Our father apparently married well the second time around, our new stepmother
was heiress to a sporting goods empire. I missed my mom something terrible but was excited about having four new sibling
s and felt as if we were embarking on a grand adventure.
There wouldn't be enough room for all of us in the little suburban rambler so our father arranged for the purchase of a large house outside of the city. The new place needed remodeling and the old one sold quickly so we would be homeless for about three weeks. Our father had business in South Dakota at the same time, so he decided to take the new enlarged family on a long camping trip.
We were hiking around the ancient rock spires and caves in the Badlands
National Park when the skies darkened and a major storm approached. As we made our way back to the station wagon my oldest sister got stuck in the crevice of a large V-shaped rock formation
. The more she struggled to free herself the deeper she became wedged in the crack. We thought it hilarious at first and teased her about her enormous backside but as the skies grew threatening, an accelerating panic ensued.
Our father drove back to the tourist station and returned with a capable looking young Park Ranger in tow. Embarrassed is too small a word to describe my sister's condition as the handsome young man appraised her situation and fought back a smile. She was sixteen or seventeen and would have preferred a stake through the heart to her current humiliation.
The Ranger shot us a smile that calmed our panic and hinted that this kind of scene was routine. My sister was crying from mortification, not pain or fear when he told her to put her arms around his neck and hug him tightly. He instructed her to take the deepest breath she could manage and hold it for as long as possible, until she became light headed. She did as he asked and at the moment she appeared to pass out from lack of oxygen he simply tugged her limp frame from the crevice.
The ordeal was trivial but it sucked the fun out of the camping trip for at least one of us. My sister suffered scrapes and abrasions beyond her bruised ego and was vocal about her wish to leave South Dakota forever. She was the oldest child and had voiced aggressive disapproval over our parent's divorce and our father's subsequent marriage. She wasn't at all amused at the prospect of living in a tent for three weeks and getting her butt stuck in the Badlands only soured her further. We didn't really have a home to go home to and my father's business compelled him to Rapid City so she would have to grin and bear it.
We would have done well to heed her warnings about the ill-fated marriage and the camping trip.
We had just finished setting up our tents in a campground on top of the hill, near the Dinosaur Park, when one of the worst flash floods in human history
struck the city below. The storm that frightened us in the Badlands caused the failure of the Canyon Lake Dam at about eleven o'clock that night and by midnight a wall of water all but obliterated Rapid City, South Dakota. The Rapid Creek which was little more than a shallow trout stream became a raging river in a matter of hours and most of the sleeping victims
never knew what hit them.
The next morning our father paid twenty dollars for a carton of eggs and twenty dollars more for a jug of fresh water. We had the most awful breakfast imaginable in what was left of his soggy motel room while the transistor radio described the horror at the bottom of the hill. The beautiful, sunny June morning was sadly inappropriate to the terrible, dark numbers; 236 dead, 3,000 injured, 1,335 homes destroyed. We made our escape minutes before the National Guard closed the last road out of town.
The bad mojo seemed to be following us like a shadow but we had escaped the flash flood with our lives and most of our camping equipment intact. All of our clothing and gear was soaked and my sister's displeasure with the camping trip was spreading like a virus. All nine of us were now allied in our rancor for my father and his ill-fated family vacation.
Our last stop in Pierre, South Dakota was like an exclamation point at the end of a disturbing sentence.
It was the first time I had seen a tornado up close and I hope it was the last. The beast was actually a blessing in disguise because it took most of our camping equipment with it. We reached the ladies restroom of the campground office with no time to spare as the tornado ripped a trench right through the middle of our campsite. We cowered behind a buckling steel door and heard what sounded like a locomotive pass just on the other side.
Those three weeks of terror and discomfort foreshadowed three years of the same. Our father would have done well to heed the obvious omens and forsake the hybrid family plan altogether but he did not. The brothers and sisters who were introduced to us as our new family vanished from view as quickly as they had arrived.
I'm older now, with a wife and family of my own so I empathize with my father in his complicated passage. My wife's childhood was as stable and serene as mine was disheveled so her perspective and her optimism took me years to comprehend. When the clouds begin to form and the world becomes unfriendly she will calmly change her course rather than struggle against the storm. Her philosophy is simple, childlike and correct. Mary will tell you that the Universe slaps you if you are on the wrong path and if you continue down that path it slaps you harder and harder.
If everything seems to be going sour it probably is and if you notice storm clouds on the horizon you are always free to drive in the other direction. Many see life as an obstacle course or an endurance test and it becomes just that. They see a kind of heroism in overcoming adversity and making the best of bad situations and I admire those people from afar.
You'll find me on the path of least resistance.