With summer vacation already half over for my kids, I thought I’d share a story of one of my most memorable childhood vacations. It wasn’t necessarily memorable in either a good or a bad way, but in both, I guess. This personal essay was one of my favorites to write, because I loved getting inside my young mind and remembering all the things I thought on that day. If you like this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of When Love Sticks Around. It’s filled with stories like this one.
Geauga Lake in Aurora, Ohio, was the epitome of American excess when it was open: part waterpark with bright blue water slides and a massive wave pool; part theme park with twisting, dropping rides. No matter a child’s fancy, she could find it in Aurora.
Except for me.
“I don’t wanna go to Geauga Lake!” I wailed as we packed into the minivan. “I wanna see Shamu!” SeaWorld sat on the opposite side of Geauga Lake. So close, but still so far. I folded my arms across my chest and pouted. Sometimes if I turned my chin to just the right position, Mom would cave.
“We go to SeaWorld every year,” she said. “You’ll have fun at Geauga Lake too. Just give it a chance. Besides, family vacations aren’t supposed to be all about fun. It’s more about spending time together.”
Uncle Matt and Aunt Beatrice followed us in their minivan. Uncle Matt was a quiet man who wore a pocket protector in his short-sleeved button-down, even on Saturdays. Aunt Beatrice, well . . . she talked enough for the both of them. They had their kids in their van, too: Trina, their youngest, was the same age as me; and my cousin Stan, who was old enough to be my uncle and had hair longer than mine. I loved them, but to me it didn’t matter because I also hated water parks.
My shoulders slumped back into the seat. “The only reason we’re even going is because Aunt Beatrice is making us.”
“That’s not true. And you’ll have fun with Trina. She’s your favorite cousin.”
I frowned the whole way to Aurora, but it was futile.
When we arrived, I slathered on the strongest SPF Mom had in her wicker beach bag. Somehow I’d ended up with my father’s Scottish skin instead of the Native American glow my mom, sister, aunt, and cousins were blessed with. My fair and freckled body burned to a crisp without protection.
Over the morning, we rode carnival-like rides, the spinning ones that never get too far off the ground. I liked those, so things were fun for me until I got nauseous on the big swaying boat after eating too much cotton candy.
“Can we do something else?” I asked.
“Sure,” said Uncle Matt.
We worked our way toward the water slides. I stared up at them from the safety of the concrete sidewalk. All their twists, turns, and sudden drops made my mouth go dry. I shook my head. “No way.”
Before I could protest again, Jim was nudging me toward a line. “You’ll have fun,” he said. “Don’t be a wuss.”
Mom stayed back to watch with Brittany as I walked up a set of stairs leading to four slides, each a different color: blue, pink, orange, and green. The slides snaked back and forth, coiling around each other until they dumped riders into a shallow pool. When I got to the front of the line, I read the safety sign. An image showed a person with arms folded and legs crossed.
I stood at the top of the stairs, heart racing. The sharp smell of chlorine burned my nostrils, but before I could rub my nose to relieve the pain, a Geauga Lake employee standing beside me blew a whistle.
“Yikes!” I jumped and grabbed the plastic railing. “Go!” he shouted.
“Go?” I asked.
So, scared as I was, I bit my lip, sat down in the pink slide, and pushed off. I swished back and forth. Each time I hit a bump, my folded arms and crossed ankles flew spread-eagle, causing me to swish closer to the lip of the slide. I hated Jim for making me ride that death trap.
At some point I almost got the hang of it, but then the slide ended, and the water ejected me into the pool of rushing water, which crammed my neon pink and green leopard swimsuit between my butt cheeks to the point of mild pain. I stopped for a moment and yanked the wedgie out.
Someone blew another whistle. I gazed up to see a lifeguard with shiny sunglasses and spiked hair looking down at me from the side of the pool. “Unload from the pool area!”
“Sorry. Jeez.” I walked through the water as fast as I could and exited the pool using the steps.
We met back up with the rest of the family and walked to the picnic area. My wet swimsuit kept sneaking up between my cheeks and my soggy, stone-washed jean shorts made picking the wedge difficult. I wiggled and writhed.
For lunch we had fountain sodas brimming with ice and crispy fries with a side of warm vinegar for dipping.
“How about the wave pool?” asked Aunt Beatrice.
“Sounds fun,” said Trina.
“I can handle that,” I said. But I didn’t hear the wave part. I thought we were heading to the regular kind of pool.
As we got closer, I immediately knew I was in trouble. It was a massive blue pool with waves cresting at the concrete shore. A crowd of paste-colored bodies bobbed up and down in orange and yellow inner-tubes. It hardly seemed safe.
“What the heck?” I asked. On the wall at the very end of the pool, a mural of a wave stretched from one side to the other, with two menacing eyes staring at me from its center.
“It’s safe, Dani. You’ll like it,” said Trina, smiling.
After I greased myself up like a pig for the second time, I sat down in the shallow end and splashed with my sister. Over and over, I filled her little neon-colored plastic cups with water and poured them back out, letting the chlorine-filled liquid trickle back out into the pool. Every time, she’d giggle and clap at my trick. At least the ankle-deep water wouldn’t compromise my safety and health.
Then an old Band-Aid floated next to me.
“Yuck,” I said, scooting away.
“Will you please come in with me?” Trina begged. I noticed she was wearing one of her three new bikinis. Uncle Matt worked for one of the big computer companies and her mom liked to spend money. Trina always had new stuff.
“Come on, Danielle! Get in here with us!” Aunt Beatrice shouted from the deeper water, waving around an orange tube to get my attention.
“But I can’t swim,” I muttered.
“Everyone can swim, Danielle. Don’t be a chicken,” Trina said.
“Go on,” said Mom. She was sitting next to me in her classic black swimsuit. “You know she won’t stop until you listen to her.” Mom and Aunt Beatrice were best friends. I had seen pictures of them from the seventies, and they looked like two brunette bombshells with tiny waists and perfect hair. “Watch her, Jim,” Mom said as she twisted the gold rings around her fingers.
“I will,” he grumbled back.
I rolled my eyes and trudged through the water with Jim and Trina until I reached Aunt Beatrice.
“It’ll be fun.” She laughed and handed me the orange ring. “Let’s make a human chain.”
Kids sat inside the tubes and adults held onto the handles. We floated along until we reached the sign that read “8 feet” and waited for the big wave: six of us with three tubes. Uncle Matt still had his glasses on, and that made me giggle.
The alarm sounded, signaling that the big wave was coming, and I thought I might puke. It wasn’t a friendly sounding alarm. More like a get-out-of-the-water-if-you-give-two-craps-about-your-safety kind of alarm.
I wrapped my arms around the orange ring and squeezed tight. “Why did I agree to this?” I asked.
No one answered.
I couldn’t get out fast enough to avoid the wave, so I closed my eyes
and braced for it. The swell of water pushed from behind me, and I knew it was too strong. We were too close to the end and the wave was far too big. Someone let go of my ring, and it capsized. Water rushed over me, filling my mouth, ears, and bathing suit. I went head over feet, over head, over feet again. My arms and legs flailed as the water engulfed me. My chest tightened. Holding my breath grew harder to do as the seconds dragged on.
I careened through the water, bubbles tickling my arms and legs, bod- ies touching me, then nothing but water. My hands and feet thrashed and grabbed, but my fingers kept coming up empty. I thought that would be how I died: in a pool with hundreds of overweight, suburban, white families bobbing around in a germ-infested wave pool. They’d find me face-down with a wedgie.
Before I could get my bearings and come up for air, something hard connected with my head. For a moment I heard nothing, saw nothing, felt nothing. I blacked out. Then a breeze tickled my ear and jolted me to a standing position. Discombobulated, I didn’t understand how the water only reached my calves. A lifeguard rushed over and asked if I was okay.
“You hit heads with that guy over there.” She pointed to a man with a bowling ball belly sitting in a foot of water, rubbing his head. Another lifeguard crouched to talk to him. Poor guy. Even the shallow end wasn’t safe.
Mom rushed over with my sister in her arms. “Danielle! You went sailing with the wave! You could have drowned.” The rest of my family plodded through the water towards me.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” the lifeguard repeated.
I coughed.“I’m not sure.” I rubbed my head.“But I think so.”
After that, someone announced over the loudspeaker that they had to shut down the wave pool due to my possible concussion. We found an empty table, and I yanked my shorts back on over my soaking suit.
Despite a throbbing temple, I felt normal, but the lifeguards monitored me, and someone brought me banana split Dippin’ Dots ice cream. After a half-hour, they released me and re-opened the death pool.
“Why don’t we take it easy for the rest of the day?” Mom asked, pushing the stroller through the park.
“I’d like that.” I smiled and linked my arm through hers. “Games?” asked Aunt Beatrice, checking her wallet. “Yeah!” Trina and I shouted together, then giggled.
We found the arcade, and Stan won a four-foot-tall pink tiger in the water gun race and gave it to Trina.
“Where’s mine?” I joked with Jim.
He laughed and belched from too much pop. “Win it yourself.”
After about an hour, Aunt Beatrice said, “Well guys, I think it’s time to go.” Nobody argued. We’d had enough American excess for one vacation.
Trina and Stan carried the tiger together through the never-ending lines of minivans and sedans, weaving back and forth until we found our parking spots.
“Where are the keys?” asked my aunt, tugging on her van’s locked door. Everyone patted their pockets and shrugged.
“I think they might be in the console.” Stan cringed. As I watched the sweat drip off Aunt Beatrice and Uncle Matt, seeing Trina and Stan struggle with the stupid pink tiger, I felt strangely satisfied.
“Should we go back to the pool?” I joked.
Jim lit a cigarette and snorted.