We capped our final evening at the beach the only way that seemed appropriate: by playing a round of mini golf.
I loved playing mini golf as a kid. Once a year, my church youth group would take us to Geno’s Putt Putt on Route 45 in Mantua Township, and my friends and I would spend all 18 holes using our rudimentary understanding of geometry and physics to sink the ball in the most creative and violent manner possible. We never had to worry about getting asked to leave, because who had the stones to kick out a pastor and his gaggle of Methodist cherubs?
I thought mini golf would be a fun, inexpensive family activity, one where we could get the kids nice and tired before bed. Maybe I’d even grab Melinda and myself a couple of beers at the snack bar because come on, it’s the last night of vacation.
Apparently, I had not been mini golfing in quite some time, because it cost the four of us $60 to play, and not only was there no beer at the snack bar, there was no snack bar.
When the attendant’s cash register flashed $63.40 from behind her plexiglass window, I sheepishly pulled my 20 dollar bill from the oval pass-through and replaced it with my MasterCard. “What, are we playing Pebble Beach here?” I joked, tugging at my collar like Rodney Dangerfield.
The attendant didn’t even look up from her credit card machine. Cool, good talk.
She passed the golf balls through the plexiglass like I was getting a payday advance and I brought them over to Melinda and the kids.
“And here’s your $15 golf ball, and here’s your $15 golf ball, and here’s your $15 golf ball,” I said.
Melinda frowned. “No beers?”
I frowned back. “No beers.”
“Awesome,” she said.
I clapped my hands together. “Who’s ready to play some mini golf, huh?”
Like most of my experiences with golf, I was fine for like, the first 12 holes. Melinda, D, and J were playing like shit, so I was ahead a good 10 strokes at the turn.
Then, after getting onto 13 and realizing there were still six holes left, we all started to get a little cranky.
“It’s so hot,” J said. “Can I have a drink?”
“Unfortunately no drinks available at this particular location,” I said.
J whined and dropped her club. “But I’m so thirsty,” she said.
“I’m thirsty too,” D said.
“I’ll encourage you to follow the advice my father would give me in a situation like this,” I said. “Try swallowing your spit and you should be good.”
The additional issue that arose around hole 13 was that the kids were desperate to know their scores.
I don’t know what your kids are like, but mine are hyper-competitive. Winning motivates them like no ice-cold Coca Cola ever could. If Melinda or I need the kids to do something around the house, all we have to do is say “last one to _______ is a rotten egg!” and the place turns into Thunderdome. Because there is no worse fate than becoming the dreaded Rotten Egg.
This sibling rivalry manifests in a more concentrated and evil form when they are engaged in activities actually designed to be competitive. Like mini golf.
I anticipated this issue, so for the duration of the game I’d deflected their request to read the leaderboard. But now, with only a few holes remaining, I knew I had to tell them SOMETHING.
“What’s the score?” D asked on the way to Hole 14.
“I’m winning,” I said.
“But what’s my score?”
“I don’t know, haven’t you been keeping track?”
“You’ve been keeping score the whole time,” D said. “I’ve seen you.”
“Yeah, who’s winning between D and me?” J chimed in.
I pretended to consult my score card. “Looks like you guys are tied.”
In the moment, this seemed like the right thing to say. But for the next five holes, it only increased the pressure between my two pint-sized tour pros.
J had a literal meltdown on 15 when she six-putted. I say literal because she holed the ball and then let every muscle in her body go limp and did the best impression of a snowman on a warm day that I’d ever seen.
D started inventing arbitrary rules that gave him more advantageous ball placement. “When it lands on a leaf, you can move it two club lengths toward the hole,” he said.
Every hole was like a weigh in before a UFC fight: some shit talk, some pushing, some intense stare downs.
When everyone holed out on 18 and the kids clawed at the score card to see who had won, I took the tiny golf pencil from behind my ear and made a big show of tabulating.
“Well, will you look at that?” I said. “It looks like you guys ended in a tie!”
“Yay!” J said, tossing her club in the air and letting it clang to the concrete.
D was slightly more skeptical. “Hold on,” he said. “Let me see that score card.”
“Oh, this score card?” I said. I tore it in half, then fourths, then eights. I let the confetti flitter into the trash can.
“Why’d you do that?” D asked. “I wanted to see my score.”
“Come on, dude,” I said. “Any golfer worth his salt knows it’s good luck to tear up your score card as soon as you finish a game. Don’t you want good luck on the mini golf course in the future?”
D’s face went from confusion to consternation to acceptance. “I guess,” he said.
“Well there you go. Mom, can we please go home now?” I said to Melinda.
“Yes please,” she said.
It took us five hours to drive the 200 miles home, the realities of life creeping in with each passing highway mile.
Our house greeted us with its usual set of needs. The grass needed to be cut, the weeds needed to be pulled, the beach furniture needed to be stowed in the shed. And that was that; my vacation paradise — no matter how flawed it may have been — was gone for another year.
We unpacked and started the laundry and put new sheets on the beds, the natural rhythms of home beginning their beat.
As usual, Melinda’s duffle bag was full of hotel amenities. I’ve never been one to ransack my hotel room for tiny bars of soap, but she loves that shit.
In addition to shampoos and conditioners, Melinda pulled out a sponge, dish soap, two boxes of tissues, and a roll of toilet paper.
“Toilet paper?” I said. “Really?”
“What?” she said.
“Honey, we’re not poor. You didn’t need to steal the toilet paper.”
“Oh, I know. That one was just for spite.”
And there you have it. Five days of family vacation, punctuated by surf, sun, screaming kids, shoddy HVAC units, shitty customer service, and some of worst specimens humanity has to offer.
We get this idea that time away from home — vacation, a break from reality — is just what the doctor ordered. But it’s never as picturesque as we imagine. It’s easy to drive away disappointed, the car loaded down with sandy beach equipment and souvenirs that will end up at the bottom of junk drawers.
But in a way, aren’t the twists and turns of vacation part of the allure? Aren’t they the pieces that stand the test of time?
One of the most memorable trips I ever took to the beach was when I was 9 and my family stayed at my grandfather’s camper. It was a horrible trip. The battery in my mom’s Pontiac station wagon died, and my dad had to walk five miles into town to buy a new one. A stray cat birthed a litter of kittens under our camper, and they cried out night and day, keeping us awake.
One night, while we ate dinner at the patio picnic table, my dad felt what he thought was a feral kitten nudging his foot. He leaned back and kicked at it, cussing up a storm. Only it wasn’t a cat. It was my mom’s foot.
Needless to say, my mom’s nearly broken foot cast a pall on the rest of the trip.
Those are not the types of things you see on a commercial from the Cape May tourism board, but those are the stories that I’ll keep with me forever, the ones my family will share over dinner and laugh about for the rest of our lives.
Sure, I could’ve done without the lack of silverware or the roar of government-issue jet engines, but in a way, my vacation accomplished exactly what I yearned for; a chance to forge memories that would forever instill in me the sweet pang of nostalgia. And I wouldn’t change that for the world.
PS — D, if you happen across this story sometime in the future: you beat your sister by four strokes at mini golf. I hope you understand why I didn’t tell you then.