When I was 12 I had the Use Your Illusion CD. I loved Guns ‘N Roses. I really loved Axl. He was everything a preteen with surging hormones needed to keep an active imagination busy. But when my mom gave a listen to it, the CD found its way to the top shelf of her closet where she said it would remain until I heard her talk like that. This is the story of how I got my CD back.
One summer my mom made a few tentative hotel reservations, packed a ice chest full of sodas and sandwich fixins’, loaded us up in the family roadster (her red Grand Am) and we hit the open road. At the time our 4-man family included 12-year-old me, my 13-year-old brother Josh who has Down Syndrome, my 8-year-old sister Erin and my mom. I imagine my Grandfather told her she was crazy before we left. But my Mom hasn’t often let much get in her way. So we went east on I-40 through Arkansas to Tennessee. We saw a nuclear power plant and ate a picnic lunch in a park. We played away. Ate our sandwiches and had the best afternoon ever. Then we went to Graceland. Saw Elvis’ grave, airplane and the Jungle Room. I had a minor infatuation with Elvis at the time, so it was so awesome. I know Elvis is often put on the same pedestal as Axl Rose.
Then we headed over to Nashville. Went to The Hermitage. I guess we were on a roll with the touring dead people’s houses thing. In our family we love history and story telling. So while many 12-year-olds might have thought Andrew Jackson’s house is so lame, we thought it was totally awesome.
Then we went to Opryland. They have … had the coolest roller coaster ever. EVER. We rode it about 300 times. You put on these funny glasses and you ride really fast through this wormhole that has all these lights. My mom said that someone who’d done acid before must have created it. I noted the drug reference as part of my case to regain my CD.
From Nashville our plan was to head south to Gulfport, Mississippi to visit some old friends. It was a surprise. They didn’t know we were coming. I guess that is how surprises generally work. We were so excited. So we headed out and drove until it was time to stop and then found a hotel in the middle of nowhere Alabama. Truly. BFE Alabama. And this is where it gets good.
I think it must have been one of those “towns” that only truckers stop in for a sleep and a shower. Our hotel was small. Like one of those two story rectangles with a row of rooms on each side and a swimming pool right next to a really nice and very new truck stop. We swam. We slept. And in the morning my sweet sweet brother got up early. And as my mom was getting us all ready to head back out on the road, he went to get in the car. Only he used the ignition key to try and unlock the door and bent the key until it cracked.
The series of the events that directly followed are sort of hazy. But picture a 30-something single mom of three – one with Down Syndrome – on a very limited budget stranded in BFE Alabama. Also this was way before cell phones. Total desperation. Dire situation. You know in those mafia movies where they have that really beautiful chanting music playing over a really graphic murder scene that is happening in slow motion? That is sort of what it felt like. There was stuff coming out of my Mom’s mouth that I don’t even think were words. She might have been speaking in tongues at one point. It was certainly language way worse than that Use Your Illusion CD that was sitting in her closet. I didn’t mention it at the time. My brother was looking at her with his sweet little face crunched up, tears streaming from his almond shaped eyes. Mom was crying. My sister and I stood perfectly still. Like maybe if she didn’t see us, we’d be spared.
She ordered us all to sit on the sidewalk in front of our room. Don’t move! We were not moving if Jesus Christ himself came and told us it was time to go with him to meet our Heavenly Father. She disappeared. She came back in no less of a frenzy. She’d called a locksmith. In Birmingham. Which apparently is an hour and half from BFE.
The locksmith told her that if she had the number for the keys they could make them for her. If not, they’d have to yank the transmission and mold new ones. Now I didn’t know too much about cars when I was 12. But I knew that was not a good thing. Mostly because my mom said, They are going to have to take our whole car apart to make a new key. Do you know how much that is going to cost? More than this entire vacation. We’re gonna have to go home now. She looked in the glove box for some magic number. No number could be found among the Owners Manual, take out straws and Kleenex. Also they don’t put that magic number right on the keys? Um … why?
Sit here. Don’t move. My mom marched off again. Later we’d find out that she’d made a call to our next door neighbor and very close family friend. We had this compound living thing going on when I was a kid with the two families that lived on either side of us. Between the three houses there were 7 kids and four parents. We had a peach orchard behind us and woods to the side. We showed up for dinner when the street lights came on. Anyway. 10-year-old Jenny answered the phone and when my mom asked her to get her mom, she told my mom that her mom was asleep. Now Jenny had no way of knowing what had taken place during the last half hour in BFE, Alabama. GET HER! Jenny woke up her mom, who made entry to our house and found the lock box with all my Mom’s important papers and apparently the magic numbers.
Next we were marched across the parking lot of our hotel up a hill to the immaculate new truck stop. In our family we are a little short on bladder space. So I have seen A LOT of truck stops in my day. Generally the big chain truck stops are kept relatively clean. The small mom and pop ones are hit and miss. This one sparkled. And apparently Mom and Pop were super nice people. At least my Mom was willing to bet on it. Pop had offered to drive my Mom in his bench seat pickup truck an hour and a half to Birmingham to the locksmith to get keys made. While Mom (truck stop Mom) agreed to let us stay at the truck stop. My mom marched us into the store and parked us on a bench. She issued us some firm words about not moving and not speaking, but I don’t think that the three of us had spoken or moved or even breathed in well more than hour at this point.
Then she got in some strange man’s pick up truck and headed out for a 3 hour round trip trek from BFE to Birmingham to get keys while her three children sat at a truck stop with a perfectly strange lady. I have seen so many episodes of Unsolved Mysteries that start out way more innocently than that.
I think the Mom (truck stop Mom) gave us some powdered donuts and a soda. I think my sister moved at one point. I told her to stop. And miraculously our Mom returned. You know how when you have a really bad headache and then it goes away and you have this feeling of euphoria? Like in a Disney Princess movie when the birds sing and the mice dance and the whole world is in technicolor and Lucas quality surround sound? You know that feeling? That is what my Mom looked like when she walked back through those sparkling truck stop doors. She could have had braided pig tails and a pinafore she looked so happy.
She thanked Mom and Pop and said let’s go kids. She sounded like Snow White. We got back in the car and headed for Gulfport singing to the radio at the top of our lungs. We surprised our friends. We saw the ocean. We went to New Orleans. We ate shrimp that burst in our mouth. I bought a glass bead at the French Quarter Market. I tasted Cajun Power for the first time. We walked through a graveyard. We totally fell in love.
It was the best vacation ever. EVER.
We learned that a vacation isn’t a destination. We learned that the best things happen with few resources because you have to be ultra creative with what you’ve got. We learned that limits only stop you if you let them. And we all learned that if the key doesn’t fit don’t force it.
And one night when we were hanging out at home with the families that lived on either side of us and my mom was laughing about getting stuck in BFE, I mentioned that maybe I could get my CD back. It was too soon.
But eventually I did get that CD back. It was never explicitly stated that it was due to my Mom’s explicit language. But I like to believe it was. However, and I think this was strategic parenting, I didn’t even really care about Guns ‘N Roses anymore.