California) was the fourth time in the last three years that the Phoenix area has suffered what the meteorologists call a "hundred-year flood," which is only supposed to happen once a century.  Few of the bridges were designed to last a century.  Only two of them remain open to traffic, and it takes from one to three hours to drive across the river because of the huge traffic jams.  We went across and back just once while I was out there.

The fast-running water washed out the riverbed from around the bridge supports; in one place, a telephone cable buried 20 feet under the surface was exposed when the soil was washed away.  And a few people who had built homes 15 years ago a mile from the river bed saw them wash away when the river enlarged its course in this year's flood.

We were staying miles away from the Salt River, so we experienced no real problems.  But the difficulty in traveling eliminated a lot of our options for things to do, and it turned out to be a comparatively boring vacation.



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