What did you do on vacation?

John Mahoney

emember the first day back at school when you had to write an essay about your summer vacation?

Last week, for the first time since our honeymoon 32 years ago, Jane and I rented a lakeshore cottage in northern Vermont to take our ease by a sandy beach. As inexperienced vacationers we soon discovered that if you would live contentedly in a state of leisure, be prepared to take your pleasures in simple things.

Like the call of a loon, the shriek of a gull, a good book, some chilled white wine, unlimited naps.

My stated intentions were simple: I would read, write, and canoe to my heart's content, and sample some delightfully cheap Scotch whiskey. Jane planned to read, read, read. So she said.

It rains on Day One. Unable to fall directly asleep in this strange bed, I amuse myself by watching the headlights of all the neighbors' cars flashing through our window.

Day Two dawns chilly and threatening. I have forgotten my portable computer's power cord and the Sunday New York Times, and Jane needs a flannel nightgown. I race back home, stopping only briefly at Canada Customs to explain (A) that Boynton does indeed exist, (B) where it's located and how to get there, and (C) how to spell it. I think how nice it will be when these summer helpers go back to college.

By the end of Day Two my companion has the heebie-jeebies. A confirmed workaholic, she has read all of her books, swept, mopped, and dusted the cottage, and whipped up a chicken soup to ward off an attack of the gwenders (that disagreeable feeling you get upon exposure to the cold). She threatens to go to her office and bring back some work to do. She is also demanding that I "do something!"

I raise my eyes from the book I am reading while sprawled on the large bed in front of the fireplace. "I am doing something," I say. "We're on vacation," she says. "Go out in your canoe." I raise up from the bed, peer at the overcast sky and the foamy whitecaps the wind is whipping up on the angry-looking waters of Lake Seymour, and say not unkindly, "You must be out of your mind."

A realization: the most difficult thing for structured, orderly people in fully taking and enjoying their ease on vacation is the lack of structure in their day. Being a reader, a maker of notes, and lazy by nature, I have little problem with this.

Day Three: The weather breaks. Jane makes a book run to the village, hits a garage sale, and scores an old radio. We listen to reports of the death of Vermont's Governor Snelling, a scrappy man with whom I had jousted many times in the past when I was a political writer.

It's hot and sunny now, and we've both settled down to vacationing. Jane is happily reading and getting sunburnt on the beach. I avoid the sun because I know it causes cancer and perhaps madness, so I lounge in the shade with my Coors Silver Bullet, reading and thinking vacation-type thoughts. There is a soft westerly breeze coming off Wolf Point and it's rippling the birches, the pages of Songs of the Doomed that I'm reading, and the socks, towels, and jockey shorts the neighbor lady -- a year 'rounder -- is hanging on the rickety aluminum octopus about 20 feet away.

Between sips and reads I comment on the quantity and variety of her wash. "It's the towels," she says. "They use them just once, then throw them down. They don't seem to know who does the work." The fate of moms throughout North America, I think. I never see this lady outside except when she's hanging out the wash. The "they" she mentioned are her teenybopper daughter and son.

I never see them except on high-decibel machines. The boy alternates between roaring around on a large, powerful lawn mower and racing about on a large, powerful four-wheeled ATV. The girl doesn't mow, but when he isn't racing, she is. And when they aren't racing or roaring, they're inside watching TV.

Friends, these days there is a whole lot more watching than doing going on. An old buddy comes for a brief visit with his two bright young lads and, pow! right to the TV set, first thing. We shoo them to the beach. The peddle-powered boat holds their interest about five minutes, then back to the boob tube.

From across the lake we often hear the wild, wacky calls of a pair of loons living below the mountain. On Day Five one of them is fishing near the cottage and -- camera at the ready -- I launch my short, stubby canoe in hot pursuit. Diving deep and swimming an erratic underwater course, the loon leads me a merry chase. I try to anticipate where it will surface, paddle madly for several minutes, then coast, camera at the ready. I shoot, paddle, coast. Soon I am at the mountain.

Once, the loon deviously swims under the canoe and surfaces behind me. Then, tiring of the game, it dives a last time. I don't see it come up. During the long paddle back I am acutely conscious of my middle-aged knees and shoulders.

Meanwhile, back at the beach, Jane has been adopted by a large German Shepherd bitch that -- hackles raised -- barks and snarls viciously as I land. Here I am, paying a rent high enough that a few years ago it would have been a down payment on a lobotomy, and this fleabag is threatening me on my rented turf. I snarl back.

In the early mornings now the lake is dead calm and mirrors the mountain. An occasional fishing boat softly putts by. A builder we call the Mad Hammerer begins by 7 a.m., joined at times by the Mad Sawman. As the day progresses, so does the noise level: the riding mowers, ATVs, whipper-snappers, chain saws, and power boats. By late afternoon and until dark the truly loud water-ski boats rip through our lives.

To feel part of the action I bless each hour with a short, often squeaky, run on my penny whistle, in the key of C.

We have brought our new propane grill to cook outside as much as possible. Naturally, the regulator malfunctions. I try my customary country repair techniques -- banging, hammering, whacking on a rock -- but once again modern technology triumphs and I soon smoke up the cottage while pan-frying steaks.

By Day Seven we are completely on vacation, but now it's time to go home. As I load the canoe, a fishing boat slowly trolls past the cottage and the operatic strains of O Solo Mio float over the water. And as we open the car doors, the loons begin that high, lonesome singing and I hear it as a friendly goodbye.


[ This was first published in 1991 when I was editorial page columnist for Quebec's Stanstead Journal, a consistant prize winner and one of the finest small weekly newspapers in the country. For a 1996 update, mouse this: The things that go bump in the night is us. ]


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Copyright © John Mahoney 1996 /Log Cabin Chronicles/8.96