A Favorite Christmas Memory
I got the travel bug early in life. It may have been my parents, taking the family vacation each summer to visit some part of the extended family. One year we’d drive from Milwaukee to New York to see my father’s side of the family, the next year to Texas to see my mother’s family. Occasionally there was a trip to Florida to see Uncle Bob, a family member without any clear explanation as to which branch of the family he might be found.
I remember our last family vacation, the one before my parents separated, and before my older brother graduated from high school and joined the U.S. Navy. For a variety of reasons I recall some aspects of the trip very clearly. There was the 1958 Chevy wagon. I now think back to that steel and aluminum dash board and wonder why none of us were killed as a result of a sudden stop while riding in this pre-seatbelt car.
I can’t forget my first stay at a Holiday Inn. This was in Pryor, Oklahoma, on our way to Dallas. It had a swimming pool. And I recall that Chevy wagon pulling into the Parkmoor Drive-in Restaurant in St. Louis for lunch. The Parkmor could have been the inspiration for Al’s drive-in on television’s Happy Days. I might add that 1958 was also the year my brother closed my grandfather’s garage door with a complete lack of concern about the force, weight, and speed of the hand-lift door. He managed to break his own foot that day when the door landed on it. In any case, traveling—for a 10-year old boy—was an adventure. Years later I began traveling for business and found myself on a plane at least once or twice each week. For the next thirty years. I could list the airlines I flew and the cities I visited but [a] that would boring and [b] there’d be little space left.
There was the Thanksgiving my wife and I decided to take the train from L.A. to Chicago. Inspired, predictably, by seeing Gene Wilder and Jill Clayburgh in the film Silver Streak. Spoiler alert: Amtrak wasn’t at all like Hollywood. When it came time for dinner we walked to the dining car. After a glass of wine we were handed menus and told we had a choice of soup or salad. We asked the server what was today’s soup. He didn’t know so he casually walked back to the staging area in the middle of the dining car and yeIled down the dumbwaiter to the kitchen: “What’s the soup tonight?”. A voice came thundering back: “Macaroni and cheese soup.” We both had the salad. It took us three days to get to Chicago, and I don’t think either of us slept. But a cross-country train trip in America was scratched off our list of great ideas never to be repeated.
We saved money for a few years to afford a dream trip. We went to Kenya for Christmas. Unlike Amtrak this was one of those dream trips as almost everything went right. After the train trip to Chicago I guess we had earned some good luck.
It was 1986 and legendary airline Pan Am was still an option. We flew to New York, changed planes and got a direct 747 flight to Kenya. Direct doesn't mean non-stop. We made "visits" to Dakar (Senegal), Monrovia (Liberia), Lagos (Nigeria) and then eastbound across Africa to Nairobi. An almost 25 hour journey. After a couple of nights at the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi (supposedly a Hemingway hangout) we began our bush trip around Kenya traveling South, north, west, and south again. One night we camped at the base of Kilimanjaro, a week (and a couple of camps later) we were near Mt. Kenya. Our last 4-5 days there included Christmas, staying on the Masai Mara, near the Rift Valley, not too far from the border with Tanzania. We asked our guide if there was a local church that would be having Christmas services, to which he replied “yes, about 3-4 miles from here.” Christmas Eve morning we drove to a spot where we watched a crew get three hot air balloons ready for flight, and before we knew it we were drifting toward the Tanzanian border. We followed the wind and saw virtually every animal you go to Africa to see. Hippos. Plenty of hippos. Lions. Plenty of them too. Giraffe, elephants, buffalo. After a couple of hours in the air—an amazing experience—we finished our trip about mile from the Tanzanian border, and had brunch at a make-shift camp. A crew drove us to do a little cross border shopping and that afternoon we were back at our camp.
Big rains that night and when we awoke the next morning we were told that church was out of the question. The roads were washed out.
Our last day in the bush we packed and got ready for our flight back to Nairobi. That plane was a 40-50 year-old twin engine DC-3, which was a whole other experience. One night in Nairobi and we were back on a Pan Am flight and a slightly longer trip home. Of all the Christmases before and since, I always remember Christmas 1986.
People talk about life as a journey, and so it is. In 40 years of traveling we’ve been to many cities, and many countries on four continents. We have, as another film title suggested, taken planes , trains, and automobiles. Family reunions, visiting friends. But in all of our holiday journeys, one stays with me to this day. We never got to church but it was still Christmas in Africa. Maybe we’ll go back.