Or So it Seems … Our Waukegan Vacation – A HOOYAH Holiday

“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.

Not us.

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?

Ah… No.

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.

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:


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.

They snickered.

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.

Robb Lightfoot is a humorist, author and educator. He and his wife raised a family of four kids, a dozen or more dogs and a zillion cats. He 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 teaching at Shasta Community College, and his former 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 in national competitions. His screenplay, “One Little Indian,” Was a top-10 finalist in the Writer’s Digest competition. Robb presently lives and writes in Chico where he manages ThinkingFunny.com. He also hates referring to himself in the third person, and will stop doing so immediately. I can be reached in the following ways: Robb@thinkingfunny.com PO Box 5286 Chico, CA 95928 @_thinking_funny on Twitter
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18 Responses

  1. Doni Chamberlain Doni Chamberlain says:

    Thanks for being our inadvertent weather correspondent, but most of all, for taking us along as you traveled to Joe's Navy graduation. Thank you, Joseph Lightfoot, for your service. (Travel safely, Robb and Karin.)

    • As the old saying goes… didn't see that one coming. We had all sorts of cold-weather gear in the car, but in the end we decided to stay put in our room until things warmed up. We did see Chicago for a few days while it was in the teens. Navy Pier was a blast, a complete carnival indoors.

  2. ajac37 ajac37 says:

    Having lived . . . perhaps 'endured' is a better word . . . through five, that's FIVE, Illinois winters, my memory revisited every word of your experience. Makes me rather glad they were still doing boot camp in San Diego when my son went through!

    • I'll bet. These days all Navy training is at Great Lakes RTC. They call it the "Quarterdeck of the Navy." I did wish, during this trip, that I was in San Diego, but then we'd have missed driving through little Dixon, IL, hometown of Ronald Reagan… and "Bloody Gulch Road" (no connection.) People thought we were nuts for driving instead of flying, but, heck, it was just a different experience.

      • ajac37 ajac37 says:

        Ahhh . . . Dixon, Ill. As i recall it is somewhat akin to Arbuckle on I-5. But then, I don't think anybody famous was born in Arbuckle. But if you had come home I-80 you would have gotten to go through What Cheer, Iowa. I could never figure out that name . . .

        Glad you're home safe and with stories to tell, even!!

  3. Avatar EasternCounty says:

    A little one-up-manship here. Twenty-plus years ago, we "endured" 15 Alaska winters, and one memorable 45-below day, I had a dental appointment across town from my office. I gave myself the usual 20 minutes to get there, only to find that, although my stick-shift 1986 Subaru would start, I couldn't budge the gear shift. It took 10 of my alotted 20 minutes of warming up the car before I could get it in gear. Another time, in addition to record cold, we also had record snow. The Highway Patrol issued warnings for people to stay off the roads unless absolutely necessary. We had an IRS audit that day; so I called IRS, asking if we should reschedule our meeting. But IRS is above anything so mundane as a foul weather warning, and we were required to appear. After creeping across town at about six miles an hour, we had our two-hour meeting, were put under the IRS microscope, and ended the inquisition with IRS owing us $15.

  4. Robb, here in your hometown, it's been a brutal 70 degrees almost everyday since you left. Today was much worse: the high was 57!
    Get home safely…we miss you 🙂

  5. Avatar kathryngessner says:

    Oh that was a precious one! Laughed all the way through. You guys know how to vacation. I really can't get enough. Thanks for writing!

    • Thanks. I'm not sure vacation is as apt as "adventure." Fortunately, outside of having a 4-year-old WalMart battery fail… our old Subaru got us there and back. Not bad for a rig with 181,000 miles on the clock.

  6. Avatar jaonnesnyder says:

    I loved the story of your sojourn. I would have been pacing and looking for adventure.
    Here's something to know. My friend Ray, who is now at the Windsor Redding Care while he hopes to get a spot in the new Veteran's hospital, is still so proud of his service in the Navy. He is still in contact (via e-mail) with crew members from the same ship. When he was in the hospital recently, he received a letter of good wishes from a members of the navy and was also visited by service members. It was only about 3 years ago that he attended a gathering of service people who had served on the same ship before it was decommissioned.

    • Thanks. This was my first taste of how being in the Navy is like marrying into a big family. My son has already made some great friendships, and there was a 'meet-and-greet' in Waukegan the night before the graduation. A man known as "Sarge" generously hosted this free event and gave us VERY HELPFUL instructions on how to navigate the whole process. The biggest mind-bender was, as we walked in, when a man turned to me and said: "You're from Palo Cedro." I thought… "Wow, the NSA is here." Turns out it was a guy who owned a pizza parlor here a while back, and he recognized me. Pretty big coincidence, I think, given that Palo Cedro is home to all of about 1,200 people.

  7. Great story Rob! I enjoyed reading your road adventures and a civilian account of watching a child graduate Navy bootcamp. I am glad that you were able to spend some quality time with Joe before he went to school. My mom and I only spent an hour together before I flew off to Florida; it was really heartbreaking to know she came all that way for a few hours of visiting. I wish Joe the best in his Navy career!

  8. Having grown up in the midwest, I am LMAO!

    • Thanks. While on the road, we watched the movie "About Schmidt." It's set in Omaha and Denver, and boy did the homes and terrain look familiar. We'd even visited the museum in Ft. Kearney that spans I-80. Pretty cool. Made us appreciate the challenges the original travelers undertook in getting to Oregon and California.

  9. Home safe and sound. The weather was cold, but midwestern hospitality it quite warm. Managed to see Joe through a big moment in his life, and visit friends and family all along the way. Brought in the new year at Chicago's famous improv club… the Second City. All in all, logged 5,600 miles and had a great time.