Back in the Day

My parents used to take us ten kids tramping along the Texas coast on a shoestring. They were on to something.

The family in Myrtle Beach

The family in Myrtle Beach    Photo: Joe Spring

1979 in South Padre

1979 in South Padre

2010 in South Padre

2010 in South Padre

IN THE WINTER OF 1979, my parents, grad students at the University of North Dakota, possessed a rusted Chevy, $6,000 in combined salary, four children under the age of six, and a serious need for a vacation. So they drove 1,400 miles south, to Texas’s Padre Island National Seashore, which they had discovered in a travel brochure. We landed a dune’s hop from the ocean and spent two weeks doing anything that was free: playing football, reading, taking the Port Aransas Ferry back and forth across the Corpus Christi Channel five times. High railings let us roam the deck. As a four-year-old, I might as well have been sprinting across a spaceship.

It was the first of many such jaunts. When the expenses worried my mom, my dad would quote Dostoyevsky: “Some beautiful, sacred memory, preserved since childhood, is perhaps the best education of all.” Travel trumped everything, including school pictures.

The family changed. We grew to ten kids: Francis, Joseph, Margaret, Mary, Matthew, Arthur, Rose, Joan, Paul, and Thomas. The mantra stayed the same. We drove to Massachusetts in a converted ambulance painted purple. We sputtered to Lake Louise in a Volkswagen Vanagon that became a makeshift clinic after we all contracted something like giardia. Mechanics in four different states rebuilt the carburetor of our converted airport shuttle van on a trip to South Carolina.

The family changed again. Francis moved to Montana. Matt flew to China with the Peace Corps. Rose jumped to Peru. I traveled to small tropical islands to chase turtles. Then, two years ago, all ten of us convened again, standing around my dad in a Minnesota hospital room. He lay unconscious before nurses pulled the plug. It’s the only time I can picture him still. Even when he read, he rocked back and forth.

So, this year, given the opportunity to take $500 for a weekend, I knew where I was going: Padre Island. What I didn’t know was who to bring. My siblings and I can’t go to Denny’s for under $500. I picked the three younger brothers who’d never been there before—Thomas, Paul, and Matt—and Matt’s wife, Julie. They were poor, in school, and in serious need of a vacation. On Friday we landed a dune’s hop from the ocean. Saturday we played football on the beach. Sunday we headed to Worldwinds outfitters, on the Laguna Madre.

Flatwater and wind blasting in from the Gulf make it the perfect place to learn how to windsurf. Matt and I signed up for lessons. Paul and Thomas took off in kayaks. Julie said she’d watch. Parlaying the wind into speed never happened, except when occasional gusts catapulted us forward.

We piled into Julie’s Pontiac and headed 20 miles out of the way to the Port Aransas Ferry. On the drive I pictured dolphins riding the bow, pelicans eclipsing the low afternoon sun. Then we arrived, rolled onto the deck, opened our doors, and saw the opposing blacktop landing—three minutes away. Thomas asked, “We drove 20 miles out of the way for that?” We laughed and drove home.

EXPENSE REPORT Groceries: $100. Four fishing licenses: $64. Pier access: $8. Four rented fishing poles: $20. Shrimp, for bait: $5. Two nights’ camping at Padre Island ( $16. Two kayak rentals from Worldwinds ( $40. Two windsurfing lessons: $120. Total: $373

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