Thursday, May 31, 2012

Wanna see our vacation slides?

In the summer of 2000 the largest massed band of bagpipers in the world to date would be gathering in Edinburgh, Scotland. 

Of course we had to go. 

Three of our four children were members of a bagpipe band when we were living in New Jersey; Andrew as a snare drummer and Kathryn and Olivia were Highland dancers.  The opportunity came for us to go as a family to this huge event, and we invited Mum and Dad to join us.

Arrangements began nearly a year in advance of the excursion.  The band was working with an efficient travel agent who came to the weekly practices to give status reports, deadlines, cost breakdowns and rooming assignments.  At EVERY single meeting, she stressed the importance for everyone to check their passports and make SURE there was a six-month window between our travel dates and the expiration date.  We had just applied for our 6 passports (our first overseas trip as a family!) and eagerly anticipated their arrival with photos and official seal. We were all set. For those who already had passports, a quick check with this much-repeated and far-in-advance notice gave everyone ample time to make sure everything would be in order.

Mom and Dad traveled from Canada to our home, and caught their breath for a day before we headed to the airport, just a 25 minute drive away.  Stephen had reserved a stretch limo for the eight of us, and it was an impressive sight as it arrived to collect all of us. Feeling like celebrities, everyone giddily toyed with all its luxury features during the drive to the airport.  There we unloaded, gathered our bags and approached the ticket counter where over a dozen of our band members were also assembling. Ahead of us in line was a piper, who set his luggage for check-in, carried his bagpipe tote for carry-on, and presented his passport and ticket.  The agent opened it, looked at the photo, and handed it back with a disappointed look.  "I'm sorry, sir, " she said.  "Your passport has expired, I can't process you through." 

Our band-mate stood taller, opened his wallet and pushed it and the passport back to her. With classic New Jersey attitude and bluster, he pulled out his policeman’s badge, jabbed at it with his finger repeatedly, and exclaimed, "But I'm a COP!!"

With professionalism and a stoic expression she delicately pushed the badge and the passport back towards him and said, "I don't care. Your passport has expired.  NEXT!" 

Those waiting behind him in line – who of course had months ago followed the stern advice of the travel agent and had current passports – watched as he left the airport, with his suitcase in hand and his travel anticipation, like his bagpipes, completely deflated.

Our processing went flawlessly and we were off to security at our boarding gate.  This was long before 9/11, and the agents were quick and friendly, and sent our items through an X-ray machine, while asking a few questions about unrecognizable items that were scanned.  "I'll take your bag,” the large, authoritative man in uniform gently told my mother.  She sent through her recent purchases at the airport novelty shop, and stood nervously.  Again, the agent asked for all her carry-on belongings, and gestured with a nod of his head to her pocketbook, which was strapped over her shoulder and held by a death-grip under her arm. 

She shook her head and nodded back to the sack that was now passing on the conveyor belt, indicating that was her bag.  The patient agent then directly pointed to her pocketbook, and said, "Ma'am, your PURSE bag."  My mother laughed out loud.  She was so concerned about airport bandits robbing unwary travelers that her pocketbook had become one with her person.  She realized her uptight but unconscious grip, and visibly relaxed her arm, and exclaimed to the officer, "OH THAT! I wasn't even thinking about that bag, I call it a pocketbook!" She continued to hastily explain as he nodded his head and peered inside for anything unauthorized.  While he looked she continued to explain her concern for thievery, and cheerfully dismissed the idea that there were any incendiary devices inside saying, "It's not like I was trying to hide a bomb or anything!" 

We all immediately hushed her.  She turned to us wide-eyed, and loudly exclaimed, "Well, I don't have a bomb!"  The forgiving fellow smiled with understanding, and sent her through. 

After a long flight, and several cocktails, we approached the first leg of our trip at Heathrow airport.  The captain's reassuring voice came over the loudspeaker, and in its typical crackle of intermittent transmission, described how we were circling above the airport and made a few more unintelligible remarks.  The flight attendants continued with their familiar routine, advising passengers and guiding them through the procedures of tray tables, drink disposal, etc., while the captain again came on the loudspeaker saying something to the crew that we couldn’t quite catch. I understood there was an undercurrent and we were prevented from landing immediately, but the flight would continue to circle the control tower until they gave the go-ahead for a safe landing. 

The hubbub in the cabin became increasingly louder. People sat upright, became alert and attentive, gathered their belongings, started speaking to each other urgently, and several asked to speak to an attendant.  I couldn't feel turbulence from any undercurrents and so I pretty much shrugged my shoulders and sat back with closed eyes until we began our descent.  I didn't know why everyone else was so agitated, it was just a minor delay -- people just need to relax!  After about twenty minutes, and several trips around the control tower, the captain again addressed the people.  We were approved for landing!

It wasn't until after we disembarked that I learned that the captain had been advising that the UNDERCARRIAGE ENGAGED light had not displayed, so the pilots didn’t know if it had deployed for landing.  The reason for circling the control tower was to get a visual confirmation from the people in the tower that the wheels were actually down and the plane could land!  I'd misheard undercarriage for undercurrent and we were actually being advised that we might need to make an emergency landing....without wheels.  I'm glad I was completely unaware.

Once safely in Scotland we avoided the tourist tour-bus packages and rented the largest car that would fit 8 people.  There isn't one in all of Europe.  We were able to obtain a 6-passenger 'van', and since the girls were still young, they shared a very tight seatbelt with Mum and me in the back. Dad sat in front with Stephen, who was driving for the first time on "the wrong side of the road".  Dad was white-knuckled every ride we took.

During our stay, we took a few day trips, but one of the most memorable was to Castle Campbell, near Dollar. Secluded and set far away on a winding country dirt road, we parked the car, and saw no other car or person anywhere about.  Mum and I stayed back and sat on a wide grassy knoll while everyone else went to explore.  It was a lovely afternoon, and Mum's stamina faded fast, so we sat quietly and enjoyed watching the sheep grazing on the far hillocks in the bright warm sunshine.  I had an orange I'd saved in my pocket from breakfast and a flask of whiskey.  Since we were both hungry and thirsty, we were all set, and shared both equally.  After quite a while, to our surprise, a couple appeared from behind us on a small footpath.  Until that moment, it felt like we were the only two people on earth in our secluded idyll, sent back in time among the castle ruins.  We greeted each other, mum asked if they were locals, and we visited for a few moments.  When she asked if they had advice for a place for our large family to enjoy supper, they gave an enthusiastic recommendation for the Tormaukin Inn, and described a route for us to find it.  Delighted by this serendipitous encounter, Mum was eager to share her new knowledge, and when everyone else gathered we were off to supper under her direction and renewed energy.

The Tormaukin Inn

The day's menu featured venison haggis and rabbit stew.
That culinary experience was novel, delightful, and delicious.  

On another day when we were visiting Edinburgh, we sought a quick lunch stop and all piled into a fish and chips shop.  It wouldn't be proper to have visited Scotland, my ancestral homeland, without tasting authentic fish and chips wrapped in paper, generously salted and doused with real malt vinegar.  Taking the rare opportunity to visit a bathroom in the chip joint, my mother and I descended the precarious stairway to its dark recesses and opened the door to find 'the worst toilet in Scotland'.
When the fry-cook came down the stairs in his filthy chef's jacket with a filthier plunger in hand, we surmised that the sanitary conditions in the kitchen might be just as sub-standard, and decided to seek another fine eating establishment.  We suddenly weren't quite so hungry or our bladders too full.

On the day of the great massed bands, the crowds were fantastic.  We'd all decided to split up and meet at a designated spot and time in the Princess Street Gardens.  Keen to be prompt, I was the first to arrive, but didn't recognized the distinguished older gentleman sitting in the spot where I'd expected to meet my family.  After a second and still third look, it took a moment for me to realize it was DAD!  He'd been to the shops on Princess Street and completely outfitted himself in full kilted regalia, right down to the flashes on his knee socks.

As the crowds swelled even more, and we noticed an unusual number of security personnel, we asked one of them what was going on.  Prince Charles was expected quite soon, and he showed us a cordoned-off area where the prince would be meeting the public.

Eager for a brush with royalty, I hurried the kids over to the line-up explaining we might meet the Prince. I maneuvered Kathryn and Olivia to be just behind the ropes and in full view of the Prince of Wales, the future King of England.  As he approached, I got giddy with excitement and Stephen captured one photograph after another on the new digital camera he'd purchased just for the trip.  As Charles's entourage cleared the way for his passage, I realized he'd soon be stopping right in front of us, and eagerly poked at Kathryn standing next to me, telling her to wave and capture his attention, gently pushing her forward, nudging and prodding as he came closer and closer. 

Kathryn quickly grew frustrated and irritated with me as she scanned the royal parade of people, seeking the sight of her soon-to-be husband prince.  It was now or never, so I pointed and called out "THERE!! He's right THERE!" and exuberantly waved and nodded and confirmed he’d seen us.  Kathryn followed my pointing finger and was crestfallen once she saw Prince Charles.  "Oh!" she tsk'd disappointingly, "That's the OLD one." and immediately lost all interest.  She was anticipating meeting Prince Harry or William, not their DAD.

Olivia, next in line to be married, was my next target.  She extended her hand just as Prince Charles was passing us, and he took it and they shook.  She told him she was from America, and he welcomed her to Scotland.  He did not propose.  But Stephen captured many photos of the two, hands clasped and engaged in conversation before Charles was urged to continue on.

As the crowd dispersed we all gathered to recount what just happened with Mum and Dad, and Stephen set the camera to review all the digital shots he'd just taken.  There were none.  Regrettably, the camera chose that exact moment in our picture-taking history to encounter a glitch in its programming, and the entire vacation’s photos were suddenly “no longer on file.”*

Later that day, Prince Charles met with Andrew's bagpipe band, the Atlantic Watch.  A few band members, including Andrew, had a short chat with him in a small group in the park.  That scene – and the back of Andrew's head – was captured on the front page of the newspaper.  The Prince was scolded by the press for not dressing appropriately!  

Prince Charles visits with the Atlantic Watch (including Andrew).

We watched the massed bands converge and parade down the Royal Mile and Princess Street.  Quite a spectacular event. Dad yelled out his traditional "ATTA BOY, ANDREW!" as they passed, and mum and I wiped a tear as we were both filled with pride and love. It was a big day – it was a big trip. 

Thanx for watching.  

Oh!  You`re still here?  Then you'll enjoy this part, too:

Many years later, Dad had started another chapter in his life after my mother died. He moved out to WallyAnna Farm, where he and Anna now have a happy quiet life together.  A few years ago, renovations were being made to the 125-year old farmhouse. Stephen and I took some of Anna's son George’s artwork from a room being redone, and took them to a shop to be professionally framed while the walls were being repaired.  One watercolor was a castle scene, and Dad frequently remarked that it reminded him of Castle Campbell, from that summer day years before. When George was visiting the farm Dad asked him about it, and George confirmed that it was, indeed, Castle Campbell.  He'd seen a photo in a book about castles of Scotland, and liked the scene so much that he rendered it with his own paints – years before Dad had even met Anna.

 *Casio quickly sent us a huge apology – and their newest, most advanced camera, as a consolation – when we told them of this unbelievably frustrating loss.

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