How we loved summer vacation in my family. We kicked our “school” shoes off — they had holes in them by then anyway and the cardboard we used to stretch the family budget was only so resistant to 1960s Catholic school playground-grade asphalt. We wouldn’t put our shoes back on except for special occasions and every Sunday, when we also had to put our “church” clothes on no matter how hot it got.
Taking “time off” from church just wasn’t in the cards and that meant even if we were traveling on summer vacation. Now to be clear, when I say summer vacation I do not mean jetting off to Cancun or the American Virgin Islands.
Just as the school year and the liturgical year guided our existence, so, too, did the one week each summer we would go camping. Our dad would have to borrow $100 from a local credit union to cover the added expense of taking a gaggle of people up to the High Sierras for one week. It may not sound like a lot of money, but the fact that he had to finance that amount to get us up into the mountains tells you all you need to know about our family’s fiscal status.
I mention this fact only for context and not to solicit sympathy. We were not poor. We had plenty to eat and clothes on our backs and shoes on our feet. And that week of camping was something I looked forward to every year, to the point that I could not sleep the night before we were scheduled to leave.
I don’t think our dad could sleep the night before either, because not only did he have to calculate how to make a hundred bucks go far enough to pay the camping fees and buy all the food and gas for the trip, he always had to figure what mechanical disaster would befall us — either going up the unforgiving grade to get to Sequoia National Park or going up the equally demanding and cruel “grapevine” outside of Bakersfield to get us back home.
Another point of context: this was the pre-antifreeze world, where car radiators were actually filled with water (and their relatively low boiling point). When you ask a station wagon that was years past her prime to haul a bunch of kids and a utility trailer full of camping gear up those grades in searing summer heat, something was bound to pop.
Usually it was our pop.
He would watch his temperature gauge start to climb as our station wagon lurched upward toward our destination and we were advised (good advice, I might add) to cease any singing, fighting or making any other sound as our dad needed every ounce of his superpower to will the station wagon up the mountain. Our dad was awesome, but superpowers he did not possess and the car would invariably boil over and we would pull to the side of the road, where our dad would throw his hat on the ground in frustration. We waited for the car to cool enough to fill it back up again from the gallons and gallons of water in plastic milk jugs we brought from home as if we were following Field Marshall Rommel in North Africa.
The only other thing that was as sure as a mechanical breakdown of a late model Ford Country Squire station wagon was that if our camping intersected with a Sunday or with August’s Assumption of the Blessed Mother, we would be going to Mass. Our mom and dad had a knack for finding Mass anywhere we went (just like our dad could always find nonpotable water to fill an overheated radiator).
We did not go to Mass to wonder what all the sinners were up to. We went to Mass because it was who we were and who, by the grace of God, we continue to be. And we had consciences to examine regarding throwing hats in anger and fighting with siblings, and we had grace to ask for (to help avoid throwing hats on the ground in anger on our way back home).
Going to Mass, even though we were on “vacation,” was like learning the fundamentals of a sport. Unless they are mastered, a higher pursuit is problematic. That may not be the most profound exegesis on the faith, but I’ll take it.