Most summers we took a vacation to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina with a bunch of families from our neighborhood. Everything about those vacations was outstanding, minus the getting-there part.
The long haul from Pittsburgh to the Carolinas was brutal as I was prone to carsickness like Kenyans are prone to winning marathons.
Even in the best of times, getting up before the sun made my stomach uneasy, but add the excitement of vacation and the virtual certainty that I was going to get carsick, and I would completely psyche myself out. Inevitably when the seven of us piled into our station wagon to set out for the 14-hour journey, I would begin dry heaving before we even cleared the driveway.
Aside from the barfing, regularly getting lost and the occasional speeding ticket, we eventually got where we were going. My dad would probably deny getting lost and speeding, and he would be lying. He seems to remember things from my youth in a somewhat sunnier light than they were in reality, which is a skill I appear to lack.
Once in Myrtle Beach, we usually stayed at The Tradewinds, an inefficient efficiency motel. It had a pool, shuffleboard courts, soda machines and was within walking distance of a McDonald’s. If The Tradewinds was deficient in any area, I did not notice.
Despite the sun and fun, I had something on my mind. Days earlier, on July 18, 1984, 41-year-old James Huberty had waltzed into a San Ysidro California McDonald's with several weapons and hundreds of rounds of ammunition for each one. Huberty shot and killed 21 people that day and injured 19 others before a sniper ended his reign of terror.
Mass shootings were rare in 1984. I remember watching news reports about the horror that started in the McDonald's and spilled out into its parking lot. I thought a lot about the 45 people in that restaurant and the others who had come to their rescue. I strategized endlessly about what I would do if ever I found myself in that situation: would I run or would I hide? My obsessive thoughts told me that some dude with a high-powered rifle and a beef against Big Macs could strike again at any moment so figured it best to have a plan.
I didn't know it in then, but I was a catastrophizer. Where you saw a McDonald's, I saw carnage ... Where you saw a day at the park, I saw the backdrop for a child abduction ... Where you saw beautiful homes in well-manicured neighborhoods, I saw the potential for tragic house fires.
Another trip on which I barfed and saw dark clouds at every tourist attraction was the one we took to Memphis, Tennessee. I had a really bad haircut when my parents and I set off to visit my sister at her college internship. It was the kind of haircut people get sued over … it was the kind of haircut you get to prevent the spread of lice … it was the kind of haircut you get before they perform emergency brain surgery. It was not the kind of haircut that any girl should ever get the summer before junior high.
While an edgy, androgynous pixie cut might pass with flying colors in today’s gender-fluid seventh grades, the only statement my ‘do was making in the 80s was: my mom really f*cked up when she took me to that “beauty shop” next to the beer distributer.
Though I knew immediately that the cut was bad, it wasn’t until the waitress at one Memphis restaurant asked, “what can I get for you young man,” that I got a sense of just how bad.
Puberty is awful. Puberty with a barbershop haircut is tragic.
It was almost time for school to start so the long drive to Memphis gave me an opportunity to puke my guts out while alternately freaking about middle school and denying that its first day would ever come. School was already super hard for me, but a new building with strange kids from all over the township was too much. Plus, puberty. Girls were starting to wear bras, apply makeup and carry purses. There were boy-girl parties. People were kissing on dares. I know growing up isn’t easy for anyone, but for me, it felt next-level unmanageable.
So I focused on Elvis, because when in Memphis …
I started learning about the King, Priscilla and Lisa Marie because we were going to visit Graceland during our trip. There was something about Elvis that intrigued me. First, he was so cute, second, Priscilla was lovely and third, everybody loved Elvis. I assumed that was what happened when you died young.
It was the anniversary of Elvis’ death when we were in town so Graceland was packed with mourners. People were sobbing all over the place. The King had been dead for years, but there were inconsolable fans breaking down in the parking lot like they'd just gotten the news of his passing. I plowed through the masses to get to the tour of Graceland's interior. Maybe I'd think it was tacky if I revisited the Jungle Room today, but during that trip with my pre-teen eye and absence of discernible decorating skills, I thought the place was the coolest. I poked around like a voyeur and listened intently to all the tales the guides told about the man who changed music.
But, there was a darkness to Elvis that even the most outrageous bedazzled white jumpsuit couldn’t hide. Actually, there appeared to be two very distinct versions of the man, each difficult to reconcile with the other. There was the neat, thin and ever-so-attractive boyish Elvis, who looked dreamy dressed as a GI, or in jeans and a white t-shirt. Then, there was the sloppy, sweaty, unkempt Elvis who looked “off” no matter what he wore. And then, there was a third Elvis: dead Elvis.
How did Elvis die, I wanted to know. Someone told me: drugs. Then, I dug a little deeper to learn all I could about the King ...
because I found it fascinating that a fellow who seemed to have absolutely everything could end up fat, disgusting and dead on a toilet.
I suppose the trips to Myrtle Beach and Graceland illustrate something beyond my propensity for carsickness. Whether it be my obsession with the potential for bloodshed at a burger joint, or fascination with the death of an icon, I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop. I couldn't simply savor fries and a hot fudge sundae, or celebrate the life of a flawed famous guy ...