Surviving to Tell the Disaster Tale

The Fromals were never so glad to see a vacation end.

The trouble started almost as soon as they got to the Florida campground with their kids. Within two hours, the place was wall-to-wall tents, packed with campers more interested in carousing than communing with nature.

Then there were the alligators. "The river was so full of alligators that I woke up one morning to find one five feet from our tent!" Beverly Fromal wrote from her home near Tampa.

But the Fromals had paid for the campsite in advance and couldn't get their money back. They toughed it out, despite rain the entire time. Unfortunately, leaving the campground didn't end their troubles.

"On the way back home, our car started to leak oil all over the road and was smoking," Mrs. Fromal continued. "We had to park in the middle of a six-lane highway and have it towed to the nearest town."

They had to rent a car to get home. "When you're in a situation like that," she said, "All you can do is start making jokes. It really helps."

The Fromals, by the way, didn't let that camping trip keep them from the woods. "Every time we'd go something happened," she said. "We learned from it."

Vacation glitches, it's clear, not only make trips more challenging but memorable as well. Beverly Fromal was one of the many Taking the Kids readers who wrote or sent me e-mail stories of their family vacation disasters, sharing the positives they gleaned from the experience.

One family got lost for hours on a mountain road. Another was caught in a Caribbean hurricane. The McSpeddens, who live in Dallas, showed up at 7 a.m. at the small airport in Nuevo Laredo on their first venture out of the country only to discover the terminal locked up tight: their flight to Mexico City was at 7 p.m. "My husband had to walk several miles to a fire station to call a cab," said Billeye McSpedden. "Then we checked into a hotel before we realized the rooms were rented by the hour.

"That was the first trip I planned," she chuckled. "The redeeming aspect of this trip is that 20 years later, the girls remember the trip as being wonderful."

Some families' vacation disaster stories have survived even longer. Estelle Mason, a great grandmother in her 80s from Raleigh, NC., still laughs at the time 42 years ago her children let a crab and fish escape on a crowded Boston-bound train, wreaking havoc everywhere. Undaunted by the commotion, the kids recaptured their vacation pets, which later provided the inspiration for a year-long school science project -- so good it was chronicled in local newspapers.

"Go with the flow," she advises. "That's all you can do."

There seems no better time to pass on family travelers' wisdom than this Memorial Day weekend, as we officially kick off the summer travel season.

Last year, 340 million pleasure trips were taken with kids -- more than a third of them over the summer, according to the Travel Industry Association, the non-profit research arm of the travel industry. It's too soon to tell exactly how much high gas prices will impact this year's plans.

But one thing is for sure: With kids in the group, the trip won't go as planned, Even when you do all of your homework beforehand.

Elizabeth O'Neill McGuire had read every guidebook she could find on Orlando because her family doesn't usually venture so far from home. The trip last Memorial Day to Disney World had been a family Christmas gift, long planned and much anticipated.

But even that doesn't guarantee perfection. "As soon as we started walking through the airport, Grandma was overcome by the heat," O'Neill wrote from her home in Waltham, Mass. And that was just the beginning of their woes.

They got her a wheelchair. "Have you ever pushed a wheelchair through 90,000 people? I felt the magic slipping away," she said.

Meanwhile, it was growing hotter and hotter. By dinnertime, her preschooler didn't look right: It was heat exhaustion. "I went through the usual mother cycle of fear, anger for not seeing it sooner, and regret. I couldn't believe I was in a first aid station on Saturday night at the Magic Kingdom, missing the rides, parades and fireworks," McGuire said.

The silver lining: Grandma got a long-postponed checkup when she got home and the kids learned the importance of drinking lots of water when it's hot.

Sometimes, of course, the kids aren't the problem. "My dad inevitably managed to get us into hot water at least once during every trip," wrote Tobi Kruitt from Tolland, Ct.

But all of their other scrapes paled beside the time her father decided to drive the family across the mountains of Jamaica, from Ochos Rios to Kingston. "A truck would round a curve, my mom would let out a sound that was something between a squeak and a shriek and my dad would spin the car to one side or the other," she said.

Then it began to pour. Visibility was nil when the windshield wipers suddenly fell off. "There was no question of stopping the car on the side of the road and going back to look for them," Kruitt said, "There was no side of the road."

"I would see a truck looming through the deluge, scream "TRUCK! at the top of my lungs and then close my eyes and pray as the car swerved." During one close encounter, they smashed into the rock wall, mashing the whole side of the car.

Hours later, the family limped into Kingston. The car rental agent, after hearing their story, bought them all dinner.

"My dad is gone now," Kruitt said, "But 25 years later, I cannot say the words windshield wipers without a chuckle.

"That vacation provided a legacy," she continued. "We never gave up or tried to turn back. We persevered and we made it. Whenever I get into a real jam, I still think about Jamaica and the windshield wipers. And I laugh."

(c) 1998, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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