“Vacation: A period of time devoted to pleasure, rest, or relaxation.”
Travel Journal Entry – Monday, January 6th
Sensible people use winter break to escape their homes and visit a balmy tropical paradise.
Presently, we’re stuck in North Eastern Illinois. The Department of Transportation has issued a travel advisory for “extreme cold.” They’re warning people to stay put. Wind and weather have delayed or canceled thousands of flights into and out of Chicago. The highways are a mess.
So Karin and I are holed up at the Waukegan Marriott.
The manager, a nice man named Dave, tells me this weather is “a bit unusual,” and he says it’s not been good for business.
“Things usually pick up after New Year’s,” Dave said. “But we’ve had cancellations.”
I don’t doubt him. I see four vehicles in the parking lot. There’s our Subaru, the hotel shuttle bus and a couple cars that belong to the few hotel employees who braved the roads. TV news says schools in Chicago closed to protect kids from “the coldest weather the city has seen in 20 years.”
Karin and I picked the perfect time to visit Illinois.
Why did we come? Were we seduced by the area’s charms —its salty, sub-zero street-slush and state-of-the-art-potholes?
It’s Lake County’s principle industry that drew up us here. Each year the Great Lakes Naval Training Center mints thousands of new sailors.
Last week, one of them happened to be our son, Joe.
That’s why I’m stranded in my motel. I admit I’m impressed with Joe’s timing–winter in Waukegan—what a perfect moment to graduate from boot camp. No doubt that Joe figured that if he could endure 8-weeks of a military-makeover, then mom and dad could brave the weather.
So far, we have.
The 2,600 miles we’ve driven thus far have been worth the effort. Karin and I enjoyed the pomp and pageantry of Joe’s graduation ceremonies. We were thrilled to see the recruits—hundreds of capable young men and women—complete their training. They’ve worked hard, and they radiate pride. They should—the training process was demanding, and it’s only the beginning of the sacrifices they’ll be making.
It’s hard to tell the sailors apart, but we were able to pick Joe out—he was playing cadence in the drum line. He was the boy on the bass.
Except that he’s not a boy anymore….
Near the end of the graduation ceremonies, the families were invited to salute the new sailors with a traditional navy cheer—HOOYAH!
But the officer at the microphone shook his head. “Let’s hear that again. Louder.”
So we did.
He sighed. “If you were my recruits, you’d be hitting the floor and giving me 50. Once again.”
This time we HOOYAHed ourselves hoarse.
He nodded. “That will do for now. But work on it.”
A short while later, the ceremonies concluded and liberty was announced.
Siblings, girlfriends, parents, grandparents and close friends all poured onto the training deck to hug their sailor. Karin and I got to spend all of 15 minutes with our son. Then Joe told us he had some paperwork to take care of and wouldn’t be able to leave for a while….
So we got our next taste of navy-family life; we waited over five hours before he got his liberty.
Still, we made the most of the evening. We dined at Lovell’s Steak House in Lake Forest. This upscale restaurant is owned by the legendary Captain Jim Lovell, commander of Apollo 13. Lovell offers new sailors a free meal in recognition of their accomplishment. This is no small gift—the dinner was sumptuous. Joe savored his steak, the first beef he had eaten in weeks.
Then we returned to the room and hung out.
Joe shared his tales of boot camp; Karin and I learned a new vocabulary. His stories included an alphabet soup of RTC activities, tests, and procedures to “sailorize” the recruits.
I even learned how to spell HOOYAH.
We were lucky. Joe’s paperwork glitch gave him two additional days of off-base liberty, and he wanted to share them with us. So we shopped, watched movies, talked, reminisced, and laughed. All these oh-so-ordinary activities took on importance because our time with him is now on government rations. For the next six years, we’re not sure exactly when or where we’ll see him.
We do know it will be at least six months before we can give him another hug.
Sunday night Joe’s liberty ended, and we returned him to base. We said farewell, then Karin and I hustled back to our room. We planned to leave Monday, but we decided to check the weather reports. As predicted, the “polar vortex” had struck Chicago. I was glad we’d driven our Subaru; I felt a confident that we could 4×4 out of there.
But I had a thing or two to learn about Midwestern snow storms.
As I packed, I saw video of high winds causing white-outs. Reports described semi-trucks overturned or tangled in guard rails. Traffic, if it moved at all, crept along at 10 mph. Many roads were closed and motorists were stranded on the freeways.
I watched and my hopes of a Monday departure faded. You’d have to be nuts to be out there in those conditions. It was so cold that salt wouldn’t work its magic, leaving the highways encased in black ice.
So much for driving a go-where-you-want-to-go-4×4.
Karin voted to stay another day, and I reluctantly agreed. We stopped packing and turned in.
Monday dawned with the thermometer sitting at 18 below and the winds a steady 30 mph plus. Karin awoke and began her homework, and I paced.
And paced some more… stopping from time to time to stare out the window for distraction.
Ah, the Waukegan landscape! It was just as magical as watching a Christmas snowball. The cars were covered with snow. The trees were covered with snow. The buildings covered with snow. The roads were covered with snow. Even the snow was covered with snow.
And just like a snowball, it held my attention for all of 10 seconds.
I was experiencing a relapse of RMS-Restless Man Syndrome. So I decided to go shopping.
“I’m heading out,” I announced.
Karin stopped typing, frowned, and looked up.
“You’re kidding,” she said. “What’s so urgent?”
“I’m out of shaving cream.”
“Really? You’ll risk your life for that?”
“I’m out of vitamins, too.”
“Hmph,” she said, and turned her attention back to her computer. A few moments later the printer spit out a document that she pressed into my hands.
“Read this,” she said.
It was a cautionary circular from www.USA.gov, and it contained actual scientific-sounding -facts that extreme cold and frostbite could, essentially, cause your face to fall off.
I read the report while she watched.
“It’s 18 below out there,” Karin folded her arms. “And the wind chill makes it -45. Still think it’s a good idea?”
“Probably not,” I admitted.
“Sometimes I worry about you,” she sighed and then put her nose back in her books.
I turned on the TV… and slipped out of the room
Worry-wart, I thought. It’s a 30-second walk to our car, and then I turn on the heater. What could possibly go wrong?
Out in the hallway, I pulled on my ski mask, ear-muffs and fur-lined gloves. I walked to the doors that lead to the parking lot.
Bring it on! I thought. I’m ready.
I dashed to the car, pressed the button to the keyless clicker, and pulled at the door handle.
It was still locked.
I tried again, but didn’t budge.
I fumbled with the keys while I felt the cold knifing through the seams in every garment I wore.
My battle with the cold began in earnest.
I pried the door open and I plopped myself into the driver’s seat. It was like inserting my body into a Subaru-sized frozen food locker.
Yikes! My Levi-encased butt said. Why didn’t you wear your ski pants?
The electric seats will be on in a second, my brain answered.
HEY! WHAT ABOUT ME? My toes complained.
I ignored them, and hit the starter…. It went “click.”
But nothing happened.
So I tried again and heard a barely-audible. “Cliiiiiiiiiick,” and then silence. I stared at the low-battery warning on the dash and blinked.
Then my eyelashes froze together.
Hmmm… I have some tools in the back, my brain said.
Fool! You’re not taking these gloves off, my hands warned.
Just give me a minute here, my brain answered.
And then, in unison, every appendage and external organ conferred, took a vote, and sent a message to my noggin:
GET US THE HELL OUT OF HERE.
So I staggered back into the hotel lobby. No need to bother Karin while I warmed up. And once they saw my startled expression, the hotel staff took immediate action.
Not really, they just smiled very, very broadly and excused themselves for a moment to wipe their eyes.
Then they sprang into action.
First there was Brittany. She gave me a cup of coffee.
After my caffeinated CPR, Jim, the hotel’s handyman, tried jump-starting my car.
Then he and I BOTH had to come in for more coffee.
Finally, Manager-Dave drove me over to Rapid-Recharge, a nearby shop that sells car batteries and donuts. The man behind the counter took my credit card and gave me a “booster battery” the size of a small nuclear reactor. It had humongous cables like the ones NASA uses to jump start the Space Shuttle.
The man behind the counter warned me. “Be sure to hook up the red one before you hook up the black one.”
“Why?” I asked.
“If you don’t… KABOOM,” he said. “OK?”
Back at the hotel, I hooked the red one up first, and then tried the starter.
The engine exploded.
Just kidding. But it did moan, whine, and make very unhappy “it’s 18 below” sounds.
But it started, and I drove the car to the shop to get a new battery.
And that was how I spent most of the day of being stuck in Waukegan during the polar vortex of 2014.
I can tell you it was way more interesting than staring at the snow. But I still need to buy some shaving cream.
So Karin and I will be out of here tomorrow, and all that’ll be left of our time in Illinois will be some photos, a souvenir car battery, and memories of helpful many people who made our stay here pleasant despite some “extremely interesting weather.”
To you all, I say:
You’re the best thing to happen to Waukegan since the invention of rock salt.
Robb has enjoyed writing and performing since he was a child, and many of his earliest performances earned him a special recognition-reserved seating in the principal’s office at Highland Elementary. Since then, in addition to his weekly column on A News Cafe – “Or So it Seems™” – Robb has written news and features for The Bakersfield Californian, appeared on stage as an opening stand-up act in Reno, and his writing has been published in the Funny Times. His short stories have won honorable mention national competition. His screenplay, “One Little Indian,” Was a top-ten finalist in the Writer’s Digest competition. Robb presently lives, writes and teaches in Shasta County.