It was Thursday morning, December 23, and I rolled over and tried to focus a bleary eye on my alarm clock. I was 30 minutes late starting my Christmas vacation. Vacations are suppose to be fun, restful periods, so I had a strong inclination to do that and go back to sleep. But no, that’s not the American way. We have to go, go, go in order to get the most out of our vacations. We set schedules, make reservations and become slaves to them. I started wishing I were Samoan.
Many folks stay home and celebrate Christmas with family and friends, but not me. I am a bachelor who likes to take every opportunity to go places and see new things. I had no family except two sisters – one 500 miles away and the other 3000 miles away. I had a month off from work, and I certainly wasn’t going to waste it hanging around the house and watching myself grow old. I had packed the previous day and partied the previous night, so my things were ready, but I was not.
It is difficult to overcome the urge to stay in bed and say the heck with plans. I’m not sure why I didn’t. I made my unsteady way into the bathroom where a hot shower put me in a better frame of mind. An hour later my dog Nina and I were in my truck and headed for the stable to get my horse and trailer. Nina and my horse were my immediate family, so I took them with me on vacation whenever possible.
At the stable a colleague of mine, Pam, was visiting my horse BJ. She watched as I quickly hooked up my trailer and loaded BJ. I made a hasty but polite departure and headed on the first leg of my journey, which was to my sister in Ohio – a 500-mile drive from my home in Eastern Pennsylvania. I had only gone about two miles when I suddenly realized that I had left my wallet and money at home on my dresser. Home was 25-minutes in the wrong direction.
I barely had time to get really upset with myself over that stupid oversight when Pam came driving up beside me frantically motioning for me to pull over. A closer look at Pam revealed that she was not frantic, but had a "You stupid idiot!" look on her face. She had Nina in her car. I had forgotten my dog. I really love my dog, and I’m also rather fond of my wallet, so there must be a rational explanation as to why I should forget both. It’s probably a good thing I’m not a single parent.
Some friends of mine would be quick to suggest that it was my advancing age. Comments like, "The mind is the second thing to go," are not strangers to me. However, I know it’s not my mind that’s going. Years ago, when I was in my early 20’s, I had a pet golden spider monkey. I left her playing in a tree near a lake in Mississippi and drove for two hours before realizing she wasn’t with me. If I can forget a monkey who traveled un-caged in my car, then I guess I can forget just about anything. I wonder if anyone has ever unintentionally driven off and forgotten their spouse – the key word being "unintentional."
At 10:30 I was on the Pennsylvania turnpike and headed west. Eight hours and two No Doze pills later I arrived at my sisters house in Ohio. It took me another two hours to get my horse settled in her temporary quarters and unhook my new 18’ gooseneck horse trailer. Unfortunately I forgot to lower the tailgate on my truck before driving out from under the trailer hitch, and its receiver easily destroyed the tailgate on my 11-month-old Dodge truck. It was an accident that I had considered a real possibility when I purchased the trailer which, in my case, goes to prove that anticipating accidents has little to do with preventing them.
My eight-day visit in Ohio flew by so rapidly that I felt cheated, and it proved that having nothing to do is not the same as being bored. I am becoming more and more convinced that the rate of time passage is directly related to age. It speeds up as we get older regardless of whether we are busy or not. Except for my first ever visit to Hooters, there is little that stands out from my stay in Ohio. (No pun intended.) Spending time with my younger sister is always easy and comfortable, but the events are not always memorable. Did I have a good time? Yes. Do I have anything to write about? No.
As I look back at Christmases past, and there have been many, I cannot think of a single one that was significant - including the one I spent in Vietnam. If I were to write about Christmases past this paragraph would be about the extent of it. I can remember where I was for most of them, but not a darned thing about what happened. Christmases are a lot like commencement speeches – all I remember is that I was there.
Sunday, the day after New Year’s Day, I rented a car in Columbus to avoid the wear and tear on my truck and headed towards Texas. This time I intentionally left my horse and dog behind. My first stop was in Indiana at my friend Jeff’s house. I had recently read an article that said Indiana has the highest percentage of overweight people, so I was checking out everyone I saw. When you hang out with people who are really overweight you start to feel thin whether you are or not. I was looking forward to feeling thin. Jeff took me to an all-you-can-eat buffet where the people were fat and the food was excellent. He called it “The Choke and Puke.” I felt thin and ate like there was no tomorrow.
Jeff had a new Dodge diesel truck as well as an older Chevrolet pickup truck. He also had the ability to make me feel better about my own stupidity. He went out to the garage one morning to warm up his Dodge truck before going to work. His Chevy truck was in the garage and his Dodge truck was parked outside. He opened the garage door and went outside to start the Dodge by reaching in and turning on the ignition key. It is a manual transmission, so he had to depress the clutch pedal with his left hand while turning the key with his right hand. He released the clutch rather quickly and the truck. Unfortunately, the truck happened to be in gear and lurched forward, smashing into the Chevy, knocking Jeff’s face into the steering wheel, and giving him a bloody nose. The Chevy was pushed into his workbench and toolboxes, which were pushed into the wall that was shared by his laundry room. The wall gave way and collapsed, damaging his washer and dryer.
I was feeling better about the damage to my own truck as I left Jeff and headed on my way to Nashville and some other friends I hoped to visit. However the weather interfered with my plans. It was the 3rd of January, a record 60 degrees, and raining hard with thunder and lightening. As I proceeded south from Indiana into Kentucky and then to Tennessee, the rain continued, accompanied by strong winds and numerous tornado warnings along my route. I arrived in Nashville at the height of the rush hour and the storms, and decided that my Nashville friends would just have to see me some other time. I continued on toward Memphis, stopping for the night in Dixon, Tennessee and then on to Little Rock the next day.
Jane lived in Little Rock, and I had not seen or talked to her in over a year. She has an unlisted phone number, no computer, and a bad attitude about me ever since I wrote a story about her. Still, she is a born-again Christian, so I was hoping that she had forgiven me. I stopped by her house around dinnertime but she was not home, so I went to dinner and a movie. I tried again about 9 PM and there were now a few lights on, but I suspected that they were on timers and she was out of town. I peed on her front lawn as a primitive but satisfying way of saying I had been there and went back to my motel. (My dog has taught me well.)
Wednesday morning I drove to Dallas for a three-day stay with Lee and Peggy, friends from my Air Force days. We swapped stories about the good ol’ days of flying in Vietnam and had a great visit. I met with my stockbroker nearby in Plano, whose plush office explained why his fees are so high, and I had a date with Heidi, who was not quite 30 and in her last year of law school. Heidi was the single mother of a 2-year old, also had a dog and a horse, and was going to school full time while working as a law clerk for a law firm in Dallas. I don’t know how she managed it all, let alone find time for a social life, but I’m grateful that she found time for me. I can’t say just how grateful I am since her mother might read this.
On Saturday morning I said my goodbyes to Lee and Peggy and headed south towards Gatesville where my jail babe was waiting to see me. I was scheduled to visit with her from noon until four PM on Saturday and again on Sunday, but I was running late and didn’t know exactly where I was going. However I knew that she would wait, since she was in a state prison where she had been incarcerated for the last twelve years. I had never met Teresa. About fifteen months earlier I had seen her photo and brief bio on the web site Jailbabes.com. (The web site was later sold to a porn site and now no longer exists.) Teresa and I had been exchanging letters ever since. However, it was my first visit to a correctional facility, so my antennae were alert for new and unusual experiences. I wasn't disappointed.
I arrived in the town of Gatesville at 11:30 and asked for directions to the women's correctional facility. "Which one?" the Exxon attendant asked.
"You mean there is more than one?" I replied in astonishment.
"Oh yes, there are many of them," she replied, and proceeded to name about six facilities. So much for planning ahead. I followed her directions to the closest one and gave a guard Teresa's name and her Texas Criminal Justice - Institutional Division ID number. A computer search of almost 1700 women revealed Teresa's location. I got directions and arrived there five minutes before noon. I was directed to the "Contact Visitation" facility, which was a 16' by 24' room with seven four-person tables, a guard, and numerous inmates talking with visitors. Teresa was a SAT2 level inmate, which meant that she was a trustee with restrictions. Since all inmates have restrictions, I was not sure what that meant, but it did allow her to meet me without being separated by a window or screen
Two hours later I was still sitting in the Contact room waiting for some contact. Teresa had not shown up. I started thinking that I might be the only guy in the world ever to be stood up on a date in a prison by a female prisoner. Then she appeared, looking good, but nothing like the 17 year-old photo I had of her. She explained that an inmate count is taken six times each day, and she had not been allowed to come see me until the count was over. Some quick math told me that six counts a day, if they take two hours each, would mean they spend half their day being counted, but I wasn't going to make fuss about it. After all, I was in a prison. We had an enlightening and enjoyable conversation for the three hours that we had remaining, allaying my fears that there would be little to talk about. But I still had four hours to talk with her on Sunday.
Saturday night, for $80, I stayed at a Hampton Inn in Waco in a room with a broken TV, and was forced to read. In the morning I met Lainie and a girl friend of hers for breakfast at The Cracker Barrel. Lainie is an old friend - if you can call 25 old. They were on their way to Houston from Ft. Worth. It was good to see her again and get caught up on the latest news about our mutual friends. Then I drove out to the prison, arriving early before the count started, and I got to see Teresa within 15 minutes of my arrival.
It was a warm day, so Teresa and I spent four hours sitting outside at a picnic table surrounded by a tall fence rimmed with concertina wire and under the watchful eye of a guard who looked like he expected us at any moment to leap 15 feet over the fence and escape into the parking lot. I was not allowed to sit next to Teresa, but had to sit opposite her, and she had to sit facing the guard. For Teresa it was a relaxed and enjoyable diversion. For me it was having a conversation in jail.
In spite of the environment I managed to have another delightful and informative conversation with Teresa. The time passed way too quickly, and before I knew it we had hugged and said goodbye. I found myself driving away feeling that it had all been surreal. I had driven 1,984 miles one way to see this woman who, 30 hours earlier, I had never met, and probably never see again. And now it was suddenly over, and I was driving back to the reality of a life where reality would never be quite the same.
It is the nature of a fulfilling life that unique experiences continually change how you perceive the world around you. Driving back towards Dallas, the surreal quality of the situation slowly gave way to my new reality, and I smiled to myself and began looking forward to my next adventure. I still had seven days of my Christmas vacation remaining in which to further change my life, and I looked forward to it with anticipation. But I had already achieved what I set out to achieve – a truly unique and enlightening experience that filled yet another void in my understanding of the world around me, providing me with more fond memories to cherish in the days and years ahead. What more can a person ask of life than that?