Monday, June 28, 2004

Amy goes to Alaska


In 1969, I took myself on a tour of Europe -- hanging out in London, Amsterdam, Zurich and Florence. I took trains and hitch-hiked in my cowboy boots, bell bottoms and tank top. My backpack was filled with French bread, salami and LSD. I got the clap from a Herald-Tribune hawker in Paris. And then I came home, went mundane, had children, got a part-time job in a law office and gave up the idea of traveling completely. It's hard to travel with a bunch of kids and no money. I couldn't afford to travel any more. Since 1969, I had become and remained poor, poor, poor.
Then in September 1996, a miracle happened. "Would anybody like to go and represent our housing complex at a national housing convention at Dysneyland this year?" What? Someone was actually was asking for volunteers to spend a week in the Magic Kingdom? Me! Me! Me!
"I'll go!" I said, looking serupticously around the meeting and expecting about a hundred hands to pop up. No one else appeared to be interested. Or else their hearing aids were off. At that very minute, my travel karma suddenly started to change for the better.
After the meeting, I somehow managed to convince the management company to send my daughter Amy and my son Joe to the convention as well. "What that convention needs are Youth Representatives," I said. The management company bought the package and we spent a wonderful week sitting in housing seminars, knitting afghans, swimming in the Disneyland Hotel pool and touring the Haunted Mansion.
"Can me and Joe go on the Matterhorn again?" asked Amy. "Can we go to the party at Bear Country? Can we stay up late for the Electrical Parade?" Yes, yes, and yes. But only if I get to go too.

June, 1998: My father and I were talking on the phone like we did every night for the last ten years. "I got a brochure in the mail today from Princess Cruises," he said. "There's a special on their cruise to Alaska. Would you like to go with me?" Would I? Good grief! For the last two decades, my father and mother had traveled the world together. They sent me pictures of fjords in Norway, sheep sheering in New Zealand and carnivals in Rio. But all this traveling had definitely not been a part of my world. Then my mother had died and now I guess my father was lonely.
"I'd love to go. I'd truly be delighted. Unfortunately, however, you know the size of my budget." One of my older daughters, Ruby, was in college and even though I had graduated to "office manager" at work, my pay was meager and for the most part allowed only for hamburgers and the Salvation Army.
Pop must have been desperate for company, however. Or else he truly liked me and wanted me along. "I'll pay your way," he offered. "And I'm also inviting you to bring Amy and Joe." At that point, about 25 doors in my mind opened up! Alaska! The Princess cruise. Glaciers. Food. Thank you, Pop.
When I went on the Alaska trip, I took sketchy notes -- stuff like, "I had to chose between the baked apples in puff pastry wrap and the Black Forrest torte for dessert tonight. I ended up having both." Most of the time I just ran from one end of the cruise ship to the other in star-struck wonder and awe that I could possibly be in so fine a place and that all that food was free!
I don't remember much about that trip -- except it was heavenly -- but I did piece together some of it from my journal notes such as: "Today we had something called `Chocolate Extravaganza' for dessert, followed by a banana flambe in a cream sauce," said my journal. "Breakfast early in the Palm Court before going into Sitka."
My favorite entry was, "Broke my tooth on a piece of shell in the crab salad. Should I get it pulled? Should I sue?"
I remember going ashore in Juneau to check my e-mail at the dockside public library. The air was clean and crisp and Juneau, the capital of Alaska, was small. I was surprised. But later I learned that Skagway and Sitka were even smaller. Small town America. I hadn't expected that. Small town politeness too.
"Go to the slot machine class today instead of the square dancing class," said my journal. I remember that! They had a slot machine contest to see who could win the most jackpots in 20 minutes. I won $200 and a T-shirt. The casino, called the Dome, was located up in the top of the ship near the wheelhouse and had a grand view of ocean and sky. Another entry read, "Give half my winnings to Pop." Pop and I spent our afternoons playing Bingo. My father was an old man -- born in 1911 -- and spent much of his time during that trip in our cabin reading. "Spend more time with Pop."
Amy immediately found her niche in the promenade level swimming pool and hot tub. Joe found his in the disco where some horny teenage girl with green eye shadow shamelessly made goo-goo eyes at him. Entry: "Tell the purser not to worry about losing Joe's garment bag -- just loan him a tuxedo for the Captain's Dinner."
One entry read, "Don't apologize to Joe for last night." Pop had to go to the infirmary at 1 am and Joe didn't get back from the disco until 2:15 am. That was the sad part of the trip. Pop had spent too much time in the cabin and ended up having an acute episode of heart failure.
The medical care aboard ship was excellent -- it made us realize what a joke American HMOs have become. Pop was in excellent hands. They gave him oxygen and he was back at the Palm Court the next day. I loved my father and hated to watch his health begin to fail. That was a happy trip for us; our first and last. I was totally unaware that my father would be dead by Christmas. I would have spent every waking hour of my life with him had I only known. But that was a happy trip.
"Don’t buy a copy of the photo of me and Amy being kidnapped by a polar bear and a moose in Sitka." Sitka used to be a Russian settlement and it had an old wooden Russian Orthodox church there. We toured it. I loved Sitka, another small town. I'd move there in a minute if it wasn't for the winters -- that must be Alaska's state motto. The crew of our ship brought us over to the docks in small whaling boats.
"Don’t rush off from the Palm Court dinner and forego the creamy rice pudding in order to be on time for the evening movie," I wrote. I had never lived so high on the hog. "Go to the maitre 'd's champagne waterfall cocktail party," and "Go to the 8:15 dinner seating instead of the 7 pm one." We had two of the world's most handsome waiters. They waited on us hand and foot.
"What would you like for dinner tonight, young lady," Eduardo asked Amy -- causing her to giggle and blush.
"I'll have the macaroni and cheese please."
"What about the coq au vin or the rack of lamb or the grilled salmon or the fillet mignon?" Amy turned up her nose.
"Do they got any pizza?" she replied. Kids! One night they served escargot. "Eauuuuu. Snails. That's so gross." But she tried one anyway. Pop and Joe and I laughed. "Don't laugh at me," said Amy. "That was not funny! That was nasty." But Eduardo made up for it by bringing on the most wonderful dessert -- cream puff swans swimming in a lake of chocolate sauce. I had three of them. And on the last evening, at the Captain's Dinner, the chef outdid himself with -- Ta Da! -- Baked Alaska.
"Try to spend as much of the day as I can outside watching whales in Glacier Bay." I have actual photographs of chunks of the glacier face breaking off into the bay. Each chunk was the size of the New York Public Library. It was awesome. Awesome, awesome, awesome.
"So. Amy," I said once we got home. "Which part of the trip did you like best?"
"The glaciers were retarded. I liked Bingo."
"What about the disco?" Amy had danced so hard at the disco she'd sprained her left knee and spent two days in a wheelchair. Not bad for a sixth grader.
"What I liked best about the trip to Alaska was the vanilla ice cream at the Vancouver airport."