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Editor’s note: Robert Warren first told this story on stage at the Des Moines Storytellers Project’s “Voyages: Life-changing experiences through travel.” The Des Moines Storytellers Project is a series of storytelling events in which community members work with Register journalists to tell true, first-person stories live on stage. An edited version appears below.
At first it sounded charming, like a Norman Rockwell painting, to go on our first-ever family vacation to a quaint little cottage on Lake Superior in Grand Marais, Minnesota, right near the Canadian border.
But in reality, the harrowing ride from Friendship, Wisconsin, in 1969 when I was just 6-and-a-half years old, began with me clinging to the back of front row bucket seats dodging ashes from unfiltered Pall Malls that the three adults in the front were chain smoking.
The front windows were rolled down on a hot July day and there I was, clenching my buttocks into the rear seat cushion for fear of sliding back and touching the nub of my grandmother’s amputated leg — which was the small space I was allotted to sit in.
This family vacation was a rite of passage for all of us as my older brothers and I were never allowed to go anywhere with the adults.
My parents married when dad was just 21 and mom was still in high school. Within four years of getting married they had three boys to take care of: my oldest brother, Danny, middle brother, Randy and me, the baby boy.
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Dad was a hard worker at the paper mill. Mom was a stay-at-home mom and although she would work occasionally at the Tip Top Tavern for a little extra spending money for winter coats and shoes, she really did dedicate her life to her three sons.
The story of the one and only vacation of my childhood
When one of my dad’s paper mill buddies offered him the opportunity to take his family up to his fishing cottage for a free week, the planning process began.
The news spread quickly to my grandparents, who of course shared the news with their youngest son, my uncle Butch, who still lived with them.
All of a sudden, a trip with just mom, dad and us boys spread to adding three additional full-grown adults — if you’ve lost count, that’s eight people. And we also needed room for the life jackets, fishing poles, food cooler, two cases of Schlitz Beer, four suitcases, and a 16-foot rowboat that had to be strapped on the roof of our 1957 Chevy Impala.
I had never seen a clown car before but later learned that the exercise we went through to finally get on the road was much like a combination of packing a clown car and a Chinese fire drill.
We decided on the three adult men in the front — they were the ones who could read a map — but the back seat was a bit more problematic. It had to seat five bodies in a space designed for three.
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For safety reasons, it was decided that mom and grandma would get the seats by the back doors and the three boys would jockey for space in the middle.
I was the littlest, so I got the space next to grandma who, because of a farming accident, was an above-the-knee amputee. To save room, I sat in the void of her nub while her wooden leg rode in the trunk.
That’s why I was clinging for dear life — for fear of turning around to look at the remains of my grandmother’s leg or having to look down at the matching sock and saddle shoe on the leg that remained intact.
And away we went down the back roads to take in all the scenic beauty during our 500-mile adventure.
I was in the unique position to be able to hear the conversations in the front seat and the ones my mother and grandmother were sharing. Even when my mom said, “Oh s***, I think I forget my birth control.” Grandma repeated the phase “Oh s***!” as she rolled her eyes at my two older brothers who were once again fighting over how many inches of seat they each had.
After what seemed like days, just five hours into the trip, we arrived at the first planned stopped at the halfway point in Hurley, Wisconsin, for a potty break and a picnic lunch.
If you have never experienced a rustic wayside rest stop in the 1960s, picture what looks like a metal culvert inserted into a slab of concrete with a toilet seat welded to it. This particular model was high enough off the ground that I couldn’t use it so I waited patiently until mom was finished and asked her to lift me up on to my private thrown.
Once hoisted up I got to enjoy my surroundings from high above.
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I looked down and noticed that there were things growing in places that they shouldn’t. I asked my mom what I was looking at and she said, “Oh those are little brown mushrooms.” To this day, you could offer me a million dollars and I would not be able to eat even a single mushroom.
Not more than a few miles down the road on the second half of the trip my dad noticed a stranded driver with his hood up and smoke coming out of the engine so we stopped and offered support.
Dad sprang into action smothered the fire with his white T-shirt. The appreciative kid thanked my dad for his help and asked if he could possibly give him a ride into town to call for help.
We all smiled as I don’t think in all the excitement he had a chance to look in the back seat of our car and see that it was already overflowing with humans — but we did it anyway, squeezing yet another human into this clown car.
The clown car makes it to the circus
We finally made it to the fishing cottage which turned out to be a glorified chicken coop complete with droppings on the floor and chicken wire holding the insulation in place on the walls.
There were two small windows on either side of the front door, a single light bulb in the center of the room, and an electric hot plate. There were two full size beds curtained off in the back corners and two sets of bunk beds, which was just enough to accommodate us all. The outhouse, which was even rougher than the one we encountered at the roadside park, was about 100 yards across the field from our guest quarters.
Just to the north of us was the farmer who owned the adjacent land and his lovely wife of 70 years. Otis and his wife came out to greet us and, at the same time, warn us not to leave any food out, as the bear population was intense due to the fact that there was a landfill just a few hundred yards to our south and the bears frequented that at the end of the day for food.
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The next few days were filled with fishing, and fishing, and more fishing, and some late-night games of Go Fish. We got into a lovely rhythm of eating, fishing and sleeping to the tune of grandpa’s snoring.
One night the snoring was disrupted suddenly. My older brother had caught some crayfish to use as fresh bait the next day that were sitting outside the cabin door in a Styrofoam bucket and one of the bears decided he needed a midnight snack.
That was the third time on this trip that the expression “OH S***” was uttered.
On the second to the last night Otis and his wife said they would keep an eye on our cabin door so the adults could go into town for a beer. For an extra bit of insurance that we didn’t sneak out, grandma left her wooden leg behind standing in the doorway as she knew my older brothers wouldn’t dare touch it.
I can only imagine how romantic it must have looked for them to show up at the local watering hole, grandpa carrying grandma in to sit her on her bar stool.
Canadian pitstop with real maple syrup and some contraband cigarettes
The final day had come and dad told us we got an award for being good boys: A trip across the Canadian border to the Thunder Bay Pancake and Waffle House for fresh maple syrup.
The restaurant, with a beautiful view of Lake Superior and the food, was about as much as my little 6-year-old heart could take. I was mesmerized by the waitress’s fluffy apron and matching scarf and thrilled at being allowed to sip coffee from my grandmother’s cup for the first time.
As the meal was ending, my older brothers noticed a pinball machine in the bar area of the restaurant and begged my dad for two quarters to go and play. Within about five minutes both returned with the prizes they had won.
Turns out it wasn’t a pinball machine after all but an old-fashioned pull-knob cigarette dispenser that they had just played perfectly. Dad got up to investigate, came back and proudly announced to the table that cigarettes were only 25 cents a pack.
Suddenly every adult was digging in their pockets and purses and asking Danny and Randy to go “win some more prizes.”
I got to stay and help count the packs.
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At one point during the counting of the packs of cigarettes we noticed a seal that indicated they were only for sale in Canada. Would be able to get them back across the border?
The final plan of this adventure was hatched.
I was told to get under the table while my grandmother unstrapped her artificial leg. Then, one-by-one all the packs of cigarettes were handed to me and I stuffed them inside of the wooden leg.
As we were leaving the restaurant, with full bellies and smiles on our faces, I turned around and noticed my grandmother was not keeping up with the rest of the group.
With her appendage now stuffed full of loot, her usual hip swivel walk became more problematic and she adapted to a drag and pull method using her left hand while still clutching her purse in the right.
Once outside the restaurant, we all laughed hysterically and then began to climb back in the car for our trip home. We put the leg in the trunk one more time and got underway.
Spending time together builds connection
We did get asked to open the trunk when going back across the border and my dad was more than happy to do so, knowing there was very little concern about the surplus of cigarettes.
The border agent with his big brimmed hat looked down at the artificial leg on top of all the fishing gear and said, “Thanks for visiting. Have a nice drive home.”
You probably wonder how I could remember a story so vividly that occurred back in 1969 when I was just 6-and-a-half years old. But this was the first time I felt like a real part of the adult family.
And the bonding that occurred on this eight-day adventure literally burned these memories into me.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, this would turn out to be the one and only vacation with just my brothers as my adorable baby sister, Susan Joy, arrived in grand fashion exactly nine months after our trip — I guess mom needed that birth control after all.
It wasn’t until I hit high school that I had any opportunity to travel again. Then when I headed off to college in New York City, I really began to appreciate the joys of travel and never stopped.
This trip was something of folklore in our family — a story we all talked about over the years, each adding to the memories that one of us had forgotten.
But it’s even more special now with half of that family no longer with us and my older brother, who taught me how to ride a bike, bait a hook and swim across Friendship Pond, is currently battling a very aggressive form of cancer.
I drove up to Friendship for a visit a few weeks ago to see my brother and we laughed like little kids when I shared this story.
And I can’t wait to share it with him again and again and again.
ABOUT THE STORYTELLER: Robert Warren was hired as executive director of Hoyt Sherman Place in September of 2015 and was given the new title of chief executive officer in 2021 after successfully leading the organization through the COVID-19 pandemic. His decorated career has included positions such as associate producer at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and director of community engagement at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota, Florida.
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