Column: First family vacation takes its tollApril 25, 2019
By SCOTT SAALMAN
“Put in a quarter/Turn out the light/Magic Fingers makes ya feel alright.” –Steve Goodman
My first vacation with my parents was at Beech Bend Park in Bowling Green, Ky.
Our motel was one of those creepy motor lodges, the kind where fly-by-night guests leave fake names at the register and check out with less bodies than with which they had arrived. The motel sign advertised “heated pool,” meaning a lot of kids peed in it.
In the lobby, postcards with glossy photos of the motel were there for the taking. Mom mailed the postcards to extended family even though our two-day vacation was only two hours from home. We returned to Tell City several days ahead of the postcard deliveries. I think mom mailed them just in case we went missing in Bowling Green; at least authorities would know where to start looking once a relative showed them a postcard.
A motel room highlight was a Magic Fingers machine, though, being from the Midwest, and Catholic to boot, we were too shy to try it. Mom eyed it disapprovingly, as if the apparatus was more appropriate for the motel’s honeymoon suite. There were no Magic Fingers in Tell City.
Oh, but how this altar boy secretly wanted to try out Magic Fingers. When it was time to go to the amusement park, I considered feigning sickness, hopeful that I could stay behind in the room alone. “By the way,” I imagined myself saying to my parents between a forced fit of lung-rattling coughs, when given the OK to stay behind, “Could you leave a quarter?” Nope, nothing suspicious there.
I imagined the confessional next fall. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I used a Magic Fingers without parental supervision.”
What ultimately foiled my plans for the Great Magic Fingers Caper was not the guilt from deceiving my parents, but the fear of possibly eroding the coinage dad had precalculated for usage at the trio of Green River Road toll booths. Thoughts of those toll booths awaiting our return to Tell City made me anxious, so much so that I likely increased the motel pool’s water temperature by a couple of degrees. I was fearful we’d run out of change before completing the gauntlet of tolls, the anxiety due to the following memory, told in highly-exaggerated play-like fashion, of our first drive to Bowling Green mere hours earlier:
DAD (steering with left hand, right palm held upward): Honey, I need exact change!
We passed over the first of a succession of rumble strips. BRUMMMMMMMP. How I hated that menacing road burp beneath us, shaking the entire car. It was like the road was a prehistoric monster trying to eat us.
MOM (dumping assorted coins onto dad’s palm): Here dear.
DAD (glancing at the treasure): Not enough.
MOM: It’s enough.
DAD: Nickle short.
MOM: I counted it.
DAD: Count it again.
MOM (recounting): Oh God. We’re a nickel short.
DAD: Get another nickel.
MOM (madly digging in purse): There’s no nickel.
DAD: Hurry up, Patty. The booth is getting closer.
MOM: Slow down.
DAD: I can’t slow down. There’s an 18-wheeler on my—
BROTHER (unbuckled, kneeling on the back seat while looking out the back window): Peterbilt.
My younger brother said only two words the entire drive: Peterbilt or Mack. He obsessed over semi-trucks. He couldn’t read, but he could differentiate between the grill of a Peterbilt or Mack truck from 100 yards away.
DAD: We’re getting closer!
MOM (desperately searching beneath her floormat): I just know there was a nickel when I handed the money to you.
DAD: Maybe you dropped it when we hit a rumble strip.
I sunk to the floormat, my head between my knees, as if a tornado, not a toll booth, was awaiting our southbound trajectory. The barrage of BRUMMMMMMMPs vibrated within my innards.
MOM: We’re not going to make it!
I worried about what happened to families who ran out of change between booths. Were they forced to resettle in a Kentucky town adjacent to that stretch of tolled highway until the dad earned enough change to drive onward? Would we make new friends, I wondered, a doubtful scenario since the townies likely knew we were just toll-booth refugees who’d disappear just as soon as pops sold enough Grit magazines on the street corners to get the proper change. Townies probably had a nickname for the transients: “Tollies.”
DAD: Need. Nickel. Now.
From the vantage point of my floormat, I saw mom’s lost nickel among a trove of GAF View-Master reels I had strewn beneath mom’s seat earlier.
I held the coin up to mom. She patted my bangs. She gave the nickel to dad.
“Just in time,” he said victoriously and tossed a fistful of coins at the toll booth’s basket. The nickel missed, forcing dad to idle at the toll basket, park and exit to reclaim the renegade nickel rolling across the pavement, holding up traffic.
I had saved the day. At least that’s how I like to remember our first family vacation, the siren song of Magic Fingers, the terror and triumph on a toll road. I recall nothing about Beech Bend Park, but still the magic lingers.
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