I wrote this about nine years ago. I was feeling nostalgic about my childhood trips upstate with my family. I can remember we used to sing an adaptation (obviously created by a master songwriter) of the Scottish song “Loch Lomond” about our vacation spot.
“You take the high road and I’ll take the low road and I’ll be in East Durham before you…
I know it’s not Ireland but it’s just as good, it’s true. On the Irish, Irish side of the Catskills.”
I know some who share memories of this special time and place.
As we drove up the exit ramp the wide, hot blacktop of the New York State Thruway gave way to shady two lane county routes lined with quaint motels displaying vacancy signs out front. Every year this transition brought a wave of relief as motels with shamrock-shaped swimming pools and brightly colored deck chairs lining the road promised a relaxing week ahead. Okay, perhaps at almost sixteen I was finding the shamrocks painted along the middle of the road and the same old Irish entertainers a little hokey. Still, I couldn’t stop myself from smiling as I saw the sign for East Durham “a little bit of Ireland in the Catskills” as we made our way along Route 145 to our home away from home for the next week.
I had so many memories of this place. They were mostly of running after my older brother and sisters. They usually didn’t want some little kid cramping their style while they hung out in the game room playing pool and listening to Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” on the jukebox. They thought they were so cool, and so did I.
This year it was different. It was just me and my parents. Everyone else was either working or had moved out of state. Now I was the teenager who was too cool to hang out with my family. As soon as we arrived I said I wanted to stretch my legs. What I really wanted to do was sneak a smoke and see if there were any other kids there. But it was quiet there. In fact, there were only a few units occupied in the whole place. I couldn’t believe it. I was finally old enough to go hang out in the arcade and there was no one to play pool with or to hear my own awesome picks on the jukebox. This week was going to be totally lame.
I returned to the cabin to face my sentence of a week with my parents playing Rummy 500 and Scrabble. I scrounged up enough quarters to use the payphone to call my one of my friends back home on Long Island. “This sucks,” I told my sympathetic friend. “I can’t wait to get the hell out of this dump.” Even the slide for the swimming pool looked smaller and more faded than I remembered.
After much sighing and eye-rolling, I did agree to play some card games with the folks. I also spent a lot of time by the pool reading magazines with my Walkman blasting my favorite cassettes. By midweek, I was just starting to despair when I saw a van unloading a few units down. And miracle of miracles there was a girl there who looked about my age. I wasted no time introducing myself and sizing her up. Kathleen seemed really cool and she even told me that if I wanted to go over to the Fern Hill Resort down the road tonight she knew some guys who worked there for the summer.
Things were definitely looking up.
After applying lots of hairspray and eyeliner we went down to the Fern Hill and up to the employee living quarters. These were the people who served breakfast and made up the rooms. Not the most glamorous work but I was in awe of them. It turned out everyone there was from Queens. As in New York City. They were even listening to the Beastie Boys on a boom box. It all seemed so urban and foreign to me, even though I only lived about three miles outside Queens myself. The guys offered us beers and we obliged. It was like a dream to me, I couldn’t believe my luck.
I had barely started drinking before Kathleen had downed her beer and was already working her way through another. She seemed to know these guys pretty well. They all grew up together back in Queens. It wasn’t long before Kathleen had disappeared down the hall with one of her “friends.” Now I was left alone with five strange guys who, fortunately, did not even seem to notice I was in the room.
Someone brought out a bottle. A gangly guy with a crew cut offered me a shot of Rumplemintz. I politely declined. I was already feeling the effects of one beer and could only imagine how hard liquor would make me feel. He shrugged and turned his back to me. I suddenly felt really awkward. I wondered if Kathleen was ever coming back.
I told the guys I was going to find my friend. No one cared. I decided to go downstairs to the bar where an older gentleman with a red, bulbous nose was playing an accordion and kids played video games while their parents drank and danced waltzes and lindy hops. This was the scene I was used to. The same old songs, the same old performers, the same old dances, and lo and behold, there were my same old parents up dancing a waltz themselves.
“What happened to your friend?” my dad inquired upon returning from the dance floor. “I dunno, we kind of lost track of each other.” No further explanation was requested. Dad told me to join them and ordered me a Coke. A sense of relief came over me as I returned to the comfortable, familiar routine of so many years before: sitting at a table with my parents and watching them and other couples dance the night away, my mom sometimes singing along to a song she knew. I even got up to dance the Stack of Barley with my mom. Who cares if I don’t look cool, I thought. I will never see any of these people again, anyway.
I had a feeling this would be the first and last year we would take this trip together, just the three of us. I was right. As it turns out, it was the best one I can remember.