My mother made a frantic phone call home from a telephone booth — that dates the story — and our family’s daily routine changed in an instant.
There are those moments when you must jolt into action if you want to turn things around. That’s just what my dad did, and the rest of us followed his lead like he was the Piped Piper. We didn’t disappear and possibly end up in a cave implied by a version of the legend; however, we did drive frantically into unfamiliar territory and lived to tell the story.
It’s good for the soul to shuffle-up ‒ that dates me, too ‒ the humdrum of daily life.
Back when I was a know-it-all-kid in the sixth grade, my mom went on the Long Island Railroad to Brooklyn for a routine doctor’s appointment, and my younger sister and I went down to dad’s store after school. It was a short half-mile walk to the main business district, and we were accompanied by plenty of other kids going home. Life was much simpler, and we walked everywhere as long as we didn’t miss meals. Our freedom was for the taking.
Dad was going to take us home when he closed the store and attempt cooking supper. Truthfully, Dad wasn’t a very capable chef, but we helped him out. I don’t recall that we ever starved, and I am sure mom had left a Jell-O mold in the refrigerator along with an apple pie on the counter.
Actually, I looked forward to those late afternoons when I had extra time with dad. My artistic sister kept occupied coloring on her latest project, and I meandered up and down the aisles straightening boxes of linen hankies while watching the traffic go by heading for the Hamptons.
While I was setting the table for dinner, we got mom’s S.O.S. She accidently had gotten on the wrong train when she changed trains at Jamaica. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, except all the trains on the tracks make it confusing if you are not sure of your directions and train routes. Jamaica can be a nightmare for the uninitiated or tentative person even today.
Somehow mom stopped in Ronkonkoma (Town of Islip) at the end of the line about half way from home with 30 or so miles left. The conductor told her there were no alternatives unless she took the train back to Jamaica, and tried once again.
Dad calmed her down, and in the meantime we all hustled into the Plymouth sedan with dad driving full speed west. We left supper on the kitchen counter. That was before the fast Long Island Expressway had come out to the end of the Island, so it was stop and go at every traffic light in every town all the way.
I thought that this was great fun, and I loved the thought of getting out of homework, as well as leaving town. Anything to get my wanderlust soul all stirred up didn’t take much. I wondered about the town with the Native American sounding name where we were heading.
From an early age I loved maps and I would spend hours studying them planning imaginary trips. The neighborhood gas station gave them out free, and the owner would hand me the latest ones when I stopped in on my walk home from school checking on his supply. He knew about my obsession and kept it quiet.
The closer we got to the train station off the main highway and onto side roads, the more I realized that dad was lost. There didn’t appear to be any signs, and it looked more like a residential area near water.
“We’re going around this lake in circles,” I proudly informed dad. “We need to stop and ask someone.”
As if he hadn’t made that discovery himself, I needed to needle him more. That was Lake Ronkonkoma (Long Island’s largest freshwater lake) I was pointing to and verifying on the map in my hands.
I hadn’t learned yet that dads, or men for a fact, don’t stop and ask for directions. It’s not in their genes. They keep muddling along convinced that they can figure it out.
Finally, we got to the train station, collected mom and managed to wind our way back to Route 58. The return seemed easier, and there was less stress in the car.
For a surprise we got to eat out at Howard Johnson’s, which made me ecstatic. I didn’t have to look at the menu before ordering my usual heaping plate of fried clams that I wolfed down with gusto. We never got to eat fried foods like that at home, and seafood was becoming my new food of choice.
Years later we would still joke in front of mom that if a day got boring she could go get lost at a train station and we would come and rescue her. She would raise her shoulders and not get the humor like the rest of us. I guess she hadn’t let that scare go.
Today, with texting, cell phones, Uber and GPS this wouldn’t be much of a story at all.