Al Fonzi is an independent opinion columnist for The Atascadero News and Paso Robles Press; you can email him at atascaderocolumnist@gmail.com.

As the father of four children, now grown-up, I look back upon the days of long road trips, usually the result of another change of duty stations ordered by the military. Almost always, they involved not short hops but cross-country endurance trips, coast-to-coast or overseas assignments. The latter were often tacked on to a previous cross-country venture. The small voice of at least one child asking “are we there yet” was a daily refrain, especially as all of us were usually crowded into a mini-van packed to the gunnels with luggage and our Labrador Retriever squeezed between the back-seat and our front seats, occasionally attempting to happily hang her head out the window as far as possible without falling out of the car. No doubt she had a fondness for bugs as she must have caught a few thousand in her teeth over the years of traveling with our family circus.

My oldest son was in his precocious stage, never missing an opportunity to torment his two younger sisters, once by dumping a small jar of captured beetles in their hair as we drove, creating an enormous amount of chaos and howls of outrage from his sisters. My reaction as we drove was muted, naturally (not)! I really miss those days as they truly were the “good old days.”

All of them are now grown up; my oldest son was calmed down by long service in the military; he was a Navy Corpsman and assigned to the Marines for most of his active service and now works in law enforcement. My two youngest are nurses, and my oldest daughter is a mom with two equally precocious boys who keep her busy. She is now undergoing a replay of her childhood except that she is usually one-up on her son’s adventures, having endured the travails of having an older brother.

Halloween in New England when the kids were just the perfect age provides some of the fondest memories; touring Vermont and New Hampshire in glorious technicolor in the Fall, stopping at old country stores and roadside stands to gather pumpkins, gourdes and other Fall accessories was an annual tradition. We lived in military housing at a now-closed installation called Fort Devens on a hillside circular housing development called Oak Hill. It was heavily forested all around and in-between, with oaks and many broad-leafed trees that naturally shed their leaves in abundance. Raking leaves was a necessity as anyone who has ever served in the military knows that Army Generals hate leaves on the ground; I mean, they really hate leaves on the ground! To not rake your leaves by the designated date, even if they haven’t all fallen yet, was a sin likely to bring down fire and brimstone or worse, a letter from the post housing authority quoting 14 pages of regulations and policies on why the leaves had to be raked by the designated date.

Getting through this together, Paso Robles

That created some interesting situations and a lot of work. I had a lot of oak trees on our lot, so many that two or three leaf piles 12’ long, 6’ high, and equally wide were the norm. It never failed that as fast as I could get them piled up in the front and worked on the backyard that my kids would immediately run and leap happily onto the piles. When I informed them that, “ugh, guys, I haven’t cleaned up the dog dirt yet, and some of it was probably in the leaf piles,” my daughters would appropriately scream and run into the house. My oldest son, however, being immune to dirt of any kind, simply continued to do belly flops in the leaves. It’s probably why he felt so at home with repeated assignments to the mud-Marines and looks fondly back upon the experience. He also falls asleep on dog beds even today; our two Labrador Retrievers don’t seem to mind sharing the space with him.

I fondly remember some other memories that had repercussions upon my daughters in particular. While driving through New Hampshire one Saturday afternoon, I spotted baled hay rolls covered in white plastic. For some reason, I immediately pointed them out to my daughters as ‘hey guys, look, a Marshmellow farm!’ I then explained how they grew on large bushes, were harvested and rolled up to be cut up into small marshmallows, and sold in stores, all with a father’s straight face. All went well until my oldest daughter was in the fifth grade and related to her peers how marshmallows were grown and processed. I don’t think she has forgiven me yet for that one. 

Then there was the time I took my kids for a hike on a January morning in the mountains of Fort Huachuca, Arizona, looking for Ice Snakes (you can see through them)…but that was another story from the Good Old Days for which I am thankful. Happy Thanksgiving!